bucolia: the misty mountains (first installment of the kaladkarin chronicles, part III)

early march, i received an SMS from melay, asking me if i was interested in joining ykamo’s bicol XP. at the time, i had no idea what XP actually meant, whether it stood for experience, expedition, exploration, or a computer OS. but my response was quick and short: i said yes. my only concerns were the budget and when the XP would begin and end. after all, i had a job, and notwithstanding my often lackadaisical approach to attendance, it was in the interest of the service that they be informed when i’d be out of reach. later, melay asked if i was interested in joining the climb team. i’ve been to bicol many times in the past, attending a hearing in legazpi city on behalf of pilipinas shell, and i imagined the climb might involve mount mayon, the single most imposing creation this side of southern luzon. i said yes again, and left the planning to my trusty new friends from AMCI. these guys are amazing at logistics, and although i may be able to assist in so far as DENR matters were concerned, i left all the nitty gritty details to them. even as i popped up for the preclimb, i just sat there, downloading reggae over seattle’s best’s wi-fi, so that iton would have little to say about my eclectic mix of music (why does everyone say “eclectic” in reference to their diverse taste for music anyway?).

before the preclimb was over, i forked over P1600 without even asking what these were for. but i knew that a detailed accounting would follow soon after, so worrying was farthest from my mind. after that meeting, i had a sketchy idea of what would transpire a few days before the actual start of the holy week holidays. and i couldn’t quite contain my excitement. three mountains, two lakes, more than a dozen whale sharks, many islands, white sand, and possibly unlimited videoke. there was little more i could ask for.

friday evening, march 18, i showed up at the ali-mall bus station without much time to spare. i distributed the naphtha i had in fragile juice bottles to the members of the climb team, and we plunged headlong for our crazy itinerary. i braced for a long trip to naga, deprived of sleep as i watched denzel washington’s “man on fire”. at break of day, we were at the bus station, and our guide was already in the vicinity. there were several plastic bags around, and most of the other members of the climb team had spare bags for their beach attire, among other things. i was unable to bring any spare clothes, thinking we’d be bringing even our masks and snorkels to the summits of the mountains. i may not have been listening well.

we took a minibus bound for lagonoy. throughout the short ride, i kept staring at mt isarog. from this safe distance, it loomed large, like a skulking crouched dark animal, draped by an ominous wedding veil of plump clouds. i barely noticed the thump in my chest, partly due to the excitement, and largely due to a brewing fear i might not make it all the way to the summit. in ocampo, we deposited our extra things with the friend of gerry, our guide, and then rode trimobiles (that’s what they call it there, and the design of the body is different too) to the jump-off in bgy. del rosario. after logging in with the PAMB member, we started our trek. during the first three hours of the hike, i regretted forgetting to bring my bush hat. it was terribly hot, and as we crossed fields of corn and valleys of grass, the sun, nearing midday, was a terrible force bearing down upon us, drying our throats, and humbling us as we pleaded for rest every so often. throughout this ordeal, our guides gave no hint of nearing exhaustion, cracking jokes about the campsite being within “walking distance”. but we continued with the seemingly endless hike, and after lunch, the summit seemed no nearer, and the terrain, no easier. shortly, we passed through the helipad, which is said to be the highest point reached by trucks delivering the tower’s materials. the helipad is a sloping area of short grass without any forest cover. from here, laborers and workers manually transported whatever was needed for the construction of the old PLDT tower in the peak. we had decided to assault this trail, since it was the shortest, capable of being accomplished in a day. based on the information i gathered later, the PLDT tower took more than 5 years to build way back in the 70s. it was decommissioned in 1998, and the tower which was visible from the highway was destroyed by typhoon munang in 2000 or 2001.
from the helipad, we hiked through the wispy forest, and plants began evolving into often gnarled and strange creations, dipped in varying hues of green. other than plantlife, there was a chorus of mellifluous whistles of unseen birds, perched probably high above the canopy of leaves which blot out the sun’s harsh rays. the terrain began to tilt higher, and i was often left using all four limbs. moss began rising from the supple and wet earth, crawling their way up the twisted barks of very old trees.

