Neither Heaven Nor Hell

Finally, it was time to get down from the metal bars that secured not only baggage but also passengers atop the heavy duty jeepney. Unlike its counterpart in the city, this vehicle can easily navigate the hairpin turns of northern Luzon’s Cordillera mountain range thanks to its bulkier frame and more powerful engine. With our feet on the ground, we expected a very long walk ahead.

Beyond the starting point lay an expanse of pine trees. Their dark green needles looked faded under the cloudy sky. The words “MT PURGATORY JUMP-OFF POINT” were inscribed on a sign by the road. A shack stood nearby. Another group of trekkers listened to a guide for a briefing about the trail.

During the fishing trip at Valenzuela, Christian “Xtian” Villanueva and Elena “Len” Ibana invited me to this planned outing around Mt Purgatory at August 20-21, 2016. Len could not come. Charlie “Daddy” Ramos led our group named Talahib. As his name implied, he was a father figure to us. Also participating in this weekend adventure were Clarisse Anne Ancheta, Marc Kevin Balboa, Ervin Basa, Yasmin “Yhs” Cariño, Neil John dela Cruz, Maria Queen Elizabeth Dalimit, April Enriquez, Christian de Gala, Ron Javier, MJ Ladores, Ann Margarett “Mags” Morella, and Hannah Ramos. Leslie Litong, who I met during the second climb at Mt Marami, joined the trek too. It was like a reunion with her and Xtian. Still, I looked forward to spending time with our companions and know them better.

While we registered for the hike and waited for our turn to be briefed about it, I saw a familiar face. We both stared at each other. The woman also recognized me. She was the guide during my climb at Mt Tabayoc six months ago. I did not expect to see her again. Yet there she was, accompanying another group of hikers. I forgot her name. After asking her, she replied that it was Emilia. Meeting her again felt like attending a family reunion after a 10-year absence.

Sabel, a 28-year old woman, and Benito, a man approaching his senior years, acted as our guides for the long trek ahead. Both were affiliated with the Kalanguya ethnic group. Aside from guides, we also had help from porters. Leslie found her backpack too heavy. It weighed 15 kilograms according to a dial scale commonly seen at wet markets in the Philippines.

We gathered around the jump-off point sign and a map next to it. Sabel then made a briefing about the route we would take. Starting here at Japas, we would walk to Mt Mangakew. We would pass by a water source and a road junction before reaching Mt Pack (also called by its local name of Mt Banskila). Then we would follow a trail through a mossy forest to reach the summit of Mt Purgatory (also known as Mt Mangisi). We would descend to our overnight stopover at Mt Bakian. On the following day, we would climb Mt Kom-Kompol and Mt Tangbaw. Then we would take a rather long path to Petital, which lay at the end of our journey.

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A closer look at the helpful map of Mt Purgatory and surrounding areas
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Benito (left) and Sabel (right) wearing the distinct green outfits of Mt Purgatory’s guides 

Our hiking party got divided into two groups. Sabel led those among us with a faster pace. Benito guided those who preferred the rear. Anne, Christian, Ervin, MJ, and I joined Sabel’s group.

20160820_075337The trek commenced past 9 AM. An uphill dirt path branched out from the cement road traveled by trucks and jeepneys. We followed this path with some degree of enthusiasm. The orange-colored soil had a top layer of pebbles and slightly bigger stones, giving us a bit of a rough start. Then the path curved or turned sharply. The surface may be moist but not muddy due to a colder climate.

Later on, our way forked into one of dirt and one of cement. Sabel said the dirt path on the left would lead towards a garden. We followed the other on the right. My face broke into a smile. We came upon a man riding a motorcycle on his way down. Our group stood at the sides to let him pass. His feet, instead of the wheels, did the job.

Soon the cemented path ended and our feet stomped reddish-brown soil. To our right lay a breath-taking scenery of pine trees and distant ridges under a clear sky. Just off the trail were ravines. One clumsy move and I would be blowing the whistle built into my backpack – if still able to do so. At certain points the trail had railings made of metal poles and durable ropes. Our way also grew steeper as it sloped upward. I began to pant. Heavy breathing was normal for me about ten minutes after the start of an uphill hike. Soon I doubted my own confidence. Christian and MJ kept up with Sabel. I had to stop briefly to take deep breaths and recover. My pace matched that of Anne. She asked me where to buy ornamental plants here in Benguet province.

