[This story originally appeared in the On Belay section of Alpinist 77, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 77 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
Park Hee-yong stared at the branching streams of cracks that flowed down the granite wall before us. Any of these would lead to the main line of Venus, a 180-meter classic climb on Ulsanbawi, one of the dozens of rock peaks in Seoraksan National Park, South Korea. A whirring force seemed to emanate from the route, drawing the gaze of many climbers who visited the valley, filling their imaginations with all the vertical dances they could ever perform.
It was a sunny day in July 2020. I was here with Hee-yong and my wife, Lee Myounghee. We’d agreed that Hee-yong would lead the first pitch, and so it was up to him, now, where and how to begin. In between creation and imitation, he chose a lower-angled fissure that eventually joined the steep central crack. Through the robust swell of hulking granite, Hee-yong climbed like a young salmon swimming upstream. So graceful was the sequence created through his movements that I shivered, and I craved my chance to join the same current.
From the second pitch on, I led, and once I reached each belay, I lowered the rope so that either Myoung-hee or Hee-yong could re-lead the pitch and have more of an adventure. After wriggling up an offwidth, emerging from a small cave and surmounting an overhang, I found myself at the start of a vertical expanse of rock under an azure sky. Ahead, a straight fissure stretched diagonally to the top far above. Such a thick, long extension of crack was typical at the roughly two-kilometer-wide southwest face of Ulsanbawi. The first serious challenge of Venus began at the fourth pitch: another elongated, yet harder, offwidth of more than ten meters. This came as a rehearsal, still, since I knew the highlight lay ahead: the fifth pitch. There, a left-facing hand-size rift strung out for a flawless thirty meters. Slanting a little to the right, and nearly vertical, the line embodied a steady, rhythmic balance, its shape nudging climbers back and forth as they alternated between placing their hands into the fissure to pulling on the stone wave to the right side. At 5.11-, for many climbers, it was still moderate enough to be fun.
This was my second climb of Venus. I’d first experienced the route during the summer of 1997, and anything I could recollect from that initial trip came with the feelings of sweat and blood and the pulsing of wild heartbeats at the crux. After more than twenty years of those memories, when I finally attached myself to the two-bolt anchor at the top of the fourth pitch, rested my feet on a horizontal crack, and caught my breath, I brimmed with enthusiasm and anticipation.
Then I looked back up at the fifth pitch–a motion I’d visualized myself making a thousand times–and I was aghast. Along the diagonal line on the smooth, greyish stone, many new, silvery bolts gleamed. There were twelve in total within this single pitch, some so close together I’d need to be careful to avoid Z-clipping! What happened to Venus? Who added all these bolts, and for what? Isn’t this section what made the climb so worthwhile–precisely because there was no place to find protection except for the crack itself?
On either side of the sheer fissure, the rock looked blank, waiting for the arrival of climbers to expose its subtle crests. Without the bolts, once climbers got there, panting, they used to have to make a series of solitary decisions about what gear to place and where, as well as how to dance around the single line that nature had created eons ago. With the distraction of the bolts, that opportunity to be entirely immersed in the flow of the crack had slipped away. But there seemed to be something else that might also be lost, a quality that was harder to put into words: a sense of beauty, wildness, imagination and curiosity, a longing that had drawn us all into the mountains since our childhood years.
Scrambling down to the path after we completed the climb, we shared our remorse and frustrations with one another and concluded: we’d come back soon and remove those bolts.
Inside the Hills, behind the Ridges
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?
At age nineteen, I decided to go and explore a larger world, however briefly, before the start of my obligatory military service. I visited a friend in Daegu, one of the biggest cities near my village. With him, I launched a cycling trip throughout the southern part of the country, finishing at 1915-meter Jirisan, the highest mountain in continental South Korea. For ten days, we enjoyed changing landscapes and historical sites, stopping by old temples and camping at scenic spots. Because of family responsibilities, my friend had to turn around toward the end of the journey. I pushed on. When through a daybreak mist, I finally arrived at Nogodan, one of Jirisan’s main peaks, I was stunned by the splendid hoary faces of hills with frosted alpine oaks that sparkled all around me. Here, the ridgelines seemed to ripple far beyond the horizon. What would it look like inside the hills, behind the ridges?
