by Maria Eleanor E. Valeros for #microadventurism
KABAYAN, BENGUET — Never lie, cheat, steal nor drink.
But if you must lie, lie in the arms of the one you love; steal away from bad company; cheat death; drink in the moments that take your breath away the most.
Done all that 9,645 feet above sea level, on the highest point of Luzon — Mt. Pulag (also known as Pulog) in the Gran Cordillera with climbing buddies of a decade Cris Comendador (Mandaue City) and Christopher “Boyet” Oyangoren (Iligan); with newfound buddy Russell “Rusty” Jorbina (Manila) whose initial attempt at mountain trekking took her to a major climb despite the 7/9 level of difficulty. This was made possible with the help of our most-able sweeper Leovi Villordon (Leyte).
It was an imperfectly timed assault. Common sense tells us February’s tail-end of a cold front forecast all over Northern Luzon doesn’t assure of that sunburst and that ocean of clouds that make Pulag a byword in the climbing circle. The ascent is a decade-old aspiration already, however economics dictate that to pursue the dream with a bigger group would mean cutting down the cost to as much as sixty percent.
To climb Pulag is no joke. The jeepney fare rate alone ranges from P8,500 to P10,000 per 15 passengers from Baguio City to the Akiki Trail jumpoff point in Kabayan town where we were destined for a traverse back to Ambangeg in Barangay Daclan, Bokod or at the office of DENR Protected Area Superintendent Emerita Albas. For every seven climbers, there is a required porter-guide who could collect a minimum of P400 per person. So even when the porter only brings two kilos of our rice load and a few packs of noodles, we have to stick to the rate, as that is how the system works up there. Besides, this has also provided porter-guides of the Kalanguya tribe a means of generating income to support families, so climbs also transpire into a humanitarian support for our indigenous people.
The state weathermen predicted of the onset of northeasterly winds (amihan) which could bring strong winds and rain. But we are more afraid of the skyrocketing fees, so off we pushed through the plan but not without a raincoat to protect us from the expected downpour. At PASU office, it was learned that two weeks prior to our friendship climb, the summit of Mt. Pulag recorded a low negative three. We drooled at the idea of frost, finally tasting one if permitted, but the thought of the numbing thin air chilled us to the bones. Boyet sustains a bone injury on the right hand so the news, in a way, troubled him as the cold could send the hand black and blue with the annoying throbbing sensation.
True enough, at quarter to five a.m. on the third day of our climb, together with the rest of the eager beavers, I was scrambling my way up Mt. Pulag. Still disorientated from the taxing ascent hours before from Camp 1 (which for some time gave us the feeling of comfort with its proximity to Eddet River, a flood of moonshine, star-spangled skies, a carpet of pine needles littered all over, and the soft “eddet” which means grass in the dialect of the Kalanguyas); aircool set naturally at 16 degrees Celsius.
It was easy to wake up at the agreed time of 3 a.m. because my reticular formation has responded well to the itchy stimulus of summiting, but going out of the tent became the greatest challenge. This is what’s nice about uncertainties, because surprises are constant. It was so cold outside at six degrees and the wind blows like mad dog licking endlessly an open wound. At 3:40 am, I got my share of steaming coffee. But geez! It only took six seconds from one hand passed to the next hand to Cris’ and then to mine, I could sip the coffee right away. And in a matter of minutes, it was cold as chilled frapuccino. That quick!
Despite the veil of mist, I had to be oblivious of the cold wind giving my tummy the freezing feeling which sent me throwing up while on my way to Camp 2 hours ago. I had to connect with my now almost frozen senses that I have to be strong for the last leg. That I have to be determined to go even when only a few have now huddled before the coffee station to mark the ascent. The others chose to engage in deep slumber as there would be no sunburst anyway. The temp registered eight degrees, and my gloves were now soaked, my face dank; I was ill prepared in protecting my hands that’s been experiencing tingling sensation for four years now. They say it’s nerve aging. I forgot my petroleum jelly, of all necessities. The numbness now gives me the frost bite feeling Everest stories are talking of, but my heart is as warm as boiling water, so I managed to brush off the stabbing feeling of windburn. I’ve already come this far and there’s no way stopping is an option. At the back of my bloating brain registered: Just sustain the strides, crawl if you must, gain momentum, and arrive somewhere!
Energy drains faster in cold zone, so four of the LED lights of my rechargeable head lamp were already out after two hours of use beforehand. I had to make do of what the eight remaining bulbs in its honeycombed-designed cells can only afford. Good thing that the summit is barely a twenty-minute walk from Camp 2. Ten years and I’ve waited for this to happen, here it is and the orgasmic feeling is building up with each mud-logged step. My heart again races wild, the soft tum-tum transpired into the heavy lub-dub which has taken on a strange rhythm, the call to survive is even louder now over the rest of my attempts in the past ten years of this pursuit – it’s even wilder than that I felt when I did ascents of Hibok-Hibok (Camiguin), Talinis (Negros Oriental), Kanlaon (Negros Occidental), Magdiwata (Agusan del Sur), Pinatubo (Tarlac-Zambales), Arayat (Pampanga), Kalon-Barak (Sarangani), Bandilaan (Siquijor), Cabalian aka Kantaytok (Southern Leyte), among others. That was the first time I did summit on an early morning where the world is still pitch dark, haze is a curtain too wide to pull to one side, the rain is a monster out to devour what little courage remains in us. The strange rhythmic patterns are out to prove something: the spirit is always willing even though the flesh is weak. No way your heart can fail you now, for it has since beaten this good and this right!
