How Russ Clune Brought Free Climbing to South Korea – Climbing – Climbing

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Clune on first free ascent of “Butternuts” (5.11) Photo: Russ Clune Collection
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Editor’s note: What does it mean to be a lifer? This question is—to me anyway—at the quiet core of Russ Clune’s wonderful new memoir, The Lifer: Rock Climbing Adventures in the Gunks and Beyond, which is forthcoming from Di Angelo Publications in September and currently available for pre-order
The Lifer loosely chronicles Clune’s life from 1977, when he found climbing as a freshman at the University of Vermont, to the early 1990s, when he exchanged vagabondage for a career at Black Diamond. During that period, in which he became one of America’s leading climbers, he revered old-guard luminaries like John Stannard and Henry Barber while also keeping an open mind to new practices like hangdogging and sport climbing. He visited Indian Creek when it was barely on the map. He free soloed with John Long, road-tripped with Lynn Hill, and watched a visiting British dirtbag dine contentedly on canned cat food. In East Germany he whipped onto pro made of knotted ropes with Wolfgang Güllich. In the USSR he participated in a bizarre speed-climbing competition along with Todd Skinner and Beth Wald. He blew more than a few minds by free soloing Supercrack (5.12c) in the Gunks. And in 1985, on an ad-hoc solo trip to South Korea, he accidentally found himself introducing hard free climbing to the mountaineering-focused climbing community he found there. 
So what does it mean to be a lifer? To me Clune’s text suggests that one definition of the term—or at least the definition that best describes him—is someone who witnesses (and participates in) historical moments in the activity to which they’ve devoted their lives. It’s a wonderful and briskly written book, absolutely worth getting your hands on when you can. In the meantime, check out this excerpt from Chapter 9, in which Clune recounts that historic trip to South Korea in March 1985.
—Steven Potter, Digital EditorHow Russ Clune Brought Free Climbing to South Korea - Climbing - Climbing
I wrote an article about Gunks climbing for the Japanese magazine Iwa to Yuki, which resulted in an invitation to visit Japan to climb in early 1985. As long as I was going that far, I wanted to see what South Korea had to offer as well. A climbing buddy from the Gunks had been stationed in the country while in the army and said there were good granite domes just outside Seoul. He connected me to his friends there, and they agreed to take me on a tour of Korean rock.
My two weeks in Japan were blissful. I spent most of my time on the seaside cliffs of Jogasaki, with incredible hosts and fun crack climbing on the columnar basalt, savoring the best that climbing travel has to offer: hanging out with other like-minded souls who are happy to be outdoors and trying our hardest on the rock. I began to regret my plans for South Korea, especially when a couple of the Japanese climbers told me the rock there was mostly low-angle slabs and the weather would be miserable in early March. 
My contact in Korea, Cho Sang Hee, picked me up at the Seoul airport. He wore a suit and tie and in no way resembled a climber. He worked at an English-language newspaper, so communication was simple. He explained to me that while he no longer climbed himself, he remained good friends with his old partners and could plug me in. South Korea had a very active mountaineering community, but rock climbing for the pursuit of difficulty and its own rewards wasn’t a game much played. The Koreans climbed on the big granite domes just outside the city, Insu Bong and Sunin Bong, principally for alpine practice, pulling on their gear with abandon and moving as quickly as possible, since in the mountains, as the adage goes, “Speed is safety.” South Korean climbing was also hyper-organized. If you wanted to climb, you joined a club. From there, you learned the basics. Any novice climber became the low man on the totem pole during club outings, which meant, as a peon, you did a lot of cooking, cleaning, and errand running for the older members until you graduated up the ladder.
Cho took me to a local climbing shop called Half Dome, where a bunch of his old partners worked and gathered. While everyone there was quite friendly, they didn’t really know what to make of me and my nonexistent mountaineering and alpine climbing résumé—it seemed that tagging high points along the Appalachian Trail didn’t count for much. I explained what I had come over for: big granite domes with lots of possibilities for new routes. They arranged for me to meet up with a club member the next morning at my hotel. I would be accompanied by Lee, the club’s unfortunate low-man workhorse. Lee would oversee taking the lanky American up to the club hut on Insu Bong.
