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Tomakgol Descent

05-June-2020

I've just got back to Seoul, after making a descent of Tomakgol (토막골) and Hyeongjae Falls (형제폭포), on Seoraksan.

Herein lies a brief account of the trip, should you wish to repeat it.


Disclaimer up front: access is not allowed here. You'll have to sneak past a warning sign, which lies within spitting distance of a ranger station.


To find this particular stream, I suggest googling the waterfall name and 'ramblr', which will take you to a very useful map.

Tomakgol is marked on many of the available trail maps, and it is easy to find from the main path.


Approach can be made 2 different ways, as far as we know, with the most direct being to climb the stream bed up to the base of Hyeongjae Falls. From the main carpark and entrance, expect the approach to take you 1 hour 30 mins to this point.

The trail up to the top of the falls is river right - and it is steep!


Despite this trail being closed, there are trail markers there, and the footpath from the base of the falls was well trodden enough that I was able to find a sensible place to start my climb up.

Climb is an apt word, because the route up was quite vertical in places.

Initially, I had a very hard time reconciling the flimsy assumptions I had made, based on reading* a couple of blogs, with the terrain that faced me.

I was expecting a 2 hour hike up, which I assumed would zig zag a lot to fill up all that time.

In retrospect, I am not entirely sure that I took the same route as shown in the blogs. I went up steeply, and made the 2 hour journey in about 45 minutes, despite a couple of hick ups.


From the base of the falls, up, and down again, I was moving solo.

This is something I have grown accustomed to, here in Korea, largely through necessity, sometimes because of impatience (or too much time on my hands).

However, exploring unassisted certainly has an affect on the way I assess risk.

Everyone has their own arithmetic for adjusting the risk factor, when you are alone, but these changes to perceived risk can manifest in very different ways. In my case, I find that the mountain's character undergoes a complete transformation, becoming instantly more hostile and oppressive - though not to the diminishment of its beauty.


On the climb up, I had a couple of moments where I had to think very hard about whether I wished to progress or retreat. The rocks under foot, and within arms reach, were flaky and prone to crumbling. My ascent was slow, measured and very delicate. As I passed one in-situ sling anchor, I grew encouraged in my route selection, but there came one point where I found myself entirely unwilling to push on.

I decided I'd rig a quick anchor and rappel off, and then return home to answer the question of whether or not I was defeated by cowardice, or had enjoyed a triumph of good judgement.

As I lowered myself off, I spotted a tag on a fallen tree, nearby. Rarely does a chance at redemption present itself so quickly.

I pushed on, at first assisted in my climb by the fallen tree, but ultimately impeded by it. However, having seen many potential anchors above, I was happy that I could re-descend had I made another route selection error.


Once I gained the ridge, I was gifted with some incredible views, and the going was then easy to the top of the falls.


From the blogs, I was expecting 2 anchors at the top. What I found were 3 fairly new looking set ups. Upon closer inspection, I took issue with a few of the anchors. The maillons were conspicuously absent any markings and ratings - and the anchor I ultimately selected had a strange snapgate hanger that had been welded closed - this anchor was the one closest to the edge on river left - I threaded through a maillon and not the welded thing.


Hyeongjae Falls is 80 metres, and it really feels its size from the top, but the rappel is actually quite straight forward. The gradient of the falls is quite friendly, and there was no real water flow today.


Before setting off today, I was expecting the falls to be manageable in 2 steps. The perspective used on some of the blog photos suggested the last part of the falls might be around 15m, meaning I would have enough rope to get to the top of it. When I arrived today, I put the final part of the falls at nearer to 5m, which meant I definitely needed another rebelay. I knew there were plenty of trees that were reachable on river left, but after quick look today I spotted another bolted anchor.


So, after tossing my rope from the top, I was more than happy that I was going to reach my next anchor.

Everything went smoothly, until I pulled the rope down at the rebelay and it got snagged in a small flake. Luckily, this flake was not too far above me, and I was confident that I could climb up and back down.

I've never had this happen to me before, but have always been concerned about it, and have regularly run the scenario as a mental exercise. The rope was well and truly stuck, but I was able to get up safely and easily.

I felt happy enough - all things considered - with my safety on the return back to the anchor.


Descending the rest of the way was very easy, a little bit wetter perhaps, but very enjoyable. The swimming pool contained in the small plunge pool looked very inviting - but I knew I had a long trek back out.


Returning to the main trail involved descending the same way I climbed up. The boulder filled stream bed - very dry - felt doubly as long the second time. There are two more drops you can rappel on the way back - one would almost certainly warrant rope protection at higher flows.


Although I am in no rush to repeat this trip, it was definitely an adventure worth doing at least once.

On a return, accompanied preferably, I think I'd find the approach climb to be of little consequence. However, I'd be very mindful of that flake on future retrievals, although I am putting today's incident down to some freak bad luck.


There were lots of little personal victories today - and I have found I am even more motivated to explore Seoraksan's potential. I do strongly suspect that this mountain would be Korea's canyoning capital - if not for all the access restrictions.


*looked at pictures and read the timings.


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