‘The mountains served as a barrier to my wanderings’


Sarah Lee: Seoraksan, Sokcho, Republic of Korea, 2019 (Unsplash)

From Alpinist:

I was born and raised in Cheongsong, a rural region in the southeast of South Korea. In my house, if you just opened the door, you would see the gargantuan rocks and thick forests of that part of Juwangsan National Park. Cheongsong’s surrounding mountains have nurtured dense woodlands of pines for thousands of years. The pines, in turn, have sustained those who dwell around them. Every autumn, when the rice paddies turned gold, and there were fewer chores to be done, people from my village ventured up the hills to pick the pine mushrooms that grew beneath the trees. Mushroom hunting helped impoverished farmers, including my parents, earn a little more. They shared tips with one another by pointing out some of the peaks they hiked up, the ridges they followed, the valleys they headed down, and so on.

During my childhood, the mountains served as a barrier to my wanderings, keeping my innocent mind from imagining anything beyond them. One day, while playing with other kids on a hill right behind our village, we reached its modest summit. From there, I saw a neighboring village for the first time. Wow, people live there, too!

When I was about nine, I overheard an elderly mushroom hunter describe what he saw from the top of a remote peak: the East Sea (or the Sea of Japan). I’d never seen the ocean myself. It was tantalizing to imagine a sea of water beyond the sea of forests. A couple of years later, I got a chance to hike up the mountain. To my regret, all I could glimpse were more layers of wooded hills. Still, even that view of spreading horizons was radically new to me—and magnificent enough to haunt my youthful mind.

Another chance of imagination pulled me into my personal, longtime connection with Seoraksan to the northeast. In the autumn of 1990, I joined my high school’s excursion to the park. Our first destination was Biseondae, “the place where a hermit flies.” A one-hour hike led us to a narrow, rocky valley where crystal clear streams tumbled and sheer walls rose on both sides. The surreal landscape has long invited hermits, pilgrims and Buddhists to conduct rituals and to contemplate enlightenment. For the first time, I saw people rock climbing. High up on one of the cliffs, a few dots were crawling—a scene that riveted me as much as it caused me to tremble. How can they stick themselves on the wall and not fall off?

“Haunted by Venus”, Choi Suk-mun, Alpinist

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