about half an hour from the first campsite, and while performing my task as GL xenon’s personal sweeper, i dropped my backpack beside the lanagan stairway to search for my vial of iodized salt. my left knee was starting to complain, and a muscle cramp was creeping in, so as some kind of preventive measure, i popped a pinch and chased it with water. i looked behind me for signs of my GL, and i caught a glimpse of the long, narrow valley decked by the steep ridges of two mountains. we had to descend to this area before starting a punishing but breathtaking ascent. a thin strip of cloud was moving into the valley like a fluffy white river, covering the few houses that stood there in mysterious-looking mist. i looked up and i could see nothing but the sheer, nearly vertical rock face of a mountain whose name i did not know. the staircase consisted of rocks carved with the most primitive of tools. since 8.45 that morning, till a few minutes before 5pm, we’ve been blessed with the most fantastic of views of the kibungan mountain ranges: imposing creations of pure rock, wrapped by green grass and crowned by wispy forests of pine. in some parts, the locals have built terraces to plant rice. this has been the most amazing experience i have had in the mountains since training started, and that early, i knew it would be one of my favorites, along with pulag and bulusan.
then i began hearing GL xenon whining to TL alvin about how difficult the climb was even as he paused every 5 or 6 steps up the stairway. it was, in fact, a most challenging hike, but one that was remarkable in its beauty. when dado was describing the terrain during the pre-climb, he asked us to look at the stretched fingers on our hands: deep descents and steep ascents, and very little flats in between. after we crossed the first hanging bridge till we reached mang gorio’s house for lunch, we realized that we were falling behind the IT by at least an hour, and i worried that i might be doing a night trek. besides xenon, the only ones left behind me were momoy, doc, and alvin. that is, until i noticed an orange speck somewhere in the distance. it was roland, waving at us, proclaiming that the campsite was about 5 minutes away.
we had just been through lots of scorching sun during which i downed liter after liter of distilled water. i began the trek with at least 4 liters of water, to see if i can last without scooping any of the life that drained and flowed from the mountains. eventually, i had to relent, and i have to say that the mountain’s graces are far sweeter than those that are peddled in plastic bottles. we also had a bit of chilling rain, just as we were about to reach mid rock, an area where a chunk of rock the shape of a rough globe jutted out of a steep cliff. with the way the clouds moved, i began to look forward to a long, wintry evening. kibungan, after all, has been described as the switzerland of benguet, because of the frost which covers its mountains during the colder months.
after reaching the campsite, i noticed that the rest of my group had already pitched their tents and had already slipped into more comfortable clothing. they’d arrived at least two hours ahead of me and were busy preparing dinner. i stood there looking around, wondering where i’d be pitching my tent. i was a little tired, though far from being wasted. i was most eager to pitch my tent and peel off the shirt which had collected too much sun and sweat. unfortunately, all the nice spots had been taken, and i began wondering if my group had totally forgotten i existed since no one responded to my question about where i should set up my talus 23. someone pointed to a sloping area which was too small to accommodate the two vestibules of my tent. it looked like a road hump, and was far from ideal, if i was interested in getting a good night’s sleep. i said i can’t pitch there, but no one seemed to mind me. the gin had started to make rounds, and those who got there early have decided to move the socials ahead of dinner. so i took my bag and looked around for a place where i could pitch my tent. i moved from one campsite to another, asking if there was space. none. i felt like a child abandoned in a strange but beautiful place. i felt neglected, forgotten, damned to obscurity. i suddenly got a little emotional and fought back tears. i was tired.
pretty soon, i found an area being vacated by mosscake and tads. they were moving their tents somewhere else, so i asked if i could get the spot. i felt alone and the nearest tent was about 20 meters away. but it was a nice flat spot, far from the madding crowd. i pitched my tent by my lonesome. some friends came to ask why i was there but i kept mum about my predicament. after changing, i turned on my iPod and listened to bond. i still wonder whether this lovely quartet has ghost violinists. finally, i left my tent to cook the korean beef stew which was my assignment for the evening. my GL and AGL noticed i was not my usual self. they comforted me, and talked me out of being morose.