Mist appeared out of nowhere before Anne and I. It was a ghostly being that turned the air light gray and dimmed visibility. Yet it looked enchanting among black pine trunks.

The dirt path went uphill until I caught sight of a resting station. I gathered all my energy and bounded towards it. The structure looked like a typical bus stop. It had a tin roof supported by metal poles at the corners. Long planks of wood were laid on three sides for people to sit on. We rested our backpacks on them. I drank some bottled water from its 1.5 liter container. Our group also took photos. According to Christian, only 10 minutes passed since we began the hike. We covered 1.6 kilometers so far. Minutes later, the second group accompanied by Benito also arrived at this spot. It was their turn to have a break. The first batch, now including ‘Daddy’ Charlie, decided to go.

20160820_093927Clumps of ferns grew on a slope to our right. Beyond them lay more pine trees partly shrouded by the mist. The air smelled of damp vegetation. Just a short walk from the resting station, we came upon a black pipe protruding from solid rock. It was like a faucet that cannot be turned off,  giving an unlimited supply of impurity-free water. Cupping my right hand, I leaned forward for a drink. The water tasted refreshingly sweet. Sabel told our group that this spot was the first water source.

20160820_094421We followed the cemented path stained by the reddish soil. The sun rose higher. Our surroundings grew warmer. As I perspired more, it became logical for me to take off my sweater at the next rest point. My legs felt weary not only from the ascent but also from the weight of my backpack. In my previous treks, we would leave our stuff at the campsite. Only trail food, water, mobile devices, and perhaps a first aid kit would be brought by each person in a hike that would last 10 hours at least. This time, my back had to endure the combined weight of belongings, food, and gear until we reach the stopover for the night. I hoped we would arrive there by sunset.

A barbed wire fence stretched along the trail. There was a rustic wooden sign indicating we had reached the first of the six mountains in our itinerary. The Ibaloi ethnic group called it Mt Mangakew while the Kalanguya spelt it as Mt Mangagew. My companions and I spoke Tagalog and could not prevent ourselves from bursting into laughter. Sabel understood what was funny and laughed too. In the first place, she had been communicating with us in Tagalog. Mangagew sounded like our word for ‘snatch’ or ‘grab.’ We were thinking about some random person snatching the romantic interest of another.

Just across the dirt road lay an elementary school, or primary school. I could not just walk into it from where I was standing due to a barbed wire fence. Single-story buildings with tin roofs contained the classrooms. There was a cemented court in the middle where students can play volleyball or badminton. The school grounds also featured a small garden plot with newly-sprouted plants. This place of learning had the typical look of one found in a rural community. School in cities differed by having more concrete, more buildings, and especially more children. ‘Daddy’ Charlie and I had a conversation about the disparity between urban and rural living conditions in the Philippines.

The hike resumed when the participating members of Talahib had regrouped and rested sufficiently. Continuous rain from the previous days turned the dirt into mud. I just hoped it would not rain today. We kept mostly at the edge of the unpaved road. At this point I had a chance to talk to Neil. We shared our experiences in hiking and mountain climbing. Then our group came upon a bigger Mt Mangagew sign complete with a scenic photo. We posed for pictures eagerly.

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“Nature is a treasure, refrain from throwing garbage just anywhere, do not conduct slash-and-burn on the forest, take care of Mt Purgatory”

Residential houses lined the dirt road. Their walls were made of sheet metal rather than wood or concrete. After all, this material absorbed and retained heat better. This part of the trek did not have the sloping surfaces that made me catch breath. An even path stretched as far as my eyes could see. A background of blue, white, and green brought a sense of calm. The surrounding temperature also became cooler. I already removed my sweater back at Mt Mangagew and was not planning to put in on again.

At this specific location, the landscape itself seemed alive. Countless pine trees were the hairs. Mist could be compared to one’s breath on a very cold day. The reddish dirt path was an artery.

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It’s only nearly noon on the first day. There’s still a long way to go over those mountains

Our hiking party took a break around a convenience store. Across the road lay three benches arranged into a square that lacked one side. We put our backpacks down, chatted, and sent text messages through mobile phone. Snacks came in the form of mint candies, imported chocolates, jellies, and the Filipino variety of corn nuts called a cornick. ‘Daddy’ Charlie also offered orange-flavored soft drink he bought at the store. Then it got more interesting when a crested myna (Acridotheres cristatellus) appeared from out of nowhere. The bird could not fly. It limped though not painfully. MJ tried to feed it with cornick. He had some success. Despite its condition, I thought of subjecting the myna to the laws of nature – without human interference. This creature would survive if it had the strength, cunning, and perhaps fortune to stay alive.

