climb

the misadventures of alman and jay: the "epic" hike

sagada kid with coldsneither jay nor myself knew exactly the way. all we had were hazy ideas culled and collected from the incomplete accounts of other people who’ve been there, the confusing instructions of many helpful locals, and a wild sense of adventure inspired by bits of history. between ourselves, i had my instinct and good judgment while jay was equipped with two adjoining maps from NAMRIA last updated at least a decade ago, a silva compass, and his magellan GPS receiver. we embarked on our “epic” hike saddled with two impossibly burdensome backpacks.

we left for baguio late christmas day. there were many other mountaineers on their way to a handful of other summits in the cordilleras. sagada kid when they asked us where we were headed, we kept mum. for my part, i still had misgivings whether we could actually accomplish the task ahead in the time that we intended. then we proceeded to sagada, where a few AMCI folks were also headed. the bus ride along halsema highway was uneventful, and the sweeping vista is something i’ve seen before so i took this opportunity to try to sleep. of course this i did with little success. we arrived in sagada just a little after noon and had lunch at yoghurt house. there we learned that sagada has not had power for two days, and perhaps another two more days as a vital nerve in the transmission lines was cut and was undergoing repair. i browsed through yoghurt house’s notebooks and we informed the people there of our plans. an american man who spoke better filipino than some locals, told us that he had taken a similar hike. it was then that we found out that our itinerary isn’t quite as original as we thought. although we knew this route was used by early filipinos before the onslaught of national highways, we were not aware of mountaineers who have taken a similar hike.

at around 4pm, we began our hike to the saddle just below the summit of mt ampacao. both of us have been here before, but without close to 50 kilos of gear and provisions combined. i must confess that at the time, i thought my pack was a little too heavy and that early, i already began thinking of what i could throw away when we continued our hike the following day. sunset sunrise over sagadathe clearing leading to the summit of mt ampacao, where a SMART tower was erected a couple of years ago, though less than 2000masl, is still a terrible force to contend with. it is cold, and chilling winds howl across the sweeping landscape, creeping inside the seams of jay’s talus 23 knock off. nonetheless, we got there in just over 80 mins. after we ate dinner, i wrapped myself in three layers of clothing, slipped into my sleeping bag, and quickly drifted to sleep. the following day, we took pictures of the sun rising over the sleepy town of sagada which was cloaked underneath a thick layer of clouds. as the sun rose higher, it illuminated the imposing mountain range of ilocos sur. the sharp summits of mt monserrat, spike peak, and the three sisters, rose high above the valleys that straddle the abra river.

“that’s our destination,” jay said, and pointed to a scoop between one of the peaks of the three sisters, saying that according to his coordinates, that’s the campsite. i swayed my head from side to side. i said, “jay, there’s no way we’ll get there by tomorrow.”

then we began our descent to lake danum. this was the start of a series of Godsends, as our lack of precise knowledge about the correct trail led us down the wrong path, far too many times, and only the intervention of kind souls set us back on track. as we guessed which way to go in order to find lake danum, and eventually, besao, we found ourselves looking over a twenty foot drop on a modest stream, backtracking a few steps as the paths led to dead ends, and releasing ourselves from the tangle of thorny plants. but on the way, i also discovered a secret clearing which pretty much fits the description of an ideal campsite.

eventually, we found ourselves walking across a ricefield. we asked for directions from the first person we met. unfortunately, she could not speak a word of filipino, and the bits of ilocano i knew were of little help. i said “besao”, and she pointed to an unseen destination while saying things which to me sounded like complete gibberish. it was planting season in the cordilleras, and although many igorots were engaged in their seasonal occupation, some of them still managed to take time out to help us out. when we described what we had just done, not a few of them were amazed. one old woman, who had vegetables stacked over her head, remarked, “ay Apo, nagbánog kayo!” in the context of the situation, she could have very well said, “my God, you guys are crazy!” but i later confirmed that what she said was “my goodness, you must be tired!”