Without a second thought, I launched an unplanned backpacking trip, starting from where I was. After shouldering a heavy tent, a bulky cotton sleeping bag and other clumsy gear hardly meant for backpacking, I stumbled along the celebrated hike of around thirty miles that includes most of Jirisan’s major peaks. Even more memorable than struggling to carry that awful load were the endless images of hills after hills and clouds on top of other clouds, still driving me to wonder: How many unseen new worlds are out there? This was my first serious mountain endeavor. It left me with an adoration for the allure of landscapes and a habit of justgiving-it-a-go to pursue whatever intrigued me.
I’d fallen in love with mountains. I began hiking regularly, and I started poring over climbing magazines, usually while standing at newsstands for hours (instead of buying them) to save money. In 1996, near the end of my twenty-eight months in the army, I read a trip report from an issue of Mountain Monthly that I’d purchased. As Choi Seung-cheol narrated his creation of a new route on Janggunbong, one of the summits of Biseondae, he also described the inner aspects of climbing–the agonies, the joys. At the crux, he fell multiple times. With an invincible determination and hope, he kept trying until he succeeded. Although details such as the use of carabiners and ropes remained incomprehensible to me, I was enthralled. Why do climbers take such risks? What is the charm of a rock that they strive so hard to experience?
I shared my curiosity with one of my fellow soldiers, a former climber. He encouraged me to try rock climbing for myself someday. First, however, after I completed my service, I ventured on the Baekdudaegan trail, a journey of more than 400 miles across the mountainous spine of the peninsula. On a thick foggy morning, along a narrow trail, I tramped speechless, spellbound by the beauty of veiled summits. As I descended the other side of a mountain, I met a villager who spoke in a dialect distinct from one I’d heard on the way up. Change and contrast were the constants I experienced during my forty-day trek. I met various forms of myself–a tenacious me, a feeble me– competing with one another. No matter which version was closer to the real me, I realized that mountain endeavors offered unique windows that let me look inside myself and the world, revealing aspects that I didn’t expect.
In the spring of 1997, I moved to Seoul and took on carpentry jobs. Naturally, I was drawn to Bukhansan, the grand mountains north of the capital. On one Sunday, I saw people rock climbing on Insubong and Baekundae, the two highest peaks in the massif. With a reawakened desire–and some modest financial freedom–I was once more standing at a newsstand when I noticed an ad for the Gaemi Alpine Club in Mountain Monthly. I called the organization and told the interviewer, “I want to climb K2 someday.” I was already haunted by the lure of climbing’s inherent danger, curious to see what it would be like to undergo such extreme conditions. My first club outing took place on Baekundae. On a brisk March morning, the club’s seniors brought me and other new members to toprope the southwest-facing slab under the warming sun. When it was my turn and I touched the smooth granite, I felt no fear, only joy. Instantly, I knew where I belonged.
After completing the four-week-long training sessions, I dared to lead my first multipitch route on Insubong, the most popular climbing area in Bukhansan. Four hundred and thirty feet long, with a crux at 5.11a, Sancheonji was definitely beyond my novice capabilities.
Hardly knowing anything about free-climbing ethics, I pushed on through the hardest pitches by pulling on slings and standing on bolts. Still, I felt a sense of awe and joy beyond anything I’d found on my hikes–a kind of sublime euphoria that sprung from all the minute flow states in climbing and from my need to make decisions in the face of my fears, such as executing a bold move far above the last protection. After three months of devouring other climbs, often more difficult ones, I took on my first rock-climbing trip outside the capital. It was to Ulsanbawi.
The Mountain of an Unfulfilled Dream
Ulsanbawi is the largest single mass of rocky peaks in South Korea. Its circumference extends for four kilometers. Bawi means “rock,” but there are three different stories for the ulsan part of the name. The first explanation relates to the shape of the landform, considering ul to stand for ultari, or “picket fence,” followed by san, which means “mountain.” The second one notes that the root form of the Korean verb for crying is ul and that oceanic gales howl through the many subpeaks as if crying. So, here, ulsan would mean “crying” or “howling peak.”
