The sonorous sound of chanting tumbles downhill and drifts over us. My guide leads the way up a set of carved steps, to where strings of colourful lanterns are being blown about by the wind. Behind them, underneath a huge boulder, a fellow hiker has abandoned his backpack and boots, and is prostrating himself in front of a shrine.
“In the olden days, people would use the spaces behind the rocks as secret Buddhist temples,” Jenny, my guide, says. “Monks have been using this cave since the seventh century.”
These days, she tells me, “Korean people come here to pray or make a wish.” Their wishes — which might be for health, academic success or good luck — look like gift tags hanging from the cave’s low ceiling, level with the eyes of the stone Buddha.
The chanting that drew us here to Kyejoam Seokgul Hermitage is still audible, but the monks responsible remain out of sight — they must be hidden somewhere behind the rocks. Seoraksan National Park stretches out in front of us, its jagged granite peaks poking out through green clouds of pine and oak. One of Korea’s 22 national parks, it covers a swathe of the country’s northeastern Gangwon province and is home to several temples, as well as a 48ft-tall Buddha statue we passed on the way up here.
The park is named for Korea’s third-highest mountain, but with only a few hours to spare, we’ve chosen to take on Ulsanbawi, an imposing granite cliff that stands 2,864ft tall to Seoraksan’s 5,604ft. After our stop at Kyejoam Seokgul, we walk across streams and through woodland, the path sloping gently upwards, punctuated by viewpoints overlooking this tangibly wild landscape. The national park is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve — home to musk deer, black bears, kestrels and sparrowhawks — but the only creature we spot is a small snake. Draped across the path, it’s less than a foot long and about the thickness of a thumb; hardly intimidating, though it doesn’t seem bothered by our presence, either.
Eventually, we reach a vertiginous metal staircase — the only way to get up Ulsanbawi itself. As I lift my by-now aching thighs up the 808 steps, it’s so steep I can’t see the top; sometimes even Jenny is convinced we’ve reached it, only for us to realise it was nothing but a mirage.
Finally, about two hours after we first set off, we’re there. The jagged rocks of Ulsanbawi’s summit puncture the practically cloudless sky, and a carpet of vivid green is laid out as far as the horizon. In the opposite direction: the glinting, navy-blue East Sea, and the low-rise resort of Sokcho.
The gale that shut down the park’s cable cars today whips all around, and at this height the only sound is the howl of the wind. But as we descend, I find myself listening out for the chanting, somewhere among the boulders.
Published in the South Korea guide available with the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)