"bakit natin ginagawa to?" frank asked as we dragged our boots along a muddy incline just beyond the papica-jerez boulder, while the narrow trunks of trees filled my field of vision, and i was busy locating yellow strings. "hindi ba to delikado?" he continued.
"ano ka ba," neri interjected. "delikado naman talaga ang mountaineering eh."
"iba to eh. pwede ka nang mamatay dito. pano kung magka-landslide? pano kung magkaron ng flash flood?" frank mused, recalling the morning's routine of fording through the shallow paniquian river.
at this point, having seen my marker and finding recent footprints on the ground, i jumped into the conversation with a lot of scientific BS. i explained that the selection of the mountain is the result of careful study: its rocky characteristics are such that the ground is a lot less likely to hold on to water which may in fact cause sudden, if not violent erosions. i didn't know jack about geology, that was for sure, and i knew much less of the geology of the mariveles mountains. whether in fact my explanation afforded frank some measure of reassurance, i wasn't certain either, but since the beginning of the climb just before the break of dawn that day, the challenges had been escalating in difficulty.
i played the role of AGL to my batchmate joven, who less than 3 days prior shook me with the possibility he might not be able to come. i had no desire to be a GL for TC2, if only for the fact that i dreaded having to take on the role of sweeper on a trail that was too technical, it bordered on the insane. we had already mapped out a strategy: i would be part of the lead pack to ensure our group a choice piece of real estate on the campsite between magellan trail and the japanese garden. but the best-laid plans have a way of going awry, and very early in the day, just after the gate, i was at the tail end of our group, with a metaphorical broom on my hand, pushing our trainees, as well as a few adopted ones, towards our goal.
i have been to tarak ridge many times before. in fact, i have been on the paniquian trail twice: in 2005 when i was an AMCI trainee, and again in 2007. the trail this year more or less followed the same trail as ours, which has now acquired infamy because several of my batchmates never made it to the campsite. the joke is that people crawled out of their tents early in the morning and found some of our batchmates decked in their battle gears, with their headlamps on, and were told that they were too early for the descent. the response was that they had just arrived. drawing perhaps from this scary experience, which we now hark back to with much fondness and humor, this year's trail was carved in such a way that no one would be doing a repeat of that near-catastrophe. while none of us was injured, the terror of being stuck on the spine of a featureless mountain in the black of night is not something you would wish on anyone, even though that experience has proven to be our greatest teacher, and our best inspiration.
we were mostly ahead of the itinerary, and by the time that we had moved out of the forest and witnessed the thundering roar that was the paniquian river's ungentle cascades, there was plenty of time to bathe and enjoy the cool, clear waters of mariveles. many groups spent long periods of time splashing water onto each other. it really was something to behold: water rolling into small pools, and on the cheeks of rock faces, beads of pure mountain stream fell. after only a few minutes, i received orders from my GL to forge ahead. paniquian river was much like it looked like in 2007: shallow, silent, gentle, meandering through a serpentine gully between steep walls, exposing boulders to the sun, while butterflies and dragonflies fluttered, and birdsong competed with the slow rush of water. it bore no resemblance to the menacing, white, frothing monster that drained us of our courage and robbed us of many things, tangible or otherwise, in 2005. anyone more nimble than myself would have kept his or her feet completely dry during the trek. our group was more or less intact at this point, and we saw few problems ahead: our greatest fear, which was to be trekking under cover of night, was still a distant, unimaginable threat at the time.
and then we came upon the start of cox's wall. it was a slow and difficult ascent, as the trail was pretty random. this was an unnecessary detour, whose only purpose was to expose the climbers to the difficulties of climbing, because pushing onward along the river would have taken us to more or less the same destination. on any other climb it would not have been completely appropriate. but here we were, like pipers leading half-asleep children away from their homes, and into the depths of danger. i am all too aware of the dangers of climbing, having been through more than 5 very difficult situations in mountains. i myself have fallen, slipped, let go. i've been cut, wounded, scratched, bruised, bitten. but i'm one of the lucky ones, i would suppose, because each time, i've survived and have managed to talk about my near-misses with a lot of exaggeration. but all throughout these ordeals, i have realized that i have come to appreciate my life and the lives of my loved ones even more precisely because i have found myself in places where a miscue could result in dire circumstances. i have never felt more alive than when i felt that my life was under constant threat. and that is the lesson to be learned here: more than just being a venue for learning valuable skills that could be put to good use in future climbs, i learned to embrace these difficulties as necessary evils, for the cost of appreciating the little things that i have always ignored is after all small. if people find remarkable the patience with which i deal with the travails of life, i point to the mountains as my greatest teacher.
so even though cox's wall had found us cursing at the heavens and at sky, i found myself drawing words to hopefully inspire. dan's exasperated interjections describing the female anatomy may have had its purpose. even when bugsy held on to dear life at a thin nylon rope at the end of the long and arduous challenge, i was confident that while she may have been holding on to the last straws of her courage and patience, that she will find more with the benefit of hindsight. i don't really wish to compare between 2005 and 4 years later: the circumstances are different, and the composition of the batch, much more unlike, but when faced with these things, i always just tell myself: i've been through worse. we allowed bugsy to collect herself, shore up some confidence while drawing ripples on the river, before we moved on to the SLAJJ waterfalls where we continued lunch. the last time i saw the falls, it was a column of white noise that we could not approach. but this time around, it had a nearly musical quality that drew us close to it. the trunk of a dead tree protruded from its glistening pool like a sundial, and many found themselves feeling the blood of the mariveles flow through their bodies: it soothed away the pain of the memory of cox's wall, although admittedly, i didn't get wet at all. i had my camera bag slung over my left shoulder, and i feared that water would blur my ultra-wide lens. it was an experiment on my part: bringing a camera with a lens whose focal length was 12-24mm. nevertheless, it was a decision wisely made.
