More of Rock-Climbing than Hiking

One week after that arduous trek at Mt Amuyao, I planned to simply spend the Saturday and Sunday at my home, taking naps and eating freshly-cooked meals. Then Mary Rose ‘May’ Trinidad invited me suddenly to a group that would hike at Mt Pamitinan. It would be a so-called ‘minor climb.’ A major climb would have ascending trails that literally would take your breath away due to fatigue. It usually would take place overnight. On the other hand, a minor climb would begin in the morning and end in the afternoon. Participants would be back in their homes by late night. Interestingly, we were told to bring gloves as the terrain would be rocky, according to the event organizer.

20160925_061544Located in Rizal province, I thought Mt Pamitinan was in relatively close proximity with Mt Daraitan, which I climbed nearly a year ago. I was wrong. Mt Daraitan was located in Tanay, Rizal. We would be heading to the municipality of Rodriguez, Rizal. Our young male guide named Lydjune Susana confirmed that Tanay was quite far from there. Mt Pamitinan’s summit had an elevation of 426 meters above sea level. I felt relieved. This trek would be a break from climbing mountains that stood past 1,000 meters above sea level.

In fact, I was supposed to climb Mt Pamitinan back in July. Cecille ‘Ces’ Olivarez organized an excursion that also involved climbing nearby Mt Binacayan. It was called a ‘twin dayhike.’ However, a typhoon brought a nasty combination of heavy rain and wind over that weekend. A guide there contacted Ces and advised her to cancel the outing. In turn, Cess then moved the venue to Mt Marami, which I climbed two months ago. I could not believe I revisited the place but that time it was with another set of companions.

At September 25, 2016, May and I met up with Mark Dineros at San Mateo, Rizal past 5 AM. Rina Ramos, a friend of Mark, then came. Michael Ordiales and Rubie Moncera, a couple who went in the same university and had the same course as May and Mark, arrived by tricycle. We were just six. In comparison, most of my excursions involved at least ten people. Then we rode separately in two of these noisy motor-powered light vehicles. I joined May inside the covered sidecar while Mark sat behind the tricycle driver, gripping a sort of a metal handle to avoid falling off.

The urban landscape of Rodriguez, Rizal resembled that of my hometown. Then the row of commercial establishments made of concrete gave way to houses mostly built of wood and bamboo. I could see the surroundings turning green, gray, and brown in the cool light under a cloudy sky.

20160925_061557We bailed out of the tricycles in front of the registration center. A turquoise-painted wall with black railings stretched towards an arch down the two-lane cemented path. Roadside vendors sold fizzy drinks, potato chips, breads, and even colorful gloves. Fellow hikers, mostly in the same age group as the six of us, chatted while walking around in groups. Only a few vehicles passed by. Residents and tourists alike enjoyed a stroll on a fine Sunday morning. We entered the gate, greeted two women sitting behind a table, signed in, and paid the registration fee. After that, we met Lydjune. Having a slight build, our guide wore a black and violet outfit for the outdoors. He looked well-prepared. Mark had known Lydjune as he already climbed Mt Pamitinan before. Now it was time for the rest of us to do so.

After posing for a group photo under the decorative arch, we took off the cemented road sometime between 6:30 AM and 7 AM. Lydjune led us into a dirt path surrounded by residential houses. We also walked past an elementary school. It was a Sunday and we heard music from decades ago being played on the radio. Then we came upon a suspension bridge made of wood and heavy rope, along with some metal and concrete.

The bridge hung above a gently-flowing river. It reminded me of two near a major university in my hometown. These structures had fallen into disrepair. I used to cross them a decade ago but now no one would. This bridge at the foot of Mt Pamitinan, however, was used by locals on a daily basis. We came across children who simply did not mind us, talking about kid-related stuff. Our steps shook the wood panels under our feet a bit. I had a bit of chat with Michael about previous excursions. Halfway in our crossing, we were dazzled by the view. The water looked something between bluish gray and olive green, reflecting the sky with its uncertain weather. To our left, a smooth-surfaced boulder rose from the river that flowed with power but without the foam. The current grew weaker past the bridge. A multitude of brown and white rocks lined up the shore to our right. We took photos before continuing our way to the other side.

