Mt Purgatory Traverse: Before and After

According to the Ancient Greek historian Heraclitus, change is the only constant in life. The saying goes for trails too. More than a year has passed since I took the Mt Purgatory traverse and I have noticed differences in the sights and landmarks. This time, I have followed a longer path near the end of the trek. Last year, on August 20-21, 2016 to be exact, I accompanied a mountain climbing group that went by the name of Talahib in hiking the Mt Purgatory traverse. I would have another set of companions this time.

A fellow named Elmer “Yobs” Jurilla organized our trip, scheduled on September 23-24, 2017. The participants were Christian “Chan” Ararao, Mark Caldez, Jhay Coriag, Aileen “Ai” Epiz, Lawrence “Angel” Fetalvero, Casandra “Cas” Gubatan, Elena “Len” Ibana, Cherrie Meigh Laborte, Vivian Nuyles, Tina Relos, and James Ulip. and I. My previous excursion became possible after Christian “Xtian” Villanueva, who was with Talahib, invited me personally when I met him and Len. Xtian joined but Len did not. Thirteen months would pass before she finally got the chance to be part of this piece of adventure in northern Luzon.

Cubao in Quezon City, Metro Manila served as our location to gather before traveling. Instead of the Jollibee fast food branch literally flooded by hikers with their identifying attire and bags, our group met up at a McDonald’s constructed with modernist architecture. One by one the members arrived between 9 and 11 PM. Then we hopped in a Toyota Hi-Lux van, sat as comfortably as we could, and rode all the way to Benguet province with stopovers along the way. Sleep eluded me again. It was caused more by working in a nighttime shift than by the discomfort of nodding off while sitting. My body clock had changed too. I wished deeply for enough energy to make it through tomorrow.

 

Mist on distant mountains greeted us after waking up on the following morning feeling dizzy. The road ahead twisted and turned. It was like being tossed on a ship’s deck on a stormy sea. At about 7 AM, our trekking party had breakfast at a restaurant and stopover where I also ate last year with the Talahib group. It was exactly the same place. Len and I even chatted with our hiking companions at Mt Makiling last January. It felt like a brief reunion. Our acquaintances would be heading to Mt Pulag, the highest peak in Luzon island. I had not climbed it yet. I wished to be there sooner. After 30 minutes, we were on our way to the jump-off point.

Moderate rain welcomed us at the roadside sign where we would begin the two-day hike. We began wearing our waterproof ponchos. Mine was colored orange. Somehow I could not find that more rigid blue raincoat I wore the last time I was here. Still, that raincoat limited my movement and felt uncomfortably hotter compared to my poncho. Yet my forearms and lower legs were exposed. I did not care. For now, rain fell more like a drizzle.

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If my hiking adventures would be turned into a video game, it would be ‘Mountaineers Creed’

A group of people huddled together in a hut, taking shelter from the elements. I approached them. Sabel, my guide from last year, was there. She recognized me immediately. However, she would accompany another party. A woman in her forties would be our guide, introducing herself as Kulingay. Yobs worked on our registration. Memories of the surroundings became more vivid. The Mt Purgatory jump-off sign and trail map stood the test of time. They endured the soaking rain and chilling cold. Pine trees made this place seemingly foreign. Then I noticed something different. The dirt road that marked the first steps of this adventure was now cemented. Talking to Kulingay, I commented about it. It was for real, not just my imagination. Then I began taking pictures. We had a group photo and a short briefing.

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Standing from left: Yobs, Jhay, Tina, Lawrence, Ai, Len, Vivian, James. Sitting from left: Mark, Cherrie, Chan, Cas, The Blogger
Jump-off point: before and after 

DSCN0759The last time I started out the Mt Purgatory traverse, I was among those in the front leading the way. Now i settled at the rear. I accompanied Kulingay and a young fellow nicknamed Jigs. He was aged between 12 and 16. Chan, Len, and Vivian shared my pace. This time, I also panted less and was not as weary as before. Sooner, the cemented path came to an end. We stepped on soil made firm by the cold and littered with fallen pine cones. Our hiking party marched uphill steadily. Breaks lasted only two minutes and were done sparingly. It seemed that we walked from the jump-off point to Mt Mangakew without stopping. It ceased from raining. We took off our ponchos. Then out of nowhere we heard the sound of an impending downpour. None came. It was just a furious wind that seemed a jet engine to my ears. Len persisted with her pun-filled fish jokes as kept on strolling. I arrived again at that familiar waiting shed. To my surprise, the trekkers guided by Sabel, instead of my companions, sat there. Then another acquaintance showed up. It was Emilia, my guide at that unforgettable climb at Mt Tabayoc. This had been the third time I saw her personally. Now Emilia did not wear a hat and had longer hair. Mark, Yobs, and the others pushed it all the way. Then I scanned my right for a black pipe where refreshingly potable water flowed out. I could not find it. Things have changed indeed. Even my immediate companions could feel my disappointment. After a minute or so, that pipe of water appeared. Our water containers were still full — or at least nearly full. The four of us drank with our hands, then washed our faces and hair. I would gladly trade bottled water bought at supermarkets for this.

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Sabel (left) and Emilia (right). Both had been my guides here at the mountains of Benguet.

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Wooden Mt Mangagew sign: before (top) and after (bottom)

Reddish mud marked the road that passed through Mt Mangagew. Again, I joked about it sounding like the Tagalog word for snatching or making off with something — or someone. We took group photos at that rustic fence near the elementary school. I recalled Neil dela Cruz and Yhs Cariño, my trekking mates from last year, sharing snacks with me at this exact spot. The couple were Len’s close friends. Yhs recently gave birth to a boy they named JG. Then we hit that muddy road that looked like trailing from a copper mine. The color was simply unnatural. I could say the soil was more Australian than Filipino. Chunky mud stuck fast to our shoes and sandals. There was nothing we could complain about. The best our party could do was keep to the sides of the road with a firmer surface. Chan, Len, Vivian, and I lifted our spirits with cheerful conversation. Eventually, we reached that Mt Mangakew sign. Our hiking group stopped at a shed above a slope just off the road to the right. Cas and Tina played with puppies. We rested our bags on a bench and a table. Following a brief group conversation, the trek resumed.

Metal Mt Mangagew sign: before and after

Plain-looking small residential homes lined the dirt road. Children stood as they watched us like foreign tourists visiting their place. Dogs and chickens brought more life to the surroundings.  I searched for that store with a bench arranged into an incomplete three-sided square across the road. This was where we had ample rest and snacks last time. I could not find it. It might have closed down. As we kept on walking, that distant eroded rock face of a mountainside to our left did not cease to amaze me. Our group took pictures.DSCN0790 With certainty, that human-caused landmark would remain for decades. Later on, I finally saw again that store standing on the left of the road. Upon arriving, Mark and Yobs offered me a cup of coffee. I declined and instead bought Mountain Dew® caffeinated soft drink in a plastic bottle. While last year we relaxed on the benches across the road, this time my companions and I spent time under the roof of a cross between a patio and a hallway. Then a crested myna (Acridotheres cristatellus) flew in and landed near the store. It had no fear of humans. I asked the guides if it was the same injured bird I encountered last year. The kindly lady who ran the store said it was a different bird. Our hiking party eventually decided to have lunch there. The lady store-owner sold us cooked white rice in clear plastic bags. Most among us dined on canned sardines or tuna with it. Mine was tuna flakes preserved in the same way as corned beef. At this time too, I got a DSCN0791bit grumpy. I could sense bad vibes. I did not want things to happen again where I was at a disadvantage, feeling more of dead weight. The mood turned gloomier when rain began to fall exactly when everyone was done with lunch and we were setting out. The drizzle intensified. We wore our colorful ponchos again, with relatively many among us buying the light yellow one from hardware stores.

The dirt road turned into gravel as I once again trudged a notable uphill section of road. Last year, I panted hard here and had to pause for ten seconds after exhausting myself. It was still as difficult as before. Yet somehow it felt less tiring partly due to the coolness brought by rain. Noontime heat made me wearier a year ago. I stayed in the rear again with the same companions as hours ago. Vivian’s pace slowed and I wondered if one of her legs or both were aching. We discussed about romantic relationships, along with outer space and light from stars.

The tough uphill road to the farm: before and after

An agricultural field lay at the end of this upward track. It did not mean relief. The muddy surface compelled us to look carefully at the ground first before stepping. I touched the soil with the sole of my shoe. Within seconds, I planned a path to follow. Rain combined with low montane temperatures gave mud not only the consistency but also the look of peanut butter. Suddenly, my entire left foot sank in. My sock got wet. The shoe appeared terribly dirty. I could hear my companions express surprise and pity. However, I simply laughed it out. This was nothing compared to both of my lower legs sinking halfway at the shore of Lake Letepngepos, also around these parts of Benguet.

DSCN0799Our ordeal finally turned into respite upon reaching a two-story house under construction. It consisted of hollow cement blocks, metal rods, and pieces of wood of all sizes. Sawdust littered the floor. Yobs brought out a bottle of gin mixed with lime juice. I whiffed the liquor and personally found it smelling similar to wood. Jay shared peanuts in small foil packs. We snacked and chatted as the drizzle outside did not relent. Tina then laid two nails on the floor and asked us a riddle how it could become a name of a vegetable. A few minutes passed. Cas took the nails and gave it to Tina while saying, “sa iyo ‘te,” which sounded like chayote. The phrase meant ‘for you, ate (a distinctly Filipino word addressed to women out of respect, especially if older). After ten minutes of taking shelter in that DSCN0800soon-to-be house, our trek resumed. A dirt path, now turned into mud by the rain, led us across a field of leafy vegetables. A man carrying an ax with a long shaft was talking to his fellow riding on a motorcycle, which was not moving but with the engine still running. This time, we did not stay in that farm house where kittens scurried at us upon the sight of our lunch.

The slope just past the farm: before and after

Again, I was on the part of the trail where the surroundings grew wild after strolling uphill from a piece of farmland. Light rain came with a mist that made the surroundings grim. This wet weather in the midst of pine trees made Yobs recall the vampire movie Twilight, featuring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. The rest of the fellows with me agreed. I grinned as I remembered that movie and something related to it, back in college. I asked Len and Vivian which they preferred — Edward the vampire or Jacob the werewolf. At this point, I got tired of taking my poncho off and then putting it on again. I let the rain drench my hair and shirt. A drizzle caused illness more than getting soaked thoroughly. I could take a bath at Mt Bakian when spending the night there. The terrain plunged sharply to our left. Then a waiting shed would appear. Minutes passed and I still could not see it. There was only the ravine. It made me wary of my steps.

Grass lay on both sides of the narrow trail and I knew I was getting closer. Soon, I saw a bunch of hikers sought shelter in that waiting shed. Nobody seemed to pay heed when I arrived. Jhay then welcomed me casually. I was shivering. Getting hypothermia in a tropical country might sound impossible but it was a reality out here in the misty mountains of Benguet province. My body tolerated the cold but I would not take chances. I rested my large backpack, took off my soaked shirt, and wore my gray woolen jacket. After that, I waterproofed myself with that orange poncho. Len went ahead while I was changing my outfit. Chan and Vivian, along with Kulingay, waited for me.

We were on the winding unpaved road at the mountainside where I witnessed the aftermath of a landslide last year. Interestingly, my male companion at this part of the Mt Purgatory traverse both went by the name of Christian. Conversation might be minimal among the five of us but nevertheless it kept us going. The rain, mud, and fatigue sapped what cheer we had bit by bit. Later on, we regrouped with Cherrie, Jhay, and Len with a steep and impenetrable forest behind them. A literal wall of rock and vegetation stood on our left while another ravine lay to our right. The sky grew clearer, revealing how deep the ravines were. It ceased from raining, not even a drizzle. Everyone in our trekking party gathered at the roadside jump off point for climbing Mt Pack. The clouds parted and the mist disappeared. A breath-taking scenery of highland and pine forest revealed itself. We took snapshots. Our party got divided into two smaller groups labeled the ‘lead’ and the ‘sweeper.’ The term ‘lead’ has spoken for itself. I joined the ‘sweeper’ for a slower pace and to appreciate the place’s natural beauty more. Honestly, I had better interpersonal connection with members of the ‘sweeper’ team.

Past a trail section with tall grass, I expected a wooden shed at the big sign that welcomed hikers into Mt Pack’s mossy forest. It was gone. My mind could not grasp how this structure vanished. Kulingay told me that a typhoon, or tropical storm, wrecked that shed beyond repair. I remembered taking shelter there with Sabel and my companions from Talahib.

The shack at the base of Mt Pack: before and after

DSCN0827The mossy forest engulfed me again. This time, I had another set of fellows to share this experience. Above us, tree branches and leaves filtered sunlight much that the surroundings were as dim as during sunset. It was dark green everywhere. Moss grew in plenty on the trunks and branches, sustained by a perpetually moist environment. Puddles formed on the worn out trail. I could spot shoe prints as if on the trail of a runaway fugitive. The trail went uphill as we climbed Mt Pack. Cherrie and Jhay were just ahead. I stuck around with Len like a hiking buddy. Behind us, Kulingay accompanied Chan and Vivian. As I spent time with Len, I could not help compare Mt Pack with Mt Makiling. It was eight months ago when we traversed the latter. At least this place did not come with small leeches. Then my camera exhausted its battery. I decided to charge it later tonight to have snapshots by tomorrow all the way to the journey’s end. From this point till the rest of the day, photos would come from my mobile phone. Eventually, we reached the summit of Mt Pack at least thirty minutes from that big sign. There was a similar metal sign there. Trees blocked the view of a rugged montane landscape around us — just as they did at Mt Makiling. It was a déja vu indeed. As the ‘sweeper’ team arrived, the ‘lead’ team finished their idle time. We all posed for a group picture. Then we marched towards our next objective: Mt Purgatory itself.

