the perils and pleasures of a bakun solo

the way they do business in some of the interior towns of the cordilleras has not changed in the last 40 years, despite the improvement of roads and the introduction of mobile communication. a trip that normally would last just over 5 hours extends to as much as 8, as the conductor of the bus bound for bakun performs several completely unrelated tasks: cashier, courier, delivery boy, mailman, mechanic, man friday, personal shopper, messenger, and bet collector. the amount of confidence that's heaped on him is enormous, to say the least, as he chucks several billfolds with grocery lists into his beltbag. given his myriad responsibilities, my bus ride from kilometer 5 in la trinidad to bakun's bgy. sinacbat became a torturous, but ultimately interesting, experiment.

it was an experiment because i was uncertain of the outcome, and unsure whether my ideas were feasible. they were certainly far-fetched, and none of my online sleuthing could provide me with the answers i required. it was made increasingly difficult by the fact that i planned to do it alone. no one i knew had done it, and i could not ask anyone about how it ought to be done. so with a flicker of faith and a handful of optimism, i decided to pursue my bakun solo adventure.

i left for baguio during the eve of the chinese new year long weekend. the bus stations were overrun by passengers, many of whom were weighed down by giant backpacks, the type that's carried to the mountains. along the route, i met many people i knew, each of whom had planned on doing adventures of their own. when i reached baguio long before dawn on friday, i was nearly convinced by friends to join them instead on a climb to mount pulag via the akiki trail. but i was eager to try something new. something different. i would later learn from a jeepney driver that at least 37 of them were called upon to deliver climbers to the akiki and ambangeg jump-offs of this worryingly popular mountain destination. assuming that each jeepney carried just 14 passengers, there would still be more than 500 people on the slopes of mount pulag. it is a figure which alarms and confounds me -- i go to the mountains out of a longing to be away, and not to be surrounded by crowds. so i waited 3 more hours across of a petron gas station beside the la trinidad trading post for my 7:30AM trip to bakun.

the old reliables that ply the halsema highway are relics that are built to withstand the difficult mountain trails that provide access to towns scattered between baguio and bontoc. although kilometers of roads continue to be tirelessly paved, several routes are still rough and dangerous. our bus expertly maneuvered through hairpin turns that precariously teeter alongside ravines. the road is sometimes partially blocked by landslides, and it becomes even more challenging when another vehicle is traveling the other way. a narrow arterial road in sinipsip (a curious landmark that belongs to different barangays of both bakun and buguias, where halsema is the border) near kilometer 70 leads to central bakun, and an inconspicuous junction just before ampusongan will take you to either the poblacion or sinacbat.

the barangays of bakun have been carved out of valleys between mountain peaks. in bakun central are 3 mountains that are important to bakun's economy, and constitute much of the small town's tourism income: lobo, kabunian, and tenglawan. all of these are accessible from the poblacion, where the old municipal hall that doubles as a boarding house for visitors is perched on a natural platform. of these, lobo is the highest at more than 2,000MASL, but make no mistake: the highest point in bakun is actually somewhere else. in fact, the entry point to bakun along halsema is already more than 2,400 MASL. these mountains make up what outsiders call the bakun trio: distinct mountain destinations done in one trip, usually as individual day hikes, with the old municipal hall as base camp.

i am not particularly fond of day hikes, so i had planned on climbing as many mountains as i could and camp on elevations higher than the poblacion's 1,100MASL. based on the scant information that was available, mount tenglawan is said to be the most difficult, so it was obvious where i was headed. the jump-off to this mountain is sinacbat, a small village at the edge of a road that was inaccessible for a month and opened only 2 days prior to my arrival. the long weekend also fell on the same dates as the town fiesta, so understandably, there were few people to entertain me, as most of them had been ferried to ampusongan to participate in tournaments. the few people who remained there were very concerned about me, although they were also unsure about how they could help. i waited for an official to contact the few guides familiar with the trail to tenglawan, as boxes, livestock, LPG tanks were unloaded from the bus. a lady, who hadn't been to the mountain herself, asked if i could endure carrying such a beast of a backpack to the summit on my own. she insisted i hire a porter. i politely declined.

