In a nation of islands, surrounded by water, hedged by massive ranges and crowned by sleeping volcanoes, anyone seeking adventure may have either of two illicit relationships: cavorting with the beach, the sun, and the sea, or reaching natural highs on the forests, peaks and summits of mountains. And I say illicit because in this country, where destinations are sprinkled generously throughout the archipelago, no one can keep true to a pledge of loyalty to any specific place.
My love affair with our mountains began fairly recently, although I have by no means been shy and far from busy. Among hikers of mountains, I have been somewhat of a Casanova: always seeking out new locations, far removed from the prying eyes of my peers, desiring places few are aware of, untouched and unexplored. The nature of my weekend relationships has fostered jealousy among my other loves: my family complains that I am always away, often beyond the reach of technology, and sometimes extending to three or four or even five days. And friends outside of my circle of mountain worshipers continue to deal with my being scarce on a Saturday.
It is because often, at this time, I am on my way to a place unknown to those who are unfamiliar with the sensation of strapping a 40-lb pack on your back and hauling it up slopes that are at times too steep that you’re close to kissing the ground. It is because I have learned that I am most aware that I am alive when I know that life can be so easily lost should I be so careless as to allow myself to slip and fall down a ravine whose bottom is unseen. It is because I have realized the limitations of my humanity when dealing with the difficulty of crossing a raging river or the dangers of clambering up a boulder. And it is because I have come to know that despite these human limitations, I can achieve anything, and that ultimately, no challenge is insurmountable. Often, I return to my place under the sun nursing pains in places I didn’t think possible, being acquainted with muscles I didn’t know I had, but always more energized than when I am well at rest in the plains.
Those who have not discovered the joys of climbing mountains might probably balk at the mere idea of spending a night up on a ridge, or in a clearing inside a forest, battered by chilling winds, pestered by all sorts of crawling insects, and relying on a pack of wet tissue in place of a bath at the end of a long and sweaty day. But my notion of luxury has evolved, and I have learned to better appreciate the comforts of urban living as I rely on the comforting sadness of my solitude in the mountains. Rather than pine for a bed, I stretch out on a self-inflating mattress that rolls up to the size of a small pillow. And I will not tolerate a night eating out of tin cans, but will insist on cooked food that almost always tastes better than when I prepare them at home with the aid of a complete kitchen.
Before evening descends on a campsite, the few precious flats on a mountain become colorful palettes of oddly shaped tents. Stoves that fold into the size of two fists are fished out of meticulously-packed bags, and cooksets that resemble matryoshka dolls transform into several pieces of pots and pans. Headlamps and butane-powered lights illuminate the campsite enough to see the happiness on a friend’s face, or whether the food is cooking well, or to pass around a shot glass to share precious spirits that travel with you, or to find a hidden place where you can answer the call of nature.
I cannot completely say what brought me here, or whether I had always known that I had an acumen for walking long distances, except that I have always had this longing to escape, to be as far away as possible from civilization, to hear my own voice in chorus with the broken violins of crickets, to lie down on a bed of pebbles and marvel at so many stars, and to have absolute awareness of where I am even when I feel lost. And that feeling takes place more often than I would wish, but I find assurance in the shallow footprints on a rarely-used trail, or ribbons tied to a branch, or two rocks stacked one atop the other, or small hacks on barks of trees to tell me: yes, I am on the right path.
In the few years that I have found myself retreating to the misty heights of mountains, I have collected a long list of “been-there’s”, although I feel that my collective experiences are far from complete. There is always a different trail I haven’t traveled, or a unique sunset I have not witnessed. My journeys for new liaisons have taken me into the bosom of the Cordilleras, up the treacherous slopes of Mindoro, to the unpredictable peaks of Bicol, to the skulking giant on the island of Negros, and more recently, to the bowels of Leyte. I have touched the roof of the archipelago in Mindanao, and walked on a sea of clouds in Luzon. I have stumbled upon elfin forests, confronted walls of stone, and fields of wild flowers. I have traveled these islands seeking not one true love, but a harem of temporary lovers. To all of my dangerous liaisons, I will swear absolute infidelity, although I will also confess that some mountains get more love than others, as I have seen Mt. Pulag and the Kibungan Mountain Ranges more than I have Pico de Loro or Tirad Pass.
I have shared these climbs with friends whose romantic flings with the mountains are just as ardent as mine. Together, we are seduced to seek that which we do not completely know, and are reduced to mere spectators as nature displays its engaging drama of seething afternoons that turn into nippy evenings whose black blanket slowly slinks away when the revolving rays of the sunrise begin to stretch out from the horizon in the early morning, and we are fortunate to be awake. These are the kind of friends whom I trust with my life, and I will not long forget how they held on to my hand when I was about to fall, how they offered a hot bowl of soup and a blanket when I shivered uncontrollably, how they trained their headlamps on my path when my batteries died, how they were always present when I felt alone, and how they observed me from a distance when I needed to be by myself.
They have tolerated my faithlessness, for they too are just as guilty of these feelings. We answer a primitive calling to return to the wild, and together, we recognize that the most savage of things can be among the most beautiful, and that the great architect of nature has boundless imagination. We pledge an undying devotion to all our loves, and suffer to ensure that the romance will continue even long after we are no longer able to love, no longer able to climb.
Here where we use the term “mountaineering” rather loosely and apply it to anything related to the extreme sport of climbing mountains, my kind is referred to as mountaineers. We stoke our temporary loves with the stress of our weekday routines, and imagine the magnitude of our efforts in the approaching weekend when we are reunited with a past lover, or find something worth returning to with a newfound affair.