Bouldering in Korea

Andy Mckilliam outlines the spicy delights of South Korea’s BBQ (Best Bouldering Quality) during an exploratory trip with Nalle Hukkataival

‘There’s rock everywhere in the world, but not many climbing destinations are totally unique.’ Nalle Hukkataival laughed from the back seat while trying to decipher one of the semi-coherent, feel-good quotes that adorned his takeaway coffee cup. I was chopsticking slices of spicy vegetable kimbap (think sushi rolls but with completely different fillings) into Christoph’s mouth as we slipped onto the 1047 heading north. To our right, the cherry-blossoms were on the verge of full-bloom. Behind them, Guemjeongsan, the most prominent mountain in the southern city of Busan, loomed through the spring haze above the Sim City-esque fields of apartment buildings across the river. To our left, greenhouses, plots of spring onions and other green edibles patchworked the flats leading up to more mountains that faded off into the distant smog-cum-haze as they only do in Asia.

Christoph replied by reading one of the incoherent café-isms on his own coffee cup: ‘Feel special taste here: view, mind, waffle.’

We were heading for the Han Boulders, a newly-discovered cluster of granite blocs in the Gajisan mountain range an hour’s drive north of Busan, a large port city on the southeastern tip of the Korean Peninsula. The granite here forms in unique swooping features, pockets, undulating faces and ear-like pinches. Of all the rock we had climbed on, this was the stuff that had really caught Nalle’s attention. ‘It’s almost like Cresciano meets Brione,’ he had said after scampering around the boulders the day before. Unlike many of the areas in the south that have been developed over the past seven years, the Han Boulders are not in a riverbed. Instead, they are perched high on a hillside with views of the lovely Eoreumgol valley and more, as yet unscouted, granite outcrops deeper in the range. Despite being high in the mountains, access to the Han Boulders couldn’t be much easier. Roads lead directly to the base of the hillside where a small restaurant shack has a convenient car park. From here it is but a five-minute uphill jaunt to the first blocs.

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Nalle Hukkataival unlocking the key sequence on the outrageous Basic Instinct (V8) at the Forgotten Boulders, Gajisan. Andy McKilliam

The goals of the day were three: I was going to fall off the stellar Colombian Necktie (V8) a few more times; Christoph was going to make some more progress on Tree of Perdition (V10) – a new addition by Nalle; and Nalle was going to send the highball slab Duende that he had eyed up the day prior, before a freak spring snow storm had sent us to the sauna early. Like much of the trip, the day went exactly as planned: Nalle sent, Christoph progressed, and I fell off.

This was the last climbing day of Nalle’s short reconnaissance mission to South Korea. He had heard about the bouldering potential here from our mutual friend, Unio Joubert, and had gotten in touch with Christoph a month before to plan the details. Due to the brevity of Nalle’s trip and the fact that we were based in Busan, we decided to skip the more established bouldering areas (such as Jinan, Mudeungsan, Nabi Bawi, Geumgang Park, and Naewonsa) and spend the few days that we had exploring the less-developed areas around Busan and on the outskirts of the Jirisan National Park. Despite the small sample size, Nalle was noticeably impressed by just how good the rock in Korea can be, and by just how much of it remains to be climbed.

Unlike Japan, where bouldering has been popular for decades, bouldering is still very young in Korea. When I first moved to Seoul in 2009, bouldering was all but unknown. Despite the fact that people have been rope climbing the granite domes of Bukhansan and the spires of Seoraksan for decades, and despite the explosion of sport climbing in the late 1980s, climbing the caches of boulders that adorn many of the river valleys and mountains simply haddn’t registerd. In those days, any bouldering was being done almost exclusively by a handful of foreigners who were living in Korea as English teachers. Unio Joubert, Kim Lee Tuxhorn, and Greg Foote were at the forefront of the crew that established lines around Seoul and on the northeast coast, while Jason Mehl and Cheolyoung Park (one of the few Korean boulderers in the early days) had been cherry picking some of the best lines on Geumjeongsan in Busan. The cohort of Busan-based boulderers swelled in 2010, when Matt Palmer, Christoph Lindenberger, and I joined the ranks. The three years that followed were idyllic (if not exactly sober).