eventually, we found ourselves in besao proper where we took lunch. we asked for more options and directions, and although we were informed that a jeep would be going to laylaya at 3pm, we opted for the more difficult and more adventurous alternative: to hike through the scenic sitios of payeo and bunga. this course took us from the terraces carved along the shoulders of the mountain range, then down to the river which provides irrigation for the plantations, then up again where the road is perched. at this point, i was beginning to think that adventure was nearly synonymous with stupid. after we crossed one of the many precariously built and brittle hanging bridges, i was about to slap jay silly for his crazy ideas. the ascent to bunga was quite an ordeal. along the way, we met a friendly woman bringing two sacks of rice from the granary beside the river to their house along the road. she told us that we won’t reach laylaya, and even patyakan, as we planned, and she humbly offered that we instead stay in their house for the night. we declined, of course, and proceeded to walk uphill. we met her daughter who repeated the offer, and we repeated our embarrassment at being met with so much kindness.

we also chanced upon two old women, one 52, the other more than 80 (”basta matanda na ako,” she said), who were resting on the trail. they were fixing leaves into bunches and jay asked what it was. “pagkain ng baboy,” the younger of the two replied, and the octogenarian pinched the end of one leaf and popped it into her mouth. i smiled when i saw this. when we reached the road, we were already too tired and hungry. one man said that laylaya was probably still 3 hours away but jay said don’t believe him.”at any rate,” he added, “we could camp on the road.” a baby at bunga

it was already very late by this time, and just as we were about to go, a drunken young man began haranguing us with questions. he was beginning to act a little too menacing and i was afraid he might get physical when a bus appeared. “penabungen”, the sign said, and this was our second Godsend. the road from bunga to the end of its destination makes halsema look like the north expressway. it was terribly unpaved, and every ten minutes or so, the engine would die. at one point, there was a carabao on the loose which went crazy when it came face to face with the bus’s headlights.

we spent close to an hour on the road, and the moment we stepped off the bus, a woman who was waiting at the drop off, as if expecting visitors to appear, approached us and asked, “where are you going?” this was nth time we’ve been asked this question, and earlier on, from payeo to bunga, people kept asking us if we missed the jeep since we were walking. “we’re on our way to patyakan,” jay replied.

“oh, patyakan is still far away. did you have dinner already?” she inquired. we said no. “you go to my house and sleep there. my house is little only but you are welcome there.” we declined yet again and said we just needed space where we could pitch our tent. “you only sleep in the tent when there are no people around,” she insisted, but we were just too embarrassed. city folk are not used to this much kindness. as a kind of concession, we accepted the offer to instead use the school. they even offered the school’s stoves and fuel so we could prepare our dinner, but we opted to release them of the burden. that night, jay and i slept at the penabungen school for arts and trades’ sewing room.

the people in the northern parts of luzon, particularly the cordilleras, often prefer to express themselves in english, rather than tagalog, and they’re mighty competent at it, although the quality of their choice of words is quite restricted. nonetheless, they are able to convey their thoughts clearly. jay would often talk to them in a somewhat condescending tone, obviously simplifying his sentences and constricting his vocabulary, and talking in a barely noticeable singsong. i didn’t feel the need to do this, and spoke to them the way i spoke to my friends.
at the border of ilocos sur and mountain province
the distances between these barangays are no small matter, but everyone seems to know everyone else and are aware of what goes on in the next village, and even 5 villages after that. people from as far as besao kept inquiring whether we were also invited to the wedding that was going to take place on the 30th in laylaya.

the following morning, we left early. we expected to reach patyakan, which was already part of quirino, ilocos sur, before noon. we hoped to start our road to perditionascent of tirad pass after lunch. as God would have it, he sent one in His service to shorten our trip. a priest was on his way to babasig for the christening of some kids. he said his parish was elsewhere, but since all the other prelates were out on vacation, he volunteered to lead the catholic ritual. we crossed the border of mountain province and ilocos sur onboard the jeep. although the hitch shortened our hike by as much as an hour and a half, we were unprepared for what lay ahead. thus began our road to perdition.