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Mt Pack summit photo. Credit of Aileen Epiz

A hand-carved wooden sign on a tree trunk warned us about the trail being slippery. I slowed my pace. I could feel my entire weight bearing down on my knees and lower legs. Then my right foot slipped. I could have stumbled had I not grabbed a branch and stayed upright. My fellows told me to be more careful.

20170923_151026Eventually, the trail through the mossy forest became less steep. Yet it ascended and descended from time to time. We could not tell whether we were climbing a mountain or going down from one. It was the same moss-covered tree, fern, and muddy path. Beyond the tree cover lay nothing but a gray sky. Even an eerie silence characterized this part of our two-day trek. I could hear only the countless drops of water hitting the leaves and the stormy wind that blew like an angry phantom. Nothing changed in our surroundings. There had been stories of hikers who spent too much time inside the mossy forest, as if they had difficulty getting out. They had not emerged yet by nightfall. I heard that this woodland was enchanted. I would agree in terms of appearance. Gnarled branches and moss made this place seemingly elvish. While the flora mesmerized me, the mud and puddles made me a bit grumpy. My foot, if not feet, would sink in. Mud caked my shoes. Cut branches laid on the trail provided a hard surface to step on but sometimes they were slippery.

20170923_153317Len and I endured the trail within the mossy forest for more than an hour. This time, Cherrie and Jhay were behind us. Then we caught up with Ai, Cas, and Lawrence. While hiking, I paused for a moment to take a snapshot. My four companions kept on walking until I was left alone. I would simply catch up with them. Solitude did not seem frightening. In fact, it made me one with nature. There was nothing to worry as long as I followed a muddy trail. My empty stomach served as a more urgent concern. I could feel my legs weakening. Two packs of chocolate-flavored biscuits with chocolate wafer sandwiched in between became my snack on the go. Soon, I came upon those four having a respite. Len asked why I was gone. I replied that I took time for a snack. She also looked for Cherrie and Jay. I told her they were just behind us. The five of us kept on walking until we emerged from the mossy forest and into the summit of Mt Purgatory.

Again, there used to be a dirt-floored shack up here but it was gone. All that I saw was a roofed shed with benches but now without walls. Kulingay said that shack was torn down too by the typhoon. It was past 4 PM. The sky remained cloudy but it came with a warm sunset. This in turn gave mellow lighting for our photos of a distant valley and ridges. Not only we took snapshots but also ate jellies, biscuits, and chocolate. We shared Mt Purgatory’s summit with another group of hikers from earlier in the day. Last time I was here, the rain kept us sheltered and huddled in what used to be a hut. Now I felt grateful for a break in the weather. Yet daylight faded fast and I knew we had to keep on moving.

Just as during my previous Mt Purgatory traverse, our group followed a path down the grassy summit. Then what seemed a mouth of a cave swallowed us, only it was in fact a shadowy grove of trees. We found ourselves back within the mossy forest. Then Lawrence stopped walking and grumbled with pain. He had been coping with an injured knee for a few weeks now. The aching got severe again. Yet Lawrence smiled and told us cheerfully to keep on going. He limped but moved steadily. Our group stopped for one-minute breaks. I had a quicker pace this time compared with last year. As it was nearly the last week of September, the sun set earlier. At 5:30 PM, the surroundings turned gradually from gray to blue by every passing minute. I wanted to get out of the mossy forest sooner. The trail seemed infinite. Then we emerged on the dirt road traveled by foot and motorcycle. The darkness outpaced us. It was too dim and we started to trip on rocks. We stepped on wet mud too. The guide and I brought out our flashlights. Our ordeal on that road lasted 30 minutes before arriving at the relative comfort of Mt Bakian.

I stayed in a different house than before. Upon coming to Mt Bakian, we climbed a ladder and put our backpacks by the entrance of a spacious room. Then I took my dirty shoes off for a pair of flip-flops. We were told that our hiking group would not spend the night in that room but in another below. I sighed. That room looked cozy with its wooden walls and a floor covered with tarpaulin.

Hurriedly, I took out a fresh T-shirt and a large towel to take a bath. Previously, this place only had one makeshift outdoor toilet and a similar structure for a shower. Now there were three for bathing and renovated too. Problem is, my fellow hikers and I had to bear patience with one hose and a limited water supply. We still waited in turns. So I stood there shirtless during a night on the highlands of Benguet province. Amazingly, I did not shiver. Perhaps it was due to walking all day. Then I entered a bathroom that just got vacated and settled with a sponge bath with a washcloth. I forgot to bring an extra pair of pants and shorts. I could not see clearly, relying on limited illumination from my flashlight. At least I could retire for the night feeling relatively fresh.

We all laid down bedding on a room that appeared as a cellar or an underground bunker. In reality, it was just situated on ground level. I would doze off snugly in my sleeping bag, which I also brought last time here at Mt Bakian. Cherrie gave us a relieving massage for our aching body parts. In my case, it was the shoulder blades due to the strain from carrying a backpack. Then we gathered around for dinner. Members of our trekking group ate heartily after an entire day of travel by foot. The simple menu consisted of boiled white rice and chicken adobo, which was cooked with soy sauce, vinegar, and peppercorns. The owner of this house cautioned us to lock the door so pet dogs wont intrude our room and eat whatever food we had. The canines had been docile from living with different visitors on a weekly basis. Suddenly, I felt too tired and sleepy. Memories of what happened next were fuzzy. All I could remember was lying down in my sleeping bag and getting unconscious ahead of my companions.

 

It was around 2 AM. I woke up. The back pain disappeared miraculously. Everyone lay down in sleep as comfortable as they could, as expected after a day-long hike. I stayed awake, staring at the ceiling and my asleep fellows with a blurry vision due to nearsightedness. I closed my eyes. I could not sleep again. Working at night as a customer service representative changed my biological clock completely. One should forget about vampires in Twilight. I could say I was the real deal. Minutes passed and turned into an hour. I wondered if I would have enough energy later in the day to finish the hike. Then past 4 AM, drowsiness paid another visit.

When I woke up at around 6 AM, the dawn lit some parts of the ceiling. My companions rose from their sleeping mats and began folding blankets. A few had already brushed their teeth. I went outside. Mt Bakian had the same weather conditions from my previous visit here. After just waking up, blood had not rushed throughout my body yet so I shivered from a breeze. I found myself standing on a foreign place or perhaps an alien world, far from the high-rise buildings and humid jungles I grew accustomed to. Pine trees grew all the way towards the distant mountains. Then I took my recently purchased metal cup and a bit of cash to buy instant coffee.

Fellow hikers from yesterday gathered on the store, sitting on benches facing each other. Laughing accompanied their conversation. We greeted each other a good morning. I complimented a man’s blaze orange coveralls. A jacket and pants merged as one fitting warm outfit, it was typically worn for hunting. His peers thought of him as a rescue worker. Coffee costed Php 15 and I was three pesos short. Jay lent me the amount. I repaid him later. I used the sachet for stirring. Frankly, the water was more lukewarm than hot. Plenty of time had passed since it was boiled. Mt Bakian’s frigid air temperature and altitude also counted as a factor. Mark’s instant cup noodles did not cook properly. Our hiking group also spent the morning strolling around and taking pictures.

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The Blogger sipping hot coffee, he was still sleepy that he wore his hat sideways

An elderly male guide remembered me and my group from last year. I looked for the place where I spent the night last year. Again, things have changed indeed. The patio where we had dinner and breakfast disappeared. Only a small piece of ground in front of a house remained. Yet the hut where the men and a rooster slept still stood. Metal covered the walls now, gleaming in the morning sunlight. As the guide and I continued chatting, I noticed he had difficulty speaking. Such was the dilemma of living in a country with multiple mother tongues. So I switched into English. I asked him about foreign tourists. He remembered Germans and Norwegians. This landscape did resemble that of Norway with its coniferous forests and wintry cold.

DSCN0849Meanwhile, Yobs prepared our breakfast. Aside from fried eggs and sausages, he also sautéed string beans with garlic, onion, and oyster sauce. He then cooked it with bits of chicken adobo from last night. Yobs stirred the contents of a big pan on top of a cut portion of a metal drum that served as a makeshift stove. Smoke blew through an improvised chimney pipe and out of the home. There was fried rice too. At nearly 8 AM, we ate this sumptuous meal together. This place seemed a summer vacation house. With a lack of gas for cooking and electricity, we could have also been living in medieval times. Following our breakfast, we packed our bags and prepared for the second half of our journey.

The ‘lead’ team went ahead to Mt Tangbaw. We at the ‘sweeper’ team trailed behind. I was back at the most scenic part of the Mt Purgatory traverse, especially on a clear Sunday morning. This area reminded me of Middle Earth and a map of a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) last time. The same amazement could be heard from my companions’ voices. Cherrie and Jhay were behind me. I found myself leading this party, seemingly a guide. I had been here before. The dirt road twisted by a ravine to our left. The sea of clouds above a distant valley was now gone. Eventually, we arrived at the jump off point to Mt Komkompol.

A narrow trail veered off the road. The ‘lead’ team took a different path from us if we would proceed to Mt Komkompol. We stopped for decision-making. After a discussion, we decided to go ahead to the mountain.

I knew that the path would branch out later so all of us had to stick together. That place remained the same. The stony ground plunged to our right, down a field of crops. Then came the cogon grass. This time, they grew thickly so much that they choked the trail. I had to brush the grass blades off with my bare arms. I worried about getting rashes again, even more about an allergic reaction. Then something crashed through the tall grass like a pouncing predatory animal. It was just a friendly dog that lived in the village. My companions had been calling it Eileen, similarly named with our friend who just had her birthday. It was a sort of playful tease. That female dog had been accompanying us since we left Mt Bakian. One by one, the ‘sweeper’ team regrouped at that spot. Then we proceeded left, all the way to the summit. The open terrain, mesmerizing for its scenery but gradually punishing for its heat, gave way into a mossy forest.

DSCN0857With no rain at this moment, the trail welcomed us amiably except for a few spots where water and mud did not dry. I remembered sharing that time with Len. She asked me to take a photo from a certain angle I did not not succeed the first try. She had to demonstrate. We all kept on walking. The path climbed and did not seem to end. Twenty minutes turned to thirty. At least the enchanted-looking forest shaded us from the sun. Hiking here felt cooler too compared to doing this activity in a lowland jungle. The ‘sweeper’ team stopped for snacks. We also played a game to stave off not only boredom but also tiredness. A category would be given. Then we would mention things or names under this category. In this case, our party must name mountains found within the Philippines – only within this country. I could have made off with this if it was in an international scale. The game went on until we could have jotted down all answers and made a list of all the mountains in this archipelago. There was no punishment though for someone who could not answer. He or she could pass his or her turn. It was all for fun.

The twists and turns of the forested trail came to an end. I shouted that we had reached the summit after seeing a clear sky beyond a hall lined with trees. I told them Mt Komkompol had the best views of all the peaks in the Mt Purgatory traverse. It sure did.

Mt Kom-kompol main sign: before and after
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It really feels great to be back at this place again, and with fine weather too 

Unexpectedly, the ‘lead’ team caught up with us shortly after we arrived at the summit. Yobs said there was a better vantage point following a short stroll. This was the part of the Mt Purgatory Traverse I had not experienced before. So our entire group squeezed ourselves through a patch of mossy forest. A huge root or a fallen trunk stood at chest to waist height and blocked the path. We had to crouch and move under it as if we were navigating a cave tunnel. At least Eileen the dog did not have a problem with going around. The trail saw human traffic but this canine could walk into tight spots and undergrowth. About three minutes passed until woodland transformed into a mountain meadow, only covered with tall grass.

Another Mt Komkompol sign stood near a ledge. This area offered a wider space for groups of hikers. Yet it had the almost similar views with that of the earlier spot, only revealing more of the landscape. We could see Mt Pulag rising above all the other peaks. It had a barren top. Here at Mt Komkompol, our mobile phones and cameras went into action. We posed with different individuals among our hiking party. I had a picture with Chan and Yobs. Then I asked to take another with Cherrie. Selfies came with groupies. Our photos showed creativity too. After spending too much time here and losing interest, we headed back to the spot with the other metal sign.

Our trekking group had lunch. The ‘lead’ team lay on some mat, shaded by trees around the Mt Komkompol sign. Another spot had a bit of tree cover with less shade. I sat down on the grass with Chan, Cherrie, Jhay, Len, and Vivian. While Len tried to finish the rice and string beans she brought in a plastic bag, I grew content with a loaf of bread. Cherrie shared a peanut treat usually sold at the Chinatown in Manila. Chan enjoyed some time as a photographer. Yobs offered shots of gin. Ai, Cas, and James took a nap. It felt like paradise, resting in a garden without worry and sadness. Minutes passed as lazily as the clouds overhead. Soon, a grayish mist appeared in the distance out of nowhere. A reader of this blog would find this scene at the About the Blogger page, the link found at the bar on the home page.