when evening came, i was almost surprised to feel little cold. we were at about 1700 masl, i think. pretty soon, some trainees gathered at our campsite. we were drinking the tequila that mardel brought to the mountain. i reconciled with ver, and apologized for having given him the cold shoulder. i invited him to share my tent. with that episode over, we started to party. we barely noticed that people started congregating at our spot, and our alcohol was fast becoming history. it was friday, after all, and our socials was turning into a B2K5 friday club get-together. it was very noisy. people screaming, laughing, teasing each other. my altec lansing and borj’s iPod provided music. even ATL marris and GL bitoy joined the ruckus. aspiring vegan niel -- who belongs to cutebalddiver’s marvelous group, but whose name he keeps misspelling -- brought the vodka, and i warned that we had less than 3 minutes left before lights out. then all of a sudden someone suggested that we finish the vodka in less than 3 minutes. gak! i’ve never seen taller shots than the ones eubert circulated and i was thankful that the 3 minutes were up before the glass reached me.
jovs, ver and i crept inside my spacious tent. it was comfortably warm, and both doors were open. jovs and i shared our therm-a-rests with ver who slept in the middle. jovs talked about the state of his love life while farting at irregular intervals. it was a gas chamber! then, when ver and i took our turn to tell our story, jovs replied by snoring. finally we got to sleep. the next thing we knew was that we all woke up when a cold breeze sneaked into the tent.
at quarter to 5, i was already up to see what i could do in the kitchen. i prepared a tuna, mushroom and cheese omelet (although this time, i didn’t have my mom’s teflon skillet -- whew!), while eubert took care of the longaniza and the sinangag. after a while, he heated the pork adobo which we had for breakfast. then i suddenly disappeared to find a major area. i decided to go to the edge of the stairway. dug a hole there and deposited my crap. i heard people talking about a viewdeck, and i wanted to see it. but i had barely packed. i disassembled my tent, stuffed my stuff into my pack, and although i still had a few things lying around, i took my camera and had a photo shoot at the edge of the campsite. along the way, lots of tissue and leaves were scattered on the trail. of course, cutebalddiver openly declared that it was his crap. so in order to see that precious view, one must risk health and safety -- a not-too-accurate metaphor for mountaineering.
but yes, the viewdeck afforded a wonderful view of the outlying mountain ranges. it was a clear morning, and the sky was washed out by the bright sun which illuminated the rock faces and the surrounding greens. one of the mountains in the distance had straight fissures and it looked like a leaning deck of cards or a loaf of uneven bread slices. one could stay there for an entire hour just looking out into the distance. but alas, there is an IT to meet, a bus waiting at the poblacion, and limited resources.
at half past 8, 30 minutes behind the IT, we started our trek for the next campsite. it was going to be a short descent, a short but perilous ascent, a bit of gradual ascent, a descent, a killer ascent, an edge-of-sanity descent, and a mild ascent. five outstretched fingers. not hard to imagine. but it really is best experienced rather than described that way.
after the water source near the campsite, we encountered a bit of traffic. water dripped over a steep rock wall making these little steps made for dwarves rather than mountaineers with big feet (and even bigger hiking shoes) a bit slippery. rope was fastened along the short stretch. far away, there were locals doing work on a deep, horizontal cleave in the mountain, possibly preparing a site to hang a coffin. such practices are still prevalent in the area. then we reached the barangay of tacadang. there were a few homes there, and some wild black pigs. some were small adorable piglets which i would not mind having as a pet. the ATL announced that we’d be regrouping in the area so we took the opportunity to takes dozens of photographs. malvin’s group and a few others were about half an hour away. at tacadang, the views were just absolutely fantastic. people were very very tired, but one long glimpse around was sufficient to take away all the worries of hiking with a large pack and a smelly shirt. besides, there was free kapeng barako and camote to boot. i had none of neither because i don’t drink coffee (we always have swiss miss in my group) and didn’t want to get musical along the trail.