The final tale takes the name to refer to the actual city of the same name. Long ago, the story goes, the Heavenly King summoned all peaks in the Korean peninsula to embellish Kumgangsan, a mountain located forty miles north of Seoraksan (in what is now North Korea). Upon receiving the call, a massive rock in the city of Ulsan (far to the south) began a journey to Kumgangsan. The rock was too heavy to move itself quickly, though. When the rock had marched for about two hundred miles, it heard discouraging news: all the slots for summits had already been filled by twelve thousand peaks that had arrived from other parts of the peninsula. The rock was worried about losing face if it returned home without making a contribution. The only other option was to settle down where it was. Hence, it is still there now.
Kumgangsan became long celebrated for its variety of rocky peaks and mystic falls. But Ulsanbawi–the mountain of an unfulfilled dream, of untold feelings of regret and of being left to find one’s own way–sustained its legacy in the realm of modern climbing. In 1954 a twenty-member expedition organized by the Corea Alpine Club scaled some of Seoraksan’s major ridges. Though underprepared and lacking adequate gear, they also made the first attempts on the steep rock faces of Ulsanbawi’s Peak One and Peak Two. While the climbers didn’t reach the summits, the club’s leaders still cheered their reconnaissance. It was a time when large expeditions were setting out to some of the remaining uncharted ranges of the country, from remote peaks in Seoraksan to isolated islands far to the east and south. Barely a year had passed since the end of the Korean War. The Japanese occupation had ended less than a decade prior. By scaling untouched cliffs and mapping untrodden summits, many South Korean climbers hoped to assert ownership and authority over some of the most rural regions across the country. A tone of somber nationalism might have been inevitable.
In 1955 members of a Seoul National University alpine club–who were more focused on climbing than on charting and exploring the region–finally stood atop Peak Two and Peak Three, two of the most prominent summits. For the next fifteen years or so, teams continued to make first ascents on Ulsanbawi’s other spires. By the 1970s, as strong climbers competed to attain ever-higher technical difficulties on previously scaled walls, a number of them had turned their gaze to the huge granite faces. These aspirants still sought out logical, graceful lines. But in those days, no one in South Korea knew the luxury of modern gear, except for a scanty rack of pitons, bongs, wooden pegs and ring bolts. Salty, humid air blew from the nearby sea, accelerating the corrosion of the few iron bolts drilled into the rock. Only rarely did climbers find the time to replace the fixed hardware before it became too dangerous to rely on.
Then in the 1980s, everything began to change: more first ascensionists committed to using longer-lasting stainless steel bolts; new highways gradually extended from Seoul to the city of Sokcho, near Seoraksan; and climbers from the capital could more easily go on day trips to Ulsanbawi. As a result, the massif evolved into one of the more popular climbing destinations in the country.
I would never forget my first impression of Venus. On a foggy morning in August 1997, I arrived at the top of Peak Three, intending to complete Doljanchi, a linkup of all thirty peaks that form the backbone of Ulsanbawi. A deep sea of clouds enfolded the vast array of granite spires. Only the smooth, bare summits floated above. Far away, a climber was swimming his way up a high cliff. I was unable to stop watching him as he moved over the sea of clouds, and I never realized how much time had passed. Once he disappeared over the top, my friend Oh Jang-geun and I approached the peak and decided to wait for him to rappel. As he came down, I asked where he’d climbed. “Venus,” he replied.
I will not return home before attempting this, I thought. Our Doljanchi linkup ended the next day. We skipped the final third of our itinerary, and on the third day, we hiked toward Venus instead. Not knowing exactly where the route started, I began scrambling up, looking for a long, arching crack. When I reached a large rock to the right of an old iron staircase, my intuition told me that the line I was facing was it: a single, solid fissure stretching from top to bottom, distinct even on a peak known for its furrowed surface. At that point, I’d only been learning climbing skills for three months. I hadn’t gathered enough wisdom, yet, to appreciate the value of the time and effort you need to train for a route like Venus. Rather, my intention, as I crawled up it, was to conquer:
I used every possible way in order not to be defeated, hanging on bolts and grabbing cams. So reckless was I in my first year of climbing. After just a few outings, I became confident on ice as well–too confident. On a mixed route at Garaebi, a popular ice-climbing area twelve miles north of Seoul, three of my pieces of protection failed, and I fell about thirty feet to the ground. The doctor said I would be OK to keep climbing, but he might have overlooked a hairline fracture in my right hand. Ten days later, I set out to climb the 320-meter Towangseong Falls in Seoraksan. The grand ice pillar squeezed between two dark, imposing walls, and its narrow white top blended into the pale, wintry sky like a gateway to the unknown. A grandiose goal haunted my novice mind: a one-day linkup of the mountain’s four hardest icefalls–Towangseong, Soseung, Daeseung and Guksadae. Because of the acute pain in my hand, however, even placing an ice screw proved to be an excruciating challenge. Soon, there was no choice except to retreat.