from the sleepy sitio of babasig, we went down to a few other rustic settlements scattered around the parched abra river. just as we were about to leave, an igorot warned us that ilocanos are different, and may not accept our intrusion into their lands with as much warmth and hospitality. jay took this warning all too seriously and understood it as some kind of euphemism for NPAs. at one point, as i amused myself with whatever crossed my mind, he screamed at me, telling me to shut up because “this is NPA territory.” he could not have said it any louder. this irritated me a lot, and i took larger strides to increase the distance between us. once we reached the banks of the abra river, after walking through the driest stretch of rough road i’ve encountered, we were invited to attend a wedding reception.spike peak, et al. i was actually already hungry by this time and was hoping that they’d bodily force us to join in the party. from this sitio, the peaks of tirad pass revealed themselves in all their brusque glory: a barren and badly-browned mountain range looking down upon us almost disapprovingly.

we went down the abra river and its width hints at its former majesty. crossing abra riverbut it is almost dry now. much like the trail leading to the crater of mt pinatubo, it looks like a parched stretch of land, and there are only a few streams slithering along its length. the exposed riverbed now doubles as a road connecting the surrounding towns. it is so dry now that there are parts that have been fenced and turned into gardens. the poblacion of quirino was just around the bend, but water had gathered in my boots, tripling their weight, and it felt like i was chained to balls of lead. despite this, there was at least 5 minutes between me and jay.

we went up the poblacion and had a late lunch. locals gathered around us as we took out our stoves and watched us cook. they gave us more directions on how we could possibly accomplish our task, but few of them agreed on many material points, particularly the time it would take us to get to the summit campsite. a local policeman, whose youth was all too evident in the absence of a gut, took our numbers to make sure we had safe passage through the pass. when we left for our ascent to tirad, we hoped to be there in less than 4 hours. but that was assuming we started on a well rested pair of legs. we’ve been walking a total of more than 20 hours since we started on our adventure, and the hour and a half we took for lunch was not quite the respite an assault required. despite this, we were prepared for any eventuality, and looked forward to an emergency camp.

along the way, we kept asking for directions as long as there were people along the trail. we crossed a few more sitios and farmlands. the last set of instructions we got was from a young pregnant woman who resided in ursadan. she referred to a water tank where the trail would lead us to tirad pass. we never really saw this water tank and at sunset, we found ourselves following another dirt road. jay swore absolute faith in the accuracy of his GPS, and it said that the distance between us and the campsite was diminishing, although the compass kept pointing the other way. “there are no sharp lefts here, jay,” i kept saying, but he’d reply, “we’re 1 point something kms from the campsite.” a little later he’d ask if we were really going the right way to which i would reply, “well you’re the one with the machines, what do they say?”

emergency campafter about an hour and a half, we rested in the pitch darkness of the lonely road. it was so quiet that even the drop of our sweat on the dusty ground was heard. it was already past seven, and i remembered jay saying that we’d make the summit in an hour about an hour ago. my innards were telling me that we were way off course. all of a sudden, jay said, “do you hear that?” i was too concerned with taking deep breaths that i heard only the pounding of my heart. i was both a little concerned and a lot tired. “there’s a car,” jay said, and i was about to say, what would a car do in this forsaken road, when he insisted that i stand up from blocking the road. indeed, a car was coming down the bend and i stretched out my hand to hail it. it was a land cruiser with a red plate. they told us that we missed the trail a good distance away, and we asked if they could take us there. they agreed, of course, and this was the only instance when we actually asked for something before it was offered us. i suppose when you meet two strangers in the middle of the young night where the closest house is at least 2 kms away, you get a little suspicious, so i didn’t mind that the driver didn’t make the first move. turns out that we had hitched a ride with the mayor of quirino, jaime aciong. he had just been to san emilio, which was where we were headed if we continued taking the road.

the mayor dropped us off the right path, and what took us over an hour and a half was a matter of only a few minutes on the 4x4. we thanked the good mayor and his other passengers and proceeded to the steep trail. it was already close to 8pm, and it was extremely dark, unlike the previous nights when the bold full moon illumined our evenings. at this time, i discovered that i had exhausted my bladder, and i was down to my last liter and a half of water. my own patience was also running a little thin, and whenever i picked up pace, and jay fell far behind, he’d call my name, and i’d snap, “what!” i kept telling jay that walking with two canes slowed him greatly, but he was too stubborn to stow them away.

