August 2nd, 2016


lessons from the classroom of life: 2k16's training climb 2 in mt. mingan

i woke up yesterday morning to find that the band aid on my shin had fallen off, and there was blood on my sheets. at around lunch time on sunday, someone pointed out that my knee-high socks had a patch of bright red. it turned out i was bit by a limatik through a hole punctured by the low-lying branch of a tree. even as i write, the bleeding continues. the limatik bite isn't the only thing that will remind me of my experience on the mountain. there are many others: a few scrapes and scratches, a bruise on my right knee, the pain on my overextended left shoulder. but these are temporary tokens that will eventually heal or fade. long after they are gone, i will remember mount mingan for its brutal honesty, its raw appeal, its savagely beautiful terrain.

at around lunch time on the first day of the climb, i began to apologize to my trainees. we lost our position just behind the lead pack as a pair of cramps started tugging my hamstrings. i watched helplessly as runners from different groups were sent ahead to secure campsites, which on this mountain turned out to be real estate more precious than binondo's. my group was first to depart the jump-off, and up until station 2, my group kept a good pace all throughout the trek that started outside the barangay hall. we walked through unpaved village trails, followed the path of the davil-davilan river upstream, and crawled up a gully until we came upon a ridge where our labors tripled in difficulty.

the river's whispering waters were shallow, but that didn't make the trek necessarily easy. many of its smooth boulders were slippery, and it snaked upwards like an unsteady heartbeat, defying all rules of geometry. getting to the markers was akin to solving puzzles. after the river, we arrived at our guide's farm, and he was kind enough to bring down some coconuts from the few trees he had. it was still early, and we were ahead of the itinerary by more than an hour.

immediately afterwards, we sped towards the waterfalls that fell from about fifteen feet above into a small, cold pool. i would have wanted to stay there longer, but it got crowded rather quickly, and we had to chase the lead pack. there was a curious absence of wind on the trail, but it wasn't unbearably hot. there were also very few flat spaces to rest, and the landmarks had bland, unmemorable names. the views of dingalan, aurora were completely occluded by trees that towered high above, and as we dragged our boots up the trail, we were accompanied by shrill tweets of hovering raptors. we kept it steady for over an hour, but it was after station 2 that i finally decided to let go. we were hungry, and i kept saying that it was not a race. even if it were, i am not the fastest climber i know, so there was no sense in me competing with people who were focused on a singular goal, regardless that in so doing, they violate the principles which the club holds sacred. the club has an admirable honor code. unfortunately, not everyone is as honorable.

at this point, i told our guide to help us with clearing space for our tents, and we forged on even as i started to suffer the start of a pair of muscle cramps. i had already chewed on a few salt sticks, probably above the recommended dosage, rubbed a really hot liniment on my thighs, and replaced the water i lost from excessive sweating. but there was nothing i could do to prevent their arrival. these sneaky muscle cramps reduced me into a frequently cursing climber, and i grimaced with every painful step. i folded a few times on the trail, until after station 4, when i decided to fight. i do not know why i cramp. it could possibly be because i am weak and lack training; but even when i was much stronger, it happened often. it could be because i sweat profusely, and consequently lose electrolytes. whatever it is, i often find it a miracle when i don't suffer during a climb with a particularly steep ascent.

without much warning, we came upon the campsite. the narrow trail suddenly opens to a small flat patch of earth that had been cleared. it was also station 5 to the locals. apart from the lead pack, there were around 15 people there. but they represented about a hundred others who were still far behind, some of whom were reduced to stragglers and orphans, getting adopted along the way. with the exception of my GL and 2 trainees in his care, my group was intact, as i am a firm believer in trekking as a group. you learn much from walking for hours with people, even when many minutes pass with no words being exchanged. in the middle of the campsite was a fairly large space that could accommodate many tents, but it had already been reserved. the edges of the campsite were likewise already earmarked for phantom tents, and it was only with much arguing and pleading that we secured space for 3 of our 5 tents.

i see the importance in saving space for people in your group. i have myself done it, because i care about them, and i want nothing for them but a good night's sleep. but the situation called for another approach: it required us to maximize every square foot of space, to make use of every possible spot so that everyone can have ample room to keep away from the elements, stay dry, and be able to store some strength because tomorrow is another difficult day. i find it to be a serious indignity that people who are not in the campsite are assured of a space to set up their tents, and yet people who are already physically present are reduced to beggars negotiating for inches. my forehead wrinkled as i elbowed my way to secure a spot for my nemo hornet 2P, but there really was just no way we could set up my MSR hoop 2, so my GL and i decided to give up our tent so our trainees could sleep well. we volunteered to make do with the uneven ground that served as our kitchen and prayed hard that we would be spared even just the slightest rain as our parawing wasn't big enough to keep it away. i worried not just about our group, but for others as well. apparently, others who weren't fast enough, or at least didn't employ this selfish strategy had a similar problem.