20160820_112204It was past 11 AM. We kept on following the dirt road until it branched out to our right. Sabel led us to the other route that went uphill. A sign advised motorists to stay within the main road. This path was intended for travel on foot. It seemed to be covered with gravel more than soil, turning it gray. The surface also sloped upward dramatically. Sabel and Christian kept on going. ‘Daddy’ Charlie maintained his pace just behind them. MJ and I followed. I looked to my back and saw Anne, Ervin, Neil, and Yhs. This hike really tested my endurance. Every step drained every bit of energy from my whole body. I resorted to taking a ten-second break when I could not walk further. Once recovered, I would move rather slowly until I could not do it again. Then I would have another ten-second break. It was a cycle I relied on at that part of the trail with a view of two distant waterfalls and a forest of undisturbed pine trees.

My ordeal came to an end where pines and rock gave way to long grass and mud. I caught up with Sabel, ‘Daddy’ Charlie, and Christian. The trail curved before going straight and then turned right into a group of houses.

20160820_113939Three women in cold weather outfits greeted us while sitting next to rows of corn plants. Stilts lifted their grayish wooden dwellings off the ground. A long piece of wood on open ground could serve as a makeshift bench. Chickens pecked on the ground and scurried as we followed Sabel. Then I stumbled upon a mackerel cat. I happened to be an ailurophile. The five of us entered a shed with large blue plastic containers, sacks piled on top of one another, and farming implements. We rested our backpacks there. ‘Daddy’ Charlie said we would have lunch now. It was nearly 12 noon.

Christian sat on an overturned plastic bottle crate. He took out his lunch and started eating. Something small and furry came running into the shed. It was the mackerel cat. The feline approached Christian, meowed ceaselessly, and even rubbed its body against his leg. I found this scene rather cute. My trekking companion, however, had enough. He shooed the cat away. Christian then finished his meal in peace.

Anne, Ervin, MJ, and I had lunch with Sabel and another guide at a raised platform of another home. Canned sardines may not be the most appetizing meal with rice but for a hiker it was very convenient to bring along. All we needed to do was fill up our stomachs to maintain energy until nightfall. As expected, that mackerel cat tried its luck with us. Then several fuzzy kittens emerged from the house.

Benito and our companions in the second group arrived at the hamlet. Then they had their lunch earnestly. Those who already had their fill now took care of personal hygiene. A sort of a communal faucet allowed us to wash our hair and faces. We also brushed our teeth.

Everyone was ready to go by 12:50 PM. Leaving the settlement, we took a dirt path and passed by cogon grass (Imperata cylindrica) to our left and rows of various crops to our right. What was a blue sky hours ago now turned gray. Distant evergreens had a darker shade close to black. The mist waltzed on top of the ridges. My skin sensed a drop in surrounding temperature. The air smelled of moisture.

Beyond the farmland, the terrain appeared wild with its steep slopes, cogon grass growing abundantly, grotesque rock faces, and towering pine trees that surrounded us at all sides. The trail went upward. I had my lunch and adequate rest yet still needed those ten-second breaks. At least I panted less. The increasingly cold air also made me less weary. To our left just off the trail, the ground plunged to a ravine with its bottom now concealed by the mist. The outdoors should have an ambience but this location was simply devoid of sound. I could only hear my voice and those of my companions.

Past the ravine, Sabel showed us another resting station. Hikers from the group ahead of us were in there. Then they pressed on just as we came. Sabel told us the Talahib trekkers would regroup here. Our companions later arrived by twos or by threes. Just as we were complete, drops instead of a fine spray fell from the gloomy sky. We started wearing rain gear in various forms and colors. I bought mine from a hardware store three days ago. Compared to my older poncho, this light blue raincoat was made of more durable material, covered my arms fully, and extended down to my knees.

