climb

pick a pointed peak: 2K12's training climb 1 at mount balingkilat


the shade of my hat could not conceal the glare of the midday sun that melted the background into a blinding pool of light. i squinted as i stared at the sun's unusually bright reflection on the still waters of subic bay, and my eyes moved southward, to the stream that seemed to have bled from the heart of this bald cone of earth. i stood on a precipice somewhere between the mountain's peak and the valley where we began the climb. the climbers below me were crawling up the trail, their feet and their hands flat on the ground, as though they paused to execute some form of worship. i could see their covered heads inching towards me. behind me, the mountain rose steeply, and the trail that seemed to go straight up was speckled with the multi-colored dots of the backpacks that burdened the climbers who had gone ahead.


i moved close to the edge where trees that did not provide any shade stood like a fence between the trail and the steep drop to the bottom of the waterfalls. i could still see people frolicking in the shallow water that had collected in a small natural basin. in the distance, i can see the shadow of a big cloud moving my direction. please come sooner, i thought, as the heat planted my feet on the ground. occasionally, i would take off my hat to fan myself, and breathe through my mouth. i could hear people whistling, inspired perhaps by this ancient, but misguided belief that the sound made by blowing through pursed lips awakens the god of wind. finally, the girls would reach me and i would continue, egging them to reach a certain spot on the trail, which for its entire length, must have had only three places where you could escape sunlight.


getting to the peak was a chore. after leaving the end of the road in sitio san martin, we snaked through the village and crossed a shallow river. i'm familiar with this place, having been to cinco picos and nagsasa cove. but although the trail to the five peaks bends left and nagsasa goes straight ahead, the way to the pointed peak runs alongside the first river. the trail is sandy, owing perhaps to the eruption of mount pinatubo. the trail is exposed, lined only by tall grass and pockets of trees. after crossing a number of whispering brooks and meandering streams, we reached the bamboo grove where we doused ourselves with mountain water, where the sunlight fell in shafts, forming geometric shapes on our faces. slowly, the climbers piled in and we had to move out of the shade. barely 10 minutes on the trail and we were already pining for rest.


i was trying to recall if i have ever had a day in the mountains hotter than this. kibungan is close to mind, but that was quite recent. the ordeal at mount iglit must have been just as hot, because the trail was equally as barren. each time we found a tree, we paused, and when there were no trees, we found the shadows of big rocks a very welcome place. the trail is straightforward. it just goes up, through little switchbacks, along shelves of rocks. i would always pause somewhere and look back. the view is unchanging, but as you gain altitude, it appears to be even more outstanding. it really is better up there.

eventually, after muscling our way through a steep and rocky section of the trail, we reached the peak where some members of the lead pack had stayed to wait for us to arrive. the landscape east of the peak had unfolded almost completely in front of us, and we could see the outlines of mountains from as far away as tarlac. giant factories seemed like little dots, and roads like fine arteries. the campsite was still an hour away from the peak, or so the itinerary stated. in reality, it was only 15 minutes uphill, past the mounds of chewed earth that resembled abandoned anthills or empty nests of termites. the character of this section of the summit area was otherworldly. there were sections of broken rock that seemed to have been purposely placed there, arranged in a way that they resembled small versions of stonehenge. after collecting camp water, we marched towards our appointed campsite, which was a spot higher than the football field-sized meadow.


i waited for the rest of the crew to arrive. it wasn't even past 3PM yet when we arrived. a few days prior to the climb i posted the weather forecast that predicted an 80% chance of rain. although fog blew frequently into the campsite, the color of the sunset dismissed the thought of a wet evening. we started on dinner early, and pitched our tents such that they surrounded the kitchen area. i prepared a sardine misua soup which was quickly gobbled up, and barked orders for food to be cooked. i volunteered to cook my now famous perfect rice, which i predicted would go well with the food that we had served. when night fell, i began to notice something different in the wind. it tasted of rain, and before it began to fall, we had secured most of the food under the kitchen tarp.