Seeking a “grand retirement climb,” I confessed to climbmates I am already unfit for most of this type of journey, so I had to rush now to finish my own list of seven Philippine summits before invalidity strikes its talon on me. Vitality was never the same as that when I was 17. It was so much different when I was 27. So now at 40, I had a dizzy headstart for Pulag in an attempt to kiss the peak being third of the remaining priorities: Mt. Halcon (Mindoro) and Mt. Apo (Davao-Cotabato) to tick off my to-do post-it. I had to race against physical wrinkling, the brittling of bones, and sagging hope.
Aside from that, I have to be reminded that for everytime I climb, it does make sense of the inverse to the theory of the earth’s gravitational pull. It’s not at all times the center of gravity pulls you down. In some ways, it is up, where you’re drawn to the thing you love most, be with superb company, not troubled at all about the reality of death; and the best moment you would want to get drunk in.
More seasoned climbers told us Pulag doesn’t welcome noisy ones, and we got alarmed because the 46 trekkers is no joke to the ecology. The night prior, a Kalanguya guide even asked one of the organizers to turn down the volume of music played by a group. Well, this is one of the bloopers of mountain climbers confessing they love to commune with nature, but would still bring a live testimony up there of the mad world they temporarily left behind. I didn’t only overhear the upset tribesman, I was there chatting with them in their makeshift shelter where they are the only ones licensed to spark a bonfire. Thank goodness though they have praises for us Cebuanos, as compared to a school-based popular mountaineering group in the country, we are said to be “easier to manage” (hee hee).
So, there was already a hint Pulag wouldn’t be so pleased with our big, noisy group. Still, I prayed that the guardian – may he or she be from the court of Kabunian – would be so gracious to at least give us five minutes to enjoy the top, just like what Kan Laon spared when we implored him to lead us the way to Mount Kanlaon last year after we got completely gobbled up by fog for hours and drowned in intermittent rains.
But Pulag is a tougher nut to crack. It displays without mercy its distaste for the brawny and the bold. Like the rest of the summits, she has a mind of her own. She can be a welcoming host. But she can be indifferent too. To us, she only has her peak to offer. We were rain-soaked, and I was thankful that my Romania-made thermal jacket passed on by a climbing buddy now enjoying heavenly opportunities in New Zealand functioned the way it should, so I was spared from the knee jerks and teeth chatters that some men huddling – almost hugging what little bush of dwarf bamboo left for shelter – had to go through. For the nth time, I paid huge respects to my love handles and flab beds. In moments as such, the fatty and the chubby rock!
Altimeter rechecked: 9,645 feet and it’s four degrees Celsius, almost freezing zone. But the sea of fog has now turned into an ocean. And before we knew it, the clock ticked 6 a.m., we were already waiting for over an hour, and there was no way the rain would stop. Rewarded, nevertheless, by the very summit itself, I bowed down for the signature kiss that I always plant on zeniths reached. And then the troop posed for photo; off we went down the muddy track back to Camp 2 to save ourselves from turning into ice-cold monuments of overflowing overconfidence.
Actually, I was told March would be better, though rains would still be around because of the oxymoronic wet summer forecast due to prolonged La Niña. April is best but with peak season, reservation is made as early as November or December wherein we could not decide yet which mode of transport to use. These are the months there is 95 percent assurance of a sunrise and a stream of cascading clouds, like waterfalls chasing glares and halos of a spectrum, that Pulag is much sought after.
However, the cost would continue to bug us.
Content with what we were only allowed to see, we enjoyed the rest of the hours enjoying the grassland – a vast and immense space of ecru – of grass stalks sticking out of black soil, dancing in wild abandon with the cold front; face soaked by the downpour of our intrusion, the high impact of our so-called friendship climb. I wouldn’t deny it mountaineers have a way of bastardizing a sacred ground. But what can we do with this demon inside? It gets tougher everytime we renew our engagement with the wild frontier. And the urge to submit to the elements becomes maniacal, the only way to stop is to be dead as stone.
Fogswept Pulag, meanwhile, has her two-cents worth plastered all over the grassland summit: There is always a next time. And it always proves to be better!
We, then, have to live to see that moment happen where we can lie again in the arms of the one we truly love – her peak, her shoulder approach, her ridge; where we can be in great company as we sip in the zephyr from Ambaguio in Nueva Vizcaya, maybe, (the longest route) or take Luzon 3-2-1 (Mt. Timbak to Mt. Tabayoc to Mt. Pulag), where death is no big deal (say hypothermia); and where we can drink in the moments that easily melt our defenses — into thin air. (First appeared on The FREEMAN: Feb. 29, 2012)