At the Home of the Gods (The 3 peaks of Bacun)

So I only bagged 2 instead of 3 peaks. That’ still more reason to go back to Bacun, high-up in Benguet, away from the maddening crowds in Baguio and even Sagada. We had arrived a little past noon at Poblacion after travelling 6 hours from the crowded Victory bus station in Cubao up to Baguio and another 6 hours along the Halsema Highway to this quiet village surrounded by rice terraces and peaks. The long trip, especially from the turn-off to Poblacion, a flat tire, a meager lunch, and the dust had already taken its toll on me. But arriving at this little town, though not as picturesque as Sagada, was rewarding. Bacun is blessed with towering peaks and is home to Mt. Kabunian–the godly abode of their supreme deity. I had come to conquer the peaks of Mt. Lobo, Mt. Tenglawan, and Mt. Kabunian on the invitation of the Sabit Mountaineers, but in the end, it was I who simply succumbed to so much beauty amidst the thrilling and challenging trails.

Mt. Lobo. I must admit, I didn’t really enjoy the climb. The long travel had robbed me of any excitement and 12 hours on my butt had turned my legs to jelly. But what the heck, I thought. It’s there, waiting to be climbed and sleep could come later. Fortunately, all the climbs would be day-trips as we set-up base camp at the Baranggay Hall. Lugging a 60-liter pack up Lobo would have been insanely tiring. The trail wasn’t difficult really. True, there were hardly any level paths as the slope was quite steep but at least the trail was clear and wide enough. It was past 2 already when we set-off at the trail head by the main road. About an hour later, past the hanging bridge, it started to rain and the fog started to close in. In my haste, I had left all my rain gear at base camp. What the heck, I thought. This would be an experience. But rains make mossy forests even mossier and wetter. Houston, we’ve got a problem. I was already slipping in some place and it was only the ascent and getting steeper and step

An hour later we were walled. Roy, our Kankana-ey guide, suddenly walked up a stone-walled dike like it was the most natural thing to do. There were little wooden pegs and protruding stones but it wasn’t easy. Think of climbing a steep flight of stairs sideways with only stones to step on. It had just rained and the stones were slippery and I wasn’t Spiderman. A small slip and I could end-up at the ditch. Again, I was already thinking of the descent.

Up and Up and Up and Up The weather had cleared already and the blue sky was peeping from behind the pines trees. The ground was wet and since I was in shorts and shorter socks, I feared for limatik especially after hearing Allen’s screams whenever she found one of those vampires clinging to her skin. The limatik since to have taken a fondness for her. I did yank a couple clinging on to me before they could get to a vein. I was sleepy, tired, and hungry. The climb had turned nothing more than a chore I had to do and finish. It was tragic as the trail was really beautiful, winding through forest thick with numerous trees, pitcher plants, and flowers. It was a mere 3-hour ascent but I increasingly kept asking Roy “malayo pa?” I must admit, at some point, reaching a saddle which I thought was the peak already, I started asking myself the sense of all these. I could have just stayed at base camp and slept my weariness off. The peak looked so far away. Fortunately, the merriment of the group, the blue sky, and some trail food revived me. Another hour or so and finally the peak loomed tall and imposing before us. It was a really steep and the ground was mushy. It was literally an assault. And then, was on the rocky summit. It was nothing more than a few large boulders whipped by strong winds. The sky had really cleared by then and we were rewarded with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains enigmatically covered by mist. As I sat on a boulder, contemplating the stillness around me, that nagging thought crept up to me again, “How the hell was I gonna get down!”

Down and Down and Down So while everyone was busy with their cameras and poses, I gingerly sat down and slowly slid down the steep slope, clinging on to the large rocks and grass until I reached the plateau. It was already past 5 and I didn’t really relish trekking in the night. It was slow going as the trail was really muddy by now thanks to some intermittent showers. I felt like a little old lady clinging on to the trek pole for dear life. “Is the bridge there yet?” was a chant we would repeat at every turn. I just kept going on and on and on unmindful of any limatik feasting on my legs for dinner. 2 hours later, we finally reached the bridge and a few hundred meters after we were at our final obstacle—the ditch. If going-up was a challenge, getting down was more so. I slid my trek pole down and with the help of Frankie’s lighting, stepped down like an awkward spiderman. Are we there yet? A 3-hour descent is peanuts. But after a grueling 12-hour ride, little lunch, and no sleep, it can mean forever. It was a little past 8 when we finally hit the main road back to base camp. I was really really tired and my mud-soaked boots were aching for release. I could have stayed home in Manila watching my dvds with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s “Cinnamon Buns ” ice-cream for company. But I was miles and miles away in the Benguet hinterlands just back from a climb and I had yet to make dinner. But I was happy.

