Trial by Slope and Mud

Sitting in the bus, I distracted myself by watching a Marvel superhero movie being showed on the television monitor above the driver. Billboards along the flyover flaunted their respective advertisements as they caught my attention. I was on the way to my first major climb with a handful of trek buddies. Yet the challenges that the mountain present did not come to my mind.

Our group’s destination was Mt Daraitan in Rizal province, which is a relatively short drive from Manila compared to the higher peaks of the Cordilleras further north. With an elevation of around 739 meters, it does not have pine trees, moss-covered growth, and noontime fog but I was told that a jungle surrounds the trail. Trail difficulty is 4/9. Being new in the world of mountain climbing, I had no idea what the scale meant.

My companions upon arriving at Quezon City were friends from my office’s graphics department – Kenneth Fontarum, Kristine ‘Kaye’ Carpio, Stephanie ‘Steph’ Rili, and Gelo Adviento (who also brought Gail, his girlfriend). A married couple – Nil and Carla Medrano – also accompanied us. A generation ahead of me, they facilitated the climb and appeared to be experienced hikers at a first glance. Then we met with more of our fellow trekkers from various backgrounds.

It was the lack in gear that intimidated me more than the actual hardships within the climb. Kenneth and Kaye have been doing major climbs well before I met them two months ago. In fact, it was they who introduced me to this wearisome but fulfilling hobby. With large backpacks enveloped by rain cover, collapsible drinking containers with tubes resembling those for intravenous fluid, and sunscreen they joined the trek as if they were just going to the office on a Monday morning. I, on the other hand, had to attach my camping gear and travel mug on the exterior of my brown backpack, which is large but lacked protection from rain. I also forgot to bring a poncho.

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The trip from Quezon City to the baranggay, or community, beneath Mt Daraitan took at least three hours. We passed by a number of towns and had lunch before renting a rugged and fairly large jeepney for the final stretch of the journey. A wooden raft took us across a river with banks of light gray smooth rocks. We arrived at the baranggay by a motor tricycle, a common mode of transportation in the rural areas of the Philippines. Our hiking party assembled in the community hall for registration and briefing. Past 1 PM, we were on our way.

What I thought to be a climb on the mountain itself turned into an expectation that did not match reality. The humble houses that lined the dirt road, a river sparkling under the afternoon sun, surrounding hills of dark green, grazing goats, and the occasional horse manure only led us to the campsite about an hour or two from the baranggay. After a stopover at an establishment, the trail got more difficult. We held on tightly to a wooden ladder and climbed over white boulders that seemed like rock monsters sleeping on the riverbank as the waters rushed energetically.

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From left: Kaye, Kenneth, Mark, Gail, Gelo, Marvin (The Blogger)

Tents were pitched on a sandy spot beside a river, with access to a spring for drinking water and boulders high enough for jumping into the water without harm. Rain forest trees grew on a rocky slope that appeared as a massive wall beside our campsite. We got divided into small groups of close companions. One of my fellows in the group is Mark Salamat, a reputed artist who excels in oil painting. Kaye and Kenneth cooked some chicken tinola as the sun descended and night crept in. Rei Gallardo, our fellow hiker, also shared his vegetarian masterpiece of tofu, water spinach (kangkong), and mushrooms.

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Munching on cheese puffs while preparing chicken tinola

Long-time members of this group called themselves the Akyaters. As part of Akyaters tradition, participants of a trek huddle around a fire to introduce themselves and share experiences regarding mountain climbing. What they remembered vividly about me is how I expressed feelings about being unrequited in love as gloomy as the sky overhead with its drizzle. Words faded into the cool air as we got to know one another. Planning to head out to the summit in batches at daybreak, the climbers including me began to doze off one by one inside our tents that smelled of synthetic material.

I overslept. My consciousness returned at 5 AM while I was supposed to be awake at 4 AM. Breakfast for me were pieces of loaf bread and instant coffee thanks to Kenneth and Kaye boiling some water with their portable cooking set that included a can of butane. I decided to get one for future climbs when I saved enough cash.

