I woke up inside a moving van, surrounded by ridges, ravines, pine trees, and distant clouds of mist. The vehicle passed by isolated houses along a familiar road. We were taking the highway to Sagada, Mt Province. The weekend getaway with high school classmates last February remained fresh in my memory. This time, my destination was Mt Amuyao. The date was September 17, 2016.
Located at the Cordillera mountain range of northern Luzon, Mt Amuyao would have chilly nighttime and early morning temperatures. It stood with an elevation of around 2,700 meters above sea level. Mt Amuyao would take my mountain climbing experience to the next level with its trail difficulty of 8/9. In comparison, Mt Tabayoc had a rating of 6/9 and it was the second-highest in Luzon.
When I was notified about plans for the trek, I wanted to join badly. After all, my would-be companions were like a family to me. Carla and Nil Medrano organized the climb. Also participating were Jorrel Bautista, Chatereen ‘Chie’ Bonifacio, Gigi Darao, Jan Darao, and Rei Gallardo. I met them all during my first climb at Mt Daraitan. Kenneth Fontarum and Kristine ‘Kaye’ Carpio, my friends from the Graphics Department of my previous workplace, would come too. Vergel Calupitan would go to the event like he did at Mt Tabayoc. At the group’s rendezvous point at Ayala in Makati, Metro Manila, he introduced me to Mark ‘Mash’ Fernando. We left the capital city at 9:40 PM. Regie Calvelo, a friend of Nil and Carla, drove the van cheerfully and with skill.
It took us nine hours to arrive at the tourism office in Banaue, Ifugao. Here, tourists could see the world-renowned Banaue Rice Terraces and even explore surrounding areas by foot. The cold morning air felt refreshing rather than uncomfortable. It was a relief after staying in a van filled with people and large outdoor backpacks. Our group stopped by to register officially before doing a similar process again at the base of Mt Amuyao.
The registration sheet lay on top of a wooden table. After writing my name, I had a chat with a young-looking woman who facilitated us. A large map of Banaue and its tourist spots was on a wall inside the office. I asked about the locations along with the way of life there. The 25 year-old tourism employee introduced herself as Roxanne Liwliwa. I could not help but mention what I perceived as difficulty in seeing people the same age as us. She said young adults in her locality were also relocating to Baguio, even Manila, and leaving an agricultural lifestyle. I told her that even in industrialized Cavite, many residents in their twenties were working at the capital city too.
After having breakfast and shopping for food supplies at a vegetable market, our group left Banaue at around 9 AM. We headed towards Barlig, a municipality at the foothills of Mt Amuyao. The van followed the same road my high school classmates and I took seven months ago. One could say that a giant hand sliced chunks of the mountain and laid a winding highway. Twice we passed by quarries where rocks, each as big as a melon, were being hosed with water to be sold later. There was a number of pristine waterfalls just on the side of the road. Then we diverged from the path to Sagada, keeping right past the sign indicating the way to Barlig. Minor landslides dumped a messy mix of rocks and reddish soil on a concrete surface. Fortunately, they only affected one lane and left the other open. Then Regie drove across a truss bridge that would only support three tons. The van became a panting creature of metal as it struggled upward. Despite the scenic views, my eyes grew tired of the mountainous landscape until we reached Barlig at 11:45 AM.
Regie parked the van at a space in front of the municipal police station. Another group of trekkers had arrived before us. The atmosphere turned quite competitive. At the summit of Mt Amuyao lay a building Carla and Nil referred to as the ‘bunker.’ I thought of defensive concrete structures that resisted artillery explosions. Yet I still had to see the ‘bunker’ myself and find out whether it matched the name. Such a building would shelter us from the elements, particularly that frigid air before sunrise. We would not have to pitch tents too. However, Nil and Carla advised our group to bring tents as the ‘bunker’ only accommodated 16 people, according to outdoor enthusiasts who had been to this place before. I would not want to just lie on the grass in a sleeping bag, exposed to plunging temperatures and incessant winds atop a mountain. It would seem suicidal. We brought out our backpacks, registered inside an unpainted building next to the police station, and met our two guides named Ralph and Moises. Ralph would accompany those among us with a faster pace. Meanwhile, Moises would serve as the ‘sweeper’ so no one would be left behind or lost. Thirty minutes since our arrival, we made the first steps towards Mt Amuyao. This was the second time I hiked to a mountain’s summit while bringing my backpack.