Mt Kom-kompol group picture: before and after

DSCN0888It was around 12:30 PM that we eventually got up and followed the path all the way to our journey’s end. Just by the fence on the ravine edge, the trail plunged into the mossy forest. Lawrence imagined that we were in the setting of the Philippine television series Encantadia. Ironically, a network rivaling our supposedly preferred channel aired the fantasy show. One might see it as a rip-off of Game of Thrones except that it was originally broadcast back in 2005. The 2016 series was a remake. As a piece of trivia, the actor who played Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane in season one of Game of Thrones appeared in Encantadia too. Speaking of television shows, the ‘sweeper’ team continued our game for fun with movies having Filipino languages titles. When we ran out of entries, our hiking party switched to Hollywood movies. The game just kept on going. I got so amused that the forest around us went fuzzy. My mind wandered through all the films I watched, along with those I had not but knew. My feet and legs did not ache from distraction. Maybe the trail was relatively easy too. We navigated this dense woodland shouting movie titles infinitely. There were just too many of them. For one, I could name all James Bond movies from Dr No to Spectre. Nearly two hours passed without us noticing. Later on, we crossed a creek running in a gully. A bridge consisting of two sturdy bamboo poles and some rope enabled us to get through. There was no railing. I moved carefully. Past that point, cool potable water flowed out of another pipe. I refilled my bottle a bit.

Frustration came unexpectedly like rain on a sunny morning or finding a Php 50 bill on a sidewalk. I found myself back on a stony unpaved road. Last year, I followed it after the brief visit at Mt Tangbaw. A long journey still awaited us. Now it felt more of a quest in a medieval fantasy realm or perhaps a death march.

DSCN0895The ‘sweeper’ team reunited with our fellows from the ‘lead’ team. We all sat down and rested around a waiting shed. Yobs caught a quick nap. Chan, Jhay, and Mark raced one another atop Mt Tinengan. Kulingay told us to look out for rocks getting kicked by their feet and rolling down the slope. There were a few. The dog that accompanied us all day chased those rocks in plain sight. None struck us. Meanwhile, I kept on asking Kulingay if we would hike down that slippery cemented footpath that twisted like a miniature hairpin road. The guide replied no. We would follow a road wide enough for a car.

Our trek commenced. Kulingay said we would reach the end after two hours. It was nearly 4 PM. The sun crept slowly down the sky like a wary insect. The lighting grew soft but also more shadowy. I walked with Cherrie, Len, and Yobs amid pine trees. Our feet, or toes in particular, ached from the downhill slope on a stony surface. I could describe it as torture. No matter how beautiful our surroundings appeared, I grumbled about this ordeal. The four of us took breaks, waiting for Chan, Jhay, Lawrence, and Vivian. I admired Lawrence for his endurance and patience despite his knee aching since yesterday afternoon. He already ingested pain relief tablets and they worked. As I followed this road with significant people in my life, I wished to stay in this surreal moment. Our highland adventure was coming to an end.

A house marked the end of the descending path that battered our feet. A less stony winding trail welcomed us. It snaked beside a river. Len went ahead but then stopped. A “black cow,” as she called it, startled her. “Water buffalo” or “carabao” would be more fitting words. We chuckled and laughed among ourselves.  Yet the beast blocked our path. It had the size of a hippopotamus and it possessed horns. I hesitated to continue walking. Despite being domesticated, nobody could assure how it would react to seeing strangers. Fortunately, the carabao let us pass, retreating to higher ground. A rope bound its neck to some tree trunk. At least its owner did not worry about the animal running free, which we thought at first what happened. Sooner, the unpaved path revealed a backpack mysteriously lying on the ground. Len and I wondered if a hiker left it. Then we learned it belonged to an amiable local man sitting nearby. A few well-built rural houses lay near the footpath, seemingly isolated like a cabin in the woods. Our way forked into two at instances. Being ahead, Len and I shouted at Kulingay asking for directions.

Once again, frustration seeped into me upon the sight of that dreaded cemented footpath. I hated going through it one more time. Then there was relief. This part of our Mt Purgatory traverse lasted only five to ten minutes. Last time I was here, I struggled down that winding footpath for an hour, alone and wearied by an unusually fierce early afternoon heat. There was still a long way to go and it was already near 5 PM. Down a small concrete bridge with metal railings lay a shallow pool that collected crystal-clear water. I washed my arms and face. Then the ‘sweeper’ team crossed a much bigger suspension bridge made wholly of steel but looked flimsy. It shook with each step. Only one could get through at a time, otherwise the bridge would collapse.

DSCN0905Drivers of two-wheeled motorcycles offered a ride for Php 200 each when we reached the wide road. The price could still be negotiated. Lawrence thought about it. Regardless of his aching leg, he still declined. Vivian said no too. Pain afflicted her knee despite having hiked just two weeks ago. So we began the last leg of our journey, finally. It seemed a race with the setting sun. We must reach our destination before nightfall. We played that game again we grew fond of. This time, fruits and plants served as the category. Then we found ourselves too distant from end to end to hear one another. Our group simply lost interest with it. We were already physically tired too. An irrigation canal the size of a sewer system under a sidewalk flowed by peacefully. Cherrie and Lawrence marveled at how clear the water was here. Back in the cities where we hailed, the canals stank and were colored black, if not choked with garbage. Members of our party also admired the relatively open terrain of Benguet’s coniferous mountainsides. Dense tropical rain forest mostly cloaked the uplands down south. Len’s face turned red literally not from blushing with shyness but from the heat and fatigue. We learned that Jhay’s birthday was approaching. A few puddles formed on the unpaved road. Then the dirt gave way to cement all the way. It felt like the Mt Makiling traverse again.

I decided to have a chat with Vivian and know her more. Despite her injury, she ran down the lane holding her trekking pole like a spear. Then she felt intense aching again. Vivian limped. I told her. Chan ran ahead past everyone. Everyone seemed to be jogging. Lawrence trailed behind, appearing as if a zombie chasing us. He did see it that way jokingly.

Houses began to surround the roads as sunlight faded with every passing minute. Our rest stop and bath drew closer. It felt relieving. Then our group discussed attraction between men and women, courtship, and relationships. It turned into a heated debate with yelling. Males and females blamed one another for break-ups and wasted feelings. Vivian said men only sought women for physical beauty and sex appeal. I replied that women had done the same too and some had been shallow-minded , especially this generation. We were entitled to our opinions. Our arguments went on. Then Vivian’s trekking pole turned into a spear indeed as she pointed it at Chan and I playfully. At this point our debate had to cool down. Both parties “negotiated for agreements.”

DSCN0913Eventually, I spotted a cemented stairway going down from high ground on the left and a residential home on the right. That was the spot where I descended alone and ended my first Mt Purgatory traverse. I recalled asking directions to children on that house across the road then taking a photo of them. Kulingay agreed. I would like to take that route again in a few years. Not sooner.

After five minutes of walking, we reached a two-story house. On its front lay a wooden hut and a space for parking. I remembered this place as where I returned the sandals lent to me by a member of the travel group Yes to Adventures. According to Len, that kind fellow was Rey Ar Roderos, who I shared time with at Mt Gulugod Baboy and Philpan Beach Resort back in June. There was no van this time. The “lead” team greeted us upon arrival. We told them about our unexpected debate back on the road. Then we finally took a bath, waiting in turns. This place offered modest shower facilities, only downsides were the lack of lighting and even pegs to hang clothing from.

Shed at journey’s end: before and after 

Darkness soon cloaked our surroundings, turning the sky frighteningly black. Our van got parked at the municipal hall of Bokod, Benguet, about two hours from here on foot. Of course, nobody wanted to walk further — especially at night. Yobs solved our dilemma by renting the open-backed truck owned by this residence. This large vehicle transported edible goods in pallets, most likely bottled beverages. Now it hauled hiking backpacks. Jhay held our forearms as he helped us climb on board. Then we settled on what limited space to sit on. Cherrie knelt on the truck bed itself beside me. It felt like riding a six-wheeled army transport truck with your squad. When everything was set, we started our adventure-filled drive to the municipal hall. Road turns shook us into nearly falling over the vehicle’s side. Leafy branches slapped our heads. A motorcycle and its shadowy rider trailed our truck until it overtook us. Jhay joked that it was the Ghost Rider. I thought we heard someone urinating beside the road only to find a busted water pipe being repaired by two men. Then another leaking pipe sprayed water on my hair. Then an L300 van parked in front of a barangay (village) outpost blocked our path. Our driver blasted his horn. Sooner, that smaller van was re-positioned and we continued our way. It took us about 30 minutes to reach the government building by vehicle. It was a nearly empty town square with breathing creatures there consisting only of a few men and a dog. Our hiking party registered, left Bokod for Baguio, and in that famous city dined at the equally famous Good Taste Restaurant. I had nostalgia.

If there was a lesson I got from my second Mt Purgatory traverse, it was that mountains could not avoid change no matter how invulnerable they seemed. A typhoon demolished a few structures. Yet change also meant progress, such as additional shower rooms at Mt Bakian. The surroundings of Mt Purgatory always felt like home for me. I loved its cold, scenic views, and people. I could return to this place anytime.

 

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Return to Mt Daraitan

There had been no bliss like going back to the first mountain I climbed while getting ready to move forward with life. It all began at Mt Daraitan nearly two years ago after an unexpected invite from a group of acquaintances at work. Then one mountain followed another like episodes of a television series that captured one’s interest. Now it was time to return to my so-called ‘mother mountain’ – a term used among trekkers in the Philippines for the first peak climbed.

While waiting for my companions in a hike at Mt Daguldol in Batangas province, I met Ren Emradura. She organized treks at mountains mostly, having acquainted with drivers and nature guides since she started in January of 2017. One day in June, Ren and I talked about climbing Mt Daraitan. She posted the event on social media. The day hike would take place on two consecutive Sundays for two batches of climbers.

Mt Daraitan can be climbed within three to four hours, even less than that with quick pacing. It has a trail difficulty of 4/9 and rises to a height of 739 meters above sea level. This may sound easy but the mountain has been famous for its steep rocky trails. It is situated within the boundaries of the town of Tanay, in Rizal province. Mt Daraitan lies close to the National Capital Region, making it a weekend getaway for residents of Metro Manila. At the foothills flows the Tinipak River where visitors can dip and plunge into the cool water with a moderate current. One can also admire rock formations sculpted naturally by the elements.

Ren and I arrived first at our hiking party’s meeting location in Quezon City. It was the exact place where we first met. One by one, our companions arrived. Jem Lorenzo came first. Miguel Gutierrez, Jerome “Kamote” Bitudio, Vicka Dorado, Dexter “Dhex” Pacaanas, Marlon Fordan, and Clifford “Cliff” Tagsip then followed respectively. ‘Kamote‘ meant sweet potato in the local mother tongue. It sounded cool for me. I knew a veteran hiker who went by the nickname of ‘talahib,’ or cogon grass. Rosemarie Endaya brought her siblings Len Len and Marlon. She was addressed as either Rose or Marie. Kelly “Trudis” Abaño and France Jaucian then arrived. Dhex, France, Trudis, Rose, and Vicka worked in the same petroleum company. Later on, only two were missing. Ren contacted them again. Then our group walked to their location and notified our transport’s driver to meet us all there. Neil Bolandrina and Enzo Ponon waved their arms as they saw us.

20170702_010951We went inside the Toyota HiAce van and chose seats of our own. Ren and I sat in the front beside our driver. He introduced himself as Rodgie. In fact, Ren already sought his services as a driver for a few times now. Later on, I realized why. Rodgie did not own the van but he could use it freely. The vehicle came with a sing-along system or karaoke, complete with a microphone with cord and a small television that displayed the lyrics. Our van also had WiFi, providing Internet access for our gadgets. It was the first time I had a transport for trekking that had these perks. As an organizer of hikes, Ren deserved my compliment. Rodgie turned the karaoke on. It had a scoring system. Whoever gets 100 points would be treated with a bowl of noodle soup, according to our driver. Reluctance from shyness overcame us at first. Then Rose sang first. On her another try, she got the 100 points. Of course there was no noodle soup. In the Philippines, one would not always take someone’s words literally. Joking had been entrenched deeply into local social behavior. Yet our group had less cheer than expected despite the karaoke. We also needed to doze off. I could not do it. Just days ago, I drank black coffee to do laundry after a tiring office shift. Caffeine helped me accomplish the task along with a bit of writing for this blog. After that, I was desperate for sleep. Drowsiness eluded me. It could simply be described as having a bad dream while awake. This time, I was going back to Mt Daraitan in good company. Perhaps the nocturnal work schedule kept me awake for most of the road trip.

At nearly 3 AM, our van crossed a bridge. We had arrived at the base of Mt Daraitan. I recalled this location, scanning for a shack by the river. Then we would get out, float across the body of water on a raft, then ride to the village by a motorized three-wheeled transport locally referred to as a tricycle. Our transport simply crossed a bridge and kept on going. Then it hit me. The bridge had been newly constructed, easing access by road to Mt Daraitan.