Half of our hiking party of nearly 30 people packed up their tents and stuff in preparation for the climb. Then they were gone in a moment’s notice. Kenneth, Kaye, Gelo, Gail, Mark and I were left at the campsite with Nil, Carla, and their companions such as Jan.

The six of us proceeded to a cave past 7 AM, accompanied with our nature guide named Efren. He told us about a cave system where one can reach the exit after three days of navigating, as well as local folklore from indigenous tradition. Again, we trudged carefully and jumped from time to time over the huge white boulders that led to the cave. Raging river currents echoed in the air. Then there was a short trail on a slope partly made of solid rock. I had some trouble with slippery surfaces as my shoes failed to take hold.

Later, the mouth of the cave stole my confidence as our group arrived there. It plunged straight down. We would descend into it with a makeshift ladder and rope instead of simply walking into a cave as usually imagined. I went in like a slow loris, a kind of primate. One wrong move and I could sustain a bone fracture or worse. Everyone made it inside without injury, only complaints and shrill yells. Flashlights and headlamps illuminated the way. Faint shrieks meant there were bats inside but Efren assured us they were only few. The air smelled of ammonia and parts of the cave floor felt like sandy soil under our feet. There was even a passage where we squeezed our way in just as a mouse would do into a crack on concrete. Minutes passed and the sound of rushing water echoed through the smooth and solid walls. Efren held our arms as he helped us leap across a gap in a rock formation on top of a subterranean brook.

I pointed my waterproof flashlight towards the noise and saw a small waterfall deep inside this cave. Gasps of exhilaration could be heard. That Sunday had humid weather but the cramped spaces and warm air in the midst of darkness made me perspire more. Without hesitation, I took a bath in a Jacuzzi® of cold pristine water continuously stirred by the waterfall. We enjoyed this spectacle of nature for five minutes before returning to the cave’s entrance. I found it easier to climb out than to get in.

Between 9 and 10 AM, the remaining trekkers at the campsite packed up our gear and left the riverbank for the baranggay hall. We retraced our path yesterday through a rather challenging trail until we arrived at that establishment that offered snacks, soup, carbonated drinks, and a place to relieve oneself or take a bath. A mid-adult woman who hailed from northern Germany sat on a bench with her pet dog. I greeted her (and later bid farewell) in German. Then I had lunch with my close companions.

Strolling towards the baranggay while carrying our own backpacks, Gelo and Mark hesitated to join the trek to the summit. I felt the same due to a parched throat and a particular discomfort under the hot and humid weather. Our group assembled at the community hall, resting for one hour while determining who would finally join the climb. In the end, I shrugged my doubts and decided to give it a try.

The climbing party consisted of nine members, including the guide. I was accompanied by Kenneth, Kaye, another fellow from the graphics department named Benjamin ‘Benjie’ Concepcion, Jan and his friend named Lin, and a seemingly couple I did not know by name. I improvised my shemagh scarf as a small pack for carrying a liter of drinking water, raisins, and other light stuff. We set foot just before 1 PM towards a cemented road different from the one that led to our campsite. Concrete gave way into dirt strewn with some rocks. The houses disappeared as we got surrounded by a lush field and a grove of trees. Our group walked steadfastly while the trail got narrower until we reached the climb’s first station. A few trekking poles made of rattan were lined under a wooden sign informing about the mountain’s elevation.

My fellow trekkers used the term ‘assault’ for the stretch of trail that takes significant physical effort to overcome. The climb ahead of me was an assault without doubt. Initial steps did not sap my energy until I struggled with the 60-degree slopes and relatively rough path. My leg muscles began to ache slightly. Furthermore, a voice inside my head commanded me to turn back.

