Roger Shepherd saw two years of his hard work bear fruit in July 2010, with the publication of “Baekdu Daegan Trail: Hiking Korea’s Mountain Spine” (publisher: Seoul Selection), the first guidebook in English for trekking the alpine spine of Korea. For Shepherd, it was a labor of love for mountaineering: soon after he began hiking the mountain trail that traverses six Korean national parks, he undertook a mission to share his “really exciting and amazing experience” with hikers around the world.
First Adventure along the Spinal Ridge
The 452-page guidebook systematically provides a wealth of hiking information by roughly dividing the 740-kilometer-long trail from Cheonwang Peak of Mt. Jiri, the southern terminus of Baekdu Daegan, to Hyangno Peak in Gangwon Province, its northernmost point in South Korea, into 17 sections, which are subdivided into daily trekking routes. It also includes detailed maps and charts that delineate the highlights along each route. Featured throughout the book are about 200 photographs of religious monuments as well as historic and scenic sites to be discovered along the trail, with background notes on their cultural and ecological significance.
What made this New Zealand trekker take such a keen interest in Baekdu Daegan, or the Great White Head Ridge? Shepherd says he’s been bitten by wanderlust and curiosity since his childhood, which made him leave home from early on to travel and explore new places. He left for Britain when he was 21, and arrived in Africa, then an “unknown” continent to the young man, a year later. For the next nine years, he worked as a national park ranger and a safari guide in South Africa, Mozambique, and Zambia. Eventually, his wanderlust brought him to Korea in 2000 when he felt a strong attraction to Korea’s natural environment. But he returned to New Zealand in 2001, and became a police officer.
In 2006, Shepherd took a three-month leave from work and visited Korea again. It was then that he undertook his first venture to hike Baekdu Daegan. He hiked it alone for six weeks, reaching the half-way mark before being forced off the ridge by heavy monsoon rains. However, he also realized that he had seen enough to want to attempt it again, but next time he would document his experiences in a guide book. He returned to New Zealand with a deeply ingrained impression of the great mountain range.
Arduous Trekking for 70 Days
In September 2007, Shepherd returned to Korea with a resolute determination. This time he asked his hiking friend Andrew Douch to join him. They started at Jungsan-ri, in South Gyeongsang Province, at a mid-slope point on Mt. Jiri, on September 2 and reached Peak 502 (so named for its 502-meter height) just north of Chupungnyeong Pass, in 20 days. They then hiked up Mt. Songni in late September, and headed for Mt. Worak in early October. They reached the Cheonjedan heaven worshipping altar on the ridge of Mt. Taebaek in mid-October. On October 27, they arrived at Mt. Odae National Park near the northeast coast of Gangwon Province.
On November 7, near the end of their trek, they were given permission to bound forward and hike up Hyangno Peak, within the civilian control line near the DMZ, the northernmost point of the spinal mountain range in South Korea. On November 10, the duo reached Masan Peak via Jinburyeong Pass, completing a 70-day trek of the South Korean section of the range.
Along the way, they experienced several memorable incidents. Once, while searching for shelter on a pitch dark and rainy night, they eventually made their way toward a flickering light and knocked on the door of a lodging house. But the appearance of two weary foreigners so startled the proprietor that he slammed the door shut, shouting: “Ghosts!” Another time, they stumbled upon the mountain house of a family who made their livelihood by searching for wild ginseng.
Significance of the Spinal Mountain Range
“Baekdu Daegan is a beautiful chain of mountains and an excellent place of culture, comparable to any mountains in the world,” Shepherd says. “The trail has good potential to develop as an international tourist attraction, like the Appalachian Trail in the United States. I hope many foreigners will learn about this and come trekking here.”
Shepherd’s passionate interest began with his vague curiosity about a world new to him. Then, his enthusiasm developed into a keen interest in Korean culture, including the pungsu geomantic traditions and mountain spirits.
“A sacred spirit of the Korean nation dwells in Baekdu Daegan. Hiking up its mountains, you can get a sense of being infused with a mysterious energy emitted by a living, superhuman presence. It is not only a geographic space with magnificent and charming landscapes, but a spiritual entity on its own right and the origin of the transcendental perceptions of the Korean people. I believe that for today’s Korea, Baekdu Daegan exists as a symbolic being, not merely as a large mountain chain.”
Upon completing their adventure, Shepherd and Douch began writing a trail guidebook in English. David Mason, an American professor at Kyung Hee University, agreed to edit the text. Mason, a cultural anthropologist deeply interested in local mountain spirits, has traveled across Korea in search of their presence.
Baekdu Daegan in North Korea
In 2009, Shepherd was named honorary public relations ambassador for the Korea Tourism Organization, an affiliate agency of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. He resigned from his service as a police officer in New Zealand in 2010 and moved to South Korea to start a company, Hike Korea, which specializes in introducing Korean mountain culture and other lesser known features to the world via publishing and photography.
Shepherd’s venturesome eyes are now set on a long-term project involving the North Korean segment of Baekdu Daegan, which has hardly been seen by outsiders since the division of North and South Korea. In May 2011, he visited North Korea to talk with concerned officials about his desire to photograph the northern sections of the Baekdu Daegan for a pictorial essay. With assistance from the Korea-New Zealand Friendship Association, a nongovernmental group, he was granted permission to return to North Korea in October to embark on his project. He spent 18 days in the North, photographing 10 districts along Baekdu Daegan.
In 2012, Shepherd plans to visit North Korea again to photograph the remaining sections of the mountain ridge over the four provinces of North and South Hamgyong and Yanggang. The 40-day expedition will cover the famously beautiful regions of the Paektu (Baekdu) and the Kaema plateaus near Samjiyon, Puchon and Changjin. He will take photos of the mountains in these areas, which South Koreans have had no chance to see up close, let alone hike, for nearly 70 years since national division.
Enticed by Korea’s mountains and waters, Shepherd enjoys hiking up practically any mountain peak and visiting islands across the country. “Korea’s natural landscape has charming beauty, distinctively different from the vastness of New Zealand’s. It bears comparison with any other country’s natural landscape,” he says.