Hiking with Korea’s Mountain Spirits

The world is awash with ghosts. Specters – gods of benevolence, demons of virulence – fill the corners of every room of history. Most are seldom seen nowadays, nearly extinct in the human mind, bygone like the ancient cultures that conceived, worshipped, and feared them.

Korea has its fair share of dying spirits. In this land of mountains, most of these spirits live in the highlands. They are called sanshin, ‘spirits of the mountains.’ They once were worshipped vigorously, more so than Buddha, and were important aspects of daily affairs and lifelong spirituality. 

Although followers of sanshin are a minority today, the mountain spirits remain integral to Korea’s religious history. To come before the throne of the mountain gods is a hallowed event, one that requires the presentation of an offering. My first meeting with them required the drawing of blood.

I’ve loved hiking, ambling through forests and the sort since I was young, so I headed off into Korea’s mountains not long after I stepped off the plane here in 2000. I did most of my local hiking in Bukhansan National Park, since it was the closest of Korea’s (at the time) twenty parks. I was introduced to Uisang Peak in the spring of 2002. I had become accustomed to most of the trails by then, so I was eager to explore somewhere new, especially a route less frequented by other hikers. Uisang Peak, named after a famed 7th century Buddhist monk, came by recommendation of a Korean friend. As I recall, Uisang Peak wasn’t on park maps at the time, so my friend knew I’d find the route mostly empty. I got directions and set off alone.

I arrived at the Uisang Peak trailhead on a Sunday morning. Trails in this part of the park are often crowded on weekends, so I was glad that there was no one around. Not far beyond the trailhead, the route comes to a junction. Both trails run west to east but only the northernmost trail goes directly to the summit of Uisang Peak. The southernmost trail ascends through an afforested valley to a col between Uisang Peak and Yongchul Peak. I took the north trail. The route was pleasant, serenaded by intermittent melodies of song birds and perfumed by the distinct aroma of vernal pines. The trail soon became steep and offered good opportunities for scrambling. Eventually, the soil and roots underfoot gave way to bare granite. The slope became more dramatic and fixed cables dotted the route. I decided to ignore the cables and scurried up the rocks alongside them. I was not wearing climbing shoes or approach shoes, but I figured my bulky hiking boots would do fine maneuvering up the slope.

About a quarter of the way up the trail, I came across the first hikers, a couple initiating a particularly steep section. The sight was unpleasant: the woman was hugging the cables, her tennis shoes begging for friction; the man was coaxing her (i.e. yelling directions at her) from behind. She kept screaming “I can’t! I can’t!” as the man started pushing her by the rump up the cable. I sat in amusement for a few minutes before deciding to move on.

I decided not to scramble around the woman. She seemed nervous enough without having me scurry by. I looked for an alternative route and spotted a string of rocks and boulders rising up along the southern slope. I slowly worked my way up and over them, eventually stopping to enjoy the view across the valley over Uisang Peak’s southern trail far below me. I stood on a thin ledge with very little space between its edge and the rock face. The way up the boulder wasn’t very long – about 2.5 metres – and it sloped inward rather than going straight up, but didn’t seem to offer many good holds. My good sense was telling me: Alone and with those bulky hiking boots on, that little climb is best left for another day. My adventurousness suggested otherwise: You’ve climbed worse, even with those clunky hiking boots on! My 23-year-old male stupidity won in the end.

I reached up and found a good hold. I was able to get my boots into good positions and started up. I made one more pull upward before I got stuck. It was a compromising position: my right arm was overstretched above my head, grasping a hold; my left hand was on the rock at chest height, not of much use; the fat tips of both boots were tucked perilously into tiny grooves. Suddenly, both feet slipped out of their holds. My right arm flexed to support the sudden shift of weight. My left hand reacted by palming the surface, fingers down, near my left hip. I tried to get my feet back into the holds but I couldn’t find them. I was suspended with nothing beneath me but a short drop to the narrow ledge. I thought for a moment about leaping down. It was a short drop but given that the ledge was so thin, the landing could easily convert into a long bounce and tumble into the lush valley of the south trail. The only way out was up.

