Where the Clouds Touch Land

Furious winds shook the tents slightly but incessantly. With my headlamp turned on, I saw my companions’ breath transformed into white smoke at every instance they spoke. Comments about the frigid air, made even colder by windchill, could be heard. It was just past 5 AM on February 21, 2016 and pitch-black darkness still lingered, as expected at this time of the year. The surrounding temperature must have dropped to between 0 and 10 degrees Celsius. Our spot could have been one of the coldest places in the Philippines at that moment.

My gray nylon jacket has two layers, trapping body heat between them. Underneath it, I wore a T-shirt on top of a sweater. That jacket also has a hood for my head that was already protected by a balaclava. Walking to and fro kept my socks and feet relatively warm. Despite dipping my pants in the mud yesterday, I cleaned it with wet wipes and it had dried throughout the night.

Our trekking party huddled together at our campsite on the grass-covered open ground beside Lake Tabeo. We just visited three lakes and the foothills of Mt Pulag yesterday. Now we would set forth for Mt Tabayoc, the second-highest mountain in Luzon with an elevation of 2,842 meters. Our ascent began near the ranger station at an altitude of about 2,200 meters. We only had to hike more than 600 meters but through a trail with a difficulty of 6/9. In comparison, the scale for Mt Daraitan was 4/9. The Kalanguya guide who accompanied us on the previous day said the hike to the summit and back would take a total of 6 hours. She would lead our way again. An hour earlier, our group prepared for the climb by boiling water for instant noodles and sachets of coffee that gave warmth to our stomachs.

Nil and Carla Medrano organized the Mt Tabayoc climb for the Akyaters club. They even made T-shirts commemorating the outdoor event. The last time I accompanied Joseph and Emae on a trek, it was at Mt Daraitan. Jan was there too. Gigi also brought her nephew Ram. At 11 years of age, Ram was still in elementary school but he had been hiking on a number of occasions. During this excursion, I got to know Anna Lou Judilla, Ben Silverio, and Vergel Calupitan.

Still shivering despite wearing multiple layers of clothing, we began walking towards a farmhouse. Flashlights and headlamps lit the narrow path of dirt. The open fields then gave way to flowering bushes that grew up to my shoulders. Our group seemed to be looking for an exit out of a labyrinthine maze garden. Minutes passed but the sun was too shy to emerge from the horizon. We had to rely on our handy lighting devices. When we got into a grove of trees past a creek, I failed to notice a thick branch that lay horizontally above the trail. My head bumped into it. This resulted in sharp and sudden pain but there was no further injury. I warned those behind me to be alert, assuring them all that it was nothing and I could go on.

Black skies turned into a dark shade of indigo as more of the surroundings revealed itself gradually. Our hiking party stopped to rest at a relatively open area that featured large rocks like massive stone mushrooms growing on the ground. Far beyond lay forests and ahead of the trail stood the rest of Mt Tabayoc. A blanket of mist hid the summit itself, indicating that we would venture into it. Ben, Vergel, and I kept on chatting with the Kalanguya woman who became increasingly affectionate with the Akyaters.

The trek continued after the five-minute break. One by one, we turned off our headlamps and flashlights when the increasingly rough path became discernible to our eyes. I could see clearly where to step and what to avoid. Our group then penetrated a mass of tall trees with trunks and branches covered in moss. The plants at Mt Tabayoc were alien-like compared to flora found on the lowlands. Up here, a cloud forest existed in place of a jungle. The leaves looked pale while the soil was gray rather than brown. Roots branched out into the trail itself, adding to the challenges in our hike. Leaf litter on the forest floor did not seem to decay. The path to the summit also got incredibly steep. At certain parts I grasped on branches or rocks as if climbing a ladder more than walking.

Ben, Vergel, and I kept up with the guide while our companions chose a slower pace. They were accompanied by a ‘sweeper,’ or another guide assigned at the rear of a trekking party to make sure no one gets lost or left behind. Our ‘sweeper’ was a slightly built 20-year old man. The four of us kept on going. I found myself having better stamina during this climb than at Mt Daraitan. Perhaps it was the cool temperature and dry ground surface that helped me. Muscle activity from walking for nearly an hour made our bodies warmer under the soft daylight. I had to take my jacket off and wrap the sleeves around my neck, turning it into a cape. Yet at times later I would wear it again and then remove in a cycle that depended on temperature.