What I thought to be the beginning of an arduous hike became a brief stopover at a food establishment. It was named Halfway restaurant and lodge – like the one back in Banaue. I wondered if it was a branch at another location. We bought our lunch there. The place had various meat and vegetable dishes along with the peculiar red-colored rice of the Cordilleras. One serving of that rice, which costed 15 Philippine pesos, would suffice me. Rei even bought chocolate bread that looked like a pancake the size of a whole plate.
Our group of hikers walked on concrete stairs built on the ground. The path went down steeply. We began joking about it as a final ascent when we return from Mt Amuyao. Eventually, we entered the residential community of Barlig. Most of the houses were two stories high. Dogs barked as chickens scratched the soil. The locals also greeted us warmly. I noticed they mostly consisted of children, middle-aged adults, and senior citizens. Even this place was a victim of the ‘young adult drain.’ Then we crossed a beam bridge. Calm gray water flowed through rocks below it, turning a section of the river white with foam. At the other side lay the baranggay hall where we rested as our registration was finalized. Metal railings lined the cemented path, which rose drastically when houses gave way to shrubbery and rice paddies.
Nil mentioned that the trail at Mt Amuyao was also called ‘stairway to heaven.’ I jokingly commented that at least heaven was preferable to purgatory. The concrete steps made this stretch of the hike seem leisurely. However, they were at a steep angle. (I had no idea how sarcastic the nickname ‘stairway to heaven’ really was until hours later.)
Since the trek began, I had been thinking about my pace of walking. At the final leg of my recent excursion around Mt Purgatory, I moved neither too fast nor too slow. I ended up alone on a rather slippery cemented path under sweltering heat that was unusual for this region. This time, I would have hiking buddies by my side. Ralph led the way, followed by Mash, Kenneth, Kaye, and Vergel. Rei lagged slightly behind them. I could run and catch up with them but this would tire me sooner. Carla and Nil were just behind me. At that point I decided to be accompanied by the married couple.
The concrete path passed through the rice terraces. I could see the faster hikers among us from a distance, watching how they followed the trail. Looking to my left, the landscape took my breath away and made me stand still. The spirit of rural living could be felt in that scene consisting of dark green mountainsides, glimmering rice paddies, and distant houses of many colors. It was like looking at various hues of acrylic paint applied on a palette. Soft light from an overcast sky made the surroundings gloomy yet calm at the same time. Carla, Nil, and I then kept on moving. Each paddy was enclosed by a platform of cement and stone that could be walked on.
Just before we got past the rice terraces, a straight path warranted that I should not walk clumsily. To my right was grayish mud where rice plants grew sparsely. Slipping into it would ruin my day due to soiled clothes and a sticky feeling. Meanwhile, the concrete surface to my left plunged at least five meters. Missing a step to this direction would obviously be worse, if not fatal. As the three of us took steps, Carla told me to walk faster. Even a slight gaze of the rice paddy down below gave her the fear of losing balance. I shifted some of my weight towards the right. It was preferable to get dirty. Eventually we made it through this treacherous stretch of the trail.
Cogon grass stood on my left and hung from my right, growing abundantly in this untamed piece of land. Closer to the rocky trail lay smaller grasses, leafy bushes, and ferns. I could hear running water. A canal channeled it from the mountain to the rice paddies behind me. Plants and shadows concealed it from plain sight. I wondered whether it was shallow or deeper than I thought. More water flowed inside a seemingly never-ending metal pipe beside our path. Nil mentioned our planned lunch. I asked him where we could have it. Upon seeing Rei, the three of us came up with a plan. I quickened my pace. Our companions accompanied by Ralph were already walking uphill on a wooded slope. A few power lines stretched above them, existing in contrast with the pine trees. Placing my hands around my mouth like a loudspeaker, I shouted at them to stop so we could eat. They complied. Rei even yelled back that he would catch up with the first group to pass on Nil’s order personally.
