the sweat-drenched clothes i used during my last climb were still stinking in a pile waiting to get sent to the laundry when i started packing for another weekend in the mountains. i was going to return to mt. balingkilat, the most imposing peak among the mountains west of subic bay. the last time i was there was during the first training climb of AMCI's 2k12 BMC, which baptized trainees in fire, rock, rain, and thunder. i do not recall making any claims about not returning to the mountain, as did many others at the time, although i have a good recollection of just how absolutely barren of precious shade the landscape was. over three years after, no tree has grown on its steep slope.
i nearly missed the bus to olongapo early saturday morning when i failed to rise for our scheduled departure. i hailed the bus in guadalupe, less than half an hour after i leaped out of bed. we rendezvoused with the cubao team in jollibee, and then later left for cawag to start the trek. the sun was everywhere that day, even in the littlest corner. it crept through cracks in the canopy, crawled over boulders, and seeped through the shifting sands at the beginning of the trail. the grass on the unfertile soil in cawag had grown tall and brown, vibrating with heat. the river, which once swelled to depths higher than my knees, was parched: it was a congress of disarranged round rocks. the sky was completely blue, and not a cloud blotted the sun. shadows and shade were scattered throughout the long, terrible climb. our only consolation was each other and the accompanying breeze.
the wind blew tirelessly from subic, and accompanied us in moments when the sun's rays felt like sharp pins pressing against our bodies. every few steps up the dire 700-meter ascent, we would pause for air and jostle for spots under the limited shade of slender trees, and look back at the unchanging view, where a city spreads out horizontally from beyond the sea. the surrounding mountains resemble each other: covered in untrimmed carpets of swaying, sunburnt grass. below us was another group of people whose heads were bowed by the bright, blinding noon. each of us had carried at least 4 liters of various liquids: water, sodas, poisons, fuel. the weight was slowing us down, but we were relieved, nevertheless, knowing that we'd conquered this fear before. we were no longer daunted by how steep the trail rose, by the cliffs that fence some of the resting places, by the walls of rocks that sometimes seem to block our path with obstacles.
at a little after 3PM, we came upon the mountain's sweet spot, when the sun was low enough in the horizon to be obscured by the peak, and we weren't too high up on the slope to be bathed in sunlight. we spent the next hour reaching for the false peak, a craggy area which rests just above some of the mountain's most difficult parts. here, the view of subic bay remains the same, though looking at it from that angle certainly makes it more awesome. nagsasa cove was visible in the west, some of mt. cinco pico's pyramids rose in the southeast, and the sharp ridges of the range tumbled into pundaquit to the north. most of our complaints during the slow climb up had been eased by the achievement. we lingered here only briefly, since our campsite was the saddle between the summit and the peak that looked to nagsasa. the guide tried to argue that there was a bigger, better spot down the mountain, but we could not be convinced otherwise, for sentimental reasons.
so he took us on a direct path up the summit, where the same, already amazing views became even more outstanding. our shadows were already long on the campsite when we began erecting our tents. i made a small comment about the wind blowing in from the south, directly through the hollow saddle, but it was not a source of concern at the time. although the memory of the wind flattening my tent on the mt. pulag saddle campsite is still vivid in my mind, the weather did not suggest that a storm was on its way. so we treated everything as though no harm would come upon us, and welcomed the cool sea breeze that made us hug ourselves silly.
i struggled with cooking rice with a flickering fire, but at least my pork binagoongan was well appreciated. just as we started passing around some shots, we noticed that the wind had picked up speed. we relied on the price tags of our imported tents: these were tested in wind tunnels, and there are claims that they can survive even the foulest weather. but the twin peaks seemed to collect the breeze and intensified it into something worse than some typhoons i've encountered on mountain peaks. the wind was a strong, solid force, assaulting the mountain with murderous fury. troy's big agnes angel springs UL2, whose broad side was pitched against the onslaught, was the first to snap, literally. its pole broke with such violence, even the elastic cord inside it was cut. later on, i laughed as laiza's copper spur UL1, also by big agnes, was being pancaked by the pounding wind. it looked as if a giant foot had stepped on it. beside it, my REI quarter dome 1 bent, but popped back to position. we had to rearrange tent assignments that evening, and decided to quit the socials early, even though we still had some uncorked bottles.
i didn't realize that i would spend that entire night feigning sleep.