A Necklace of Wildflowers
My initial disappointment at Towangseong Falls caused me to ponder things beyond the mere act of ascent and the fun it seemingly promised to offer. A climber’s philosophy and approach, I began to consider, might be at least as significant as their performance of the actual movements, if not more so. A year later, when I completed the linkup, I realized what I hadn’t noticed in my first rash attempt: a chunk of blue ice, a ripple of a cascade, a silent mountain in winter are all unique, and climbers desiring to ascend them should first seek to perceive and adapt themselves to each distinct feature of that part of nature. Rather than embarking on my own agenda on a wall, I realized, I needed to try first to discern its intricate, individual forms: the textures of a frozen waterfall that indicated the best places for an axe swing or an ice screw; a small rift in the stone where a pick could hook and hold my weight. By perfecting my ability to observe such details, I could constantly redesign the ways I climbed.
This was a time, however, when I was still often driven by passion rather than by sound judgment about climbing conditions, including those of my own body. On more than a few occasions, I made critical mistakes when I became exhausted. Once, I almost attempted to rappel without connecting a device to the rope, only realizing my mistake at the last second. On another occasion, I rappelled off the end of a rope that was shorter than I expected. I fell thirty feet, but fortunately the ground was so soft that I landed without a serious injury. I didn’t know what I didn’t know–and that realm of unguessed unknowns included many things.
After many years of climbing, I gradually acquired a healthy habit of doubting myself. The key principle in my subsequent ascents became an awareness of the limits of my knowledge and a desire to explore them, particularly when it came to the inherent shapes and qualities of each mountain landscape. Throughout the summer of 2001, with six other friends, I explored the mountains in the Karakoram, the Hindu Raj and the Hindu Kush. We attempted five peaks under 6000 meters. No sponsor found our not-so-high objectives attractive, and with little money, we carried our own loads to base camps and sometimes went hungry. Relying on a fast and light approach, we wanted to face the challenges of the mountains directly. And we did. While we made first ascents of two summits–Kache Brangsa and Shikari– everyone suffered several (minor) injuries, mostly from the frequent rockfall on the spires. During a bivouac on a summit ridge of Shikari, I dropped an outer boot, and the descent proved to be an epic. Myoung-hee, the only woman in our group, heard about my trouble over the radio, so she climbed up from base camp to deliver a boot. In return, I gave her a necklace of wildflowers grown at the foot of the glacier. Three months after Myoung-hee and I returned to Seoul, our married life began.
The next year, Bo-geon was born to us. Myoung-hee found climbing to be her cure for postpartum depression: between breastfeeding, she redpointed hard routes with our baby wrapped in a quilt at the base of a crag. And while Bo-geon was young, she and I took turns going on bigger expeditions, so one of us could stay home to look after our son. When Bo-geon got older, we began bringing him with us to the granitic monoliths and boulders of Yosemite and Joshua Tree in the United States, the red sandstone cliffs of Liming in China, and numerous rock peaks throughout South Korea, where we watched him delight in his own first explorations of stone. To a child’s mind, even the smallest rock could offer an adventure, and every step provided some new discovery: a bright cluster of quartz crystals, the gem-like eyes of a toad, a sudden bloom of desert flowers. Myoung-hee’s passionate yet balanced approach to teaching Bo-geon served as one of my best examples of ascents–not just a means of getting to the top of a route, but a way of enjoying interacting and connecting with nature. It was a pure joy to see my wife and son climbing together.
