A Hike for Two

My hike at Mt Talamitam on March 11, 2018 could be said as one of my best hikes ever. Given its proximity to my hometown, travel came with relative comfort. Walking on its trail felt less strenuous compared to many mountains in this rugged archipelago. It was also as if my prayer for an amiable weather got answered. Furthermore, I spent the day not with a group but with just one amazing person.

About nine months, enough for an infant to be delivered, passed since I last climbed Mt Talamitam. A friend named Amena Mae invited me with her companions “Chinee,” “Ge-ge,” and JP. That hike served as a comeback following ample time away from the mountains. Honestly, it went well but not too much. In November 2017, I went to Mt Nagpatong in Rizal Province, invited again by a fellow trekking enthusiast. Then another span of time passed without hiking, opting to stay at home instead to watch movies online or sleep my troubles away.

In March 2018, I met Kristine “Kris” Camama. We both hailed from Cavite, living in cities adjacent to one another. The two of us shared common values and interests, hiking among them. I asked her if she wanted to hike Mt Talamitam. Kris agreed.

Darkness still cloaked the land at nearly 4 AM. Kristine and I first glanced at each other inside a 7-Eleven® convenient store along a highway. While she was clad in a red cotton jacket, I wore a bright orange long-sleeved quick-dry suit. It was the closest I could come up with blaze overalls for visibility. Kris and I brought ample beverages, snacks, and our lunch crammed in medium-sized backpacks. As soon as we met up, a bus passed minutes later that took us to the jump-off point. Sitting side by side, Kris and I chatted about random things. Both time and the bus flew like a swallow darting in mid-air. Homes and restaurants slid past the window. It was not my first hike without a guide but it would be with a sole companion. With optimism, I hoped every moment would be worth it.

At around 5:30 AM, the bus dropped us at Kilometer 68. The exactly same houses from last year’s climb still stood there. Back then, our group arrived at 12 AM, when nocturnal darkness and slumber kept people within homes or tents. We waited four hours in relative solitude to begin hiking. Today, fellow trekkers were already lining up to register. Kris wrote her name along mine. Then I signed. The two of us agreed to start walking when enough of the bluish light of dawn illuminated our way. We sat on a shed constructed of bamboo, tarpaulin posters hanging beside us. Kris shared a bit of sunblock lotion. She asked why I did not use it much. I replied with an inherent (or socially constructed) nature of males to be more rugged and grimy than our female counterparts. I maintained good hygiene but not too much.

As time passed, Kris recognized a fellow named Paul. It was her fourth time today at Mt Talamitam after all. I also recalled him. The three of us wished glad tidings to one another as Kris and I departed for the summit.

The tranquility of a typical Sunday morning marked our stroll. Kristine and I went past a noisy group of hikers numbering about ten people. My companion shared how she left her pair of shoes in a motor tricycle. I recounted to her how the sole of my shoe broke off on the trail during my first Mt Purgatory traverse. Those footwear could have been repaired but I forgot them in the jeepney.

Suddenly, two dogs from behind us came running and barking. No one ran. Kris and I both knew that taking flight would arouse their instinct to chase. The canines stopped and kept on barking. We stood our ground. Then a man driving a motorcycle with a sidecar came out of nowhere. Rather than stay on foot and be left at the mercy of those aggressive dogs, I asked the guy if Kris and I could hitch a ride. At least he could accompany us too. The man agreed. The three-wheeled vehicle sped off on a bumpy downhill road but the dogs ran beside us. Our driver said that he owned those canines and was on the way to the river. Regret seeped into my blood until it circulated my entire body. Kris and I held on tight as the sidecar behaved like an amusement park ride. Now the dogs were less scary for her. A few minutes passed. The still anonymous but helpful fellow dropped us at the river crossing. At least no one got bitten by his pets.

The familiar bamboo bridge emerged into view. Kris and I would be hiking without a guide and the trails forked to both left and right. We stepped on rocks to cross a creek, resting for five minutes beside the meek body of water. Kris recalled that she was advised to keep on going right. At this point we did.

Nothing but wild greenery surrounded the trail. My hiking partner and I strolled casually yet the feeling of being lost crept into my mind. Only our voices pierced the silence. Even the signs of other hikers disappeared. It was stark desolation. The dirt path went uphill until it led us to two rustic huts. We could ask for directions but no one was present, let alone awake. Then a white dog barked at us furiously. Kris and I turned back only to find a barking brown dog blocking our way. My heartbeat raced. Adrenaline rushed. A sense of fear got replaced by a readiness to slam my backpack and kick these animals, hence a fight or flight situation. Kris kept reminding me not to look at their eyes, as if they never existed at all. We trod amid the alarming noise until the defensive canines were gone. Silence filled the trail again. I had been coping with a phobia of dogs since I got chased by one at age eight. It was worse before. The sight of virtually every canine terrified me. Then I lost fear with mild-tempered dogs, such as those wandering the streets and not lunging at passers-by. Still, the phobia was rooted from the incurable rabies virus. I did not mind getting bitten by these four-legged results of humans breeding wolves artificially had they not carried the disease. Yet today, I conquered a significant part of my phobia.

Back at the bamboo bridge, the large group that Kris and I bypassed earlier just crossed it and followed the trail we should have taken. My partner and I tagged along. We chatted with a guide named Greg, who stayed at the group’s rear as the ‘sweeper.’ This time, I recognized the way. Trees grew abundantly around the ascending path that stole our breath due to fatigue. My heartbeat, and Kristine’s as well, were already racing since encountering dogs twice.

A black cow showed up just meters from the trail, multiple tree trunks serving as obstacles between us and the beast. It was not a carabao. It was literally a bovine with fur having the color of charcoal. I recalled strongly my second Mt Purgatory traverse when my companion named “Len” referred a carabao to as a ‘black cow.’ Back here at Mt Talamitam, I took a snapshot and would send it to “Len” later, assuring this animal was not as mythological as a dragon or a griffon.

Calm mixed with happiness when Mt Talamitam’s famous open areas greeted us. We left the trees for seemingly hectares of grass constantly trimmed by grazing cattle. With livestock came innumerable pieces of manure on the ground, obviously. Kris and I both agreed that they were not that bad. ‘Cow pie’ lacked a powerful stench and it came solely from grass. It was not that bad.

29066286_1590281637715576_5245642570209427456_oKris and I sat beside one another on a hillside. On our front lay a sight made more majestic by the surreal lighting of the slowly rising sun. Beyond this spot was woodland, then more grazing land. Houses and villages dotted the green landscape. On the horizon stood Mt Batulao. I took a picture of the scenery as Kris looked how it was done. At this moment, I taught her the ‘rule of thirds’ in photography and the visual arts. Kris took her mobile phone out for a snapshot and applied this rule. My shoulder and cheek touched hers and vice versa. We sat down together on the grass for minutes, as if we had our own world away from our fellow hikers. It was an indescribable feeling.

A makeshift food stand served as our next resting point. A man and a woman, likely a married couple but I did not bother to ask, oversaw the place. They sold hard-boiled eggs, boiled plantains (called saba bananas in the Philippines), meat skewered in wooden sticks as kebab to be grilled, and mabolo fruits. Also known as velvet apples, these would not appear frequently in wet markets in my hometown. Curiosity got the better of me. A small white dog appeared to share my inquisitiveness. Unlike its fellows that Kris and I came upon earlier, this one did not bark at people threateningly. It stayed quiet as if one could call it his or her own pet. Then two men, riding on carabaos and accompanied by a pack of equally friendly dogs, arrived at the scene. It happened when Kris and I were leaving towards the summit. This group of animals and men eventually caught up with us. A thin little brown dog jumped at me playfully. I felt a complete absence of fear and confidence that this creature would not do any harm. I jokingly complained that dogs were chasing me but asked why women would not.

29101576_1590282107715529_6728909160810807296_oKris held my left arm. We walked side by side on this windswept patch of land. During my previous Mt Talamitam hike, my face seeped with sweat past 7 AM. Now it felt like trudging through a blizzard without the snow. At least Kris and I sort of got our wish for a clear but relatively cool weather fulfilled. It seemed a paradise on Earth. The sun shone with a light that did not glare and a warmth that did not sear. The constant wind kept us from perspiring. Yet Kris shivered, her body less tolerant of cold compared to mine. She wrapped her shawl tighter around her upper body. Meanwhile, I embraced the icy wind, hoping it would prevent me from contracting another bout of allergy. Yet there was a summer afternoon’s warmth in Kristine’s companionship. Additionally, this place seemed more of an otherworldly paradise with its lack of wild-looking trees. Short grasses stretched around us for kilometers. It was that place and moment I would prefer to stay eternal. I hoped time would freeze for the two of us. However, this meant breaking the law of physics. The best I could do was treasure every second as Kris and I approached the summit.