after everyone had arrived, we began the trek to mount ooteen. yes, the mountain is named exactly that, and i can hear snickers and laughter in the background. since we were in the community area, we kept silent, walked single file, until we hit the lunch area along a small stream. along the way, we had to pass through mossy walls of earth which rose high above us. pity i didn’t get to take a picture of the walls. our next destination, a lumber yard where we were supposed to deposit our share of books to be donated to the nearby school, towered ominously high above us. we wolfed down lunch and i was still chewing my last spoonful when xenon told me to load and join the lead pack. so with some food still getting masticated, i assaulted one of ooteen’s peaks. it was hard, and i think eubert, who was 10 long strides ahead of me, could hear me breathing heavily. as i gained altitude, the shapes of people having lunch behind me were reduced to dots, like many-colored M&Ms. when finally we deposited our donations at the lumberyard, i had caught up with the lead pack. from the yard, there was a really steep descent along makeshift stairs. we had to descend slowly, because a misstep might send us tumbling quickly down. but all this time, the precious views never abandoned us. God was far too generous to the people of kibungan to have blessed them with this landscape, but it’s probably something many of the locals might take for granted -- after all, while the craggy cliffs of the mountains are nice to look at, the land isn’t the most fertile. very few crops grow here. life is difficult in this fifth-class municipality.
from there, it was just around 30 minutes to the campsite, and since we got there early -- before 3pm! -- our group managed to get a really nice spot. neither complaints nor drama this time. with that much slack time, you actually forget that dinner is usually eaten after 5. but we were already on a roll before 4 even as some other trainees and members trickled into the campsite. my group, which mother xenon calls the wonder 8, started on dinner, and was nearly done by the time our GL had arrived. maida prepared the pasta while i took charge of the fried chicken. at around 6, we were already completely done, when it started to pour really hard. some of the tents were getting drenched, particularly kuya mar’s, because a wrong set of poles were used. a swamp collected around eub’s tent as well. i, on the other hand, merely stood under the pouring rain, confident that my columbia thunderscout would keep me dry. and it did rather well actually.
we started eating the pesto and chicken even as the rain refused to stop. by 7pm, we were concerned that the last liter of gin won’t last us the night. don circulated very measured shots around while we took turns at answering kuya mar’s question. then some of us shared jokes, and ironically, what most of us will remember is maida’s fish joke because it was the least funny. what did one cool fish say to the other cool fish? sap sap. someone tickle me with a feather. by 8pm, don was just about to wring the sigg bottle of the last drop of gin, but to no avail. we were officially without mamam, and someone suggested toothpaste. i decided to move to the nearby campsite. they’d run out of alcohol too, but i decided to see what was going on, thinking that my groupmates just moved to other campsites in search of some liquid sedatives. while there, i discovered that xenon had been upstaged and i’m on someone’s top 5 list. number 1, in fact. mike yagburn ranks me 1st in his list of hated batchmates, because i accidentally called him michael anthony (instead of michael angelo -- so he’d rather be the renaissance man than cleopatra’s love), and because i seemed to implicate him as the trainee who’d miss princess. so yeah, this guy didn’t just show motive, but has established indubitable proof of his premeditated crime. haha. petty nerd! ed is second because of the omelet incident.
at a little past 9, marris dropped by where we were to say that it was already lights out. we were supposed to start trekking at 6am the following day. i was surprised. when i went inside my tent, jovs was already silently sleeping. i slept well that night, and the weather was great. just had two layers: my navy blue columbia shirt and the P100 ukay fleece jacket. i woke up later at around 3am. i could already hear eubs calling out. jovs didn’t budge. he was feeling sick that morning. went out of my tent and helped with breakfast. i fried the ma ling and the chinese sausage which we mixed with the fried rice. prepared the lechon paksiw for lunch. and woke up the members for breakfast. we did it very very quickly. the sun was rising in the horizon, bursting in an orange flame that crowned the dark silhouette of the mountain in the east.
