Today is the anniversary of my mountaineering group, Guys4Mountains. If I were to identify the pivotal moments of my life which have duly changed me and the course of my existence, taking that first hike up the muddy slopes of Mt. Romelo (aka Famy) in 2005 with a motley group of guys would be one of them.
My first taste of the outdoors was hiking in the forest and up some hills in the interiors of Panay while on fieldwork among the Sulod people. It was a 3-hour walk to the remote baranggay where we were to spend a couple of nights documenting their music and dance. One of my most memorable experiences during that trip was having lunch by a river in the middle of a thick forest. Leaves were fashioned into plates and water drawn from a nearby spring. Birds sang above us while we filled our tummies with rice and river crabs. We trailed the river until it was up to waist. Our guide then pointed to the steep hill flanking one side of the river and said we were going to take a short-cut. I looked up and wondered where we were to pass. Out came his bolo and we were soon hiking up on a trail he had made. Trees soon gave way to cogon until finally we reached the top of the hill and before us lay the mountains of Panay. We followed a trail that finally led us to the small village. That evening, I listened to my informant chant the adventures of the Sulod hero, Labaw Donggon, in one of the oldest and most exciting epic chants in the Philippines.
Ever since I have craved for fieldwork and even recreation that would take me beyond the fringes of my usual physical environment where nature ceases to be mere surrounding but a way of existence.
It had been raining for a week the weekend we headed to Mt. Romelo. The soles of my old basketball shoes gave way, I slipped more than a dozen times, and generally wallowed in mud. But as we celebrated the Chinese New Year that evening with tikoy and a dozen stories, I knew I was going to be hooked to mountaineering for the rest of my life. I had done things I never knew I would be able to do—- float on my back on a swollen river while trusting my buoyancy (and my life) to a kid-size plastic life vest, go up and down a small cliff with nothing but tree roots as foot and hand holds, and be with strangers and know that they would look after me.
The next week, I joined Guys4Mountains in their hike to Gulugod Baboy. There were more than thirty of us on that climb and it was one big happy family. That was a really memorable climb as I was sick weeks after with no known pathological reason as determined by the doctors. Finally, I went to a mangtatawas who asked if I had seen anyone on the mountain. The old lady then performed a short ritual which immediately banished whatever sickness I was feeling.
I haven’t been climbing as much as I want to. In fact, after my Romelo and Gulugod Baboy in 2005, my busy schedule prevented me from joining other climbs. It would be a full year before I would climb again. I made up for it though in 2006 with more mountains and my first major climb up Mt. Ugo followed by Mt. Pulag (Amabanggeg-Ambanggeg) a couple of weeks later. Pulag was a little miserable as it was raining in the summit and there was no clearing. Worse, my down-filled jacket was soaked to the skin leaving me bitterly cold. I have yet to experience the famous “sea of clouds” and see Pulag in all its splendor.
Long before the “skyway” was built and before camping needed special permission in Pinatubo I joined Sabit Mountaineers there. It was my first time to join another group and little did I know that it would open the way for me to meet more mountaineers and head to more mountains. Heading back the next morning to Sta. Juliana on board the 4×4, it started raining heavily. The steep mountains of lahar that rose above us slowly disintegrated before our very eyes as the O’Donnell riverbed turned into a sea of muddy rushing water that threatened to engulf the vehicles. I was seated by the driver and I couldn’t imagine how he would know where to pass. Nobody spoke as the rain came in torrents. Only when we started seeing the huts of the Aytas did we start heaving sighs of relief and terror was soon banished by laughter. A different kind of terror would befall us a couple of years later when we returned this time taking the “skyway.” Seated at the front seat, I gasped in horror as the 4×4 ahead of us flipped 3 times down the steep road. No one was injured but tt was enough to scare the passengers who were all first-timers. It’s moments like those where you truly believe in divine providence as you ask yourself why you chose the vehicle where you are seated now rather than the one ahead of you. We were all shaken. At the jump-off point for the 45-minute hike to the crater, it was decided that I lead the rest of the hikers while the organizers head back to Sta. Juliana.
