Korean Rock by Rick Ruffin

Insubong Climbing (Korean Rock)
By Rick Ruffin

'Naktcha' The cry shattered the twilight and ropes rained down from above. Then, the bodies- black, ninja-like, breaking in dark waves over this final hump of stone, invisible but for faint pinpricks of cigarette light. They kept coming, as if spit out by some giant, human pitching-machine ensconced firmly on the summit. At the bottom, we shock out tight muscles, unclipped karabiners, clicked on our headlamps, and started down the rocky trail to a city of 10,000,000 souls.

Imagine a huge skillet: New imagine a series of huge globs of granite. Well, that is Pukhasan National Park. These granite globs offer everything the contemporary rock- climber could possibly want. There are pinky-sized cracks, ugly off widths, awesome chimneys and dihedrals, bomber flakes, featureless slabs and sick face routes. Few rock-climbing areas I know of have such a variety of climbs in such a concentration.

The rock has the consistency of industrial sandpaper. It's a friction climber's paradise.
If you like to smear, if you like to dance on warts of silica, feldspar and quartz, then this is the place for you. If you are keen on wedging your body between two parallel pillars of squats, upward, upward, ever upward, a series of grunts and groans that would make Arnold proud and leave your quads shaking, then this the place for you. If you like laybacks that don't end and cracks that go on forever, if you fancy traipsing out over thin air, tracing a dyke that cuts diagonally across a big, orange, moon -face of a rock, pinching a narrow ridge of rough cut crystals that leave your fingers feeling as they've been hooked up to a car battery all morning, then bali wah(hurry up). If you like experiencing all of this and a culture that is utterly against the Western grain, then hop on a plane and go to Korea.

There are two major lumps and a dollop of granite in this 80sq kms park that seem to have been cast down by the gods with climbing specifically in mind: Insubong(bong means peak in Korean). Dobongsan(san means mountain) and Kokiri Kuhraek(kura다 means crack).

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  • The former boats more than 40 different routes. Climbs vary in length from 50ft to nine pitches at nearly 800ft. Insu peak is the predominant climbing magnet in Pukhansan National park, an 800ft high batholith with 360° of exposure, although most of the climbing takes place on the west, south and east aspects.
    Dobongsan, about 3 1/2 miles away, is also known as Soinbong(Dobongsan is the mountain, whereas Soninbong is the actual crag).

    It sports about 30 different climbs. Kokiri kuhraek is a five star crag(close to Insubong) with cracks that set the standard in Korea during the mid 1980s.

Now for the bad news. The bad news is that the climbing in Korea ridiculously crowded and that there is bit of a language problem. The good news is that it's only crowded on weekends, the crag are bloody (no pun intended) accessible ( you can see the granite outcroppings of Pukhansan national Park from downtown Seoul) and for 10 months of the year rain is a rare occurrence. In the autumn maples burn bright orange and red against clear blue skies. In spring, cherry trees and azalea bushes burst forth in profusion of life and colours.

Because the concepts of me, me, me and I'll do what I goddamn please have yet to take hold in Korea on anything resembling a Western scale, Koreans are wedded to their jobs, schools and families. That means that on Saturday and Sunday you might find yourself sharing your hanging belay with happily singing and smoking Koreans, inadvertently blowing tobacco and kimchi odours your way, and doing an acapella top 10 countdown, but on Monday, chances are, if there's not a major school holiday going on, you will be climbing alone. On a recent 'four day weekend' visit to Insubong we experienced population densities approaching those of a major city on Saturday and Sunday, but come Monday we recorded a total of two other climbers- a middle aged Korean couple- sharing the crag with us.

There are more than 400 rock-climbing clubs in the Greater Seoul area, according to Kim Hyung Joo of Art Climbing Services. Most Seoul universities have a rock-climbing club. That's probably because Insubong has a low-angle apron that is excellent for beginners. That explains the rush-hour traffic on the lower routes. Koreans don't so much go climbing as lay siege to the mountains. They move over the landscape like locusts in great droves.

"Koreans love to climb," says Choo kyong hyun, also an importer of outdoor equipment. 'They have a lot of desire…' Then, to add emphasis to his words, he points to Insubong, now glowing under a full moon. A plethora of bright yellow dots sparkle on its silver face. "Those people will probably spend the night on the summit,' he states. They also like to climb at night. It's done all the time. I witnessed a totally inebriated, three- sheets-to the-wind assault on a local crag by a Canadian- Korean party of four, and, amazingly, no one died.

Desire, I am thinking: big heart. I swirl these words around in my head. If that means sliding on your blue jeans 40ft down a 70s friction slab for the fourth time in four minutes, then yes, they do have a lot of that. The dominant sound we heard all day while climbing at Insubong- besides largely indecipherable babble- was the sound of denim scraping rock. We were also treated to the occasional, high- pitched ping of a rappel device whizzing by at 32ft per second per second. Koreans have a funny habit of laughing in the face of danger, so if you hear a chorus of guffaws, duck, and don't forget your helmet


All year round is best but winter is cold and July and August are hot and wet. September to November and mid- March to June are best. On Insubong most routes are east-facing, some south and a few west-facing, so you can follow the sun throughout the day. Soninbong has east- facing routes.