It stopped raining when we moved out. We thought of removing our rain gear until a moderate shower came upon us shortly. With a quickened pace I rejoined the lead trekkers. At this point the hike seemed tedious. Then we came upon a number of men with tools, flattening mud that accumulated on the road in the aftermath of a landslide. They looked drenched yet remained cheerful. What I thought as mud turned out to be more compact. My feet did not sink. Yet small puddles formed. I did not dare step on them. Sabel, Christian, Anne, MJ, and I kept on walking while paying attention to the rocky slope and tangled vegetation to our right. Given the landslide earlier, a boulder might come bounding towards any of us. Then my eyeglass’s lens got blurred by dissipated rain droplets.

We reached the Kabajo road junction. A trail congested with plants and currently made of mud winded between it and a hut near the entrance to Mt Pack. This mountain’s highest point was situated at 2,290 meters above sea level. An American surveyor lent his name to the location. Our group would now venture into the mossy forest like the one on Mt Tabayoc. The Talahib participants regrouped first and then took photos under the shelter of that hut before heading off.

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Welcome to Mt Pack and its mossy forest

Nothing remarkable happened in the 30-minute walk. We would have admired the mossy forest more if it was not raining. Water dripped constantly. I had an uneasy feeling from wearing rain gear. My shoes flung bits of mud. Then part of the sole of my right shoe broke off. My footwear seemed to have a mouth. Weariness took off from my legs and landed at my spirits. At last we reached a clearing with benches and a large green sign on two metal bars with the the words MT PACK in bold white letters. I saw Emilia, my guide at Mt Tabayoc, there and we posed for a picture. Our group waited for the rest of our companions. When everyone had arrived, the Talahib hiking team asked our guides to take a group photo. ‘Daddy’ Charlie brought a square piece of tarpaulin with the Talahib’s logo.

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Remember her? She was my guide at the Mt Tabayoc climb last February
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Despite continuous rain and a grueling hike, we basked in the achievement of climbing Mt Pack

At 3:15 PM, the first batch of hikers left this point of Mt Pack for Mt Purgatory. Anne, Christian, Queen, and I followed Sabel on a downhill trail. We moved as if we were running. Queen was on the rear and at times the rest of us would lose visual contact with her. I just learned in the morning that a snap-fit buckle on my backpack also functioned as a whistle. I blew it once. Another single blast could be heard. Then Queen, wearing a striking red rain jacket, emerged from a curtain of tree trunks.

The mossy forest engulfed us. We were slowly digested by gastric juices made of rainwater and mud. The tree canopy blocked most of the sunlight that was already reduced by an overcast sky. The unmistakable sound of rain falling on vegetation quietened all the birds and critters of the woodland.

I ranted about things I did not understood in human behavior. Anne and Christian shed some light on the matter. Then I decided to shut up. We changed the topic to cultivated plants and specialty snacks of various towns and provinces. Then Christian said the width of one’s thighs determines his or her ability to run. Those with thinner thighs excel at long-distance running. Sprinting is more suitable for those having thicker thighs. Christian and Anne began talking about running and, later on, music.

There was not much to see during our hike that lasted at least two hours except moss-covered vegetation and the muddy trail. Then I saw a meadow beyond the trees. It was like looking at a bright light at the end of the tunnel. 20160820_163626A sign stood out at the middle of the grassy open ground. I could read “Mt Purgatory Mangisi” below a photo of this place and the phrase ‘The Mossy Gateway.’ The mountain had an elevation of about 2,100 meters. Sabel then took us to a hut that was better constructed than the one at the base of Mt Pack.

My companions were also intrigued how Mt Purgatory got its name. An American missionary was surveying this place back when the Philippines was a US dependency. He noted that the mountain was eerily silent. Water was also hard to come by. Those otherworldly conditions prompted him to come up with the name ‘Purgatory.’

One by one, the other Talahib hikers took shelter inside the hut. Makeshift benches made of bamboo lined the walls parallel to each other. The floor may be the ground itself but at least it was dry. It had been raining for hours now and it seemed there was no end to it. The hut gave protection from the elements. Trekkers could also have spent chilly nights here. At 2 AM, surrounding temperatures plummeted to 10 degrees Celsius and even lower. Now the daylight was fading. It was already 5 PM and a two-hour hike still lay between us and the overnight accommodation. ‘Daddy’ Charlie added that Ron struggled with the weight of his backpack. He also began to feel ill.