Another vendor stand served as a resting place. This one peddled coconut juice. Kris and I sat down on a bench, made up of pieces of bamboo toughened by age and the elements, to relax. Then we took a selfie. Kristine and I had been taking pictures of us together since sitting in the bus. Later on, we would have a selfie after the hike and compare it with one before walking, when we looked fresh. At the same time, trekkers nearby had begun dismantling their tents as their overnight stay came to a close. As these fellows packed their belongings, Kris and I went our way.

Just in front of a grove of trees lay a lush field where three carabaos stood lazily. A few hikers followed the curved unpaved path that led up the mountain. I discussed with Kris where should we head as the trail split in two. We went down a low slope near a larger makeshift structure with sturdy poles, a roof, and benches. Everything was normal until one of the carabaos blocked our path. Rather than risk getting gored by an unpredictable beast, Kris and I veered off the trail and found our way round. Purple flowers grew on the grasses we disturbed and trod. I injected humor by pretending as a host of a nature documentary, uttering sentences in fluent English. We were chased by African wild dogs and now buffaloes surrounded us in the heart of the savanna. Kristine could not help but laugh. It felt natural rather than another scheme to impress her. One of my traits involved putting witty humor when the opportunity came. As I presented my mock documentary I thought of David Attenborough and Steve Irwin. I even remembered the Nickelodeon cartoon series The Wild Thornberrys, which I watched often as a kid. I would be Nigel and Kris would be Marianne. My hiking partner even suggested recording this moment on video. We made it past one carabao but a bull with its apparently bigger horns stood nearby. Kristine and I just walked calmly past it.

The topic shifted from nature documentaries to wilderness survival shows. Kris and I both watched Man Versus Wild, starring Bear Grylls and aired on Discovery Channel. We recalled scenes such as making shelter out of branches, eating snakes, and of course drinking piss.

An enormous hill, with the summit of Mt Talamitam atop, loomed before us. Our uphill ordeal began. The ascent drained ample amounts of energy and oxygen from our bodies. I felt a strain in my legs and saw it more apparently in Kristine. Her latest climb dated back to October of the previous year. Our faces and arms brushed against tall grass. It was exactly like my first Mt Talamitam hike except for a few differences. While I bathed in sweat before, this time the dim sky and the wind gave me the feeling of standing in front of an electric fan turned on with maximum power. Instead of a short-sleeved gray T-shirt, I wore a long-sleeved orange outfit that protected my arms from grass blades. Kris and I took five-minutes breaks rather than a fifteen-minute rest. Furthermore, there were no horses and their riders today. My companion and I caught up with that large group of fellow trekkers. They stopped from time to time for chatting, laughing, and taking photos. Greg still accompanied them. Kristine and I pushed onward until a small vending stand marked the summit itself.

29062941_1590282021048871_6900380893970432000_oPeople of various ages, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds nearly filled an uneven space about as large as a basketball court. They already occupied the best spots for viewing the surroundings. It did not matter. Kris and I had been here before. Photos of the breath-taking landscape could be forgone. We put our backpacks on the ground, sat next to each other fondly, and shared personal stories. Bit by bit, more of our lives and character were revealed to one another. Our heartfelt conversation lasted at least twenty minutes. Then we decided to take a few snapshots of our own. Kris and I waited for our turn as three girls, most likely still studying in college, sought out perfect angles and facial expressions. Then Kristine and I did it relatively quickly.

The adjacent Mt Apayang lay patiently in wait for us. Another trail passed through a spot with grass cut down by machetes as if harvested. The place accommodated a few tents to pitch. Then the path twisted and turned as it ran downhill. Kristine and I did not have to endure mud this time but the loose sandy soil challenged our balance. We took careful steps. Then the ground grew even. We knew it would then be uphill all the way. Bushes and tall grass cloaked steep surfaces where one would roll down painfully or worse after slipping off the trail. I advanced past Kris at this point so I stayed behind her instead for us to match our pacing. We did not talk much. Personal connection could still be formed through silence. I told Kris that the distance from Mt Talamitam’s summit to that of Mt Apayang could be covered in fifteen minutes. I proved to be mistaken. When it appeared that we reached our destination, another hill strewn with rocks and wild foliage showed up. The ordeal lasted about thirty minutes.

A group of hikers lingered at the summit of Mt Apayang. They were about to leave. I wondered if the shack here still stood. It did, to my relief. Kris and I would have our lunch here instead of down there at the jump-off point, vulnerable to the lack of space from crowds along with cats and dogs begging for scraps. Our itinerary went smoothly so far. Fermin, the same popsicle ice cream peddler I met last year, was also present. This moment turned into a reunion. He then showed Kris which mountains could be seen at the horizon. She might have climbed Mt Talamitam four times already but this was her first experience of Mt Apayang. Again, Kristine and I laid down our backpacks and had another time-stopping chat, sharing more aspects of our personality. We took selfies of us beside one another, looking adorable as if people thought of us as a couple. I felt comfortable with her as if she was a loved one from another life. Kris noted that our faces looked alike. I agreed. She joked that we could be long-lost siblings. Then we laughed heartily. The two of us had more snapshots on a rock near the edge at one corner of the summit. Another group consisting of three men and a woman greeted us.

The time for lunch came. Kris brought two pieces of the so-called ‘Uncle John’s’ fried chicken she bought from a convenience store, along with two balls of moist rice. I packed rice in a tough plastic container. My meal came in the form of canned tuna caldereta, consisting of tomato sauce, peas, and tiny potato cubes. Kristine and I shared food as if it was a picnic. Instead of sitting on a picnic cloth on the grass, we sat on a bench constructed of cut bamboo pieces. The roofing seemed flimsy but it already withstood typhoons. That group of four climbers also sought shelter and dined with Kris and I. Amiable and somewhat humorous conversation improved the mood for lunch. We ate until we finished meals completely. Pieces of trash would be disposed later.

Kristine and I became the only people staying at Mt Apayang after our acquaintances left. They would head for a dip in the river near the village on the jump-off point. A guide advised them not to take a seemingly mysterious trail, which was closed to the public for reasons we did not know. Kris took a nap, lying her back on the bench. She asked me to wake her up after ten minutes. My hiking partner shivered, her shawl functioning as a blanket too. The sky grew gray as clouds gathered suddenly. The lighting went dim. The air temperature dropped down, making me restless. Ten minutes were up. Concerned with getting caught under the rain as the only two people at Mt Apayang, Kristine and I hurried down the mountain.

Descending at Mt Apayang took only about half the time as making our way up. As with many climbs I had been, something more than gravity dragged us down with ease. Perhaps it was the desire to rest continuously and take a shower. It might be our side trip in Tagaytay city. Here, it was simply to escape a downpour. Kris and I were exposed to harsh elements and lacked rain gear. Yet the weather disagreed. Past 10 AM, the nearly midday sun scorched us with intensified rays, scattered while unseen. My skin and clothes felt hot. I panted. Meanwhile, Kris walked quickly ahead of me. Our recent meal gave her a driving energy. She teased me jokingly to chase her. I found her a woman to share plenty of laughs with. Our conversation also grew gradually from minimal to ample. It gave life to an otherwise silent mountain devoid of any human being. I felt humbled once realizing that Kris and I were virtually alone, surrounded at all sides by raw nature. Soon, we reached the lowest point between Mt Apayang and Mt Talamitam.

Another trail led to an alternative way to our jump-off. We agreed to trace our way from where we came. It would lead us back at Mt Talamitam’s summit. It might not be the easier way but it was surer. Additionally, Kristine and I would come upon fellow hikers to be far from isolation and subsequent peril. (Later on, a guide advised us to head back and follow that ‘shortcut’ but we insisted otherwise.)

Kris and I kept strolling. Then we returned to that inclined part of this trail with little to hold on to. I crouched to distribute body weight more evenly and avoid slipping. Kristine thought deeply of the verb for leaning forward. It was crouched, she recalled. Her eyes lit up like those of Archimedes when he uttered “eureka.” After that, our ascent felt effortless as if a mere minute passed before we approached the summit. Two Caucasian-looking women were hiking towards Mt Apayang. I initiated a casual conversation. They parted from us as soon as we met them. Kris and I muttered that they spoke in a ‘British’ accent. ‘English’ would be the more accurate term. Still, I could not distinguish whether it was Northern, Southern, or from the Midlands.