the trek to the summit began a little after 3PM. a young boy who claimed it takes him an hour to run to the peak led the way, and we ambled along a trail taken by school children. we passed sitio luponan that seemed to have just appeared out of nowhere, where a more experienced guide joined us. he knew how to talk to visitors, and pointed out some peculiar features of the mountain. he carried a small bolo and an even smaller bag, which contained a huge headlamp that he never used on the way up. along the way, he described the trail, and i asked why we couldn't take a more direct route. we plunged about 200 meters down before resuming an ascent that on bad days would have maimed me.

the local government has realized the potential of mountaineering as a source of tourism pesos. apart from organizing a rather confused local guide association, allocations have been made to improve sections of the trail which would have otherwise been extremely difficult. just as roads to sinacbat are being paved into tirepaths, a concrete foot trail with railings is being built covering the steepest section of the trail to tenglawan. construction is still ongoing, and judging from the sign, also delayed. when the sky cleared, it was possible to see as far away as lobo and kabunian, which seem to surround the plateau of the poblacion. it was a bright and sunny day, but the wind that was blowing into the mountain was cool, refreshing, in contrast to the the trail, which was dry. branches and pine needles broke under my feet as i made my way up past the footpath and onto a thick patch of pine forest.

just above were boulders where others may have taken refuge. the behemoths sat at the edge of a dry stream. my guide, whose name was inspired by the founder and leader of the MNLF, pointed at cairns on the stream bed and asked: isn’t that your sign? i said yes, and made instructions on how they’re made, what they’re supposed to mean. there were also pieces of plastic tied onto trees. at the other end of the dead stream was another boulder, where the water source would be. a small pool had collected there and nurmi volunteered to go further up to fill up my bladder for the night i would be spending up there. from the water source he estimated the trek to be for another hour. the evening was spilling over the mountain quickly, and i could catch glimpses of sunset through the clearings above the trees. he pointed to the crimson horizon and said that was already part of la union, but i was more interested in knowing whether the summit was still further afield. moonlight had traced the shape of the summit and it looked like i would exceed my guide’s estimate by a longshot. the pine forest gave way to what seemed like a mossy forest, as branches clasped over my head, and i followed my guide closely. he had collected some branches to be burned. i told him i had no means to cook. i brought along my MSR dragonfly, but forgot to put the fuel bottle into my pack. it contributed to my hesitation, but my sense of adventure was stronger. i was prepared just to eat bread and the emergency provisions i had taken with me.

after a few more minutes, the forest canopy gave way to a dark but starry sky. i almost did not realize it but i managed to reach the summit, which in the blinding light of my petzl myo RXP was a narrow stretch of rock, too uneven to promise a comfortable sleep. on either end of this patch are pitch black pits. i walked 10 meters to the edge of the campsite and saw the same. in the distance were a number of yellow lights that marked civilization. as the wind howled, i immediately got about pitching my solo tent: an REI quarter dome 1. it weighed less than a kilo, but i was burdened by many an excess of other things that anyone camping alone needed to bring. while i did this, nurmi started a fire in order to get warm. i asked him to move a little away from me as i was afraid embers would burn little holes into my nylon home. within a few minutes, i emerged from my tent having changed into warmers and fleeces. i was prepared for the cold of mt. tenglawan’s altitude. but i hadn’t accounted for the wind: kabunian, the god of the cordillers, seemed to be breathing profusely. over me, the sky revealed even more stars.

i gave instructions to nurmi to meet me the following morning somewhere down the mountain, where the trails to sinacbat and the poblacion converged. the guides currently aren’t prepared to camp, which right now makes little sense since most of bakun’s visitors sleep at the poblacion’s old municipal hall. i made do with the food that i had and realized that some of my water had spilled when i dumped my reservioir on the ground. i didn’t have a drop of alcohol in my backpack, so immediately after i had eaten and admired the peaceful evening that was creeping over me, i decided to go to sleep. by then i had adjusted a little to the cold, but i still dressed in full battle gear. i cocooned myself into my mummy sleeping bag and prepared for a restful slumber. but i was not allowed it: my phone rang at least 3 times. the one i picked up was a drunk call. i would wake several times in the night because a rock was directly under the small of my back, and my therm-a-rest did little to conceal the fact of it. also, there were several instances when the furious wind rattled the fly of my tent, it was as if someone was outside shaking it, wanting to get in.

