From Korea to Mammoth
You never know whom you might meet on an Eastside trail—a lesson I learned several weeks ago above Duck Lake in the John Muir Wilderness, when I bumped into Seuk Doo Kim, a Korean hiking guidebook author.
Kim was hiking with a large party that had assembled in the shade just over Duck Pass. But Kim, an avid hiker, and his wife, Sun Ae Kim, had continued on alone to the far end of the lake and back.
The two are 77 years old.
“We are the oldest on the trail,” Kim told me with pride.
The pair has been hiking in their native Korea and in the United States since they were married. Kim called this the secret to a long, healthy marriage: “Hike together,” he said.
Kim recently completed a hiking guidebook, Korea Baekdu-daegan Trail Book, which will come out in October.
Unbeknownst to me—and perhaps many others—the Baekdu-daegan is a continuous mountain range running from Mount Baekdu (9,003 feet above sea level) on the northern border of the Korean Peninsula down to Mount Jiri (6,283 feet) near the southern end. The distance between the two is 1,008 miles. About half of that distance is in South Korea.
Kim notes in an English forward to his Korean-language guidebook that the other half of the trail cannot be reached due to a fence dividing the North and South, but, he writes, “We must pursue the ideal of hiking the entire Baekdu-daegan as both a physical journey and a spiritual one.”
In fact, the mountain range, though never broken, was not considered in its totality until recently. During what South Koreans call the “Japanese Imperial Period” (1910-1945), Japanese geologists grouped mountain ranges according to their geological nature instead of terrain and ridgeline. This grouping was intended to aid the development of mining and road construction, Kim writes.
Learning this history affirmed Kim’s resolve to educate his fellow Koreans about the complete mountain range and trail.
From 2008-2011, Kim and his wife made annual trips to Korea to complete the roughly 600 miles of the South Korean portion of the Baekdu-daegan trail (that’s almost three times as long as the John Muir Trail, and about a fifth as long as the Pacific Crest Trail).
At the age of 74, the couple became the oldest to complete the trail.
Seuk Doo Kim had another motive behind completing the trail and writing the guidebook, he said: a desire to reconnect his children to their home country.
Kim moved from Korea to Los Angeles 33 years ago, when he was appointed deputy general manager of the L.A. branch of the Bank of Seoul, but he realized after many years that his children were losing touch with their home country.
“I determined that I have to do something in order to prevent my son’s patriotism from becoming thin,” he writes. “I had to make action for family.”
Kim’s sons, daughters, grandsons, and granddaughters all joined him on a hike to the top of Mt. Jiri during his time composing material for the guidebook.
But the Kims haven’t confined their explorations to Korea, as I learned when I met them above Duck Lake. Kim said he frequently goes on hikes with his two grandsons in the San Gabriel Mountains near his home in Culver City, and has even taken his grandchildren hiking on portions of the Appalachian Trail.
Perhaps most impressively, Kim said he has climbed the Iron Mountain, an 8.5-mile trail gaining 6,000 feet to the top of the 8,007-foot peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, 100 times in an eight-month period last year.
According to the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks Section, Iron Mountain is considered to be the hardest climb in the San Gabriels because of its treacherous terrain, lack of maintained trails, and steep slope.
Kim also hiked Mt. Whitney in 2008, at the age of 70.
But Kim had never before visited Mammoth Lakes.
“This was my first time hiking up,” he told me. “Most hikers stop on the trail a third or half the way … If only they had experienced up to Duck Lake. The water is clean and the view is same on the top of Duck Lake as the Baekdu-daegan Trail. I feel at home. The view is like paradise!”
We had the pleasure of meeting Mr Kim on the Ski Hut trail yesterday. We were coming down from Baldy as he was making his way up. He’s so friendly and passionate about trying to connect people back to nature and getting them into the outdoors. We had a little difficulty understanding each other, but I eventually understood he wanted to me find this article. What a great person to meet on the trails!
Had the privilege of meeting Sam on his 29th consecutive day hiking up Mt Baldy. Super nice and interesting guy. Hope to meet him on the trails again soon!
I’ve hiked Mt. Baldy twice and both times I had a great encounter with Mr. Kim. He’s 79 and is now hiking the entire mountain trail up to 30 days in a row. He is a true inspiration for how to stay fit and young, no matter the age.
Thanks for replying – like you said, we’re still continuing to hike, mainly on Mt. Baldy. We actually took a hike recently at Mt. Whitney, with my grandpa, dad, and younger brother. It was my second time there, and it honestly felt like the mountain was welcoming me back. It was a really great hike with a lot of cool experiences – my 10 year old brother said he felt really “happy” when we finally reached the top, breaking my record and becoming the youngest Korean-American to climb Mt. Whitney. My grandpa, at 79, was also back there for the second time, and was at the front of our group for the entire ascent, hiking at a really fast pace. My dad was there for the third time, and helped us all climb the mountain successfully. We were also helped by a friendly hiker on the way down, who helped guide us on the trail. All in all, it was a really nice hike, and we all hope to finally meet you soon to tell you about it in person.
Thanks again for commenting,
Just yesterday, I hiked Mt. Whitney with my grandpa, my dad, and my older brother. We trained for the hike by hiking on Mt. Baldy. When I reached the top of the mountain, I felt extremely happy because it was my very first time there, and because I was only ten years old and hiked 11 miles up the mountain. I was also the youngest Korean-American to hike to the summit of Mt. Whitney. My brother said that he felt like the mountain was ” welcoming” him back because it was his second time up the trail. It was my grandpa’s second time up the mountain, and it was my dad’s third time up the mountain.
10 years old
Mr. Kim is trually an inspiration for anyone that meets him at a young age of 79. We had the privilege of meeting him on our way down from Mt. Baldy via the “Baldy Bowl Trail”.
That’s awesome. Congrats on your 2nd Whitney summit!
That’s awesome. Congrats on your 2nd Whitney summit!
I ran into Mr. Kim and his wife as I was getting some rest at the top of Mt. Baldy.
We had a rather philosophical conversation about life and religion.
I was inspired by his particular passion for the reunification of North Korea and South Korea.
A lot of young Koreans like myself, we are oblivious on such issue. Mr. Kim remarked on pain of divided country and peace we can achieve through reunification.
His thoughts and life style truly set an example for young folks.
Mr.Kim! I hope to see you again at Mt. Baldy
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My husband and I had the pleasure of meeting Sam today on the way down the ski hut trail on Mt. Baldy. What an inspiration! Sam, thank you for your conversation and kindness!
I met Mr. Kim today while hiking/running Mt. Baldy! We had a delightful conversation about the healing power of the wilderness and philosophy. I’m officially inspired for life. (And thank you, Mr. Kim, for the caramels!)
I met Mr. Kim for the second time while hiking Baldy a few days ago. Such a nice guy and a great memory. Thank you, Mr. Kim, for your conversation — and for the fruit bar, too. Hope to see you on the trails again!