One-story houses with tin roofs, some having bamboo fences, greeted us after making our way through the bridge. Then we followed some cemented stairs on sloping ground. I remembered my trek at Mt Amuyao last week, at the part when we just left the community of Barlig. We trailed behind another group that consisted of young adults in their early twenties, perhaps still studying in college. Someone among the locals played the radio. Faint music and voices became part of the ambience. Chickens pecked at the ground while dogs lay down just outside their owners’ homes. Then we were walking not on cement anymore but on soil. We reached the arch, much smaller and simpler than the one near the registration center as it was just made of wood. It also indicated the entrance to Mt Pamitinan. Nearby, there was a roofed structure with benches.

It rained on the previous day. The soles of my shoes and a little above them were covered in mud that looked more tan than brown. My companions panted yet they laughed at the same time. I inhaled deeply and exhaled loudly. My legs felt some strain from the ascent. This was my body getting accustomed to a long walk ahead. I began to realize that the hike at Mt Pamitinan was not as easy as I thought.

20160925_065329Rocks, tree roots, and mud lay on the upward sloping path. We referred to this challenging stretch of the trail and others of its kind as an ‘assault.’ I did not expect Mt Pamitinan to have it. It was supposed to be my respite. May and Rina were hiking on a mountain for the first time and it was supposed to be an easy introduction to this activity. We stepped carefully on the footprints left by the hiking party ahead of us. It was as if they already paved the way for our group. Countless trees closed in on us. I was not trekking through a mossy forest anymore. The plant life here bore a striking resemblance to those found at Mt Daraitan. Minutes passed as we kept on walking uphill, even using our hands at a particular section of the trail from the village to the first station. There was no muddy soil, only light gray rock. My hands gripped the solid surfaces firmly. It almost felt like rock-climbing.

As I trudged up the trail, the leaves on treetops cleared gradually to reveal a massive wall of limestone that loomed at our front. 20160925_070539Then I saw a wooden structure. We just reached the first station. I ran towards it with enthusiasm. Rubie was already there, sitting on what looked like a bed built from bamboo strips. There were bamboo rafters too but without roofing. I rested my backpack on the ground. It was not as heavy as the large one from last week but contained a full 1.5-liter bottle of water. Then I sat on a log. We stopped by for some rest. Lydjune sat with bent knees on top of a boulder. May and Rina said they were on the verge of giving up. Rina would rather stay at the first station and wait for our return. Mark and I told them their bodies were still adapting to the rigors of mountain climbing. Some trail foods were distributed among us and we also drank water to replenish our strength.

The respite lasted ten minutes before we resumed out trek. We followed a path below that limestone precipice. Trickling water and pouring rain both sculpted the rock face like someone talented would chisel away bits of marble to create a work of art. There were eye-catching features too difficult to describe. I remarked cheerfully about the even surface of the trail. Yet to our left the ground sloped drastically into a ravine. Foliage concealed the base from my eyes. Shade from the trees kept us relatively cool despite the humid environment.

I did not expect a leisurely walk all the way. Eventually, the trail went steep and was strewn with rocks again. At least there was not much strain from my legs doing their best to maintain balance. May and Rina looked tired but kept on going. They were beginning to cope with the challenges brought by this activity that enthralled a growing number of people both young and senior.

We reached the second station at around 7:30 AM. Lydjune described it amusingly as a ‘convenience store’ and a ‘fast food chain.’ He was sort of right. A few shacks sold both bottled beverages and juice in plastic cups to thirsty hikers. There were snack items in foil containers, sandwiches, and more gloves too. Vendors on the trail here offered a bigger variety of food and drinks compared to their counterparts in other places I trekked before.