Getting there

You need a valid passport to apply for a 90day tourist visa. There are flight to Seoul. The entire transit time from Seoul Airport to your campground in Pukhansan National Park should take no more than three hours at the most. A good plan is to wait until some cute girl/guy comes along, then simply ask for help, Koreans are eager to help, and they love a chance to try their English.

To Insubong

From Seoul Kimpo International Airport take the subway to Ch'ongnyangni. Exit the station and find the bus stop sign with the number 6 or 6-1. Take the number 6 or 6-1 to the end of the line. From there you can see Insubong. Walk up the main road for 30 to 40 minutes, following the signs for Dosuunsa temple and keep right. At the end of the parking lot you will see the trail-head, pay a small entrance fee(be sure to get a map) and hike up a steep trail for Insusanjang(insu mountain area) and once you reach the saddle, you can see Insubong on your left. Another 15minutes and you will come to insusanjang: a store, mountain rescue headquarters, bathrooms, etc; there is the Insubong campground. The camp lies five minutes from the East Face. The approach trail for all the routes circles Insubong starting from the East face, past the South Face continuing to the West face and saddle which separates Puhkansan and Insubong. The entire trail from east to west takes a half an hour.


Kimchi comes in endless varieties and each is worth a taste. All meals include at least half a dozen other side dishes. If you're a meat lover, try bul gogi(grilled beef) or daegii galbi(pork ribs). Vegetarians can have a go at kal guk su(noodle soup) or dubu chigay (fermented bean and tofu soup). Be forewarned- Korean food is rated xxx. It will put sweat on your brow at 50 paces. Camping with Koreans offers insight into their culture, as a dinner invitation is highly likely, followed by many toasts of soju (tastes like cheap vodka or benzene , depending on your perspective) and nonstop rounds of daeji kalbi.
At the Insubong campground there is a very basic store where you can buy limited supplies. Otherwise, load up on supplies at the trailhead on the way in. The closest 'restaurant' to Insubong campground is at Baekunsanjang(translation: White Cloud Mountain Place) a huge rustic wooden lodge 15 minutes further up the valley. They have a full kitchen, good assortment of food and snacks and great ski lodge atmosphere, including a deck. At the trailhead you went in on are a variety of restaurants.

At Soninbong

At Soninbong the set up is quite similar to Insubong.


There is a camping fee at insubong campground but no Westerner I Know has ever paid the 3,000 won (about $3) for a tent with three people . Koreans tend to go easy on wegukins when assessing charges. Baekunsanjang-which I mentioned above, 15 minutes up the valley- has a huge loft and cosy, ski lodge atmosphere for those who want a roof over their heads. They charge 3,000 won a night per person. There is no time limit at either place. At soninbong there is a campground with the same, nominal camping fees as at Soninbong. One can also stay at the nearby Tobong Mountain House for 3,000 won a night in a youth hostel style accommodation.


There are more than 10 temples in Pukhansan National park, including some over 1,000years old. There is also a fortress built in 1711 to repel the Japanese and Manchurians and remnants of said fortress add real medieval touch to the ambience. Seoul is the cultural, political and social center of Korea. The best of the best is found there. There is the imperial Place, many temples, the National Museum, Military Museum as well as Folk Village. Tours to the Demilitarized Zone are available through the USO office in Seoul. This is a great chance to experience the remnants of the Cold War.

Gear and guides

Two 50m ropes are necessary for the abseils and a full rack from thin to off width is a good idea as almost all routes under 10 have a chimney or an off width and everything over is hands or smaller. There are two large outdoor markets (with corresponding subway stops) in Seoul: Nam dae mun (South Gate) and Dong dae mun(East Gate), each with a large selection of climbing and camping gear. Local climbing guides can be found in the mountain shops at South and East Gate but they're all in Koran. Still, they have pictures. An essential non- climbing resource is The Lonely Planet Guide to Korea.


Bolting is not allowed anywhere in the park and some hiking trails and areas maybe closed for re-vegetation

Coeran Alpine Club
Korean hospitality is legendary. Korea is a very people- orientated society and the people will be happy to show you around if only you ask. The Corean Alpine Club is a good resource to remember. Their address is 740-10, Yuksam-dong, Kangnam-gu, Seoul 135-080, Korea, Tel 539-1781-2 or fax at 539-1780. Cho Sung dae, their Secretary General, speaks good English and knows lots of people.
Pukhansan National Park : San 1-1 Chongnung dong, Songbuk gu, Seoul (136-100)
Tel: 909-0497 ,905-0498

The Korean script, Hangul, can be learned on the airplane on the way over if you really concentrate. It doesn't hurt to learn it so one can read simple phonetic sounds, like kuh rae(crack), puh raen duh(friend) or ham buhg uh (hamburger). A Korean phoneticized into English phrase book may help, but unless you pronounce the words exactly correct they won't have a clue what you are saying. I would just try to find a guide, feed him/her well, teach him/her lots of English and don't let go. Before you throw a rope over the abyss, remember to shout "Nakja."

Is that all I'm still bored

Well then, I suggest you read some of the Kim Jeong il propaganda leaflets that are often found scattered about the climbing and hiking trails. They are dispersed by hot air balloon in an effort to get the South Koreans to rebel against their government. They provide endless fodder for late night sitting around the campfire socio-politico bull-sessions. Problem is, you've got to translate them first.