i set my alarm to go off before 6AM so i could watch the sunrise. unfortunately, the morning had turned cloudy and the prospect of the sky beyond the mountains turning into a fiery bouquet was slim. i got out of the tent and walked towards the edge of the summit strip. it was a long way down. i could end it all here, i thought, and dismissed the idea. i started folding my tent and wondered how i could possible get a photo of myself on the monolith of rock that stood beyond the chasm. suddenly, nurmi appears in the deadening silence of the bright early morning, and his arrival gives me a little jolt. i am a little late to our agreed schedule, that’s why he’s here. i quickly packed my bag, breathed very deep, and ran to the monolith while i still had courage in my heart. i normally would not risk doing anything stupid even if the results were possibly amazing, especially if the chances were slim. from where i camped, it seemed impossible to scale the monolith, which had a sheer, vertical cliff on one side. but a cross was erected there, so i thought there might be a way.

the foliage at the foot of the monolith was curios and colorful: stunted trees the height of bushes, bushes with many-colored leaves. a trail marked the way to the top, and i raced there as fast as my heart was beating, and before i could pause to absorb the danger surrounding me, i was already on top, proclaiming my arrival. i think i may have done a little dance even. i stood there a grand total of under 3 minutes, and i realized going down was harder. i could seriously slip and fall, and i even pointed to a place where rescuers might find my body. i think the howling wind helped a little, that i almost failed to appreciate how close i was to serious injury, or even death. i went back immediately to the comparatively safer spot offered by the campsite. apparently, just beside my tent grew an enormous number of pitcher plants, because it looks like a pitcher, nurmi added. then he pointed to dots in the distance. he said there were 10 people making their way up to the peak. i bade goodbye and see you again to mt. tenglawan’s summit as i made my way down.

i immediately realized how steep getting to the summit was. the trail was made up mostly of loose soil and dry pine needles which made it very slippery and i fell many times on my butt. it was a good thing that my osprey atmos was there to cushion my fall. i wondered if they planned to bring the foot trail all the way here. somewhere in the pine forest just below the summit was an area that could possibly fit as many as 10 tents, a viable alternative should several of my friends decide to return. after getting some water, we proceeded with the trek, and just before reaching the footpath, i encountered the people we saw an hour earlier. they were all part of an organized tour, and although a few of them were very strong and determined, some of them fell behind, looking spent and unhappy. i smiled at all of them and said they were almost there.

an hour later, i would be standing on the same spot where i saw them, and i looked back at the top of the rocks where i spent the night. there were already a few people there, soaking in the sun. the trail going to the poblacion is rather straightforward as it meanders past terraces and patches of forests, parts of which afford very amazing views of the entirety of tenglawan’s majesty. nurmi told me that there is a legend spoken in bakun that the mountain used to be higher, but he had an argument with kabunian, who was a much more powerful god, resulting in its height being reduced to what it is now. i chuckled that kabunian should have pounded harder so getting up wouldn’t be so hard. i had hoped to reach poblacion in 3 hours, but it was nearly 11AM when we arrived at a small village at the end of a dirt road. we seemed no closer to getting there despite the fact that i didn’t stop often, and each of my rest periods lasted less than 5 minutes. there was a cleft between me and the poblacion, which was marked by a hanging bridge and a shallow river. a giant iron pipe ran alongside it. it was steep getting down and i reckoned i’d reach the old municipal hall in less than an hour. nurmi informed me he would go no further than the hanging bridge as he still had a long way back to sinacbat. besides, someone else was supposed to meet me there in order to bring me to kabunian. but my little toes were already hurting from blisters and it was getting very late. i didn’t want to trek in darkness and i thought about the possibility of postponing my ascent to kabunian on another date. we stopped to eat bread and some dried tapa, and after a while, i resumed my trek.

i was finally completely solo. it was just me, my burdensome backpack, and the odd sounds of the wilderness. with no one to distract me, i suddenly realized how absolutely heavy my pack was and i rested often as the village was nowhere in sight. i kept my eyes open for diverging trails, relying on instinct and a good sense of direction in order to reach the poblacion in as little time as possible. there was a stray trail somewhere and the sound of children playing above me but i pushed on the trail that seemed to endure the most use. i trekked past fields with capsicum plants, and heard the roar of a truck. i was finally on the road. i asked the first person where the old municipal hall was and she said it was still quite far, up the road, and she insisted i just wait for the truck to come by, so i did, thinking that by their standards, it must really be some distance. it wasn’t.

