Mt. Tapulao — the Ultimate Revenge

After climbing Tapulao last month, I vowed never to climb it again, at least for the next 2 years.  There’s nothing technically difficult about the climb as you don’t even feel like you’re climbing a mountain until you reach the upper slopes where the pine trees are and the scene drastically changes. Loose rocks are replaced by the soft soil and pine needles and the scorching heat of the sun is tempered by the mist.

But like some of the things I say I would never do again, not climbing Tapulao was not to be.  I not only climbed it last weekend, but I was EL, too!

For Guys4Mountains, Inc, it was the ultimate revenge after 4 years as the group hardly made it to the bunkers due to miscalculations on climbing time.  I didn’t join that climb but from the stories I heard, there was more than enough good reasons why the guys wanted to conquer Tapulao once and for all.  For myself, I wanted to better the 6-hour ascent and 5-hour descent record I did.  I’m not really one in timing my climbs but Tapulao, with its notorious trail is one that begs for one.  Oio and I decided on a 5 hour ascent. It was going to be a little easier this time as I had done the trail already and would know how to psyche and pace myself up and I would not be bringing my tent and would only have 2L of water.  The only possible downside would be the lack of sleep I would get on the ride to Palauig.  True enough, in spite of the relative comfort of the coaster (roomier than the van we rode the last time), I could hardly get some shut-eye.  One reason why I hardly took any break during the ascent was I was afraid I’d fall asleep at the trail.  At one point, about half-way to the second water source and not knowing how far Oio was behind me, I was seriously considering sleeping and just waiting for Oio to come and wake me up.

Aaaarrhggghhh! Think of walking this trail for 8-10 hours.

Let the Trail Begin.

I was a little worried when we arrived at almost 7am already way past our expected climb start at 5:30am.  A group had already started earlier and another group was just getting ready to leave.  Possibly about 40 people were heading up and we weren’t sure if they had tents or were gonna use the bunkers like us.  Only Elf, Markiko, and Dan had tents as we were all expecting to stay at the bunkers.  Plan A had to be activated: Oio and I would get to the bunkers as fast as we could to secure our space while the rest would just simply keep going and going.  There would be no re-groupings and as Bench had declared days before, this was a “no e-camp climb.”

After paying the registration (Php 30) at the baranggay hall and a quick prayer from Maning, we were off—Oio,  Arni, and I at the head, Jong’s group at the tail, and the rest of the guys in the middle.

The weather was perfect— clear sky but no direct sunlight and a nice refreshing breeze.  I don’t know what came over me.  Maybe it was the need to secure the bunkers, or my excitement about being in Tapulao again; but I just went relentlessly forward on the trail leaving Oio and Arni behind.  After about 30 minutes, I reached about a dozen climbers resting by the side of the trail.  A couple of hundred meters later, I passed by about a small group then some meters later, a couple or two, until it seemed there was no one else before me. I actually felt like I was in the Amazing Race.  Past the first water source, manong, whose hut stands beside the second water source which marks about two-thirds of the trail, walked past me with his puppy which had grown a bit from last month.  He recognized me from the previous climb and commented that with my pace, I would reach the water source in 30 minutes.  He was right.  It was only around 9:30 so it was still too early for lunch.  Fifteen minutes later, Oio arrived.  We both shared some crackers and rested a bit.  As manong reported, there was no one ahead of us.  We set out for the last and steepest part of the trail at 10:15 and aimed to make it before 12 for lunch.

The trail only starts to get pretty after the water source when pine trees appear and mist envelopes the trail.  It’s a welcome distraction to the relentless steep rock-stone trail.

A couple of  teen-age guys were headed down. I  thought they were climbers on the way down but turns out they were security guards at the bunkers!   They affirmed what manong had said, that the only person up was a guard named Fabian. Near durungawan, two guys with a guide were on their way down.  They started their climb at 3pm the day before and of course were unable to reach even the water source so they set-up an e-camp a hundred meters before it which explains the flattened vegetation and some blankets we passed by.


Bunkers--- a welcome sight after hours of walking

I was getting hungry already and a little impatient especially as it had started to drizzle.  It was raining by the time we reached  the guardhouse.  I sat on the wooden bench outside which promptly broke under my weight.  When the rain subsided, we resumed our trek, this time a little faster.  One more zig-zag and the bunkers came into view.  Fabian, who recognized us from last month, greeted us. “Four point five!”  I shouted to Oio.  We reserved two bunkers and unloaded our packs.  One of the best reasons to arrive ahead of the others is the enjoyment you get from a serene camp.  Tapulao’s wooded slopes are really beautiful especially when clouds start rolling in on the peaks beyond.  It is a sight best enjoyed alone with nothing than the stillness of nature.