the silhouette of spike peak in the horizon was ominous. it looked like the fat horn of the devil. i knew i was already amazingly tired, but i was nowhere near wanting sleep since i knew i could still walk another hour or more. spike peakthen, jay again called out, and i screamed back, “what now!” jay complained about getting cramps. i finally put my foot down and forgot all about making mutual decisions. i immediately identified a spot where we could camp and broached the idea of returning to quirino to catch the lone trip out to candon. jay had been flip-flopping since the start, and although he was the one who first mentioned the idea of not proceeding to tirad, he suddenly reversed his stand and said that it’d be better to go to del pilar although we were uncertain about the trip out to salcedo. i kept silent as i prepared dinner while he muttered things about GPS coordinates, azimuths, and storied tales of other mountaineers. the situation had sapped any sign of cheer from my usually bubbly self, and i responded to his remarks with monosyllabic grunts and nods.

i proceeded to the tent and longed for sleep. i was pooped, and i quickly shut my eyes, then jay came inside, woke me up, only to share his observation about the weather: it was warm and i was outside my sleeping bag and i wasn’t wearing my fleece jacket. despite my enervated state, i wove in and out of sleep, jostling around in the space that the capacious tent generously gave me. then, at around 1am, jay and i were roused by the shrill barking of a dog. i stuck my head out of the tent and the moon bathed the mountain pass in a dreamy, soft light. the dog was no more than 20 feet away from the tent, and it barked continuously. i stared back at it until finally it walked away. i went back inside and zipped my door and for the next 30 minutes, i was filled with terror. never have i been more conscious of the littlest sound around me even as i whispered a prayer in my mind. i was concerned that there might be someone else on the mountain, for what would a dog be doing many hours away from the closest home? what if that someone was an insurgent, or worse, a maniacal murderous fugitive? slowly, my fear drifted away as my faith filled my heart with courage, and i went back to sleep. at 5am, i woke up and promptly prepared breakfast. we started our hike at 7.

hello kitty campsitethere was still some debate between me and jay about which trail to take because there were a few more doubtful forks along the trail. i looked out for signs of recent activity, and there were lots of them on the one i decided to take. eventually, we came upon a clearing where a decrepit and vandalized bunk house stood. it had been violated by many irresponsible hikers who have decided to memorialize their less than competent grasp of english with bits of charcoal and felt-tip markers. turning around, we saw the sharp outcropping of rock on one of the peaks of the three sisters, and the shape of the summit looked like two misshapen horns, or ears, if you will. this is what mamu called the hello kitty campsite, and although jay described it as “bading na bading”, i said we were in no position to christen it any other way.

from this vantage point, the outlying town of del pilar was already within view, and the success of our trip was imminent. i figured we might get down in about an hour and a half, but i was greatly mistaken. the trail down to the upland municipality is fraught with beauty and mystery, not to mention extreme difficulty. this is indeed one of the most breathtaking trails ever, not only for the amazing view it provides of the coastal ilocos towns, but also for the many surprises along its trail. this is perhaps the only trail i know where flowers of many kinds are abloom. pretty flowerrows and rows of sunflower lined the descent, many of which towered high above us. it was a great opportunity to take pictures. there are points in the trail where the turns are supported by riprap (i had to explain to jay what this word meant) which go far back to the spanish era, and the area is also a great place to view birds.

after more than an hour from the hello kitty campsite, we came upon gen gregorio del pilar’s monument. other than being the site of the battle of tirad pass, this was supposed to be where his body is buried, after he led a phalanx of 60 men and valiantly fought off a force of 300 american soldiers to secure for pres emilio aguinaldo safe passage into the cordilleras. goyothis is also the only water source until you get to the town, so i was thankful i survived on my half a liter for the last two hours or so. sheds had been built along the trail, because this area is frequented by hikers, history students, mountain bikers, and even locals of del pilar to commemorate the heroism of the young general. eventually, we reached the poblacion. the descent took us nearly 4 hours, inclusive of our long rest periods and photo ops. quirino is that way

we reached the poblacion and quickly headed to the nearest store to buy a sprite. an apparently drunk man approached us and started talking to us in english, asking us many questions, including our nationality. at this time, we wanted to leave immediately for candon, so i went to look for a jeepney owner. as i walked towards one of the parked vehicles, a man waved at me and said, “sir, kausapin mo muna mayor namin.” i offered a handshake and the first thing the mayor said after finding out that we had just arrived from tirad pass was to invite us to have lunch at his house. “baka ilang araw na kayong hindi nagkakanin.” i responded by saying that we actually only needed to find a place where could freshen up, and he said we could also take a shower there. we obliged, of course after a little pakipot. his house was 3kms from the town hall.

