Despite its relatively large size, the new 70-liter outdoor backpack I bought in Alabang, Muntinlupa placed only a slight pressure on my back. The design offered padding for my shoulder blades and there were two straps – one for my chest and one for my abdomen. Additional features include a lime green rain cover that is easy to see from afar, a water container inside, and a space at the bottom for slippers or dirty clothes. I remembered purchasing this backpack on the way to work so I had to bring it to the office, and then going home with it when my shift was over.
Gelo did not join this time but Kenneth and Kaye did, as usual. The couple would notify me if the Akyaters club organized a trek and if they would participate. Steph and Benjie, whom I met at the Mt Daraitan climb before, were also there. Then I also got to know more fellows from the office’s graphics department – Wherdy Adorio, Ellard Verdida, and Kezia Hernandez (who also brought along her sister Tanya). Nil Medrano, his wife Carla, and Rei were also present like last time.
Motor-powered tricycles transported our group of trekkers from an establishment where we had lunch along the highway at San Miguel, Bulacan province to a small community at historic Biak-Na-Bato. It was early afternoon on January 9, 2016 and we were traveling to Mt Manalmon. With an elevation of around 196 meters, it should be much less difficult than my previous climb to a mountain that stood nearly four times as high. The concrete road ran along residential houses, fields, and the entrance to Camp Tecson, which served as the headquarters of the Philippine military’s elite First Scout Ranger Regiment. We passed by a bustling community before the road turned into dirt and the lightweight vehicles shook from the bumpy ride.
A bridge made of concrete, cable, and wood ran across a wide river where children swam and played. Nearby, two parallel cables ran the same course where one can grip and balance their feet on them with a harness for a rush of adrenaline. Several establishments and the registration center lay on the other side. We walked across the bridge to sign in for the climb and overnight camping.
The hike towards the campsite began at around 2 PM. Our group took a path from the registration center through some trees and we came upon a set of stairs carved on the ground. I gave a sigh of relief. It went uphill but at a 30-degree angle, without the slippery rocks and dense vegetation that characterized the ‘assault’ part of climbs.
Eventually, the trail became a footpath made of dirt. It snaked its way along clumped bushes, trees with narrow trunks, and a meadow. We heard the bleat of a few goats as they sensed our approach. The smell of grass and leaves exposed to the sun for hours lingered in the air. It was a sunny afternoon but I did not perspire much. Then our guide led us into a cave. It resembled an unlit underpass or subway, only with rugged rock sculptures that protruded from the ceiling and the floor. We brought out flashlights and mobile devices to light the way. Within a minute or so, I saw sunlight that also revealed graffiti etched on surfaces near the cave’s exit. I wondered how people from thousands of years later would interpret this ancient cave art in the form of calligraphy.
Beneath our trekking party lay a wide sand bank that we traversed following a bit of a struggle through a steep descending trail. As expected, grains of sand went inside my hiking shoes. My toes got irritated from them despite being concealed in socks. The river ran downstream beside us, its clear water glimmering while flowing calmly. The guide recalled how a number of students on a field trip lost their lives when they were swept by the current during a downpour. I remembered the incident too, learning about it from the news on television. Later on, huge tan-colored boulders stood before us. We went through these rock formations while bumping into a pack horse and its handler on their way back. Then our group arrived at a river crossing. Constantly wet but solid rocks emerged from the water and we placed our feet on them while maintaining balance.
It took 30 more minutes of strolling past overlapping tree canopy, gnarled branches, and bamboo stalks before arriving at a sandy spot beside a river strewn with boulders and gravel beds. The sun began to set. We scattered and then assembled our tents. Mine lay next to that of Nil and Carla. Behind my tent also stood a massive gray rock about two stories high, a downsized mountain that towered over the campsite. The sandy ground sloped downward rather steeply and led into the water’s surface. After setting up camp, our group determined who will participate in the climb to the summit of Mt Manalmon itself this afternoon.
The light faded and the air grew cooler as minutes passed. I had doubts about joining the climb with the possibility of darkness engulfing us while struggling with the bumpy trail and steep slopes. According to the guide, it should take only 20 minutes to reach the summit from this campsite but the way would surely be what climbers called an ‘assault.’ With my fellows from the graphics department volunteering for the trek, I decided to see it for myself.
Tall grass greeted our group of 12 people, including the guide, as we took the trail to the summit. A short stroll ended at a hut where a pile of charcoal lay nearby. A domesticated water buffalo, or carabao as it is called locally, bellowed and made my heart race as we got startled. It simply grazed on a meadow while we continued our way. Then the path went upward and grew steep. Steph was behind me while Kenneth and Kaye were in my front as we ascended towards the summit with strained legs and sweat on our foreheads. Chatting made us feel weary. Trees surrounded the shady winding trail as if our surroundings were a never-ending forest.
Eventually, we came upon grassy open terrain that gave us a breath-taking view of the setting sun and another mountain that reminded me of the Drakensberg range in South Africa. Yet this spot was not our objective. More trees stood before us as we kept on walking. The dirt beneath our feet turned into solid rock. The summit was just about ten meters away. It seemed devoid of plant life, only a natural platform of gray rock. I looked at my watch and realized the duration of the climb took less than 20 minutes, perhaps even spanning 10 minutes.
