Knowing that 70% of a country is composed of mountains, or at least uplands, is always appealing to a rock climber. You’ll find interesting things to do here. To this effect, it’s quite surprising that South Korea doesn’t appear more often on the radar as a major climbing destination. There are 21 national parks and almost each of them provides sensational climbing. Slabs, cracks, off widths, laybacks, chimneys, roofs, even ice… you’ll find in this country everything climbing can offer. Sometimes, it is even packed on the same route. Seoraksan is a perfect example; this national park is a light version of Yosemite. The same goes for bouldering lovers. How can it get better ?
David visited Korea last year for the first time and he was immediately impressed with the potential of fun hidden in those mountains. On my side, I’ve always wanted to discover this country. My cousin recently moved there and this added to my motivation. This year was the celebration of Singapore’s 50th birthday; with Friday and Monday flagged as a public holiday the trip was on!
Things were not that easy on the paper. You have to be quite efficient to organize a 4 day rock climbing trip in country that barely speaks English and where information is spared. Add the fact that David was in Uzbekistan at this time and you’re starting to stack “cruxes”. Since our plan was to have no plan (except trying to focus on granite), we would first spend a day in Seoul and then improvise depending on the weather and local recommendations. The idea was to discover South Korea and try to visit a different crag every day, splitting our adventure into a mix of road trip and climbing. That of course would involve some long days, shifting from 5-6 hours of climbing to 5-6h of driving. But we thought it was the best way to get the real pulse of this country and immerse ourselves in the local culture!
This is approximately what we did (google map cannot give you the driving itinerary, you can see the driving here)
The one thing that immediately strikes you is how much Koreans enjoy outdoors. It is just amazing to see so many people out for a hike and see how fit they are. Young, middle aged, old people, everyone is taking a bite at the nature. These guys also know what they‘re talking about when it comes to gears. Oh man, what a gear freak country!!! I’ve rarely seen so much camping, mountaineering and hiking shops in my life. Reasonably priced and good quality products are available all other the place. The local brands such as the “Blackyak” or the “Red Face” provides top notch equipment.
The second thing that strikes you is how nice and helpful Koreans are. Communication is really an issue as the language acts as a barrier (not to mention on my side my nice fren-glish accent…). Nonetheless, every time we asked for directions and information we received unconditional help. And the same goes for climbing. These guys are efficient, reliable, helpful… That was stunning to see parties of 5 people climbing and rappelling as fast as our 2 man team!
How to get information on climbing:
Trying to list all the climbing area in South Korea is a mammoth task to say the least. The guide book required Dong-Il more than 9 months of hard work to compile over 150 crags. It is a very good introductory book that will give you the GPS coordinates and the main information of each sector. The only thing missing would be a true picture of the routes/lines for each crag. Most of the time, you can find the detailed description on the site itself (either at the bottom of the crag or at the nearest ranger house). Unfortunately, we often failed in this task and had to rely on local climbers to help us find our way throughout the routes.
Thanks Dong-Il for introducing foreigners like us to your beautiful country and high quality rocks!
To sum up, if you need a global view on climbing/mountainering/hiking:
- Buy the guide book (“Climb”), it cost around 40 000 KRW (inc international shipping)
- Visit the website Korea on the rocks a.k.a. KOTR
- Visit the Korea National Park Services a.k.a. KNPS
- Visit the Korean Alpine Club website a.k.a. CAC
- Visit KOTRI, an organisation that helps repair, improve and maintain the South Korean climbing areas
- Visit the Emountain website (use google translate)
- Check Facebook, join Korea Climbing Calendar, Seoul Climbers, Daegu Climbers, or Busan Climbers.
Note that some places, such as Seoraksan, requires a permit to rock climb. This permit was apparently available on the KNPS website but we failed to find it… It is available here on KOTRI (or you can download the 2014 Permit Form + the english helper from this post) We also used the MapFactor Navigor android app to guide us through our trip (download an offline South Korea map, there is a free version): nothing to complain about it, it perfectly did the job!
A quick note on safety: since English is not widely spoken, be extra careful on how you communicate with Korean climbers. Keep instructions simple on both side and always double check everything. Mind the rockfalls as well, wear a helmet and apply the standard checking procedures on you and your partner
This is a good question! Exception being made for pure sport crags, routes are only partially bolted. You will have to take a trad rack with you (double cams for some areas). On a side note, you have to get use to the Korean way of protecting. Slabs are really runnout and it is common to see the first bolt 10m up and then one every 5m or so. Crack lines with bolts will certainly give a heart attack to hardcore trad climbers … Both bolts and anchors are generally in good shapes (we saw galvanic corrosion in some places). Korean also have the habit of slinging anchors with American triangles, check them before abseiling.
- 2 x 60m Mammut Genesis Half Rope (8.5mm Ø) + 1 x 70 m single rope for sport
- Around 12 x quickdraws (3 regular draws, 3 alpine draws, 3 short slings, 3 long slings)
- 1 set of BD C4 from #.5 to #4, double #1, double #3
- 1 set of BD X4 from #.1 to #.4 (Red, Yellow, Blue, Gray)
- 1 x CCH Alien black
- 1 x “magic” blue Totem cam (not necessary but this cam is our mascot)
- 1 set of nuts from #1 to #12 (DMM)
- Slings, locking biners and spare gates.
- 2 x cordelettes for anchors
- personal gear (harness, shoes, chalk, helmets, headlamps)
- 1 x first aid kit + sunblock
We encourage you to watch this beautiful documentary from the winner of the 2014 KOTRI “Rock your dream” grant. It will give you a good idea of the climbing vibes here.
