The Taming of the Few: Traversing Mount Makiling

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usRaymund was careful to avoid the murky puddle that lay squat on the trail. It had been raining hard the previous night, and the trek began with more than enough portentous things. We were already delayed by more than two hours, despite having started very early in the morning. The bus bound for Lucena inched, rather painfully, on the southbound side of the National Highway.

I had been aware of the less than ideal circumstances early on as I had difficulty sleeping. I was fidgeting with great unease on my seat, and accidentally nudged the person next to me. “Are we there yet?” Raymund asked with the same dazed and confused look most people wear when they are suddenly disturbed from sleep.

“I don’t know where we are,” I replied, as I looked out the window. It was still very dark, but a procession of pedestrians had already started outside. “We might as well join these guys and start our trek right here,” I said, smiling. Raymund was not amused. He was tapping his foot impatiently on the floor. He was wearing a new pair of trekking boots, and our destination would be its first mountain.

“What’s causing all this traffic?” he asked. I shrugged my shoulders. Earlier, the conductor and some passengers were huddling near the door. Rumor had traveled down the queue of stalled vehicles that a truck loaded with asphalt had turned turtle along the highway, causing a mammoth jam on both sides. No one knew for sure. There was still no sight of the enchanted mountain which we’ve decided to climb, and Raymund fell asleep before I could tell him what I overheard.

This was our third training climb with Pilipinas Sierra, Inc., an environmental outdoor group, which yearly takes in a bunch of trekking enthusiasts. Our itinerary was written on a small piece of paper which I kept in my pocket. I fished it out and smoothed away the creases. I checked my watch. We were terribly off schedule, and we reached Sto. Tomas in Batangas long after the first light of day. Mar, the team leader, wanted the group to chase the unexpected delay. We’d be having very few take fives on this hike, I thought.

Raymund and I were bunched in the first group. We followed Mar as he ambled along the familiar trail with a confident and steady gait. He had been through this pass many times. “Keep the creek to your left,” he said, as we paused. He looked around for some twigs, and I handed him one near my foot. The path had forked, so he took the branches and formed an ‘x’ on the path turning left. He was educating us on the value of trail signs. Behind me, Raymund picked up a leaf and wiped the mud off his new shoes.

Makiling is a mountain steeped in legend. There are persistent stories about climbers never returning, of hikers getting lost for hours. Its trails are narrow and confusing, with several suspect turns. The surrounding greens can also be oppressive, leaving precious little space for mountaineers to walk shoulder to shoulder. For the most part, we hiked, single file, watching the burdensome backpacks of the hikers in front of us bobbing up and down. What makes this mountain particularly tricky, however, is that there are hardly any real and permanent landmarks to peg a trail. A few minutes on the wrong turn could lead to as much as an hour’s delay. Even for an experienced guide like Mar, who was part of the trailblazing group that hacked what is now known as the Makiling Traverse – a route which spans two provinces – the trail can provide some puzzles. The mountain’s texture shifts according to the dictates of the season. On the blessed Saturday morning when we began our climb, Makiling was wrapped thickly in her rain garments.

Had the conditions been any different, the trek through Makiling’s forests would not have been any easier. Along with some personal clothing carefully wrapped in individual Ziploc bags, I was equipped with 4 liters of water, a dome tent which sleeps five people comfortably, a stove and fuel bottle, a non-stick cookset consisting of two pots and a frying pan, complete kitchen utensils, half a dozen eggs, a collection of cooking herbs, a folding three-legged stool, and a camp lantern. The fiberglass poles of my tent were sticking out of my bag like a bunch of antennas, as they were too long to fit inside. Lifting the bag was an ordeal. Multiply that weight with the number of steps and the number of hours we’d be spending on the trail. My back has never had this sort of brutal punishment.

An hour had gone by when the group found itself dwarfed by the cogon grass lining the narrow path. The blades bent inwards, and the trail was barely distinguishable. I had already made a career out of slipping, and the protrusion on my backpack had been tangled countless times on the many mangled branches of the surrounding trees. Around about this time, Raymund had completely surrendered to the inevitability of the earth finding its way deep into the crevices on the sole of his boots. “I don’t think Vibram was made for wet tropical conditions,” he remarked, referring to the patented technology embedded in his modern boots, as he struggled to get a secure foothold on the slippery earth. There are abrupt upward angles in the trail, and both Raymund and I had to rely on whatever we could get our hands on to prop ourselves up. The traction on our soles had been unavailing, as at least half an inch of mud had collected underneath them.