i got down the concrete road that ended just before the platform towards the old municipal hall, went straight to a store and asked for a bottle of coke. i also had some water heated so i could have a bowl of soup. it was already almost 2PM and i finally decided that kabunian would not be part of my itinerary: the only trip the following day would be at 6:30AM, and there were no guides there to take me even just to the foot of the mountain. besides, my toes were already complaining. when another group arrived from kabunian, the municipal hall was opened and i smuggled my things into a vacant room. i took a bath at a public toilet and asked around how i could possibly have dinner. one store owner offered me her kitchen but said she couldn’t prepare anything for me as she was busy with a baby. i said i could cook. i looked around the poblacion: a small village of more than 2,000 inhabitants spread over a small plateau whose borders were the slopes of mountains: on its east is lobo, while kabunian girds around along the west and down to the south. tenglawan is far to the northwest. like sinacbat, it felt eerily empty, as many of the villagers were away for the festival. there were signs outside the multi-purpose cooperative office informing everyone that the bus would not make the trip to la trinidad in 3 of the next 5 days.

bakun’s municipal hall was moved to ampusongan in 1964. at the time, central bakun was relatively inaccessible, although the arrival of several companies into mining and power production meant that roads had to be carved into the barangay. in the philippines, the barangay where the seat of government is located is usually called the poblacion. but this village at the edge of a road that has yet to appear on the map retains that title only for sentimental reasons. night fell slowly on the barangay as i watched children playing dodge ball on the main road. i looked at how kabunian’s features resembled many of the mountains around kibungan, which was just south of the poblacion. in fact, mt. tagpew and the palina rice terraces, which i’ve climbed several times, are accessible from kabunian.

there is little left to do in bakun after nightfall. the tour group arrived in trickles as i tended to dinner, and i spent the time gathering as much information as i could, keeping contact details of guides and jeepney drivers so that my return would be smoother. in fact, i already planned my next hike with the leader of the guide association. i even probably promised coming back to donate some used but still useful gear. not that i was inclined to boozing that night but i did randomly ask a store owner why she didn’t display any alcohol, and the reply was a little strange, particularly because i think this part of luzon is given to bacchanalia: drinking was only allowed during birthdays and cañaos and always at the privacy of one’s home. if one wanted to purchase beer or any spirit for that matter, one had to travel as far away as buguias.

the following morning i was up early to catch the only bus leaving bakun. a store owner refused payment for the cup of hot water that i asked for and i loaded my bag onto the bus even as the rack on its roof started to fill with bags of pepper, tanks of gas, and baskets with livestock. the loading process took so long that we didn’t leave until about an hour after the engine was turned on. and still we had to stop often to pick up people and produce. the lonely road leading to the junction to sinacbat and the main road that also leads to kibungan is narrow and allows only 1 vehicle to pass at a time. it follows the contours of the slopes leading to mt. lobo, going as high up as 1600MASL, before plunging down again to ampusongan, and rising finally to 2400 in halsema. just beyond ampusongan is a lot of construction: bulldozers, trucks and payloaders are moving earth while backhoes are reshaping mountains. cement mixers are transforming dirt paths into paved roads that can welcome small cars. coconut fibers are draped over the mountain walls to prevent landslides. it’s a great effort to make our roads safer, and provide better access to towns that at times seem cut off from the rest of the world, where the kindness of people and the innocence of children seem like happy relics of an almost unrealistic past.

this bakun solo is a reflection of my desire to be at peace, and my ability to draw pleasure from things in their purest form: without the complications of company, without the unnecessary noise of voices other than those in my head. when i announced that i wanted to do something on my own, my plans were described as boring, baduy, loser even, and i pity those who feel they need others to complete their experiences. yes, there may be issues linked to safety and cost, but i’m a lonely traveler by choice, not to describe my emotions when i’m by myself, but to emphasize the fact that i am happy and willing to embark on an unknown adventure even when everyone else is daunted by it. of course, it’s always great to be able to share a discovery. and bakun, though it has its limitations, is worthy of another visit. besides, a companion who knows how to take pictures would be useful to take along.
i feel you. i love traveling alone. it's when i feel safest and i won't be violated by boosterous drunk mountaineers' senseless vhattering. walking alone is when i purge new ideas.
traveling alone is both a form of therapy and some kind of drug for me. i'm almost always fully charged after a unique experience swimming in the ocean of my own thoughts. thanks for reading!