We found ourselves back at Mt Talamitam’s summit with no time to stay. Kris and I simply did not want to. We walked onward. Descent now went slower for us as the likelihood of slipping increased. Careful footing was the key to staying uninjured.

29063114_1590298127713927_5074423948062490624_nSoon, the wide expanse of the eye-pleasing pastureland lay before us. Kristine and I took additional pictures with it on the background. Suddenly, droplets of water fell from the sky. The two of us faced impending rain. Yet miraculously it did not progress into a downpour, not even a drizzle. As tall grass gave way to its way shorter counterpart, the sun unleashed its full force again. We were glad for bringing a cap. That of Kristine was plain green with a short brim. Mine bore a woodland pattern similar to those worn by hunters in North America.

29063316_1590298287713911_4359380939172741120_nThe excursion became leisurely once more as a relaxing stroll. Kris wrapped her arm around one of mine. We talked about a wide range of topics — romantic relationships, work, and even television shows. The two of us exchanged greetings with fellow hikers still ascending to the summit. Despite the absence of trees, the wind kept the surrounding temperature mild and tolerable. Yet walking all morning was taking its toll. Kris and I rested at the coconut juice stand, helping ourselves with a cup of that drink maintained cold by ice. After bidding farewell to the kind vendors, Kristine and I continued on our way. At one instance, we ran past other hikers while holding hands and laughing. She was enjoyable to be with and I hoped she felt the same with me.

Shadows littered the ground as trees popped up everywhere. This walk in the woods should take up less time compared to those of my previous treks where forests covered the entire mountain. Trails forked to both left and right, arousing concern for getting lost. The guide seemed to disappear. At this point of the hike, Kristine and I talked about action-packed movies. We recalled those where a sole protagonist or a small group got chased by hundreds of enemies. Kristine and I, along with fellow trekkers, found ourselves strolling on a cemented path slowly worn down by cracks and algae. It led us to a familiar river. We had reached the village. Kris and I stuck to the gray river bank, skipped on some rocks on a  crossing just a few meters wide, and ascended on to the road.

A concrete bridge lined with metal railings marked the boundary between the comfort of human habitation and the uncertainty of the outdoors. Kris and I crossed it while accompanied by a big group of hikers. We let them pass as the two of us had some respite and drank beverages.

When our walk resumed, I just realized this time with Kristine at Mt Talamitam was coming to an end. It was a bliss too magnanimous to describe. Like all things good it would find its limit at some time and in one way. Amid the houses and the people, our surroundings grew quiet. Kris and I absorbed every second of our companionship. We kept it deeply in our memories and hearts.

The highway appeared and along with it came Francis. He served as my guide during that previous trek here. I contacted him days ago. Earlier today, he called me through mobile phone more than once, repeatedly asking where was I and how I fared. We caught up on stories after I finished taking a bath and Kris took her turn. While resting before a shower, Kristine and I had a selfie which surprisingly showed how fresh we looked despite walking for hours. At 1:30 PM, the two of us rode a bus for beef marrow soup or bulalo at Tagaytay city.

Kristine and I before (left) and after (right) the hike

I considered my second hike at Mt Talamitam to be one of my most memorable treks ever. Not a bit of bitterness and regret bothered me. I did not contract an allergic reaction this time. This was the first time I met Kristine in person and would be looking forward for more travels with her in the future.

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The Hike that Lasted Only Ten Minutes

The idea of a ten-minute hike would sound strange, even absurd. Yet it happened literally in one of my trips.

Listen to my story and find out how it came that way.

Weeks before the event, I had been notified of an outdoor excursion with a particular set of friends. I met them on my second climb at Mt Marami nearly one year ago. On Facebook® we went by the group chat name of Team 28. Aside from hiking, these fellows also loved running, cycling, swimming, and plain sightseeing. We would stay overnight on a beach or at a campsite at a mountain according to them. I felt uncomfortable. I just came back from a long absence from trekking. My focus was on day hikes. I was simply not yet in the mood for bringing my tent and portable cooking set. Yet most members of the Facebook® group would come for the anniversary event. Deep inside me, I could not refuse. It would be a reunion. They proved friendly, supportive, and sincere in the months since I got acquainted with them. Such kind of people would not always come easy in life.

Through social media we agreed to climb Mt Gulugod Baboy in the province of Batangas. The name translates as ‘spine of pig’ in the Tagalog language, which is the locals’ mother tongue. Situated two to three hours of driving south from Manila in light to moderate traffic, Mt Gulugod Baboy stands within the municipality of Mabini, Batangas. Last April, the town became the epicenter of a series of magnitude 5 earthquakes. The peak has an altitude of 525 meters above sea level. A trail difficulty of 2/9 makes Mt Gulugod Baboy a recommended place to begin enthusiasm into mountain climbing or just enjoy the weekend with friends.

In the night of June 17, 2017, I arrived haughtily at Team 28’s meeting place in Alabang, Muntinlupa City – the National Capital Region’s gateway to the provinces of Laguna and Batangas. There were too few buses. I stood nearly an hour just to get a ride. Yet it did not matter now. At first, I looked for them in a convenience store. They were not there. Then Christian “Xtian” Villanueva appeared and told me to join them. With him was Cecille “Cess” Olivarez, who introduced me to their group in the first place, and Sherwin “She” Lomibao. They had two companions – Rey Ar Roderos and Ry Aguilar. Later on, Abigail “Abby” Asuncion showed out of nowhere and joined us. Our transport would arrive late. The van and its driver got caught in traffic. We stood and sat on the sidewalk as pedestrians passed by, our bags grouped together like a cache of supplies for an expedition. While catching up with stories, our fellow Leslie “Les” Litong came. Time passed merrily. Our van came past 8 PM and we did not notice it.

Heading south to the town of Santa Rosa, Laguna, we would pick up more companions. This other group composed of John Vincent “JanBi” Chua, Jepoy “Jep” Dichoso, Marie “Chacha” Fetalino, Hency Joyce Gamara, and Aldous “Doy” Moncada. It was a brief pickup. Our van sped off, leaving behind the distant glimmering lights of the Enchanted Kingdom theme park. I tried to doze off but without success.

Our vehicle flew like a swift on the highways of Batangas province. We passed by both completely dark pastureland and lit 24-hour food establishments. People would be sleeping soundly in their beds. We at Team 28 stayed awake on the van’s seats.

A statue of Apolinario Mabini, one of the heroes of the Philippine War of Independence against Spanish colonization, marked the town that bore his last name. We seemed lost. The 24-hour convenience store seemed elusive. Our driver even brought us to a pier unwillingly. He turned back. All we wanted was tube ice. Eventually, our trekking party found our way to a 7-Eleven® after making turns on the concrete lanes. About ten minutes passed before our road trip resumed.

Later on, a sign informed us that we already arrived at the vicinity of Mt Gulugod Baboy. I could hear the van’s tires struggling with the uphill drive. We leaned back to our seats. Cess was aroused from sleep. Jepoy remained silent. Xtian kept on talking. Somehow, he seemed to initiate humor more than Sherwin as far as I remembered. Riding shotgun, Hency and Janbi looked for the registration center for our climb. This idiom actually originated from the American West during the latter half of the 19th century AD. It was a time when a stagecoach driver’s companion had to brandish the said firearm to fend off both outlaws and hostile tribal folk. Despite the Philippines going through a war on drugs at the present, crime was far from a threat for us at Team 28. In fact, the smell of cow manure bothered us more. Then we braced for possibly seeing supernatural beings, even for just a split-second, in the dark of the night.

We could not find the registration center. The van continued its ascent on a twisting cemented road lined by silent groves of trees and equally quiet houses. Then it became apparent that we unintentionally drove to the summit. It was possible at Mt Gulugod Baboy, unlike at most mountains in the Philippines. Now our group would register at the top, or at least near it.

My fellow passengers and I mistook a man for a ghost. In reality, I seemed more of a specter than that person due to my nocturnal working shift. The road trip ended past 11 PM at the parking area near the summit. We bailed out. The air felt hotter than I expected. I should have left my jacket. It only added to my backpack’s weight. The mostly yellow lights of urban settlement lay towards the horizon. They outshone the stars overhead. I went to Mt Gulugod Baboy to escape from city life, which was now reminded to me by that distant artificial lighting. Our group stopped by a shack that also served as both a registration center and store. We settled transport and entrance fees, checked our belongings, and rested a bit. Then we began walking with headlamps and flashlight to look for a campsite.

