At least ten vans were parked inside what resembled the roofed basketball court of my village back home. The influx of visitors came without surprise. It was October 30, 2016 and the second day of a long weekend. Many Filipino families flocked to the resting places of their loved ones every November 1 in a solemn event called undas. It was also known as All Saints’ Day. All Souls’ Day sounded more appropriate but was observed on the following day. Undas resembled the Day of the Dead in Mexico, which was featured in the animated film ‘The Book of Life’ and shown briefly in the latest James Bond movie ‘Spectre.’ However, some people would rather go on outdoor trips at mountains or beaches. For us it was both.
Our hiking party consisted of 31 people in two vans. Our vehicle inspired awe with its chrome paint and flashy stickers. The driver, who introduced himself as Lord, parked it beside the van with our fellows upon arriving at Itogon, Benguet.
I remembered a former office colleague posting her excursion at Mt Ulap on social media. That mountain was not only relatively close to Manila but also easy to climb too. Mt Ulap could be traversed in less than half a day. It had a trail difficulty of 3/9 yet an elevation of 1,846 meters above sea level. This made it popular for both first-time trekkers and holiday-goers seeking an escape from city life. Usually, the hike would begin here at Baranggay (which is a Filipino term for a village) Ampucao and end at Baranggay Santa Fe. Yet we decided to do it the other way round. A large number of hikers had arrived before us. They could traverse Mt Ulap through the commonly used route while our party avoided ‘trekker traffic’ along the way. After all, we looked forward to an afternoon at a beach in La Union province, which was two to three hours drive from Itogon. I was told that taking the alternate route would enable us to finish sooner the first part of our weekend getaway.
Yes To Adventures, a group that offered affordable outdoor trips, organized the hike. In fact, its members were present at the time I joined the Talahib group in our traverse through Mt Purgatory. A fellow named Jerald Garayan lent me a pair of sandals after my hiking shoes got too damaged to wear.
Mercy Caba was the lead organizer of the Mt Ulap excursion. She rode in the first van. The second van fell under the supervision of Hency Joyce Gamara. Accompanying her was John Vincent “JohnVi” Chua. (Our fellows also called him by his surname.) Aldous Moncada was also present. Cecille “Cess” Olivarez was working in Singapore but she came home to participate in this trek. I met the four of them at my second climb at Mt Marami. One of my companions in the second van was Clarisse Anne Ancheta. Her knee got sprained when we did the Mt Purgatory traverse with Talahib. Just two weeks ago, Rhea Juranes and I went to Mt Maculot along with Alvin Villanueva. Now we were hiking again. I also met Zy Orquesta and Honey Bangalisan for the first time. It felt like a grand reunion.
I wore a blue t-shirt made of lightweight synthetic material that dried easily. It suited weather conditions where one would sweat profusely while running. It was past 4 AM at the highlands of Benguet province and it was still dark. The chilly air forced most of the hikers to wear jackets and other thick clothes. Cess told me I had the skin of a carabao – a Filipino idiom for resistance to cold. I could have told her I had the fur of a bear or a wolf. Still, the Baranggay hall of Ampucao sheltered us from the elements. The grassy campsite at Mt Tabayoc had lower temperatures coupled with raging winds.
Our trekking party assembled for a briefing by four nature guides named Jonard, Liza, Miriam, and Van-Van. They confirmed that the hike would indeed start at Santa Fe. First, we would climb Mt Ulap itself. Then we would pass by Gungal Rock. Finally, we would go through Ambanao Paoay before ending our trek. It felt like immersing into the children’s animated series ‘Dora the Explorer.’
At 5:40 AM, we were all riding separately in two vans. Liza sat beside me. I took the opportunity to ask the guide about Mt Ulap, the local indigenous groups, and the tourists. Our vehicle followed the twists and turns of the typical winding roads of Benguet province. Still, Rhea managed to fall asleep. Aya, on the other hand, got awestruck by the sunrise to our left. The clouds took a mushroom shape. The orange glow of dawn created a nuclear bomb explosion. This cloud formation would not show up every day.
About 15 minutes later, our group dropped off at a bend in the concrete road. The morning air felt much less chilly and sunlight was bright enough to see our way. After assembling, we began the estimated five-hour trek with supplications.
