In the summer of 2008 I began learning about rock climbing in a small dusty garage that housed a homemade bouldering wall that my friend had built. In exchange for my help expanding it, he offered to teach me the basics of climbing, which, little did I know, would radically change my life.
Before coming to Korea in the fall of that same year, I would have only actually gone climbing a few times before the start of my great adventure in the Land of the Morning Calm. I ended up living in Suyu, at the base of Bukhansan National Park. My apartment was a 15 minute trip to Insubong, a massive 200m high granite peak towering over the backdrop of Seoul. I looked for a local climbing gym so I could work out and make a few friends that I would be able to climb with.
But this simple aspiration became an epic tale that would transform my knowledge of Korea, the language, and its culture. Minutes from Bukhansan is Chung Seung Kweon Mountaineering School.
At first glance it appeared to be a small basement bouldering gym, just like the place I started learning in, but I soon realized that it was in fact the center of a vibrant world of mountaineers.
Everyone was so warm and welcoming that in my first winter living in Korea, they taught me how to ice climb in Kangwondo. Once Spring arrived, I took his basic rock climbing course. In the Summer,
I enrolled in his Big Wall course, and when the winter came, there was no second thought about whether or not to take his Alpine Climbing course. As one of the youngest members and alumni, I was always a junior from the start, though now as an entire year has passed, i have become a senior to the newest climbers and a source of experience and knowledge.
I remember the first time I went to seoraksan in September. We had just graduated our big wall climbing course and we went to the famous red wall in order to practice the skills we spent weeks learning.
It was a beautiful summer day, the weather perfect, and we were simply enjoying our craft when, while 200m up, the sun and blue sky faded into a storm. Thunder roared from the clouds with lightning flashing directly over head. I had to keep going up in order to clean the route, but i was situated in an overhang, hanging directly over a void of space.
The wind picked up, blowing my etriers and rope all over, I swung in circles, hoping that the wind and rain would simply stop, and, hope that despite being covered in metal equipment, I would not get struck by the lightning so ever-present in the valley of the 1000 buddhas(천불동계곡).
I could here one of my nunas asking if we should keep going, and i could hear chung seung kweon saying we needed to get down. But despite the brief moments of chaos and fear the storm subsided, yielding clear skies. From the peak we watched the sun set and began rappelling back to the valley floor and sanjang, where a well deserved dinner of kimchi stew and samgyupsal was waiting.
In the span of just over a year I had learned 4 climbing disciplines at his school. I had traveled to many incredible places like Bukhansan, Seoraksan and more. I had done some amazing things like the Insu Highway, the frozen 300m Towangsung Falls at Seoraksan, and aid climbing the featureless walls of Pochunshi.
But at the same time, I made great friends, I learned Korean, and I learned so much about the culture that it feels like home. I was able to see so many of Korea`s breathtaking vistas from the summits that envelope the countryside first hand and truly experience the beauty of the peninsula.
William Stewart. 1982. A Chicago native, William Stewart received a B.A. in Spanish and Linguistics from Northeastern Illinois University. Because of the U.S.`s diversity, he became close friends with some Korean students that have brought him to Korea since 2007. While living in Korea he has striven to obtain the full breadth of the Korean experience by immersing himself culturally and linguistically.
This has also led to his involvement in the mountaineering community that has been so unique as a foreign resident in Seoul.