Jess Korthuis sets a tenuous foot on Pantaloons of a Geisha, one of the many hard V3 at Naewonsa, which is more like V6. Andy McKilliam

Jess Korthuis sets a tenuous foot on Pantaloons of a Geisha, one of the many hard V3 at Naewonsa, which is more like V6. Andy McKilliam

At the time, I was living in Oncheonjang – a district of Busan directly under Geumjeongsan and well-known (among Koreans at least) for its natural hot-springs and shady noreabangs (karaoke rooms). Within a 20-minute walk from my 15th floor apartment I could be in the woods high above the bustling city, surrounded by knotted pines and Buddhist temples, brushing up new lines on the seemingly endless supply of granite stones of Geumgang park. Despite the years of climbing, the potential for development here remains far from tapped-out. In 2015, Ollie ‘Reggie Crumbles’ Davies befriended one of the monks living on the mountain who, intrigued by his weird Welsh antics, lead him to a cluster of unclimbed blocs only 15 minutes up the maze-like web of faint trails from the much-trafficked classic Language Older than Words (V5). Since then, Reggie has spent a lot of time there establishing scary highballs and napping amongst the pines. Only earlier this year, visiting Australian, Dr Nick (Wittenberg), joined Reggie and they put up a brace of new lines in the area.

On weekends, we would ride the 203 bus from Oncheonjang subway station up to the Geumjeongsan ridge, from where a pleasant 20-minute hike tracing the crumbling walls of the old fortress leads to Nabi Bawi (Butterfly Rock), an outcrop of particularly good yellow-white granite, slightly coarser and sharper than that at the Han Boulders but similarly featured, and housing some of the best established lines in the Busan region.

In the warm and humid summer weather, the formerly sticky Geumjeongsan granite would transmute into frictionless soap, so, seeking climbable rock, we would endure the sweaty, hour-long ride on the number 12 bus heading north to the satellite city of Yangsan. Deep in the mountains north of Yangsan is the beautiful valley of Naewonsa, named for the temple there. The dappled sun through the lush, green summer foliage and the deep pools of distressingly-clear spring water make for a damn pleasant day of bouldering on all but the most suffocating of summer days. Unlike many of the other areas, the rock here is not granite; it is an extremely fine and quite slick siltstone that climbs just as well in the warmer months as it does in winter. The bus would drop us off at the very base of the valley. From there, a 40-minute stroll up the road (or, when luck was on our side, a five-minute hitchhike with one of the locals) would bring us to the first of the boulders.

Due to the distance from Busan, we often spent the weekend staying in one of the minbaks (small rooms that can be rented for the night), which also provide delicious food and an excellent, although certainly dangerous, Dongdongju (an unfiltered rice-based alcohol about as boozy as strong beer). Over the years some pretty wild parties took place here, which may have been the cause of the excessively sandbagged grades in the valley (and in the south of Korea in general). After one particularly indulgent night, Matt and I had abandoned Christoph to his hangover and trotted off up the valley to brush up a new line. Matt had just sent – establishing what would become the classic In Your Sunday Clothes (V3) – when Christoph stumbled up, clearly still hurting from the night before. He promptly flashed the new line – which I was still desperately flailing on – and turned his attention to a more ambitious line heading straight out the overhanging face of the same bloc. After powering his way to the top in quick fashion he flopped onto his pad and redoubled his efforts holding down breakfast. When questioned about the grade he said, ‘I feel pretty weak today. It felt about V3 but could be easier’. Years passed without a repeat. Yet more years passed. Eventually, after falling off this boulder so many times, it dawned on the rest of us that if we couldn’t send this V3, then per the rules of logical deduction, everything we had sent so far must also be no harder than V3. Thus, the ‘Naewonsa V3’ grading system was born, a scale that begins at V0 and maxes out at V3+ (though rumors abound of the mythical V3/4 grade).

Christoph Lindenberger cruises to the top of Seven League Boots (V6) surrounded by autumn colours in Chilson valley, Jirisan. Andy McKilliam

Christoph Lindenberger cruises to the top of Seven League Boots (V6) surrounded by autumn colours in Chilson valley, Jirisan. Andy McKilliam

Incidentally, Nalle also got to experience the miraculous wonder that is a hungover Christoph: not in Naewonsa but in Jungsan-ri (one of the valleys of the Jirisan mountain range that we visited in the first three days of his trip). A few years back, in the baking heat of summer, a hungover Christoph had snapped up the first ascent of Pangalactic Gargle Blaster in just a few tries and given it V6. In cool spring conditions, this line took Nalle a solid three-quarters of an hour to send. This was considerably longer than he took to establish the gorgeous Dry Finnish (V11) just upstream. The moral arc of the universe tends towards justice, however; when non-hungover Christoph jumped back on Pangalactic Gargle blaster after Nalle’s repeat, he could scarcely do a single move.