The cemented path led us through a small community. Single-story houses of plain construction stood apart to our left and right. The place seemed sleepy. It was a Sunday morning after all. Yet a few residents were already awake, greeting us as we passed by. A dog at a distant house kept barking at us.
Eventually, we came upon a hanging bridge. Metal cables and chain-link fencing supported Marston mats that we stepped on. These sheets of steel were actually used as a surface on airfields of the US Air Force during World War Two. When the conflict ended in 1945, the Marston mats found a new life as construction material. They had been prevalent in rural areas across the Philippines. As I prepared to cross the bridge, I noticed that the cables and wires were red with rust. I was behind Rhea and ahead of Anne. Then I walked. The bridge shook under the weight of several hikers. A dark offspring of fear and stress crept up me. I could imagine the bridge collapsing. Yet I kept on walking. Eventually, everyone made it through the structure.
Below the bridge lay cluttered rocks of varying shapes, sizes, and colors. Water flowed through them as a stream that could be described as halfway between gentle and fierce. That spot under the bridge gave an impression of a zen garden. There were three bridges in total on the trail.
We continued the trek and arrived at a place with makeshift benches and roofed wooden structures. A woman sold us ‘ice candy’ kept in a foam box commonly used by peddlers of cold desserts and bottled drinks across the country. A blended mix of fruit and milk would be poured into tube-shaped plastic and then frozen in a refrigerator to produce this treat. It was also affordable too. Some of our companions bought ice candy. We had a break before pressing on. Just as we left the place, Aldous had an ugly encounter with a black rooster.
Following the trail, our hiking party soon came to an establishment that sold souvenirs. There were T-shirts, key chains, refrigerator magnets, and trinkets. Those refrigerator magnets came with painted wooden sculptures that would fit in the palm of one’s hand. Pine cones were also preserved and attached with a black circular magnet. The more expensive refrigerator magnets had landscape photos of Mt Ulap and areas in its vicinity. We had time not only to buy but also to sit down and rest.
Past the souvenir shop was a winding uphill path. My fellows in van number two and I looked on as those from van number one made the ascent. Minutes passed as they trudged towards the summit in a single file line. It was like looking at a huge multicolored snake that slithered slowly.
Then our turn to move up the slope came. My feet and legs withstood the challenge of the zig-zag trail. The way ahead had firm ground with some rocks instead of slippery mud. The sun rose higher up the sky. The air became slightly warmer. Nevertheless, the high altitude kept the surrounding temperatures comfortable. The fresh mountain air was a welcoming relief for my exposure to vehicle exhaust and urban congestion yesterday. Our group seemed relatively silent as we kept on hiking. There were minimal chatting and laughing. Among us, Hency and Aya talked the most. The two brought some cheer too. Alvin led the way. We also took pictures of a scenery that soothed our spirits.
More of the landscape got revealed as we went higher up Mt Ulap. Pine trees grew all the way to the horizon. They also provided us some shade despite having needles instead of broad leaves. Cones littered the floor, resembling a curled-up pangolin. The hills and mountains looked stunning under a sunny sky. The weather was simply perfect, unlike my recent excursion at Mt Maculot. I could stay here all day and immerse in the tranquility. Yet we had to move on as life would warrant from everyone, especially those troubled by their respective pasts.
Eventually I reached a slope that I could say had an angle of 30 degrees. Several pine trees stood around the dirt path, casting shadows. I ran uphill and charged. Then I was greeted by manure lying on the ground. It could have been deposited by a cow or a horse. More of those scat lay on our way. At least they did not smell strongly. The fecal matter appeared more like dried mud rather than a disgusting semi-solid object that could not be distinguished.
Up ahead was a hill dotted with more evergreen trees. The scenic ridge to our left stole our attention. Honey, Rhea, and Zy posed for snapshots with it as their background. Anne joined them too in another photo. Walking further, we came upon a nearly barren tree with grayish bark. A visitor to Mt Ulap could sit comfortably between the two prongs that rose from the trunk. Hency gave it a try and was not disappointed. Nearby stood a wooden sign that pointed the way to the summit. The letters, decoration, and the arrow were made from green, red, and white plastic caps of bottled fizzy drinks. Colors corresponded to the beverage brands. We followed the sign and the winding trail up the hill.
When I looked behind, I could see a lake. The turquoise body of water was not what it seemed. It turned out to be a tailing dam owned by Philex Mining Corporation. We already saw it shimmering earlier. As we got higher up Mt Ulap, a number of buildings came into view. It might be the mining facility or a residential community next to it.