To the east, the sky retained a calming shade of blue while it became silver on top of orange to the west. Patches of grayish clouds sailed on the diffused afternoon light. A mild breeze brought more relief as we began taking photos, posing for them, and asking the guide more about Mt Manalmon and its surroundings. He mentioned deer and wild pigs in very remote areas before we all spotted a lone bird of prey soaring over the pristine landscape. Wherdy, Ellard, and I continued our chat beside a lone small tree that grew resiliently on the summit. I also got to know Joseph Villanueva and Mae Dilao, a couple who regularly joined outdoor excursions by the Akyaters. The braces on Steph’s teeth shone as she smiled. Sisters Kezia and Tanya made the most of the enjoyment. We spent about 30 minutes on top of Mt Manalmon before returning to the campsite as it was past 5 PM. On our way back, Kenneth remarked that I have become a physically fit mountaineer who can stay ahead of a climbing party.
Night fell as we settled down and had dinner. I stuck to canned food due to certain choices in diet. Meanwhile, Kenneth was making a vegetable salad with salted duck egg. I helped him with peeling and slicing as we discussed philosophy and the general discomfort over unconventional topics. Rei, as always, prepared a vegetarian meal.
Our nighttime activities culminated when we sat around a large campfire fueled by dry grass, twigs, and cooking oil. Bottles of alcoholic beverages were brought out. I declined and told them about being a teetotaler. During a conversation, Steph said she is allergic to liquor. Then we introduced ourselves and shared excerpts from our lives in this typical Akyaters gathering. Drinking, snacking, and storytelling went on for hours until we lost track of time. Far from the vehicular emissions and excess electric lighting of the city, a multitude of stars could be seen clearly against a black background. Sounds of laughter pierced the nocturnal ambience. Our topics consisted of endurance cycling, mishaps in hiking, animated television shows, and the supernatural. Even work-related chat was brought from the desks of the office to the assembly of tents on the wild outdoors.
On the following morning, at around 6 AM, Wherdy and Ellard asked me to join them for a dip in the nearby river. I replied I would catch up. Steph went with them instead. When I got ready, Steph swam beyond a rock formation and was nowhere to be found. Ellard and Wherdy then asked me about the media monitoring department where I work, along with my colleagues they noticed. Later, they followed Steph while I remained with the lower three-fourths of my body submerged in clear freshwater.
Flashbacks became more vivid after I was left in solitude. My skin grew numb from the slow-moving current of the rather frigid river. The overcast sky and a strange silence made the surroundings gloomier. Numbness even crept into my heart. I wished that I had not joined Wherdy and Ellard earlier. Scenes from some of my favorite television shows augmented with the current reality. Then Kaye emerged from out of nowhere on the sandy bank. I had a brief chat with her but she had no idea what I was going through.
I got out of the water, dried myself with a towel, and walked back and forth with grains of sand sticking to the soles of my feet. Then I had a serious bout of coughing. Kaye noticed it and advised me to rest. Rei did the same. Breathing became difficult for me. Lying sprawled on a large rock within the campsite, I lost my consciousness. It seemed that I died. However, I remembered waking up momentarily and uttering inarticulate syllables. Seconds turned into minutes I could not count until I finally regained consciousness and felt reborn.
Slightly dizzy but able to walk, I climbed on to the two-story boulder by the camp where my fellows were already sitting, chatting, and appreciating the view. Talking to them relieved this sort of ailment that bothered me. We also saw more groups of young trekkers crossing the river, their footwear trampling gravel that accumulated into beds. The bright blue sky meant the weather was perfect for hiking and swimming. It was around 8 AM on a Sunday. I also learned that some of our companions jumped at least three meters from a rock formation into the placid river. Despite waking up, drowsiness lingered in my head and I took a series of short naps unwittingly.
By 10 AM, I had fully recovered as the Akyaters broke camp although not simultaneously. A few tents were already gone while a number of others were still standing with opened zippers. We also disposed the trash from last night’s revelry to carry them in large black plastic bags on our way back. Benjie, Ellard, Steph, Wherdy, and I sought the shade of a small tree. The surrounding temperature soared with the approach of noontime. When the rest of our gear was packed up, everyone posed for a group photo before heading back to the registration center. We simply revisited the river crossing, where sand went into my shoes again, and the cave tunnel marred with graffiti.
I dealt with my parched throat and loss of fluids through sweating by sipping soft drink in a 240 ML bottle from a convenience store near the registration center. My companions indulged in halo-halo, a dessert of shaved ice mixed with milk, agar jelly, slices of plantain and jackfruit, sweet beans, and sugar. Kaye, Kenneth, and I then bought souvenir T-shirts made of synthetic material, each one having the words TREK, PLUNGE, CRAWL, and HANG inscribed on the front.
The next part of our adventure involved an hour or so of exploring a bigger and deeper cave. Last night, it was obvious that I left my flashlight back at home. Display light from my mobile phone enabled me to see my stuff in nocturnal darkness. I could risk damaging my gadget if I went into the cave and waded in waist-deep water as mentioned by the guide. While scanning my surroundings, I took notice of a sign about renting headlamps. However, it was not just the lack of gear that hindered me. I still felt dizzy and unsure of my sense of balance after I died and was reborn metaphorically by the river. When my companions asked me to join in, I declined reluctantly and cited what I went through in the morning.
While the rest of the group spent the next hour or so trudging in subterranean darkness as headlamps lit their way, I remained at the registration center with Nil, Carla, and Rei. Carla and I had an aunt-to-nephew conversation as I revealed a part of my life. Her husband slept on top of a wooden table, recovering after a tent pole almost struck his eye. Then I got drowsy too and slept on a hammock. When I woke up later, I observed the trekkers who came through the bridge, had lunch, swam in the river, and fell in line to take a bath or relieve oneself.
By 4 PM, the participants in the trek were ready to head home after eating rice porridge with native chicken, dousing oneself with dippers of water to feel refreshed, putting on fresh clothes, and double-checking gear. What I expected to be another daunting climb turned out to be more of a relaxing weekend getaway.