I took a quick bath in spite of the cold air and ate part of my chicken nuggets and packed rice for lunch then snuggled in my sleeping bag.  I woke up about half an hour later with the arrival of Arni. The rest of the afternoon, people started coming in and by 5pm only Jong’s group hadn’t arrived. We were confident though of their ability and experience though they were all first-timers at Tapulao.  The other groups were also arriving.  Our Amazing Race went for naught as most of the bunkers stood empty as the large group pitched tents.  We were having our sinigang dinner around 7pm when Jong, Myla, Akoy, Boy, and Reggie finally showed-up.  Boy, who was driving the coaster, needed some sleep so they spent a lot of time resting along the trail.

Let me pause at this moment about sinigang.  Everything you’ve heard about the wonders of   having sinigang for dinner on a mountain is true.   No matter how it tastes, it always tastes good.  This was only my second time to have sinigang and both of them in Tapulao.  If you’ve never had sinigang as camp chow, a cold-weather mountain such as Tapulao would be the perfect setting.  It’s going to be like chicken soup for the soul.  Arni also cooked some angel hair pasta with some bottled sauce from Bravo! and noodle soup.  It was a carbo-loaded dinner.

Socials was a little quiet than usual.  Even the other groups were a little quiet.  Either it was the cold or everyone was just achingly tired. Arni and Rowell were a little wasted so there was a lot of laughter.  Nobody really brought much firewater up so there wasn’t much to pass around.  I think I went to bed a little past 11.  It was really cold and there was a slight wind blowing.

I woke-up around 1:30 in the morning to take a pee.  The entire campsite was bathed in beautiful moonlight with the moon shining brightly above me as I peed. The entire landscape was picture-perfect.   There was no need for a headlamp as it was so bright.

You can tell from the pained look on our faces how difficult it was to get back down the near vertical trail to the bunkers from the summit.

I didn’t summit the first time at Tapulao as I badly needed to go to the toilet and there was quite a wait.  By the time I was over and done with it, the party had already set out and I was too lazy to follow.  Since I was EL  I was determined to summit this time even if it meant waking-up before everyone else just to be first at the toilet.  I woke up at 5:30 as was first at the toilet.  The girls from one of the groups were already at the summit trail as the rest of the camp slowly woke-up.  It was already 7 when we set out for the steep steep trail up.  Near the flat land where the old bunker house was, we met two of the girls who said that they didn’t make it to the summit as they found it far. That explains why less than an hour and a half later, the girls who had set out were returning already.  It takes an hour up and about half of that down so we were wondering why they returned so early.

The most difficult part of the trail really is the near vertical distance that starts from the camp to the old bunk house.  The trail in the mossy forest all the way up isn’t very steep though a little slippery and dense but at least there are lots of trees to hold on to. After nearly an hour, I was getting a little impatient and hungry as we hadn’t had breakfast.  Finally, the darkness of the mossy forest soon gave way to cogon grass brightly lit by a clear cloudless sky.  “This is it?!  This is what we went all the way up for?!” I jokingly shouted. There was no view of the valley below as the entire summit had stunted trees and shrubs. The sight of the surrounding peaks all covered with the same vegetation was stunning, though.  There was a small and shallow crater where some shrubs grew which apparently is the summit’s highlight.

Girl Screaming with Limatik. But the real highlight of the summit was Arni screaming her head off when she saw a limatik sucking on her shin.  We were having our group picture taken by someone from another group that arrived after us.  As Arni hurried to the other side of the crater where we were posing, someone commented that she had a limatik which we thought was a joke.  She stumbled and we all laughed.  Then we saw the limatik which had grown fat from sucking her blood and pointed it to to her. She turned red and totally panicked begging someone to “remove it please! ” while she held on to her leg.  Dan came to her rescue and deftly pulled the blood-sucker off.  It was a youtube moment!  Afraid of more limatiks, Arni hurriedly started down with me and Stan following her.  It was hilarious seeing her running down the trail looking all terrified.  I’ve never seen anyone hurry down as fast as her before. I finally caught up with her at the old bunker house where we both took the wrong trail down to the camp site. Fortunately, we hadn’t gone more than a couple of meters before I realized that we should have descended on the left side.  We went back up again and saw the trail. Stan was already making his way gingerly down.  I just sat down and slid about one-third of the way down.  It took less effort and less chances of losing your foot hold and sliding all the way down to camp.

A breakfast of tocino, bacon, and red eggs and tomatoes awaited courtesy of those who were left at camp.  We broke camp and started off back to the jump-off at almost 11 already.  The other groups had already gone ahead.  Oio started sprinting off again so I waited for Dan so I can have someone to talk to on the trail.  At the water source, I met up with Arni who had gone off earlier.  She was chatting with one of the groups who were all orderly seated on the side of the trail.  Not wanting to take any breather as my aim was to just have lunch at the baranggay hall, I ran past her and said “hi” to everyone.  Arni followed while Dan stayed a bit at the water source.  I was earlier determined to keep pace with either Dan or Arni just to have company on the trail but boredome and the driving need to be back at jump-off as early as possible had me running down and just keep passing everyone who had gone ahead earlier.