about five hours later, our guides announced that the campsite was still around two hours away, “at our pace.” after he announced that there was a water source nearby, i filled the bottles which i emptied during the very dry trek, and focused on the many hours more ahead. after thirty minutes, i found our guide and malvin resting under the cogon grass which danced to the choreography and music of an insistent wind. i nearly plopped my backpack to the ground and thought about an extended rest when gerry said let’s go, it’s just over there. sure enough, five minutes away, the cogon cleared revealing three separate concrete structures in nearly the same state of disrepair. the buildings looked as if they’d either been bombed, ransacked with great impunity, or left unfinished. the four legs of the once proud tower stood at the back of one of the buildings, overtaken by rust, and resembling a tree stump. its trunk lay broken and bent beside it, a testament to the sometimes immeasurable force that is nature.

we decided to camp inside one of the buildings, which was a good idea, since after dark, the weather changed rather quickly, and the overpowering heat of the sun was replaced by a consistent drizzle and a very steady, strong wind. in the safety of our blue concrete box, we pitched our tents, pegless, and prepared dinner. two metal beams hung perpendicular to the tent malvin and i shared, like swords of damocles. bing and iton joined forces for the sinigang na baboy, while angie took care of frying the boneless bangus. soup and coffee were aplenty, and as we revealed the contents of our bags, i expected the guides to be more kindly towards us and our “pace,” but instead, gerry ends up berating angie about our impossible itinerary. he kept saying that we could never accomplish our plans because of our pace, which, judging from his condescending tone, must’ve been a tad too slow. then angie said that doing a night trek was fine, and we were prepared, and so he quipped: “ma’am, nag-BMC ka ba?” if he had had the unfortunate fate of speaking with iton, he would have gotten a mouthful, but angie, realizing perhaps that the guide has had too much GSM on an empty stomach, forgave him his jaggedly assertive personality, and ignored the veiled insults. for my part, i stepped out to the other room which was inhabited by ceiling-dwelling swallows. so did iton, and we broke into song to drown out gerry’s voice.

dinner was an apt celebration for the day’s accomplishment. there was more than enough food to go around. fueled and rested, malvin kicked into high gear with his cornucopia of very funny remarks. sometimes, he cracked witty observations about the situation. but more often, everyone’s fun was at the expense of someone else. the first time we were together at mt lobo, his guns were trained chiefly on kuya mar. but now, he shot randomly like a gunman amok. i too was a victim, who was too willing to be in the line of fire. malvin, after all, is a very funny man, and his quick wit was only a hint of the smart man wearing a comedian’s hat. but i could very well imagine that he must’ve honed this ability over a long period of time, since it was clear on that first night alone, that he was the fastest one at the draw.

as is usually the case, the socials kept us awake well into the morning. dennis was out of commission almost immediately after dinner, and in between the lulls of his heavy breathing, malvin would ask, “dennis anong tunog ng kotse?”. iton refused to drink, and bing excused himself, saying he was on medication. angie had a little, while gerry was well on his way to being wiped out, that he could hardly tell the difference between orange juice and coffee. so it was largely between me, malvin, arnel, and marlo, gerry’s companion. pretty soon, i signed out and slept.

at a little past 3am, iton rang the wake-up call, and we busied ourselves with preparing breakfast. i only remember turning in for bed, but i actually do not remember sleeping. despite lacking enough sleep, we were focused on replenishing ourselves. i was assigned to prepare an omelet with four eggs, and an excess of cheese and vegetables. before serving the weird looking dish, i convinced everyone to agree on a waiver, because i had no idea what sat at the bottom of my non-stick pot. it looked like something, definitely. but something edible? unlikely. nonetheless, it was gobbled up with a dash of enthusiasm. we also had hash browns, the spicy boneless bangus, and bacon.

after breakfast, i went to the water tank to photograph mt isarog’s highest point. outside, the wind was furious. mt isarog is a mountain that has many peaks, and on the ocampo side, the PLDT tower is its highest. initially, we were under the impression that it was possible to assault the summit from here, but it was clear that such a thing wasn’t possible in the 3 or 4 hours we allocated. one has to descend deep and cross a thick forest in order to reach the foot of the peak that loomed across of us. there was no visible trail. as the sun slowly rose, we gathered our things and started our descent. just as i had suspected, the steeply inclined trail was more difficult going down that it was going up, since the previous night’s consistent drizzle rolled out a carpet of mud. we each had to endure slips and falls, but it took us a third of the time it took us to get to the summit. along the trail, we encountered life in many forms, and as we moved out of the shadows of the forest, mt asog, our next destination, revealed herself in all her might. in the haze of the painful sun, she looked like a distant menace.

