American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Korean Climbing

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1955

Korean Climbing

CAPT. FREDERICK M. GOLOMB and THOMAS A. MUTCH

Korea is a country few mountaineers visit by choice, but in recent years many people, climbers and others, have found themselves in this land of rice paddies, crowded towns, and mountains. For the most part the mountains are ragged hills, extending in roughly parallel ridges which culminate in numerous rocky peaks possessing a real but desolate beauty. Unfortunately they leave bitter memories for most Americans who know them only as battlegrounds whose flanks and ridges were hard won homes of cold, hostile discomfort. When the hostilities ceased and boredom set in, few looked to the hills with pleasure and anyone who would voluntarily go out among them was regarded with unmasked incredulity.

In our pursuit of recreational climbing several unusual problems had to be overcome. Independent pleasure trips, such as these, are frowned upon; specialized equipment—even ropes—is hard to come by. Then there is the unfamiliar hazard of the land mines. During the fighting they were buried by the hundreds along the ridges and slopes. Many still remain undetected and dangerous.

Of all the mountains south of the 38th Parallel one group stands out as a particular mountaineering challenge. These mountains, known as Tobang-San, are located just north of Seoul. Most prominent among them is In Soo peak, which has probably been noticed by most Americans who have been to Korea. In general, the cliff faces we climbed in Korea and the surrounding mountains were composed of crumbling rock. By contrast the last 500 feet of this peak appear to be a solid volcanic core, rising almost vertically on three sides with a single steep ridge on the fourth, broken only by vertical cracks.

Our curiosity about this mountain was early aroused, but it was not until late December 1953 that we made our first reconnaissance of the peak. At that time deep snow and glazed rock made the exploration unsuccessful. In the spring we made two more visits, but no obvious route could be found, and our desire to climb the peak accordingly increased. Finally, in mid-May, a truly determined attack was planned. Enlisting the help of the air force, we were flown to a nearby field and got off to an early morning start. By now we were well known to the native children living near the mountain, who would climb into our jeep in prodigious numbers. We actually carried eleven of them, besides ourselves and our driver, right up to the base of the mountain, where they insisted upon becoming our porters and carried our modest gear up the path. While leisurely following them, we reflected upon the grandeur of this expedition which included air support, a chauffeured vehicle, and native porters.

The path led through a lush forest and then grew more devious as it wound up to a col which separated our mountain from a neighboring peak. Here we found a Shinto shrine with a decaying wooden Buddha and a family living in the high temple with no apparent source of livelihood.

Facing the tower which again loomed over us, devoid of any obvious route, we luckily came upon a group of engineering students from the University of Seoul, who belonged to the Chosun Alpine Club. They told us that the mountain had been climbed in 1946 by a member of their Club and invited us to follow them in their ascent. These five young men had a single 120-foot rope among them as their sole equipment. The leader would proceed up a pitch and successively bring his companions up to him until they all stood on the same narrow ledge before moving up the next pitch. This road block ahead of us allowed us to climb leisurely and pointed out each step of the way. Their lack of hardware was made up by heavy iron rings which had been drilled and cemented into the rock at appropriate intervals.

The first pitch of the climb was a narrow 15-foot chimney, followed by a wide, inverted corner. This extremely awkward pitch was possible largely because of the rough texture of the rock, permitting maximum use of friction in the absence of any true holds. Above this was a detached slab, which the small, wiry, and very agile Koreans “chimneyed up,” and which was too narrow for us, so we took it as a vertical lay back. One of the final pitches required direct aid. The Korean technique was for the leader to lasso a projecting rock and then climb up the rope. We graciously accepted this assistance when, in turn, we reached the stiff pitch. The angle lessened above this point and the subsequent stretches were not difficult.

Finally emerging on the top of the huge dome, we could look south to Seoul and west to the Yellow Sea while the rugged ridges extended as far as the eye could see, north and east. As we reflect upon the problems and pleasures of climbing in Korea, our most vivid memories are less associated with the familiar technical difficulties of the climbing than with the unique experiences connected with them.

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