seventh heaven: a return to mount pulag and to mountaineering

there is such a thing as muscle memory: athletes, dancers, factory workers rely on practice and repetition to perform tasks which either require routine or exertion. in very much the same way, mountaineers are remotely associated to athletes, dancers, or factory workers in that they frequently engage in activities that repeat or are strenuous. these involve ascending and descending very steep trails in mountains while carrying insanely heavy backpacks. normally, someone who has had much practice and training, and in our chosen sport, it is actual climbing, would not feel as much strain or difficulty, because due to repetition of the acts associated with hiking up and down mountain trails, the muscles, particularly on the legs, become accustomed to the pain.

after a hiatus which has extended to a period of 6 months, my muscles have conveniently forgotten the sensation of climbing. although my brain remembered every detail of my three previous treks from ambangeg to akiki on the slopes of mount pulag -- the roof of luzon, and bar none the most beautiful of them all -- my muscles did not cooperate, and by the second day, less than half an hour to the campsite in edet, i began to feel the pressure. my legs weakened, my knees complained, and they involuntary folded. i began to slow down, fighting gravity, rather than working with it and letting myself breeze down the slope like the mountain goat that i have often been described.

this was the induction climb of AMCI's batch 2008, whose BMC i was never a part of due in no small part to my enforced sabbatical. i had mixed emotions nearing the end of my hiatus: i wasn't too keen on joining a climb with people i didn't know, mountain-wise, and i was averse to the controversies surrounding my "return", not to mention that my last climb this year was also at pulag. nonetheless, spurred by overflowing words of encouragement from friends and even members of B2k8, i reluctantly took on the duties of team leader for my habol group, which at the last minute was whittled down to 7. we booked de luxe seats for a trip to baguio city, and in restful fashion, arrived in the summer capital very early in the morning. the jeep whisked us to jang jang eatery for breakfast, and barely 2 hours later, we were viewing a new video on the LNT principles along with a huge group that called itself kamandag, and a whole lot of sabit mountaineers. it would be worth noting that in january of 2007, i had actually thought of suggesting that AMCI create a new video on mount pulag as part of its 25th anniversary. all that is moot now since someone else had thought of the same idea, and actually executed it.

heading towards the babadak ranger station, we transferred to roger's jeepney, equipped with a truck's 4x4 engine, considering that rains the previous days may have turned the trail rather slippery. we arrived at around 11am, had breakfast, and began the trek shortly after noon. the scene past the ranger station is very familiar to me. i have seen it 6 previous times, and although i knew i was terribly without practice, i paced the lead pack, trailing our guide junie. at the junction to lusod, 200 meters from the grassland campsite, i caught a glimpse of jepoy -- the IC team's lead pack, and we were reunited there. i had been to their send-off just earlier that week although when you are united with friends on the mountains, the meeting is filled with such warmth you'd think you haven't seen each other in ages. we had earlier been informed by the guides that a water source is available at the saddle campsite, so we didn't have to load at least 4 liters of water. with my current load, consisting of my marmot bise 2P tent, 2 liters of absolut vodka, 2 fuel bottles, an MSR XGK XP, a therm-a-rest, a deuter 500 dreamlite, and all these other small things which put together are bigger than big, i was already heavily burdened. i tried to ignore the difficulty by singing the sharon, frankie and miel for nido 45 song with jovs.

nonetheless, i pushed on with the climb with jovs and JC, and we walked through the enchanting grasslands of mount pulag, which notwithstanding the fog, was still magical and endlessly beautiful. portions of the trail had been paved with chunks of rock -- an effort to prevent the addition of missionary trails, further erosion, and trampling on the unique plant species found at mount pulag. despite having been there so many previous times, i kept expecting to find the solitary tree just behind the hill. that small tree hand been my usual landmark: that we are near the summit, and hence, the designated campsite. nonetheless, through sheer grit and determination, we began the short descent to the campsite, which at the time still basked in the bright afternoon sun. we laid out our tents and identified spots for our adopted induction group: team turbo tubero, composed of kuya mar's new recruits to fun times, drinking sprees, and of course, videoke nights.

