A day trip to Unaksan was full of blue skies and cheery friends as the beautiful scenery slid by. We climbed around bends, up stairs and enjoyed fresh mountain air joking about everything appropriate and significantly less so. Naughty nicknames, dirty jokes and cries of awe made our trail the perfect place for a Sunday.
It was a chilly winter day although not quite as frigid as my last winter hike. Luckily hiking warms you up and we quickly took a few layers off. Even so, before I knew it I was sweating so much that I attached my jacket to my backpack as the ice & snow began mixing into with our trail.
Slipping and sliding along ironically someone ALWAYS fell when we discussed hiking boots, slippery spots or the necessity of crampons (spikes). This brought about even more bouts of laughter when suddenly, the main peak came into view! I scrambled up the rock for a better view while the rest of my party opted for the easier trail around. We posed for a few GoPro selfies as I envisioned the beautiful panorama seen below.
The section ahead looked treacherous. It was barely wide enough for one. Fortunately a fallen tree acted as a handrail and the ice wasn’t too bad. Suddenly I heard Warren shouting.
We excitedly joined in when it abruptly changed to “1, 2, 3 SUZY!” (not her real name). We followed along not quite sure why the change but shouted with him while hiking. Moments later we found him in a panicked phone call.
The worst had happened. A hiker was lost and panicking alongside our fearless leader. Warren’s stress level was rising, and the language barrier wasn’t helping. I immediately took over.
“Warren, let me calm her down.” I said taking the phone and apprising the situation. tweet
“Hi Suzy, Its Mike. I’m here to help.” I calmly asked her the basics. “First I need to know, are you hurt?” “No.” “Okay great, from what I understand you are lost and alone. Let’s start from the beginning. What happened?” tweet
Suzy gave me the short version telling how she started the temple route (shorter hike) and had to go to the bathroom leaving her friends on the trail. She hid behind a rock for some privacy but when returning to the trail took a wrong turn and didn’t know where she was. I got a picture of her view (an awkwardly named “Penis Rock”) and she said she was too scared to climb down from the ledge. She thought she would slip & fall if she tried. She mentioned if someone could bring a rope or a stick she thinks she’d be able to safely get down. Suzy had climbed up and gotten to a point of no return.
Now, maybe you’ve never been lost in the woods. I mean really lost and not knowing where the trail is all alone in the woods. I’m a pretty experienced hiker and outdoors-man and have even spent the night in an emergency wilderness shelter. With all of that background its still terrifying to be lost on a mountain. It happened to me once last year and I remember holding back the fear and anxiety. Don’t forget this is Korea and we don’t speak Korean. I was able to force myself to remain calm and eventually find the trail. I can only imagine what an inexperienced person would be feeling, alone, lost and on the edge of a cliff.
“I’m coming Suzy but I’m on the other side of the park. It may take me as long as 2 hours to get to you. I want you to stay where you are. Help is on the way.” I gave the phone back to Warren who had already contacted 119 (Korean 911). tweet
Discussing the situation we decided that I should go ahead as fast as I could getting word to everyone to search for Suzy. He kept saying how he didn’t understand how she got lost. Its such a small mountain and simple trail.
“She climbed up there. Why can’t she just climb down?” tweet
I told him that you can easily climb up somewhere and then get too scared to climb down or not see the right footholds. I thought it was strange but knew our first priority needed to be finding her.
I stowed my camera and started off. We were at the bottom of the last big push before the peak. That meant it was a steep climb and I could already tell it would be icy. Stupidly I was in too much of a rush to don my crampons as I pulled hand over hand up ledge after ledge. Truth be told this was more scrambling than a our earlier path. Luckily there were plenty of ropes and metal U-brackets for footholds.
I made good time without stopping for photos and quickly came across some fellow hikers struggling with shorter legs. I gave them a quick synopsis in between breaths before jumping ahead. These U-brackets were great as foot & handholds but the scrambling began to feel more and more like climbing as I worked my way to the top.
Finally, I could see the peak and knew my shouts would reach some fellow hikers. I shouted “SUZY, SEOUL HIKING” listening for any response, hoping people would pass the word on. I got a quick response but we weren’t able to do more than acknowledge each other. I stopped quickly to update our Facebook event “if you are near the Penis Rock to call me. This is an emergency! 010-1234-5678”
Wait, did I really just put that out there for the entire internet? Yes, Korea has some strange traditions, one of them being an odd obsession with phalluses given their typically reserved culture. Couples won’t even show public displays of affection (unless they are drunk) yet there are penis rocks, sculptures, an oddly aroused Spiderman and even an entire “penis park” aka Love Land (google it and laugh… or cringe) on Jeju Island. But enough of this sexual tangent; back to our rescue mission!