The sun was out in full force this time and I could feel the heat bouncing off the rocks especially when I left the forest and was on the open trail.  Little stone kepts getting into my shoes so I had to keep shaking them out  I could also feel hot spots developing on my blister-prone toes.  At the final stretch at the trail where one can see the valley already, my right knee and my side thighs (my ITB) both on the right  (and both related) started nagging me which slowed me down a bit.  The two guys I overtook while they were resting a couple of hundred of meters back soon passed me by.  I finally slowed down to a walk as even a slight run was bothersome.  It was a relief when I finally saw the small house which marked the bend of the trail that led to the village.

As I made my way past the backyard of the house where the trail began, somebody commented, “you’re very tired,” to which I smiled wanly.  It was an understatement.  The last few meters on the cemented road that led to the baranggay hall were excruciating.  I was dragging my feet as my thighs were screaming bloody hell.  A few steps down, and I finally plopped down on the bamboo sofa.  It took me 3.5 hours.  30 minutes less than my previous descent.

I took off my shoes and wiggled my toes—one of the post-climb pleasures.   Believe me.  After having them trapped for hours on end,  setting them free from the constraints of trekking boots, especially water-proof leather ones, are a real treat.  At that moment I wish I had a Chinese servant massage the soles of my feet by lightly pounding them with a little drum like that scene in “Raise the Red Lantern.”  Not one who believes in pasma, I showered and changed into fresh clothes—another pleasure.  The heat had kept my packed lunch of adobo, steamed rice, red eggs, and tomatoes hot and ready.  The adobo was cooked with too much vinegar but I was so hungry I simply gobbled it all up with a cold bottle of Sprite even if it tasted more like kilawin.

Everyone had made it back to the baranggay hall before dusk and at 7:30pm we were well on our way to Subic for dinner at Coffee House  which promised a huge delicious taco.

Star Burger and Tacos. Enroute to Subic, we stopped at a burger stand along the road as we were so hungry.  We descended on the hapless pretty cook-vendor who seemed overwhelmed with all the orders being shouted at her from all sides— star burger with cheese, burger with egg, chili dog with egg, etc.

Rowel:  “Isang star burger pero wag mo na gawin hugis star para mabilis.  Hugis buwan na lang.  Buwan burger.”

At one point, she looked pissed to which Stan named her “Brenda” for imbyerna.

Burger girl: “May pizza ako baka hindi nyo napapansin.”

Everyone looked at the small tarpaulin advertising the pizza.

Me: “Ahhahahaha.  Pizza pala. Akala ko sabi mo may pigsa ako baka hindi nyo pinapansin.”

Stan:  “Ako rin.  Kaya nga hinahanap ko kung saan yun pigsa mo.”

Honestly, I really thought I heard pigsa rather than pizza.  What totally floored burger girl was during payment time when I called her manang. She totally froze (“nag-hang” as Stan described her).  Everyone erupted in laughter.  “Para ka lang na sa palengke ng Iba”, said Rowell.  I corrected myself and called her ate.

We all packed ourselves back to the coaster with quiet stomachs.  Subic was still more than an hour away and it was a little slow going as there were a lot of checkpoints on the road due to the October 24 baranggay elections.  When we finally sighted Coffe House, cheers erupted.  It actually looked more like a diner than a coffee shop.  There was outdoor seating band abrightly-lit air-conditioned eating area where we stayed.   The 24-hour diner had simple chairs and tables and had quite a crowd of people enjoying their meals.   I ordered a soft taco (Php 80), a frozen iced-tea (Php 60) while Bench and I shared a pancit canton (Php 140).  The servings were big and the food was fairly delicious.  The taco was really big and came stuffed with  ground meat, cheese, and cabbage, and tomatoes.  A serving of  sour cream would have helped  offset the meatiness of the filling.  Others ordered the hard shell taco which was a home-made flour shell fried to a crisp.  With happy stomachs, we piled back to the coaster for the final leg back home to Manila.

Road Shit. I woke up past 2 am as we were cruising EDSA near Munoz already where Akoy was dropped off and later Jong and Myla at Quezon Ave.  Enroute to Q Mart where I was to get off, Boy suddenly parked the coaster on the road, rushed to a darkened building and defecated on the corner!  We all looked away horrified!  He was back in less than 5 minutes.

I was home by 3 am exhausted but totally happy.  As I drifted off to sleep, I vowed not to climb Tapulao again at least for the next 4 years.  Promise.

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