Climbs Like Flowing Rivers
In 2008 it was my turn to go on a big expedition again. At 7762 meters, Batura II in the western Karakoram of Pakistan was probably the highest unclimbed summit in the world at the time. Several teams had already attempted it by various routes when Kim Chang-ho, my partner in the drama of Shikari, invited me on an expedition there. We chose to climb on its south face. After spending many days fixing ropes and placing camps with seven climbers, Chang-ho and I reached the top. The upper part of our route looked like the letter S. In my view, this was the most natural line by which anyone could ascend the formidable peak. Instead of trying to forge something “direct” or “straight,” we’d followed a curve that seemed familiar to me, the way that a path in a forest winds between the trees, allowing travelers to tread without defying the particular forms and conditions of a mountain–that might sometimes be as convoluted as those of Batura II.
With my skills in carpentry, I began helping some of my climbing friends build indoor walls, and I joined a crew of licensed routesetters. It was impossible for me not to recall my youthful journeys as I watched elite athletes compete on a route I’d created for an Ice Climbing World Cup event in my hometown of Cheongsong. As I designed sequences of moves, I wondered whether I was trying to express that same elusive ideal that I glimpsed again and again on distant precipices. In 2016 Chang-ho, Park Joung-yong and I became entranced by another thin, bright path on 7455-meter Gangapurna in western Nepal. We’d chosen the route almost without speaking. For seven October days, we climbed in alpine style through a thread of ice up the dark triangle of the south face. It was the kind of climb that Chang-ho had long envisioned as an exemplary feat for “harmony-ism,” a sort of impeccable articulation between the mountain and its climbers.
Chang-ho’s vision, as well as mine in this regard, did not necessarily relate to the particular style in which we chose to climb. On Batura II, our siege tactics had reflected the best approach we could adopt as a large team of climbers with various experience levels. I’d felt fortunate to stay on that peak for many days, observing the changing facets of the mountainside while we shuttled our loads and gazing out at other lofty summits, such as the snowdraped walls of Rakaposhi and Nanga Parbat, but also the sharp, granite tower of Bublimotin (Ladyfinger), which we’d climbed in 2001. Before starting up Gangapurna, we’d attempted Gangapurna West (Asapurna) first, and the near two-month-long stay in the area allowed us to feel connected to the surrounding walls, ridges and needles, including the sheer South Face of Annapurna, its icy ramparts so redolent with history. So huge and fundamentally unique were all those mountains as we encountered them, crucially, that our agendas seemed simply irrelevant compared to the experience of being in nature.
To me, to climb such a beautiful line is therefore to appreciate the incomprehensible power of nature and time, reminding me of the flow of a river, its slow, quiet currents influenced by subtle changes in the topography of the riverbed and by the ever-present force of gravity. I dream of a climb like a flowing river, free from abrupt, unnatural modifications.
After exploring different regions around the world for more than two decades, I felt as if I’d learned to think about the mountains in a dialect distinct from the one of my youthful fixation on summits. I wanted to see how much I’d changed–by returning to some of the scenes of my former self, including Venus and Seoraksan, places that now seemed like recurring patterns flowing through all my dreams.
A Matter of Heritage
For me, in 1997, Venus had simply been too hard. Too hard to climb in a way as natural, logical and graceful as the line is. For several years after my first experience, I was uncertain whether I could do better. Increasingly, however, I realized the value of training, and my movement over rock grew much more fluid. During my experiences in the Himalaya, Alaska and other parts of the world, I realized that the whirring force of Venus, which had haunted me in the first place, was one of a kind. I visited Venus a few times, but there were always other climbers on the route and the wait seemed too long.
In the meantime, starting in 2017, a few of my friends and I began organizing a two-day Trad Climbing Festival. Anyone who is interested in crack climbing may join the annual event and learn various skills and tips. The staff are all volunteers, and we spend money from our own pockets to help with funding. We share the belief–or hope–that climbers will still find incomparable experiences on boulders, crags, walls and mountains alike, and that these moments of inspiration will remain attainable and shareable as we strive to let natural spaces stay wild.