Follow the Leader. That was my first experience of leading a group. I wasn’t really familiar with the trail but I kinda just followed my instinct and sense of direction (which fortunately, was working that time). Years later, I would lead Guys4Mountains up the punishing trail to Mt. Tapulao, having just climbed it a couple of weeks earlier. With the group’s first attempt ending unsuccessfully, everyone was determined to finish the climb this time all the way to the bunker camp and the summit the next morning. Personally, I was determined to beat my 5 hour record. With less load this time and being familiar with the trail, I reached the bunker camp in 4 hours in time for lunch. Adding to my motivation of trying to better my record were two bigger groups who had gone ahead of us. Since none of us brought any tents and we weren’t sure if they had one, being expedition leader, I was determined to make it to the camp first and reserve bunkers for us. I couldn’t be stopped and passed one climber after another until I was alone on the trail with Oio behind me. At the second water source, we just took a few minutes off to refill our water bottles and take a breather. It turns out, we had the bunkers to ourselves as the groups had brought tents with them.
Punishing on the feet with its stony and monotonous paths, Tapulao is too beautiful not to be climbed again.
I have to give my hat off to expedition leaders especially in mountains that involve a lot of logistics. Tapulao was easy to arrange as it did not require any special permits or prior arrangements aside from transportation. Staying with the lead pack is fine with me. Being expedition leader is something I would need to think about as it involves more than making an IT and sticking to it with the infinitely more difficult.
The Unseen. Some people believe in spirits that inhabit the forests, rivers, and streams of mountains. The Malays call them “orang buniang” or the “Unseen People.” Taman Negara in Pahang in Peninsular Malaysia is said to be teeming with them. In his book, “Travels in the Malaysian Rainforest, ” author Tan Teong Jin, tells of meeting two men who appear out of nowhere on the trail to Gunung Tahan. They head down the trail from which he came from but are not seen by the others heading up. In jeans and shirts and none looking like they had just spent days in the jungle, they looked strangely misplaced in the steaming rainforest that had no habitation in that area.
My encounter at Taman Negara in the three days I was hiking in the inner jungle from Kuala Keniam to Kuala Trenggan was with hordes of leeches. Maybe my stinky sweaty shorts scared them off.
On my first climb at Tapulao, some people reported hearing voices along the trail. “Itulak mo na yan, ” (push him) a voice from the air had whispered to someone. In the early evening with the fog closing in, while heading to the entry way to the camp to look for the last two hikers, the expedition leader turned back sensing very negative vibes. In the thickly forested slopes of the last hill you need to descend returning from Mt. Tenglawan in Bakun, Benguet, my friend was almost running as he could sense someone trying to catch-up with him as the hairs on his nape stood and goose-bumps covered his arms. It was past seven in the evening and he was urging another friend a few meters before him to hurry up. While camping at Poctoy beach in Marinduque after climbing Mt. Malindig, some had things missing or had physical brushes with spirits. My only supposed-supernatural experience was the one at Gulugod Baboy and it was more of an after effect which I attributed to me purposely breaking off a rotten branch so no one would use it as a hand-hold. Maybe I had disturbed someone. Even Mt. Cristobal, the anti-thesis to the positive and mystical Mt. Banahaw, remained disappointingly ordinary.