Turning sharply to the left, the trail grew steep gradually although it seemed to be rising sharply towards the sky. Chopped branches had been laid to make it look like stairs. The path to the summit was more welcoming to hikers in this way. Eventually, I found the guide and five of my companions sitting under the shade of evergreen trees. The early afternoon sun cast bright and dim shades of green. I felt energized by the surreal mood of our adventure. It was like going to the realm of fantasy again.
Ralph showed us an ideal spot for having lunch. Surrounding pine trees made it shady and the slope was nearly even. We dropped our bags gently and sat right on the trail itself. Only three groups of people visited Mt Amuyao that day and the other two were already ahead of us. We should not worry about blocking the path to other hikers. Carla and Nil then showed up. The couple rested their legs. When everyone was sitting comfortably, we took out our lunches at 2 PM. Rei shared the wheel-shaped chocolate bread he bought earlier, calling it ‘brownies.’ I took a piece and found it tasting mostly sweet and partly bitter. Nevertheless, I could eat the whole thing by myself. Out in the wilderness, I cared more about filling my stomach than pleasing my sense of taste. I ate a serving of red rice in a small white plastic bag as if it was a Japanese onigiri. We ate and chatted at the same time. Then Chie, Gigi, Jan, and Jorell arrived and joined us in having lunch. I stared at the sky and saw it turn from cheerful blue to sad gray. A drizzle came. Rei said it would not last long as one-third of the sky remained azure. He was right.
When our group resumed the hike, the trail’s surface was covered with what seemed to be reddish brown fur. Grass and other plant material did not decay easily due to the cold. The dirt also had a texture resembling that of peat. Someone rested a row of polished and painted tree branches on a rock surface. I guessed they would be used for decorative fencing. A dark-colored boulder could serve as a bench for a passing hiker. We continued uphill and then came upon a small power station. Chain-link fencing enclosed a generator. There was a hut nearby along with a pile of firewood.
While I kept a slower pace between Barlig and the lunch area, my lungs and legs now burst with energy. As usual, I would struggle at the start of a trek but would not feel the fatigue after an hour or so. Heat would weaken me too. This time, we were on the metaphorical roof of Luzon island and there was light rain again. The peal of thunder echoed deeply in the gloomy sky. My skin felt a drop in surrounding temperature. The air smelled of damp vegetation. Despite the challenges from the trail now becoming steeper, the cold weather and a recharged body kept me going. I moved steadily but not too fast or I would get too tired. My pace matched that of Rei and Vergel. Then I caught up with Kenneth and Kaye.
The air turned misty, blurring my view of distant objects and landscapes. It was as if massive clouds of steam rose from ridges near the horizon. Coupled with a strenuous uphill climb, I had the sensation of entering a forest haunted by phantom creatures. The occasional bird song shattered the silence. Just off the path, the ground sloped down sharply on both left and right. It was like walking on top of a triangle. I admired the scenery but I also realized how narrow the trail was. The reddish dried grass on it was gone. There was simply bare dirt, a bit muddy but firm from low temperatures.
Heavier droplets of water fell on my companions and I. Our backpacks had rain cover but our upper body garments turned from moist to wet. Eventually, we took out ponchos and raincoats. I brought the same blue raincoat that witnessed my rain-drenched trek at Mt Purgatory. It felt heavier this time and gave me the feeling of staying inside a stuffy room. My legs got even more tired. Realizing that wearing the raincoat brought more disadvantage, I chose to take an instant shower outdoors on a rainy afternoon. I also hoped not to fall ill tonight, if not tomorrow.
Following the power lines overhead, we came upon a grassy hallway with leafy trees for walls. It was a relief for my eyes and legs. This part of the trail had an amazingly even surface. Vergel wished the way ahead would be like this.
After at least five minutes of walking, our group of hikers entered a jungle. The dense vegetation cast too much shadow and made the time seem to approach dusk. The path was still even. However, one clumsy step and I could fall into a ravine on my left. This danger was concealed by grasses and ferns, along with the canopy of trees that sprung from the base of the ravine. Slippery rocks, moss, and exposed roots made the trail rough. Moss also grew on trunks as if the trees wore light green garments. We all stopped by to take photos. Rei preferred to stay at the rear and immerse in the beauty of our surroundings by himself. Like Kenneth, he also had a passion for photography.