Rodgie parked the automobile on a vacant lot. My fellow hikers and I went out with stiff legs and insufficient consciousness. The air felt unusually warm instead of cold for this hour. Ren signed us up and took care of fees. I ended up walking with Vicka to a small food and snack establishment near the barangay (village) hall. As the two of us sat down waiting for rice porridge while talking to Cliff, France, and Marie, I had a flashback. After descending from Mt Daraitan’s summit in November 2015, I snacked and chatted with my companions named Gail, Gelo, Kaye, Kenneth, and Marc here at this exact spot. A couple named Carla and Neil led the excursion. Now it was just a distant memory that faded with my dissolved job position and the lack of communication. I shared that moment to the lady who served us porridge. She said they did serve hamburgers before but no more at the present. Some things had changed indeed. Still, nostalgia crept into me. Ren joined in. We had instant coffee too. Soon, our trekking party gathered at the cemented road as my fellows rented headlamps. Then we strolled to a roofed basketball court for a briefing before our hike. Two groups of fellow hikers had already assembled19239679_1629918810365077_1471915032_n on one end of the venue. Our party huddled with our guides named Alex, Jhun, and Golis. Then I recognized Alex. He was my guide during my first climb here. Aged in the forties or fifties, Alex also accompanied Gail, Gelo, Kaye, Kenneth, Marc and I at the campsite by the river nearly two years ago. He looked at me and also remembered me. The briefing last no more than five minutes. Then group photos were taken before the actual trek began.

We took the cemented road lined by houses. It all felt familiar, only this time it was still dark and residents were sleeping. Dogs did bark at us though. Then the ground turned uneven and rock-strewn. I stayed at the rear with Cliff and Ren, chatting with them too. Cliff had already climbed Mt Apo, the highest mountain in the Philippines. Alex led our hiking group. Golis and Jhun served as sweepers, a term for those last in line to make sure that no one would be left behind. I brought a hand-held flashlight instead of a headlamp. It presented a bit of a challenge. Only one of my hands was truly free. We had not reached the steep ascending part yet.

Small lighting devices turned hikers into bioluminescent insects from a distance. The scene before me seemed that of an elven forest. Our respective group stopped as the party ahead of us took time in making way through the ascending rocky trail. The path had a slope of 60 degrees, perhaps even higher as I recalled. Our march grinded to a halt. Nevertheless, I welcomed some rest. Sweat oozed profusely on my forehead. My throat yearned for a sip of energy drink, which I brought in a 1.5-liter bottle. Aside from that, I also had another 1.5-liter bottle of purified drinking water bought at the grocery store. That would make a total of three liters. On the other hand, Ren decided to have only one third of my beverage volume. She challenged herself with drinking as less water as possible. Additionally, Ren asked Jhun to carry her relatively light backpack as she had not fully recovered from dental surgery days ago. It felt liberating to the back, according to her.

It was my turn to overcome the slopes. No wonder the itinerary and locals alike advised us to wear gloves. I gripped on bare rock with one hand and with a flashlight in the other. I did not regret it. It was something new. It felt challenging. Mt Daraitan was the first mountain I climbed officially. Back then, I nearly panted to death at this point. This section not only took my breath away but also caused cramps on my legs. Those muscles ached from even a bit of movement. When we reached the rest station atop this slope, my lower extremities collapsed. I sat down. I told Kenneth and Kaye that I would be going back to the village. Then the two gave me jellies. They said the water and sugar content of jelly would re-energize my body. I also sipped some water. Minutes passed. The aching subsided. I got up and decided to keep on pushing towards the summit. This time, going up that nearly-vertical slope was easier than its counterpart at Mt Amuyao during my excursion there. Only the darkness and limited grip upset me. I did not breathe as deeply as before. The pace improved tenfold. Yet I could not see Ren anywhere. Other female members of our hiking group advanced uphill behind me. Then I bumped into more people. I thought they were our companions. They proved otherwise. Unfamiliar faces greeted me back.  In a way, I floundered through the lack of lighting. A rustic shelter made of bamboo offered respite as a lady sold coconut juice. After some rest, it was back on the trail again.

Miguel accompanied me. Enzo and Neil were also nearby. Ahead of us, Cliff walked as if he did not feel fatigue at all. Moving through a rocky trail sapped less energy and morale than through a muddy one. Despite the rough ascent, branches and tree trunks were always there to be gripped as to not slip.

The black of our surroundings turned to a color tone of mixed gray and blue past 5 AM. It came to a point that I could not make up my mind whether to still use the flashlight or not. Tree roots and slippery rocks still lay on our way. Time passed as our hiking group advanced steadily like someone late for school or work. Eventually, darkness flew away and got supplanted by a surreal bluish light. Clouds amassed at the horizon.

My camera began to malfunction at a platform where we spent ample time for photos. Every snapshot was blurry. It had that look when one opens his or her eyes after coming out of the surface of a river or the sea. My blog needed presentable pictures. I turned off the flash. I restarted the camera. The photos were still blurry. They had to be deleted. Carelessness caused me to get rid of all snapshots I took since the beginning of this hike. They were all gone in seconds. I expressed my frustration rather loudly. I told Ren about my mistake, hoping to alleviate the regret. She would share our group photo at the basketball court. During our conversation, I remarked that deleting memories should have been as easy as losing those photos with one press of a button. Then they could not be retrieved anymore, lost for good. Ren replied that not all memories should be discarded. Beautiful ones should be kept. Later on, my camera worked normally again. They were like human eyes, adjusting to the period between nighttime darkness and daylight. That explained why the photos turned blurry at that point.

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Back row from left:  Miguel, Neil, Marlon, The Blogger, Vicka, Ren, Enzo, Trudis. Front row from left: Len-Len, Rosemarie, Jem, France, Dhex, Jerome, Marlon  

Jem walked relatively slower due to leg cramps. Nevertheless, she kept on going. I forgot to mention the ointment again. I asked her if she was okay. Jem honestly answered that she was not. I agreed happily with her point. Saying that I was fine would be easy but in reality I was feeling otherwise. No one would know, better yet care. Jhun accompanied Jem, advising her to take slow yet steady steps.

Alex and I recalled a chat about plants growing in the area along with the medicinal properties of some of them as I stared at a ravine to my right. The terrain plunged starkly. I could imagine myself falling and rolling downhill. Trees clumped beyond the edge. Mt Daraitan could be described as a forest growing on a ground of mostly rock. He knew this place very well, spending much of his life on the trail, river, rock formations, and towering trees. His forefathers also called this mountain their home.

Not everyone in the group had been avid in hiking but we collectively moved in a relatively quick pace. I learned that this was Enzo’s, Neil’s, and Vicka’s first taste of mountain climbing. The four of us would have the same ‘mother mountain.’ They walked continuously. Vicka also played badminton so I would not be surprised. Some first-timers could have complained of aching legs, sitting down for at least fifteen minutes and giving up on the trek. Mt Daraitan had notorious steep trails that might intimidate beginners. The uneven terrain of mostly rock did not matter for the trio. We all kept on going.

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A caterpillar was crawling on my pants when suddenly it took a dump. I removed it unharmed.  

I spent some time with Rose, Len Len, Marlon, Miguel, and Ren. Trudis and France were also there. We chatted, slurped jellies, and posed for pictures. Everyone agreed that Trudis was the most talkative and humorous among us in our Facebook® group chat. Yet I noticed frankly that she spoke less as we approached the summit.

Soon, our own bunch of hikers arrived at Station Two. There were three. Our guides confirmed it. I thought Mt Daraitan had eight stations in total. Either my memory got blurry or I included spots with benches in the count. Fellow climbers from other groups also sought rest and refreshment at Station Two. A vendor sold carbonated beverages, instant noodles, snacks in foil packs, and even hard-boiled eggs in his small makeshift stand. Visitors to Mt Daraitan sat on benches made of hardwood or bamboo. Some sat on the ground itself. It would only be ten minutes of walking to the summit.

Those ten minutes felt like only two. Mountain trails seemed shorter and easier when one hiked them already before. No wonder the guides who spent much time at their respective peaks would say at one point that it only takes ten minutes to reach the summit whereas it would be longer for climbers.

Nearly a year ago, the sun shone on my left on a silvery sky when I reached Mt Daraitan’s summit. Now it did on my right. The sky also had a tranquil hue of blue with much less glare. It was 7 AM. This time, my hiking party was not the only one admiring the view. A few groups of hikers reached our destination ahead of us. Chatter and laughter filled the air. I sat down with Ren, along with Enzo, Neil, and Vicka. Those three received my casual compliment for climbing Mt Daraitan as our first mountain. Then I went to take snapshots.

With the steadily rising sun turned the air hotter, I took out my shemagh (pronounced sh-MOW) from my backpack. This iconic scarf from the Middle East was also called a keffiyeh. It offered some protection from burning sunshine here in this tropical forested archipelago as it would in the sandy deserts of its land of origin. I had been wearing caps and boonie hats on my treks. It was time for change. Besides, I also brought this garment during my first climb here at Mt Daraitan. It served more as a bag for my 1.5 liter water bottle. I also liked the shemagh for its versatility.

A metal flagpole seemed out of a place in our surroundings with gnarled tree branches and coral-like rocks. Miguel and I took pictures of one another as a team. More of our fellow under Ren’s organized group flocked in. Then something hit me. It was not the summit I remembered. A monstrous rock formation stood at the farthest edge, acting as a platform for ten people posing for photos. I recalled Kenneth and Kaye asking me to take snapshots of them back then. It was not the end of the dirt trail. Rock and undergrowth choked the path. At one spot, it looked impassable. It only looked impassable. Emerging from a grove of small stunted trees, a memory came back.

Cliff sat down with our guides Alex and Golis. If I heard it correctly, he reached the summit in about 45 minutes. My companion wanted to witness the so-called ‘sea of clouds’ from the summit itself. Cliff showed me a photo in his mobile phone. Clouds behaved a like soup stirred in the indigo-colored light of dawn. He accomplished his goal. The two of us talked about various things. I also recalled Alex singing a Bee Gees song at this spot during my previous climb. A group of fellow climbers, composed mostly of DSCN0636women, exercised patience as they waited to pose one by one. The guides acted as photographers for everyone. Around 40 trekkers lingered at the summit at that time. Each one consumed at least three minutes in getting photographed. I spent the time chatting with my fellows. Then our turn came. We tiptoed on two bamboo poles, crawled up a smaller rock that jutted out of a ravine’s edge, and let wit do its work as images were captured. Once done with solo pictures, we proceeded with a group photo atop that huge misshapen rock formation. It was far from standing at a stage during an event. The risk of falling off from slipping or misplaced footing made finding each one’s spot a real challenge. Still, we pulled it off. Some among us were not contented yet, posing for more snapshots. I had a brief chat with Dhex about the sensation of joy and relief from mountain climbing. Behind us lay a large crowd of fellow visitors, waiting their own turn. They consisted of a mix in gender, age, physical build, and clothing style. At 8 AM, our group started our way down Mt Daraitan.

Descending took less effort and time. All we did was jump while gripping on bare rock or tree trunks. It felt more like being pulled downward as if the barangay (village) was calling us. In no time, our party found ourselves back at Station Two and its comforts.

We decided to have lunch there before making the final push downhill. I sat down with a group that included Neil, Rose, Ren, and Trudis around a bamboo table shaded by leaves just above our heads. Far atop them was the forest canopy. Both Ren and I brought canned tuna paella, a rice dish with flakes of the said fish, green peas, and tomato sauce. Boiled rice kept edible by preservatives did not taste as appetizing as its warm freshly-cooked counterpart. Yet all we needed to do was pull off the metal lid and have an instant meal. Rose and Trudis brought their own packed lunch of rice and a meat dish. Buttered crackers, sandwiches, and more jellies were shared. Ren stayed mostly quiet. On the other hand, I got rather talkative at this point. We chatted about food, jobs, and mountain climbing. Our lunch lasted about 20 minutes. After that, we disposed our trash and gathered for making our way back.

I walked with Ren and Alex as we led the party. Our guide then took us to another trail. On my first climb with a trekking group called the Akyaters,  we simply retraced our steps. Alex said this alternate route would be closed following a rainy spell or if the ground was too muddy and slippery. I would find out later why.

DSCN0639The way ahead simply sloped downhill, twisting and turning as I gripped whatever I could to avoid slipping. We had a relatively quick pace. I went ahead with Ren and Alex. I could remember Vicka and Jerome behind us, respectively. The rest were out of sight but their voices echoed through this patch of forest. Then the firm ground transformed into an even harder rock surface. The soles of our footwear could not dig into it. We slipped a bit upon a misstep. Exercising caution, our descent slowed down. There was also a part where each of us squeezed into a rock formation that resembled a cave. To describe it more accurately, it appeared as a cave the size of a telephone booth or portable toilet. Someone DSCN0640with a lighter body build would go through this passage easier than someone heavier. My backpack snagged. I had to literally slither like a snake to avoid tearing the bag’s brown fabric. It had been already subjected to the wear and tear from the elements and time. That ‘cave’ halted our hike down Mt Daraitan. There was another one of this obstacle about 20 or 30 minutes later. According to Alex, walking from the summit to the base through this route would take about two hours given our pace. I recalled his tale before where a hiking party spent twelve hours on this mountain with participants taking constant breaks and even sobbing. Not everyone would feel at home in the outdoors, hence the word. Alex also mentioned a climber who slipped on this section of the trail, seriously injuring both knees. That unfortunate fellow had to be carried. More intimidating rock lay before us. Yet the rock faces were also sculpted naturally like statues of sleeping guardians of Mt Daraitan.