The ten-minute hike began as most of my long walks in the outdoors would. We walked single file. Those in the rear carried our food stuffs, potable water in plastic containers, tents, and the rest of our camping essentials. Still, our group packed lightly compared to a few overnight treks I did. We only wanted to get together, chat, and enjoy food and drink in the cool air under the stars. Yet it was surprisingly warmer than expected. Our feet followed the dirt trail. Then my sole of my right shoe sank a bit into the ground. My companions began to complain about the mud. Abby told Chacha to step on the grass instead. Getting one’s foot wear muddy would be normal in outdoor excursions on a rainy day on a forest trail. There was not even a drizzle. Open terrain surrounded us too.

In the very dim light of midnight, I could see a hill ahead of us. To my right lay a steep yet grassy ravine. Beams of light shone on all directions. It was as if a rescue party was searching for a missing hiker. In this circumstance, we looked for a suitable spot to pitch tents and lay down food for a small feast. We marched towards the summit. Someone shone a light on where it should be. The summit appeared near but for my legs it felt like kilometers away. Walking in near-total darkness did not make it easier.

Eventually, our party decided not to push towards the summit itself. We all wanted to settle down and get on with it. We searched rather frantically. There was a nice grassy spot wide enough for all of our tents. Then we got discouraged. I would like to use the euphemism ‘cow pie’ for excrement that was littered all over the place. The round pieces of scat seemed as biological land mines that brought nuisance and smelly soles. We kept on walking. Another group of mostly male campers chatted and listened to music from their electronic devices. Our group greeted them, passed by, and sort of envied their camping spot.

We all agreed to spend the night on a grassy spot below a hill after minutes of wandering. Corn husks were piled nearby. Cow pies showed up but not densely, allowing us to pitch our tents relatively  close to one another. I helped Aldous, Hency, and  Janbi set up theirs. Cess, Jepoy, and Leslie had their own. Rey ar, Ry, and Xtian’s tent looked rather too small, allowing two people instead of three regardless of physique. Abby, Chacha, and Sherwin offered me hospitality in theirs after a polite request. According to She, six individuals could fit within it.

Xtian took out a large piece of synthetic material called a ‘trapal’ in the local vernacular. Its waterproof quality made it useful and  versatile for wet weather conditions. He placed it on the dewy grass. Then we laid out bit by bit the food we brought. My companions packed a variety of home-cooked dishes in durable plastic box containers. Our companions from Santa Rosa, Laguna brought grilled slices of chicken and pork packed separately. Boiled white rice came in plenty. Of course, we had potable water too and plastic disposable cups as containers.

DSCN0490Our nighttime picnic got intruded by a few dogs. They simply stood a few meters from us. Yet a canine would sometimes approach silently like a predator stalking its prey before pouncing. Then one would appear right behind my back. They surrounded us, cloaked by nocturnal darkness until either one of my fellows or I shone a flashlight on them. It felt like having dinner in the middle of the African savanna or the mixed woodland and grassland wilderness of North America. The dogs’ occasional barking pierced the festive ambience and might have instilled a bit of fear in our hearts. Thankfully, the dogs did not behave aggressively. They simply waited in all patience to be handed scraps of food. Yet later on, they also carried away a plastic bag or two of our leftovers. We wished that our trekking party would not be blamed on the following morning for a mess consisting of wrappers and chicken bones.

Hency then brought out tiny tubular plastic packets filled with semi-liquid chocolate. There were marshmallows too. She also had those brown Graham crackers often piled into layers with a mix of canned condensed milk and all-purpose cream in between. This in turn would be refrigerated until the sweet dairy mix softens the crackers into a home-made cake. DSCN0492Tonight, we would have hard Graham crackers instead. Hency taught us a sort of dessert recipe for camping outdoors. Janbi’s crude and portable stove cast a flame. We stuck those marshmallows at the end of wooden kebab sticks and toasted the squishy treat. Yet there was more. We snapped those Graham crackers into smaller pieces, making a crunching sound. Then I spread that semi-liquid chocolate like Nutella® on a piece of sliced bread. The marshmallow was sandwiched in between.  The combination of soft and hard texture characterized this ingenious treat.

DSCN0496Time passed by. The soup-like sky cleared for a while before concealing the stars again. I could feel droplets of water falling on my hair. Xtian, Rey Ar, and Ry hung another large ‘trapal’ over our picnic setup with ropes fastened to the four corners then tied to branches and tents. Rain would not dampen the mood of our merriment. We then huddled together closely.

We at Team 28 shared stories and inquired about our companions’ upcoming trips. We also teased one another and even those not present. Xtian took care of the liquor mix. He passed it among us. I declined politely, settling on cheese-flavored popcorn and boiled peanuts instead. The snacking, sipping, and chatting went on until we retired into our tents one by one at around 3 AM. I lay down at one side just next to a wall of waterproof fabric, shut my eyes, and drifted into the unconscious.

 

The weather in the morning could only be described as surreal. Cloud cover cast soft lighting but did not accumulate much to foreshadow a rainy day. The sky had pastel hues of violet, blue, pink, and white. It felt like waking up only to find myself still in a dream. Sunrise revealed how breath-taking the surrounding landscape was. Beyond the rolling hills was the sea sharing the same color with the hazy sky. Tall grass surrounded us everywhere, broken by groves of hardwood or coconut trees along with open meadows. Groups of tents seemed as individual villages in a world that was Mt Gulugod Baboy.

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DSCN0501A single file of hikers ascended on a trail to my left. Then I saw someone familiar. I jogged to meet up with him. By both predetermination and chance, it was Brian Estares. We met each other last year during a hike at Mt Marami in Cavite province. In fact, he invited me to an excursion at Mt Gulugod Baboy with another group. I told him that Team 28 and I would be at the same place and the same time by coincidence. Brian held a branch he used as a hiking stick. We had a brief chat. He said they would also swim at the beach after running on this trail. My friend wanted to be a triathlete. After that, Brian was off with his fellows.

Past 7 AM, we had a light breakfast of whatever snack we could grab. Xtian boiled some water and mixed it with instant coffee powder in light blue sachets. With a dipper made of heat-resistant plastic, Hency shared it among us in our respective containers as if in a soup kitchen. I sipped that coffee from a tumbler distributed freely in my office, complete with the company logo. My stomach grew warmer. That heat radiated all over my body

The air turned hotter as our surroundings became brighter. It was time to pack up. We at Team 28 set up a tripod and took group photos. Their companionship had the same temperature as the caffeinated beverage I drank earlier. I felt a sense of belonging. They expressed genuine concern during hard times. We helped one another. My friends at Team 28 would find a way to socialize through an outdoor activity. They joked and laughed. It seemed my troubles disappeared and replaced by pure bliss. Yet this moment would end soon.

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Cess: “I’ll help you later, right now I’ve got an important text.”            

Once the tents, ‘trapal’, and the rest of everything had been packed, our group began the ten-minute return hike to our van. The starkly brown trail snaked its way through the damp green grass. Aldous carried stuff like a porter. With a light heart I walked and appreciated the scenery. Then we passed by the ravine again. Tall grass concealed the edge. It seemed harmless to the eyes until one would trip and fall down a 60-degree slope. Minutes passed by without anyone noticing. Our chatter was minimal. Then our party arrived at the shack where a few vehicles, including our van, were parked.

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From left: Cess, Abby, She, Chacha, Aldous, Janbi, Hency, The Blogger, Jepoy, Ry, Rey Ar, Xtian, Les

A discussion ensued. We would either walk all the way down Mt Gulugod Baboy and make this an authentic trek or simply ride the van for our descent. A guide told us that if we went on foot our group would show up farther than our intended destination that was Philpan Beach Resort. In the end, we hopped into our transport, sat down, and later navigated the winding downhill road.

That was how the ten-minute hike happened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Mt Marami

Someone unfamiliar posted an event on my hiking buddies’ social media page, which went by the name of Akyaters Adventure Club. I clicked the Interested button. Never did I know that it would change my life significantly.

There was an event inviting me and my fellows in the social media group to climb Mt Pamitinan and Mt Binacayan on one day. It included a tour of the Wawa Dam as well. A certain Cess Olivarez served as the organizer. I found it appealing. It was a dayhike, which I preferred to overnight camping when in the mood for just leisure. Traveling from Metro Manila to Rizal province lasted about an hour, even less. On the other hand, a trip to the Cordilleras took six hours at least. I would spend less cash too.

My friends in the Akyaters Adventure Club did not seem to respond. Later on, it became apparent that I would not join them but another group of trekkers instead.

Cess scheduled the excursion on July 10, 2016. A few days before the said date, Typhoon Nepartak (named Butchoy in the Philippines) struck Taiwan. Yet the tropical storm intensified the monsoon, bringing heavy rain to my country. The participants in the hike communicated through group chat. Some had already declined to go, considering the dangers from the downpour, strong wind, and slippery ground where rescue would not come easily. Even Mom expressed her concern too. Yet on July 9, the weather turned calm and a bit sunny. There was a high chance of rain on the following day though. Courage overcame my doubts and I decided to press on.