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Taking a break during the hike… with that dog staring at me

Our group sat on a bench made of bamboo. We chatted with one another about topics that made us smile and laugh. Michael shared details of his own getaway at Sagada. I remembered visiting that place too with classmates from high school. A white-furred dog rested on its belly beside a shack and caught my attention. It seemed albino but I was not sure. The canine was also too lazy to interact with visiting trekkers. As the sun rose higher, the surroundings were bathed in a soothing light. I felt eager to reach the summit. Yet as we stood up to continue our hike, Lydjune told us to wear now the gloves we brought. With backpacks strapped to our shoulders again, we got ready to face what Mt Pamitinan would lay on its trail.

Lydjune led us through the shacks, bamboo benches, and a few fellow hikers. Then he turned right sharply. It was like someone dumped a truckload of rocks on our path. Lydjune advised us strongly to put our mobile phones inside our backpacks. The handheld devices could fall into gaps between those rocks and plunge down a high ravine. It would take a miracle to recover their remnants, let alone find them still working. We followed Lydjune’s advice but I insisted on keeping my mobile phone in my pocket. I wedged a handkerchief inside to keep the gadget in place.

I charged through that bumpy section of the trail just past the second station. The rubbery soles of my trekking shoes stuck to rock surfaces. I gripped whatever I reached as tightly as I could. May was in my front, following Lydjune. A slender build and relatively long legs gave her an advantage in movement despite her first time in climbing mountains. I stared down the unorganized arrangement of rocks. There were narrow gaps between them. A mobile phone would easily fit into one. I peered through a gap and only saw the color green from vegetation way below.

Our brief ordeal came to an end when a dirt path greeted us. However, a ravine lay on our right. Bamboo and broad-leaved bushes grew all around us, adding green to our gray surroundings. The trail then led us to more rocks that we needed to conquer with both hands and feet.

We moved sluggishly up the rough slope. Every step required extra leg strength combined with care. At least my trekking shoes had a good grip on bare rock. Perspiration accumulated on my black T-shirt of synthetic material, bought as a souvenir from Mt Manalmon. My forehead, cheeks, and neck became moist with sweat. A particular rock formation delayed our movement as we struggled in climbing over it. I shifted my glance towards the surroundings and the sky. I smiled and shouted in awe. There was a sea of clouds but it was nearly 8 AM. Dark green mountains rose towards a light blue sky. The nearest peak on my left was completely covered with plant life and its summit appeared smooth instead of rugged.

Focusing on the trail again, I caught sight of what looked like a cave entrance under a massive boulder. Then I realized why Lydjune had us stopping by at this spot. We could pose for photos on top of a platform made of jagged brown rock. We did. Looking far to my left beyond the nearest mountain, the river winded towards a multitude of houses and buildings.20160925_075941 It was amazing how close Mt Pamitinan was to an cityscape. During my treks at the Cordilleras, I looked at every direction and the closest to something urban I saw was a village or the road with hairpin turns. To get to the platform, we must hold sharp rock edges while maintaining balance. One by one, we posed  with utmost care on top of an uneven surface while our eyes were fixed on Mark’s camera. It was slung around Lydjune’s neck. Our guide kindly took the photos. The session lasted ten minutes before we moved on.

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This photo reminds me of the painting ‘Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog’ by Caspar David Friedrich. This time, it’s the Relentless Wanderer
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The struggle is real halfway up Mt Pamitinan  

There was a dirt path that ended shortly, as expected, into another rock-climbing challenge. It looked like a sandwich with two huge solid rock buns and a number of much smaller rocks squeezed between them. Then that sandwich was rested on its side. We must find a way through the middle of the ‘buns’ and to the top. At this point our group bumped into a few other trekkers, probably in their thirties or forties. Rubie and May took the challenge first. Lydjune stood on our left, ready to lend a hand so nobody would slip and fall. The two women paused before making a well-calculated step. They made it. Then it was my turn. My eyes indicated where I would place my hands and feet – with success. However, I came to a point that I did not know what to do next. Lydjune came to my aid. He told me to place my foot on a particular rock wedged between those two boulders. Mark, Michael, and Rina also found their own ways to overcome this part of the trail.

20160925_082005The immediate surroundings turned shady. Bamboo grew and flourished all around us. A panda would love to stay here, except for the uncomfortable humidity. Our path kept on going uphill but it had considerable dirt to make walking easier. Then we took a five-minute break in the midst of a bamboo grove. We sat down, drank some water, and chatted before resuming the hike.