Our smaller group took momentary breaks, using the time to ask the senior guide about useful plants, wildlife, and other features of Mt Tabayoc. Vergel shared his previous excursion at Mt Kanlaon on the island of Negros. During a one-on-one chat with our guide, she asked me about my job. I said my department in the office would be dissolved by the end of April and also remarked I might work as a nature guide to have a literal fresh start. She told me I could do so here at Mt Tabayoc as I would be familiar with the trail after this climb. To be honest, I did not expect her to encourage me but this trek was manageable for Ben, Vergel, and I. Then Joseph and Emae caught up after the former got slightly injured. At this point, Ben complained about a runny nose that I confirmed as an allergy. I offered him an antihistamine tablet but he declined. Ben kept on going without problems except for just a runny nose. When I had an allergic reaction, I grew weak to a point that breathing became difficult.

High up in Benguet province, I stared at the sky beyond the cloud forest’s canopy. We could not see anything except a background of white and light blue. There was worry about reaching the summit but lacking scenic views of the mountain’s foothills along with surrounding peaks.

Well past an hour into the climb, the trail was not a clearly-marked footpath anymore. It appeared as a rocky and moss-covered gap among the trees. Our trek became far from a simple stroll. I could feel a mild strain on my legs but it was alleviated by this positively unique mountain climbing experience. A certain technique helped too. Rather than move slowly and carefully, I ‘sprinted’ through bits of the trail that were easy for me through a combination of surefooted agility and confidence. Once moving this way, I found it difficult to stop. Grasping branches and managing my center of gravity, it could be described as doing parkour in a montane forest.

Ben, Vergel, and I advanced towards the summit ahead of the group. We came upon a spot where trees gave way to grayish boulders and holes on the ground. It seemed a perfect place to escape from civilization as a cave-dwelling person who lived by simple tools and wits. Our feet struck a solid surface as we leaped across gaps and balanced on rocks. Mist hung above us. It felt like dreaming in the middle of sleep. As the air got even colder I decided not to take off my jacket until I reached the summit.

The cloud forest engulfed us again and the rocky trail turned slippery. Our way was littered with layers of dead leaves that looked like cardboard soaked in water. At one point, we had to step back with tense legs and extra focus before jumping across a relatively wide crevice. Then we climbed a stretch of rock while gripping carefully as if our lives depended on our fingers. At least Mt Tabayoc did not have the scorching heat that sapped energy. More of those ghost-like trees surrounded our way before arriving at our destination.

It took 2 hours and 30 minutes, instead of the expected 3 hours, for Ben, Emae, Joseph, Vergel, and I to reach the summit. Our cheerful guide told so when we saw a platform made on the top of trees rising towards continuously moving fog. She added that the structure could support only a few people so Ben, Vergel, and I climbed the rickety stairs first. Then Emae and Joseph could have a moment between themselves as a couple.

Up the platform seemingly constructed by woodland elves, I could see a ridge but the view was blurred by the mist. Other than that, there was nothing but a shade of gray found on the uniforms of the US military’s West Point cadets. We were right about our prediction earlier. On that day, Mt Tabayoc did not have a ‘clearing,’ or the term for a 360-degree view of surroundings not obstructed by clouds or fog. It felt disappointing but at least we successfully climbed the second-highest mountain in Luzon. The strong wind kept on blowing and the three of us found it challenging to stand without holding onto something. While taking photos, we had a very firm grasp of our mobile phones with cameras. If one fell down into a gap on the makeshift platform, retrieval from a wall of tangled branches may be impossible.

Sorry, no clearing for today

I spent about five minutes or so with Ben and Vergel atop the structure, savoring our accomplishment and the sensation of being within the clouds. The moisture-rich air tasted like rainwater. Later on, Emae and Joseph described the experience as staying inside a refrigerator.

The rest of the Akyaters then arrived at the summit, climbing up the platform in batches. Those who were already done, including me, sat on rock or fallen log at the base and munched on trail mix. There was yelling in the midst of chatting. They too remarked about the frigid winds and the lack of scenic views. Carla, Gigi, and Nil asked me to take photos, which I did enthusiastically.  When the photo session was over, everyone huddled together and shared snacks while laughing from funny comments. The break lasted for 15 minutes before we started our descent.

Like earlier, Ben, Vergel, and I led the way but this time we were accompanied by the 20-year old sweeper and had conversations with him. He had a backpack while carrying a large plastic bottle of water. We simply followed the trail that brought us to the summit earlier. Going downhill took relatively less time but my legs felt the same pressure and pain back on the climb at Mt Daraitan. There was an advice about using the hands more than the feet during the descent and I applied it. Strain went to my arms, implying that it worked. Sometimes I had to sit on the ground or risk losing my balance, possibly getting injured. The three of us removed our jackets when we got past the cloud forest. It was past 10 AM when we returned to the campsite. My climb spanned a total of five hours.

The trek at Mt Tabayoc meant I was getting more involved in major climbs and getting used to camping overnight. Perhaps one day I might try to reach summits with snow and ice, more than just trees in the midst of eternal fog.



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