It turns out the fourth time is the charm. Craig and I have been to Jeju three times before, but have bypassed Halla in favor of the Olle Trail on the past trips. With our departure from Korea (probably) imminent, we realized we couldn’t keep putting it off to “next time”.
Craig, as usual, had done all of the research and knew we needed to arrive early enough to make certain check points before cutoff times. Since we are always slower than the time estimates, we arrived before dawn to be on the safe side. We had no trouble getting a cab despite the early hour and arrived to a full parking lot at 6:30. The restaurant was packed with hikers grabbing breakfast, but we thought it would be better to get ahead of the crowd and eat on the trail.
The trail is unmistakable, at least in winter, since it’s packed down while the surrounding area snow is piled high, but that didn’t stop 90% of the other hikers from using their miner’s caps. (I’m sure they have a hiking name to justify whatever crazy price hikers pay for them, but they look like miner’s hats minus any protective qualities.) All that really did was kill everyone’s night vision. Well done!
Soon enough, the sun was up and not long after, people turned off their headlamps. (I’m a dork, I know, but I couldn’t resist.) Halla isn’t a steep mountain, so we made pretty good time. It didn’t hurt that there were relatively few people on the trail at that time. The trail was never more than two people wide, so it was just as well. Whenever we met a hiking group, we had to step off the trail to let them pass, or get around them, if they had decided to take a break.
We reached the first checkpoint in about three hours and Craig rewarded himself with a nice bowl of ramyeon. I chose not to have any for two reasons. 1) It was standing-room-only, since most people seemed to think their bags deserved a comfy seat. 2) There is no trash disposal on Halla. Craig got to carry his ramyeon bowl back to the parking lot. Ramyeon bowls are giant, so I knew I’d never finish one. Carrying half a bowl of ramyeon the rest of the way up and all of the way down might hold more appeal if it were more enjoyable to eat, but it’s not, so it didn’t. I guess that’s three reasons.
As fun as standing in an unheated roomful of people is, we were once again on our way as soon as Craig finished eating. By this time, we were gaining elevation quickly. Just as quickly, the temperature was dropping and the wind was picking up. By the time we were above the treeline, it had started snowing just enough to obscure what must normally be an amazing view.
By the time the end would have been in sight, if we could have seen more than a few meters, it was a gale. I was trying not to have a panic attack that my crampons would fail and I would slide off the side. This part is like stone steps, but not really steps, just step-like. There were a few times I’m sure I annoyed other hikers, but I was pretty scared.
Finally, we were on the top. By then, it was snowing hard enough to obscure everything and so we only stayed there long enough for the obligatory peak photo. The wind seemed to have gotten stronger during those few minutes, so I had to stop and hold onto the ropes a few times, because I was sincerely terrified.
Soon enough, we were below the wind again and it was smooth sailing from there. Until we hit the wave of late starters. By the time we got back to the cut off checkpoint, it was the deadline and bedlam doesn’t even begin to describe it. I’m pretty sure there have been more orderly prison riots.
Thinking the hut would be nearly empty, what with everyone trying to beat the cut off, we nipped in for a short break. LOL It was jam packed with people who seemed to have chosen cup ramyeon over completing the hike. For the next half hour or so, everyone we passed was rushing to beat the cut off. An hour later, we were still passing people on their way up. I can only assume that the posted cut off time is fake, or they were planning to ignore it. After all, there only seemed to be two rangers and literally hundreds of hikers waiting.
Since the trail is so narrow, hikers going up had to wait at the cut off point for room to move. Picture a security line at a major airport and you get the speed I’m talking about. Now picture it hundreds of meters long and everyone is wearing hiking gear. That seems a good trade off for an extra hour or two in bed…
The crowd was moving in the other direction, so we reached the Seongpanak parking lot quickly and were able to get a cab at only a slightly extortionate rate.
Overall, it was a great hike. It wasn’t steep, and the crowds were always moving in the other direction. It was a huge shame that we didn’t get to enjoy the view at the top, though. If we get the chance, I’d love to go back. Preferably, on a work day while school is in session.