Later on, the ground sloped downward. We were supposed to be ascending. Then the pine trees disappeared. Short grass grew abundantly, carpeting our surroundings with a fine layer of vegetation. It was similar to the grass on a golf course. My companions and I could not help but express awe at the treeless hills on our front. They reminded me of The Shire in The Lord of The Rings trilogy – only without the peculiar dwellings of the hobbits. I also realized why people flocked to Mt Ulap for an experience of the great outdoors.
The trail of brown dirt stood out against the green grass. It led us up and down a hill. Then we saw tents pitched on a field. Groups of people camped there overnight, seeming more of holidaymakers than hikers. The place was alive with music and chatter. Our trekking party greeted with cheerful voices.
About a hundred meters from the campsite lay the summit of Mt Ulap. It appeared as a massive steep hill that loomed before us. Anne went ahead. Honey, Rhea, and I walked briskly until the three of us reached the top. Alvin and Zy followed. Making our way to the summit was not difficult but not easy too. We arrived at 8:45 AM.
The summit itself offered a 360-degree view of Mt Ulap’s vicinity. I could still see the Philex tailing dam and buildings. A dark green forest of pines lay to our right. At the edge of it was a small clearing with several brightly-colored tents set up by another group of trekkers. To our left, however, was a ridge that compelled us to have it as a background for our photos. The lower half consisted mostly of barren gray rock while the upper half was green with vegetation. It should have been the other way round. White clouds formed at the top of the ridge itself. The highlands stretched all the way to the horizon at all sides.
More of our hiking companions started arriving at the summit. Aldous, Chua, and Hency made the most of their time by taking snapshots. Mercy chatted with virtually everyone. She then posed for photos too. I left my hiking buddies for a while to have a meaningful conversation with our four guides. Aside from talking about Mt Ulap, I also shared some of my thoughts, uncertainties, and plans for the future amid the scenic views and cold winds. It felt soothing. Before leaving the summit at 9:30 AM, the combined hiking parties from the two vans posed for an epic group picture. A rainbow appeared out of nowhere in front of the tantalizing ridge. The sky had turned gray since earlier and brought a drizzle.
After climbing Mt. Ulap, we headed towards Gungal Rock. Just past the summit lay a thicket of bushes. Lush pine trees stood beyond it. We hiked once more with bodies recharged by sufficient rest and an awe-inspiring landscape. Then a huge white fallen log blocked our path. Some of us, including me, took quick snapshots of it and the surroundings as fellow hikers made their way over this obstacle. I pressed my hand on the log and jumped over it effortlessly like someone doing parkour.
Rhea’s pace of walking grew slower. She told me about pain in her right knee. It was Anne who had this experience during the Mt Purgatory traverse. Now it was Rhea. Our fellow trekkers complained about leg strain but her case was more serious.
The route towards Gungal Rock remained scenic. The trail passed through dense vegetation that gave way to open ground. Coniferous trees covered a hill to our right while another was bare with only grass, turned slightly brown by exposure to the sun, growing on it. Soil erosion created what could be described as a giant footprint of a kaiju, the term for a colossal monster conceptualized by the Japanese film industry. A rustic fence made of wooden posts and barbed wire stretched from our right. It crossed the way ahead. Our group climbed over an improvised ramp to get to the other side of the fence. We were told to be careful of sharp and rusty metal surfaces.
Soon, we caught sight of our next destination. A large number of fellow visitors lingered at Gungal Rock itself. We could see them in their brightly colored outfits. Following Hency’s suggestion, we agreed with her in just going past the landmark. We would continue our way, looking forward to the beach in La Union, rather than join the long line of people. Waist-high gray boulders surrounded the path. Our hiking party opted to pose on top of them while standing, sitting, or posing as creatively as we could. It was already sufficient. The battery of Rhea’s mobile phone ran low. I agreed to take pictures of her and send them later. We looked at Hency and JohnVi with cheerful laughter as they posed romantically as a couple. Anne balanced herself atop a rock with only one foot. Our group spent at least ten minutes taking photos before pressing on.
The sky grew dim as masses of clouds drove away its shade of blue. At least I wore a cap for the drizzle. I did not bring a raincoat this time. Getting soaked under the weather did not matter. After all, I could take a bath later at the beach.
