How Climbing the Bukhansan Changed My Life


After watching Everest, a film based on a true disaster in 1996, I left the cinema with a sunken heart and an indescribable feeling of condolences. It was in the movies when they were talking about “why do you climb a mountain?” that, made me went through a series of introspection.

Born physically weak due to my drug allergy, I wasn’t in my best of form when I was a child and because of that nature, my parents used to be very protective of me, fearing that I might injure or exhaust myself as I’d been through a few episodes of over exhaustion. So I grow to be a very conservative and indoor person, who don’t take any sort of ‘risk’ nor do I move around much. Hence I always had a hard time when it comes to physically taxing activities. To top it off, sports wasn’t in my best of interest, so I’m basically like a “mage” in real life. Except I don’t have any magical powers.

Earlier last year, I traveled to Seoul with a few of my close friends whom I can call family. My worst fear is confirmed when we were going to climb the Bukhansan; the highest peak in Seoul, when we’re there.

“It’s very safe one”, that’s what they all always said. Initially, I was relieved when they decided to postpone the plan, hoping that they would scrap this one off. What are the odds of coming here again “the next time?” The day had finally come and my inside was hoping for a bad weather to turn this one around. Nothing happens. So before we know it, we are wandering around the nature park, looking for the trail to ascend.

Having depression and mild anxiety disorder, my personality wasn’t the best concoction for any sort of risk-taking activities. Bred with an acute phobia of death and roller coasters, my heart always skipped a beat when I see people being hurled up into the skies or when I’m peering over ledges and my mind would start ‘playing’ the worst possible scenario that could happen, which usually includes overly exaggerated deaths.

Repeating mantras of positivity, I started the hike with a tinge of uneasiness and fear.
“Hang in there.”
“You love long walks, so you’re gonna love this.”
“Slow and steady.”
“It’s just walking, and more walking, and a little bit of climbing.”
It was tough, in fact, a grueling moment for me. The trails are beyond uneven, and my worn off Adidas Superstar can only do so much. There are even several times that I almost sprained my leg as I could feel my feet twisting sideways before springing back. I almost tripped and almost sprained as well.

“God, I could have sprained my legs.”
“God, I could have died if I had missed my footing.”
As much as my mental state is starting to fail me, my physical state is crumbling as well. My heartbeat escalates beyond bearable and I was unable to catch my breath. My head is spinning and I felt slight dizziness, just like how any of my past episodes of over exhaustion. My lips are as dry as paper and no amount of water could moist it. Soon I started to breathe really deeply while my body heaves up and down involuntarily, it seems like my nostril is not big enough, or I’m not taking in enough oxygen to fuel my body.

Nothing, but one word came to my mind.

“Breathe.”

I realized I’d been panicking. It is probably my old persona trying to haunt me. Or was it my negativity? I don’t know. My family and friends are kind enough to take extra care of me in fact. Checking in with me every now and then, making sure I was okay. We took a few breaks here and there, and every time I sat down, I try to recompose myself each time during the breaks. I could have almost quit halfway, but their words of encouragement keep me from breaking.

Before I know it, I started to adapt to the air in the altitude, I started to breathe okay. Before I know it, I started to enjoy it. I looked out to the greens, to the mountains, just enjoying the nature for once in my 23 years of life. I’d been turning away from all this, and right now I’m looking at all of them at once.

We even trekked to the wrong side as we found ourselves at the peak of the lower altitude, there are several peaks that was up in the clouds and we sort of asked around before resuming the hike.

“So which one is it?”
“The next one~”
“Ahh okay okay!”
My inside was beaming since it’s just the next one. My mind just wanted to get this over at done with. Thinking back, I’m now glad they lied to me about the distance that we were about to cover.
(Didn’t think much about it and I just followed the trail).

Things got worse when it is just rocks which lays out in an almost vertical elevation. We slowly navigate across, up, and down nature’s territory; the rocks, the logs, and the never-ending flights of stairs. We even have some parts where there’s just a harness for us to hold, and a thin piece of rock that’s just enough for one of us to stand on as we move slowly across the mountain.

Almost there, my mind’s a blank once I’m at it. I shut myself out from everyone else and starts clenching into the built-in harness, pulling myself up bit by bit, while telling myself I’m not settling for the second best, I’m going for the peak. Yes, I’m going for the peak. Eyes on the prize, I make my way up step by step as I looked towards the peak which gradually became visible over time.

We reached the first point of the peak, a giant plateau where everyone just sits there, picnic, chitchat and of course, take photographs. We started to lay down, enjoy the air, and starts to take out the food and snacks that we bought. It’s so comfortable that we even took a short napped there. From here, I could see a huge chunk of the city, everything seems so small, just like a toy model of Seoul.

The air at the peak is beyond refreshing, with every breath, I could felt the fresh mountain air travel down into my body, detoxifying me. We then climbed up to the main peak, the highest point of Seoul. I shut myself out again, this time voluntarily, as I felt my goosebumps rising; in fact, I felt it now too as I was reliving this moment while I’m typing.

“You did it, yes, you did it”
“look out there, the highest point of Seoul, and you did it”
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath in and whispered thank you before I start to descend from the mountain.

You know the moment when you experience changes?
Like when you could literally felt something inside you change?

At that glowing moment, I felt it. I felt how opening to mountaineering changed me. I could felt something bloomed inside me, not that I have suddenly found a new passion for mountaineering. I had learnt how one could muster their willpower and determination, or rather, how I could muster my willpower and keep going forward when I’m pushing myself to the limits. I never believed I could conquer a mountain, but I have nevertheless done it. For once, I was proud of myself. My companions definitely deserve credits for keeping me at bay for I would not have made it to the top if not their patience, and encouragements. That kept me going, and I didn’t want to give up, nor do I want to disappoint anyone of them.
And maybe… just maybe, I owe it to myself too, for I would not have made it had I decided to throw the towel.

Seoul is now definitely going to be one of the most important cities in my life where I had many life-changing moments.
And conquering the Bukhansan is definitely one of them. It is of life’s greatest surprise that the activity that I feared most have become the highlight of my trip (and life).

P.S. Not saying everyone should go climb a mountain now, but you know the gist of it. Be adventurous, take a leap.
You’ll be surprised at where it takes you.

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