We hiked a total distance of 32km. We gained an elevation gap of 1000m. We survived a freezing negative 29 degree Celsius. And we had a whole lot of fun sharing and finding much needed warmth in the bitter cold.
I find that magic is sometimes lost when you write out an experience, especially if you’re not good enough. As much as I want to bring you back with me to the snow, I can only give you little glimpses of the memorable moments, the things that I remembered best. Maybe, one day, you’ll be able to experience what I did as well.
The greatest thing about this trip…was not the snow. Snow is fun if you’re living in a house. You can get wet and dirty because who cares, you’re going back for a hot shower in a heated room. But get wet on an expedition and you’re headed for frostbite or hypothermia. So everyone of us disliked the snow at one point or another, especially when we were trudging through it, sinking thigh deep into the snow with every step. We disliked it when the snow was going into our eyes, when we couldn’t see more than the 2 persons in front due to whiteout conditions. When we had to jump all around our campsite on the mountains to make the snow compact enough to pitch our tents. It was troublesome work.
The first night on the mountains (our 5th day), there was panic in our Korean instructor Ji Ho’s voice for the first time. “Move your fingers and toes! I’m very serious!” So far we had only reached -2 degrees at most. That evening, it was at least -20. It was a bitter, gripping, cold. Some people were close to tears because their hands were numb and they couldn’t feel their fingers and toes.
It was the night I remembered best. It was the first time we didn’t need to cook rice and vegetables and meat. We had pre-ordered, 7USD per box, self-heating meals. Amazing, really. You pull out a metal strip, and in a few minutes, the whole dining tent is blurred with steam. We heated our fingers with sighs of relief.
And then, huddled in the extremely cramped tent, we sang and danced. Remember—stop moving and you are in danger of frostbite. So we had to dance and move our feet. Outside the tent, it was arctic, but that night, our hearts were filled with incredible warmth.
Well,it was also my worst night, in a way. I woke up almost every hour, teeth chattering, arms shaking. Pei Shyen and I kept counting down to sunrise. You can’t have any gas heaters in your sleeping tent because it’s dangerous. So the warmest thing in there is actually…yourself. You lock yourself tightly in your sleeping bag to trap the air, exposing only your nose and mouth so that breathing moisture will not wet the inside of the bag. You look up at the tent wall and you see ice forming. Some instances, it’s really not that hard to imagine you will freeze to death.
Talking about freezing, everything freezes. Our apples and persimmons froze. Water froze in our bottles whenever we carelessly left it far from our bodies, and then a lot of time and fuel was needed to thaw it again. We had to keep our fuel in our sleeping bags to prevent it from freezing. In the mornings, our boots froze because they were wet. Our outer jackets and pants froze. (You only wear your thermals, and maybe your fleece, into your sleeping bag so that the air is heated up more quickly.) You take a terribly long time to dress because of that. And you have to wear gaiters to keep snow out of your feet (or else it will freeze), and crampons for extra grip when you walk on ice. You cannot afford to be lazy in taking care of yourself, I realized. There is no way to battle against nature, only protect yourself and appreciate it.
So the best thing was not the snow. The best thing about my OBK experience, was that strangers came together and became friends. Warning the person behind of dangers along the trail. Helping the person in front get up each time he falls. Planning, brainstorming, leading, following. Cooking, washing, eating. Encouraging, singing, joking, laughing.
And we found out what it means to blaze a trail. Creating a path in the fresh snow before any other person or vehicle comes to plough it. It is a laborious job. You sink in knee or thigh deep with each step, and then haul up the whole of your weight plus the weight of your heavy backpack, only to sink in again. The more people walk in front of you, the more compact the snow becomes, the easier you can hike. So we have a rotating system.
I enjoyed my turn blazing the trail. It was the only time I panted, but I could take in the whole of the scenery, with no one blocking me in front. When you’re behind someone, your eyes are glued to his feet so that you step in his exact footsteps, sink into the snow less, and conserve your energy. But in front, there is no need to look at the ground. I loved it.
We reached our final destination in a jubilant mood because worrying and worrying that we would not make our 10km hike before sunset, we arrived 2 hours ahead of time! It was just us, that day. No instructors. It was important to make it, because otherwise we would be in the middle of nowhere. Our tents had all been unpitched and sent back with a van.
We had our first proper room in days. Our first hot shower. Our first day walking on bare feet. And suddenly, we realized they ached a lot. My face was numb and red hot from windburn and sunburn, my lips were swollen, and I had a burn that looked like a moustache. Well, who applies sunblock under their nose? Haha.
We rested well. On mattresses.
We spent the last day shopping and hunting for food in Seoul, and after a week in the wild, it was wonderful to see civilization all over again. Seoul is the busiest city I have ever seen! We shopped with a greater sense of urgency than we hiked, despite our tired feet. And there was great enjoyment. Before the sorrows of parting came and brought everything to an end.
There was the returning of clothes and backpacks and pots and pans, and the final goodbyes to our wonderful Korean instructors who taught us so much.
“Outward Bound”, a nautical metaphor, signifies the moment when a ship leaves its moorings, sets sail and commits itself to the open sea, with all of its unknown challenges and adventures. I’m so thankful mum and dad generously supported me financially and emotionally on this trip although it was a leap into the unknown for them as well as for myself. I learnt so much up in the snowy mountains.
I come back more respectful of the great outdoors and more accepting of different people. Hopefully…also more courageous to take risks, and more tenacious.
But surviving JC2 is a total different matter.