there are few opportunities more rare than the one i took part in over the weekend, one which allowed me to do two of my most favorite things. one, of course, is to climb, and the other, is to be able to take part in an outreach program for children. the long weekend which imbued me with a profound sense of purpose started late thursday evening at the victory liner bus station in kamias. we were a bunch of merry men and women, with our conspicuously cumbersome backpacks, causing quite a ruckus in the station. as usual, i found my pack a tad too heavy, and i needed only to take a brief glance at the boxes filled with the bags we were supposed to carry on top of our individual loads, to worry even for a moment. i’d lugged 7 grocery bags with me to the station, which i distributed to my group.
we expected to reach bambang in nueva vizcaya around 4am, and i hoped to sneak in a few hours of sleep to prepare for the climb, considering that the halcon experience had left me avoiding anything remotely resembling physical exercise. i previously asked bing if ugo were a difficult mountain, and he said it would be a walk in the park. uhm, alright. just as i was about to visit the realm of morpheus, the bus conductor plays a movie on the onboard video. it was uncanny that he’d chosen “vertical limit” to accompany us on our trip. i’d heard of the movie previously, though i never really got around to seeing it. the movie’s dialogues were drowned by the sick roar of the bus and i failed to understand many of the details, although i got a very general picture of the story. it often felt like there were pieces of the engine falling off under us. in spite of that, i was awake while the movie played, salivating at the gear and equipment so clandestinely displayed throughout. the movie was not unlike a catalogue of only the most expensive of mountaineering brands.
when we reached bambang, it was barely the break of day. our conveyance was already there. “fruits and vegetables dealer”, the sign on the truck read. when i boarded the truck, i had this strange feeling that i was cattle. we left for kayapa just as the sun was about to rise. TB was very eager to share what he knew about the place, and told me that during the rainy season, the parched river looked a lot more menacing. as we gained altitude on our way to kayapa, i looked out at an important node in the highway system of the cordilleras. this apparently, was a priority project to connect aritao to baguio, but it hardly looked the part since there was more danger there than anything. mountaineering has acquainted me with some of the worst highways in the world, the kind that could break engines, and i’m liking the adventure.
after signing in at the kayapa municipal hall, we proceeded to pangawan. the traditional jump-off was only a few meters from the town center, but there was a new route from pangawan which promised to be a little less steep. “ang tarik nyan, at ang init pa,” TB shared. from pangawan, which is actually the boundary of benguet and nueva vizcaya, we distributed the packs among ourselves and left for tinongdan. this new trail was supposed to be gently rolling, but it was much much longer. TB liked it better than the kayapa trail, but carla would have much preferred the steeper route. “sandali lang yun eh,” she complained. leaving at past 8, the first amongst us reached tinongdan by 11.30am for lunch. this trail was indeed less taxing on the knees, since it rolled gently over a great distance. i didn’t know whether to agree with TB or with carla since it was my first time to climb ugo. in the climb team, i was the only one without any previous encounter with the mountain.
in indupit, locals from domolpos appeared to help lessen our loads. we were all too eager to give up the schoolbags, and i even parted with one of my motherbags if only to be spared an extra kilo and a half. this, however, didn’t make much of a difference since i still felt that unmistakable weight on my back. when we proceeded to the first of 4 waiting sheds scattered along the trail, i was sandwiched between francis and iton. i don’t exactly know how it began, but for some odd reason, iton and i pounced on the hapless francis on the subject of iton being B2K2’s best trainee. francis thought iton was undeserving, and to this, iton had much to say. it really was quite a riot, and francis ribbed me about kissing iton’s ass, since i’ll be training and all. the exchange lasted a really long time, and i don’t think i’ve laughed this much on a climb. perhaps much of it can be attributed to the trail, which was generally flat, without any real challenges. it was possible to talk and laugh without running out of breath. it was a very sunny day. roland, who had just retired his salomon trail runners, was trekking on a pair of sandals and held on to a sick-looking blue umbrella.