Past the ‘jungle,’ we had to trek through another ‘hallway.’ The path was ascending now. Kenneth and Kaye hung their ponchos on their backpacks just in case the rain intensified. I was soaking wet and getting tired. However, I had sufficient morale. Ralph said we were near the waiting station halfway to the summit.
The other group of trekkers affiliated with Basekamp, an outdoor gear retailer, had some rest at the waiting shed when we arrived there at 4:20 PM. Presumably, they chose to eat lunch there. Yet it was also likely they had their stomachs filled back at Barlig, even in the van while en route to the municipality. Our fellow hikers greeted us and we replied accordingly. Conversation was minimal though. I rested my backpack on wet grass. Then I shared chocolates wrapped in foil, each piece as small as my thumb’s fingernail, to my companions and the guides as well. Kaye offered tiny egg-based cookies too. Vergel had a chat with two women from the other hiking party. He asked what happened to three of their fellows, who had not arrived yet, we last saw just past the power station. Their fellows played the song Zombie by The Cranberries. I could say they enjoyed listening to the rhythm but had no idea that the lyrics referred to the historic armed conflict in Northern Ireland. Minutes passed and the rest of our team eventually came. Nil and Carla led their way. Mash, Carla, and I then talked about the implications of a vegan diet. As the second group had their turn to rest, the first moved out towards the summit at 4:50 PM.
A brown dirt path contrasted with the green grass, shrubbery, and trees around it. We took it and then remarked about its slight descent. The trail led us to a spot not lined with trees, providing a scenic view of a forested mountainside. However, the rainy weather brought mist that reduced the landscape to dark gray silhouettes and a light gray foreground that behaved like a wisp of smoke.
I could hear Mash, Kenneth, and Kaye complaining about the trail. Then I saw it for myself and realized why they made such a reaction. The path, now completely muddy, still had cut branches as makeshift steps but it sloped upward by 60 degrees. Seeing this as more of a challenge than a dilemma, I charged with enthusiasm. Then I struggled with slippery surfaces and the weight of my backpack. My hands went into action. That section of the trail became more of a multi-purpose steel ladder than a staircase of a two-story house. Mud stuck to my bare fingers and palms. I did not care. The ascent drained much of my energy as well. I was panting and breathing deeply. Despite wearing only a T-shirt for my upper body, I felt warm rather than cold despite the approaching nighttime. I could feel the air temperature dropping even lower as the lighting grew dimmer. That T-shirt was made of synthetic material that should keep me cool during athletic or outdoor activities. No one among us was going back. We would push forward against all odds.
Mud and wood under my feet turned into an actual metal ladder, which was painted black, fixed to a solid rock face. Whoever blazed the trail saw this as a solution to access the summit. Climbing the ladder felt exciting for me. It was like those in first-person shooter video games where I went up the side of a building to have a vantage point on the roof. I gripped a bar firmly and placed my feet on another. Then I would grab the next bar with one hand and coordinate it with a step. I should not let go or lose my footing. Carefully, I made it to the top. There was a ledge. A railing made of bamboo could be gripped if someone loses footing here to save his or her life. Cool drinking water dripped, not flowed, from a metal pipe sticking out of rock. Washing my hands was no use. They got muddy again after I placed my hands on the ground to regain balance. We also wondered how to get down this challenging part of the trail tomorrow.
Kenneth had a hiking stick made of either bamboo or rattan. Vergel owned one of steel and synthetic materials, probably bought at a trekking equipment store. Regardless of composition, a walking staff seemed very helpful in this sloping terrain. My new shoes did their job. Being water-resistant and odor-repellent, they were better than the pair I lost at Mt Purgatory. In fact, Kaye and I had the same brand and design but differed in color. At this point I also wore my double-layered jacket to prepare for a frigid night.
