when i stuffed my 70 liter pack with an overdose of knick-knacks and bric-a-brac for a climb to the summit of mount san cristobal in dolores, quezon, i had no inkling that i would, in those two days, learn one of life’s most important lessons: that no matter how many times you fall, what’s important is that you get up immediately, and keep on walking. the pain and the shame are ultimately temporary, and you are measured by how well you recover, not by how long you wallow in an imagined disgrace. and perhaps too, i needed to be brutally reminded of my limitations: that i should never rely completely on the strength of a previous experience. regardless of how many times you have been to a mountain, each climb is always a new one.
my two previous treks up mount san cristobal have made me rather complacent, and while it has never been my habit to underestimate mountains, i was humbled by this silent mountain, which sleeps under the dark shadow of mount banahaw. as i have said before, san cristobal is perceived by many as a mountain filled with evil, as a counterpoint to banahaw’s holy slopes. whether or not this is true, i cannot truly say, for i haven’t had the privilege, or the misfortune, of encountering anything of the supernatural while i was there.
i returned to san cristobal as part of the recon team for AMCI’s BMC 2009. it has been chosen as the mountain for the first training climb, which traditionally has been designed to introduce trainees into the sport of mountaineering, and is supposed to be a venue for nature-appreciation. i am an extremely visual person, and although i respect the callous, if not savage appeal of san cristobal, not much can be said about it in terms of raw, astounding beauty. from the montelibano house until the campsite on the crater, there is absolutely no view. the trail, which crawls up the mountain, passes a saddle, teeters on a ridge, and ends on the crater, is enveloped in an eerie kind of forest. near the base, the trees are stout and high, and they are whittled down to smaller ones wrapped in moss and fungus as you gain altitude. strange sounds from unseen birds and colonies of insects fill the trail, and there is hardly any view of the sky. when you look up, you see wisps of forest cover, and the sun winking through cracks in the canopy. blades of orchids hang overhead.
the trail is narrow, and quite steep in parts. although we never used ropes during our climb, it was obvious that two weeks hence, we may need to attach ropes in at least 5 sections, where even the most experienced among us encountered difficulty. i am certain that it will be a long and challenging trek for most trainees and the members supporting them. fears will be awakened and doubts will be stoked. but this is a fantastic baptism to the uninitiated, one that is rather rude, not unlike waterboarding or electrocution.
we began the trek at past 9am. it was only about 30 minutes to the montelibano house (850masl) along a steep paved road. the mountain itself is supposedly no higher than 1480masl, but we only had the ballpark approximations of our altimeters. the cemented sections proved to be the most difficult. at the house, we watched as a monster dog filled its mouth with the feathers of chicken and began beth’s language lessons. after a few years in the philippines, she’s decided to learn filipino, and we gave her a head start. at one of the group’s many rest stops, i asked her if there was a word she would like to know the meaning of, based on what she has heard from our conversations. so she asked: what does sabatin (se-BAH-tihn) mean? i was perplexed, but she said she heard me say it.
the mystery behind the word sabatin would never eventually be solved, and it evolved to mean everything and anything: sabatin is the mosquito which carried elephantiasis-causing bacteria (or the mosquito with the powers to make things big); sabatin became the name of the campsite; sabatin was the monster sleeping in the lake who has not fed this year; sabatin is anything. sabatin is everything we could not explain.
we reached the crater (about 1350masl) before 3pm. there were already 2 groups that sent advance teams to claim real estate, worried perhaps that there would be no campsites left. even the AMCI ridge campsite (1420masl) had been marked, some with just pegs and rope. this didn’t bother us in any appreciable way because we had planned to push for the summit. with an average of 100 persons traditionally joining AMCI’s TC1s, the crater and the ridge combined couldn’t accommodate more than 20 tents. but after a futile search around a cogon-covered summit (1479masl), we were forced to resort to bladed weapons: we cleared portions of the mountain inhabited by what the local hunstmen described as damong gubat: twigs no more than 2cm in diameter.
looking at the profile of banahaw from san cristobal's cogon-covered summit
after 10 minutes, we had space good enough for 10 tents. but what of the rest? even as the afternoon faded when shafts of light pierced our campsite, (1440masl) i kept worrying about an area for the group i would join for TC1. there simply isn’t enough room. not for 40 tents. not even for 30. maybe if the crater and the ridge were included, then the whole team would have ample room, but the identified campsite is at least 15 minutes away still. i drowned my worries by busying with dinner, and before long, we were having very good pasta with garlic tomato sauce and schublig and a nice korean beef dish. nothing to crow about, really, because both bojo and i were too lazy to think of anything more complicated for dinner.
we finished the evening with gin and a sweet and tarty martini, as we avoided ghost stories, fearing we might attract uninvited guests to the campsite. so far, we’d been very lucky. the weather cooperated, and it was overcast almost the entire time. the air was cool inside the forest when i finally took cover inside alvin’s oddly-shaped tent, and i slept soundly until the following morning when girls took care of breakfast. clean-up and the matter of breaking camp were completed swiftly, and pretty soon, the clutter of the many colored campsite was restored to an empty space under the shade of trees. we spent the next 30 minutes clearing the forest to make space for the deluge it should expect in 2 weeks. but still after the slash of bolos and the stomping of many boots, i fear that come TC1, there will be groups wallowing in misery, complaining of not having enough room, of having to settle for surfaces far from the ideal.
at 9am, we began our descent. aaron, jepoy and beth took off pretty early, while we reviewed all the areas build-ups are likely to form. the primeval forest of san cristobal unfolded itself before us: wet, green, and many-leafed, it bristled in the cool breeze. sometimes, flowers popped along the trail, but there were also instances that i felt i was trekking alone. after around 2 hours, we were back at montelibano, and by lunch time, had descended upon a restaurant in kinabuhayan for a meal and wash-up. only when everyone had finished did the rain begin to pour.
our business in delores, however, wasn’t over yet, and being the recon team, we still had to find a suitable wash-up area. our driver suggested a resort near the highway, and he could not have made a better recommendation. tucked far away from the bustle of the streets was a sprawling property of towering coconuts, cascades, cold pools, and restrooms inspired by tolkien’s novels. it was love at first sight for most of us who stepped into the bato springs resort, and i prepared an argument in its favor should the TL explore other options. in fact, i even joked that i might just decide to stay at the resort and “prepare” it for the climb team’s arrival the following day. i already decided that i would do a sprint on day 2 in order to completely enjoy the comforts and the benefits of this gem in the wilderness. joining the climb (or at least, being at the wash-up area) will be difficult to refuse once members find out that there’s a videoke machine in the gazebo, and that beer is also available.
and so here ends my fourth climb for the year. it has been a rather slow start for me, but i’m glad to have my complacent muscles complaining from the pain. it reminds me ultimately of my humanity. while others declare conquest, i find reasons for humility. where others decide to race, i choose to sit quietly in observation. mountaineering teaches many of life’s more important lessons. but not everyone listens.