Having lived for one year at barangay Alabang in the city of Muntinlupa, I spent the night there with friends amid a drizzle. Cess and I kept in touch through text message. Eventually, she notified me that the event would be relocated at Mt Marami in my home province of Cavite. I told her bluntly that I already went there before. It might seem unexciting but I still joined the hike. At least my companions would be different this time.

At 3 AM on the following day, I made my way through an unkempt alley, a major road with speeding trucks, and the moist metal surface of a footbridge. A 7-Eleven® convenience store was our rendezvous location. The shift from outdoor darkness to fluorescent indoor lighting felt like a glare to my eyes. I came upon three or four unmistakable hikers, judging from their backpacks and athletic attire. A chat ensued and they too were joining the trek. Cess had not arrived yet.

More of our companions arrived one by one. They already knew one another. According to Cess, the meet-up was held at Alabang in Muntinlupa as most of the participants hailed from south of Metro Manila. A couple among us was living in Laguna province. The two introduced themselves as Hency Joyce Gamara and John Vincent “JohnVi” Chua. Their companion was Aldous Moncada. Two other fellows went by the name of Sherwin “She” Mark Lomibao and Brian Gimutao. Coincidentally, my hiking buddy at the last time I climbed Mt Marami was also named Brian. I also met Jepoy Dichoso. Later on, a thin young woman with a nape-length haircut and dental braces greeted us. I finally met the event organizer.

A van served as our transport. Our hiking party numbered eleven in total so just one would do. Some excursions required two of this automobile, even more. We left Alabang past 4 AM and headed to my home province of Cavite. At a major junction notoriously plagued by vehicle congestion, our group stopped to fetch three of our fellows named Dhon Develos, Leslie Litong, and Rose Marfil. After that, our van metaphorically flew on the emptiness of the road. Then we came to Aguinaldo Highway. Illuminated roadside buildings and powerful lamp posts brought life. Minutes passed and the van entered my hometown. My companions began to doze off but sleep eluded me. Later on, we witnessed a road mishap at the municipality of General Trias. Our destination was still far based on distance but only at least an hour away due to the absence of traffic. Eventually, my eyes closed and I drifted into the unconscious while sitting inside a speeding automobile.

When I opened my eyes again, the faint light of dawn allowed us to see a dim picture of our surroundings. The commercial establishments that lined the road were gone. Grassy fields, groves of trees, and distant mountains replaced them. Some of my companions remained sleeping even though they slouched their backs on their seats. Journeys like this would keep me awake until I could not do it anymore by running out of energy.

As expected, the global positioning system and mobile apps did not indicate the accurate position of Barangay Ramirez. Joining this excursion had a purpose for me. I was at the right place and the right time with the right people. Once we saw the health center, I told the driver to take the right turn and follow the cemented road until we reach the village. During my previous trip there, the Hayok Hiking Society seemingly floundered in darkness. Yet now the early morning daylight made the short trip smoother. Then we had our van parked near the barangay hall.

Members of our trekking party registered our names at the logbook just as I did last time. I scanned the record of visitors in May. My name was there, showing it to my fellows. Then we made preparations and waited. Cess and Jepoy did some stretching. The former participated in running events like many hikers while the latter was an avid cyclist. I also had a chat with Dhon, Leslie, and Rose. Combining the names of those two women reminded me of Rose Leslie, the Scottish red-haired actress who played Ygritte in the television series Game of Thrones.

I decided to give an account of this trek through a series of videos that would be compiled and edited later. It was something new for a change. My previous excursions had been told visually through photo albums on my social media page. Then I grew fond of video editing lately. From an academic project back in college, it turned into a hobby where I could step into the shoes of a movie director.

My hiking companions cooperated with video making. I approached a group of men sitting outside the barangay hall and interviewed them about the condition of the trail. According to them, it was muddy from incessant rain brought by the typhoon. I asked our guide as well.

Our nature walk kicked off between 6 AM and 7 AM. Headlamps and flashlights were not needed this time. Cheerful words, jokes, and smiles marked the beginning of our trek. Eventually, we left the cemented road lined with houses and ventured into the untamed outdoors dominated by vegetation. We bumped into a domesticated water buffalo, or carabao, guided by its owner with a rope. Its ears kept on twitching. Despite a seemingly ferocious appearance, the farm animal only stared at us and continued it way.

Mud stuck to my shoes again and it was worse compared to my previous Mt Marami excursion. It felt like wearing an extra pair of boots, making my steps heavier. Getting dirty did not matter much. Hency, for instance, wore sandals but the lack of covering exposed her feet to blisters and even a cut from sharp edges.

The sound of chatter and laughter resounded in the stillness of our surroundings. We talked not only about our previous travels but also about our careers too. I stayed close to Cess and Jepoy. At instances I had a conversation with Dhon, Leslie, Rose, and Sherwin. My hiking companions were already a peer group who knew one another from previous excursions. They also loved to travel and explore various places within the country.

Something was different. As time passed by, the trail we followed did not resemble what I saw on my last climb there. Then our guide said we took the new trail. Visitors were off-limits from the old one as footsteps loosen the soil over time, turning its surface even muddier when it rains. This problem affected hiking spots across the Philippines in one way or another, with Mt Pulag as a famous example.

The new trail at the base of Mt Marami led us to a river. The crossing had a width of at least 20 paces. We must wade in to get across. According to the guide, the water would reach just our thighs at the deepest point of the crossing. I felt more concern for my socks getting wet than getting swept by the current or slipping. Either audacity or laziness prevented me from taking my foot garments off. I was more worried about my mobile phone getting soaked. Our hiking party stood at the bank for several minutes. We seemed a herd of wildebeest fearful of crocodiles in the river as seen on nature documentary shows. These predatory aquatic reptiles were not present at Mt Marami. However, a venomous snake might be swimming on the water surface. I saw one back in college at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, located at the foothills of Mt Makiling.

thumb_img_5137_1024We went in. The muddy soil under my feet gave way to pebbles and smooth rocks. Every step turned the puddle dirtier until the mud on my soles was washed off completely. The water reached my ankles. Then my shoes were submerged. The riverbed could not be compared to the tiled bottom of a swimming pool. Rocks varied in size. They were slippery too. One wrong move and my upper body could plunge into the cold and murky water. I would bid my mobile phone farewell for sure. I kept it in my pocket, holding it tightly as water rose above my knees and flowed steadily past my legs. My other foot groped the stony riverbed. I moved slowly but surely. Chatting with my companions also helped ease the nervousness. We all shared the struggle. Our group even stopped halfway to pose for a photo. Hency and JohnVi also remarked about the uneven surface we treaded. The other side of the river was getting closer. Then the three of us noticed a swarm of mosquitoes simply resting on the water surface. Even our presence did not disturb them. The river’s current subsided. I entered a pool formed by the random arrangement of rocks. Now the water was only at the level of my lower legs. I almost lost my balance. At that moment I flailed my arms out like a duck about to take off. Walking through this spot proved to be challenge until I stepped on to dry ground again. My first steps on the bank squeezed water out of my shoes.

The jungle, with its moist leaves and shadowy undergrowth, greeted us once again. It was not raining but our surroundings appeared wet after a downpour. The wind stirred masses of gray clouds up in the sky, which may prompt us to wear waterproof ponchos. Despite the weather, humidity blurred my eyeglasses and made me wipe the sweat off my face with a handkerchief repeatedly.

What looked like a wall of whitish gray rock stood before our path. The trail wriggled its way up it. The obstacle was not that steep but it was sloped. Then a brown horse and its rider arrived at the scene. The equine carried two baskets strapped to its left and right, like its white counterpart I saw last time. It might even be the horse that rested at the spot where cold beverages were sold. Our hiking party made way for both rider and mount. We could hear the clip-clop of hooves striking the rock-strewn ground.

thumb_img_5146_1024Less trees surrounded us at a place I recognized. It could be described as a meadow surrounded by banana and coconut trees. It was very familiar. When I joined the Hayok hikers here last May, the sun just rose from the horizon as we took a break in the faint bluish light. This time, my trekking companions and I arrived past 6 AM compared to around 5 AM on my previous excursion. The meadow erupted with cheer due to the morning sunshine. My skin felt warm. Yet the sky remained overcast.