My right arm was getting tired. My body was so stretched, my feet scraping to find purchase on the boulder, it was hard to breathe deeply. It was even harder to focus and I was starting to panic. I calmed myself as best I could. Suddenly and thoughtlessly, I lifted with my right arm and swung my left arm up hoping to catch a hold. I did. My left index and middle fingers landed squarely in a small groove. Relieved, I shifted my weight over to my left arm to rest my right one. The holds were good and I wasn’t overstretched anymore, but I still couldn’t get my toes into any substantial grips. I had to rely on my arms, unfortunately not the strongest pair of my four limbs. I began pulling myself up, straining. I moved my body so tightly to the rock that my face scraped along it, which, unknown to me at the time, opened the skin on my right cheek. I made one last reach with my right hand, found a grip, and pulled myself up. I swung my left leg onto the ledge, hoisted my body up, and rolled over onto the wonderful, relative flatness of safety. I lay there for a while, wheezing. I reached for my water bottle but found it gone. The clip holding the bottle into the side pocket of my backpack was cracked. The bottle fell out while I strained on the climb, I suppose, and plunged into the valley below. Better it than me, I thought.

I stood up and peered over the edge. I huffed audible relief, collected myself, and went through the bushes to the trail. I met the couple that I chose to bypass earlier resting on the path. I said hello to them and the woman, whose tennis shoes (and a few rump pushes) apparently got her up those cables, pointed out the blood running down my cheek. I dabbed the wound, surprised by the blood. I thanked her for her concern and continued up the trail.

Lessons from a Summit & a Buddhist Temple

I arrived at the top of Uisang Peak. I admired the views before settling down in a little nook to snack on peanuts. Far to the south, across several valleys and along crooked granite spines, stood Bi Peak. I recalled the first time I visited there, about a year earlier, when I saw a man fall from the peak’s western semi-climbing route. He was carrying a backpack far too large and heavy for the short but sheer climb. He seemed to me, because of his backpack, to be top heavy and the weight of the bag was pulling him away from the rocks. Being so short, the route doesn’t have any pitons and no climber wears ropes when attempting it. The man lost his grip, perhaps too his composure, and tumbled backward down the route, hitting his head several times. A rescue helicopter arrived within minutes but the man didn’t make it. He died there on the rocks below Bi Peak. I couldn’t help but ponder again the idea that struck me when I saw the man fall: he made a poor decision to climb the route with such a heavy backpack. Everything I just experienced, and my own poor decision, was brought into perspective.

I continued down the path beyond the summit and turned onto a trail descending to the northeast. As I came down the crest, I saw the tip of a massive statue of Buddha. I had entered the grounds of Guknyeong Temple. I followed the trail into the back of the temple grounds near a small building. It was quiet, incense lightly wafting about. I peeked inside the tiny building and found an altar lined with candles. Behind it was an impressive painting of an old man crowned with a halo, accompanied by a tiger, sitting next to a twisted pine tree. A laywoman then entered what I guessed now was a shrine of some sort. She was a layperson, a non-monastic helper to the monks.

‘Excuse me,’ I said in my shaky Korean. ‘Is there any water here?’ I was parched. 

‘Yes,’ she said, smiling, motioning me to follow her, and pointing out the blood on my face. She took me to a dining hall just above the giant Buddha statue. She gave me a cup and a small basin of water. I took a long drink and began washing the blood from my face. Along a nearby rock mantle were small statues of Buddha and other figures. The lady noticed me admiring a statue of an old man and a tiger similar to the ones in the painting. 

‘Sanshin,’ she said. Then in English, ‘Mountain god.’

I nodded that I understood and wiped the last bit of dried blood from my cheek.

We visit Uisang Peak and nearby shamanic sites on our hiking tours, the Historic Trail and the Sunset Trail. The area is rich in history and folklore related to ancient shamanic mountain traditions. We’d love to share those stories with you. Book your hike today!