Part 1: Insu-Bong in Bukhan-San National Park (page 230 on “Climb”)
Insubong is a magnificent granite peak that rests in the heart of Seoul. It boasts fifty-eight routes. These are primarily slabs and cracks with a few face and chimney climbs in between. Climbs range from one to eight pitches. The highest graded route is “My Way” (5.12b).
The good thing with slab climbing is that you don’t need to find hard grades to get scared ! A 5.8 route would perfectly do the job. It ‘s always a good reality check for us, especially when you are used to pull hard on limestone crimps. Here, everything is about trusting your feet and dancing graciously on the rock. Perfect to train for Yosemite. The plan was to climb two of the most famous lines here, Chouinard A & B.
Unfortunately, we were not able to jump on Chouinard B as we got stopped by rangers. A good part of the face had been closed due to falling rocks. One climber got killed the previous week and they were working on stabilizing the rock. We headed then to Chouinard A. Some parties were working on the adjacent climbs, the 5.10d Beotgil slab and the 5.9 Simu multipltich.
The beta on Chouinard A is fairly simple. Follow the left side crack up to the top.
Well, our first attempt did not go as planned… Years of climbing in South East Asia taught us to recognize the early sign of a thunderstorm. And, surely, the humidity building up since the beginning of the afternoon was not a good sign. We climbed efficiently but soon enough the sky opened and let everything go. We were at the beginning of Pitch 4 and in retreat mode. By the time we reached the end of Pitch 1, the rain was now heavier and heavier. The face of the mountain had been transformed in a gigantic waterfall. We had never seen such a thing. A group of 4 Korean climbers were also seeking protection. Then, everything went very fast… A flash of light next to my hand followed by an electrical shock made us realized we had been indirectly struck by lightening. David felt it too. Everyone rushed to the anchors and in a record time, we abseiled back to safety.
We came back 3 days later to finish the route and enjoy the view from the top. What a fantastic afternoon outside. Yvon Chouinard is a strong climber!
Part 2: Yongseo Pokpo (page 76 on “Climb”)
Being soaking wet, we headed south for our first night stop in Jeonju, a town mid way to Yongseo Pokpo (a site recommended to us by Bryan); we had plenty of time to dry in the car as we spent almost 2 hours exiting Seoul. The journey was far from being pleasant as I could not help David with the driving; Avis refused my Singapore driving licence (take an international licence if you intend to rent a car !). We arrived around midnight in Jeonju and crashed into bed.
The initial plan was to drive to the crag in the early morning.
But that would never happened… Destroyed by the previous day, unable to wake up early and already tired at the idea of driving from almost Suncheon to Sokcho, we decided to change plans and to head directly to the Seorak-San national park. Looking at the guide book, we managed to find a small granite crag near Pohang which could potentially allow us an afternoon of climbing.
Yongseo Popko seems to be an amazing climbing site. We will come back for sure. For multipitch, bring 2 sets of cams.
Part 3: Jukjang, Hakdam-Am (page 150 on “Climb”)
We knew we were going to waste a good part of our day in the car, but we wanted to have at least 3 hours of climbing. To this effect, Hakdam-Am was the perfect spot: sport routes, easy to access via the highway, no long approach and a relaxing scenery next to the river. We could not hope for a better compromise.
This small crag has everything from 5.7 to 5.13a, all packed in 40+ routes. I got shut down on a 5.10d! Damn, I definitely have to improve my granite foot work. By 4pm we were done with the climbing, each of us sending 5 routes. We were back on the road, following the coast up to Sokcho
Part 4: Duta-San, Byeongpung-Am (page 193 on “Climb”)
We did not climb in Duta-San, but, on our way to Seoraksan, we crossed the path of the Mureung Valley (“Valley of Paradise”). It is worth noting that the driving in the southern area is very scenic and enjoyable. This crag is located near Donghae and just looks stunning. It was marked on our guide book. One more thing to do when we’ll come back.
Part 5: Seoraksan, Janggun-bong (page 196 on “Climb”)
This has been the highlight of our trip. We could have spent weeks here as there is so much good climbing. This park is just stunning. The hike is already enjoyable by itself. There are 2 main areas (Seoraksan and Seoraksan 2 in the guide book) which are accessed by two different entrance; each of those areas is composed of different sectors.
We only went to “Seoraksan 1”. But as of today, I’m still not sure which section we climbed and which route we did. Since we failed one more time to find the beta at the ranger office, we just followed another group of climbers. We did not understand a single word of what they were trying to explain to us, but we think we were on Janggun-Bong, a.k.a. “The general”.
These three sectors are really next to each other. At one point, you will be crossing a bridge leading to the ranger house as well as to a restaurant. From this point, you will have a perfect glance at the routes and at the different sections. The turnoff point is just before that bridge. These are the pictures taken from the restaurant.
By the time we reached the base of the cliff, there were already two big 5-person parties climbing the “General”. We thought that we were in for a long wait, with an inevitable cluster at each anchors. We could not have been more wrong. The Korean climbers taught us a lesson in climbing efficiency. They were just super fast and super safe. Not to mention that they were also friendly. We had a really good time. The climb reminded us sometime of Angels on Mt Buffalo. Cracks followed by slabs… A real 5 star route. At the top, the view is one of the most beautiful I have seen in a climbing trip. The horizon is offering you a sneak peek at the Ulsan-Bawi sector and the sea… And you’re wondering, why do you have to leave this amazing place so quickly. The Koreans offered us to abseil on their rope. In less than an hour more than 10 person were down from the top, back to the base… Just incredible.
South Korea was really a blast. The time has flown so fast. I can only encourage everyone to discover the climbing here and, more than that, the climbing scene and the great people you can meet at the crag. I hope that we will return soon and climb again… So long !