i always approach AMCI's second training climbs with loads of trepidation and heaps of dread, particularly when it's to take place on the slopes of the mariveles mountains, and sky biscocho is the trail master. mariveles is a factory of anecdotes, some of them exaggerated near-death accounts, others descriptions of inflated difficulties. but the stories are harrowing in the same way that they are poignant, memorable precisely because of what they reveal in a person, and they are passed on from batch to batch, carried into lore and legend, not because of their tendency to sow fear and terror, but for their ability to inspire. for whoever is able to survive 24-hour treks, or extending an overnight climb to 3 days with just scraps of food, is more worthy of our admiration rather than our pity.
why i am filled with concern during a TC2, however, is a bit strange. i have never had to endure any of those horror stories. in fact, i could say that my experiences have been rather dry, routine, boring even. i've always reached the campsite early enough to get enough sleep. no shivering under tarps while being lashed by strong winds. no scraping the bottom of cooksets to eat morsels of leftovers. no entertaining thoughts of quitting mountaineering. no shareworthy anecdotes where i can later conclude, i've been through the worst. nothing like that. boring.
so when i suggested to my group that we wear white to this year's TC2 as a challenge to keep ourselves clean and immaculate despite the expected build-up of difficulties along sky's rosary trail, i wasn't thinking clearly. i was probably just filled with hubris, having literally coasted through everything that he's thrown at me, wondering if this would be the time that sky would finally break me, and douse the arrogance that's long been burning deep within. everyone else was surprisingly game, and we all showed up at assembly to the utter surprise of everyone else.
upon our arrival at alas-asin, we started the trek to nanay cording even before the sun had risen. the asphalt road leading to the trail had changed. many homes have been built, and it is now possible to drive even regular vehicles all the way to nanay cording. in the half-light of dawn, we gathered under the ominous shade of nanay cording's wall of shame: a collection of tarpaulin banners left behind by ragtag outdoor groups eager to show off their "achievements", leaving behind rotting proof of their "conquest", declaring to all other visitors that they were there. i first noticed this wall in 2010, and it has more than doubled in size since then. if there is one thing i am proud of my affiliation is this: we've been asked many times to leave our own banner, but always politely declined.
our group didn't have the luck of the draw. we were sixth to be dispatched. i was worried about running out of space at the campsite, since the magellan ridge is notoriously small, with few precious spots ideal to pitch a tent. although i've always recommended to people to enjoy the trail and not treat the climb as a race, i was conscious about maximizing enjoyment while budgeting our stops. there is a sweet spot somewhere there, where you get to experience the outdoors and see what's around you, but be mindful as well that there is a goal, a destination to be reached. so with me in the lead and my GL bringing up the rear, we steadily set off for the day along the AMCI trail which runs parallel to the traditional trail until it reaches ventana. this is a seldom-used trail, although it isn't spared from the occasional uncaring passers-by, most probably locals.
we hadn't reached the gate yet when we achieved the first of our many goals. the group before us decided to pause under the shade, and we continued, until we overtook stragglers even as we entered the lush trail to paniquian river. in my last trek here, ropes had to be attached to several spaces, as days of rain had turned the trail muddy and mushy. but there must have been a dry spell prior to our arrival that nothing along the trail delayed us. by the time we heard the thunderous waterfalls of the paniquian river, we were surprised that none of us had suffered any embarrassing slips. we were all still very immaculate.