at a little past six, we were all packed for the last leg of the trip. it would generally be downhill, we were told. going down isn’t necessarily easy for me, since i carry a pack that’s often above 20kg, and each step stresses my weak knees. while very steep, the descent was accompanied by steps with railings. without them, we’d probably be better off going the direction where we came from. in over an hour, we came upon a nice stream which poured over a slightly vertical rock face. people would call it a waterfall, but i have much higher standards than that. it was a good thing that my group was fast, which afforded us opportunities to enjoy nature scenes like this one. we noticed that the other groups ahead of us didn’t even bother to stop at the falls, which is sad, because it defeats the essence of mountaineering. but then again i guess their ideas are different from mine.
after an extended stay there, we walked the rest of the way, past terraces, and a long hanging bridge stretched over a mighty river. one look at it and i knew i wanted to take a dip. it was hot, and i was nearly dried out. i had run out of water and there still was a 30 minute uphill hike ahead of me. many of us descended to the river and drenched our bodies with the cold, rushing water. from there, the trails leading to the shed along the rough road was not marked by signs, so it was mostly every mountaineer for himself. roland and i took a route different from that taken by kuya mar and dya-ke. but we all reached our goals. the truck was already waiting for us, but i just wanted to get the shirt off. i had been wearing it for 3 days, and it started to smell like a thing which previously had a life of its own.
i bathed inside the outhouse beside a small rice mill. after i finished, i realized that my malong was outside inside my bag, so i was left with little choice but to go and get it. while i was in my trunks, no less. so much for cushioning the impact on the local community. they’d just been given a shock treatment. a brief chat with some of the locals revealed that we were the first strangers to have ever done anything like that. and there were nearly 100 of us! while i got dressed, the truck loaded with around 20 mountaineers left for the poblacion. i was in no hurry, so i let them go ahead as i gingerly combed my hair. i waited for the rest of the people and we left for a bumpy ride to the town hall. once i got there, i started cooking. the trek was over, but people were hungry, so i had little choice but to do something to address the gluttony brought about by the 3-day hike. i had no idea what i was doing, but tired beggars can’t be choosers so they all liked my instant pasta with meat sauce and lechon bits. i also steamed some hotdogs. eira wolfed down a lot when she arrived. we thought we’d be spared the trouble, but after a while, it was announced that the presentations would push through.
we halved the script and decided to keep just 3 songs. the mirror scene with maida was hilarious! barbs had to dig deep into her teatro tomasino days. since they started their performance late, TB had to make up for it by flashing his arse. and locals were watching too! the rest of the groups just sang. or danced. last i heard we were supposed to do a musical. oh well. before long, we left for baguio at around 4pm. i didn’t sleep at all the entire trip. eubs found xenon’s shoulder comforting, and janet felt the same on ver’s. sigh. at baguio, we bought 11.20pm tickets at victory and had our post climb at o mai khan. next thing that happened was me waking up near SM city north. i was home by 4am, and even had time to play with my dogs and talk to my mom about the trek. she still disapproves despite my safe arrival. i took out the wet clothes in my bag and only then did i discover that my phone wasn’t missing, after all.
i find this climb rather overwhelming in its savage attractions. while there is an abundance of breathtaking vistas which kept me locked in wonderment, it wasn’t without its fair share of difficulties. it’s definitely not a climb for anyone not physically prepared, nor for anyone too jaded to appreciate the simple but precious beauty of a huge chunk of rock wrapped in moss. i’m glad my batch accomplished the challenges far above expectations. even alexis did well, and finished well ahead of many. but the goal is never to finish first really, but to finish only in good time, without failing to appreciate creation. kibungan is a blessed land, and it is any hiker’s dream. i’d choose to be overwhelmed anytime.