when we reached the 3rd waiting shed, there was a signpost which read: “this way to mt. ugo”. there was a peak in very striking distance, but there was no certainty that it would be our destination. it was only when TB arrived that he verified that the peak (usually covered in fog) which jutted out not far away is mt ugo. he pointed out tey’s revenge: a steep part leading to the campsite on the summit shoulder. francis left ahead of everyone and i worried he might already be very pissed. we joked about the possibility he might be preparing an ambush, or may have prepared a trap for iton and myself. just when i thought that the 4th waiting shed would only be around the bend, i failed to realize that the bend would be really deep. in the mountains, one dismisses all that geometry about the shortest distance between two points being a straight line, since the ones who’ve blazed these trails are often at the mercy of nature.
we waited awhile at the 4th waiting shed while some of us loaded water. there were gregarious cows there, but TB and doc warned me that they might eat my things. they don’t get a lot of salt in the mountains, and sweat from humans becomes quite an attractive alternative. when my water arrived, i resumed the trek to assault the most difficult part of the trail: tey’s revenge, which, along with anna’s delight and bajay’s campsite, is a name which is derived from AMCI lore. sure enough, tey’s revenge provided me with quite a challenge, and though it was only brief and short, there was enough of it to make me pause at least twice and run after my diminishing breath. i took note of TB’s advise not to put down my bag as it may end up back at the 4th waiting shed. at around this time, a somnolent fog fell over the trail, erasing the captivating views in the distance. the erect pine trees looked a little forbidding, and a slight drizzle was in the offing. i had made a few calls if only to assure myself that i was almost there.
then i found our campsite, and francis’s tent already pitched. he said i should be thankful that he’d chosen the best spot for our tent, but i was more thankful he was still willing to let me in. after all, i had been most unkind to him, deriving fun and laughter at his expense, but he was being a good sport.
for dinner we prepared beef sinigang, fried breaded galunggong, and a crushed graham cracker cake. i remember xenon said that you don’t use beef for sinigang, but it turned out quite good, despite the fact that it had been christened, beef-flavored vegetable sinigang. i had apparently bought the wrong part of the cow. when we took out our brews, iton again took out his guns and trained them on francis. at this time, it was an altogether different topic. even while the rounds continued, i decided to retire, and i slept really comfortably well. i woke only much later, surprised that i felt little cold, and only had my cheap ukay-ukay jacket on me. i snoozed for a bit and then searched for my lamp to check what time it was. at around 4am, i decided to start preparing breakfast. i usually really wake up ahead of everyone else and rather than spend idle time staring at the tent’s mesh ceiling, i would prefer to busy myself preparing coffee (which i don’t drink) and breakfast. as i left the tent, i discovered that on top of his thermarest, francis was zipped inside his sleeping bag, and wore his green TNF gore-tex jacket. along with the lumpiang shanghai and tuna omelet, this would be our picker-upper for that morning.
i’d been told by dino (columbia’s brand manager) that ugo is where one of the most fantastic sunrises is at. mamu says the same thing in his site. i waited anxiously for that orange glint to break the monotonous gray sky in a fantastic display of light, but the weather conditions made for a rather boring dawn. nonetheless, the break of day was still pleasant and the views were no less amazing. what’s different about ugo is that there are communities so near the summit, much unlike pulag or amuyao. after breakfast, and a few shots of the campsite, we decided to pack. cows, and surprisingly, pigs, were already in the area foraging for anything we may have left behind. they’d probably picked up the scent of our food, but we’d conscientiously packed everything in. leave no trace.