and then i came upon the paniquian river. we emerged from the spotty shade of the forest and beheld a beautiful sight: pouring gracefully from the heart of the mariveles, the river made its way through boulders that disappeared below and up ahead. it wasn't the menacing monster of 2005, or the gurgling serpent of 2010. we were spared going up the perilous cox's wall that was a defining feature of 2009. instead, it was a gentle stream that offered cold pools and soft cascades. my trainees were behind me most of the time as we maneuvered ourselves around rocks, fallen trunks of trees, and thin bush. we figured out the most efficient way to get to SLLAJ despite seeing different sets of trail signs all throughout. while waiting for people to go forward, or waiting for my group to chase me, i would look around in wonder at the trail. the ridges leading from the bataan peak and tarak peak rise like impenetrable walls on both sides, lush with trees of all kinds. on very rare occasions when you don't have to worry about the river turning into the dragon of lost things, you actually begin to realize how truly beautiful paniquian is, and how fortunate we are to be there, and how much more fortunate others are to have known it so intimately. i myself have been this way 5 times. although i didn't always appreciate it, that trek certainly allowed me to realize that under different conditions, paniquian can be nurturing, whispering comforting words to hungry trekkers.
we decided to pause at the foot of the papica-jerez boulder, a hundred meters away from the SLLAJ waterfalls. we were around 3 hours ahead of schedule, even too early for lunch. we decided to stay a while at the basin of the waterfalls, and i was shocked to find that a recent landslide had taken a chunk off the wall on the upper right side of SLLAJ, reducing the size of the pool, and obliterating the familiar sundial that was there during my last 3 visits. nevertheless it was an opportunity for my group to enjoy the freezing waters of the small basin. the recent rockslide was a source of some concern for me, but since the weather could not have been more perfect, i cast my worries aside and enjoyed that rare moment when we are allowed to commune with paniquian, rather than to fear her.
after a while, we resumed the climb, and for many parts until we reached the magellan ridge campsite, it was literally a climb. or a crawl, if you want to be precise about it. the papica-jerez boulder is one of the trickier parts, it give me endless wonder how they figured this out. after that, we go past the carmai stream, and then the loreejen stream, which is a water source and tributary to paniquian. we see the source of the waterfalls just below. the start of the magellan trail is just above this last water source, and on very bad days, this would have been a place to cry for help. but since the soil was dry, we only needed our feet, our hands, and some helpful branches and roots to get ourselves up the trail. no one complained that the trail had been battered by too many feet that have gone ahead.
in under an hour since we left loreejen, yoshi asked how many tents we had. i would never have guessed it ourselves, but the campsite was already on top of us. though it isn't much of a campsite really. we scavenge what little space is available to us, flattening the earth, clearing spaces for the footprints of our tents. our group was the first to arrive at the campsite complete, and yet we were reduced to beggars for campsites, since other groups sent advance parties to make reservations and claim precious real estate. but we had an amazing crew who banded together to make do of the situation. pretty soon, all 6 of our tents stood, and our kitchen became the gateway between the groups on the upper ridge, and those who made camp below. at past 2PM we were done with setting up camp and decided to review ropemanship skills. some decided to steal naps, and at 4PM, we boiled water for the soup. only after we began lighting stoves to cook dinner did the last of the sweepers arrive, complaining that it was too early for them to reach the campsite.
i volunteered to prepare the meal plan, not so much because i wanted to spoil our trainees, but because i wanted to centralize the kitchen duties, and make sure everything was measured, that everything was complete. that i did it all by myself didn't mean however, that we decided to be simple. on the contrary, we had delicious uncomplicated meals that satisfied without being a burden. the rest of the night went by smoothly, with most of us staying under our kitchen parawing, exchanging stories and shots of alcohol. none of the trainees brought bottles, so we quickly ran out of things to drink, and by 10:30PM, many of us crawled into our tents. i visited friends at another spot, ordered their trainees to sleep, and returned to my own tent before i lost control of all my functions. i left my door open since it was too hot.
at 4AM i woke up just a minute before the TL blew his whistle. breakfast was a breeze since everyone chipped in. we were so efficient that even before 7AM, we were all ready to go up the japanese garden, and then down to papaya river through tarak ridge. we just needed to wait for our turn. leading the charge, i never realized how the trail going up tarak ridge so inspires deep breaths. mon and i were both breathing rapidly and deeply that either of us could have inhaled each other. by the time the forest opened, the sun revealed the narrow spine we were following to get to the leafless tree that signals the end of the steep ascent. there were patches of beautiful forest along the japanese garden, though none of what made it japanese. i now wonder whether it got its name for the bonsai-like plants gnarling at the sky, or the stacks of rocks meticulously arranged to resemble a staircase.