One hour after walking from Station Two, we arrived at a rest station with coconut juice and bamboo benches. I sat down panting and somehow dehydrated. With the tree canopy in its abundance providing shade, my shemagh acted less of a protection for my head. In fact, it became more of a towel to wipe off sweat from my face. The forest shielded us from direct exposure to the sun but humidity still made the air warm, if not hot. It was a sunny day after all. My vision blurred not only from perspiration but from the impending exhaustion too. I longed for the cool pine forests of the Cordilleras. My supply of water and energy drink ran low already. After a short respite, we kept on moving. Another thirty minutes passed as we jumped, climbed, and made careful steps on the same treacherous uneven rocky terrain. A time came that I had to slide down on my rear and legs. Getting my hands dirty did not matter. Then we reached another rest station where two make kids sold ice candy. This treat essentially composed of fruit juice and milk mixed and then frozen in small and clear tubular plastic bags. The finished product resembled an elongated ice cream. At this point I came in last. Yet I wanted to finish this trek sooner so when the first batch left, I joined them.

DSCN0652Ren trudged her way just ahead of me. Later on, I noticed that the ground turned even muddier. One of my feet sank a bit into the ground. I also slipped more often after stepping on rock, fortunately not in a way I would stumble. It came to a point that I did not want to place my foot on a hard moist surface anymore. This only meant we were approaching Tinipak River. Three men and their guide had to slow down behind me. I let them pass. Soon, our ordeal came to an end on an even-surfaced dirt path in the midst of tall grass, bright green and lush. It felt like having a splinter removed from my foot or ointment applied on a sore leg. It had the sensation of indulging in a hearty buffet. The long arduous walk was about to end. The final stretch involved a zigzagging trail that led down to a few houses. My chat with three female hikers along the way lasted mere seconds as I bypassed them.

DSCN0655Members of our trekking party arrived gradually as we regrouped in a hut with wooden benches stuck on its three sides. We sat down wiping sweat off our faces and relaxing our battered legs. Ren asked who would continue to the Tinipak Cave later. I had an overwhelming thought of declining. I was there before. Additionally, the way to this natural feature had an even more slippery rocky ground compared to the last bit of the descending trail before. Most among us got involved in the second phase of our tour. Ren organized another trip here last week and saw the cave too already. Jem and Vicka stayed behind too, drifting off to sleep because of too much fatigue. Ren reclined too on the bench in the most comfortable manner she could. I decided to remain too, watching over our backpacks and stuff. No one dared to approach our belongings. Later on, I could not help join them in the realm of unconsciousness while sitting down and my shemagh covering my face. Arriving hikers and a curious dog that sniffed my leg woke me from time to time. A hen moved about briskly, always trailed by its nearly-grown chicks. More visitors came to this spot by a cemented lane. They kept going or stopped by for snacks and chatter.

Time passed idly on a Sunday noon. Our companions were supposed to be back by now. They probably fell in line with the crowds just to enter the cave. Only ten minutes had been allotted for each batch to explore the subterranean wonder that boasted a small waterfall ending on a bubbly pool. It could be compared to a Jacuzzi® bath tub, only frigid in contrast to the cave’s steamy air that smelled of ammonia. Ten minutes would be sufficient already. The refreshing pool could be reached from the vertically dropping entrance in just three minutes.

It was past 12 PM when our fellows returned from a tour of the cave. Cliff showed some photos. Dhex and I talked about the place and his experience there. Bananas were shared. Some of our companions dined on rice, a sort of eggplant omelet called tortang talong, and a meat dish I could not recognize at a nearby shack. The establishment also sold assorted snacks and fizzy beverages. Then there was nothing to do but head to Tinipak River according to our itinerary.

At first, I imagined another lengthy trek to the spot by the river bank where I pitched tents with Carla, Kaye, Kenneth, Nil, and the rest during my previous excursion. That would mean returning to the village, walk for about another hour, simply dip in the river, and spend another hour trudging back to civilization. This time, our group took another way. We followed the cemented path to the left. Then the surface beneath our feet transformed into dry compact dirt. Tall grass surrounded us. Verdant mountains stood to our left and far ahead. I could never wish to be in another place. The tranquility made me forget my stress and personal struggles. We remained mostly silent while strolling. Meanwhile, critters crawled and buzzed around. Despite the time being 1 PM, the sun’s heat already waned and the presence of a large body of water kept the air cool.

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Tinipak River came into view. According to Jhun, we were at a river crossing. We could wade in and look for the perfect spot to dip into the river. I could see reluctance on my companions’ faces. In the end, we settled at this exact spot. Placing our backpacks on the sandy ground next to a group of huge smooth-surfaced boulders, we called one another to enjoy the water.

I left my eyeglasses on a rock bulging from the sandy riverbank, its metal frame slowly warmed by the early afternoon sun. I wanted desperately to take a bath at this instant. My shirt smelled strongly of sweat. My hair felt sticky to the touch. My skin was hot. Immersing into the water took all that discomfort away. I stumbled a bit on rocks underwater as I wandered farther from the bank. The current grew stronger as it became deeper. Dhex and Kamote told me that we could suddenly submerge and get swept by the river just beyond where they stood. A boulder to our right served as our point of reference. Nearby was a rock that looked like a table without legs. I sat down. Then I sank my face into the water, holding my breath. My cheeks could feel the flow filled with an energy more controlled than chaotic. France, Neil, Rose, Trudis, and Vicka joined me later on for a dip.

Sitting in the shallow part of the river with three-fourths of my body submerged felt familiar. Then I had a flashback. It took place at another river below Mt Manalmon in January 2016. I was doing the same but on a cloudy dawn. A freezing cold penetrated my body. It made me severely ill that I could have died and then resurrected fortunately. Personal sorrows haunted me at that time. Yet even during this excursion at Mt Daraitan, I was not free from stressful thoughts. The week before this Sunday came with disappointment, frustration, and anxieties that even affected my work. One of the causes could be described as something reincarnated. I had trouble sleeping. Sadness turned into rage. I did not bring those negative feelings here at Mt Daraitan. The sun shone brightly. In turn it warmed the greenish water and made the river’s surface glimmer with light. I joined the hike to get away from worries, even for just a day.

As my companions and I bathed while chatting merrily, another group of trekkers waded in. A guide from the village led them in crossing the river. Water rose to their waists but could not go even higher. The task did not seem as difficult and risky as I first thought. Everyone got through, having only soaked pants or shorts. On the other hand, the river ran deep about fifty meters to our left. Men jumped from immense boulders into the innocent-looking water, causing a splash. I was content with getting that sweaty feeling swept by a light current. Bits of algae and even tiny biting insects that resembled worms bothered us. No one wanted to leave. Yet we emerged from Tinipak River past 2 PM, carried our stuff, and made our way back home.

A trail led us along the same river. Grass and bushes grew in plenty around us, much greener than the body of water that ran its course. A few verdant peaks stood around us like skyscrapers or towers. It felt more like hiking outdoors in Vietnam than in the Philippines, based on popular imagery of the neighboring country’s landscape. Soon, two goats chewed on leaves in silence. Horse manure lay on the sandy stretch of this trail characterized by boulders as big as the van we rode to arrive here. I remembered this place. I had photos of it in my first Travel Stories entry here in this blog.  It was situated past the village after beginning the trek at the barangay hall during my first visit at Mt Daraitan. If we would go the other way and keep on walking, we would eventually come upon a rustic restaurant, some makeshift ladders, and the riverbank where the Akyaters and I made camp. Our stroll eventually ended at a plain-looking building of cement and wood where noisy motor-powered pedicabs fell in line nearby. It did not exist before, affirming how things had changed much around Mt Daraitan.

Our group split into four or five people per vehicle. In the Philippines, these iconic three-wheeled means of public transport would be referred to as a ‘tricycle.’  I hopped at the seat behind the driver. The engine growled. The tricycle sped like a boat tossed back and forth on a choppy sea. I was wearing my flip-flops. Then one of my shoes I was holding slipped out of my grasp. I yelled about it. Then I chased my piece of footwear, fetched it, and sprinted back to my seat. The bumpy ride went on. Our convoy passed by the same cemetery I saw on my first climb. It had more resting places than before. Houses then showed up. Children walked on the street and played.

DSCN0662The tricycles dropped us at a newly-built guest facility within the village, just a short stroll from the barangay hall. Gray and dull, the walls had not been painted yet. However, the building featured at least twenty shower rooms for hikers yearning to wash the dirt, mud, and sweat off them. Again, it was not here before when I last visited the mountain. The barangay hall also had a restroom where visitors could also take a bath with a pail and bucket. I remembered waiting tediously in a queue back then. Now the locals had solved this problem with long lines of people. I bathed already in the river but a shower with soap would be better. One by one, we changed our outfits for fresh clothes. I had a last chat with Alex. He insisted that I return to Mt Daraitan from time to time. I told him I would see what I could do. Then we all rode on the van before 4 PM for a two-hour trip to Manila.

Along the way, I passed by an attraction in Tanay, Rizal province called Bakasyunan. In the Tagalog language the name would translate as a place for a vacation. I was there with my office colleagues on June 10 for a company outing. Bakasyunan featured an activity hall, swimming pools, houses for overnight stays, and activites that ranged from basketball to all-terrain vehicle (ATV) rides. Coincidentally, the hall where we stayed and dined was named the Tinipak Hall, after the river we visited earlier. Sitting again with Ren beside the driver, I recounted to her that day I sort of wished to forget.

My first climb at Mt Daraitan would be one of the most memorable among the hikes of this kind that I had. The second might not have that same value but it was also worth it. Who knows when I would be returning to the mountain where this blog also began.

(Photos also courtesy of Ren Emradura)

 

A Legendary Trek

Mt Makiling has been known as a place where leeches thrived. Yet there are challenges worse than these blood-sucking worms for someone venturing into this mountain.

Located in Laguna province, which is immediately south of the Philippines’s capital Metro Manila, Mt Makiling also borders the adjacent province of Batangas. Its official summit that goes by the name of Peak 2 lies at an altitude of 1,090 meters above sea level. The mountain’s jagged appearance explains the multiple numbers for the peaks. When seen wholly from a distance, Mt Makiling appears as a reclining woman as if sleeping. One can make out the long hair, face, bosom, and bent legs. Legend has it that a supernatural being known in the country as a diwata guards the place and her name is Maria Makiling. She has been the subject of folklore and superstition, told in various versions. What can trekkers assure is Mt Makiling’s trail difficulty at 5/9.

While chatting with Elena ‘Len’ Ibana on social media, she invited me to an event where hikers would traverse Mt Makiling from Santo Tomas, Batangas to Los Baños, Laguna. Len and I met in a fishing trip within Valenzuela city proper. The excursion involved my newfound friends at the time. Then a thought hit me. I spent my college years at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). My alma mater lay at the foothills of Mt Makiling yet I did not climb up to its peak. The farthest I went was the Mud Springs as part of a team building activity of a college organization I had been part of. The attraction with boiling mud and steam could be reached in just two hours of walking at most. Now I was given an opportunity not only to get to the top of Mt Makiling but also to do more than that. At first I only expressed interest. Then I finally decided to join the trek. Furthermore, I managed to invite John Brian Estares and Xander Lopez, two of my friends. With firm hope, everyone would get along well. Then we also coordinated with the outdoor adventure group named Team Hero.

It was nearly 3 AM on January 8, 2017. Xander and I both hailed from Cavite province so we traveled together to Team Hero’s rendezvous location. Fellow hikers filled the fast food establishment near the Farmers Market in Quezon City. I felt a sense of camaraderie in the air. Our companions began to arrive. Complete strangers became acquainted with one another. Brian was already there. Our meeting turned into a sort of reunion. Len followed. She and I caught up with each other. I had not seen her in person in five months. Later on, the four of us bonded in a way that I could say “so far, so good.” We left for Batangas past 4 AM in two vans.

Sleep eluded me. It was not the chatting or the shaking from the vehicle’s movement that kept me awake. I closed my eyes and leaned back on my seat. Nothing worked. Still, I managed to catch a nap but doubted if it would keep me energized for what my fellow trekkers considered a major climb.

The two vans passed through an opened chain-link gate under an arch that seemed a giant water pipe. They stopped and we as passengers got out. My cheeks and bare arms felt the chill in the air. Yet it was not as cold as my morning in Baguio nearly a week ago. The sky looked more gray than blue, literally blanketed by stratus clouds. Flowers grew abundantly just outside the roofed basketball court. They were a welcoming sight. Later on, the vegetation would be wild and perhaps even intimidating. Brian, Len, Xander, and I asked fellow trekkers to take our group photo. We also tried stretching, thanks to Brian, to condition our muscles. A fellow named Errald, who had been working at a firm that designs yachts and performing well as a fitness runner, chatted with us.

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From left: The Blogger, Brian, Xander, Len

Our bag tags were distributed, courtesy of Team Hero. Organizers asked members for their nicknames. Mine was Marvin Ironheart, a reference to Björn Ironside. According to Old Norse sagas, Björn was one of the sons of the legendary leader Ragnar Lothbrok. After his father was executed by an Anglo-Saxon king, he and his brothers assembled a huge army and they all sailed across the North Sea for revenge. Björn also achieved fame for raids in the Mediterranean, especially at a settlement in Italy he thought was Rome. Now he had been one of the major characters in the television series Vikings. In the show, Björn got the nickname Ironside as he was reputedly gifted with invulnerability from bladed weapons. The same could be said to my heart, metaphorically. It could withstand (hopefully) unrequited affection and unworthy women, which cause emotional wounds as if my torso was struck by a sword or an axe.

