the best of climbs, the worst of climbs: AMCI B2k9's third training climb

this is a tale of two mountains. the first is about my initial foray into mountaineering, where, despite having neither skills nor training, but with virginal interest and enthusiasm, i fell in love with the sport, and decided that i would like to keep returning to the mountains. the second is about my most recent climb, where, despite years of experience and deep pockets of wisdom earned from more than 70 excursions to the outdoors, i was on the verge of desperation.

but in fact, i am speaking of the same mountain, my first and my most recent, but definitely not my last: mount pulag. it was on this mountain, in february of 2003, about two weeks before the results of my bar exams were released, that i sat on a hill overlooking the campsite: a brown, flat patch of land, transforming into a many-colored village of tents. hunched over a sheet of blue tarp, i ate some of the best meals i have ever had anywhere. unbeknownst to me then, this meal would set the standard for all the dinners of my future climbs. more than seven years later, i returned to pulag: my eighth visit to this place of beauty and wonder, and for more than 12 hours, i stayed awake inside my wet tent, constantly in prayer, worrying about my rainfly either getting ripped apart or being blown away.

but it didn't start out that way. although it had been raining continuously in manila on the week of our departure, the early dawn in baguio held a lot of promise. i couldn't sleep throughout the 6 hour bus ride and its many stops, even much less inside the bumpy jeepney ride to kabayan, but i was still full of energy. i was part of dennis's group, AGL for the third straight time. i had piqued the interest of the members of my group with pictures of puffy clouds at my feet, and a sky pierced by rays of sun. i had brought along a tie to match my trekking shirt, and had also lugged my UWA to get even more breathtaking images of the famous sunrise.

from the jump-off at the school in edet, after i led the prayer, we began the climb gingerly: the group numbered more than 80, and walking single-file, we marched through the wondrous pine forest with great cheer and a positive outlook. the TL, in all the pre-climb meetings, had assured everyone that the climb was going to be lots of fun. and we certainly looked forward to it. after a short while, we reached the campsite beside edet river, which roared in the distance. i had only decided to pitch my tent on a small mound when a steady drizzle began to descend from the heavens. the area we had designated as our kitchen was a mess, and the areas where joven and dennis pitched their tents were flooded. before long, i had cooped up inside my tent unwilling to go out even for dinner because i didn't want my jacket to get wet: i was keeping it dry for the bitingly cold weather at the saddle. at the time, and despite all indications, i was still extremely positive.

the slight rain eventually let up when darkness fell, and although i had all but given up hope on the kitchen, we ended up uncorking spirits to celebrate the improving weather on the mountain. little pools had gathered around our area, and a moat had in fact surrounded my tent. pretty soon, having been the group that carried the most alcohol (i alone had a liter of tequila, 6 lemons, nearly a liter of bailey's, and a liter of tropicana), naturally, the crowd was drawn towards us, and the music provided by my altec lansings. when we instructed the trainees to retreat into their tents for lights out, mannie was trying to bribe me to sacrifice my liter of tequila, which i had set aside for the second day's socials. i prematurely decided to sleep while the rest continued with a more subdued drinking session under sir manny's huge kitchen tarp.

i slept peacefully with no blanket, and woke up when bugsy came to rouse the trainees in my tent. when i finally crept out of my tent, it was a dry, crispy morning, and we dutifully worked on the kitchen: we were a large group: with the lead pack joining the meal plan, it was difficult to manage, and we ended up not cooking everything we had planned, with some people settling for a strange pairing of danggit and focaccia bread. italy meets cebu. we were among the last groups to pick up our bags from the campsite, and begin the 8 hour ascent to the summit. in all my 7 previous climbs to mount pulag, i have punished my weak knees by descending akiki 4 times. they call this a killer trail because the steep incline usually results in many dead toenails (surprisingly, i have only killed toenails twice: the first time in amuyao, and the second time only recently at cristobal). and this was one reason the climb excited me: it would be my first time to attack akiki from edet. slowly, despite the lumbering weight of my 70-liter pack, i steadily ascended the trail, even as an ever-present drizzle accompanied us as we crossed the rickety hanging bridge.

i was weighed down by at least 20kg, by my estimates. i had carried heavier before, that's for sure, but for how long can i keep the charade? i am not as strong as everyone thinks, nor am i as strong as i would want to be. i would have wanted to sprint towards the saddle, past the pine forest, its erect trees and its winding trail, and carve out a nice campsite for my group. but it wasn't meant to be. although i forged on until after the lunch area, when i finally reached the last water source where joven and i sacrificed and loaded 5 liters of water each for the grand socials i imagined we would have, a pair of muscle cramps had gotten the better of me. i was licking salt off my palm, and it helped only a little. inside the mossy forest, there were instances when i could no longer put one foot ahead of the other. and when we finally walked out of the forest and its gnarled, stunted trees, a fog had enveloped the entire scene that there was no way i would survive the remaining trek without a shell. so i fished out my jacket from deep inside my bag and endured a howling wind for the final push up the campsite. by this time, the trail had become a small gully where a the waters of a chilling stream flowed down, and i could imagine my toes shrinking into pale prunes.

