THERE’S LITTLE TO BE SAID about hiking in Korea that I haven’t before tried to write about; instead of struggling unprepared with my girlfriend in the bitter midwinter snow, this time we were four sweaty dudes in midsummer humidity suffering from sore feet and comically rosy sunburns. Our particular route up Jiri-san, South Korea’s second-tallest mountain, wasn’t actually very strenuous — but damned if it doesn’t feel long.
W were to pass Jaeseokbong (1,806m) by lunchtime; the tallest peak, Cheonwangbong (1,915m), by 3 o’clock; and reach the Rotary shelter by 4 or 5. We’d spend a leisurely night and hike down the rest of the way on Sunday.
After a few pitstops to enjoy food and fresh water rivers, we reached the shelter earlier than expected. Cards and soju filled out the evening, until the shelter’s scheduled lights-out hour of 9 p.m. forced us to pack up our things and sneak off to sleep.
…Which brings us to the loudest snorer in South Korea.
I immediately knew this guy was trouble based on two things:
1) Every time I returned from outside to fetch something from my bag, his shit was in my spot, sometimes literally on top of my blanket;
2) He had a massive black eye, presumably given to him by irate bunkmates at the last shelter this asshole slept at.
Notwithstanding the fact that none of us were especially tired at 9:30 p.m., the symphony of snores that ajeosshis somehow coordinate, perhaps telepathically, prevented us from achieving anything resembling a night’s rest. My iPod battery died after 30 minutes, leaving me face-to-face with a round-faced, black-eyed man whose baritone snores literally sent vibrations through my head.
At God-only-knows-what-hour I picked up my bag and flipped myself 180 degrees so that my ears were in line with his toes and away from his gaping mouth — a maneuver not intended to perfectly position my asshole to fart in his face throughout the night, though this turned out to be a pleasant and personally rewarding result of our dinner of nuts and beans. The downside of this position was his grabby hands, which more than once swung around and touched my butt in ways I’ll never forget.
Through the hour of 3 a.m., a mass exodus rattled the shelter as 80 percent of the occupants rose, group by group, as if each had independently realized that sleep was useless and they might as well hike to the peak to catch the sunrise. It was loud and basically woke up all 35 of the shelter’s occupants. (When I sat up, I was pleased to find Mr. Grabby Hands’ friend had spun around 180 degrees as well, and felt a solidarity with him.) As it turns out, our party was now entirely awake. I grabbed my flashlight and slipped off to the bathroom, and when I returned, my friends had taken a vote: they wanted to leave now.
We began rolling our blankets and packing our bags. Mr. Grabby Hands made sure to wake up any lingering sleepers by dropping his can of stove gas; as we spoke in hushed whispers about his crimes against humanity, a voice from some far-off corner of the shelter emerged: “Hello, could you keep it down, please? People are trying to sleep here.”
To which I rolled my eyes and muttered something about how “fucking rich” that sentiment was.
And so, at 3:20 a.m., grumpy and exhausted, we too left the shelter into the impossibly dark woods — only we were headed downward, towards civilization, intercity buses and our girlfriends. My friends don’t believe this, but I maintain that night hiking downhill is slower than day hiking upward. It took us two hours to reach the park entrance, during which the sun rose slowly between 5 and 5:30. Not the glorious kind of golden ball you imagine rising over the world, mind, but a gradual lightening of the sky, from absolute black to ever-lighter shades of blue.