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Exploring the wintery world atop Mount Halla : Hiking up South Korea’s highest peak is an all-day, snow-covered adventure

Jan 03,2018
Hikers walk down the Gwaneumsa Temple Course from the top of Mount Halla on Jeju Island. [LEE SUN-MIN]
Top: Hikers ascend Mount Halla on Jeju Island steps away from crater lake Baekrokdam. Middle: Some hikers carry sleds on their way up, hoping to find a spot to go for a ride. Bottom: Trees covered in snow line the hiking trails. [LEE SUN-MIN]
Crampons, top left, are a must-have when climbing in the snow. A signpost saying “Mount Halla, Baekrokdam,” top right, a popular photo spot for hikers. Above is the view of crater lake Baekrokdam covered in snow. [JOONGANG ILBO, LEE SUN-MIN]
JEJU ISLAND - A winter wonderland is nothing but a fantasy to many who live in cities filled with sidewalks and roads that are cleared before the snow can even begin to pile up. But the dream of being surrounded by fresh white snow can come true in Jeju.

While the volcanic island is known for having warmer temperatures than the rest of the Korean Peninsula, it’s also home to Mount Halla, which is no stranger to winter weather. In the colder months, even when most of the island stays dry, the mountain’s crater lake Baekrokdam is covered in snow and is the perfect spot to make as many snow angels as you desire.

As an occasional hiker of mountain trails that take about two to three hours round trip, and having hiked up to Mount Halla in September two years ago, walking uphill in snow felt more manageable than expected. With snow covering the entire trail, you often feel like you are walking up a stopped moving walkway. Without needing to raise your legs as high as normal, you end up expelling less energy.

There are about seven options to choose from when going up the mountain, but two are popular: the shorter Yeongsil Course, which takes about three hours round trip, or a longer route to Baekrokdam that takes about eight to nine hours round trip. The route most people who want to go all the way up to the peak, starts with the Seongpanak Course, as the incline here is gentler than any other. While you can come back down the same route, many choose to descend via the Gwaneumsa Temple Course, which is steeper.

Beginners are recommended to take the Yeongsil Course, but the trails to Baekrokdam are a challenge worth taking. Since the Yeongsil Couse doesn’t take hikers to the crater lake, those who want to see it should opt for a longer route.

In order to be prepared for the hike, make sure to dress as you normally would for the cold weather - warm hiking pants, a jacket, gloves and a hat that covers your ears. Crampons, which attach to your hiking boots, are a must to walk the icy trails. A pair of sunglasses are essential as the sun’s rays are reflected off of the snow and can damage your eyes. Hiking sticks make the hike much easier, so they are suggested as well. Most importantly, remember to bring enough water and some food to nibble on for the nine-hour hike. This reporter drank about 1 liter (33.8 fluid ounces) of water, a bit less than expected, three chocolate bars and a few bananas.

The first hour of the Seongpanak course isn’t very tough, as it is almost flat. After getting to Sokbat Rest Stop, the trail gets a bit tougher. It usually takes about three hours to arrive at the Jindallaebat Rest Stop. It is better to leave as early as possible, since you can’t proceed past the Jindaellaebat Rest Stop if you don’t arrive before noon. It takes about an hour and a half from Jindallaebat Rest Stop to Baekrokdam, and hikers are asked to leave Baekrokdam to head back down by 1:30 p.m.

Even though you are hiking in subzero temperatures, you will still find yourself sweating. You can even spot runners on the trail wearing short-sleeved shirts. While it is necessary to bundle up, make sure to wear layers so that it will be easy to cool off if you get overheated.

The piles of snow are so deep, if you step just a bit off of the trail, you may find most of your leg stuck in the snow. To avoid any accidents, be sure to stick to the main trail.

Some hikers on the trail brought along plastic sleds that they attached to their backpacks. While the idea seemed fun, the trail is a bit too narrow, curvy and crowded for one to sit down and sled. And as you get closer to the top, you see many signs saying “no sledding” for safety reasons.

After passing the Jindaellaebat Rest Stop, the sky opens up. Chunks of white clouds make a ring around the mountain, making the sky look like a gigantic ice rink one could simply step on and slide out onto. Here, many hikers stop to take pictures with their phones. The frequent stops for photos definitely slow the pace of the hike, but make the walk much easier. The scene is almost too surreal to believe. After only a three hour hike, people are surrounded by a winter wonderland.

It took about three and a half hours for this reporter to get to Baekrokdam. Upon reaching the lake, my shirt was covered in sweat, and my hands were warm enough for me to take my gloves off. The crater lake that most have only seen in photos was stunning in real life. What is not shown in the photos is how windy it gets and how painful the gusts can be against your skin. Since there are no trees to block the wind, its strong gusts hardly ever cease.

If you can find a spot to avoid the wind, the lake is a good place to enjoy instant noodles or a packed lunch. This is a good way to rest and energize before heading back down the mountain.

Walking down was easier, although it can be dangerous at the same time. If you are careful, at some points along the Gwaneumsa Temple Course, hikers can sit and slide down the trail. While your pants may get a little wet from the snow, the excitement of sliding down the mountain is definitely worth it. Some local hikers who knew the course well were confidently sledding down the steeper trails while others held onto the ropes set up alongside the trail in order to avoid losing their balance and tripping.

It was possible to appreciate the scenery on the way down as hikers are not as short of breath as they are on the way up. Trees covered in snow looked like desserts and the large cliffs covered in snow were breathtaking. Walking down took longer than expected as the walk was delayed by people taking photos. The exhausting way up can be forgotten and the idea of making another visit seemed appealing once again. There are still more routes to discover.

One perk of going down the Gwaneumsa Temple Course is that you can get a certificate that proves you went to the highest point on Mount Halla. There is an office at the end of the trail, and when you show an official a photo of yourself at the crater lake, you can receive a certificate with your name on it.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

Make sure to check out the website of Hallasan National Park at hallasan.go.kr to see whether hikers can be admitted to the mountain trails. At times of too much snow, the entrance will be closed.