once i reached the plains, i looked back at mt isarog. the concrete structure at the summit was fairly visible, in the clear, almost cloudless sky. it had been less than 3 hours since we started descending, but the previous day, we consumed all of 7 hours, inclusive of a leisurely lunch break. i sat there for a few moments, reflecting on our little achievement, and then realized, very slowly, that this was just the first leg of our little expedition. we washed up, collected our things, and hired a jeep for buhi, which as a local’s shirt declared, is the world’s most famous unknown town.

angie is a friend to the town mayor’s daughter, and we were half expecting a grand welcome. despite the understated reception, we were very eager to begin our dayhike. some confusion led us to the lake buhi resort: a mansion along the lakeside. it looked haunted at night, because it was very sparsely lit, but it was well appointed. we left our things there and indulged in a quick lunch before heading off for mt asog/iriga/buhi (its name changing depending on which side you approach it). we had 3 guides in all, and we marched through some local sitios watched by the curious and at times prying eyes of kids and adults. mt asog turned out to be wrong. or at least, not as we expected. we had hoped to get to the summit, based on the accounts relayed to us. but the highest we got was a former boyscout campsite owned by a certain esplana. it was only possible to get as far as the rim of the crater, which we called off because of the brooding clouds making their approach to the mountain. nonetheless, mt asog will be remembered for its coconuts. there were lots of them along the way, and each time they were offered to us, we were trying to be coy, although we practically craved for it. because of the abundance of coconuts, i made what i thought was a clever trail sign: i placed halves of a coconut onto a whole lying on the ground, since there weren’t any rocks or stones around. malvin, who is never without anything witty to say, asked, “is that a snowman?” our descent took us past a field with freshly cut grass and some towering coconut trees. it was fenced by the surrounding forest, and it had pools of mud. it looked like a golf course, but its purpose really was to pasture carabaos.
the rest of the way, it rained, and hardly anyone was speaking. we quickly collected our things from the resort and moved to the one really intended for us. it was called bistro, and downstairs was a restaurant with unlimited videoke. after we slipped into more comfortable clothing, and after some of us had done some laundering, i took care of dinner as the rest of the guys planned the rest of our climbs. since we weren’t allowed to cook, we just gave the chef our ingredients, and he prepared them for us: tapa, chop suey, and rice enough for an army. he charged us P500 for his talents, the gas, and the electricity.

after dinner, glenn, the mayor’s nephew, arrived for a few drinks. i was busy shouting a few songs, and this was when i was still perfectly sober. dennis joined us after a while, and i was surprised to find that he was actually capable of volunteering a real conversation. previous to that night, i thought he would keep silent and speak only when asked to, or when it was absolutely necessary. when he began to sing, i began to shrink into an insignificant mushroom. he should have been hogging the mike. dennis is a good singer, and he has a very well-rehearsed repertoire. his voice has that edgy, rockstar quality, akin to the texture of sandpaper. before we turned in for the night, malvin and dennis handed me the microphone, and i sang and danced to vhong navarro’s “totoy bibo.” i’m not sure whether it was an appropriate way to end the evening, or to thank our hosts. we headed to our beds in the upstairs bedrooms, which restricted our movements because under the sheets, the mattresses and pillows were wrapped in plastic. the slightest movement produced the most unpleasant sensation and sound.

we each slept for less than an hour, and rose early for the trip to bulusan. we picked up ané along the way, and after a brief market stop in irosin, we found ourselves yet again in another resort: bulusan crystal springs, which is owned by an ayala mountaineers founder. we left our extra things there, and mai decided to stay behind, which was probably a wise thing to do. dennis took out a daypack. we hurriedly hired local guides: allan and peter, the latter one looked like someone from color me badd, so malvin says. at noon, we started our trek along the paved access road to bulusan lake, and then turned left for the narrow trail which led us through the dripping forests of this enchanting mountain. while we were at naga, even before we started our trek to isarog, one of the locals kept saying that the views at bulusan are tops, third only to pulag and napulauan. this jacked up my excitement by many notches, but i knew it would be long and difficult. i held my breath and prepared to be awed by the fantastic vistas afforded by the mountain’s landscape. had i taken that literally, i would have asphyxiated ten minutes into the trek.