by this time, joven had left me behind and i was trekking with 3 girls in my group. we were silent for most of the time, with our heads bowed and our vision locked onto the trail. there wasn't much to see. it was a face of pulag i was most unfamiliar with: i've always been lucky with this mountain, and have always been blessed with great weather. but someone's bad luck had cancelled my good fortune. the campsite only finally unraveled when we were 20 paces away. very quickly, we identified a spot to pitch a tent. there was no use waiting for the rain to stop, although it was only a little after 3pm. while they held a groundsheet overhead, i quickly set up my marmot bise 2P, and in less than 4 minutes, it was already standing. i kicked off my shoes and snuck inside and called everyone inside, a wet floor be damned. i only requested them to take off their boots. eds was already crying and shivering profusely when she went inside, and before long, there were 7 of us inside the 3-season, 2-person tent: myself, eds, jackie, ming, dennis, bugsy, and joven. it was also providential that most of my things were within arm's reach, so i managed to open my tequila, and we allowed the substance to warm us down a bit. after a while, i devised a plan for us to move out of the wet clothes that still clung to our bodies, without anyone having to leave the tent and get wet. it was the equivalent of having a blood compact in the mountains; instantly, i had 4 new best friends, with whom i have shared the most intimate of moments. in the meantime, joven devised a tarp over my vestibule so i could at least attempt to cook dinner.

so with what was available, i managed to cook 500grams of the penne pasta, and throw in most of the aligue as well as the mussels. the ingredients were incomplete, and i kept apologizing about the pasta not being al dente, but my cooking has never been more appreciated before. i would have wanted to cook something more because i felt that two scoops of pasta were certainly not enough, but alas, i ran out of energy, and the eerie silence of the night suggested that everyone may have gone to sleep. i could hear nothing but the vibrations of my vestibule and the drumming of the rain on the fly. we had done the best we could to stay dry: i wiped my floor clean, and we crammed 4 of us into the space available. it was when we decided to sleep that things had turned from miserable to unbearable.

zipped inside my dreamlite 500, with only a portion of my face exposed, i could hear the violent clapping of my vestibule against the onslaught of an omni-present wind. it came from all directions, battering my unstable shelter with gale forces. i had to unclip the brow poles and watch helplessly as the spine bent with such drama, it caused the mesh of the body to touch our heads. at this time, i tried to make adjustments: double staking my doors which unzipped from the sheer force of the wind and manually supporting my poles, while reciting a silent prayer. all throughout the night, i was praying. at first, i asked for better weather. but i realized that one shouldn't make demands from God, so i changed my tact after repeating the same pleading. i then asked for strength to endure the night: in particular, i prayed that my tent survive the storm. as the winds pounded the rainfly, it scraped against my poles, i feared it might burst open and expose all of us to the rain! although the tent shook and flattened as though it were being trampled upon by large, clumsy feet, we were at least relatively dry and considerably warm inside: none of us shook violently, and my girls appeared to be feigning sleep despite the ruckus that was taking place. although the wind howled and swooshed, i noticed that someone was snoring in a nearby tent. i suspected it was inside my TNF talus 23 which was steady despite the little whirlwinds that assaulted the campsite. i repeated my prayers for my tent to make it through the night, until i realized it was already morning, and i heard arnel's voice call out my name: "alman!" he cried out. "ano?" i barked back. "uwi na tayo." it was already half past 4 in the morning.

almost immediately, i squeezed out of my sleeping bag, put on my jacket and moved out of the tent to see what else i could do. barely 10 seconds out in the cold, i jumped back into the tent. i couldn't bear the cold! i waited for some sun to come out before i actually did anything, although i managed to pack everything into my bag without leaving the tent. when i finally crawled out of the tent, i saw the carnage of the night's storm: tents bent into strange shapes, equipment scattered all around, and genuine fear etched in the faces of my companions. the only sustenance we had for that morning was a can of pineapple chunks. chaos theorists say that things fall apart, and this was one of them: none of us had emergency food available. very quickly, i squished my tent into the bottom compartment of my bag, picked up a lot of stuff that would've been left behind, and started trekking for ambangeg. the wind was still unrelenting at this point, and it was a difficult 30 minute push up the side of the summit towards the open grassland where we were open target to the sour weather. the weather conspired against us that moment and the wind grabbed drops of rain and pricked our faces. walking through that carnage felt like being slapped by a prickly curtain. although normally the trek would be a pleasant walk through endless mounds of grass, we were focused on watching the trail, and turning our faces away from the source of the wind. it was slow moving all throughout the grasslands, and i had barely noticed that i was pushing the tail-end of our group. there were many times that eds and i trekked hand-in-hand, and at one point, i had to drag her along to gain speed.