No Mountain Low Enough. I’ve long given up on trying to understand what makes a mountain easy or hard to climb. Is it the height? The trail? The distance? Everything is relative it seems. Whatever it is, I’ll never take a mountain for granted again. I learned that in Hibok-Hibok in Camiguin. As we entered the forest, some turned back prefering to just relax at Ardent Hot Springs as the trail became steeper. On estimate, it would only take us 3 hours to the summit but what a trail it was! Two hours into the climb, Rowell has stopped clowning around and I was just in automatic pilot staring at my feet as we climbed steeply holding on to rocks and roots to haul our tired bodies up. We had under estimated the mountain and had not brought enough trail water or food. Catching our breath after an excruciatingly steep part, I asked Rowell how many more minutes to the top. “One hour, ” he mouthed. I almost burst into tears as Polo leaned on me. I wanted to turn back already. But we all egged each other on saying we had taken a plane ride and a ferry and we were not about to give up. Finally, we reached the top and out came the wings we had brought for our fairy pictures. Congressboy had turned back so I got to use his angel wings:) Descending, Bench and I were almost running as we were so thirsty. When we finally reached the waterhole, we flung ourselves on the water pipe unmindful of the nearby carabao lolling on the mud. Water had never tasted so good.
It was really slippery mud that turned Mt. Kalisungan into what we dubbed as the “minor that became a major” climb. I was expecting a Gulugod Baboy-like climb. The steepness of the trail was quite surprising. Of all the mountains I’ve climbed, I’m still hard put to pin-point which would be the most challenging as every trail always has something unique that makes it different from others. Sure, there are really easy ones like Manalmon which sticks out like a thumb in the middle of the rice fields; Buntis, with its gentle slopes unless you’re with a guide who really doesn’t know where to go and guesses a trail that ends at the foot of a mountain range and asks you if you can manage an almost 90 degree ascent; and Talamitam which has both a shorter but steeper trail and a longer more gentle one.
Camp Gourmet. No matter how bad your food is, it will always taste good when eaten at camp after a long day’s hike. But for some of us, we go the extra mile of creating feasts while others subsist on noodles and the usual adobo. Bluefairy is especially adept at magically creating wonderful dishes fit for a gourmand no matter where he is. At Sabit’s anniversary climb in Mt. Manabu, no amount of rain could stop him and the rest of us in his group from preparing canapes, cream of mushroom soup, and chicken in spicy sauce.
At one of the climbs in Gulugod Baboy, Congressboy offered a martini complete with an olive and served in a martini glass to every climber as he reached the campsite. My food would always depend on two things: how easy or difficult the climb is and if there will be any water source. Easy climb with a water source means a feast. A difficult climb even with a water source would mean something less lavish. Some stuff I would never leave home with would be chocolates, lychee jelly, and lots of trail food. I’ve since discovered the magic of pre-cooking food then assembling everything for a nice warm rice casserole at camp. Wraps alo make very good no-cooking meals. I once enjoyed a salmon belly and veggies wrap by the crater lake of Pinatubo. For dessert, smores will always be a camp classic.
Because I love to eat so much, food is a motivating factor sometimes especially in difficult climbs so I always make sure that what I have for both lunch and dinner is something really delicious. It’s that “I can’t wait to eat” factor that also adds to the excitement of reaching Laban Rata at Mt. Kinabalu. It’s not exactly gourmet or even really lip-smacking but it was just sheer shyness of showing my appetite to my seat mates and Via Ferrata mates that kept me from gorging on the the buffet spread. After the summit climb and Low’s Peak Circuit Via Ferrata the next morning, back at the Pendant Hut, I must have eaten almost a dozen sausages and toasts.
I’ve always had good memories of my climbs. God and the mountains have been very good to me. There has been no accidents except for minor slips and no untoward incidents. As the world lay below me from the summit, I can’t help but say a prayer of thanksgiving to the Creator for the beauty around me. People often wonder what makes one climb a mountain or even just head to the outdoors. It does sound crazy to forgo with the comforts that is available to us. Why skip a bath, sleep in a tent, and subject yourself to all that exhaustion, and pain sometimes? I really can’t say. Some would answer because the mountain is there. Some would say because the view from the top is breathtaking. The closes I think I can think of is because a climb up a mountain is always a cathartic experience. It simply needs to be experienced to be understood.