mt bulusan’s trail winds through the overbearing vegetation of the lush forests. although there were parts when the trees and shrubs and bushes gave way to fields that revealed the sky, most of the trail was hemmed in by the surrounding trees. there was little sense to take photographs while within the bosom of bulusan, because the colors were chiefly varying hues of green, and the omnipresent fog blocked everything beyond 20 meters. nonetheless, the chatter and calls of differently-plumed birds made it possible to imagine rainbows cracking from the treetops. the trek through bulusan is pleasant, and it is possible to forget that four hours have passed. there is a slice of everything here: a bit of makiling, a dash of halcon, a pinch of pulag, a helping of isarog. at about this moment, the forest completely disappears and we find ourselves in a perfectly flat area consisting mostly of tall grass and sandy soil. this is the aguingay valley, and it may have been the active volcano’s crater many eons ago. there are peaks all around, and had we been more aware of the time, it would have made an ideal campsite. the valley could accommodate around a hundred tents, easily.

a brief rest led us to ask peter how much longer to the summit campsite, and he said, 3 hours. it was already half past 3, and i readied my lamp for the night trek. i followed iton closely as he spoke about his first time in bulusan over a year ago, and it didn’t take long before i allowed him to go ahead as i assessed the situation. i had just been to isarog, which was no small matter, even after i had returned to the plains. i just hiked through asog, which, notwithstanding the coconuts, was not necessarily a walk in the park. and here i am, midway to bulusan’s summit, asking myself why i am eager to chalk up this mountain to my list of been there’s. then angie came along, and i had to continue.

before entering the forestin a while, trees melted into the background, and in their stead, grew cogon, some prickly shrubs, and a strange looking plant which malvin described as wild lettuce. this, according to our guide, is where the hard part begins. i suppose risking injury walking through dangerously steep terrain can’t quite be considered hard, and two minutes into the uphill climb, i understood what he meant. it wasn’t nearly possible to walk through this part of the trail, and the trek quite literally became a climb. for more than two hours, i had to rely chiefly on my hands, and on my absent upper body strength, to propel myself up. i held on to the grass, pulled myself up, and used my feet merely as anchors. the terrain was featureless, and the valley below was covered in sheets of mist. i pulled myself up, almost mechanically, though no two steps are hardly ever the same, each time with little success since i cannot imagine the summit to be anywhere nearer. i would look around and search vainly for the view that the guide in naga spoke about. it could not be found, because there was nothing but a vacuum of gray. standing there, it is possible to imagine what nothingness may look like. shortly thereafter, the grays evolved into a darker hue as the last dregs of sunlight faded into the horizon. i turned on my headlamp, but it helped little, because the fog was an impervious wall that danced to the wind.

and then, in the midst of the darkness, while i foraged through waist-high vegetation, the white silhouette of what appeared to be a man suddenly appeared 10 meters from where i stood. “putanginamongshet!” i exclaimed. it was, in fact, allan. he cowered under the grass to shield himself from the wind. despite the initial surprise, he was a good sign, and he said the campsite was just over there, below the summit. as is my habit, i literally sped away, and shortly found myself wrapped in complete blackness. i was at what i imagined was the summit. i looked around, and found nothing. and at that precise moment, the wind howled and blew with an intensity that exceeded the limits of possibility, so much so that when i lifted one foot to move, i lost my balance, bowing to the might of that unseen force. i trained my headlamp hither and thither, and it seemed as if its light bent to the will of the wind. instantly, i lost my cool, and i became a man in a lot of distress. i dropped the usual birdcalls, and gathered the air in my lungs and called out the names of the three who’ve reached the campsite before i, but my voice was overpowered by the ardent wailing of this very insistent wind.