well fed and with a fresh set of clothes, the mayor shook our hands warmly and invited us to visit his town again, and to eat at his house again. he said mountaineers were always welcome. i promised to return with a few more of my friends. mayor gilbert ciriaco is the fifth Godsend. there is actually a sixth, and it is the people of del pilar as a whole. when jay and i were faced with the prospect of staying another night because there were no longer any jeepneys leaving for salcedo or candon, the townsfolk were so involved in finding ways to get us out. they offered to bring us to the vice mayor’s house who might lend his vehicle. but as fate would have it, our salvation came in the form of two dump trucks. when mayor ciriaco said that access to del pilar was nearly impossible during the wet season, i was skeptical. but after experiencing the road leading out of the municipality, i realized his concern. the road traverses a river, and when the water rises, del pilar and a few other towns are sealed from the rest of the world.

finally, the truck driver deposited us in the hands of a crazed tricycle driver who might have been the devil himself. he drove his trike so fast, i was literally crying. when we found ourselves in candon, with the familiar buzz of civilization, the realization that we pulled it off didn’t quite sink in as fast as i expected. i must admit that from the very beginning, i had grave misgivings about the whole thing, and the entire trip was a queue of fortunate coincidences throughout an admittedly crazy and almost humanly-improbable itinerary. is this something i would recommend other people should do? perhaps not, unless you can carry just as much patience and perseverance to match the weight of your bag. the quirino-del pilar trek, though, is quite an impressive trail, and i hope to lead people there someday. and this is what i appreciate about jay’s often far-fetched ideas. like me, he isn’t limited to the fixed itineraries and tired routes established by the many mountaineers who have come before us. we’re both willing to risk a little adventure, for the glory of exploration and experience. we head out into the mountains, not only because we think it’s so cool to take shots of gin or your choice of alcohol, but also because we really are interested in living life on the edge, and pushing ourselves to the limits of reason. it is on the fringes of insanity where you often find excitement. i’m glad i took this trip, but i’m even more glad that God looked kindly upon us.

finally, after dinner at jollibee where jay ungrudgingly admitted that i was much stronger than he gave me credit for (okay, so he said exactly was: “grabe, bilib ako sayo dave. hindi ka ganito kalakas nung training natin.” the gall!), i was onboard a partas bus back to manila. in spite of being so damn tired, i didn’t get to sleep in the bus because there were some assholes that sat beside me. and then when i finally got off the bus, i couldn’t find a taxi that would charge me correctly. i’ve just hiked more than 30kms in over three days. what’s another 1km to edsa? as i walked to get a bus, i began to realize how so much different it feels to be back in the city. anytime, i’d trade urban comfort for that precious small-town kindness.
good work!
(Anonymous)
just wanted to congratulate you two for your successfull hike. and good luck to your next "mis" adventures....

ogie-monk
Re: good work!
thanks ogz. ayan. sa akin ka na hihingi ng info re: tirad pass. akyat tayo ulit dun. preferably before summer para malamig pa. ganda dun. ako ang trail master. wag si jay ha dahil papaasahin lang tayo ng lintik na GPS nya. haha. ang saya. buti na lang close ako kay God. blessed yung hike na to. hehe. :D
galeng!!!
(Anonymous)
dave,
congrats sa climb nyo. when i showed jay's IT to my friends (kasi interesado ako sama), they all have one comment; "sira ulo gumawa nito." sabi nga ng abc5 - LUPET!!!! kudos to you guys.
-art
Re: galeng!!!
actually, i'd have to agree with your friends. sira naman talaga ulo ni jay! and i confirmed this habang tinatanaw namin kung gaano kalayo yung pupuntahan namin. there was one point in the hike when i wanted to kill jay for convincing me to join him in that crazy climb. but what's important is we pulled it off. it's actually doable. :D