May and Rubie stood before a rugged vertical rock face. Lydjune said we would scale it. There was a more navigable trail to the right. However, we would not take it or we would block hikers descending from the summit. (Later on, I realized why Lydjune made sense.) This part of the Mt Pamitinan trek featured an actual rock climbing experience. Standing at least five meters high, the rock formation reminded me of the first time I tried indoor climbing at HistoryCon back in August. On a lanyard around my neck was the orange whistle given to me during that big event. This time, there were no harnesses and safety helmets. Everything depended on the strength of both muscle and resolve. Rubie made the climb first, followed by May. Then it was my turn. I noticed cracks, most likely carved on rock by nature guides, where I could insert my fingers and the tips of my shoes. Then I paused halfway into the climb as Lydjune took two photos. Everyone in our group had snapshots in this way. With a steady breathing rhythm and a firm grip, I scaled the rock face. It was not as difficult as it seemed.

We went past more bamboo stalks and leafy bushes. Then we heard yelling that grew louder as our group followed Lydjune. It was not the summit yet. However, we emerged on to a vantage point with other trekkers on a rock formation, posing for photos. They sat or stood on top of what looked like a molar tooth damaged by cavities. Minutes passed and we had some rest while waiting for our turn.

I had a closer look of our view from this spot. Some buildings lay between the gray-colored river and a vast expanse of tropical forest. Surprisingly, power lines stood among the trees and made the landscape somewhat less pristine. The mountainside had become bare. A distant hill had it worse. It was brown as if every plant was uprooted. Beyond it, more buildings stretched endlessly towards the dark blue horizon. The proximity to Metro Manila and surrounding towns made Mt Pamitinan popular among office workers who simply wanted a weekend getaway. Then Lydjune asked us who wanted to go first. Rubie volunteered. One by one, we walked and crawled carefully towards that mostly light brown rock formation. Then we posed as best as we could. A more risky pose could be done on a crevice at the side. No one had any mishap this day.

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We may be smiling in this picture but our legs are actually shaking a bit 

Our hiking party would arrive shortly at the summit, according to Lydjune. He led us through another shady spot that resembled a garden. A group of hikers sat on a circle and enjoyed their meals. More visitors at Mt Pamitinan relaxed nearby. A bright yet cloudy sky greeted us, accompanied by a view of nothing but mountains and valleys. This was not the summit. I looked to my left and saw people making the most of their time atop a monstrous rock formation. That was the summit.

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We’ll reach the summit… after making our way up that rock formation

When that group of trekkers began descending from the seemingly tower of solid rock, I summoned my companions so we could climb. Then I was told there were two other hiking parties next in line to them. The summit could only accommodate one group at a time. We had no other choice but to wait. Michael and Rubie shared corn nuts, or cornick, with a spicy flavor. Mark and Rina, both hailing from San Mateo, took snapshots of an awe-inspiring landscape. I sat beside May, talking to her about the joys of hiking up a mountain. Perhaps she, and Rina too, might do this kind of activity again. Then May chatted with Rina while I had alternating conversations with Mark and Michael. My companions also recalled their college days at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. Perhaps 30 minutes passed before we had our turn. We could have climbed atop the summit immediately and got down the mountain sooner if not for a relatively high number of visitors that day.

The summit itself could only be accessed with a very tough blue rope. It had knots for our hands to hold on to. I reminded Michael about a similar rope found inside the Sumaging Cave in Sagada. He had been to that tourist destination too. This time, I went up first. Grabbing the rope as tightly as I could, I imagined that rock formation as a bumpy wall in indoor climbing. I placed my feet into cracks or on protruding surfaces, making sure I would not slip. Lydjune advised me on how to grip and step. I reached the top with ease, joining a party of outdoor adventure-seekers even younger than us. My companions and I would all climb up before they descend. We assembled at one side as our fellow hikers held the rope and made their way down.