Trekking upwards I eventually met that fellow hiker. He hadn’t seen anyone for a while but knew some of our companions were waiting at the peak. Agreeing to join the search even though he couldn’t keep up with me I told him to tell anyone he sees and keep shouting for Suzy. If he hears anything contact me or post on the Facebook event ASAP! I throttled forward to the peak leaving him behind to navigate the icy steps.
Moments later I could easily saw the entire valley below with the peak just beyond my grasp. Surely Suzy could hear me now. I shouted with all my might as SUZY echoed back to me a half dozen times. I strained my ears waiting for a response but all I heard was a cool wind whipping through the branches. Time to push on. She must be on the other side of the peak.
After the staircase came another set of the metal U-hooks flanked by metal chains. Luckily there wasn’t anyone else on the trail as I went hand over hand pulling myself up. My path took a sharp left turn and revealed 3 Seoul Hikers struggling between the wires and U-hooks. Breathing heavily I filled them in and slid to the outside of the chain maneuvering around them. They joined the search party bringing our total to roughly a dozen foreigners shouting for Suzy.
Once at the top I could see the peak, a few hundred meters of “easy” ridgeline. Taking a moment to catch my breath I checked for any Facebook updates. That’s odd I thought. Wasn’t her battery dying? Suzy posted something. Did she find her way down? Clicking on the photo I realized it was her view of the Penis Rock captioned “Help, I’m stuck on a cliff.” I responded saying that help was on the way and imploring her to stay where she was.
At the peak I bumped into another group of Seoul Hikers enjoying some photography at the top. I glanced at the view. It was stunning and I’d love to take the time to shoot this magnificent view but Suzy had now been alone on a cliff for an hour. We received sporadic texts saying that she was cold and too scared to climb down; frankly I was getting more worried every moment and sped past the summit. I had my situation update down to a matter of seconds and filled everyone in as I blazed past.
Thankfully the trail grew significantly easier at this point. Whether stairs, scrambling boulders or climbing down with a rope & chain it was all climbing DOWN. A significant improvement for my level of exertion and although this heightened the danger for my own trek it was a welcome change. Continuing to shout SUZY every few minutes I passed large groups of confused Koreans. The occasional soul would stop and try to ask what was going on so I did my best to inform them in broken Korean. Every time someone inquired they offered assistance and took my phone number with Suzy’s picture. We were breaching 20 people in our search party as I passed Koreans and foreigners every few minutes. My only breaks were to shout and listen for a response but still nothing came back.
The trail grew even slicker as I entered Unaksan’s ice-filled valley and I realized how lucky I was to have completed this much without crampons so I decided not to push it. Taking a minute to catch a breather after the last rope climb I donned my spikes before continuing into the shaded ice-laden trail. I passed a frozen waterfall and realized the valley was probably full of life and a beautiful river in the spring. Quickly, I made a mental note to discuss coming back here with Warren before my mind snapped back to Suzy. Sure, I was sweating as I sprinted along the trail but she was staying put. Winter weather, shade, snow & ice could be a dangerous combination. I called her name one more time as I approached the Penis Rock. No response. I tried her phone. No response.
Now what? This was the rock in her picture. What should I do? I called Warren.
“Warren, I’m at the Penis Rock. I haven’t seen any sign of her. There are many people helping search. Should I stay here or keep going?” tweet
“There is a 119 team on the way. You need to find them. I will keep coming too.” tweet
Well, that settled it. I continued down the trail repeating the pattern. Shout, listen, enlist strangers to help, keep going. Moments later I heard my first response! A Korean woman shouting “SUZY” back at me from down below. She was wearing a brightly colored 119 rescue jacket and spoke decent English. I finally found the park rangers. We filled each other in and I shared all the pictures I had of Suzy’s view. She asked me what Suzy looked like and I tried to describe her but the language barrier fell short. I quickly texted Suzy to send a picture of herself for the search & rescue team.
A combination of relief and frustration swelled inside me. I finally found the rescue team but they wanted to climb back up. I was certain that if she was along that trail she’d have heard me. Suzy wasn’t responding and I grew more nervous about her safety and didn’t want to climb back up. Where could she be?
Abruptly my phone sprung to life proudly displaying Suzy’s smiling selfie. Well, at least she’s in good spirits I thought while forwarding the image to the ranger. They wanted to head back up towards the Penis Rock. Ugh, I couldn’t argue with them. They were professionals. At this point I realized I was dealing with a trained team of a dozen rangers sporting various packs & rescue gear. I tried to explain that I had just come from that way and didn’t see her but it was no use.
