on track to tarak

as is usually the case, i didn't read the article which came out in yesterday's MB, but in case you've missed it, here is the abridged version of the original which i wrote some years back and which contained about twice as many words. the photos though are from the climb i had in 2007, but the experience is one of my first forays into mountaineering. incidentally, my profile picture, with my red shirt, yellow-rimmed sunglasses and yellow backpack cover, were taken on tarak ridge. i love that photo. i've camped on tarak ridge a total of four times already, but have trekked its slopes at least 6 times. that puts certain parts of the mariveles mountains at par with mount pulag in terms of frequently-climbed mountains.

Living on the Ridge
Alman Dave O. Quiboquibo

The question could not have been any more ill timed, and I could not have been any less impertinent. My team leader, a stocky man pushing fifty who towered above us all with his height and his equally tall backpack, asked me how I was as we sat our sorry bottoms on a piece of rotting log that was prostrate along the steep trail, and I snapped, “I’m dead tired, don’t talk to me.” The campsite was nowhere to be seen as we paused underneath the shade of many trees. It was in fact but a leap away, but I had grown doubtful of the “ten minutes more and we’re there” I had been hearing since about half an hour ago.

I had deliberately ignored the description of Tarak Ridge in Mariveles, Bataan as “Little Halcon”, thinking it a little too presumptuous. While it has never been my habit to underestimate the difficulty of mountains, my mountaineer friends had a propensity to exaggerate.

In ignoring their embellished tales, I proceeded to pack a bag filled with the most unnecessary things, that my mom worried I would break my back. At the last stretch of a long bus ride, I looked out the bus window to find the sunrise illuminating our destination. There was a series of mountains in the horizon, and we had our eyes set on the farthest one. The range stood there like monuments of perfect stillness, both distant and remote.

The Tarak climb started with a visit to the Barangay Hall at Alas-asin, which was a hop from the National Hi-way. From there, the first part of the trek began where the asphalt on the road withered and disappeared, overtaken by a wide dirt path which ran astride a string of plantations decked by barb wire fences. The path gradually rose, slithering through the beaten trail.

The shade of trees was intermittent, and the sun was an ever-present companion as our trek continued. Manila Bay was already beginning to hint of its enormous presence, but hardly any breeze could be felt. Tirelessly, the group dismissed the prickly weather with stories and jokes, and the laughter went far ahead, mitigating the sun’s impact on the trek as we pursued the Papaya River.

We had already spent close to two hours on the trail, but I was still far from nearing exhaustion. We paused at an area called the Triangular Cogon Clearing, and before us was an unimpeded view of bustling Mariveles and the wide expanse of its harbor below and the somewhat bleary apparition of Manila Bay beyond. The Bataan Peninsula bent like a huge hook enclosing the entry into the famed port of call. Also visible were Corregidor and Carabao Islands. When a mountain torments me to the edge of my sanity, all I need to do is to take a moment to look around for precious views like these, and I am acquainted once more with the primordial reasons which drive me to hit the trail.

Before long, we heaved our bags onto our tired backs and continued our trek. We entered the forest line where the trail tapers into a footpath. We hiked single file. I had almost run out of drinking water when finally we heard the gushing of a strong current. “Papaya River,” I heard someone say, and our pace quickened. The sound of a waterfall plunging into a deep pool played like a secret and sonorous attraction which we all were too eager to reach.

The river’s cascades provided us a steady accompaniment as we dismissed the half hour between us and a long leisurely lunch. In 2006, after a string of typhoons sent rivers down the mountain, sections of earth on the trail between the Triangular Cogon Clearing and Papaya River had been turned into mush, and sent plunging into distant depths. The landslides had changed the trail, and made them initially impossible to pass without the aid of ropes.

Nevertheless, we soon found ourselves traipsing along one of the many streams of Papaya River. After the lunch break, we proceeded to assault the summit. The trail snaked from left to right under the dense cover of trees, rather than straight ahead, because the mountain sloped at a deep angle. “This is what’s called a switchback,” I heard the team leader saying, but in my state of misery, I failed to appreciate the value of his lecture, since I was beginning to realize how a few ounces put together could contribute to make a pound, and that an extra five, given more time, can break a back.

“How much longer?” I asked, and someone said: “we’re almost there”, with an absolute lack of sincerity, probably because it was said with some uncertainty. I leaned against a tree to free my shoulders of some stress. My trek companions asked if I needed help but I felt too proud to share my load.

We continued our assault of the indecisive mountain. On the way to the river, the trail rolled gently, almost with tenderness, but beyond that, it dithered, rather quickly, into a punishing ascent complete with a variety of obstacles. Robbed of all traces of its previous kindness, I was beginning to regard the mountain as brusque and callous, treating us with abundant cruelty.

I would have acquainted myself with the rotting piece of log a lot longer while contemplating the reasons why I’ve decided to subject myself to the rigors of mountaineering, but our team leader was pushing us to go on. I had come close to crawling when the forest around us started to clear, and we began moving out of its shade. The sun reappeared, and I was accosted by the open, windswept expanse of Tarak Ridge.

The campsite sits on the narrow ridge just below the summit of Mt. Mariveles. There is precious little available space, and we crammed twelve tents where Tarak Ridge permitted. Some of the tents were pitched a tumble from the steep edges, and there was hardly any room to extend the vestibules. I was suddenly imbued with a fresh dose of life, and I was busy running up and down the Ridge, admiring the view. The pain and misery that I thought I felt on the way up had been wiped out by the modest achievement.

When darkness fell and the lights from as far as Roxas Boulevard twinkled in the dreamy horizon, we gathered our meals under a tarp whose ends were tied to our tents. All of a sudden, a mild but consistent rain arrived, and since the tarp was too small to accommodate all 24 hungry hikers, some of us had to eat under the drizzle, the raindrops turning our dry meals into thin soups.

The shower continued till after dinner, effectively forcing us to crawl into our tents earlier than usual, and it kept pouring until early the following morning. It left only when the sun finally stretched its first rays to mark the beginning of a new day. The campsite was still dripping when I started preparing breakfast.

When the sky had cleared, we tore down the crowded campsite, and the amazing clutter of multi-colored tents, stoves, pots and pans, ground sheets, and trash was reduced to 24 compact backpacks. We started to descend from the mountain with some trepidation, because the trail was wet and slippery. On a steep path like the one leading from the Ridge back to Papaya River, the hike isn’t exactly easier. In a lot less time than we took to assault it, but with a lot more punishment to the knees, we reached Papaya River.

After a brief break, the trek continued, and in a few more hours, we were at the Alas-asin Barangay Hall where we took showers and shed all traces of the grueling albeit remarkable experience on the way and back from Tarak Ridge. When we left, Mt. Mariveles slowly diminished in size, lost in the haze of houses and highways, but I could not quite remove the imprint it left in my mind. I have since been returning to Tarak Ridge, sometimes with a lot less gear, but always with a lot more humility and respect.