Upon reaching the second station, I told Kenneth and Kaye about the problem with my lower extremities. They advised me to stretch my legs, drink some water, and get some energy by snacking on fruit-flavored jelly in tiny plastic cups. I felt relieved and the view of our surroundings from this spot inspired me to keep on going.

Time did not make sense as our climbing party trudged towards the summit. Eventually, I regained strength and my body adapted to the rigors brought by uneven rock-strewn trails, patches of mud, and branches that need to be grasped. Kaye and Kenneth led the way, I was behind the couple, and Benjie followed me. Having a chat with our guide not only distracted me from fatigue but also gave me trivial facts about Mt Daraitan and its flora and fauna. The jungle closed in around us as the path did not cease from being steep. At least the physical strain took the place of emotional issues and flashbacks that plagued me back at the campsite.

As I passed by climbing stations, the summit seemed closer even though it was out of sight. There was an easy trail at two-thirds of the way to the top but my enthusiasm vanished after realizing it was a rather short walk and followed by more sloping ground. Exposed tree roots even stretched out on our path and I received a scratch from a protruding branch. From time to time I would stop along with Kenneth, Kaye, and our guide to wait for our companions to catch up.

Around 2:45 PM, our group arrived at a campsite near the summit where young adults munched on their snacks and played music from their handheld devices. Tents stood out against the green, gray, and brown that surrounded us. We continued our way.

The afternoon sun gave a faint warmth rather than scorching heat as we reached the summit just past 3 PM.  Near the cluster of trees was a grayish and jagged rock formation at the edge of a cliff. Putting our trekking sticks down, the climbing party brought out DSLR cameras and mobile phones and took snapshots of what we could see from up there. I was at the the right time with the right lighting. Everything seemed surreal as if I was immersed into a made-up world of fantasy. The baranggay appeared as a dot surrounded by greenery while a river looked like a massive serpent beneath us. More mountains loomed on the distant horizon. Our guide told us that some are inaccessible to hikers.

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The weary climb at Mt Daraitan was totally worth it!

We spent 30 minutes atop Mt Daraitan, taking photos and appreciating the grandeur that the province’s natural wonder showed us. Kaye and Kenneth did a photo shoot with their DSLR camera. We posed on the top of that rock formation in turns. The guide also sang while imitating the voice of various musicians such as the Bee Gees. Then we had to descend and reunite with our companions back at the baranggay hall.

As with climbing up, Kenneth, Kaye, Benjie, and I went on ahead while our fellows formed a second group. The four of us had to hurry because we rented a jeepney while they had their own means of transport. However, Benjie and I could not keep up with the pace of that veteran duo. Then I even got separated from him. Alone and surrounded by countless hardwood trees, anxiety crept into my mind as I glanced at shadows and my ears picked up unfamiliar noises. I could imagine myself being charged by a wild animal or falling off a very steep slope. Yet I was only giving in to my untamed thoughts. In reality, I only had to follow the trail and reach the community before night fell.

I caught up with Benjie and we had a continuous chat while making our way back. Going down the mountain felt more painful to my legs than climbing up. I kept as low to the ground as possible to balance my weight. This ended up with sitting on a mud on the trail, putting a brown stain on my olive green pants. Both Benjie and I wore boonie hats but differed in their pattern. The surroundings grew dimmer as 4 PM turned into 5 PM and we took five-minute breaks at the stations. Eventually, we arrived at the first station and left the trekking sticks there the way they were found. Benjie and I followed the trail until it broke into two paths. We took a choice and later realized that it did not lead back to the baranggay. Correcting our mistake this time with the help of footprints on the mud, we walked through the cemented road lined with house while feeling like survivors who just got out of the wilderness. I preferred the idea of veterans who recently conquered an entire mountain. Then I was reminded of how vulnerable people are to the tests and trials of nature.

Eating a peanut-butter bun sandwich while having a lively conversation with friends served as my celebration of climbing Mt Daraitan’s summit. Next time, I would climb with better gear and hopefully in better spirits.

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