Eventually, on that day in July 2020, nobody else was on Venus. Hee-yong, Myoung-hee and I seized our chance–only to be astounded by the excessive bolts on the fifth pitch. Yoo Gi-soo and Park Il-hwan had made the first ascent of the route on August 5, 1974. A few days after encountering the new bolts, I met with Yoo at the office of a gear shop in Seoul. Still actively rock climbing–and enjoying it–he looked much younger than he actually was. He told me the brutal, yet absorbing, story of the original climb. He and Park had estimated they’d need five hours to get the climb done. It turned out to be an epic. Wind blew hard all day, tossing the rope and etriers into the air. Climbing from the ground up, they placed seven bolts total on the whole route. Once, Yoo kept jamming himself into a fissure too wide for any of his protection while he hammered down a bolt. At last, he became too exhausted to finish the job. The bolt was only halfway in, but he had no choice except to keep going. After fifteen agonizing hours, they emerged on top.
The route was ahead of its time. In the following years, few repeated it. During the late 1980s, as some local climbers placed stainless steel bolts next to the now-corroded ones and added new ones at the belay anchors, Venus began attracting more attention. In 1997 when I first climbed it, there were four protection bolts on the fifth pitch–two more than during the first ascent. When I described the current condition of the climb to Yoo, I felt awful. He listened with a wistful expression on his face. Then he noted that unbounded bolting had become common. “The first ascenders and those who climb the same route later don’t come from the same climbing culture,” he said. Once a route is created and open to the public, he observed, it becomes a public asset and not some private territory requiring “permission” if somebody wants to alter it. Even so, he said, “If anyone wanted to add bolts to an existing route, they should have asked the first ascenders for their opinions as a sign of respect. If I were asked, I wouldn’t have said you shouldn’t [place any bolts on Venus].”
But Yoo was worried that climbers were forgetting or ignoring the value of putting forth their best efforts. “If someone feels it’s beyond their limit,” he continued, “they’d better practice elsewhere before trying it again, rather than making it easier by adding bolts.”
On a breezy day in June 2021, I visited Venus again with three of my friends. This time, our goal was not just to climb one of the most splendid lines in Seoraksan, but to remove the unnecessary extra bolts I’d encountered on it a year ago. Yoo said he liked our plan. We compromised, though: we took out only half of the twelve added bolts. In addition to using the remaining six bolts, climbers whose priority is to complete the route–rather than fully committing to climbing it without aid–can also place cams to hang on. To fill the empty holes where the chopped bolts had been, we added crushed rocks mixed with epoxy, hiding the scars. For those who would climb Venus in the future, furthermore, I made a new topo map, with the remaining bolts clearly marked. And for those who hadn’t heard about the removal, I placed a signboard at the start of the route.
Afterward, I created and posted online a twenty-minute video clip, which includes our climb, my interview with Yoo, and our conversations deliberating on this issue of ethics. Venus is not the only route that has suffered from an addition of excessive bolts. Many classic trad routes across the country have been retro-bolted in recent decades. This practice has become a widely accepted custom, even though opinions about it remain divided within climbing communities. I wanted to challenge this convention and to encourage climbers to question themselves about what the best practice would be.
A debate ensued in the comments sections of my online posts. Many expressed their agreement and noted similar concerns about the rise of over-bolting and the decline of trad climbing in our country. Others criticized our actions. They questioned whether such beautiful lines should be accessible only to advanced climbers. Or they chided us, saying, like it or not, the bolts were already there and why bother.
In South Korea rock climbing was once an eccentric endeavor pursued by small circles of nonconformists and loners. During the past several decades, while the economy boomed and participation in the sport increased exponentially, the existing alpine clubs didn’t recruit a proportional number of new members. Consequently, a smaller percentage of new climbers have had an opportunity to learn the traditions and ethics that emerged from past wanderings up pathless granite and trackless peaks.
Today, many fast-foodish climbs are designed with rapid consumption in mind: to give people a taste of what it feels like to be on a steep cliff and then get them quickly to the top. For those who are accustomed to climbing this way, some of the challenges that climbers like Yoo once appreciated would appear as unnecessary inconveniences.
I do not necessarily condemn that modern approach to ascents. Nor am I one to argue for any single sort of climbing style that will be universally right, since I think climbing is fundamentally a subjective practice. What I object to is the practice of bolting over classic routes for convenience’s sake, including ones that are over half a century old. It does not end up being just a question of whether to bolt or not. It can be a matter of heritage.