people thought i was fuming mad that evening. in fact, i wasn't. i just like to point out when others are being unreasonable and in callous. while some people offered alternatives, others were the absolute opposite: that spot's taken, you can't pitch there. i don't think these are values that should be cultivated in the club. i unfurrowed my brow by tending to dinner. we had a hot spicy soup, a perfectly-steamed rice, and a creamy kare-kare for dinner. when we all had our fill, we gathered around the camp light and exchanged stories. it's my usual spiel: i asked people what they did for a living, how they ended up here in AMCI, and the hackneyed query about one's top 3. i'm really more interested in people, in the stories they are willing to tell, in sharing valuable skills, in celebrating commonalities and appreciating differences. i'm also always up for a good laugh. at exactly 10PM, i tucked them in, and cleared the tarp of pots, pans, and mess kits so that jerry and i could lay out our mattresses. the big root of a tree was protruding between us. i must have been so tired that evening that despite the unsavory conditions, i fell asleep immediately, only to be awakened by people passing by our kitchen on their way to answer a call of nature. it was a few minutes to 4, but i started to arrange our working space.

we made quick work of breakfast. even before the sun had risen, i was stirring a large pot of arroz caldo which had turned into a really thick chicken risotto, while the rice for lunch simmered in a separate pot. trainees were returning the campsite to how it looked when we got there, and quickly stuffed tents, pots, stoves, tarps, and clothes into bags. they delightfully gobbled breakfast even as i apologized that it wasn't soupy enough, and were already geared to trek even as other people were just crawling out of their tents. we were the second group to depart the campsite during the foggy, windy morning, but since we insisted on trekking as a unit, many others finished ahead of us, raking the trail in the process. the trail going home first climbs to the summit of mt. cinco, where we crawled through a lush, tropical forest. we reached an altitude higher than 1,000 meters above sea level, and at some point, we spotted pitcher plants hanging on a branch overhead. the mountain teemed with plant life. there were leaves of different shapes, and branches swaying in the cold wind. but there were also animals: giant blue earthworms, birds, salamanders, leeches, insects. at one point i thought i heard a dog barking. it turned out to be the guttural mating call of a large bird.

the trail presented a slew of challenges right from the start, rising and falling and falling and falling. after reviewing the trail on my suunto movescount, i realized that most of the trail was spent on ridges. the descent was particularly difficult as the trail had turned muddy from the previous day's rain, and the wet fog that covered the forest for most of the morning. with grunts and growls, we descended the mountain, fell many times on our backsides, fell forward, crawled under leaning logs, leaped over fallen trees, held on to roots and branches, and laughed at our miseries. the trek was long, but not unnecessarily. it was difficult, but not unreasonably. there are a thousand exciting things i could think of that won't require me to get dirty, bruised, beaten. but i would not have traded my weekend for the singular experience of being in this seldom-climbed mountain. although there were moments that appeared as if we were mindlessly and numbingly walking through the forest, it was actually a time for much reflection and thought. nothing fills my head with ideas more than a long walk.

long after lunch, our guide stopped us to point at a shaft of cloud that seemed to touch on a scoop in the mountain. that's where we camped, he said, and his hand followed the shape of the peak to show where we went afterwards, and how we ended up where we were: still about an hour from the shallow river. it seemed like a great distance, and an even greater feat. it is an achievement that we are all able to return to the plains without incident. in the next few days, social media will be filled with much breast-beating. i roll my eyes everytime i hear people crowing about their conquests, about their triumph over adversity, about their personal glories in high altitudes. i find this medieval attitude disconcerting, as if they have learned nothing during their time as trainees in the club, and have decided to not learn anything just because they have become members. if anything, mountaineering teaches humility and patience. it does not breed arrogance nor encourage petulance. it inspires curiosity and a sense of wonder: things that are in short supply these days.

the training climb 2 is the way it is because it is meant to force participants – particularly the trainees – to question their motives for choosing to go out in the wild. those without the right motivations are often filled with regret and resentment. but those whose hearts are in the right place will run away filled with joy and an urgent need to talk about their experiences. climbing a mountain has always been a source of important life lessons for me, more so on one that has the makings of a classic. i would like to think that i am a better person because of it. i begin to appreciate things that i often take for granted when i am on flat, solid ground. i connect to people more by disconnecting from my devices. i become focused on how my body sings and hums during the trek, despite being presented with so many distractions, even sometimes life-threatening situations. i am reminded that all great things are never so easily achieved. may mt. mingan's lessons become relevant to our lives long after the pains are gone, long after all our wounds have healed, long after all the scars have faded.