but before we could even begin to scoop spoonfuls of rice onto our mess kits, the heavens poured in buckets. i had my camera under the kitchen tarp with me so i quickly ran into the tent to keep it dry. and i couldn't even go back out. the rain was accompanied by a fierce wind, and the doors of my tent rippled in the onslaught. to complete the experience, thunder began to whip, cracking over the campsite like pieces of metal dragged across concrete. there were echoes that lasted moments, and i had to stay inside the tent because i feared it would be blown all the way to anawangin. staring at the mesh ceiling of my portable shelter, i could see flashes of blinding light were exploding outside. one particular heavenly burst felt so close, i though it may have made a direct hit on the campsite. i began to pray silently, hoping it would not last the whole night. and although the entire ordeal lasted only 10 minutes, it was one of the scariest. it brought me back to pulag in 2009. only this time, there were fireworks.


the rain let up and i left the succor of my tent to check on the damage. a few valiant members of my group had stayed outside to hold on to the kitchen tarp. some of our meals were swimming in rainwater, but it didn't stop us from having a decent dinner. other teams apparently just sneaked into their wet tents, their clothes dripping, and never bothered to go out again. we still had a fantastic meal, managed to have socials till past the lights out, and shared some food with those who were caught on the trail at the height of that brief storm. very briefly i visited kuya mar's spot to have two shots of johnnie walke red which i found disgusting. i began to feign sleep to avoid it, and later decided to make it real. i fell asleep while they were singing classics from the 90s, their voices carried by the ardent wind.


i woke up a little after 5AM. i rolled my therm-a-rest while a commotion was taking place outside. it was almost impossible to light up our stoves because the were no barriers in the campsite. i later devised a wind screen so we could at least have breakfast. we were "required" to visit the summit, which i guess was good since in the rush of preparing for the descent, we could easily have skipped it. the trek back down began at 9AM, and i had this idea to still chase the wedding ceremony of my friend dyake. i shifted into mountain goat mode, and jumped from rock to rock. i paused only very briefly, when my arms began to hurt from the heat. they were already severely sunburned when i decided to wear my arm sleeves. i would look at other climbers and marvel at their difficulties, their apprehensions. perhaps if you have no fear of heights, you find any expression of terror to be strange, if not exaggerated.


i reached the bamboo grove way ahead of schedule. we were supposed to have lunch here but i only had a pancake, so i quickly sped off to the end of the trail, passing other climbers along the way, using my wedding card as an excuse to overtake. but alas, it was not as easy as i thought. the waiting ate up a lot of my time, and the wash-up area was nowhere near the highway, so although i had my lunch at a little after 2PM, i decided to stay behind. the columban college had a teaching hotel, and i asked these HRM students to serve us food and beer and even asked if we could have videoke. the last jeepney came in at past 7PM, although we still had time to do the presentations which all the groups took time to prepare -- on this part i am obviously lying. but our group won on account of jerry's washboard abs. we had the group post-climb meeting at the restaurant and ended it on the bus, which left at past 9PM. i fell asleep and woke up in manila. i was dropped off in makati after midnight. and yes, i still had time to visit dyake at his intramuros hotel, if only to show that in fact, i did attend his wedding.


i have received some mixed reactions to the climb. i often jokingly asked people if they had passed a different trail whenever they said it was difficult. i think what compounded the steepness of the trail was the unbearable heat. but one of the strangest feelings i heard was this: that we could have died in that climb. to be honest, there was no part in the trail where i felt my life was at risk. in fact, there was nary a time in AMCI that i felt i was in serious danger. expectations may not have been properly established prior to the climb, but i don't think we were unnecessarily exposed to any form of peril. climbing mountains allows us access to our inner selves: our weaknesses are uncovered, and we are taught to overcome them; our strengths are revealed, and we learn to harness them. whether you realize you have more shortcomings than advantages, what matters is that you've risen above all your doubts. that's what makes an admirable mountaineer. i know this is a little late coming, and saying it again might diminish its meaning, but congratulations 2K12. i hope you all see the beauty of mountaineering, the AMCI way.