getting to lusod from the campsite, one must first get to the summit less than 30 minutes away. the summit has no view, since it’s surrounded by trees. it’s only marked by a sign which inaccurately proclaims its altitude. from there, we descended to the memorial dedicated to an AMCI great: bigfoot. the descent was so steep, i could imagine it would’ve been similar to tey’s revenge had we reversed the trek. from the bigfoot memorial, we proceeded to the old sawmill site for lunch. we fetched water from the (new?) sawmill site which in no time turned suspiciously brown. since we had already prepared the sweet and sour pork earlier on, we just decided to deep fry some potatoes as an after-lunch snack. there was mayo on the side. mon surreptitiously opened one of our gin bottles and circulated a few shots. and then the teasing continued. francis was chiefly the object of our ridicule, but for a brief moment, we turned to jhong. 2 long rest hours can make you do crazy things like that, and the jokes escalate until they push the envelope.
finally, it was time to resume the trek through the pine forests of ugo. beginning from the summit, there are no other trees in the vicinity but these lovely erect pine trees, and their wispy leaves, which allow quite a lot of sunlight to fall on the ground, browned by dried pine needles and speckled by some pine cones. some trees aren’t even green, but are crowned by a head that’s a dull kind of orange. i didn’t know what time we were supposed to reach lusod, but it wasn’t long before we saw this small plantation of rice. rusting metal sardine cans hung over the paddy as some kind of scarecrow, i would suppose. in an instant, we reached lusod, and the first things that come into mind is a can of soda. at P25 per can, it’s a steal, considering that lusod is so far removed from tinongdan. some of the members of the tinongdan team were already there. we then proceeded to the school site, which wasn’t near most of the houses. this meant we could make some noise without disturbing too many people.
when i arrived, kuya mar welcomed me with a shot of gin. it was only a little past 4, i think, and already, we were already busy with getting ourselves really drunk. francis’s tent was already pitched, and he said that for the 2nd night in a row, i have the best spot in the campsite. that is, if he would let me sleep in his tent. i think to this iton said “as if naman gustung-gusto ni alman matulog sa tent mong P5,000 lang.” francis replied, “at least ako meron, ikaw nanghihiram lang.” it had been the same set of arguments since day 1, but for some odd reason, the jokes weren’t getting old. we must’ve sniffed a whole lot of laughing gas at the time.
we resumed drinking even as the tinongdan team started trickling in. i knew some of the people there, and i was more than happy to renew acquaintances. fab_ab was also along to lend a hand. when night fell, kuya mar coaxed us to engage in a debate. the topic was: who would you choose, the one you love, or the one who loves you. i took one side, and so did fabian, and under normal (i.e., more sober) circumstances, i wouldn’t dare engage him in an argument, he being the better and more experienced debater, but since i had already mixed gin and brandy, i was endowed with a lot more courage, though not necessarily a lot of logic. he argued his side well, despite the fact that he thought it was a lousy topic. i would have to agree, since i’ve always insisted that love is a two-way street. kuya mar said, “ay talo ka ni fabian, disappointed ako.” but i made up this excuse that i won in the text-in votes, or something. oh yeah, drunk i was alright. since i was still in-charge of the kitchen at the time, i kept moving around, unable to say no to anyone offering a drink. by the time the first few of the domolpos team reached the school, i was already very stoned. the last among them got there around midnight, and i recall offering soup and hugs to my PSI batchmates. when bing arrived, he told me something pretty obvious, and commanded that i retire. i obeyed him, since despite the absence of sobriety, i knew i wasn’t my normal self.
and i must’ve slept really well that night since the next thing i remember was hearing bajay’s voice as he rapped our tent, saying, “francis, francis, gising na.” my response was: “aw, ang sakit ng ulo ko.” i couldn’t even tell bajay that francis was not inside. even when i left the tent, this was my morning greeting to everyone. the headache was so profoundly painful, i failed to appreciate the morning which welcomed me. TB handed me a couple of aspirins, but it still took some time for the tablets to take effect. in spite of my condition, i tended to the kitchen with iton. when we broke camp, my concern then was my missing MSR folding rubber spatula. i was worried a dog might have taken it. then the kids started arriving. i didn’t take part in the program, until it was time to make pinwheels. i partnered with the biggest kid in the room. damn headache. must not mix gin and brandy. i never really learn. and too bad since i like photographing children, as one of my online albums will prove. there is an innocence about them which is both precious and rare. one hardly ever encounters joy, or wonder, or even surprise more pure and sincere than that on the face of a child.