No one in the group was ill equipped for the climb. Each one was assisted by some form of technology designed for the outdoors and for conditions more extreme than those that visited Makiling on that weekend. But when a series of natural obstacles makes helpless even the most modern piece of equipment, you realize that despite your arsenal of fancy-sounding trademarks, the best gear you will ever bring with you on any climb, is yourself. This much we learned when we took our first real break in a clearing on the way to Palanggana, where we scheduled our lunch. Sweat-wicking fabric and waterproof membranes had all but succeeded in their promises. The aluminum staves on our backpacks designed to disperse weight from the shoulders to the hips seemed non-existent. And regardless of how much care we exerted, mud had crawled all the way up to our shoulders. None of the trainees had ever been this dirty on any of our climbs, but everyone seemed to be filled with cheer. We were a merry band of raggedy stragglers who sincerely reveled in what would have been otherwise miserable circumstances.

When we resumed our trek after a few minutes, Mar said that we might just make the itinerary. “Palanggana is just over there,” he said, and waved his hand on an area obscured by tall trees and a thick layer of mist. The outlying views of Batangas and Laguna were screened off by clouds which enveloped Makiling. Everywhere, there was an ever-present gray curtain threatening to descend upon the company. The challenges were escalating in their difficulty, but there was less reason to complain. With the sun blotted out, heat had not contributed to our exhaustion.

Finally, we reached Palanggana: another clearing barricaded by a collusion of small and tall trees. Above us, the sky could not be seen as the branches of leaves had clasped their leaves over us. I took out my portable stool and found a corner to rest my tired legs. I picked up a small twig and poked at the mud which had settled under my boots. It was just past 1 in the afternoon, but it could have very well been nearing dusk. Raymund took out his digital camera and began taking pictures, but he complained that a flash was necessary to get decent photographs. Very little light filtered in through the thick clouds and dense canopy. Our clothes had been robbed of their bright colors, as though the mist had soaked us all in a somber gray. Then a somnolent air hung over the small company of 21 climbers when each one of us focused on eating our lunches and recharging our spent bodies. We had already been struggling for five hours on the trail, and had suffered several slips, cuts, falls, and tumbles. We were all terribly hungry.

But pregnant silences are always uncomfortable, and the sorrowful air was soon punctured with explosions of laughter as each one shared food, water and anecdotes of how half a day in the mountain had reduced us all into clumsy, flat-footed, earth-worshipping creatures. The tail group, particularly the sweeper, Mike, a burly man who had at least twice my frame, had grumbled the most, because those who had gone ahead had done such a great job at punishing the trail, and making the obstacles more difficult than they already were.

When the hour we allocated for lunch expired, we loaded our backpacks again and started the trek to Gubatan, our designated campsite. The folks at Pilipinas Sierra are fairly disciplined climbers who stick to plans and who keep their impact to a minimum. Mike told the group to go ahead and said that he’d check the area where we had our lunch to make sure we left no trace.

As we picked up our pace, Mar predicted that we would make Gubatan in less than two hours. I started singing as the trail offered fewer challenges, but my companions preferred the voices of the many birds that make their home in Makiling. Finally, we reached a wide circular clearing where there were visible signs of recent human activity. Some empty plastic bottles had been surreptitiously hidden behind a tree, and in the middle were the black ashes of burned sticks washed out by the downpour the previous night. Mar grumbled at the sight, but said it cannot be helped. There are others who climb mountains with no regard for nature’s capacity to renew itself. I proceeded to a corner and started imagining pitching my tent there.

“Hey let’s go!” Raymund snapped. Mar had placed a smaller stone on top of a bigger stone in one of the paths so that others would follow. Although we were already in Gubatan, the first spot was not our designated campsite. In fact, we had encountered two more clearings before we reached a much larger area where we decided to set up camp. The area looked very much like an unknown location deep inside the bosom of a vast rainforest. It was savage and surreal, surrounded by small plants not seen anywhere else, and decked by several tall trees whose leaves converged well above our heads. Some of the trees were visibly old; their roots branched out far from the trunk, like an intricate spider’s web permanently embossed on the ground. Some of the trees were tormented by a confusion of slippery-looking vines which wrapped the sturdy trunks in an asphyxiating embrace. Each time a little wind passed, the trees shivered and sent down their wet blessings to the ground, even as the mist which hung unceremoniously from the sky kept warning that it might drizzle anytime soon.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThe others had yet to arrive, and I decided to lay claim on a spot beside one of the tall trees. Raymund and the other members of my group helped in pitching my large tent. The moment it stood, there was disbelief in their eyes. They found it remarkable that I stuffed that big a tent in my pack and had declined to share any of the other group equipment. “Don’t worry,” I replied. “This won’t happen again.”