I walked behind Rhea, who was limping slightly as her right knee ached. The pain did not subside. She was mostly silent at this point. Still, I accompanied her as a way of giving moral support too. She was my hiking buddy after all.
Pebbles littered the dirt path, making it a bit slippery. The trail could be seen on bare hills far ahead of us. At certain spots, slipping would mean tumbling down a grassy slope and sustaining injury. We walked at a moderate pace. At least our excursion was more leisurely than challenging. The Mt Ulap traverse seemed ideal for first-time mountain trekkers, such as Honey. Yet she demonstrated the stamina and agility of a seasoned hiker. Honey would likely participate in more outdoor adventures like this in the future. Our party also bumped into other groups of visitors from time to time. Greeting them with a good morning and telling them to enjoy and be safe was customary. It encouraged goodwill and lifted weary spirits too.
We kept on walking but the landscape changed a little. However, there was an eye-catching tree completely devoid of leaves. The trunk and branches were white as if the bark was peeled off. It stood proudly under a gloomy overcast sky. Eventually, our trekking party complained because we were supposed to be descending yet we kept on going uphill. Another hill lay ahead as we took a break. Hency and Chua planned another outdoor adventure at San Pablo, Laguna province on the following weekend. They even invited us. Aldous chatted with two of our fellows. Asking their names did not come to my mind. I just wanted for our group to reach the end of our trek. Then we would ride our van to have a relaxing afternoon at a beach resort that offered surfing lessons. My companions shared this thought too, especially Rhea. She needed to stop walking, massage her knee, and stretch her right leg while resting.
Clouds amassed tightly above us as we made our way through a hillside. Reduced lighting made the surroundings grim. Then Alvin could not bear the aching in his legs. Aldous brought out his first aid kit that came with a liniment spray. My companions with strained lower extremities felt relief from the sensation of warmth brought by the bottled liquid. We continued walking. Then we arrived at Ambanao Paoay. The dirt trail disappeared among the ferns and bushes atop this hill. Our hiking party seemed lost. Then Rhea moved across the low-growing vegetation and spotted our fellows ahead of us.
The trail was less rugged than before. It had more soil than rock. The way ahead also went downhill continuously. Evergreen trees surrounded us to the left and especially to the right. Black trunks stood against the green of grass and pine needle. I was looking at what appeared to be a barcode while buying at a supermarket or retail store.
The liniment spray did not relieve Rhea’s knee pain completely. Yet the aching did not weaken her resolve. She walked slowly but with determination. At the forested area on our way down, I asked our guide Liza to lend her trekking staff to Rhea. She handed me a large, thin, and straight branch, which in turn I passed to my hiking buddy. Rhea turned the stick into her limb, putting less pressure on her right leg. The two of us lagged behind but we caught up eventually with our friends during a break.
Aldous, Hency, and JohnVi accompanied Rhea and I on a descending path that became steeper. Alvin, Anne, Honey, and Zy moved ahead but maintained visual contact. Aldous and Hency chatted, keeping the mood lively. The tall conifers grew less dense. The sun shone brightly again on a Sunday perfect for a getaway. It was past 10 AM. Then we saw a concrete road and houses far behind a canopy of pine needles. We were getting close to the end of our trek.
Human settlement lay to our right but the trail turned left. Our group felt slightly frustrated. We followed a relatively even dirt path. Looking to our left, our view was blocked by a white mist. It seemed that a cloud formed just off the ravine. ‘Ulap‘ meant cloud and my fellows said this was how the mountain got its name. Then we came upon another sign with the words ‘Mt Ulap’ decorated as indigenous embroidery in the Cordilleras. Below it hung a smaller placard of Ampucao to Santa Fe Ridge, which depicted three men hiking on mountainous terrain with a blue sky and a yellow sunrise as their background.
Eventually, the surface we stepped on transformed from dirt to cement. Hency and Chua ran with excitement. I smiled at Rhea as she could be already feeling the end of her ordeal. Then our hiking party found ourselves on a two-lane road. Just across it lay a shack that sold refreshments. We waited for our van, which arrived shortly.
I had always wanted to climb Mt Ulap since I saw pictures of it on social media. Previously, this seemed a remote possibility. I could not believe I just accomplished it. I also learned first-hand why outdoor enthusiasts found this place charming. It was not only the scenic landscape but also the company of people who mean much to me that made the trek worthwhile.