the time i spent looking around for signs of life or light was brief, but in that short moment, i was engulfed by paranoia larger than my diminishing faith, and i contemplated being lost, to be found only the following day, shivering in the immense coldness of that barren peak. i will not even deny that i thought of death, and that bulusan’s summit would by my craggy grave. i whispered a prayer, because there was no use to speak out loud as it was hardly ever possible to hear anything other than the wind and my heartbeat, and decided not to oppose the wind’s direction, when rather abruptly, the howl ground to a halt, replaced by a steady breeze, and i heard, almost on cue, an answer to my prayer. i was led near the campsite, and the voice that was calling out my name, was malvin’s. i moved a few more meters ahead, and i saw the flicker of a faint light. i pictured that they must be around 20 meters below from where i stood, and i thought that i must be standing at the edge of a cliff. i still had no idea how it was possible to get to them from where i stood, when all of a sudden, allan, and behind him, angie, and arnel, appeared, as small beacons of light, from behind me.

we went down to the campsite together, and there were, in fact, an abundance of trail signs, if only one knew where to look. i was unashamed about the fact that i had been very scared only a few minutes ago, and quickly looked to see what i could do to make the best out of the situation. i already expected to be very drenched before the night was over. we helped in putting together the parawing over our designated kitchen. before long, peter, bing and ané arrived and we began seriously preparing dinner, which consisted of adobo and bing’s famed pasta putanesca. without much ceremony, but with a lot of care, bing put together quite a memorable and tasty dish, an apt celebration of the eve of iton’s birthday. that night, despite the wind which too many times blew over our parawing, and the drizzle which made photography difficult and us very wet, we still managed to gather together as friends, old and new, sharing many common denominators: a passion for the outdoors, for adventure, for life, for good food, for funny anecdotes, and for strange brews. as we sipped la tondeña’s gin kapitan, i discovered a few things about my new friends: that despite his rockstar leanings, the fleet-footed dennis will prefer to listen to nyoy volante over audioslave any given time; that malvin is not only a really good comedian, but also a trivia buff: a master of pulp literature and 80s pop culture; that angie is such a logistics freak, a veritable walking database of contacts and point persons; that ané can go without dinner, and that iton is about to celebrate a birthday, but is by no chance any older.

but perhaps one of the biggest realizations that night was bing. all throughout the evening, he looked for music he fancied on my iPod. he failed at finding anything by van morrison, but played the three versions of “brown eyed girl” over and over again that the following day, this would be our LSS. meeting bing without knowing him, one might arrive at the very hasty conclusion that he is up to no good. he looks grimly daunting, and if he were cast in a movie, he’d mostly likely play the part of a goon. he is sufficiently dark, but with chinky eyes. i have to admit that when we were first introduced, i immediately told myself never to make the mistake of stepping on his shoes, since he will likely beat me to a pulp. and his demeanor during the trek failed to assuage those suspicions. i would certainly break my back had i been given the unfortunate fate of carrying his pack. his strides are confident and purposeful, whereas i am clumsy and sloppy, what with my oversized boots. bing, it turns out, is so much unlike the shady character i had ascribed to him. he is a perfect gentleman, will offer help even before it’s asked for, and is always available for a good, intelligent conversation.

the night wore on filled with malvin’s jokes, and a variety of stories despite the on and off drizzle, and we risked getting ill with our choice of poison. we had only 2 small lapads of the thing, but it was enough to knock me out. i had to be told to turn in because i fell asleep under the parawing. so retire i did to malvin’s roomy, blue, TNF nimbus. i slept before i knew what was going on, and awoke, at a little past 3am, when the drizzle turned more consistent, and what sounded like large drops of rain drummed on the flysheet. i opened my eyes and worried that i’d be drenched, when bing unzipped our tent and asked if there was room inside. i think malvin said that there was space at the edge of our feet, whereas i, in my half-sleepiness, said that the tent was dripping. it was true, in fact, and i didn’t say that so bing would go away. it turns out that the peg holding the flysheet on my side had been removed, causing a few trickles to fall on my shoulder. there was also a damp feeling in my feet, such that i failed to return to sleep. at past 5am, i decided to go out and move around.