It was in the valleys around Jirisan where we began our trip with Nalle. These deep-sided and lushly-vegetated valleys are home to riverbeds filled with giant granite blocks decorated in swirling and speckled patterns of various whites, greys and oranges. Also found here is a mysterious grey rock streaked with white mineral deposits which, when big enough, produces some absolutely phenomenal boulder problems, such as The Whale (V6). For years, our holy grail has been an entire valley of this mythical grey stone: it exists somewhere on the Korean peninsula, it just needs to be found. The slick and subtly-featured river-polished rock in these valleys produces some interesting and technically demanding climbing, in some ways reminiscent of Castle Hill. An abundance of projects (both hard and easy) remain unclimbed. Although, perhaps not for much longer.

For you see, Koreans tend not to do things in half measures. When something becomes popular, it becomes really popular. For instance, finding a decent coffee in Busan in 2010 was not easy. Sure, there were a number of chains making passable coffee, but, for the most part coffee came freeze-dried in little packets pre-mixed with powdered-milk and a hefty dose of sugar. Fast forward a few years and cafes have taken over the city. They run the gamut of coffee needs, from small vendors selling $1 espressos, to quadruple-shot, litre-sized cups of iced long black, to high-end cafes (such as my local, the stalwart Momo’s in Oncheonjang) independently growing and sourcing their own beans, roasting in-house, and equipped to the nines with every possible tool to extract the delicious elixir – giver of thought, movement and life.

This Korean thoroughness is also true with bouldering. Trying to buy a crashpad in 2009 was an absolute nightmare; no one was stocking them. Four years later, trying to buy a crashpad was still a nightmare, not because no one was stocking them, but because no one could possibly stock enough to keep up with demand. These days there is a profusion of excellent bouldering gyms, fitted with the freshest holds, and selling all the gear you could possibly want. As the indoor scene grows, people are becoming more and more interested in bouldering on real rock and, as expected, a handful of psyched, brutally-strong Koreans have been establishing new lines all over the country. Most notably, Yun Jei Lee and the members of his gym have been hard at work developing an area known as Mudeungsan, and Hui Deok Kang and Ho Eun Cha established one of the prettiest bouldering areas in Korea, Unilam Banilam (also known as Jinan). It is only a matter of time before more strong Korean climbers find their way out of the gyms and set their sights beyond the already established lines.

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Matt Palmer eyes the post-crux sinker jug on the stunning Gajisan arete Hump and Pump (V6). Andy McKilliam

Over coffee on the morning before he flew out, I asked Nalle what his general impression of Korea had been and whether he would recommend it to other traveling climbers. His response resonated with those of us who have lived here. He noted that while Korea certainly has a lot of amazing bouldering, and loads more potential, it isn’t Fontainebleau. Nor is it the Grampians or any of the other truly world-class bouldering destinations. And it is unlikely that it ever will be. There simply isn’t the dense concentration of established boulders that you find in these areas. In Korea, the areas are typically rather small, usually housing 50 to 100 quality lines, and speckled all over the country. Furthermore, much of the bouldering is still in the early stages of being developed. ‘It would be hard’ as Nalle put it, ‘to just show up with a guidebook in hand expecting to climb lots without picking up a brush.’ As such, folks who just want to climb rocks and collect as many ticks as they can would be better served heading to one of the better-known and more established destinations.

What makes Korea unique, and very worthy of attention from the climbing community, is the whole package of experiences that is a trip to Korea. This sentiment was echoed by the travelling Australian Dr Nick. When I asked Nick about his five-month climbing trip through Asia, he replied, ‘The best climbing I did was probably the rope climbing in Yangzhou, but by far the best experiences I had were in Korea.’ Similarly, Jordan Grant, a strong young buck from Adelaide who visited in the autumn of 2016 and established an entirely new area (the Obi Boulders), has since reminisced that, ‘they were beautiful times amongst some of the most serene boulders I’ve ever climbed’. It’s the combination of excellent rock in beautiful settings, easily accessible from a major city with a unique culture, amazing food, and friendly locals that make Korea well worth a visit. Combine this with the diversity of rock types and climbing styles, and the abundance of first ascents on offer, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a good time.

 

Nalle on Korea

What did you like about bouldering in Korea?
I really enjoyed the overall experience with the culture and really varied types of climbing. In some climbing destinations, although the climbing may be good it is very monotonous and can get boring quickly. This was not the case in Korea, which was really cool. Also, pretty much all the areas I went to were in really beautiful locations.

Do you think there is potential for more development?
Definitely! And I only got to see a small portion of it. I wanted to see if there was enough potential to come back for a longer time and I was positively surprised.