my suunto core predicted sunset at 5:28pm, and a few of us managed to watch as the sun sank into the blue, misty horizon of mountains, dyeing the sky in rich plume of orange. i quickly returned to the campsite to prepare dinner, and i was more than a little worried that by this time, very few of the inductee groups had arrived, and rarely any of them complete. nonetheless, i sat on our kitchen area to make sure that the much-ballyhooed meal plan would take shape. for that evening, i planned a bangus lumpia feast. my meal plan was actually nothing original: each meal had been cooked and tasted before, in other mountains. i was a bit uninspired to do something new, particularly because there wasn't that much planning. nonetheless, i had not scrimped on the details, and my groupmates were promised nothing less than high-altitude gourmet.

darkness falls rather quickly in the summits of mountains, and in mount pulag, the evening arrived earlier than we expected. in the distance, we could see spots of light descending from the shoulder of the summit. there was already some unconfirmed reports that some groups might not make the saddle campsite. team TT trickled in one after the other, and we had prepared soup, not just for us, but also for the group wearied by 3 days of trekking. the reunion was sweet, and we were only finally complete after 7:30pm. i was happy to see them, and the whole of the habol group rushed to help ease their burdens. music was provided by JC, and our area quickly became the place to be. not surprisingly, team TT opted to heat instant meals from goldilocks for that night, since we were around to offer something a lot more palatable. after a sumptuous dinner which we all shared, we began passing around our alcohols. lights out was strictly enforced, and by 10pm, i was already inside my tent, although kuya mar had quite a lot to say about the imposition. the wind was rather furious that night, and i woke up frequently because the parawing outside my tent flapped incessantly. also, my gloves were wet and my hands were terribly cold and i had forgotten to bring my fleece jacket.

the following morning, i only finally left my tent at around 5am. the campsite was already abuzz with the inductees preparing breakfast and being herded for the induction rights. i had peeked out early, but seeing that it was rather foggy, i knew that the trek up the summit would be fruitless, and none of the dramatic and fabled sunrise on mount pulag with its sea of clouds would be seen. so on my seventh ascent to pulag, i didn't even get a glimpse of the summit. that would be a very rare first time. besides, and i pointed this out to ATL bossing, considering that another group composed of over 60 climbers were due to go up the summit, AMCI would have unduly exposed the secrets surrounding its induction rights. so it was decided to hold the rights right there, at the saddle campsite. i came out of my tent in my trekking clothes and wearing a brown tie to complete my earth colors motif. TL bajay arrived in the middle of the rites, and he still managed to close it and lead the singing of the the AMCI hymn.

after the induction rites, we welcomed and cheered the addition of over 30 new members to AMCI: new companions to old and new mountain trails, comrades in the pursuit of adventure and fellow lovers of nature and the environment. in a weird way, i felt like i had also been inducted, having been absent for so long.

we returned to our kitchen to finish breakfast. and the pièce de résistance was the roti pratha with creamy red chicken curry, spiced to suit the climate on the mountain. it was loved, and i was also surprised it turned out that good. and i'm always thankful for people like ai and medi who don't mind campkeeping (it's my least favorite thing to do). since everyone else had an early start, by the time nearly all the induction groups had left the campsite, my tent was still standing. i would have to admit that even after 4 years of mountaineering, i still take an immense amount of time packing all my stuff. it isn't comforting to know that i can trek really fast, because the goal is to be a few steps ahead of schedule. so by the time i began trekking, only around 5 people were left at the saddle, and i had to play catch-up. i don't quite know what consumed me, whether in fact i was competitive, or was out to prove something, or merely allowed myself to be carried by the pull of gravity, that i practically ran down the steep slope, through the stunted and gnarled trees of the mossy forest, which abruptly opened into the pine forest, which in the fog of my haste all fell out of focus. i didn't even bother to take the time to rest, and in an hour and a half, i was already at the cow country, preparing to heat our lunch.

we took our sweet time there, even as another group pushed up to the saddle. it was a while afterwards that i began to feel the limitations of my age and my lack of practice, enduring the pain of each excruciating step towards edet river. nevertheless, i got there in the time that i had more or less expected. i have far too much pride to completely cave in to the temporary appeals of my paining body. at the campsite, we chose the one separated from the rest of the whole group, and christened it ayala land premier (the main camp being baseco compound). its dimensions were perfect for our 6 tents. a parawing soared high over us, cleverly put up by masters of the craft, and with a lot of supervision from kuya mar. shortly thereafter, our entire group came in; we each had a quick dip in the freezing pools of edet river, and after a while, we were well on our way to an evening of fun and laughter: perfect to smooth away the pains collected by 4 previous days of long and arduous hikes.