it was still very cold, and the wind whooshed past my ears. before long, arnel was also up, and so was iton. it turns out that when it rained, bing’s TNF talus 23 was flooded, quite literally, and he evicted angie out of it, for her sake of course, and tried to find accommodation in ours. angie snuck into iton’s MSR zoid, and i may have been completely dead while they argued about what to do with a particularly wet situation, because i had no idea what iton was talking about while arnel boiled water for our coffee. it turns out we weren’t exactly lucky, since a small stream had collected under our tent, soaking the bottom almost completely. malvin didn’t notice it because he had a thermarest (must get one soon!) but i did.

for breakfast, we had a lot of spam and bread, a squished cake with a candle to celebrate iton’s nth birthday, and a few other things left over from the previous night. after we all had packed, we decided to explore the sights nearby. and i must say that there are no prettier unseen views than the ones in bulusan the time that we were there. visibility was reduced to less than 20 meters, and as we looked around for the crater and the lake, one could get a sense of otherworldliness: the surroundings in the bulusan campsite are akin to a scene from another planet. there are no plants at all, only the pebbly, sandy, rocky surface of a barren wasteland dotted by pools of clear water: the same source from which we scoop what we drank the way down. it was another universe wrapped in a tasteless, odorless, and featureless gray smoke, it seemed. and there were only moments of clarity, when the weather would allow us to see what was around, but it would be gone, in an instant, sending us back to our 20-meter radius fields of vision.

eventually, we returned to our campsite, and after i led the prayer, we headed off to the plains at 10am. angie had to catch a bus back to manila at 5pm, since she was scheduled to explore the northern parts of luzon. the descent wasn’t necessarily easier, nor was it necessarily faster. with angie in front and arnel behind, i was careful not to make too many tumbles, as i am usually wont to do. the cogon part was a tad difficult, since the trail was made more slippery by the previous night’s rain. but the time we reached aguingay valley, mud had collected everywhere: round my butt, inside my boots, outside them. those amongst us who wore no arm sleeves appeared to have just left a serious catfight. malvin and dennis sported scratches of varying lengths: battlescars, if you will.

we continued our descent past the forest where arnel managed to collect a modest number of limatiks in his atomizer. on our way, we met a huge group of mountaineers on their way up. i remember meeting some of these guys in halcon last year. we finally reached the road, and sent angie rushing for the first tricycle. we headed back to crystal springs, left our bags at the resort, and visited lake bulusan.

it is a fantastic lake with a dramatic, eerie almost disturbing view. its banks are fringed with a profusion of trees, and a wispy cloud hangs rather precariously over it. one is allowed to think that undiscovered monsters might be in residence there. bing immediately waded into its water to scrub the stubborn layer of mud that had clung to our bodies, while the rest of us just sat there, admiring the scenery. it is even possible to trek part of the lake’s circumference, since a concrete path had been made. a gang of cicadas made a continuous racket above us. snakes and birds were also in attendance. after about half an hour, we walked back to the resort, prepared dinner, dried our things but failed, and continued to bond over GSM, buko juice, and a graham layered refrigerator cake. i may risk sounding presumptuous, but i could tell i was becoming less of a stranger and more of a friend, since malvin’s jokes were going from abstract to personal, which i didn’t mind since he didn’t offend. i suppose when you share a mixture of misery and fun with a small group of people over the course of three days, it won’t be long until you act as if you’ve known each other all your lives. we were scheduled to depart bulusan for donsol at 4am, but it must’ve been past 2 already when we all retired to the attic to sleep.

with the climb phase of our little expedition over, i braced for another 4 days with my new friends.
wow, you were able to climb Mt. Bulusan! We planned to climb the volcano too during the Holy Week but I chickened out. I am a true blue Buluseño and appreciate how you wrote about our amazing volcano and the bodies of water in the area. i missed those limatiks.

Re: Bulusan
funny you found my blog over at livejournal. thanks. :D we actually met a huge group on their way up bulusan when we were on our way down. you should've been in that group. bulusan is quite an awesome mountain, and i wouldn't mind repeating the experience soon. and there is no other way to write about the volcano. it's just wonderful.

Permission to repost lang po. Nakakaaliw yung narrative nyo about the mighty Bicolandia volcanos, lalo na yung Bulusan.