Recording videos of our trek remained successful so far. Most of the recordings did not last more than a minute. I wanted to make a short film where the hikers would simply go on with walking, ignoring me and my mobile phone capturing a video. Yet it did not go exactly according to plan. My fellows smiled, waved their hands, and posed during a recording. The project became more of a family video. Sherwin even endorsed the company where he was working. Still, I let them be. The finished compilation was supposed to show the experience of trekking at Mt Marami in its raw reality. What my companions did while videos were recorded gave it a more human touch.

The forested section of the trail provided shade from the increasingly searing heat of the sun. It was around 8 AM. Black branches rose from the trunks and spread out like the roots did underground. They held the clumps of bright green leaves that shimmered in the sunlight. Hency exclaimed upon seeing a tree that looked perfect in the background of a snapshot. We posed beside it one by one with our guide taking the photos.

thumb_img_5172_1024We followed the dirt trail until we came upon a stream that ran across our path. I did not remember it before. Then it became clear to me. My previous Mt Marami hike took place near the end of the dry season. The rainy season began in June. There was also a downpour yesterday. This spot used to be the brook with a ‘bridge’ of pebbles. Now it swelled of foamy rushing water. Tips of rocks that stood out of this miniature rapids indicated where we would cross. The stream actually was less intimidating than it looks. Water only rose to our ankles. However, I had to maintain my balance while walking slowly on submerged rocks. Spreading my arms outward helped. After getting to the other side, I recorded a video of this stream while waiting for a few companions.

Eventually, our trekking party arrived at the makeshift shack by a river. This was where four hiking buddies and I had some rest and chat on a bench under a tree. It felt like having a flashback. Someone set up a ladder to access a low-lying branch of a huge tree close to the riverbank. Instead of a battered hut, I saw a table along with seats made of wood panels and cut logs, placed under reused waterproof material supported by bamboo poles. Yet there was a hut-like structure nearby. Hency climbed atop the ladder, sat on the branch, and asked our buddies to take pictures of her. Sherwin followed suit.

The guide offered coconuts and their juice at once. Last time, I had it in the afternoon on the return hike. A well-built man residing in this area used his bolo knife to punch a hole into each coconut. After we drank all of the juice, he cracked the hollow sphere open for us to snack on the tender plant-based flesh. Aldous posed for a photo with an empty yet intact coconut in a humorous way. We laughed casually. Sherwin joined him in  providing comedy.

Another man was fishing at the river with hook and line. The greenish water did not rage but flowed calmly. It shimmered and also cast upside-down images of nearby trees. The fellow and Dhon had a chat about freshwater fish that can be caught there.

Our break lasted about fifteen minutes before continuing towards the summit. The weather turned fair as the sun kept on ascending. Heat and humidity made me perspire. I wanted to immerse in cold and pristine water. Then we heard a rushing sound typical of a torrent. An even wider stream ran its course between us and our destination. I felt a bit of frustration, wondering how many more fast-flowing streams must we cross. Yet it was thrilling at the same time. Somehow a hike would be more enjoyable with less comfort and more adventure. I quickened my pace. Then I dipped my feet into the water with a current that might cause me to stumble. It did not. An uneven surface prompted me to carefully consider every step. I did not mind getting wet. I just had to avoid slipping and a resulting concussion. Crossing this stream took a longer time than the other one before our hiking party had coconut juice and a break.

Past the body of rushing water, the soles of my shoes got muddy again. They just got unintentionally rinsed earlier. The feeling of making progress with a dilemma and then abruptly going back to square one sank into me. I trod the reddish soft soil devoid of plant growth. The trail went straight ahead, flanked by ghostly trees and their silence. A man in his forties was going down the mountain. A few lifeless fish hung and swayed slightly from his hand. One of them looked like an eel. A conversation ensued. According to him, the fish would be cooked in coconut milk for lunch.

The hike became more of a walk down a city street than a grueling trek through jungle. We moved faster too as the trail went a bit downhill. Our stroll turned into a brief jog. Life had its ups and downs, especially in an outdoor adventure. Moments later, leafy bushes choked our path. It was like wading into a green lake that absorbed carbon dioxide and released oxygen. We all stayed close to one another. The guide could have hacked those bushes away with his sickle. It would be unnecessary and damaging too.

Arriving at the open and scenic part of Mt Marami where we could see surrounding ridges, my legs had more difficulty enduring the strain from a long hike. The humidity made me feel more tired. Jepoy complained about fatigue too. Aldous was walking several meters behind me and asked if there was a ‘forever’ up ahead. He meant a romantic partner to spent time with for eternity in a poetic sense, hence the adverb. I yelled none but added that I was not sure. Cess replied loudly to Aldous that finding it here was improbable. “No forever” was a popular phrase among Filipinos at that time, especially those undergoing setbacks in romance.

There was no vendor of cold drinks in sight when we came to that familiar tree with crude benches underneath it. The members of our hiking party seemed exhausted. While either sitting or standing, we also discussed whether to have lunch at this spot. It was only past 10 AM but filling our stomachs would give us much needed energy to reach the summit later. The matter was settled without objection. Two banana leaves were laid on the ground. Then we placed boiled rice in the middle, which was followed by canned tuna, meat dishes, and a few hotdogs. We sat around this feast for hikers, kilometers away from the nearest home-cooked food establishment called a karinderya in the Philippines. This manner of having a meal while bonding as a group was customary. They ate with disposable spoon and fork, even one’s hand covered by a small plastic bag for hygiene purposes. Meanwhile, our guide sat on a chopped bit of log and sent text messages with his mobile phone. We asked him to join us for lunch. The fellow simply replied that he already had his meal. Lunchtime ended with the banana leaves almost clear of food before they were disposed. We chatted and had a short break before moving on with the trek.

Baseball caps protected our heads from the direct onslaught of noontime heat. A few of my companions even wore sunglasses and concealed their faces with scarves. Jepoy put on the mask he used for cycling. It had a stark lower half of a skull on black. I told him that mask would look better with red-tinted sunglasses and a headphone after recalling Simon “Ghost” Riley from the Call of Duty video game series. I noticed that JohnVi wore gloves too.

Just as we got to the grassy meadow with a closer view of the rock formations and summit, the winds stirred sinister gray clouds from nowhere. We all stared at the sky, powerless against the abrupt change in weather. The lighting turned dimmer. The surrounding temperature dropped. My skin felt it. Rain was imminent. Members of our hiking party brought ponchos as a precaution with Typhoon Nepartak still bringing rainfall to our country. We kept on walking while expressing concern over a likely downpour. Those clouds eventually filled the sky, even concealing the summit in a haze. I had a vivid flashback of my climb at Mt Tabayoc and the complete absence of scenic views on that event. Winds shook the leaves incessantly. It looked like more of a storm than just rain. We would wear those ponchos for sure.

Later on, raindrops fell from the dreary sky. We took those ponchos out of our bags hurriedly and put them on. Mine was neon orange. It was a sort of a gift from my aunt who was living in the United States. That of Aldous shared the same color of mine but thicker. Hency and JohnVi wore the exactly same ponchos. The silvery surface of their rain gear transformed the couple into astronauts, perhaps even extraterrestrial visitors. Dhon improvised a black garbage bag as a poncho. He asked for a pair of scissors to cut slits for his arms. Leslie did not mind getting drenched in the rain. Sherwin took his shirt off.

The tree canopy overhead reduced the rain into drizzle. Then we emerged into an open patch of ground. Our guide stopped walking. He showed us a grassy spot to our left that served as a campsite. It was relatively close to the summit. The mist did not disappear. Even if our trekking party reached the top, the weather would deny us a view of Mt Pico de Loro and the coastline. We decided to stay at the campsite for some time until the sky begins to clear. Taking quirky group photos while being careful not to step on cow dung became our amusement.

After about ten minutes, we made the final push towards the summit. My previous worry about the steep dirt path there turning muddy was now a reality. Fortunately, there was another way up. Cess and Jepoy went ahead, scaling a rock face. It was half – perhaps just one-third – the height of a typical artificially-constructed indoor climbing wall. There were no bumps though. Regardless, our fingers pressed firmly against the solid surface. It was not slippery despite the rain. Getting through this obstacle took about a minute.

Aldous, Hency, JohnVi, and I posed for solo photos on top of a protruding rock formation. We moved carefully, crouching more than standing. Falling off this spot would mean a sheer and fatal drop. The gray mist served as a dismal background. Once done, the four of us finally ascended to the summit.