after frolicking on the river, we pushed forward for the last stretch of our first day's ordeals: papica-jerez boulder and magellan trail. i was asked about the names of these trails, and i'm usually the wrong person to be asked because i always have an explanation to everything, which may actually be sound, but aren't necessarily correct. the boulder, not aptly chosen, i would say, is a slice of rock wedged into the mountain, it is a wonder how a trail was hacked through it. we mostly crawled through its rocky and slippery surface until we found ourselves hugging trees again. at one point, nelle slipped and even lost her hat to the cliff below. very shortly, we found the loree-jen stream: it flowed through a gully with fractured rocks, making a series of geometric patterns along the trail. at its end was the last watersource and the beginning of the magellan trail. i assured everyone who was within a few paces from me that we would be at the campsite by 4pm. i apologize for the miscalculation, because i stood on an area where i estimated our tents would fit at exactly 4 minutes past my prediction. one by one, i shook the hands of my groupmates as they trickled into the camp, where the lead pack and one other group had already pitched tents. before 5pm, everyone in the group was present, and the goal for day 1 was achieved. we quickly set up our tents, and changed into fresh clothing, to at least give us a semblance of civilization.
we prepared dinner while some light still filtered in through the dense canopy overhead, and even offered morsels of affection, scraps of encouragement, slices of fish, spoonfuls of chicken tikka masala, and heaps of rice to our friends who at nightfall still felt orphaned. we feasted on our meals under the combined glow of two black diamond lamps, and while a steady banter caused laughter and cheer. even though there remained yet another day, we had all began laughing about the mishaps that plagued our travails earlier in the day. finally, we uncorked our alcohols, and pretty soon, i was too tired and too inebriated to even inflate my therm-a-rest. the last thing i remember is dreaming that eubert was massaging my back. it turned out not to be a dream after all.
at a little after 4am, i was out of the tent watching the trainees take care of most of breakfast. i volunteered to cook the rice again, because i could very cranky if it weren't prepared properly. the weather had cooperated with us because the evening was warm, and the morning was dry. cleaning up was done quickly and pretty soon, we had all loaded and even managed to have a photograph with sky, who at this time, had been the most hated man in mariveles. oddly enough, he enjoys hearing about all that suffering, and relishes from all that scorn. after i led the morning prayer, we hauled our backpacks, unburdened by at least 4 kilograms, towards the remaining challenges of the day: the japanese garden, and the traditional trail to tarak ridge.
we plowed through the forest vertically, and the ensuing build-up was such that the next climber was always less than 2 meters behind. after about half an hour, we came upon the start of the japanese garden. i had heard that it was no longer as beautiful as it had once been: the terraces of rocks and the bonsai-like plants that grew alongside them had been obliterated by the natural movements of the mountain. but still, the landscape that unfolded before me when i crawled out of the shaded forest was amazing. the rocks now formed the rough spine of a serpent, curving and crawling upwards. there were many things to hold on to, and footholds to secure our step. it was breathtaking to have an unnamed mountain rising on our backs, while the sun blindingly winked ahead of us, looking back, it was as if i were staring directly down at the climbers below me, whose bodies were in close contact to the ground. far beyond was the island of corregidor, surrounded by the waters of manila bay. in the foreground was the town of orion. so this is what lay beyond the fog. it is the irony of this generation that one must endure hardships of an unimaginable scale in order to witness beauty such as what the weather allowed us that day.
after reaching the peak, we began the equally difficult task of descending, until the forest opened up with the view of tarak ridge, which seemed to point its way towards roxas boulevard (on clear nights, it is actually possible to see the faint lights of the baywalk). it was already 11am by the time we reached the ridge campsite, and the sun was beating down upon us with fury, so rather than toast under its unrelenting shine, we continued to descend towards the papaya river. along the way, i found eds limping due to a sprained ankle. alen and malvin were patiently egging her on. after about an hour, we finally reached the papaya river to break for lunch and to grab one last chance to bathe in the river. afterwards, i set the pace towards the end of our journey, trekking through the forest and out into the open where sky placed his last marker to indicate the end of the traverse: was he merely teasing or begging for violent reactions? he certainly will not get one from me, as i've endured him when he was stronger.
the rest of the trail was more or less familiar to me, although i have to confess that the fallen trees on the trail confused me a lot. before long, we were already at the "DENR" station for buko juice, which at P10 a pop, was the most refreshing thing within a radius of 30 minutes. after 2 glasses, yayi and i continued towards the hi-way, pining for ice-cold anything. the first thing i did upon my arrival at the MC lodge was to sequester a case of beer. i felt it appropriate to celebrate my group's safe arrival with a foaming bottle.
this climb was designed not so much to improve the climbing skills of the participants, because these things are developed over time, and with experience. but unwittingly, the genius of the trail lies in the fact that it imparts character and the right attitude, more than what its plotters intended. all of us may have finished, some not necessarily in better shape than others, but the true measure of success is not about who finished the earliest, with less slips, less cuts, and having cleaner trekking shirts. it's about how quickly one recovers from a bad fall, and realizing that no amount of complaining will ever get us closer to our destination. i am happy to have taken part in this climb because i have once again established beyond doubt the alacrity of the human spirit. i am proud of my friends, for leading the charge, for taking on responsibilities they vocally deride. i am proud of this new batch of future mountaineers, who rose to the occasion, and who despite their reservations and honest concerns, partake in the celebration of their lives through the purity of adventure.