Anne, Christian, Mags, Marc, Neil, Queen, Yhs, and I made up the first batch to Mt Bakian. The rest would accompany Ron and make sure he stays alright, ‘Daddy’ Charlie told me. He also distributed two cans of butane between Neil and I for safekeeping. He would ask for them later at our accommodation. We also wore head lamps and brought out solar lamps in case darkness caught us out on the trail.

The cold stung my bare hands poking out of the sleeves of my raincoat. We all felt a steady drop in temperature. Hopefully, continuous walking would keep us warm. Our party took a path surrounded by cogon grass until we entered the mossy forest once more. Mags had a slower pace. She was feeling unwell too, possibly due to fever. Sabel, Anne, and Christian moved too fast until they disappeared among the ghastly trees. I blew the whistle. Later on, we remained in visual contact with one another. It may be the last leg of today’s journey but we were still far from comfort. My right shoe deteriorated even further. It needed serious repair. Perhaps I might buy a new pair. With my blue raincoat and muddy feet, I looked like a French soldier from World War One who just survived another incursion into no man’s land. Our group of hikers pressed on under incessant rain. At this point I was too tired to feel fatigue.

At last, a wooden sign notified us that we were only 1 kilometer away from the overnight accommodations at Mt Bakian. The sky appeared dark blue and the pine trees had turned black already. Night was approaching. We could still see the ground and the way ahead. However, the details faded at every passing minute. Later we would be surrounded by complete darkness. Sabel led us through a path along a ravine. The river down below swelled and rushed along the sound of falling rain. Then we saw distant lights from houses up on the hills. I thought they were our destination. I was disappointed.

The trail turned sharply to the left at a point where water emerged from a shady thicket and ran across the road as a stream. It then flowed down the ravine to merge with the surging river. A moment later, we looked back and saw moving lights in the distance. Our companions were not as far away as we thought. Then it became so dark that we had to turn our light-producing gadgets on. Suddenly, Ervin was having a chat with Queen. MJ caught up too. The uphill stroll went on until we turned right and entered the patio of a house.

Benito’s house had two more adjacent buildings that served as our accommodation. Most of the men would sleep separately from the women. Marc and Neil were the exception, who accompanied their girlfriends Mags and Yhs, respectively.

We replaced our wet and slightly muddy clothes with cleaner outfits. Some took a complete bath at the communal restroom while others simply washed parts of their bodies due to the high-altitude cold. Chicken tinola was the main item for supper. After having dinner, we kept the night alive through chatting. The men sipped shots of brandy. I declined due to my decision to abstain from drinking liquor. Ron had slept already after feeling exhausted and quite sick as well. The sleeping bag enveloped me like a cocoon, providing cozy warmth. I wore a trapper hat for additional comfort. Unlike at that campsite on Mt Tabayoc, we slept inside a house this time. The wooden floor was raised off the ground too, supported by posts. It was not as frigid as my previous stay at the mountains of Benguet.

Despite getting up at 5 AM, we only got fully aroused an hour later. Our hosts provided hot water for coffee and instant noodles. Morning revealed more details of the wooden dwellings and scenic surroundings. The whitish sun peeked from a verdant ridge. Feathery tips of cogon grass swayed in the breeze. Bird song filled the air. ‘Daddy’ Charlie, Christian, Ervin, MJ, and I enjoyed coffee while admiring the view of the highlands under a sky with cirrocumulus or ‘mackerel’ clouds. The moon could still be seen as a faint white dot. Later we grabbed our moist gear to let it dry under the sun. I would wear a pair of yellow flip-flops for the trek later. My right shoe was deemed unusable due to a torn sole.

Our trek to Mt Kom-Kompol began at 6:55 AM. Sabel, Chrisitian, Ervin, MJ, and I comprised the first batch but our companions were relatively close behind. We took a trail lined by cogon grass and left the laidback community. Our path winded along a ravine. The surroundings reminded me of the eastern part of a northern island in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) I played before. It also had a dirt road on a mountain strewn with pine trees. Then a large dried branch, completely devoid of leaves, blocked the path. Another trail led us uphill.

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Distant valleys accumulating mist, seen from the trail to Mt Kom-Kompol past 6 AM

A bed of ferns and some crops lay below to our right. The trail got narrow and the ground felt rather loose. Good thing no one among us slipped. Several minutes later, I realized we were walking on what looked like a valley. This grassy piece of land was still dim from the shadow cast by one slope. The sun already shone on the upper half of the other. Unlike yesterday, this day promised splendid weather for hiking.