Soon, one of the organizers named Mark Kenneth Hatuina briefed us about the hike. Then we all headed back into the vans. I thought we would begin walking from this location. It was not the start-off point here in Santo Tomas. The guides for our trek rode with us. One of them was Lando. A man probably in his fifties and wearing a basketball jersey, he sat beside me. Another guide named Jomar clung at where the door was, which was slid back. He did not mind. There was no more space inside. Lando and I chatted briefly about visitors to Mt Makiling and the trail.

Eventually, our transport reached the end of a gravel road. The way ahead sloped upward. It was cemented. The organizers told everyone to bail out. Thus, our traverse of Mt Makiling started. I could not help but quote Lao Tzu. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Len chuckled. Xander nodded. Excitement could be seen plainly in Brian’s face. As with many hikes, the first steps came with a feeling that the excursion would be easy.

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I wonder if we will still be smiling when this hike is over

The concrete beneath our feet disappeared, giving way into firm grayish ground. We arrived shortly at a field. To our left lay huge pipes that seemed a monstrous yellow serpent. At our front, a gigantic green lady on a massive scale was in deep slumber. Forests covered the entirety of Mt Makiling. We would hike deep into that mountain and emerge at the opposite side. My lips gave a smile from eagerness but then pouted from anxiety. I wondered if we could reach Los Baños before nightfall.

Cultivated flora still surrounded the trail. Banana trees grew in groves. Tiny plants, perhaps saplings, stood out from cupfuls of soil held by black plastic bags. They were arranged in a bed.

dscn0176Brian, Len, Xander, and I kept on walking. Our surroundings grew increasingly shady. Sunlight was more dappled than direct. Vines appeared out of nowhere. Traces of human habitation disappeared. The four of us just entered this piece of wilderness in the middle of heavily-populated Southern Luzon. Len wished she had a hiking staff. Branches littered our way but none so far could be turned into one. They all forked out like a deer’s antlers. Brian and I tried to break off a straight piece but it did not detach completely. Len found one lying on the ground by chance eventually. Now she had her improvised trekking pole. Following the trail at this point became less of a stroll. We ascended gradually. Then there was a part where we stepped on rocks clumped together. The surface seemed to give way upon putting my weight on it. I imagined it collapsing. Then I would plunge into a deep and dark ravine. Otherwise, I would roll down the slope, perhaps hit a tree trunk, and injure myself seriously. I moved as quickly as I could while crouching. One of the organizers named Ferdie told me to be careful. Good thing we all made it through without mishap. Brian and Len were getting along well. Xander talked to Errald. My companions could socialize easily in most circumstances. At the same time, Xander also recorded videos and took photos for his own blog.

Orange or yellow placards could be seen up on tree trunks or boughs. They marked the stations that indicated progress in hiking. So far, we had passed by four stations out of a total of sixty. The first half involved the ascent to the summit while the latter half was for our descent. I summoned every bit of patience and optimism I had. Just going from one station to another took at least ten minutes of walking uphill. Fatigue then announced its presence as I caught breaths and yearned to rest. The sun rose higher too. Sweating made me somewhat thirsty.

We arrived at what could be described as a campsite. The smell of burning wood entered my nostrils as I came closer to the embers instead of flames. Smoke dissipated as it rose towards the forest canopy. Makeshift tents were constructed from tarpaulin, bamboo, and plywood. A bamboo pole served as a bench. Len sat on it. Brian, Xander, and I chose to stand or crouch as that piece of bamboo would fail in supporting the weight of the four of us. We had some rest. Refreshing potable water from the springs of Mt Makiling gushed from a flexible black pipe. Then it plunged into a bed of dark rocks, casting droplets endlessly. It was like a drinking fountain in the middle of nowhere. Some of our companions filled plastic bottles and other water containers of small to medium size. Minutes passed before we resumed the trek. Len found a bamboo stick, picked it up, and used it as a sturdier trekking staff.

dscn0184A stream greeted us shortly. Running along its course were two synthetic black pipes that could be mistaken as pythons at a distance. One of them probably brought water to the campsite we stopped by earlier. A pool collected water, which overflowed down to a series of miniature cascades carved by nature. Just going to the bank involved a steep descent with little to hold on to. This stream forked beneath the pool, resulting in a patch of rocky and grassy ground that seemed a stopover in our crossing. My three friends were already on the other side. I went across. My footing on wet stones was firm. I made it halfway. All I needed were a few steps. Water seeped into my shoes. My socks got wet too. I did not mind it and kept on going.

Two of our companions named Grace and Olive shared our pace. Apparently, Olive wore a veil called a hijab. It was the garment called the niqab that concealed the entire head except for a pair of eyes. The hijab exposed the cheeks and chin. Keeping a woman’s hair, neck, and chest hidden served as its purpose. Olive practiced the Islamic faith. She was a convert too as people born from parents who were both Muslim tended to have Arabic-sounding names.

The hike felt more like climbing up a set of stairs. I began to ran out of breath. My legs did not hurt much yet but walking continuously made them sore. I clasped tree trunks and rocks to avoid slipping. It facilitated my movement too. Judging from previous treks, I would breathe effortlessly and endure tiredness a few hours later. My body was simply conditioning itself.

Densely clustered leaves cleared away. We were bathed in sunlight. A breeze gave some relief from the humidity. A boulder peered from the bushes. Just behind it was a ravine. This spot provided a scenic view of the surrounding landscape. Beyond the verdant forests of Mt Makiling’s foothills, hectares of farmland stretched towards the silvery horizon. Villages stood out from the dark and light shades of green. At least human settlement and its amenities were still within sight. Yet to our left lay a rugged mountain slope and its wild jungles. Our hiking party was not even halfway to the summit yet. My friends and I stopped for a while to take snapshots.

Brian, Len, Xander, and I got separated from the rest of Team Hero. This should not be a problem as long as we followed a trail of bare dirt and saw markers along the way. Still, trekkers at Mt Makiling must inhibit recklessness and replace it with utmost care. There had been multiple reports of people getting lost here. After all, the mountain was enchanted according to folklore. Yet a mix of eagerness and oblivion overcame Brian and Len as they kept on going ahead. Both hailed from the Bicol region, explaining why they bonded easily. I would feel the same way for someone from the Ilonggo ethnic group of western Visayas. This background came from my mother although I was not fluent with the Hiligaynon language. This sort of affinity gave Filipinos a degree of diversity but inhibited us from a deeper feeling of unity as one country. Meanwhile, Xander lagged a bit. I could match the two’s pace but he would be left alone. Good thing I brought the orange whistle that I received as a gift during the History Channel convention back in August. The four of us still could see one another.

Just as we caught up with four of our companions, the thing that we wanted to avoid much did too. Len was yelling inarticulately but we knew it meant trouble. Those guys ahead proved themselves right about what started appearing at this point. A leech crawled on Len’s leggings. It was not big and fat like Hirudo medicinalis – the medicinal leech; rather, it belonged to the genus Haemadipsa. It appeared tubular instead of flattened and much thinner too. I already had an encounter with one back in college during that team building activity. Yet it was only now that I saw it up close. A single rub of the index finger on the thumb and the leech got flung away. I could pick it off with my fingers but then I would become the invertebrate’s next victim. One of our fellows shared a bit of insect repellent lotion, which I rubbed on my arms exposed by a short-sleeved shirt. I doubted this would work against leeches. He and another guy took protection to the next level by wearing half face masks, sunglasses, and arm sleeves. In comparison, I simply tucked my pants into my black socks. They had their share of leech encounters too. Then those four moved quickly until they disappeared from sight.

The trail went up and down roughly. Soon, we came upon a gap among exposed tree roots and moss-covered boulders. We could only descend by holding on to a tough blue rope. I hated this kind of moment during treks. Progress relied on gripping the rope firmly as my feet pressed firmly against any surface they could touch. Fortunately for us, this one was relatively uncomplicated and already over after several seconds.

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Len feeling the struggle while holding the rope

Earlier, the organizers said we would have lunch at Station 15. Brian, Len, Xander, and I arrived at the spot. A forest clearing lay before us. Vines embraced the tree trunks. Fallen leaves accumulated on the ground, creating a brown carpet. They awaited a slow decay to be part of the soil under another layer of leaf litter. Like the leaves, people had been coming to this place, stopping briefly before going away. The fellows we caught up with previously now confirmed that we would eat our lunch here. We all had some rest yet remained standing.

dscn0217Leeches appeared on my companions’ clothing again from out of nowhere. One even made its way on Brian’s two-liter bottle of electrolyte-rich beverage. Someone from the other group placed a leech just below the fingernail on his thumb. Then he demonstrated how it sucked blood. Leeches produced their anesthetic naturally, making the process painless. Their tiny size meant that only a millimeter or so of blood will be lost. These worm-like creatures were more of a nuisance than a threat.

More of our fellows in Team Hero came as the four of us took photos, chatted, and laughed. They began to bring out food too. I had tuna in a small easy-to-open can but without boiled rice – the staple of Filipino food. In other words, I had protein without carbohydrates. Rice could be bought as takeout from small eateries called a karinderya in the Philippines. There was none around the start-off point. If there was, it likely had not opened yet. Brian, Len, and Xander managed to buy burgers at a 24-hour fast food establishment. The four of us ate together in silence as if overwhelmed by anger. This situation when dining together was known locally as galit-galit. Our fellows had a heavier and more sumptuous packed lunch with boiled white rice. Meanwhile, the forest canopy had a paler shade of green due to mist. There was a drizzle. Later on, a party of our companions began leaving to continue the trek. The four of us decided unanimously to join them. We stayed about 45 minutes at Station 15 and left at past 11 PM. Xander played his wireless and portable Bluetooth® speaker, then attached it to Brian’s backpack. Music of various genres accompanied us in the hike.

At first, it seemed a relaxing stroll. Then walking became increasingly difficult when the trail sloped as we went uphill. Then a log blocked our path. The tree trunk fell in a way that it was suspended in mid-air. We overcame this obstacle by climbing over or crouching under the log.

dscn0224Our movement grew sluggish. It came to a stop. Then I realized why. A female hiker gripped a blue nylon rope as she planned a way of climbing atop a rock face. I could not help but mutter complaint. Brian, Len, Xander, and I inched closer to another challenging part of the Mt Makiling traverse. The fellow ahead of me had his turn. He placed his left foot on a piece of wood stuck firmly into rock. It did not work. Either the wood was slippery or his foot was too large. That guy clad in black stepped on the rock surface instead. He exerted much energy as to not slip. In less than a minute, he got past the rock face but still held the rope. I exhaled. Our fellow advanced further until I could tug the rope safely. If I did it sooner and proceeded to climb, the rope could snap. It would be an ugly and painful consequence for us. I was a bit baffled. My foot slipped as it touched bare rock despite the bumps and grooves of my trekking shoes’ soles. There was no spot to step on. Then I thought of that piece of wood supporting my leg. I grasped the rope even tighter. My left foot rested on what was once a tree trunk, cut and processed before exposed to the elements in this uninhabited place to slowly deteriorate. It actually worked. After that, it felt like I could just jump over the rock face. Then I made my way through a slope littered with dried grass and leaves. My hands clung to the rope as if my life depended on it. Brian was next. He began tugging the rope. Lando, our guide, asked him to refrain from climbing until the fellow at my front reached the end of the ordeal. One by one, the four of us made it without much hassle.

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For Lando, the Mt Makiling traverse is just another usual routine 

Fellow trekkers at my front gathered together. It was not surprising. To my dismay, there was another rope and this time the rock face was higher and nearly vertical. I noticed immediately that a bit of rope was tied into a loop as if a noose. It actually seemed more of a stirrup in horseback riding. My foot would fit in it.

A few minutes passed before I faced the ordeal. Len requested that I carry her bamboo walking staff so she could grip the rope with ease. Meanwhile, I would simply rest and look after that stick after accomplishing the challenge. Lando sat atop the rock face. He instructed me what to do step by step. At first, I handed the improvised trekking staff to him so my hands would be free. Lando could not reach it. He told me to toss it to him. I did. He did not catch it. The bamboo stick slipped down but my reflexes sprang into action to catch it. Otherwise, it could have plunged down and perhaps impaled Len in a worst case scenario. Still, she could avoid it. I moved closer towards Lando. Panic crept into me as I lost footing. I put all of my energy in holding on to the rope. There was nothing to do but keep on trying until I got it right. I moved two or three steps upward before extending my arm as far as I can to pass the hiking staff to Lando. He could grab it this time. Climbing that rock face also went smoothly after freeing my hands. In one move I bounded towards my left and grabbed a branch. Then I crawled before standing beside Lando with a loud exhale and a wide smile.

Participants of the Team Hero hike gathered at the edge of a ravine. Far below us lay a dense jungle of broad-leaved trees. It was simply a piece of unspoiled nature. Four equally verdant peaks secluded the forest from human enroachment. Nothing could be seen under the tree canopy. It seemed a perfect sanctuary for deer, wild pigs, monkeys and perhaps enchanted beings of folklore. The gray cloudy sky gave the forest a dark character, intensified by mist over the peaks. The blowing of the wind became an unwelcoming ambience to my ears. Yet the landscape suited as a background for our snapshots. We posed with care to avoid slipping. Falling off the edge and into the trees below would mean certain demise. It would be difficult to recover the remains too.