More muddy stairs that were built on the ground lay ahead. They were just as steep as the one between the waiting shed and the ‘water station.’ The way made twists and turns. It became apparent apparent that I lagged behind Ralph, Mash, Rei, Kenneth, and Kaye. Every step was a struggle. I moved carefully to avoid slipping and then tumbling down the slope. There was an instance the soil crumbled under my right foot, forcing me to pause and rethink my next move. I took advantage of the roots of a tree on my left. This hike would be easier without backpacks but I already decided to challenge myself. At least everyone shared the burden.
During a momentary break, I wore my headlamp after drinking a bit of water and snacking on some trail food. It was nearly 6 PM and the end was still not in sight. The sky transformed from a hazy mix of white and gray into blue. The trees turned black. The trail was increasingly difficult to see. Yet we relied on our eyes until complete darkness made it impossible to find our way without headlamps and flashlights. Walking behind Kaye and Kenneth, I told them to go ahead as I was too exhausted to match their pace. It was the right decision. Vergel pressed on behind me. I volunteered to accompany him. Hiking at a mountain alone at night presented risks that my imagination began to explore.
My legs were about to give up after hours of walking. My back ached from carrying provisions, a sleeping bag, and a tent waiting to be assembled. Vergel felt weary too. Moving non-stop was impossible for us at this point. Then I had an idea. I walked for at least ten seconds or until I could not go on further, making sure I would stop at a relatively level surface. Then I would have my break while Vergel approached me. A few steps before he reached my position, I would go on. He would stand at that spot and have his turn to rest. I told Vergel that we might not be fast but the important thing was to keep on going. At least that technique gave us enough strength to reach the summit.
It was the second time I hiked at night, following the excursion at Mt Batolusong. Despite having done this before, I felt a slight chill in my body. It was triggered not by falling air temperature but by uncertainty with my own safety. A venomous snake might lash at my leg. A wild boar might emerge from the bushes without warning and do serious damage with its tusks. My ears picked up strange noises. There was humming and chirping. Yet I did not see any creature other than flying insects.
Later on, Carla and Nil caught up with our pace. The four of us rested our backpacks on the trail in the middle of a forest, drinking some of our water and snacking on boiled peanuts. We made way for some of the Basekamp trekkers who had more energy and enthusiasm than us. Then we went our way after this short break.
Trees around the trail gave way to grass and bushes. My headlamp cast a rather faint white light, allowing me to see the ground right my front and everything within a few meters. Beyond that, however, was near-total darkness. The horizon had a faint glow. Then Carla, Nil, Vergel, and I stumbled upon a group of fellow hikers, their flashlights and headlamps providing relief from the psychological stress brought by nighttime. They fell in line.
At 7 PM, trekkers from both parties reached the second water station. It did not lay along the trail. Instead, one must go down a steep slope, choked by plant growth, for several meters to access what I believed to be a pipe that gave potable water to passing hikers. It was discouraging. I placed my faith that 1.5 liters of water should last overnight. Then I remembered an ample amount would be used to boil rice. Sitting on the dirt, I wondered whether Kaye and Kenneth had reached the summit. I still had a kilogram of reddish rice grains in a plastic bag. The couple carried the cucumbers, salted duck eggs, tomatoes, onions, and seasonings for a salad. I had to get to them as quickly as I could. My mood turned cheerful when Ralph volunteered to refill our water containers. He went down as Carla, Nil, Vergel, and I summoned additional strength for that final push to the summit. About ten minutes later, Ralph returned and handed me a 1 liter plastic bottle filled with water that appeared crystal-clear under the light from my headlamp. I took a sip. It took some of my fatigue away.
We moved carefully as nocturnal darkness made the hike more challenging. I just realized that a deep ravine lay on my right. The path, strewn with rocks made slippery by the rain earlier, went uphill again. My legs coped with numbness more than aching. I was regaining stamina.
Ralph passed by me and said he would meet Kaye, Kenneth, Mash, and Rei at the summit. I could not match his speed. I did not want to go ahead of my current companions as I disliked being alone on the trail this time. The speed of our pace did not matter. I only thought of reaching the overnight accommodation, hoping for a spot to sleep inside the ‘bunker.’
