long before the break of day, and while our friends and companions in far away manila dragged their cumbersome bags to the airport, the few who gathered a day ahead in davao gingerly went about preparing for what lay ahead: assemble at the parking lot of the davao international airport, and make it to the jump off in barangay sibulan in sta cruz by 10am. as i pondered what else to bring with me, my phone rang. it was don, and my first reaction was: is he calling me from the plane’s lavatory? his first words to me were: “shit alman hindi ako nagising”. initially i thought he was just kidding. hearing that bit of news was similar to getting jolted by some vile liquid, like when one first encounters vodka, and it goes straight to the brain. he resolved to follow the group the following day, and i readied myself for the day. just before 6, i and a few others boarded niel’s lola’s expedition, and were deposited at the airport less than 15 minutes later. several jeepneys, the SAVERS, and a few AMCI people were already there. it was a sunny day, and the heat in davao was knocking on unbearable’s door. in the horizon, two summits loomed like unmoving behemoths. on the right is mount talomo, and to the left was our intended destination: mount apo. its summit was like a weak magnet, attracting a cabal of clouds that crept slowly towards it from all directions.
it seemed like a good day to start a climb. that is, until the first portent of the day happened. i was speaking to some of the sweepers about something i could not remember when from the corner of my eye, i saw a white vehicle lurching forward. before i could finish saying “oh my God!”, it had moved from its spot on the parking lot towards the other side where another vehicle was parked, and where a few people had gathered. its movement was not unlike someone alternately stepping on the gas and the brakes, and its wheels screeched on the pavement. the first thing that i remembered were vince and ava, whom i remembered were standing on the spot where the toyota revo’s hood were on now. in an instant, several men were trying to push the vehicle away, and i imagined someone might have just been pinned between its fender and the other vehicle. or worse, was under it, writhing in pain. by some miracle and quick thinking, ito -- one of our own -- made his way to the driver’s seat of the vehicle which was then vacated, and drove it back to its spot. at this point, i turned my back on it, not wanting to see the carnage it may have left in its stead. all this in a matter of less than 10 seconds.
when the air cleared, it became obvious that no one from AMCI was hurt. one man -- the driver of the vehicle on the other side -- sat on the open back of his van, his face grimacing in pain. he refused to jump out of the possessed car’s path and stood between it and his own. on his shins were some superficial scrapes. the injury may have been within. all of a sudden, my first aid training and knowledge left me, and i was reduced to a nosy bystander. the drama continued till after touchdown of the first flight. even when our fellow climbers made it out, the commotion of the freaky revo hadn’t died down. the old lady on the passenger seat appeared to be stubborn and refused to recognize neither involvement nor negligence in the incident.
but alas, we had to focus on our own concerns. so after the PAL folks made their way out of the terminal (i worried that a slight delay in the flight would’ve caused a tremendous delay in the climb), we left davao for sibulan. decked in our snazzy gray with orange and black accents trek shirts, the ano baah! group filtered into its designated jeep with a high level of enthusiasm but with a dash of trepidation. and understandably so. the first day’s IT predicted 12 hours of walking, 4 of which in cover of darkness.
the trek started on what appeared to be an abandoned dirt road in the middle of a wide expanse consisting of random coconut trees and other spontaneous growths of shrubs and grass. the heat was tremendous, and the weight of my pack was weighing me down, causing quite a lot of discomfort. i’d loaded 2.5liters of jose cuervo over my already impossibly heavy load. my bag towered over my head like a curse and early on, i knew it’d be a 10 hour chore.
things seemed alright in the beginning till after we passed the school and started descending to the baracatan river. it glistened in the distance, far below us, and we each inched painfully forward under the unrelenting sun. we were moving with such amazing sloth that it was not nearly possible we’d meet the itinerary for that day. not that we were weak, or slow, or slothy, really. it was due to the size of the contingent. at more than a hundred, the delay sort of piles up after each person maneuvers, with utmost care, over each obstacle. as the sound of the river neared, i looked forward to lunch. niel’s lola had prepared adobo for us, and i so wanted to rest my sore shoulders. but instead of a good meal, i encountered my first fall for the day. as i stepped on a moss-covered rock, i slipped, and dropped my weight and the burden of my entire backpack on my left knee which hit the rock with so much force i thought i shattered my kneecap. in front of me, i saw eubert’s face grimace in some kind of vicarious pain. i stood up and pretended it was nothing, as i checked if the bone was still in one piece. it appeared to be still whole, but i couldn’t ignore a burning sensation. i unzipped my TNF convertibles and discovered that i had a circular abrasion wound the size of a 5 peso coin. i daubed it with betadine, covered it with a strip, and ate lunch, which i did quickly.
up ahead was a series of river crossings, including an ascent on a vertical wall beside the old abandoned dam which had my group waiting more than 20 minutes. the current above the dam was really strong, and a rope had to be secured, else we’d be swept away. at the last river crossing, alexis, who was in front of me, slipped, and submerged his head into the water. rendo and i had to help him up, and when he finally got his face out of the water, he refused to stand up. instead he just sat there, with only his chest above the river.
