In the middle of a challenging solo hike up South Korea’s Sinbulsan, a woman discovers that company isn’t a barrier to finding oneself.
Why do I even like hiking? I grumbled to myself as last night’s alcohol propelled sweat down my back despite the crisp November weather. What am I trying to prove by hiking this mountain alone?
Oh, right. Him. And that I can.
Somehow this mountain had become a metaphor for successfully being alone.
I wasn’t interested in hiking when I lived in the U.S., and I hadn’t explored the numerous rolling mountains that comprise the Korean countryside (did you know that Korea has 16 national parks? A well versed fact that any devout Korean will share) until I met him.
In a way, mountain adventures came to symbolize our relationship. A beautiful, russet-hued autumn hike to fall in love. A trundling, snowy walk to grow apart. And an awkward, sweaty ascent to signify the end. A hike during which I’d never felt so utterly alone while in the company of another.
I hadn’t hiked since our relationship had ended over a year ago, yet I still counted it as one of my favorite hobbies. I needed to discover if I indeed enjoyed hiking or just enjoyed that relationship. I needed to discover me.
A quintessential Erin move, I set off to Sinbulsan without researching much (okay, anything) about it. What I knew: Sinbulsan was close to where I lived, looked pretty in pictures, and boasted a ramen shop at the peak for a mid-hike treat. Say no more, I was there!
Located amongst the Yeongnam Alps mountain range in South Korea, Sinbulsan is not a walk in the park. There are several different routes that lead to the 1,200 meter peak. I chose my preferred route using a very scientific method: I followed a group of middle-aged Korean men, all dressed in dazzlingly bright hiking gear, to the trail head. After a brief exchange in Konglish (Korean + English), I determined that I was headed in the correct direction and set off.
Generally speaking, I prefer to hike in complete silence: no music, no political podcasts to disturb the tranquility of the mountains that envelop me. Briefly, at the start of that trail, I felt a profound connection to each tree and rock and bird that lay in my path.
Fast forward to a mere thirty minutes later. As the elevation dramatically increased, my connection to nature dissipated and was replaced by negativity. With each exhale I thought, Why. Am. I. Here. I can’t do it. I was moments from returning to the comfort of the coffee shop at the mountain’s base when a woman’s voice called out in Korean, “Are you solo?”
Attempting to avoid awkward niceties, I smiled and stopped to take a photo of nature.
“Want me to take a photo of you?” she asked. Shaking my head no, I let the surprisingly gazelle-like older woman, also alone (but unlike me, happy in her solitude) continue on her way. She sprang up the mountain in effortless leaps as I slowly trundled behind.
As the hike grew more and more laborious, memories and nostalgia melted away along with the drops of sweat I left in my wake. I could only think of putting one foot in front of the other. Although difficult, this is the meditative aspect of nature that I enjoy the most. The rhythmic pattern of inhale, step, exhale, step serves as a mantra and allows one to be completely present with the rigor and splendor of the world.
I finally broke through the treeline and, to my shock, saw huge jagged rocks looming ahead. I later found out that this portion of the hike is nicknamed “Knife Rock,” and the adjacent signs (conveniently only written in Korean) begged tourists to avoid such a dangerous climb.
After chugging the last of my water, I began to scale the knife-like ridge, sharp and thin as if I were standing on an actual blade. To my right were only dense, opaque clouds; to the left, a nice precipitous drop to my impending death. Conveniently, at this very moment, after thirty years on Earth, I learned something new about myself: I’m terrified of heights.
I sat on top of Knife Rock, manically laughing, too scared to think of my ex, my to do list, my cat at home. Suddenly, I heard the same soft voice call out, “Come on!” The woman from earlier had retraced her steps and was extending her hand. “It’s fun!” Skeptically, I took her hand and got up.
That is how I met the woman whose name I will never know, but who proved that connections materialize when you least expect them (in this case, 4,000 feet above sea level). To this day, she is saved in my phone as “lady.”
Lady guided and encouraged me through the most challenging part of the hike, which, unbeknownst to her, was a testament to a challenging time in my life.
She was easily my mother’s age. We didn’t share a language, but we were able to manage conversation using Konglish and body language. We walked for five hours in contemplative but comfortable silence. She shared snacks and water, and she bought me ramen. She shared her pure joy of nature. She gave me a ride to my bus stop. She sent me photos, said she had fun, and I never heard from her again.
I’ve done a number of solo hikes since Sinbulsan, and next week I’m getting a tattoo of Knife Rock.
I do like hiking.
I can do it alone.
But I will gladly welcome the energy of strong, vibrant females along the way.