I thought our ordeal with ropes and rock surfaces was over. I was wrong. The four of us stared in disbelief after a harrowing uphill climb. The brown rock surface did not appear intimidating. Yet upon a closer look it was rather slippery due to the drizzle. Xander went first. I took photos of him climbing over the rock face. He made it without intense effort. As I found out personally during my turn, I could also grip branches and thin tree trunks along the way. Xander in turn took snapshots of me as I ‘struggled’ to reach the top. Brian was next, followed by Len. We had pictures of our ascent. Brian posed with a salute as if he did not break a sweat.

dscn0231Our group of four hikers managed to fit in a patch of ground just above our latest obstacle. We had a view in the opposite direction of the dense forest and peaks we saw earlier. The landscape was absolutely different. Woodland retreated to the foothills of Mt Makiling as it was replaced by an environment defined by the product and skill of human hands. What used to be totally green now had patches of brown, blue, and red. I could not determine those big white structures at our right, just off the center. One looked like a colossal domino tile without any black dot and a black line too. It aroused my curiosity as I wondered about its purpose. A road, or more like a highway, stood out as a slanting line at our left. Amazingly, white smoke billowed from what I guessed was a geothermal power station. Laguna de Bay lay on the horizon. It was a huge lake, not a bay as the name supposedly suggested. In fact, it was identified with the municipality of Bay in Laguna province. According to legend, the town had been connected with Maria Makiling as its name sounded like babae (pronounced baBA-E), the Tagalog word for woman. Furthermore, Laguna de Bay could be simply translated from Spanish as ‘lake of Bay.’ This whole landscape lay under a dreary gray blanket of cloud.

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Look, flowers! I will appreciate it if some botanist identifies them 

dscn0235My fingers got smeared by mud slightly as we struggled up a sloping section of the trail. Branches and roots became nature’s handle bars. Psychological stress from the slope, gloomy weather, and remoteness of our location added to the weariness. Then we arrived at a spot overgrown with cogon grass. The place bore a resemblance to the summit of Mt Purgatory in Benguet province, although at a smaller scale. Len also recalled its similarity to what she had been to at Mt Pulag. I had not climbed it yet. Yet the two mountains were relatively near to one another. We followed Lando and kept on moving. As grass gave way to trees, leaves blocked the sky and shadows engulfed our surroundings.

I had not encountered a leech attached to my clothing yet until this part of the traverse. Perhaps the insect repellent lotion did work. There were two of them on my pants. I struck them with the back of my hand. They fell off, probably hurt but still alive. Killing them would be unnecessary. Brian, Len, Xander, and I then inspected one another for leeches on our bags and clothing. We found a few. Brian plucked a leaf and with it scraped one off a fabric surface. Len even had her flowing long hair, dyed brown with a tinge of orange, checked but fortunately there was none.

We felt frustrated eventually. Leeches were the least of our problems. The trail should lead us to the summit but we were going downhill instead of uphill. Confusion shook the recesses of my mind. It did not make sense. The four of us made our way through the woods on our own, relying on a path dirt transformed into mud by the moist air. I scanned for footprints too. Our companions simply disappeared. An end to the hike eluded us. It seemed we were walking among creepy vine-covered trees for eternity. The jungle swallowed us and I summoned all hope it would spit us out soon. Large tree roots extended at chest height, appearing as a limbo bar. Of course, we would not do the limbo dance that originated from the Caribbean. I crouched, went under, and moved as if a mole in its underground tunnel. The roots snagged my backpack a bit. Some tree trunks were also bristling literally with thorns as tiny as the graphite tip of a pencil. Additionally, our group also could not see those station placards anymore. This scene went on for minutes that turned into hours.

Len also complained about soreness in the legs that hindered her pace. I could describe it as a déjà vu moment for me. It happened before at my Mt Ulap traverse. Yet we did not have balm this time. The hiking stick helped Len greatly.

Later on, the four of us ascended continuously. For certain, we were getting near the summit. Two of our fellows in Team Hero, Amena and Nico, accompanied us at this point.

A muddy patch of ground lay ahead. Our shoes could sink slightly in the deluge, making them even dirtier. I tiptoed on the trail’s edge. Then I sighed with regret. We just realized there was another narrower path, concealed by undergrowth and the gnarled roots of a tree. Just shortly ahead, light shone brightly from a gap among the arboreal foliage. Several men from another trekking party stood as a line. We greeted them. They in turn greeted us back. Someone among them told us that we had reached the summit. It was past 2 PM.

According to Len, the summit of Peak 2 did not have scenic views. She was right. Walls of vegetation surrounded a small open area. I could not see anything beyond them. Cloudy weather cast a cold grayish haze, adding to the disappointment. Simply speaking, the best views from Mt Makiling could be found not at the summit but along the way. A yellow placard indicated that the summit had been designated as Station 30. Someone thought about Rodrigo Duterte, the current president of the Philippines, who went by the nickname of Du30. Then we posed for a picture, doing Duterte’s signature clenched fist. Behind us was a shredded piece of tarpaulin with a logo of the University of the Philippines torn apart. This broke my heart. Brian, Len, Xander, and I went busy with snapshots. Most of Team Hero regrouped at the summit. I took a group photo. We lingered for about 15 minutes before descending. Then those fellows who fell in line had their own moment at the summit.

Our companions went ahead. The four of us, along with Amena and Nico, were the last to go. We all had a brief chat while keeping to the sides of another patch of muddy ground. Yet the two quickened their pace, eventually disappearing from our sight. At least Ferdie stayed with us.

dscn0245We could not even believe how speedy our descent was, despite seemingly left behind. I only needed to jump down while grasping a branch, tree trunk, or rock. The trail was not that steep too. It even allowed us to stroll with leisure sometimes. Still, towering trees closed in on us. Footprints formed in the mud, cast by our fellows who went ahead. At times, we had to choose between having our shoes’ soles caked with a layer of mud or slipping after putting a foot on moistened rock. Otherwise, the trail was strewn with dead leaves, decaying wood, moss, and even mushrooms. Our group tried to diminish our sighs, grunts, and complaints by injecting humor into our conversation. Brian was the most talkative among us in a positive way. The downhill hike had an uncanny similarity to what I experienced at my Mt Purgatory traverse. As remnants of sunlight that pierced the forest canopy faded, we hoped to reach the University of the Philippines Los Baños College of Forestry campus before nightfall.

Upon arriving at Station 18, the four of us took a break. It had this number for trekkers with their jump-off point at Los Baños instead of Santo Tomas. Two female hikers who traveled separately from us sat on a log. Xander shared crackers while for Len it was a variety of nuts. Brian ate the last of the three burgers he purchased before daybreak. I drank more of the same electrolyte-rich beverage that Brian also brought along. Xander asked me how I reflected on my self during this trek. I replied to him that friendships mattered much and I looked forward to the next chapter of my life. Yet I grimaced for the things I would have to lose in exchange. Then I thanked the three for this memorable adventure. We just realized that Ferdie was gone. The four of us would end this journey on our own.

At around 4 PM, the light turned more yellow than gray as the weather had enough of its bad mood. We were having a walk in the woods during a mellow afternoon. Trees lost their frightening appearance in exchange to a friendly one. Undergrowth crept back from the trail. Birds warbled and sang. Xander’s wireless speaker emitted a tune that made me imagine the four of us wandering in an elven forest. All that was missing were graceful yet reclusive anthromorphic beings with pointed ears. As it was a fantasy setting, the four of us would be adventurers too. Len would be the healer. Xander would be an archer with his bow and sharp eyesight. Brian would utilize his fitness as a knight. I would rather be a berserker unleashing fury that was sparked by difficulties in life. For me now, going on hikes was better than playing video games.

I shared to my three friends how wild pigs could be dangerous. When cornered, they may charge and injure people seriously with lower canine teeth that grew into tusks. At least we did not encounter a wild pig or even a snake. Leeches were the closest to wildlife we could come upon. They still stuck to our bodies despite our group approaching the end of the hike. We kept on removing them in response.

Fears of getting lost did creep into our minds. The trail went on infinitely no matter how it lost the slopes and mud for a flat dirt path. The next curve revealed nothing but trees and more of them. There were tales of campers at Mt Makiling who, after packing up, keep finding themselves back at the starting point regardless where and how far they walked. It seemed they could not escape the mountain. Legend had it that Maria Makiling caused them to be disoriented and lost until they cleaned up garbage at their campsite. Only when it was accomplished that these campers made it out of the wilderness. I did not recall the four of us littering during the trek. We should not worry.

The four of us chatted about a variety of topics. Len described her home province of Camarines Norte. Brian talked about swimming and especially running. Xander shared a bit of his life but he seemed mostly quiet. This time, I became rather talkative. Our conversation also involved societal issues, indie films, religion, and the intricacies of romantic relationships.

At Station 13, a brook ran its course. Water flowed parallel to the path we would follow. This meant we were heading to a lower elevation. I assured my friends about this, speaking with the tone of wilderness survival experts who appear in television. We were going the right way. Earlier, we passed by a number of banana trees. Seeing crops instead of wild flora indicated human presence. Then I heard the faint roar of a motor tricycle’s engine. The sound echoed through the forest around us. Len said she did not hear it. I strongly believed it was a motor tricycle but we saw only thick trunks and foliage. Later on past the brook, someone covered the top of a pole with an empty cement sack. I smiled. It was clear enough as further proof.

Brian, Len, Xander, and I spotted a red object in the distance. We approached it noisily due to joy and relief. It felt like returning to civilization after wandering aimlessly in the wild outdoors. People stood on a gray surface. I could make out vendors on a concrete road. Upon a closer look, those ‘vendors’ turned out to be a group of men and their motorcycles.

Agila Base simply featured a rural version of a convenience store and a sort of a transportation hub with motorbikes. It also served as the starting point in the final leg of our journey. A couple approaching their senior years maintained a shack. They sold instant noodles in plastic cups, crackers with chocolate or butter filling, and several brands of soft drink. Bunches of ripe pale yellow bananas lay on what looked like a makeshift hybrid of a store counter and table. I bought one for potassium intake. It tasted delightfully sweeter than the bananas sold at my hometown. After remarking about it, the woman told me that bananas here were ripened on the tree before harvested. Their counterparts sold in wet markets went through the other way around. Len even bought a whole bunch of 15 bananas for Php 45. As the woman assured, a piece was sold for three pesos. In comparison, buying just one banana at an urban karinderya could cost Php 10. Our fellows sat on a bench close by, eating whichever food item they each preferred. Stomachs were filled as energy was replenished. Then they decided to ride all the way to the College of Forestry on those motorcycles functioning as taxis, known locally as a habal-habal. Brian, Len, Xander, and I discussed whether to do the same. We all agreed to just walk instead.

It was nearly 5:30 PM when we left Agila Base and began the stroll with enthusiasm. After all, we followed a relatively wide dirt road instead of a trail choked by trees and undergrowth. The four of us cheered after seeing that one of two lanes had been cemented. We walked on top of it. Then our happiness turned into dismay as the section of a concrete road ended. It did not go all the way. We related it to the breakup in romantic relationships, then laughed. At least the surface was not muddy.

Daylight faded as the sky turned blue, then becoming indigo. The leaves and branches appeared black. Birds and critters went noisy as they tend to be at dusk. It was apparent that nighttime would catch up with us. I suggested to my friends that we move briskly.

dscn0253Here in the Philippines, the sun would set thirty minutes to one hour earlier in January than in June. We were at the mercy of nocturnal darkness. Good thing we brought flashlights and headlamps as the traverse was supposed to start at 4 AM, more than an hour from the break of dawn. My headlamp gave a weak light. The battery was nearly exhausted of stored energy. We all relied on Len’s flashlight, which was fully charged too. It illuminated everything within a radius of several meters until distance made the white light fade into obscurity.

Fortunately, the road was cemented once again. After minutes of walking, it still was and it would likely be until we descend to my alma mater. The authorities did put efforts into infrastructure. Back on my college days, this part was not layered with concrete yet. Then the four of us passed by the shack that sold coconut juice to my college organization mates and I during that team building hike in 2013. It was still there, only closed for the night. Brian, Len, and Xander asked me how many minutes it would take before we reached the end. I made rough estimates. Years had passed since then and experiences in the corporate world had made my memory even blurrier.

The night came with possible threats too. UPLB had seen its share of crimes, a few involving the loss of life. I contacted one of the Team Hero organizers. There was no reply. I hoped that they would notice our absence, notify the university’s police personnel, and have a multicab vehicle drive up this road. The driver would bump into us and then give Brian, Len, Xander, and I a lift so we could reunite with our companions. It did not happen. Two fellows also ran down the concrete road in near-total darkness as part of their training. Brian chatted with them enthusiastically before the pair left us.

I told the three we would arrive at the meet-up location after ten minutes. This span of time passed and yet we were still walking briskly on an unlit road. I forgot totally this place despite being here before. Our legs ached and we all yearned for a bath to get rid of the sweat and mud. We wanted to ride in the van, stop over for dinner, and head home. It was past 6:30 PM when we saw red-tinged light from distant lamp posts. We were probably too tired to yell cheerfully.

At a facility in UPLB’s College of Forestry, hikers could take a shower and relieve themselves for a fee. Brian, Len, Xander, and I fell in line with our fellows from Team Hero. A leech was creeping on Len’s stuff. It was ‘taken care of’ easily. This was our last encounter with those bloodsucking worms. We washed up, rinsed our footwear too, kept our dirty clothing in plastic bags, and wore a new set of garments. Fulfilling his duty as an organizer, Mark shouted at us to hurry up.