Clouds obscured our view of the surrounding landscape, as expected. I was worried that the view would stay like this and our group would go down the mountain disappointed. We could see only a bleak emptiness. It stopped raining for a while ago. Yet moisture hung in the air. The wind kept blowing. Its sound reverberated inside my ears with the noise of a space rocket upon lift off. The skin of my face grew numb. Earlier, the relatively thick fabric of my red plaid shirt made me sweatier but now it kept me from shivering. I looked like a lumberjack too. Eventually, our hiking party assembled at the summit. We waited patiently for the mist to disappear. We were determined. For the meantime, I interviewed Dhon as part of my video-making project. Some of our companions stood up, yelling in single syllables due to heightened emotions after reaching the summit of Mt Marami. We all nudged one another jokingly to shout out feelings deep within ourselves.

The Silyang Bato rock formation was still visible from the summit. My fellow trekkers went there in batches, accompanied by the guide. I decided not to join them, saying I already did it before. A part of me hated to go over that sheer gap on the ground again. Instead, I volunteered to take their photos.

One hour passed. The mist began to break apart. Chunks of it drifted away, swept by the same winds that shook Rose’s hair. Then we had glimpses of a dark green landscape far beneath us and beyond the mountain. Our patience paid off. We cheered. The joy of getting rewarded for waiting simply could not be described. Our cameras and mobile phones sprung into action. I could see the coast and Mt Pico de Loro, blurred by wispy clouds that floated at the same altitude as where we were. The overcast sky brought a gloomier mood this day in contrast to my previous climb here. I stood up and looked towards the sea. The wind blew with all its might. It could have robbed me of my breath and knocked me off my feet. Yet it also seemed to uproot certain unpleasant memories and thoughts from the realm of my mind. I welcomed the numbing cold. My shirt and pants behaved like a flag flying on a gusty day. Then I felt better. Of course, I did not slip at the least. My feet stayed firm on rock, just as my inner self should. No matter how ugly my experiences were, I must be resilient.

We chatted, made jokes, shared stories, and took snapshots. I remembered having a conversation with Cess, Jepoy, and JohnVi on separate moments. Other trekkers also began to arrive at the summit. We spotted them on the trail with their respective guides. As they had their turn to appreciate the summit, our hiking party started the long walk home sometime between 2 PM and 3 PM.

The descent came with a drizzle. Wearing my poncho felt uncomfortably hot that I decided to take it off, fold it into a mess, and put it in my bag. Then it was like taking a shower with the valve turned on just slightly. My plaid shirt was completely wet.

No matter how quick our pace was due to moving downhill, it seemed we could not get closer to Barangay Ramirez. Our party avoided slippery rocks on a wooded area, passed by the tree where we had our lunch earlier, and crossed two streams that only existed during the rainy season. We were keen to end this trek, have a bath, and go home. We were very tired. To make matters worse, Hency sustained a nasty blister on her foot. It caused pain in every step. She kept on going with JohnVi at her side. Later on, we stopped briefly at the spot by a river that came with a table, seats, and a ladder. There was a horse. Its handler agreed to have Hency ride the equine. In turn, she would pay him as a token of gratitude more than as a fee. Hency’s situation could be considered as an emergency. Aside from the fatigue and minor injuries, the mud also added to our troubles. Extra weight on our footwear meant more difficulty with walking. Time passed by. The surroundings got darker. There was a remote possibility of nightfall catching up with us while still on the trail.

Our guide mentioned a bridge that we could cross instead of wading into the river again. However, choosing this route would take us a longer time to return to the village. We pressed on. Eventually, I heard the unmistakable sound of flowing water. Our trekking party found ourselves at the river once again. A few companions shared my bewilderment and complaint. In the end, we had no choice but to cross the river. At least we could go home sooner. My legs felt even more strained after dipping them into the murky water. I hoped that I would not stumble. Seconds passed slowly as I struggled to reach the opposite bank. I regretted wearing shoes. I should have preferred sandals if I knew about the river crossing before the excursion. The water reached my thighs before subsiding gradually. I sighed loudly when it was over.

The dirt road would lead us straight to the houses and village hall of Barangay Ramirez. Getting my lower extremities wet made me exhausted to the point that I could not walk non-stop for more than one minute. Later, that limit went down to 30 seconds. It was 5 PM. We thought of outpacing the dusk. We did not. I felt even more discouraged after lagging behind the whole group. If it was a race, I would finish last. Only Aldous and JohnVi were walking several meters away in front of me. The rest were simply gone. I asked the two to wait up for me. They agreed warmly. JohnVi even lent me a hiking staff to ease the immense strain in my legs. It helped. Then Hency also accompanied us, sitting cheerfully on top of that horse. We also chatted with the handler. It was a long and painful walk back to the barangay hall, except for Hency.

We caught up with our companions at the barangay hall. The voice of a priest leading a congregation in a nearby chapel resounded all over the place as I washed the mud and dirt off my shoes. Then I had a conversation with Leslie and Rose as I waited for my turn to take a bath. Once all of us donned a fresh set of clothes after washing up, the homeward journey began.

Driving in nighttime darkness was more challenging compared to doing it during daytime. The van went off course, ending up at the municipality of Tanza. We turned back. Then we finally arrived at the main junction of Trece Martires city. Our plan to dine on grilled chicken with unlimited servings of rice could not be accomplished. The establishment ran out of our desired order. We headed to another branch. It was filled with fellow customers. About fifteen minutes passed before we had a vacant table. Our dinner took place past 8 PM. After that, we finally made our way to our respective homes with the hunger for both food and adventure satisfied.

At first, I felt reluctant to return to a mountain I visited only two months ago. Yet I did not regret my decision. In fact, my companions in the second trek at Mt Marami became my friends and I had more travels with them later on. This event in turn paved the way for me to meet their other acquaintances. It was truly a life-changing event.

[Below is the final output of my amateur videos documenting the Mt Marami trek]

 

More of Rock-Climbing than Hiking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This photo reminds me of the painting ‘Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog’ by Caspar David Friedrich. This time, it’s the Relentless Wanderer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respite

Despite its relatively large size, the new 70-liter outdoor backpack I bought in Alabang, Muntinlupa placed only a slight pressure on my back. The design offered padding for my shoulder blades and there were two straps – one for my chest and one for my abdomen. Additional features include a lime green rain cover that is easy to see from afar, a water container inside, and a space at the bottom for slippers or dirty clothes. I remembered purchasing this backpack on the way to work so I had to bring it to the office, and then going home with it when my shift was over.

Gelo did not join this time but Kenneth and Kaye did, as usual. The couple would notify me if the Akyaters club organized a trek and if they would participate. Steph and Benjie, whom I met at the Mt Daraitan climb before, were also there. Then I also got to know more fellows from the office’s graphics department – Wherdy Adorio, Ellard Verdida, and Kezia Hernandez (who also brought along her sister Tanya). Nil Medrano, his wife Carla, and Rei were also present like last time.

Motor-powered tricycles transported our group of trekkers from an establishment where we had lunch along the highway at San Miguel, Bulacan province to a small community at historic Biak-Na-Bato. It was early afternoon on January 9, 2016 and we were traveling to Mt Manalmon. With an elevation of around 196 meters, it should be much less difficult than my previous climb to a mountain that stood nearly four times as high. The concrete road ran along residential houses, fields, and the entrance to Camp Tecson, which served as the headquarters of the Philippine military’s elite First Scout Ranger Regiment. We passed by a bustling community before the road turned into dirt and the lightweight vehicles shook from the bumpy ride.

A bridge made of concrete, cable, and wood ran across a wide river where children swam and played. Nearby, two parallel cables ran the same course where one can grip and balance their feet on them with a harness for a rush of adrenaline. Several establishments and the registration center lay on the other side. We walked across the bridge to sign in for the climb and overnight camping.

The hike towards the campsite began at around 2 PM. Our group took a path from the registration center through some trees and we came upon a set of stairs carved on the ground. I gave a sigh of relief. It went uphill but at a 30-degree angle, without the slippery rocks and dense vegetation that characterized the ‘assault’ part of climbs.

Eventually, the trail became a footpath made of dirt. It snaked its way along clumped bushes, trees with narrow trunks, and a meadow. We heard the bleat of a few goats as they sensed our approach. The smell of grass and leaves exposed to the sun for hours lingered in the air. It was a sunny afternoon but I did not perspire much. Then our guide led us into a cave. It resembled an unlit underpass or subway, only with rugged rock sculptures that protruded from the ceiling and the floor. We brought out flashlights and mobile devices to light the way. Within a minute or so, I saw sunlight that also revealed graffiti etched on surfaces near the cave’s exit. I wondered how people from thousands of years later would interpret this ancient cave art in the form of calligraphy.