We came upon Emilia looking after the bags left by another group who went at Mt Kom-Kompol first. Our way came at a dead end. Beyond it lay a giant wave of conifers and a distant ridge that looked blue more than green. We turned right, following an even path on a hilltop that eventually brought us into a mossy forest.

20160821_065340Endless columns of narrow tree trunks surrounded us at all sides. It was shady but sunlight gradually penetrated the forest canopy. It had stopped raining but the black ground still felt soft, if not wet and muddy at certain points. Some people must had cut branches and arranged them to transform the trail into a set of stairs. My flip-flops lacked the grip that my hiking shoes offered. The ascent robbed me of my breath. I had to cease from walking for ten seconds at most. Once recovered, I would press on. It happened several times but this hike was less tiring compared to yesterday. Having no backpacks was the game changer. Our group had minimal chatting. My ears picked up natural yet unfamiliar sounds every now and then. As we came closer to the mountain top, our party bumped into the hikers from another group. They moved separately rather than as a whole. The same could be said about the Talahib trekkers. Then Ervin sustained a cut to his toe.

Nearly one hour since we began, our batch guided by Sabel reached the highest point of Mt Kom-Kompol at 2,320 meters above sea level. A log lying horizontally served as a bench. Ervin sat on it as Sabel tended his minor wound. A metal sign indicated the viewing point. This spot gave us breath-taking scenery that consisted of ridges, valleys, and gullies. It was as if we could see the entire Cordilleras from up here. Yet bluish-gray mist simply appeared and blocked our view. Fortunately, it also vanished into thin air to reveal the natural wonders of this part of the Philippines.

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The clear view from Mt Kom-Kompol was under the mercy of the mist and the wind

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Standing from left: The Blogger, Xtian, Queen, MJ, Hannah, Mags, Marc, Anne, Yhs, Neil. Sitting from left: Ron, Leslie, Christian, April, Ervin, ‘Daddy’ Charlie

Our companions then arrived singly or in pairs. Later on, Ron walked into the scene as well. Previously thought to be still recovering from his ordeal at Mt Purgatory, he seemed back in top shape. The Talahib hikers took photos in small groups. Then we all posed before Sabel and Benito for a group picture. I also spent the time talking to Sabel about the mountains and Kalanguya culture. About 30 minutes passed since we regrouped before we began the descent back to Bakian.

Less than a minute in our downhill hike, I slipped. I did not injure myself or broke my belongings. My pace was faster than my companions but slower than that of ‘Daddy’ Charlie, Ervin, MJ, and Sabel. Then I found myself alone in the middle of a mossy forest. I retraced my way through ropes along part of the trail with a deep ravine, stairs of branches and soil that went either up or down, and seemingly gateways to the realm of woodland elves.

Eventually, I emerged into the valley now basked in sunlight.The path sloped downward at that area with the crops and ferns, forcing me to run to reduce straining pressure on my legs. I was back on the road again. The large gnarled branch that blocked it was now lying on the roadside. I placed it how we found it earlier so no one would lose direction. Then I strolled under the bright morning sun like a wandering bard. It was easy to imagine these largely untouched surroundings as the Middle Earth conceptualized by J.R.R. Tolkien. Additionally, I could be someone traveling on the wilderness in search of my self. The coniferous woodland and steep slopes also resembled the tree line of the Rockies in Colorado, USA. Without getting tired during the return hike, I could say my descent from Mt Kom-Kompol took a shorter time than the ascent.

I met up with ‘Daddy’ Charlie, Ervin, and MJ at our accommodation. We packed up our stuff. Later on, our companions returned to Bakian to get ready for the final trek before heading to Baguio city and back to Manila. Wearing a sweater made me perspire excessively. Notwithstanding the cool high-altitude temperatures, I bathed my upper body with a dipper, a face towel, and a source of water. Then it was a lively conversation with Anne, Christian, Hannah, Mags, Marc, and MJ. 20160821_100108Hannah and MJ got amused by discussing and comparing their respective careers at separate dairy companies. We all decided to have our breakfast and lunch in one sitting. With Xtian as our chef, brunch consisted of boiled rice, scrambled eggs, chopped up salted duck eggs and onion, cured pork known as tocino, and soup made with macaroni pasta, shredded chicken meat, cabbage, and evaporated milk. It was more than satisfying.

