Climbing Taebaeksan

    There is a kind of insanity that takes hold of Asians and this is certainly true of Koreans. They have a thing about sunrises. Not just " yea sunrises are really nice ", or even " Man, I love a good sunrise ", but a special undefinable reverence for the event.     All this to explain why, after a long hard week trying to convince 10 year olds that their future depends on their learning about Jenny's Birthday Party, in English, I am on the side of a mountain at 3 A.M. on a minus 15 and dropping night, trying not to think of what will happen if I fall over the edge. The thought of actually making it to the top doesn't even cross my mind.

    I'm there with the Wonju (International) Climbing Club and a few hundred other faintly demented people. There is a little snake of lights shining all the way down the mountain as I look down, and the same lilttle dancing ribbon in front. It reminds me of the candle light church processions of my youth.

    The night is almost silent. The only sound is the crunch of the ice. For not only is it really cold, dark and late but its also pretty much solid ice, and to climb you have to strap on little iron things on your boots to get traction.

    There is a kind of expectation and joy in the crowd. A collective energy that seems to give me more courrage than I would have alone. For once I'm glad of being a small part of a large crowd. It's even more than that, I, in a cosmological Big Sense, belong there. There might be something to that, Taebaek San, the mountain I'm climbing, is one of Korea's three sacred mountains. Every year there are Shamans performing rites here. Maybe the ancients felt it too.

    I don't think about that, though. I just try not fall and damage some part of myself I'm fond of, in a selfish sort of way. Eventually after an eon or two I can't really tell, we reach the top.

    Luckily it's more a kind of plateau than a peak because we are here en masse. There are no trees to speak of, only a few sort of mangy little shriveled bushes. At the very top there 's a big stone structure now filled with people. The guide books refer to them as altars but not much is known about them. They somehow seem appropriate though.

    People are every where calling out names of their friends or family they got separated from in the dark. Someone calls my name and I rejoin the Wonju (International) Climbing Club.

On top of Taebaek

There is reassuring glow at the horizon and we huddle and try to make time speed up. It's a million degrees below zero at this point and the wind is howling through the crowd. Some climbing club is doing it's best to hold on to it's flag, the flag is doing it's best to fly away. The tension is unbearable, as we slowly decend into hypothermia. Still we wait, eyes riveted to the horizon where a little golden line makes the mountain sort of glow.

Then all of a sudden there is a sort of gasp that comes from no one in particular but escapes from every body there. The sun has risen. After a few cheers people start singing the Korean anthem, not with the usual gusto but with a kind of reverence , as though they could not think of another way of giving life to the wonder of the moment.

    And then it's over. All I want to do is go down. I stumble my way down the mountain thankful for the sun and it's heat. Gone is the elation. In it's place is a sort of tired satisfaction and a punchy sort of energy. Kids slide down slopes on plastic bags, while their parents plod on , oblivious to the stunning views, taking the the brillant sunshine for granted.

    We stop for a break, and hopefully breakfast, but the stove won't co-operate, and we settle for the sweet little tangerines that seem to be the universal snack food of climbers here. As we start again I wonder if my feet can actually endure the next 3 kilometers, but somehow we make it down, and have enough energy to visit the Coal museum at the base of the mountain. An elegant little museum that talks about the geology of the area and the history of the local coal mine.

    I have rarely seen a bus with so much pleasure and was so mellow I even sang in the inevitable NoLeBong (Korean version of Karaoke, you know it stands for No Le Mi Fa...)every self respecting bus is equipped with it.

    I'm not sure I'm going to rush up a mountain for next year, but I don't think I will doubt their sanity if someone suggests it.

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