Beneath our trekking party lay a wide sand bank that we traversed following a bit of a struggle through a steep descending trail. As expected, grains of sand went inside my hiking shoes. My toes got irritated from them despite being concealed in socks. The river ran downstream beside us, its clear water glimmering while flowing calmly. The guide recalled how a number of students on a field trip lost their lives when they were swept by the current during a downpour. I remembered the incident too, learning about it from the news on television. Later on, huge tan-colored boulders stood before us. We went through these rock formations while bumping into a pack horse and its handler on their way back. Then our group arrived at a river crossing. Constantly wet but solid rocks emerged from the water and we placed our feet on them while maintaining balance.

It took 30 more minutes of strolling past overlapping tree canopy, gnarled branches, and bamboo stalks before arriving at a sandy spot beside a river strewn with boulders and gravel beds. The sun began to set. We scattered and then assembled our tents. Mine lay next to that of Nil and Carla. Behind my tent also stood a massive gray rock about two stories high, a downsized mountain that towered over the campsite. The sandy ground sloped downward rather steeply and led into the water’s surface. After setting up camp, our group determined who will participate in the climb to the summit of Mt Manalmon itself this afternoon.

The light faded and the air grew cooler as minutes passed. I had doubts about joining the climb with the possibility of darkness engulfing us while struggling with the bumpy trail and steep slopes. According to the guide, it should take only 20 minutes to reach the summit from this campsite but the way would surely be what climbers called an ‘assault.’ With my fellows from the graphics department volunteering for the trek, I decided to see it for myself.

Tall grass greeted our group of 12 people, including the guide, as we took the trail to the summit. A short stroll ended at a hut where a pile of charcoal lay nearby. A domesticated water buffalo, or carabao as it is called locally, bellowed and made my heart race as we got startled. It simply grazed on a meadow while we continued our way. Then the path went upward and grew steep. Steph was behind me while Kenneth and Kaye were in my front as we ascended towards the summit with strained legs and sweat on our foreheads. Chatting made us feel weary. Trees surrounded the shady winding trail as if our surroundings were a never-ending forest.

Eventually, we came upon grassy open terrain that gave us a breath-taking view of the setting sun and another mountain that reminded me of the Drakensberg range in South Africa. Yet this spot was not our objective. More trees stood before us as we kept on walking. The dirt beneath our feet turned into solid rock. The summit was just about ten meters away. It seemed devoid of plant life, only a natural platform of gray rock. I looked at my watch and realized the duration of the climb took less than 20 minutes, perhaps even spanning 10 minutes.

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The background looks like the Drakensberg mountains for me

To the east, the sky retained a calming shade of blue while it became silver on top of orange to the west. Patches of grayish clouds sailed on the diffused afternoon light. A mild breeze brought more relief as we began taking photos, posing for them, and asking the guide more about Mt Manalmon and its surroundings. He mentioned deer and wild pigs in very remote areas before we all spotted a lone bird of prey soaring over the pristine landscape. Wherdy, Ellard, and I continued our chat beside a lone small tree that grew resiliently on the summit. I also got to know Joseph Villanueva and Mae Dilao, a couple who regularly joined outdoor excursions by the Akyaters. The braces on Steph’s teeth shone as she smiled. Sisters Kezia and Tanya made the most of the enjoyment. We spent about 30 minutes on top of Mt Manalmon before returning to the campsite as it was past 5 PM. On our way back, Kenneth remarked that I have become a physically fit mountaineer who can stay ahead of a climbing party.

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Group photo at the summit of Mt Manalmon. Smile!
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The Blogger sits at the summit’s edge, admiring the view while thinking about the future.

Night fell as we settled down and had dinner. I stuck to canned food due to certain choices in diet. Meanwhile, Kenneth was making a vegetable salad with salted duck egg. I helped him with peeling and slicing as we discussed philosophy and the general discomfort over unconventional topics. Rei, as always, prepared a vegetarian meal.

Our nighttime activities culminated when we sat around a large campfire fueled by dry grass, twigs, and cooking oil. Bottles of alcoholic beverages were brought out. I declined and told them about being a teetotaler. During a conversation, Steph said she is allergic to liquor. Then we introduced ourselves and shared excerpts from our lives in this typical Akyaters gathering. Drinking, snacking, and storytelling went on for hours until we lost track of time. Far from the vehicular emissions and excess electric lighting of the city, a multitude of stars could be seen clearly against a black background. Sounds of laughter pierced the nocturnal ambience. Our topics consisted of endurance cycling, mishaps in hiking, animated television shows, and the supernatural. Even work-related chat was brought from the desks of the office to the assembly of tents on the wild outdoors.

On the following morning, at around 6 AM, Wherdy and Ellard asked me to join them for a dip in the nearby river. I replied I would catch up. Steph went with them instead. When I got ready, Steph swam beyond a rock formation and was nowhere to be found. Ellard and Wherdy then asked me about the media monitoring department where I work, along with my colleagues they noticed. Later, they followed Steph while I remained with the lower three-fourths of my body submerged in clear freshwater.

Flashbacks became more vivid after I was left in solitude. My skin grew numb from the slow-moving current of the rather frigid river. The overcast sky and a strange silence made the surroundings gloomier. Numbness even crept into my heart. I wished that I had not joined Wherdy and Ellard earlier. Scenes from some of my favorite television shows augmented with the current reality. Then Kaye emerged from out of nowhere on the sandy bank. I had a brief chat with her but she had no idea what I was going through.

I got out of the water, dried myself with a towel, and walked back and forth with grains of sand sticking to the soles of my feet. Then I had a serious bout of coughing. Kaye noticed it and advised me to rest. Rei did the same. Breathing became difficult for me. Lying sprawled on a large rock within the campsite, I lost my consciousness. It seemed that I died. However, I remembered waking up momentarily and uttering inarticulate syllables. Seconds turned into minutes I could not count until I finally regained consciousness and felt reborn.

Slightly dizzy but able to walk, I climbed on to the two-story boulder by the camp where my fellows were already sitting, chatting, and appreciating the view. Talking to them relieved this sort of ailment that bothered me. We also saw more groups of young trekkers crossing the river, their footwear trampling gravel that accumulated into beds. The bright blue sky meant the weather was perfect for hiking and swimming. It was around 8 AM on a Sunday. I also learned that some of our companions jumped at least three meters from a rock formation into the placid river. Despite waking up, drowsiness lingered in my head and I took a series of short naps unwittingly.

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Perfect weather for a perfect getaway on the weekend.

By 10 AM, I had fully recovered as the Akyaters broke camp although not simultaneously. A few tents were already gone while a number of others were still standing with opened zippers. We also disposed the trash from last night’s revelry to carry them in large black plastic bags on our way back. Benjie, Ellard, Steph, Wherdy, and I sought the shade of a small tree. The surrounding temperature soared with the approach of noontime. When the rest of our gear was packed up, everyone posed for a group photo before heading back to the registration center. We simply revisited the river crossing, where sand went into my shoes again, and the cave tunnel marred with graffiti.

I dealt with my parched throat and loss of fluids through sweating by sipping soft drink in a 240 ML bottle from a convenience store near the registration center. My companions indulged in halo-halo, a dessert of shaved ice mixed with milk, agar jelly, slices of plantain and jackfruit, sweet beans, and sugar. Kaye, Kenneth, and I then bought souvenir T-shirts made of synthetic material, each one having the words TREK, PLUNGE, CRAWL, and HANG inscribed on the front.

The next part of our adventure involved an hour or so of exploring a bigger and deeper cave. Last night, it was obvious that I left my flashlight back at home. Display light from my mobile phone enabled me to see my stuff in nocturnal darkness. I could risk damaging my gadget if I went into the cave and waded in waist-deep water as mentioned by the guide. While scanning my surroundings, I took notice of a sign about renting headlamps. However, it was not just the lack of gear that hindered me. I still felt dizzy and unsure of my sense of balance after I died and was reborn metaphorically by the river. When my companions asked me to join in, I declined reluctantly and cited what I went through in the morning.

While the rest of the group spent the next hour or so trudging in subterranean darkness as headlamps lit their way, I remained at the registration center with Nil, Carla, and Rei. Carla and I had an aunt-to-nephew conversation as I revealed a part of my life. Her husband slept on top of a wooden table, recovering after a tent pole almost struck his eye. Then I got drowsy too and slept on a hammock. When I woke up later, I observed the trekkers who came through the bridge, had lunch, swam in the river, and fell in line to take a bath or relieve oneself.

By 4 PM, the participants in the trek were ready to head home after eating rice porridge with native chicken, dousing oneself with dippers of water to feel refreshed, putting on fresh clothes, and double-checking gear. What I expected to be another daunting climb turned out to be more of a relaxing weekend getaway.