Our entire hiking party filled the two vans so we could begin the homeward trip. Then we made our way through the streets, buildings, and grass-covered spaces of UPLB. This was where I studied and graduated but tiredness kept me from appreciating my return here. The van I rode on sped past the grounds of the College of Economics and Management, which was shrouded by darkness and devoid of students. As we left the university’s main gate, I remembered strolling along Lopez Avenue back then. Shops and establishments that lined it had come and gone but the illuminated signs endured. Later, we had dinner at a food chain famous for grilled chicken and unlimited rice.

People who intend to hike at Mt Makiling would need a mix of courage and caution. They should be concerned with slippery surfaces, rock-climbing with ropes, ravines, and the likelihood of getting lost more than leeches. Yet Brian, Len, Xander, and I made it through the trek along with the rest of Team Hero. The four of us nicknamed ourselves as the Fantastic Four from Marvel Comics. We also proclaimed among ourselves that our journey – especially at the part where we hurried down the mostly cemented road just after nightfall – was worthy of legend.

Reunion at Amuyao

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.

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Standing from left: Kaye, Kenneth, Nil, Carla, Vergel, Rei, Gigi, Ralph, The Blogger, Chie, Jan. Sitting from left: Mash, Jorrel 

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.20160917_125241 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.20160917_133300 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.

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Another fine afternoon doing a nature walk, surrounded by pine trees

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.

20160917_134703Ralph 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.

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Getting tired from the uphill hike… and now entering a mountain shrouded by fog

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.20160917_154703 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.

20160917_161746Past 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.

20160917_162933The 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.

20160917_165427A 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. 20160917_165600The 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.

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Carla overcoming ‘The Ladder’… and Nil waiting for his turn

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.20160917_180309 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.

20160917_180319It 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.’

20160918_061454I 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.

Trial by Slope and Mud

Sitting in the bus, I distracted myself by watching a Marvel superhero movie being showed on the television monitor above the driver. Billboards along the flyover flaunted their respective advertisements as they caught my attention. I was on the way to my first major climb with a handful of trek buddies. Yet the challenges that the mountain present did not come to my mind.

Our group’s destination was Mt Daraitan in Rizal province, which is a relatively short drive from Manila compared to the higher peaks of the Cordilleras further north. With an elevation of around 739 meters, it does not have pine trees, moss-covered growth, and noontime fog but I was told that a jungle surrounds the trail. Trail difficulty is 4/9. Being new in the world of mountain climbing, I had no idea what the scale meant.

My companions upon arriving at Quezon City were friends from my office’s graphics department – Kenneth Fontarum, Kristine ‘Kaye’ Carpio, Stephanie ‘Steph’ Rili, and Gelo Adviento (who also brought Gail, his girlfriend). A married couple – Nil and Carla Medrano – also accompanied us. A generation ahead of me, they facilitated the climb and appeared to be experienced hikers at a first glance. Then we met with more of our fellow trekkers from various backgrounds.

It was the lack in gear that intimidated me more than the actual hardships within the climb. Kenneth and Kaye have been doing major climbs well before I met them two months ago. In fact, it was they who introduced me to this wearisome but fulfilling hobby. With large backpacks enveloped by rain cover, collapsible drinking containers with tubes resembling those for intravenous fluid, and sunscreen they joined the trek as if they were just going to the office on a Monday morning. I, on the other hand, had to attach my camping gear and travel mug on the exterior of my brown backpack, which is large but lacked protection from rain. I also forgot to bring a poncho.

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The trip from Quezon City to the baranggay, or community, beneath Mt Daraitan took at least three hours. We passed by a number of towns and had lunch before renting a rugged and fairly large jeepney for the final stretch of the journey. A wooden raft took us across a river with banks of light gray smooth rocks. We arrived at the baranggay by a motor tricycle, a common mode of transportation in the rural areas of the Philippines. Our hiking party assembled in the community hall for registration and briefing. Past 1 PM, we were on our way.

What I thought to be a climb on the mountain itself turned into an expectation that did not match reality. The humble houses that lined the dirt road, a river sparkling under the afternoon sun, surrounding hills of dark green, grazing goats, and the occasional horse manure only led us to the campsite about an hour or two from the baranggay. After a stopover at an establishment, the trail got more difficult. We held on tightly to a wooden ladder and climbed over white boulders that seemed like rock monsters sleeping on the riverbank as the waters rushed energetically.

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From left: Kaye, Kenneth, Mark, Gail, Gelo, Marvin (The Blogger)

Tents were pitched on a sandy spot beside a river, with access to a spring for drinking water and boulders high enough for jumping into the water without harm. Rain forest trees grew on a rocky slope that appeared as a massive wall beside our campsite. We got divided into small groups of close companions. One of my fellows in the group is Mark Salamat, a reputed artist who excels in oil painting. Kaye and Kenneth cooked some chicken tinola as the sun descended and night crept in. Rei Gallardo, our fellow hiker, also shared his vegetarian masterpiece of tofu, water spinach (kangkong), and mushrooms.

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Munching on cheese puffs while preparing chicken tinola

Long-time members of this group called themselves the Akyaters. As part of Akyaters tradition, participants of a trek huddle around a fire to introduce themselves and share experiences regarding mountain climbing. What they remembered vividly about me is how I expressed feelings about being unrequited in love as gloomy as the sky overhead with its drizzle. Words faded into the cool air as we got to know one another. Planning to head out to the summit in batches at daybreak, the climbers including me began to doze off one by one inside our tents that smelled of synthetic material.

I overslept. My consciousness returned at 5 AM while I was supposed to be awake at 4 AM. Breakfast for me were pieces of loaf bread and instant coffee thanks to Kenneth and Kaye boiling some water with their portable cooking set that included a can of butane. I decided to get one for future climbs when I saved enough cash.

Half of our hiking party of nearly 30 people packed up their tents and stuff in preparation for the climb. Then they were gone in a moment’s notice. Kenneth, Kaye, Gelo, Gail, Mark and I were left at the campsite with Nil, Carla, and their companions such as Jan.

The six of us proceeded to a cave past 7 AM, accompanied with our nature guide named Efren. He told us about a cave system where one can reach the exit after three days of navigating, as well as local folklore from indigenous tradition. Again, we trudged carefully and jumped from time to time over the huge white boulders that led to the cave. Raging river currents echoed in the air. Then there was a short trail on a slope partly made of solid rock. I had some trouble with slippery surfaces as my shoes failed to take hold.

Later, the mouth of the cave stole my confidence as our group arrived there. It plunged straight down. We would descend into it with a makeshift ladder and rope instead of simply walking into a cave as usually imagined. I went in like a slow loris, a kind of primate. One wrong move and I could sustain a bone fracture or worse. Everyone made it inside without injury, only complaints and shrill yells. Flashlights and headlamps illuminated the way. Faint shrieks meant there were bats inside but Efren assured us they were only few. The air smelled of ammonia and parts of the cave floor felt like sandy soil under our feet. There was even a passage where we squeezed our way in just as a mouse would do into a crack on concrete. Minutes passed and the sound of rushing water echoed through the smooth and solid walls. Efren held our arms as he helped us leap across a gap in a rock formation on top of a subterranean brook.

I pointed my waterproof flashlight towards the noise and saw a small waterfall deep inside this cave. Gasps of exhilaration could be heard. That Sunday had humid weather but the cramped spaces and warm air in the midst of darkness made me perspire more. Without hesitation, I took a bath in a Jacuzzi® of cold pristine water continuously stirred by the waterfall. We enjoyed this spectacle of nature for five minutes before returning to the cave’s entrance. I found it easier to climb out than to get in.

Between 9 and 10 AM, the remaining trekkers at the campsite packed up our gear and left the riverbank for the baranggay hall. We retraced our path yesterday through a rather challenging trail until we arrived at that establishment that offered snacks, soup, carbonated drinks, and a place to relieve oneself or take a bath. A mid-adult woman who hailed from northern Germany sat on a bench with her pet dog. I greeted her (and later bid farewell) in German. Then I had lunch with my close companions.

Strolling towards the baranggay while carrying our own backpacks, Gelo and Mark hesitated to join the trek to the summit. I felt the same due to a parched throat and a particular discomfort under the hot and humid weather. Our group assembled at the community hall, resting for one hour while determining who would finally join the climb. In the end, I shrugged my doubts and decided to give it a try.

The climbing party consisted of nine members, including the guide. I was accompanied by Kenneth, Kaye, another fellow from the graphics department named Benjamin ‘Benjie’ Concepcion, Jan and his friend named Lin, and a seemingly couple I did not know by name. I improvised my shemagh scarf as a small pack for carrying a liter of drinking water, raisins, and other light stuff. We set foot just before 1 PM towards a cemented road different from the one that led to our campsite. Concrete gave way into dirt strewn with some rocks. The houses disappeared as we got surrounded by a lush field and a grove of trees. Our group walked steadfastly while the trail got narrower until we reached the climb’s first station. A few trekking poles made of rattan were lined under a wooden sign informing about the mountain’s elevation.

My fellow trekkers used the term ‘assault’ for the stretch of trail that takes significant physical effort to overcome. The climb ahead of me was an assault without doubt. Initial steps did not sap my energy until I struggled with the 60-degree slopes and relatively rough path. My leg muscles began to ache slightly. Furthermore, a voice inside my head commanded me to turn back.

Upon reaching the second station, I told Kenneth and Kaye about the problem with my lower extremities. They advised me to stretch my legs, drink some water, and get some energy by snacking on fruit-flavored jelly in tiny plastic cups. I felt relieved and the view of our surroundings from this spot inspired me to keep on going.

Time did not make sense as our climbing party trudged towards the summit. Eventually, I regained strength and my body adapted to the rigors brought by uneven rock-strewn trails, patches of mud, and branches that need to be grasped. Kaye and Kenneth led the way, I was behind the couple, and Benjie followed me. Having a chat with our guide not only distracted me from fatigue but also gave me trivial facts about Mt Daraitan and its flora and fauna. The jungle closed in around us as the path did not cease from being steep. At least the physical strain took the place of emotional issues and flashbacks that plagued me back at the campsite.

As I passed by climbing stations, the summit seemed closer even though it was out of sight. There was an easy trail at two-thirds of the way to the top but my enthusiasm vanished after realizing it was a rather short walk and followed by more sloping ground. Exposed tree roots even stretched out on our path and I received a scratch from a protruding branch. From time to time I would stop along with Kenneth, Kaye, and our guide to wait for our companions to catch up.

Around 2:45 PM, our group arrived at a campsite near the summit where young adults munched on their snacks and played music from their handheld devices. Tents stood out against the green, gray, and brown that surrounded us. We continued our way.

The afternoon sun gave a faint warmth rather than scorching heat as we reached the summit just past 3 PM.  Near the cluster of trees was a grayish and jagged rock formation at the edge of a cliff. Putting our trekking sticks down, the climbing party brought out DSLR cameras and mobile phones and took snapshots of what we could see from up there. I was at the the right time with the right lighting. Everything seemed surreal as if I was immersed into a made-up world of fantasy. The baranggay appeared as a dot surrounded by greenery while a river looked like a massive serpent beneath us. More mountains loomed on the distant horizon. Our guide told us that some are inaccessible to hikers.

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The weary climb at Mt Daraitan was totally worth it!

We spent 30 minutes atop Mt Daraitan, taking photos and appreciating the grandeur that the province’s natural wonder showed us. Kaye and Kenneth did a photo shoot with their DSLR camera. We posed on the top of that rock formation in turns. The guide also sang while imitating the voice of various musicians such as the Bee Gees. Then we had to descend and reunite with our companions back at the baranggay hall.

As with climbing up, Kenneth, Kaye, Benjie, and I went on ahead while our fellows formed a second group. The four of us had to hurry because we rented a jeepney while they had their own means of transport. However, Benjie and I could not keep up with the pace of that veteran duo. Then I even got separated from him. Alone and surrounded by countless hardwood trees, anxiety crept into my mind as I glanced at shadows and my ears picked up unfamiliar noises. I could imagine myself being charged by a wild animal or falling off a very steep slope. Yet I was only giving in to my untamed thoughts. In reality, I only had to follow the trail and reach the community before night fell.

I caught up with Benjie and we had a continuous chat while making our way back. Going down the mountain felt more painful to my legs than climbing up. I kept as low to the ground as possible to balance my weight. This ended up with sitting on a mud on the trail, putting a brown stain on my olive green pants. Both Benjie and I wore boonie hats but differed in their pattern. The surroundings grew dimmer as 4 PM turned into 5 PM and we took five-minute breaks at the stations. Eventually, we arrived at the first station and left the trekking sticks there the way they were found. Benjie and I followed the trail until it broke into two paths. We took a choice and later realized that it did not lead back to the baranggay. Correcting our mistake this time with the help of footprints on the mud, we walked through the cemented road lined with house while feeling like survivors who just got out of the wilderness. I preferred the idea of veterans who recently conquered an entire mountain. Then I was reminded of how vulnerable people are to the tests and trials of nature.

Eating a peanut-butter bun sandwich while having a lively conversation with friends served as my celebration of climbing Mt Daraitan’s summit. Next time, I would climb with better gear and hopefully in better spirits.