Lee arrived early to the hotel to fetch me. Outside, a cold wind stung my face and clouds scuttled across the sky, with only a few rays of sun breaking through. Lee didn’t speak English, but we managed effective enough communication with gestures, his few English words, and my only Korean one: “gamsahabnida” (thank you). A short bus ride from downtown Seoul deposited us at the trailhead, where we found the hillside covered in snow and the steep trail packed with ice. The massive hulk of Insu Bong looming above was impressive, but it was so freezing and unpleasant here that I had a hard time imagining climbing.
The next morning, the temperature was well below freezing and it was breezy. Lee and I had done a little cragging on a short cliff above the hut the afternoon before, and both of our hands had gone numb in the cold. I was pretty sure climbing would not be happening today, and contentedly sat by the stove sipping tea. Around 10:30, the door flung open and a large entourage entered. My initial contact, Cho, had arrived with a slew of his old club-mates plus a few people from the South Korean climbing magazine. Cho introduced me to the group and my climbing partner for the day, Yoon Dae-Pyo. Yoon was short, with broad shoulders and a trim waist. His English was limited, which didn’t matter since he didn’t speak to me much. I wondered if he’d been bamboozled into this fiasco, to come climb with some random American dude with zero alpine credentials. In contrast, Yoon was a Korean climbing celebrity; he’d done many routes in the Himalayas and the Alps, most of them firsts for a South Korean. From his standoffish attitude, I guessed he felt like an NBA star who’d been talked into a pickup game on a street corner. Our route that day, I was told, would be the classic Skyline/Dragon linkup, which, I would unfortunately learn, was on the shady side of the dome.
While a small party of photographers started up an adjacent route to document our climb, Yoon uncoiled the rope at the base of the first pitch, a diagonal crack cutting up a slab. He hadn’t yet smiled at me nor offered a word. I didn’t know if he was pissed off or just all business, so I didn’t try to make small talk. Yoon tied in, racked up, and handed me the belay end of the cord. With a stone-faced look, he barked, “I guide!” and then sprinted off up the fissure, placing very little gear. The rope came tight on me, and I started up the pitch, climbing it slowly, stopping to blow warm air into my numb hands every few moves. As soon as I stepped onto the belay ledge, Yoon demanded, “How hard?” I wasn’t too sure, since my hands hadn’t felt a damn thing since leaving the ground. I replied, “Maybe 5.7 or 5.8?” Yoon grunted and gave a nod. He put his hand out, signaling he wanted me to pass over the gear. He re-racked the gear on his harness, once again said, “I guide!”, and once again sprinted off up the rock. The same brusque interview took place after pitch two: “How hard?” Yoon asked. “Maybe 5.9?” I replied, as Yoon snatched the gear from me to lead the next pitch.
At the end of the crack system, we arrived at a wide slab tilted at 80 degrees. A bolt ladder stretched above the belay, with pieces of old webbing hanging from many of the bolt hangers. The wind had died, and the sun now crept onto the cliff, warming me, while Yoon climbed a few feet up to the first bolt. He pulled up on it, and then did so again with the remainder of the closely spaced bolts. At the final one, Yoon shouted something I didn’t understand, but I eventually realized he wanted me to take the rope tight so he could tension-traverse leftward to the belay. I fed slack slowly, lowering him slightly as he swung over to the ledge.
I looked up at the slab; it looked doable as a free climb, dotted with just enough small edges and crystals to allow passage. I decided to give it a shot. The rock was solid and coarse, biting nicely into my soles and luring me up to the top of the traverse. I unclipped the last bolt and considered my position: There was now no gear between me and Yoon, who was twenty feet to my left and slightly lower. If I fell, I’d take a horrendous, forty-plus-foot pendulum. I slowed down and climbed carefully. When I arrived at the belay, Yoon’s eyes were wide, and he gently shook his head. “How hard?!” he asked. For the first time, it sounded like an honest inquiry, not an inquisitor’s demand. “Probably 5.11,” I answered. Yoon smiled, handed me the rack, and said, “YOU GUIDE!” I laughed, clapped him on the shoulder, and started up the next pitch, this time on the sharp end.