at first i had to step out of my tent to tear down the kitchen parawing, which was rattling like an annoying toy gun. when i returned to my tent, i would pretend that i wasn't bothered by the tent mesh masking my face for seconds at any given time, and many times for each minute that passed. i decided to change my position, with my head on the narrower foot side of the tent, and i was kept awake by the endless flapping of my vestibule. whenever i opened my eyes, i felt as if i were witnessing a demolition: i was inside the wreckage of a hull made of nylon that shook and bent and flattened. many times i would just close my eyes and imagine myself elsewhere. but the noise of nylon clapping and popping and the sound of aluminum poles creaking and rubbing against nylon kept me alert about impending doom.
and a symbol of doom in fact arrived.
at half past three in the morning of sunday, the ground underneath me shook. for a brief moment i thought it was just the bathtub floor lifting from the ground and trembling from the force of the wind. but it was, in fact, a magnitude 5.7 earthquake whose epicenter was less than 5km from where we were. i was prostrate about 2 inches from the ground, but the ground i was on was more than 1,000 meters above sea level. so you can forgive me if i say now that i thought the mountain would break apart and swallow us sleepy, wide-eyed invaders. even still, i did not move from my far-from-restful position. i did not worry about the possibility of landslides, or tsunamis, or buildings being toppled. it did not cross my mind if the trail would still be there tomorrow, or if the rocks on the trail would be dislodged from their perches. i worried only about getting some reasonable amount of sleep.
later at sunrise i went out to see that the glow of a grass fire in cinco picos was more orange than the dawn's horizon. the wind was still wild, and i still lacked sleep, so i returned to my tent and went out again only in time for breakfast. i passed on the rice which could not be cooked in those conditions, and quickly assessed the carnage: a broken pole, another one frayed (yoshi's REI half dome 2), another one severely crooked, and a fourth pole slightly bent (mine). the heavier tents manufactured by local companies somehow survived without incident, which attests to what you give up on when you shave grams from your backpack's weight.
the trek to nagsasa takes us to the other peak, then down a path to the other spacious campsite that leads straight to the bira-bira trail. the other group had spread their tents over a wide area, which measured around 4 basketball courts, and had unobstructed views of rounded peak and nagsasa cove. we were to cut a traverse to nagsasa directly, and although i've hiked there twice already, i agreed to join the climb because of the prospect of treading on new trails. what the guide did not tell us until later was that we would go down the bakilat trail, which cuts a more deliberate path to the cove, unlike bira-bira, which circuits around before joining the usual route, which we took previously in 2011. the guide offered us no option, actually, and just steered us to the ridge that had been blazed only last year, with its vertiginal path that spiraled down a spot with some orphan trees. at the beginning, the wind was still whistling through the carabiner loop of my water bottle, and suddenly abandoned us when we were closer to the dry riverbeds.
somewhere between the scorched savannah and the trail of rocks is a vintage american military jeep. there are no roads anywhere here. but how it ended up there makes for interesting talk of theories. the uninhabited mountains near subic were apparently used by the americans as target practice for their jet pilots. it's possible that this jeep was dropped by helicopter along with some concrete tesseracts, so that F-16s could fire air-to-ground missiles while cruising at hundreds of miles per hour. this could also explain why the terrain is barren, save for a few patches of trees where we waited for others to finish the knee-crushing descent. because the bakilat trail is new, the trail meanders with hesitation until it completely disappears among the ashes of burnt reeds. it was easy to spot the cove from where we stood, suffering silently while our faces melted from the noonday sun, but our guide insisted we first trek to the river, cross the dry bed, and walk towards yolly's resort, where a hot lunch was supposedly waiting for us. it was only when we arrived that they started a fire, but we didn't mind. this gave us a chance to cool down in nagsasa's peaceful bay, which was still chest-deep even more than a hundred meters from the beach.
our boat arrived late in the afternoon, and we left nagsasa cove as the sun was setting. the trip was smooth, and despite the endless roar of the engine, i was nearly rocked to sleep by the sea. we had to wait another half hour at pundaquit before the jeepney arrived, but a drunk man who collapsed across from us provided a temporary distraction. we took the last bus to manila from olongapo, and despite having been awake since early saturday morning, i could not get myself to catch dreams.
during the climb, i was ribbed about being the most senior participant present, in terms of both my age and the year i was inducted in AMCI. it was suggested that while others may move on from mountaineering onto other pursuits, i would still be there, climbing well past my prime, when many of my contemporaries would have already traded their hiking boots for loafers, happily retired and embracing their quiet, complacent lives. i only wish that were true. as i’ve said before, i will keep climbing mountains while there are trails to their peaks and while my legs allow me.