30 January 2020
I’m clinging to a thick rope I’m straddling and I’m standing firmly on a sheer rock face. My feet are at an acute angle and I’m keenly aware of my hiking boots rubbing on my achilles heel and against my little toes. I’m exhausted so I’ve had to stop putting one foot in front of the other and I’m standing stock still and breathing hard, a 53 year old woman, suddenly very aware I’ve used up all my reserves and it’s more windy than I could have imagined up here. I feel alone on a bald, grey and sharply inclined surface but I have a person behind me, also on the rope, calling “keep going, you’re doing well”. People at the top are shouting down “C’mon Sue, only 70 metres more.”. Surely I heard that wrong. 70 metres is incomprehensibly far. Did they say 7 or 70? Even though there are plenty of people above and below, it is only me I can rely on. I can’t go down yet I need more strength to go up. I dare not look down, in fact I am determined to not look down or sideways, only at the rock face directly in front of my body. I look up, shocked at how far I have to go as I feel the wind push at my body and the rope swing.
I moved to Seoul with my husband, our 3rd international move in 15 years, for his job in late August 2019 and almost immediately I found hiking and started taking Korean lessons.
The hiking in Seoul is special because the mountains around Seoul are close and incredibly accessible by public transport. Weekends, there are plenty of hikers on the subway, identified by their apparel. We are no exception and on Monday, the last day of the Lunar New Year we were on the subway bright and earlyish. We had donned the type of layered active wear appropriate for January in Seoul, and we carried back packs, filled with vegemite sandwiches (you can take the girl out of Australia), scones, muesli bars and water. We followed the instructions from the hiking group we were meeting for the first time and greeted them outside Jangam subway station. As an aside, it is no overstatement to describe all of the members we met that day as fabulous to the power of infinity. We set off for our adventure – hiking to the top of Suraksan.
There are numerous, detailed blog sites telling you how to get to the top of Suraksan. This is not one of them. I can, and have, got lost in my own suburb, I turn left when sat nav says right and so when our hike leader pointed to the mountain (san or 산) we were to summit, I nodded sagely but I had no idea which one it was. The hike is well sign posted, (albeit naturally in Korean, which I don’t speak, despite the aforementioned lessons) for the directionally astute but I couldn’t afford to fall behind. In any case, the group (and I assume my husband) wouldn’t let me. They had assigned a leader and back of the pack person. Now, I’m fit for my vintage but I was consistently the second last in the group. I felt more than a little self conscious about that and did motion the back of the pack person to go ahead but that wasn’t his job so I had to accept that I would be holding that person up. All day. I didn’t let it bother me too much. The earth was incredibly rocky, the air was good, we were heading upward at quite a pace and I was grateful for every branch overhang I could grab onto. We passed by flowing streams and partially frozen ones and the trees were stark and bare. It was a bracing and awesome natural walk and I was soon hot and peeling off layers. I asked the man behind me how to say “beautiful view” in Korean and he told me: 경치가 정말 아름 더웠어요.
Don’t be fooled for one second in thinking that I remembered that. I asked my Korean teacher the next day and she wrote it out for me.
Eventually we were confronted with a steep climb requiring ropes. No problem, I’ve encountered that before, but it was Train Rock, the sheer rock face after that where I faltered. The group leader singled me out. “Sue”, he said “you don’t have to go up if you don’t want to, you can go around”. But I wanted to. “I want to try it” I said.
“Ok”, he said without missing a beat. Then he talked us through the climb, he knew we were novices and his words were very calming, I was grateful for his kindness and believe I would not have attempted it without his explanation and encouragement. In fact, I was walking on his words, much like one follows a yoga instructors voice. There were two ropes side by side at the bottom of Train Rock and he suggested to my husband and I that we should climb together. We obediently set off, quite eagerly, but it was difficult for me and I soon slowed. My husband had already climbed over the steel barrier at the top and I had stopped halfway up the rock face.
“Alone” on the rock I strengthened my resolve and put one foot in front of the other, one hand over the other and pulled myself up. My husband reached out for me at the top “No”, I breathed out “I want to do it myself”. Later he told me I used much stronger language. He and another man did wrench me up at the very end and I let them because my legs were shaking and I could barely stand. My hands are sweaty typing this. I climbed through the steel barrier and I felt so light headed I realised I was on a massive high if you’ll pardon the pun. I felt such a sense of achievement. I DID IT. I’m aware it’s not a huge achievement, Train Rock, Suraksan is climbed every day and thousands of times on Sundays. Indeed, many of my fellow hikers simply wore sandshoes for the day and achieved the climb easily. For me though, it was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. We then climbed to the top of Suraksan
My knees ached the whole way back down the mountain, a fresh spurt of pain with every downward step, Nonetheless I was laughing at nothing (the endorphins had well and truly kicked in), I could feel every pore of my skin and the trees, rocks and streams were vivid and sharp. I loved the day, I loved the climb, I loved everything. It was indeed 그 날 아름다웠 어 요, a beautiful day.
I’m sitting at my desk facing my teacher and taking the oral part of a test for beginner Korean. I’m nearly in tears. all my prep was for naught as I can’t understand a word she says. I take a deep breath. “I don’t understand that question” I smile and shake my head. I realise I have answered her question nonsensically. Better to own up. She patiently asks a new question. I brighten! This one I know and have memorised. I take a deep breath and commence my answer. It is so laboured my teacher could not only have drunk her whole coffee during my one syllable at a time response but gone downstairs and made a fresh cup as well.
My written and listening responses are no better. It is tortuous and I’ve had so much fun in class prior to this exam. My penmanship, which is barely readable in English, is horrendous in Korean and rendered much worse by my constant scribbling out and rewriting. Not for the first time I wished I had used a pencil. Mountain climbing seems splendidly simple in comparison and I wanted to be back out there.
I left the exam room feeling deflated. Oh well, I thought on the subway home, I’ll just have to take that level again. I’m not being falsely modest, my teacher would have to do some very creative accounting to pass me.
She did the creative accounting. I passed and am able to move to the next level! I’m under no illusion, it behoves the school to pass me so I keep going of course but I was still very relieved. The teacher gave me very good marks for homework and participation (I’m a good girl) and honest appraisal for fluency and accuracy (needs tremendous work and plenty of room for improvement). She also strongly advised me to learn my vocabulary.
I learnt a lot this week about digging deep, staying the course and though I alone am responsible for the outcome, I am not alone on the journey. We are never too old to learn.
Keep learning 🙂