Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Jirisan National Park, October 27, 2012
I've written several times here about the ocean. Often when people in Korea ask me what I enjoy about the country I tell them I like having mountains and coastline so easily accessible after growing up far away from either. This is, of course, in addition to the people, the food, the work, and the stories. Now I think it's time to discuss the mountains, which I love just as much as the coast, but for different reasons.

A fair warning to those of you who don't know me: This will likely be a long post, and it probably will have little to do with Korea. With what will it have to do? If you stick with me we'll figure that out together along the way, hopefully.

This Christmas I had considered trying to do some hiking on Mudeungsan. It seemed a good way to reflect on my experiences here so far as I near the halfway point of my contract and to think about everybody back home, whom I'm missing now more than ever. This was the first time that any of my three brothers and I have not been home for Christmas, which I felt a bit sad about. For many years now one or more of us has been away from home for most of the year, and Christmas has always been the one time we've all been together (until now...sorry to break the streak!) Still, I was able to call home on Christmas morning home time and virtually participate in the annual ritual of walking down the stairs and trading witticisms while surveying Santa's delivery.

It was actually pretty similar to my Christmas at home two years ago, when I feel ill on Christmas Eve and crawled my way through the day as best I could. Of course, if I'm going to be sick, Christmas is a pretty good day for it. There's enough spirit to carry me through when I might otherwise be content to do no more than roll over in bed a few times through the day. This year I again fell ill on Christmas Eve (which precluded my hike and my waking up before noon on Christmas), but for the first time had the option of going to work, which helped the day pass more quickly. Not quite as quickly, mind you, as when I spent my ill Christmas Eve watching a snowstorm, building a snowman that stood nearly six feet tall for a few hours before leaning too far over and causing himself to be a rather unimpressive two feet tall, misshapen trail of snow chunks. I followed that by eating dinner with my brothers before braving the five mile drive to the evening church service with my older brother. It was fun, but it could have turned out to be a mistake as the snow continued to fall and I somehow ended up successfully maneuvering around stranded cars on the icy hill leading to our neighborhood while staying on the gas, fearing if I let up we would start to slide back down. That was after the twice-as-long drive down the freeway at 20 mph.

After safely arriving home I don't remember too much. Wait, it's coming back. My parents somehow made it up that hill even later than I did after even more snow, making my feat feel less remarkable. My brothers and I exchanged gifts after my parents returned, with Dylan and I surprising each other by exchanging Swanson Pyramids of Greatness with each other. I kind of wish I'd brought mine along to keep the one picture I have on my wall company. That one picture I have is a great one, though. It's my best friend David and me in our second grade February school production (which was put on by our second grade teacher, his aunt and my cousin). He's an appropriately tall Abraham Lincoln; I'm an appropriately bedraggled William Henry Harrison. It's a 4x6, slightly larger than my thermostat and considerably smaller than my doorbell/video screen. I like mostly bare walls, simple things.

It seemed a simple gift last Christmas when in my quadrant of the floor beneath the tree I found a piece of paper.

No it didn't. Pieces of paper are almost always complicated gifts, especially the blank ones.

On this paper was printed a voucher for a climb up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. 'Wait,' I thought. 'Isn't that the same Mt. Washington that held the world record for highest recorded wind speed for decades, and that's known for having some of the worst weather in the world?'

Yeah, but it's in the Appalachians. Must be a pleasant climb.

It's in the Presidential Range, and the climb was scheduled for Presidents' Day, when I would be visiting my brother in Boston (that flight was a Christmas gift from my parents-my family is incredibly generous).

Presidents' Day is in February. Birth month of Washington, Lincoln, William Henry Harrison. New Hampshire is cold in February. The summit of Mt. Washington is much, much colder.

1996 was a leap year, thus the special February show
I received other wonderful gifts for Christmas last year, but that piece of paper from my older brother presented a sense of  anticipation and dread that outweighed even that I felt when I received a voucher for a series of tap-dancing lessons from a much more talented classmate in high school several years before (whose patience for me in those lessons was both admirable and futile).

I can hear some of you laughing. Don't think it couldn't happen to you. Watch enough Fred Astaire and bombard your ears with as much of the Great American Songbook as I did for four years and see how you feel about it then. Especially the Gershwins. Lots and lots of the Gershwins.

Within a few hours I had confirmed that wind speed record. In April 1934 a wind gust of 231 miles per hour was recorded on the peak. That link takes you to the Mount Washington Observatory website, which provided hours of entertainment, both fascination and terror, in the weeks leading up to the climb. According to that site, the normal monthly average monthly temperature in February from 1981 to 2010 was 6.1 deg. F, with a record low of -46 in 1943. The normal average wind speed in February was 44 mph, with a record gust of 166 mph in 1972.

If I could call myself a mountaineer at all, I would be just inside the realm of "novice" if it were being used literally. This was certainly going to be the most difficult climb I'd ever done if we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to go for the summit. By the end of the day I was nervous in the way I'd been nervous a few months earlier when I called Great Smoky Mountains National Park to reserve spots in a shelter on the AT only to be told that shelter was closed due to high levels of bear activity. Apparently the berries were not plentiful that season, so they were becoming more aggressive in their search for food. It sounded dangerous, and I was eager to get there so I could feel that danger more immediately. Or maybe just so I could write that sentence.

Was it worth it? Read the next post to find out. Coming soon!

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