As the other members of the few who decided to pay homage to Makiling arrived and pitched their tents, we decided to prepare dinner while there was still a little light. It was only a little after 4, and I wanted to rest but I was the designated cook. The others had left to fetch water from a source about 30 minutes away. I’ve only been climbing for over a year, and had been to only a handful of mountains, but I’ve consistently remarked that I’ve had some of my best meals while out at camp, and not because anything would taste good to an exhausted and famished climber. Since we’ve gone through all that effort, we believe in rewarding ourselves with a superb dinner. I took out my stove and my cookware with no intention to disappoint.

Later on, as nighttime came like a dark blanket suddenly thrown over the canopy of trees, the scent of my Thai garlic pork simmering over a consistent fire had attracted several inquiries. Nearby, Japanese beef curry was brought to a boil. I wore my headlamp and watched over the meals I was preparing. I had already botched my mixed vegetables, but my main course and the Oriental Nido soup had more than made up for the error.

After dinner, each of the three groups exhibited their absolute lack of acting talents with the mandatory presentations. Soon thereafter, bottles of gin were placed at the center while a lamp lit the faces of the climbers. I settled inside my tent but failed to escape the shots as the gin made their rounds. And I think I was having one shot too many. Crickets and a host of other insects started lamenting my absolute lack of control for alcohol. I dozed off muttering many things which I could not recall in my drunken state.

In spite of that, I was up a few moments before Mar boomed his voice over the campsite to rouse the campers from their sleep. The trek down to the other side is a bigger ordeal. I boiled water, and started slicing some onions for my omelets. Since there was a surplus of eggs, I decided to make two. I think I was far too ambitious with my breakfast plans, but ended up putting everything into the pan. But the touch of basil had made quite an impression on the famished climbers.

Even while the sun struggled to sneak its rays in through the thick mist which had wrapped Makiling, we tore down the campsite, and made sure we had packed everything in, including the smallest details of our visit. I had the most difficult time, because my tent increased in size and in weight. I was almost unable to stuff it inside my backpack. Mar began explaining the series of challenges that we would find along the trail to our destination: Los Baños in Laguna. Unlike most mountains, we had camped at a clearing far below the summit. The peaks of Makiling – there are three of them – had been reduced to footnotes along the long and difficult trail.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usWith Mar leading the way, the bunch began a gentle ascent. Each one still looked a little shot: deprived of sleep and the usual comforts of home, but no less energetic. Some had not bothered to change, and were wearing the same clothes that had been dirtied beyond description the previous day. The first bottleneck were some small boulders planted precariously at the edge of a steep cliff. With more faith than actual strength, you pull yourself up by holding on to a slender piece of rope which hung down along the steep path.

There are many distractions along the trail, least of which are the magnificent views of the outlying towns. We were all but deprived of any feeling of vertigo, as the deep ravines on either side of the narrow trail along a thin ridge had been obliterated by the fog. Occasionally, the more observant climbers were blessed with sightings of pitcher plants, and other strange looking flora which would probably land us a fine had we been less circumspect and decided to show them off at home. But perhaps the more pressing concern for many was our passage through the mossy forest, where countless leeches make their residence. I had my first encounter early on during the previous day. I found what I thought was a black worm inching along my arm. It was almost as long as a matchstick, but just as thin. There were barely visible stripes along its shiny, slimy body. It looked deceptively harmless, and I brought it nearer for closer inspection. “Limatik!” Raymund screeched and brushed it away.

I wish I could have reacted just as quickly as I struggled to propel myself up the incline of Haring Bato: an imposing wall of rock which stood between me and Peak 2. Both of my hands were holding on to a fat piece of rope (the same used to moor ships) hanging from high above. Jun, who had decided to overtake me and was already at the top of the rock, was giving instructions on where I should place my foot for a more secure grip. My cumbersome backpack was assisting gravity in pulling me down. I almost fell as I let go of one hand to signal that there was a leech on one of Jun’s cheeks. He flicked it away immediately.