Did you make any particularly memorable ascents?
There were quite a few actually! One that really sticks out was a boulder I opened in Gajisan called Basic Instinct. It has a really Swiss-esque bloc that has a very unique sequence with crazy upside down kneebar. Right next to it is a beautiful arete Hump and Pump on really special kind of rock that I’ve only seen in Korea. Also Dry Finnish in Jungsan-ri was a really great boulder.

Did any projects catch your eye that you did not have time to finish?
There was a difficult direct start to a boulder I opened in Gajisan [Tree of Perdition] that I’d love to get back to! Also, in Piagol [one of the valleys of Jirisan] I brushed up an impressive and very highball project that will surely be hard. I purposely didn’t get too involved in projecting anything for long on this trip as I wanted to see as much of the potential as possible.

Would you recommend Korea to other climbers?
I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an interesting climbing destination a bit off the beaten path. Much of the bouldering is still in the early stages of being developed so it would be hard to just show up with a guidebook in hand expecting to climb tons without picking up a brush.

Did you like Korean food? What was your favorite dish?
I really liked the Korean food! The dolsot bibimbap [rice and vegetables in a hot clay pot] was great and samgyupsal [BBQ pork belly] was very tasty. But I think my favorite was a delicious kimchi jjigae [spicy kimchi stew] we had one day after climbing out near Gajisan!

What was the weirdest thing you did/ate?
Raw octopus served still moving on the plate [san nakji] was probably the weirdest. And the weird sea-brain things, whatever they were [mideodeok, a kind of sea squirt].

Will you be back?
Definitely! Next time I’d like to also see different parts of the country as well like up north around Seoraksan and around Seoul more.

Nalle Hukkataival lines up the pogo finish to Dry Finnish (V11) at Jungsan-ri, Jirisan.

Nalle Hukkataival lines up the pogo finish to Dry Finnish (V11) at Jungsan-ri, Jirisan.

The Beta

When to go
Given the variety of rock types, the climbing season in the South of Korea (especially around Busan) is quite long. December to February offers the best (stickiest) conditions for the mountain granite, however some areas (especially further north) will be very cold and could be buried under snow. Autumn (September to November) and Spring (March to May) offer the most pleasant (and prettiest) times to climb. Summer (June to August) is hot, humid, often wet and better spent lounging in a mountain stream with a beer.

 

Car or no car?
There is plenty to climb in and around Busan without needing to rent a car. Access to a car, however, will open up a lot of options, especially when it comes to searching for new areas and reaching the more-developed areas such as Jinan and Mudeungsan. Geumjeongsan and Naewonsa are easily accessed by public transport, and while the valleys of Jirisan can also be accessed quite easily by bus, moving between valleys once there would be prohibitively difficult.

 

Where to stay:
In Busan, I recommend finding a room in or around Oncheonjang for easy access to the climbing on Geumjeongsan and the buses north to Naewonsa. Also, the hot-springs here are a perfect post-climb/rest day activity. There is an abundance of good restaurants in Oncheonjang and a short walk north to Busan National University (PNU) or south to Dongnae opens up a lot of eating and drinking options.

Private rooms in ‘love motels’ (clean, comfortable and sometimes comically erotic) can be rented from $50 a night. Alternatively, the ‘LoveinBusan’ hostel in PNU has dorm beds for $20. AirBnB would also be a smart choice. In the valleys outside of the major cities, minbaks and pensions can be rented for around $15-25 per person (although they’re more expensive if you are alone).

Camping is also available in the valleys around Jirisan and Jinan, sometimes for a small fee, sometimes not.

Where to find more information about the climbing areas:
Young Wha Kim has done a sterling job compiling many of the ascents from around Busan and recording them on the 27 Crags database – be warned though, many of the registered lines are serious lowballs. Expect about a quarter of the registered climbs to be real boulders. Somewhat outdated guides for Naewonsa and Jinan exist but are not yet commercially available (get in touch with the author for these). A friendly comment on the Facebook pages ‘Busan Climbers‘ and ‘Korean Climbing Calendar’ might score you a local guide on the weekends or during the weekdays for a morning (pre-work) or evening (post-work) session.

Pro Tip:
Before landing in Korea, set aside a few days to learn the Korean alphabet. Although it may look complicated, unlike the Chinese and Japanese writing systems, Korean Hangul is a phonetic alphabet that most people can pick up in a few hours. Being able to phonetically read Korean will make your trip a whole heap smoother, especially when outside the major cities.
Andy Mckilliam

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