finally, it was time for the turn-over ceremony, and we lined the kids with their bags in front of their chests, and their pinwheels over their heads out in the schoolyard, with the sweltering sun causing their beautiful little eyes to squint. they shouldn’t have been made to soak under the sun that long while us adults were in the shade, but they didn’t seem to mind so much, and even offered a few songs for us. the first one was familiar. it goes something like, “don’t let me down... that’s all i ask of you.” or something to that general effect. it was a moving rendition, notwithstanding the fact that it sounded more ilocano than english. by the end of their presentation, they chorused, “thank you ate, thank you kuya.” there were not a few people, including ms mini, who daubed their eyes with tissue.
and then it was time to leave for tinongdan. it promised to be a long, generally downhill hike, and i stuck with my group for the most part. the descent wasn’t very hard, but i could imagine it must’ve been a challenge for those who had to go up this way the previous day. and more of a challenge perhaps for those not used to the rigors of mountaineering. my group started initially somewhere in the middle, but by the time we had reached the community, we had overtaken the lead pack. it was really hot, and although the trail was very pleasant and pretty, i was so in a hurry to score my throat with a soda, so much so that when i found one, i quite literally panicked and turned my bag upside down looking for money.
we then proceeded to the barangay captain’s house to wash up. i took out a piece of paper and made sure the queue to the toilet would have a semblance of organization. and we waited for everyone else to arrive. those of us who got there early were getting a little giddy with having to wait so long for the last man, so with the blessings of ogz’s, i gathered a few of my friends and advised them to load. lunch, after all, was getting cold at the tinongdan barangay hall, perched high above the highway, and across the river. in spite of an empty stomach, however, i didn’t get to eat too much, because i didn’t find the food too appetizing. not that i’m being ungrateful. it’s just that native chicken doesn’t quite appeal to me. we must’ve spent more than 2 hours there, until finally everyone had made their way up, and we were on our way to baguio just as the monsoon caught up with us. the good feeling of having helped the children around one of the nicest mountains in the cordilleras was only beginning to sink in, and if anyone caught me smiling for no apparent reason, it may have been because i thoroughly enjoyed pouncing on francis, climbing a mountain with an abundance of pleasant trails, and the memory of the young girl and the young boy, bleached in the sun, singing a song in english i could not understand, expressing, in the most subtle of ways, a profound kind of gratitude jaded urban dwellers are unable to do. i’m happy i was able to go. kudos must really go to orlando “ogz’s” galuza for spearheading this worthwhile project. to angie as well for contributing much of her time and her organizing skills in convincing people to donate and to take part in the deployment. these guys deserve medals. or maybe a cold glass of beer.
just as i tried to get some sleep, the jeep screeched to a halt near the victory liner station of baguio. i got midnight tickets for myself and 8 others who’ve decided to have dinner and a few beers in the city of pines. i’ve been to baguio many many times in the past, but i don’t remember ever seeing much of it. so when kuya mar dragged us to 18BC in legarda, i was almost surprised to discover that there was such a thing as baguio ska. the band, which called itself space garden (or was it flower?) played reggae and ska, and they were pretty good, actually. i really enjoyed watching the vocalist, although it seemed he was the only one feeling it. everyone else just looked like they were going through the motions, as though they’d been forced to play those instruments. but it was a nice evening that i enjoyed thoroughly. save for the brief impasse inside the bus, everything else went so smoothly, i only woke 3 and a half hours later to find that we were cruising on the very smooth and modern NLEX.