after about an hour-and-a-half, we reached campsite 2, but i said that resting would just cool our bodies. besides, reaching ambangeg earlier would mean a warm meal. dangling that promise seemed to work because our pace quickened, and we forgot about the aching muscles on our shoulders and continued the trek to respond to the complaining movements inside our tummies. we rested a while at the shed near campsite 1 and i proclaimed that the remaining trek is only 2km: the longest 2km many of us endured, as the final 20 minutes seemed to be interminably long. and then i told eds that we were already at babadak. i zoomed to the ranger station and looked for my group. some of them had already bathed and changed. there was a lot of screaming from the toilet. janice asked me to prepare dinner, so i ordered everyone to take out their food load, their pots, their stoves, and began to see what i could do. i cooked rice, heated the adobo and the beef bulgogi, and within 10 minutes, had several pita pockets to share. then, janice lorded over the chicken curry and mercy took care of the sweet and sour pork, and i managed to do number 2 and take a bath. it felt great to be dry and warm, but my duties at the kitchen were far from over. we still had lots of food to cook, and i basically shared whatever we had with anyone who was there. i have never heard that many thanks in the span of only an hour. i even managed to slice some spam for the sweepers, before cleaning up, while many others had retreated into a small room, imbibing the many spirits we failed to open the previous night.

when the last person had finally changed into dry clothing, we loaded our packs onto the jeepneys and began the bumpy ride back to ambangeg, then onwards to baguio: a journey that would take us about 3 and a half hours. inside the jeepney, i was fully awake. it was sunday, past 3pm. i had been awake since 4am of saturday. do the math.

i have repeated many times that i have joined over 70 well-documented climbs since i first took up the sport in 2003, with 7 of them spent on the slopes of majestic mount pulag, but none of them compare to the experience of the second night at the saddle campsite. all throughout that evening, given the particularly controversial circumstances of this climb, i wondered whether any schadenfreude was taking place elsewhere. i always hope for good weather: it's an essential part of the prayers i usually say on behalf of the climb team, and i would never wish for anyone to have to endure something as difficult as that. but for some strange reason, i was rather happy that this took place and i experienced it. i couldn't compare it to anything i've had. i've been in miserable conditions before: i've experienced endless rains, freezing weather, and gale-force winds. but not all three at once. in fact, i was somehow delighted that 2k9 went through the ordeal so early into their mountaineering. it makes us realize many things about ourselves and about the sport we have chosen: it teaches many things about being prepared for doom even when everyone says it's going to be fun, but more important is that it also imparts a few of of life's lessons. i could list the things i realized about me, and all of them could have applied for all the previous climbs i've so far had, and i'm certain will define how i prepare for any future expeditions outdoors.

normally, misery breaks us apart into little pieces that can't be put back together. we cease to function properly, and the worst in us surfaces: we regret our decisions, despise our friends, and are drained of any energy. but although it would seem that nothing could be worse than what i had just described, all the same, nothing could be better. it was sweet misery: we all dealt with a looming crisis smoothly. the hidden leaders inside each of us very naturally revealed themselves, and we managed great cheer despite the unsavory conditions. i may not want to go through that ordeal again, but if it does happen again, i know exactly what to do. should i find myself in dire situations again, i could always remind myself of that evening at the saddle of mount pulag and proudly say: i've been through worse, and survived smiling.


i used to laugh at people who wear those pretentious shirts saying that they survived sagada, batad, or pulag. i always tend to ask if their lives were in danger in any of those places, and the answer really should be no. but after what i've been through, i want that shirt. i, and about 80 of my companions, can all proudly and truly say that we all survived the worst of pulag.
check mo pa pops. i'm sure marami pang mali yan dahil sinulat ko yan close to midnight after having a short run that left me breathless. hehe.
Well, geography is my strong suit, ha ha. The trail head is Duacan, downstream from a Kabayan village that gave its name to the river Eddet. The ranger station is in Babadak, a sitio of the Kabayan barangay of Bashoy. Ambangeg, where the park superintendent holds office, is 12 kilometres further down, across the municipal boundary in Bokod.
but of course i was also aware of those things. haha. i'm a nut for precision, and not just for geography, but for most facts. like i hate it when people say mount kibungan, or mount cristobal. it's the mountains around the municipality of kibungan, and mount san cristobal. anyway, that's just me. or us, for that matter.