After doing final preparations and making sure we did not forget stuff, the Talahib hikers finally left Bakian for a brief visit to Mt Tangbaw before a long walk to Petital, situated along the Agno River. We took the same path to Mt Kom-Kompol. Now we walked on the main road, disregarding the narrower trail we followed earlier.

Sabel, Christian, Ervin, and MJ led the way. Neil and Yhs had their moments together. I decided to stroll beside Anne as her trekking buddy. She strained the muscles on her left thigh during the Mt Kom-Kompol hike. Her walking stick was carved yesterday from a tree that grew here in Bokod, Benguet. We talked about outdoor trips and hobbies, among other things. Anne did not look like someone writhing in pain. She kept a rather slow pace due to aching but moved steadily. Then we reached Mt Tangbaw.

Another group of hikers rested in a makeshift hut of thatch and bamboo. I crossed paths with them hours ago at Bakian. They were heading out for a nature walk just as I returned to our overnight stopover. In some ways, the community at Bakian resembled the one here at Mt Tangbaw. Pine trees looked like a translucent green wall that loomed over grassy hillsides. Children played on a field. A few chickens and a dog frolicked too. We posed for photos on a small MOUNT TANGBAW sign on a metal pole. A tree stump and a fallen log served as additional platforms. Minutes later, our companions arrived. We asked the guides to take a group picture. Then we were back on the trail again.

20160821_122720The dirt path, littered with gray pebbles, winded through a mountainside. My exposed toes rubbed against stones, making my pace slower. Pine cones and needles lay withered on the ground. The tall trunks of evergreen trees seemed like the giant steel posts along the highways. At the edge of the trail to our left, the ground sloped abruptly to form deep ravines. Roadside signs warned us about them. A recent landslide dumped soil and rocks on our path, which remained navigable though.

Soon, Anne and I found ourselves at the rear of the first batch. I wanted to stay beside her, or at least near her. A strained thigh did not seem to bother. Anne told me to go on, insisting she would be okay. I went ahead of her but made sure she remained in visual contact. Clarisse Anne reminded me of her almost namesake – Candice Anne. Back at my hike to Bomod-ok Falls at Sagada, Candice and I had the same pace of walking and had a great conversation too. Yet there was no need to worry about Anne. Our companions would catch up with her and they did as we approached a place to stop off.

20160821_125822Again, we bumped into the other group of trekkers. They continued their way shortly after. Some of them smiled at us while we recovered energy in a thatched structure with two benches and a table at the middle. My companions also cleaned dirt from their feet and massaged aching body parts. It was at 1:10 PM when we resumed the hike. Barbed wire lined both sides of the dirt road. Then there was a commotion. In the valleys between three ridges lay houses, their tin roofs shining under the early afternoon sun. Clouds cast shadows that covered hectares of wooded slopes. The view amazed us.  The sight of houses meant we were getting close to the end of our journey.

Pebble-strewn ground on our feet turned into cement for a brief moment. Then it became dirt again. Relying on balance and tight grip, we crossed a makeshift bridge through the barbed wire fence. It was the last time in the trek I stayed close to Anne. The first batch guided by Sabel disappeared from view. I had two choices: catch up with them or join the second batch for a change. My instincts went for the first option. The trail of loose brown soil contrasted with the lush green grass. Going downhill hurriedly with a simple pair of flip-flops presented the risk of slipping. I almost lost my footing. When I did catch up, they just got down a nearly vertical slope. Now I had to overcome it without mishap.

20160821_132105I was not accident-proof during the last leg of the two-day excursion. It happened so fast I could not avert it. That place looked like a perfect spot for picnics. My feet slid suddenly on a descending trail. My rear hit the ground. Adding insult to injury, fellow hikers from another group witnessed how it unfolded. It did not hurt though. They expressed concern and I assured them it was okay, even managing to inject humor into the conversation. When one slips and falls down, one must get up and continue to move forward.

A herd of cows became rather inquisitive as I passed by them. Two of the animals thrashed the vegetation, trampling it with their hooves. They came closer to the trail. I avoided eye-to-eye contact at all costs. I knew I would not outrun a cow given the terrain and my footwear. They may be domesticated but people are more likely to be killed by cows than by sharks. After getting past the cattle, I rested my legs in a roofed waiting station. A few minutes passed before Neil, Yhs, Marc, and Mags came near the structure. I had to go.