Mt. Tenglawan Wake-up call was at 4 am. Brrrrr…. really really cold. Physically, I was okay and could manage the Mt. Tenglawan leg. Just before I snuggled in my sleeping bag the previous night, I decided I would go for day 2. Ojie and Nena were determined to go. But things change when you’re warm and cozy in your sleeping bag. Suddenly a 14-hour trek isn’t so inviting anymore. Questions of your sanity arise. Mt. Tenglawan could be viewed from base camp. It rises majestically behind another mountain where a village nestles quietly. To get to it, one hikes up a mountain, passes through the village, goes down, then treks to the base of Tenglawan for the actual climb. On a clear day, one can see Ilocos Sur and La Union. The trek isn’t technical at all–just gradual slopes punctuated with a few hundred meters of assaults. It’s the sheer length of time that makes it so taxing. Add to that the open trail at the ridges and the final rocky assault to the summit. Most interesting about the Tenglawan trail is the changing scenery that greets you. From mossy forests to open ridges and grassy outcrops. If not for the really really long walk, it would be a beautiful trek. Unfortunately, I didn’t go. I just messed around in the kitchen while deciding whether to go or not. Finally, when Maning said he would stay, I opted to stay too. Back to my forty-winks. By mid-morning, I was bored and sorry I forewent Tenglawan. Maning and I planned to just follow the trail as far we could and perhaps meet them on their descent. But Jay said it wasn’t feasible. I was stuck with nothing to do. I figured, with so many mountains surrounding the valley, there had to be trail somewhere somehow. From base camp, I turned right and followed the road until I hit a dirt road that led me to a small chapel and the cemetery on the right. Followed the trail to the cemetery and came to a grassy hill with a few tombs and some interesting grave markers of small wooden crosses. I liked the simplicity of the crosses. They look more romantic. The sun was out and there was nothing much to do at the cemetery. I followed the dirt road hoping it would lead me to the pretty rice fields below. I stopped when I came upon a clump of pine trees off-road. It was hot and the shade they offered look cool and inviting. It was time for choc-nut.

Stopping by woods on a not-snowy morning

One of my most treasured moments is listening to the sound of silence. With nothing but the breeze around me and endless views of towering peaks and green valleys, I was straight-out of Robert Frost’s poem, minus the snow of course. I saw some concrete steps leading down down down down. I followed them until it ended on a trail on the valley. Took the trail, saw a house that was guarded by dogs (or what seemed like a couple of legs from where I peeped from). I didn’t want my tranquility to be broken by a dog bite, I turned back.

The Amazing Maze

It wasn’t really a maze. But going-up, I just kept stepping-up the concrete steps thinking it led all the way up to the main road. And it did but not after winding endlessly around the houses. The winding pathway brought me to houses. Since it was daytime, mostly everyone was working the fields. I felt like a snoop trespassing on the people’s backyards. If it weren’t for my fear of dogs, I would have ventured at some more. Most interesting were the tombs on the small patches of land behind the houses. I guess, in spite of there being a cemetery, some prefer to have their dead close by.

The Amazing Maze ll

After a brief lunch and a nap, it was time for the valley down below. After taking some directions from Maning, James and I were off to the terraces and hike to as far as we could go to the falls. It wasn’t really as easy as it looks as the rice paddies were all connected to each other and you have to plot the quickest way to go to the other side or you’ll find yourself going in concentric circles. It was a pretty walk amidst all that green with the sound of water from a nearby bubbling brook. We came across Kelly and Jong at the other side. Thanks to manong (forgot his name, sorry) we regaled with folk stories and historical trivia. He led us to a small cave (more of a recess really) housing an empty wooden coffin. There used to be bones there, he says, but they were probably transferred already. According to him, old folks used to be buried in caves. But with the lavish canao it involves, the more modern tomb-burial is more common nowadays.

Should I stay or should I go? Just before falling asleep, I was still undecided if I should take to Kabunian the next day. Jay was right. The village is lovely enough for you to forego the climbs and just explore the valley. I did prepare my trekking stuff just in case.

