The First Light: New Year’s Day Sunrise from Atop Mudeungsan
Words by Murdock O’Mooney
Photography by Abe Sahu
In Gwangju, Mudeungsan needs no introduction. However, what is less known is the annual hike to its peak that takes place in the early hours of New Year’s Day. While others are partying, a hardy group of hikers gathers at the base of the famous mountain. They leave around 3a.m. and hike through the night to reach the summit by sunrise at about 7:20a.m. It is no doubt a unique (and healthy) way to ring in the New Year.
Inspired by this group of hard-core revelers, my girlfriend Kuamah and I wanted in on the action. Last year we decided to do the hike. Sadly, we overslept. Instead of beginning our hike at 3a.m., we set off at 6a.m. We began by riding the bus to the main entrance of Mudeungsan. From there, you can either take an advanced-level trail towards Soeinbong Peak or an intermediate trail towards Jungmeorijae Pass. We chose the intermediate trail, which was still fairly steep. The hike took about 4 hours to Jungbong Peak and covered roughly 5 kilometers, with 1,000 meters of elevation gain. I recommend that you pack a trail map, headlamp, cellphone, snacks, water and warm gear, and do not hike alone.
Last year, there was not much snow on the ground, so the hike was not too difficult. However, it was still dark when we started, so we used headlamps to see when setting out. The early part of the hike was peaceful, as there was no one on the trail. The mountain was mysterious at this early hour. It was a secret world that humans rarely see—the world of a sleeping mountain.
Soon we passed the ancient Guardian Tree and climbed up out of the valley. Then it became light and the mountain showed itself. It was beautiful and alive at this early hour. The trail got steeper as we neared Jungmeorijae Pass. The air was fresh and smelled of pine and earth. We reached Jungmeorijae Pass around 10a.m.
There we found a fair number of people celebrating. They seemed happy. People talked, laughed and enjoyed snacks and drinks. It was, after all, New Year’s Day, a time to be thankful and hopeful, to think about the year past and the year ahead. It was here that we found and spoke with a young couple.
We found out that they had seen the peak’s sunrise. I asked why they would work so hard to see the first sunrise of the New Year. The young woman answered, “I want to get a job this year, and if I see the beautiful first sunrise, I feel like I can do anything.” Her partner added, “It means a lot to me. By doing this, I feel like my new year starts in a positive way…anything is possible.”
Feeling inspired, we hiked on to Jungbong Peak. There we snapped some photos and found a place to open our celebratory bottle of wine. We had earned it. It was then that I understood the seemingly-crazy choice to climb Mudeungsan in the middle of the night to see the first sunrise of the New Year. It was an empowering experience that set a positive tone for the next 12 months.
Heading down, we took a different path going towards Jeungsimsa Temple. This route was less steep and led past boulder fields, bamboo forests and a fresh water spring that people drank from. The whole scene was fantastic and when we reached the end of the trail at the main entrance of Mudeungsan, we wished we had more time on the mountain.
Based on the testimony we heard, as well as our own experience, the hike is well worth it. But be advised, it is not for the faint of heart. You have to wake up early and hike up a cold mountain in the dark. You will be tired and maybe even a little cranky, but your effort will be rewarded. You will feel a great sense of accomplishment and maybe if you are lucky, you will have a new year with prosperity and good-will.