During our ascent, trees stood before us like the guardians of this mountain. A moth flew across my face. Earlier, one even wanted a taste of the chocolate I brought as trail food. It seemed that forest-dwelling supernatural beings of Philippine folklore were accompanying me in this trek.
The four of us emerged from the grove of trees and went downhill. We should be ascending all the way to the summit. My immediate surroundings were grassy again. I paid more attention to the seemingly never-ending path of mud, branches, and smooth white rocks. We passed by three male hikers after greeting them. They took their time to sit and rest. At this section of the trail, the unnatural glow on the horizon intensified. Yellow light faded into a violet and black sky. It reminded me of a big power grid, situated three minutes from my village on motorcycle, along a major highway in my hometown. Back in my house, I looked out the window at 1 AM and it was not totally dark. It was as if the sun had just set. We kept on walking. Then someone shone a laser from the summit. A thin green ray of concentrated light waved back and forth like a giant windshield wiper. What looked like a hill loomed before us. I smiled and then yelled with excitement. The summit lay just beyond that hill.
Minutes passed as our weary legs and empty stomachs endured the walk uphill. Jan caught up with us and he kept asking me how near we were to the summit. I led the way. Raindrops could be seen with the light from my headlamp. A cold breeze numbed my cheeks slightly.
Later on, vegetation appeared as silhouettes against bright artificial lighting. My ears picked up a low hum. I ran up the trail. Then I saw a facility with towers, cables, and powerful lamps to my left. However, there was another steep ascending path on my right. Something about that well-lit facility made it look far from a stopover for the night. While waiting for my companions, I blew the whistle attached to a strap of my backpack. Carla, Jan, Nil, and Vergel saw the forking trail too. Ralph then appeared up a slope. He told us to take the path on the right, adding that our accommodation was just up ahead.
After a short walk, there was a sort of a waiting shed with two benches. It was made of welded metal. A wooden table stood in the middle. Carla and Nil sat immediately. They said I should go to Kenneth and Kaye while they would rest there for a while. It was past 8 PM when I got there.
A number of tents had been already pitched outside a plain-looking building. It was painted white but graffiti decorated the walls. I greeted a few fellow hikers from the Basekamp group. Hurriedly, I entered a door and found Kaye and Kenneth in another room, setting up their bedding and arranging their stuff. It was already crowded. I removed my muddy shoes and went in. The other trekkers sat around a portable small stove. A can of butane fueled flames that cooked some food I could not recognize. The noise from chatting filled the smoky air. Travelers staying overnight could even sleep literally inside a makeshift cabinet, customized with bed sheets and pillows if I remember. Obviously, the rest of my companions would not fit inside this room. The other room served as a kitchen, already occupied by other trekkers busy with cooking. I arranged my backpack and took out my sleeping bag.
I went outside and looked for my friends. They set up tents at the side of the building and began preparing our supper. I helped Kenneth in making his signature salad by slicing cucumbers and chilies. Meanwhile, Kaye took a nap as she was very exhausted. When the salad was done, Kenneth woke her up. The three of us joined our companions for dinner. Rei shared some of his vegan corned beef. It tasted like the real deal but made of plant products. Mash also offered actual corned beef. Then I tucked into my sleeping bag and dozed off just before 10 PM.
Carla woke me up at 5 AM on the following day. I was so tired from yesterday’s seemingly treacherous hike. My body had recovered now. Then something came to my mind. I forgot about the so-called ‘sea of clouds.’
I hurried in wearing my shoes and ran outside. Carla told me there were less clouds now than an hour ago. I missed the white blanket flowing below us and the exhilarating screams. Still, there was a sea of clouds far to the east, behind mountains that turned blue as they got farther away. Mt Amuyao proved to be chilly too. The cold got past my double-layered jacket and trapper hat. I shivered a bit despite my affinity for surrounding temperatures like this.
The excursion at Mt Amuyao allowed me to spend time with people I considered as a second family. After all, they introduced me to mountain climbing. It was not simply a gathering. The trek brought back the struggle of moving uphill through rough terrain and the happiness from accomplishing the task. As I appreciated every second of viewing this part of the Cordilleras on a cloudy yet gentle morning, I thought of my objective to survive the descent to Barlig.