Home of the Gods Pulag is to the Kalanguya what Kabunian is to the Kankana-ey. It is home to their most revered god, Kabunian. It is a scared mountain filled with folk lore and legend. The guides tell the story of food and drink magically appearing before weary travellers until one day a selfish mortal took the gold plates and utenstils with him, thereby angering the gods and causing him his death. It may not have the breadth and allure of Pulag, but Kabunian has its own nerve-wracking challenges and awesome vistas. I was glad I didn’t miss-out on this one. Kabunian, with its technical challenges and beautiful beautiful trail will be in my list of favorites for a long long time.

800 steps The challenge begins when you have to climb down a steep flight of concrete steps that takes you all the way to the valley and beyond. It was the same flight of steps I took the day before. It was easy going down, we could just imagine how it would feel going up after a hard day’s climb.

Stone and Stone Unlike the other mountains that, Kabunian has unique topographical features— rocky trails and stone cliffs mark the trail. Clambering up on stone walls, walking on tiny trails littered with loose pebbles, and gingerly treading on the side of stone walls where only a rickety fence separated you from kingdom come was as much a challenge to the body as it was to the mind. About a couple of hours, walking around a ridge brought us to a towering rock wall with an incline of almost 70 degrees. I was awe-struck more than afraid. The fact that people used this ancient trail since the last century to trade between Ilocos Sur and the lowlands fueled my desire to take this wall even if I had to crawl. The steel posts and links did provide some help but it was mostly your calves screaming as you slowly planted your feet on whatever available niche you could use as foot-hold. “Kabunian help me,” I whispered just as I followed on the heels of our guide. Once on top, it was a flat walk again to the second camp just below the summit. As we slowly trooped to the saddle, stone walls loomed large above us. In the distance, a group of wooden coffins could be seen resting on the ledge of one of the cliffs. Never in our wildest dreams would we imagine that we would be walking on that ledge a few hours later. For now, we were happy taking pictures.

Summit Since much of the trail is bare, the cool pine shade at the saddle offered respite. We had our packed lunch, refilled our water bottles, then slept a little. The view is beautiful already as the sky was clear. The summit was less than an hour away and we weren’t really in a hurry as we were way ahead of our IT. Unfortunately, when we got to the summit, the fog closed-in and there wasn’t any view. I finally had a jump shot taken.

Adventure begins If all that wall scaling, and cliff treading was a challenge, going to the rock cliff to see the mythical spring and the coffins was a test of pure grit. From the summit, we took a steep trail to the side of the cliff. Grass gave way to loose chalk-like dust and small pebbles. We walked on a ledge bordered by steep drop-offs. For the first time, I felt afraid. One slip and I’d be Kabunian’s offering for the day. Hundreds of meters later, our guide pointed out a trickle of water at a narrow niche of the rock face. This was the spring sprouting from the embedded human figure as told in the legend. We took pictures, posed along the cliff face and was ready to go down. Apparently, it wasn’t time for that.

Romancing the cliff How do you hug a cliff face? At least a boulder would have small rocks jutting out to hold onto. But a chalk-like cliff face? At some points in the trail, the ledge was so narrow, you had to walk facing the cliff. From the mythical spring, the going simply got rougher. We had to descend a steep rock face to get to the ledge where the coffins were. I scrambled down a bit then sat down the rest of the way. A hundred meters and we were at the coffins.

Coffins There were about 5 wooden coffins neatly arranged in line with chicken wires surrounding them. They didn’t look old and they were empty. Goat droppings littered the ledge. Below, we could see the trail and I wondered how to get to it as there didn’t seem to be any trail from where we were. I followed Maning and the guide and simply walked in their direction. “Tuwad!” Maning shouted. At one point, one had to squat to step on a patch of grass between 2 deep holes. I was just laughing everything off. No way was I gonna get jittery. Finally we were back at the trail. After that cliff experience, the descent didn’t matter at all. Sure it was tricky but it was just another trail after all. There was still a lot of daytime left and soon we were back at the village slurping on tasteless pinipig crunch, a cold ending to an exhilirating climb!

Home-bound I finally joined the socials since it was the last evening and we were going back home already. It actually turned-out to be a q & a on fitness and nutrition courtesy of Jay who was adamant on losing weight. I don’t mind dispensing advise to people, anyway, so it was actually fun. The next morning was clear and sunny and we were bound back for Baguio.

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