it turned out to be a pasta party that evening, since all groups had some kind of noodle in their meal plan, taking advantage of the abundance of water from nearby edet. for our team, it was cardiac penne, with a special sauce of aligue, mussels, capers, sliced black olives, and a squeeze of lemon. it was yummy. we finished it off with 3 blocks of oatmeal and nutella brownies from sammer, who is a pastry chef at dusit. did i already say that we didn't scrimp? if i already have, it bears emphasizing. with the business of dinner over, we threw in the kitchen sink to the socials: all guns blazing, we had about 8 liters of alcohol: vodka, gin, whiskey, and scotch. the goal, in the words of JC, was to be engga girls and enggo boys. and all through the night, visitors walked into our campsite and left crawling. i don't know whether it was a good sign of how successful the evening was but i passed out at the socials area and someone crashed into JC's tent, snapping one of the poles. my sleep was completely undisturbed and i woke up only to the voice of bossing, announcing the wake-up call.

in the morning, we had the usual minced adobo and pita pockets and by 9am, we were already pushing up the hill towards the school in duacan, the akiki jump-off. by this time, the combined efforts wrought by the previous days fell on me, and i had the most difficult trek: i had palpitations, and the descents were killing me. only now will i confess that akiki really can be a killer. we passed the american bench (which we inadvertently destroyed last december, when the combined weight of 8 people dislodged it from its original position), and found ourselves lining up to bathe at a faucet which couldn't muster more than a consistent drip.

our jeepneys arrived a little after 1pm, and pretty soon, since we hadn't planned lunch, we were racing to jang jang eatery after we had logged out of the PASu office. we ordered everything in sight and wolfed them down quickly. we arrived in baguio a little after 5:30pm, and began to draw the plans for that evening. no sidetrips had been planned, and we merely wanted to celebrate a little with the recently inducted batch. they arrived much much later, irritable from hunger and from the collected delays, and we whisked them off to rosebowl. shortly thereafter, we transferred to bedroom cocktail lounge in nevada square, which is baguio's version of eastwood, it would seem. all those little bars there had its own theme, and offered basically the same items at similar prices: competition consisted of the ambience. kuya mar and i picked this one because it was reasonably warm, and the white walls and furniture were less asphyxiating.

we actually tried to dance a little while we were there, although admittedly, my hamstrings and my calves prevented me from moving much. and although we only secretly moved to nevada, it really did feel as if party people gravitated towards this magnetic group, and pretty soon, bedroom was shaking with the combined happiness of more than 30 people who had just endured (and yes, survived) 5 days (in some cases, a little less) in the mountains. the energy was escalating when at precisely 10:15pm, i unceremoniously called for the last order: we had to return to victory liner for our 11:15 trip.

we were of course booked for the de luxe trip back home, and this became a rich source of teasing. come to think of it, i found the opportunity to trade barbs (and most of the time, it was unilateral) with several individuals whom i only knew back in the plains. it almost felt that i knew everyone, and that my absence was hardly ever felt. not that i forced myself into affairs in which i had no business to get involved, but by association, i was always in the thick of things. vicariously, i was actually in those climbs, not privy to the larger picture, but included in all the mostly sordid details. george had occasion to say that this part of my company he missed the most, and i replied that i had managed to bottle my wit these last 6 months, and without hesitation, i let it all out: spirit, bubbles and contents, spread over those days. i wouldn't be surprised if i had inadvertently stepped on someone else's shoes. if i have, it's largely because they don't know me that well and vice versa.

but much reflection has to be made about this supposed return, this comeback, this resurrection, however anyone might want to call it. my feelings are still a little mixed, and i have drawn but temporary conclusions. surely, things won't be as they were before all these things took place. but i'm happy to have broken my sabbatical and to have celebrated the culmination of over 4 months of toil at my most favorite mountain.