A classic route might have served to epitomize the ideals and visions of its era. Its shape might help preserve memories of epic ascents that have become a part of our folklore, tangible forms of climbing stories that add layers to mountains already rich with mythology. Such lines deserve conservation since they embody the spirits of adventure and imagination required to put them up in the first place. We have a responsibility to share those spirits with younger generations and to leave room for them to dream, rather than to fill nearly every available space with hardware. We have no right to demolish their freedom for creativity and growth on the rock.
Our Spiritual Home
One day in July 2020, I panted as I hiked up the short-yet-steep climbers’ trail from Biseondae to Janggunbong. I was part of a group of about twenty climbers. This time, our goal was not to climb any routes but to clean up. Partly because of the strictly prescribed trail maintenance by the National Park Service, almost no formal volunteer activity exists for regular cleaning and environmental management. It’s all too easy for climbers to regard the litter on official hiking trails as the park’s responsibility, not ours. But if we find trash on a climbers’ trail, we might feel differently since that is “our” trail. Around the foot of the peak, there had long been a large stack of old rubbishy electric wires, some tied to tree trunks, which I had not felt a strong desire to clean up myself. These were the relics from the Biseondae hut, which had once been used as a communication center for rescue missions. The park removed the building in 2015. Now, belatedly, I was determined to clean them up. But not alone–I wanted to share with others in the climbing community a sense of public responsibility.
Those who participated in the cleaning campaign were former staff of our Trad Climbing Festivals–which had turned out to be a success. In particular, younger attendees showed great enthusiasm for the cause, and some of them have since tried to represent it in the varied ways they climb, communicating their own stories of trad climbing and crag cleanups on social media.
The festival’s overarching goal is to spread sound climbing practices and ethics. By these ideals, I intend no grandiose scheme, just a few simple principles: to respect other climbers, to protect the environment around the crags we visit, to strive not to disturb those living around the area and to seek mutually beneficial solutions to any conflicts between local residents and visiting climbers. Nevertheless, many of us often fail to adhere to these values; as a result, disputes break out and crags are closed. I’m afraid the same issues might recur in the future, and I’m concerned that the next generation might have fewer opportunities for such powerful moments of immersion in nature as the ones I encountered near my home.
In South Korea, my beloved country, climbing destinations are limited. No mountain is permanently covered with snow. Few walls span more than one thousand feet. Winters are becoming increasingly drier and milder. Then how have some Koreans opened new routes on lofty peaks and massive walls around the world? I believe Seoraksan has lain at the heart of Korean climbers and their adventures in diverse landscapes. This place, with its ever more surprising beauty, force, rigor and wildness, as well as the myriad of climbing tales surrounding every valley and peak, will continue to nurture all seekers on its rock and ice, training them to become climbers, alpinists and explorers into every corner of the world. Like my childhood village’s little hilltop that offered a view of another village, like Jirisan’s layered hills embedded with never-ending secrets, and like the vast expanse of Ulsanbawi’s granite, which has allowed generations of climbers to swim over a sea of clouds, Seoraksan has allowed us to dream bigger and beyond.
Paradoxically, when we limit our interventions, we find more freedom as we uncover more ways to be creative, working only with what is naturally there. Eventually, we perceive how we are connected to grains and crystals of stone and snow, to fissures of granite and currents of streams, to curves of blue ridgelines and branches of pine trees, to the dizzying rise of summits and the flights of birds–and to all that exists, visible and invisible, within the spaces between the earth and the heavens.
Under a pale blue sky one spring afternoon, last year, Myoung-hee, Bo-geon and I stood on top of Insubong together. There, we relished a rare vista that extended far to the West Sea as well as to the immense forest of tall buildings in Seoul. Facing the notorious pressure for success in a Korean school, Bo-geon had recently joined a local gym to seek more balance. Now, from the glint in his eye, I knew that he glimpsed something similar to that vision I first saw from the top of that little village hill. It had taken nearly half a lifetime for me to understand the places where I’d started: the mountains are our spiritual home, and we are destined to miss them wherever we are.
–Choi Suk-mun, translated from Korean by Oh Young-hoon
[This story originally appeared in the On Belay section of Alpinist 77, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 77 for all the goodness!–Ed.]