It was sometime between 9 AM and 10 AM. Under a sunny and clear sky, we would be sweaty and sapped of energy from the blistering heat. However, clouds filled the sky and kept the sun at bay. I felt glad about the coincidence of making this trek under this weather.

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This is what we do at the summit when not posing for a photo

We had a 360-degree view of our surroundings. A dark green mountain had been flecked with gray from exposed rock surfaces. A winding river ran its course, the water turned murky by sediments washed by yesterday’s rain. White smoke from undetermined human activity rose noticeably. Lydjune pointed us the direction to the Sierra Madre mountain range, some of the towns in Rizal province, and even the adjacent Quezon province. One would be humbled if he or she visualized how tiny and vulnerable a human being was amidst the mountainous landscape.

Atop the summit, we posed for photos while sitting or standing on rock surfaces dotted by innumerable miniature craters. As he was surefooted, Lydjune leapt effortlessly among the rocks like a goat. Our guide took pictures with the skill of a professional. His talent must have developed from constant interaction with hikers.

Our trekking party lingered at the summit until it was nearly 10 AM. Going down the rock formation seemed more challenging than going up. After Rubie and May, I had my turn. My body assumed the same position as before but this time I would descend. I could not see where I should place my feet one by one. I summoned all of my strength in holding that blue rope. Letting my hands slip was not an option. Lydjune assisted me patiently. It took me three minutes before my shoes touched soil again.

The sky turned dim. We had to reach the base before getting caught by rain while still on the trail. Slippery rocks and muddy ground would not only slow us down but also present the risk of sustaining cuts, bruises, and other injuries.

Gravity helped us cover ground faster. We held on to relatively thin tree trunks that acted as poles while taking nimble yet careful steps. It was as if we bounded down Mt Pamitinan. A moment later, we came across Lydjune’s father. He also guided visitors up and down the mountain. We kept on moving. I did not see that vertical rock face we scaled earlier. Then I realized we took the other trail reserved for descending trekkers. Judging from my experience in going down the summit, descending through that rock face would delay us and would be extremely difficult. There was no rope after all.

When we came to a point where there was a ravine to our left, I struggled in making my way atop a rugged boulder. Then I looked down and saw my companions walking on a dirt trail. I only brought unnecessary hardship upon myself but just laughed at my mistake. Consequently, I lagged behind. I was tired both physically and emotionally for some reason.

Just past the ‘platform,’ we bumped into a group of East Asian tourists. My companions greeted them with “anyong,” which is “hello” in Korean. The other party replied that they were Chinese. When it was my turn to approach them, I said “ni hao.

We reached the refreshment shacks of the second station with amazing speed. I sat on a bamboo bench beside Mark. May, Rina, and Rubie had rest too at another bench. Michael placed his backpack on the ground to my right. We were all tired, a bit parched, and sweaty. A fellow trekker named Joseph had a chat with us, sharing his own outdoor adventures too. He asked us why we did not hike up nearby Mt Binacayan too. I said it was not part of the itinerary. About ten minutes passed before we went our way.

Our pace became slower while heading towards the first station. There were no more tree trunks or branches to hold on to. I relied on balancing my center of gravity. We walked carefully to avoid slipping. Rocks lay on our muddy path. I saw the limestone formation again and I knew the first station was close. We took another short break. The last time May and Rina were here, they seemed discouraged. Now they listed the Mt Pamitinan trek among their achievements. We all looked forward to eating lunch.

Even the final stretch of our hike did not give us much relief. It had the same mud, rock, and slippery surfaces and the lack of something to grip. Then my ears picked up a song played on FM radio. It cheered us up. Eventually, we made it back to the houses, chickens, and cemented steps before crossing the bridge once again. The Mt Pamitinan hike concluded with a brief visit to Wawa Dam, followed with a relaxing afternoon at Mark’s house.

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You see that mountain? We just climbed that

Climbing Mt Pamitinan did not go mostly according to my expectations. It was also unique compared to my recent outdoor excursions. We went on a minor climb. We were only six in a hiking group. We had to wear gloves or the jagged surfaces would leave cuts on our hands. Yet I was not frustrated. I went home more than happy.

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