Saturday, May 12, 2012

Suraksan, maybe the scariest hike in Seoul

When I think about the 27 km mountain race I did last weekend as a birthday present to myself, I can set the 20 km I covered in the first eight hours over three mountains on one side and the 5 or so knuckle-whitening minutes I spent at the top of Suraksan, and the latter is tougher.

Suraksan (수락산, not to be confused with the far more famous 설악산) is a mostly unassuming mountain in northeastern Seoul. It's largely unappealing and unremarkable if you come from the west side in Seoul, from Suraksan station on line 7 or Danggogae on line 4. Danggogae, the northern end of line 4, is a pass between Dobongsan on the west and Suraksan on the east. Coming from the east side in Namyangju is quite pleasant, and there's a nice restaurant halfway up that boasts an impressive noraebang.

The course I did cut a wide, somewhat redundant arc across northeastern Seoul, beginning at Uidong, going up toward Dobongsan, continuing north to Sapaesan in Uijeongbu before cutting back southeast towards Suraksan and finishing at Buramsan. This was actually the miniature version of the featured 45-kilometre course that began at 4 am at Bulgwang station in northwestern Seoul, cutting across all of Bukhansan National Park to reach Uidong at its west end, which is where I started at 7 am.

Dobongsan and Sapaesan were tough but pleasant, but by the time I got to Suraksan the sun was high and I was more or less out of the energy I needed to keep moving at the fast hike or slow jog I needed to cover the 27 km within the 10-hour cutoff. I particularly recommend Saepaesan as a nice, pleasant hike that begins a short walk from Hoiryeong station in Uijeongbu, with the option of tacking on Dobongsan as an extra challenge.

I certainly didn't have much energy by the time I got to the top of Suraksan, no small feat itself, as the 4-kilometre hike from the west side took longer than advertised for what is really not a very big mountain (technically, at 640m, it's not a mountain by some definitions). Signs distinguish between Gicha Bawi (기차바위, literally Train Rock) and the summit just beyond, and if you've ever been, you'll know why. Signs offer a detour around it, but I thought it would take longer, so I took my chances.

To get to Gicha Bawi from the usual trail involves two steps. First, you climb a large dome of a rock that's long and steep enough, without any grips, to do some damage to you if you're not particularly strong and not wearing hiking boots. Then, you get to use a rope to haul yourself up what is a tough but relatively insignificant incline. Then, finally, you get to Gicha Bawi itself, a steep cliff that I think has the name it does because the crack in the middle makes it look like a set of train tracks.

Here's the view from the bottom courtesy of this blog, as well as a view from the top courtesy of this blog
This isn't particularly hard, but it is scary considering that if the rope falls out of your hands at any point while it supports your entire wieght, you're guaranteed to be dead. That's really a sharp contrast from what are otherwise tame hikes in Seoul, often more picnics than hikes. In my case, the exertion took away what little energy I had left.

Paired with quads that refused to keep going up, I had to call it a day about 7k and 2 hours away from the finish line, albeit with the top of Buramsan in the middle. I ran 20k on the course plus another 4 getting down on my own, not quite the way I thought it was going to be, but if nothing else, it was the most I've ever hiked in one day.

 I trained on Gwanggyosan in Suwon leading up to this race, my best run being an up-and-down 7k run that climbed to about 450m in about 75 minutes. Gwanggyosan wasn't too hard without hiking shoes, I ran without much of a problem on the dirt trails in my running shoes, but the mountains of northern Seoul are very rocky even if they're not that much bigger, and running is impossible without hiking or trail shoes.

 I was a bit heartened to see that many people failed to finish, maybe a third of everyone who started, from reasons like injury or simply getting lost on a course that wasn't marked at all even though it involved running across Uijeongbu at one point. It was the first time in a while that I've given a race everything I had and come up short, failing to finish even, but I'll definitely do a similar race in the summer or fall.

 If you're interested in mountain or trail races in Korea, the Korea Climbathon Federation organizes very friendly, low-key races. Other trail races can be found around the country, often called 숲달리기 (literally 'forest run'), and are not quite as brutal as this particular one: the winner of the 45 km ran it in a little over 8 hours, while the cutoff was 13 hours. The next race in the Seoul area is a 15k/half marathon at Cheonggyesan on June 10.

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