A vast expanse of open terrain lay ahead. The dirt path went completely downhill. I would rather do it on a rough trail within a forest. Descending was easier if I had tree trunks and branches to grasp. Here, the closest thing to hold on was a bundle of grass that would snap from pulling. Still, I overcame this point of the hike despite the struggle. Staying low to stabilize my center of gravity also helped.

I caught up with Christian, Ervin, MJ, and Sabel. She handed me a pair of sandals designed for hiking. One of the trekkers who saw me slip earlier decided to lend it to me. I removed my yellow flip-flops and wore the sandals with a smile. Then MJ noted that my right hand was bleeding. I was looking at a red smear between my ring finger and little finger. Sabel took the first-aid kit, cleaned the cut with rubbing alcohol, applied Betadine®, and covered it with Band-Aid®. I should feel a sting from the alcohol making contact with the wound. There was nothing. My entire body was probably too tired to sense pain.

The Talahib hikers regrouped for about five minutes more before pressing forward. We made twists and turns on a landscape of scattered pine trees and plenty of cogon grass. The houses on the valley far below drew closer. Then I was alone because of my particular pace of moving.

When grass gave way to crops and farmhouses appeared, the dirt trail also transformed into a cemented path. I thought it would be an easy stroll from that point. My legs began to succumb to weariness from hours of walking. My feet found it difficult to resist slipping from the moss-covered surfaces. There was not enough friction on the cemented path that seemed a miniature of those highland roads with hairpin turns. Walking on the bit of soil beside it proved to be less risky. However, this was not always possible. To make matters worse for me, the sun shone fiercely on that early afternoon. It was unusually hot here in Benguet. My sweater suited the climate but not the weather at the moment. The heat sapped my energy further. Accomplishing this trek to write a new blog post served as one of my motivations.

Fortunately, I arrived at a relatively populous community past 2 PM without tumbling down or sustaining more wounds. My toes, however, had bruises and were smeared with dried mud. Then I noticed one of them had a minor cut about a centimeter long. I waddled more than strolled due to aching feet. There was a convenience store. I bought fruit juice in a foil pack. Sipping it quickly relieved my parched throat and kept me going. People along the way insisted I was getting close to my destination where a bath and the ride towards home awaited.

The way ahead split into two. To my left lay a dirt path with metal railings. To my right, a cemented set of stairs descended into a paved road. I asked two passers-by but they were in a hurry to catch a ride in a jeepney. Then I had an idea. Scanning the photos in my mobile phone, I looked for the map of Mt Purgatory and surrounding areas taken at the jump-off point. I zoomed in the image. Then I found the name. After going down the stairs, I asked two children about the direction to Petital. They said I should head towards my left. This was confirmed by a passing motorcyclist. As I followed the road along more houses, I felt like a tramp in search of adventure.

The road curved to the right. A group of people were sitting on benches in a thatched hut beside a silver Toyota HiAce van. I stopped by to thank them for lending the sandals. They introduced themselves as the Yes To Adventures travel group. Then I excused myself briefly. Sabel left my flip-flops in our heavy-duty jeepney. I wore the pair and returned the sandals to its rightful owner named Jerald Garayan. After a brief chat I bid them farewell. Perhaps I might join some of them in another excursion.

20160821_143632
Members of the Yes To Adventure group at Petital, where the two-day trek ended

Minutes passed and the Talahib trekkers regrouped gradually. Taking a bath with cold water and soap removed the heat, sweat, and dirt from my body. We all changed our outfits for fresh clothing. Between 3 PM and 4 PM, we boarded the jeepney and made our way to Baguio for our bus trip back to Manila. My ordeal was not over yet. I had rashes from an allergy when we stopped by at the municipal hall of Bokod, Benguet. It was triggered by hot and humid conditions. The tiny antihistamine tablet did its job but the side effect made me feel like intoxicated from drinking liquor.

The so-called Mt Purgatory traverse provided the experience to not only see but also immerse in the beauty of Benguet’s mountain peaks, mossy forests, and highland villages. However, it was not always a paradise. One must endure hikes that lasted for hours, sloping terrain, the risk of slipping or falling, extreme cold, limited water sources, and the lack of comfort found in one’s own home. Given the balance between what are desirable and what are not, I could say Mt Purgatory lived up to its name.

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