From Splendid Isolation Springs the Sublime

Vertical Life gets the inside line on what could be the world’s next big climbing destination, and it’s not where you think.

Climbers are always on the lookout for the next hot global destination. If it’s exotic all the better; culturally distinct even more so; add the whiff of potential danger – bingo.

North Korean rock.

A designation as a pariah state from the global community is not an eternal designation. It is mutable and subject to change according to the whims and policy strategy of the world’s superpowers; just take pre-2010 Libya, the recent opening up of once shunned Burma and now, right out of left field, North Korea.

Despite militant rhetoric from all sides of the supposed conflict, contact between North Korea and the rest of the world has been increasing steadily in recent times. Entrepreneurial cross-border trade with China is on the rise, as are imports of luxury goods and foods to satisfy the voracious needs of the wealthy elite and it’s hard to deny that with the ascent of youthful King Jong Un to Dear Leader there’s a new sheriff in town.

This trend was brought into sharp relief recently with the success of international peace envoy Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters who visited the country, met with the sport-mad Dear Leader and moved relations a step closer to normalcy.

This humanity-through-hoop-dreams summit was no isolated incident: the softening regime has sought out greater sporting engagement as a way of sidestepping the confines of traditional international relations – a tactic that has been used by many other misunderstood states in the past. And now news has emerged that North Korean generals are reportedly in talks with IFSC (International Federation of Sport Climbing) officials in an attempt to bring a Climbing World Cup circuit to North Korea. Helmet Knabl, IFSC vice-president sport/events, declared of the possibility, “At this critical juncture in competition climbing’s emergence onto the world stage, as we stand ready to be embraced into the Olympic community, we feel staging a World Cup event in North Korea represents the very best of the Olympic spirit of global camaraderie forged through sport in the face of national differences in governance, economic system or cultural mores, and showcases the simple unifying force of climbing things that is common to this human experience that we all share, whether it be a 10-year-old in Bordeaux ascending the branches of a tree, a skilled professional mounting desert stacks in Utah or a North Korean scaling the walls of a state-run camp in North Korea.”

There is a small but growing outdoors scene in North Korea. In the midst of the sabre rattling between countries a band of dedicated local and international climbers and developers have been quietly going about their business and what they know that others do not is that 80 per cent of the Korean landmass is covered by mountains or uplands, and that all of the peninsula’s peaks greater than 2,000m are north of the the Demilitiarised Zone (DMZ). That means there is an unfathomable amount of potential on remote crags of textured granite, bullet-hard diorite and volcanic basalt.

Endless potential in the mountains of North Korea.

As has been the case throughout much of Asian development, the lead has been taken by foreigners, most notably Chinese, Venezuelan and Cuban, though this is now changing as the locals up their game.

Dear Leader Kim Jong-un is said to be a keen climber and according to the Korean Central News Agency of DPRK has redpointed Australian grade 33 and bouldered as hard as V14, and while these claims remain unsubstantiated Kim Jong-un does appear to have a pedigree of excellence at whatever he turns his hand. Trends in North Korea generally flow downstream via decrees from thought-leaders in the upper echelons of the efficiently stratified society down to the general populace, and climbing is proving to be no different.

One benefit of the economic unrest that has characterised North Korea’s ostracisation from the global community has been an increase in severe, chronic malnutrition amongst the people. This has left much of the population with the perfect build for rockclimbing and the sport is set to boom on the back of this, particularly with a new state-backed training initiative that sees children identified and sent to special training camps, some as young as age five.

Obviously there are numerous difficulties associated with climbing in North Korea. Much of the country is without the type of infrastructure that tourists require, the cuisine is often marginal and navigating the bureaucracy can be dizzying but such difficulties are not unknown to the climbing pioneer looking to stretch themselves beyond the safe and easy confines of a normal climbing holiday.

Keep your eyes on developments as with breathless descriptions such as ‘splendid isolation’, ‘an untouched paradise’ and ‘a culture largely unspoilt by the influences of the West’, climbing in North Korea is finally on the march. Certainly, when it comes to ‘hot spots’ it doesn’t get much hotter than the DMZ.


North Korean Climbing Beta

Seasons: Winters can be bitterly cold and the numbers of the dead in the street of towns and cities can be disconcerting, equally summers are hot, humid and rainy. Best advice is to stick to the transitional seasons of Spring and Autumn.

Guidebooks: There are limited resources available.

Getting there and away: Access is still tricky. Visas are difficult to negotiate and slipping over the Chinese border with one of the entrepreneurial folk that lubricate the cross-border trade is a good option for the adventurous. Bribing any officials you come across on your stay is normal and  expected and remember to have a pocket full of hard currency as cash is king.

Gear: Take everything you think you might need, including the kitchen sink. There are very limited opportunities to buy gear in North Korea.

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