sooner than we thought we were already at tarak peak, eager to get down. there were already dayhikers there, begging us for some water. we would meet more of them on the way down to the ridge, where many others had camped overnight. the view of manila bay was blinding, and the sun was so scorchingly hot that we could not stay longer than we wanted to. also, many spots have been cleared to make way for more campers. on the way down to the start of the blairwitch trail, i decided to take it slow, since the path winding down from the ridge is merciless on the knees. it has been many years since i passed this way, and few things seem to have changed. the composition of the climbers has certainly evolved, as it has in many other mountains. those of us who take the sport seriously seem to be a dwindling kind, as many others prefer a less rigid, less disciplined approach to enjoying the outdoors.
it wasn't long until we arrived at the start of the blairwitch trail, which is just an excuse to lengthen the trek, since it runs astride the traditional trail. but i was thankful that we took it, since in these less-used trails of tarak you'll find the unspeakable beauty of mariveles: boulders grappled by the roots of trees, dry beds of streams that fill up with the slightest rain, trails that disappear under layers of fallen leaves, and whispering waterways, whose cascades are as inviting as they are nourishing. the lead pack intentionally made us stay at the SCAJ waterfalls because they did a hairpin turn to the papaya river bed, which to me seemed alien since the last time i was there, it was a frothing, raging river. instead of river-fording, the trek tuned into bouldering. i quietly followed trail signs even as the boulders of the river increased in size and doubled in danger. some of them were very slippery, but i could not be more thankful that i was given the chance to appreciate the world around me: the babbling water underneath the soil, the chorus of birdsong, the unending wail of cicadas. these are all nature's gift.
at the headwaters of the papaya river we stopped for lunch, which turned out to be our last stop for the day. sky said that the papaya river campsite was about an hour away. i was very surprised to have found it about 10 minutes after we resumed the trek. it was so short, that it crossed my mind that we may have been on the wrong path. i could not believe that we are already on the traditional trail back to nanay cording. i was in front the entire time, looking back to see if everyone was still within slapping distance, or if they had fallen back, complaining about my hurried pace. but no one could be more relaxed than i. we took brief pauses only to enjoy the wind, and occasionally, the view. when we reached the gate, we basically raced to nanay cording, dreaming of the taste of coke leaving a long, satisfying trail inside our mouths. i told everyone about my first time in tarak, even though not everyone was eager to listen. i told them about how things have changed, how things have remained the same. how nanay cording used to light up whenever she saw me, how she now no longer knows my name.
in no time at all, we put down our bags under nanay cording's wall of shame, where i laughed inwardly about the unseriousness of the names of some of the groups, wondering about the kind of legacy they want to leave behind. or perhaps they are aware that they would soon be forgotten, so they find it acceptable to harvest notoriety, or at least temporary fame, by leaving behind evidence of their visits. as i imbibed my second bottle of coke, i reflected on sky's trail. for the first time in the years that i've followed him, i never once uttered anything profane. i am not catholic, but that sky's trail resembles a rosary when seen from above is no accident: it makes you pray, it makes you religious. whether you ask to survive or you ask that sky be punished is of little consequence. this year, it seems the prayers poured before the actual climb, and we were blessed with the kind of weather only the best mountaineers deserve. this climb will be talked about, not in the same manner as previous TC2s have been. it may easily be forgotten for being too easy, too forgiving. some might even say that sky has lost his touch, that he's not as strong as he used to be. all those may be true, but i'm thankful still that this experience has reminded me that angels may be hiding beneath the monsoon masks of monsters, that a layer of rain separates paradise from hell.