Next on the climbing agenda was Seoul’s other big dome, Sunin Bong, where Lee and I arrived the day after the outing to Insu Bong. I was feeling somewhat the worse for wear after a club dinner the previous evening that had involved too much Soju, the local firewater. We were to meet Yoon at the trailhead in the early afternoon. He’d been sold on the idea of free climbing after our outing on the Skyline/Dragon route, and was anxious to show me some promising lines he thought would go free. Along our hike to the crag, we came to a forty-foot boulder split by an overhanging finger crack. I stopped in my tracks; it was gorgeous. The crack was fifteen degrees beyond vertical and had been filled with pitons left behind by climbers practicing their aid technique. I said I wanted to try freeing the climb.
As soon as I did the opening moves, I knew I was in for a battle. The crack was way harder than it looked, and the fixed pitons impeded many of the best fingerlocks. I borrowed a piton hammer from Yoon and went around to the top to drop a rope. I hammered away for twenty minutes, removing most of the pins, leaving a few for protection for a lead attempt. But first I wanted to work the route on toprope.
Most of the finger jams were insecure in the flaring crack, and there was nothing for the feet aside from the thin crack itself. At first, I couldn’t link the moves together, many requiring me to move dynamically between jams, almost lunging from one to the next. I was essentially doing a series of one-armed pull-ups. With my fingers swollen and bleeding after a series of tries, we left the crack and continued up the hill. Lee set up a large dome tent at our campsite near the base of the cliffs. Since Koreans worked Monday through Saturday, we were on our own until Sunday, when the crowds would arrive for their one day of recreation. When they did come, it appeared all of Seoul emptied out onto the hillsides. But during the week, the place was all ours. The weather improved, too. The cold front gave way to warmer temperatures and the sun finally had a spring warmth to it.
On our first full day on Sunin Bong, Yoon led Lee and I to an objective he had in mind, an immaculate white wall of vertical granite with a splitter finger crack soaring straight up it for seventy-five feet to a ledge. Above, a second pitch climbed a large roof and corner system with a hand crack running along its fifteen-foot underside. If these pitches were in Yosemite, they’d be two of the Valley’s most sought-after classics but here in Korea, nobody had even attempted to free-climb them. Yoon looked at my wide-eyed expression and laughed. I think he was as happy as me, and I couldn’t get my shoes on fast enough. A more perfect 5.11 finger crack didn’t exist anywhere. The second pitch was just as beautiful but more physical. The roof had poor footholds, but the hand jams in the crack were solid and gave another splendid pitch of 5.11. I no longer questioned the wisdom of my trip here, and over the next week and a half Yoon presented me with the first free ascents of some of the best crack climbs I’d done anywhere. Each morning over breakfast, Yoon would declare, “Now a 5.13 climb for you!”—though most of these routes ended up being 5.11 or 5.12.
I also returned to that finger crack in the boulder several times, and eventually toproped it cleanly. It was desperate, beating the shit out of my fingers each time I attempted it. I never had time to try it on lead, but I was happy enough to get up the thing, even if only on a toprope. I left Yoon with a 5.13 after all.
My trip ended too soon, and before I knew it, I was on my way back to New York. The South Koreans had treated me generously and thanked me for showing them what modern rock climbing looked like. Thank me?! They’d given me the biggest gift any rock climber could ask for: two weeks of first free ascents on excellent granite. Thanking me was like having Walt Disney thank you for attending his park after letting you in for free and emptying the place of all other visitors. As much as anything else, the warmth and friendliness the Korean community had showered me with was the epitome of the tribal good vibe of the rock-climbing scene which I lived for.
About six months later, I received a letter from Yoon. He had dedicated himself to repeating some of the routes I’d done and was having a great time as a reformed mountaineer-turned-rock-climber. He gave me the blow-by-blow of his successes and attempts, and I was impressed by his rapid progress. About five years after my trip, while climbing in Red Rocks, Las Vegas, I was introduced to a South Korean climber. When he heard my name, his ears perked up. He said my trip had changed Korean climbing. According to him, the Korean climbing magazine put out a reward for the first person who could repeat all the routes I’d done. Within a year, they had all been repeated, except one. That short crack, now known as Nemesis Crack, repelled its suitors for just a little while longer.
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