Turning around I followed the rescue team back towards the Penis Rock. My pace slowed significantly; fortunately we heard Warren after about half an hour. We were halfway to the peak when he insisted we all sit down and discuss our options. Suddenly it hit me. How could I be so stupid?
I texted Suzy. “We found the park rangers. Send us a GPS location!” and explained how to do it using KakaoTalk. She immediately called me back. tweet
“Mike, I tried to climb down and I fell!” tweet
“What?!?” I exclaimed “are you hurt? tweet
“Not badly” She responded, “but now I’m in a worse position.” tweet
“Are you hurt a little? Stay where you are. We are with the rangers.” tweet
“I’m not hurt bad.” She reiterated as Warren spoke with the rangers. tweet
“The rangers are getting ready with a helicopter. Send us your GPS location. We will … BEEP BEEP” The call dropped as an error about her network service appeared on my screen. tweet
Moments later her GPS location popped up in a text and I passed it along suddenly feeling weary from the morning rescue. Warren began chatting in Korean with the rangers and consulted the photos of her view. They decided she must have gone on the “forbidden trail” outside of the temple wherever that was. He said they’d go on ahead and we should eat lunch. I hesitated, Suzy was still alone but it’d be worse if we got injured too and grudgingly agreed.
Scarfing down some bokumbap(볶음밥 – fried rice) we kept stating our disbelief at Suzy’s situation. Every phone call was abrupt and she was barely responding to our inquiries. We had covered every inch of the trail shouting and recruiting rescuers on the entire mountain yet she said she hadn’t heard any of it. That’s when Warren told me Suzy had previously called 119 and given them the wrong mountain. The only thing was based on where the bus dropped everyone off it was impossible for her to be there. Even so was a 2nd search crew out there looking in the entirely wrong place and they wouldn’t stop until she was found.
With over 50 people searching for Suzy and the helicopter getting prepped I began to wonder what was really happening. We were on a small mountain with a single loop of a trail. You could see the other side and hear our shouts echoing from almost anywhere. How is it possible that she didn’t hear us?
“SUZY!” I heard the call coming down the mountain. It echoed through the valley and moments later there was another shout. In a few minutes a group of our hikers came into view. They joined our soiree and I filled everyone in. We were greeted with some immediate skepticism. A feeling that I was slowly starting to sympathize with. When the whole ordeal began I was sure we’d find Suzy near the Penis Rock or at least get a reply from her. If she can clearly see it then she would at least hear the echoes if not our actual shouts.
Someone pointed out that she updated Facebook, I said how I saw that too but its just with a “help” message. Apparently she also posted a “Suzy’s Hiking Blog” update which was now mysteriously missing. As everything grew stranger and stranger I got another text from Suzy which read
“I’m ok. I just went flying down. But I landed well” tweet
I tried to call her immediately but got no answer. Just then Warren chimed in to let us know the helicopter was ready so I responded
“The whole mountain is looking for you. Helicopter is coming. When you see it. Shout and wave something.” tweet
I was greeted with an immediate “What, I’m OK. I don’t need helicopter,” I tried another call and followed up with “do you have the trail, or people? The sun will set soon.” and got “I’m on way to trail” with this picture of the temple.
I told Warren to call off the helicopter but hesitated on calling off the entire search. I couldn’t help but get the feeling that she made up the whole thing. Suddenly she knew where she was when the helicopter was about to launch? There were a lot of missing pieces but I was just glad that she was safely on the trail and conceded that the rangers were no longer necessary.
I wanted to end the story there and written it off as a strange day in the mountains. That was until Suzy returned to the temple and saw a handful of our hikers with the rescue crew. She shouted “I was right there! You should have found me!” before storming off. I always try to give the benefit of the doubt and perhaps she was in shock after finally seeing people again. I wanted to believe that she was honestly lost, that she had been telling me the truth the whole time. Then my journey wouldn’t have been in vain. I didn’t ditch my friends and skip every photogenic landscape for some wild goose chase but then her rude attitude continued at the bus.
Just before boarding I said simply “What happened?”
Suzy retorted “I don’t know. I guess I can’t hike with you because they left me behind. I just wanted to do the long hike.”
I stood there speechless. Before I could gather my wits she turned and got on the bus. I was dumbounded. How was I supposed to respond to that? I wanted to scream and shout. I wanted her to show any sort of thanks, or remorse or gratitude, or humanity. I was fuming on the inside but decided that she wasn’t worth it.
Whatever the truth was I told myself I didn’t care. A blatant lie to myself. Whether she was really lost or not I may never know. What I do know is that her rude attitude after this ordeal has made me certain that I won’t be hiking with Suzy ever again.
What do you think, was she simply in shock or was this some sick boy who cried wolf parody? How would you have handled the situation?