When I finally found myself at the top, I stood for a moment at the edge, feeling a little triumphant, and watched as the others behind me labored to overcome the challenge. I was tempted to break into song, but decided against it as the weather had not been auguring well. In my celebration, I had almost failed to appreciate the abundance of danger which was all around, and realizing that one wrong move would send me plunging down to unknown depths, I called out for some assistance, and Jun was only too eager to reach out.

I found Mar later resting in the middle of an area where the surrounding cogon grass had been trampled to make a clearing. This is Peak 2 of Makiling, one of the summits, and perhaps the most ideal place to camp on a weekend sunnier than this. There was nothing to see, but with Mar’s narration, it was easy to imagine looking out into the horizon once the sun has set, and watching the barrage of city lights rival the twinkling of the stars. The peak could accommodate only around four tents, and I thought about returning if only to see for myself what others had enjoyed.

One by one, the remainder of the group arrived, having overcome Haring Bato. We took a few more minutes rest at the peak and checked for leeches. Raymund had applied a generous helping of Vicks on his ears, and refilled his atomizer with some rubbing alcohol. Much later, as I was admiring an ancient, gnarled tree robed in thick moss, I felt something swaying in front of my right eye. Thinking it was hair, I moved it away with my hand, but it remained there. I could not have been anymore histrionic when I called out for Raymund’s help. His glasses had been fogging, so he removed it and could not see what I was complaining about. “There’s a limatik on my right eye!” I shouted. He took out his atomizer and pressed it twice on my face. The leech fell off and I felt a sharp sting on my eye for several minutes, not from the bite, but from the alcohol.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usAs we neared Peak 1, I realized what the advocates of packing light were talking about. Tree trunks and huge branches, and sometimes even exposed roots crossed the trail. Some were low enough to cross over, but many times, we had to crawl under them, the full length of our bodies in complete contact with the ground. Down on all fours, we are taught once again the value of humility.

With some difficulty, we reached Peak 1 where we found some students from UP Los Baños who had come up for a day climb. They were cowering underneath a tarp hanging from a tree. It had started to rain, and the teens were ill prepared for the testy weather. None of us seemed affected, and we proceeded to the trail which would bring us down to the other end of our traverse. It would be down-mountain from hereon. This was not necessarily easier, I realized, as my backside absorbed the brunt of the many falls I suffered from being too careless.

When the slope began to roll gently down, the strangest things started to happen. After having spent the better part of the morning tackling a host of challenges on a most inhospitable trail, the next couple of hours on more or less gentle terrain became the most unbearable. Judith, the only amazon who had dared to join the boys on this climb, broke her usual silence and asked, at regular intervals, if we were there yet. And as is casual among climbers, Jun must have repeated “30 minutes and we’ll be at the Nursery” almost after every thirty minutes.

After a little while, the trial opened wide. We had reached the road, and impatience started to grow. There were some makeshift homes along the way, and even a store where we stopped for a drink. I took out some trail food and shared them with the kids who had come out of their homes to inspect me. I appeared to them like a dirty curiosity, and the moment they snatched the Jellyace from my hand, they ran quickly away. I wondered what it was that scared them. Apparently, I had some stowaways still clinging on to my shirt and my bag. Leeches had traveled down all the way from the peaks. When I lifted my jogging pants, just above my socks I found a number of bloodsuckers, looking a lot like small but plump grapes ripe for the picking. I felt absolutely no pain, and I removed them without much drama, to the utmost disgust of the locals.

Finally, we had lunch at the UPLB Nursery. The rain had paused, and there were some young boys and girls from a college in Laguna waiting for their companions to return from some outdoor activity nearby. One of them quizzed me about how heavy my pack was and where we began our trek. “What province are we at?” I asked.

“Laguna,” she promptly said.

“Well, we started our journey in Batangas,” I replied.

“Liar!” she shot back. But I was too tired to explain the details of our trek. Instead, we just laughed at her disbelief, and I said we had been walking since yesterday. I finished lunch quickly and the rest of the group started the final descent.

Just before we reached the campus, we regrouped to peel away the second skin leased to us by Makiling. Each one had taken a piece of the mountain with him. I fished out a fresh set of clothes from my bag and queued for the shower. The UPLB has provided climbers with a facility where they could clean themselves before they rejoined the rest of society. Some of us were nursing some cuts and bruises, others were lamenting the failure of their equipment, but no one seemed to regret joining the climb. Mountains are always a source of spiritual awakening, and Makiling had provoked in us a profound sense of adventure. Indeed, that mountain is enchanted, and each one of us went home that day possessed by a lot of humility.