from there, it was a long trek to the ladders, where another long queue ensued. at this juncture, the ano baah! group had been divided to three: the lead pack, which consisted of kuya mar, tito boy, gilbert, ava, melay and vince. lyn and i were the midpack, while malvin, alexis, and our guide formed the rear. during the delays, i would perform my usual movie spiels to somewhat raise the spirits of the people around me, and generally to ward off boredom. sometimes, it was for my own good. night was falling quickly and we had fallen behind the itinerary by at least 3 hours. the descent from the maisan to the river through the ladders was slow, tedious, and dangerous, which most of us did with the aid of our headlamps. from the sibulan-baroring river junction, we still had to ascend a vertical distance of 350 meters to sitio tudaya, which turned out to be our campsite for the day. it was not nearly possible to reach colan before 10pm, at least for the entire team. it was during this ascent that i suffered a series of muscle cramps too many to count. i’d be trekking behind lyn for a few minutes only to shout “stop. stop.” at this point, malvin had caught up with us. he had endorsed alexis to the sweepers. we trekked together the rest of the way and it may have been the longest 30 minutes ever since we paused at least 5 times, at least 5 minutes each time, as i smothered salonpas on the muscles above my knees, popped salt into my mouth, and prayed to God to get me through the night.
finally, just after 9pm, we reached the tudaya elementary school and on its grounds were pitched many tents. colan had been ruled out, although it was still at least 3 hours away. i made my way to the school grounds, pitched my tent and prepared the evening’s dinner: an unsuccessful korean beef stew. it rained steadily that night, and people seemed to be the least interested in eating a lot, or having a round of socials. instead, sleep was foremost in the agenda, and i found myself retiring just after cooking rice for the following morning. i hoped to be awakened by alexis’ arrival in an hour or two. wake-up call was at 3am, and when my phone alarmed, i did not find alexis beside me. so i thought maybe the sweeper group had camped somewhere else. when i went out of my tent and walked to our kitchen area, i found alexis there, wet and dirty, prostrate on our kitchen tarp. “what are you doing there?” i barked. he said he just wanted to sleep. he had just arrived about 5 minutes before and had nothing on his mind but sleep. i ordered him to sleep inside our tent. i spread the all-weather space blanket inside and tried not to think about just how muddy he was. ordinarily, i wouldn’t even let him near my tent in that condition, but every inch -- or should i say every pound -- of the poor guy spelled wasted.
we were supposed to prepare the bangus for breakfast but for some reason, it could not be found, and we settled instead for the evening’s leftovers. we were one of the last groups before the sweepers to leave tudaya, and the other groups had already gone far ahead. when we reached baroring, apo once again appeared in the cloudless horizon. it still seemed distant, unreachable. and to think our IT predicted we’d on its summit by 4pm. i pressed on with the determination of an ant.
in sitio colan, we had caught up with many of the groups that left earlier. they were refilling their water bottles. we had coke instead. this should have been our first campsite. instead, we pass through it at 10am on our second day. there must have been something seriously wrong with the IT, or if not, with us. i ruled out the summit as day 2’s campsite, since we’ve all heard about the 5 hour trek through the sulfur vents and past the boulders. from colan, i accompanied malvin, vince and lyn until we reached a huge chunk of nearly vertical rock which reeked of strange fumes. rust-colored waters flowed gently down its face, and in stark contrast to everything else, the water was warm to the touch. having been thrown off schedule since day 1, i had no idea where we were, except what bert said: that we were in a “sacred” place. it turned out to be the hot springs. we rested there a while and dipped our feet into the small warm pool. another short trek through a marshy area of the forest which soaked our legs to the knees, and it started to rain. up ahead, other groups had gathered, and as we were arriving, mike announced what was very obvious: “hey guys, it’s raining!”
there was a huge, nearly rectangular pool there which was chest-deep in parts. it had the same rusty color of the hot springs, and was also warm. we had lunch in the area under a small tarp and amid the rain. it was beginning to get really chilling as the rain was unrelenting. i took a short dip into the pool of the mundo apo hot springs before proceeding to our next destination. it was lunch time and we wondered whether the team would still push for the summit. around two hours later, we reached a huge, flat expanse, which must’ve been the SAVERS campsite, although none of the guides seemed to be aware of its name. it would’ve been a good campsite, except that there seemed to be no water source. we trudged on and 30 minutes into our slippery, muddy ascent, we encountered pres arnel and gilbert. i recall them being behind me in colan, but here they were, making their way down from tinikaran 1. they had apparently taken a shorter route. pres briefed us on the current situation. it was already after 2pm, and it would be folly to be found trekking through the boulders at night. there were two small crampsites up ahead, which will not accommodate the whole team. there was a small chance we’d find tent space there, and had to risk doing a bivouac somewhere. i wanted to sleep and recalled the much bigger campsite we had just passed. but ava was being such a stubborn brat, saying “i’d rather risk it. i don’t want to go back.” go ahead i wanted to tell her, because when malvin opened the option of having one of us return to wait for kuya mar, tito boy, and alexis, i was first to volunteer. there’s nothing i hate more than a small and less-than-ideal campsite. i have a really huge tent.
before we could finally decide as a team, ava sped away. malvin went to fetch her, while i made my way down with pres. we made it back to the SAVERS campsite in less than 5 minutes. the rest of the members of the group took around 20 minutes, by which time my tent already stood beside a big rock. after almost an hour, malvin and a really morose-looking ava arrived. we were joking with her but malvin was slashing his neck with his hand, motioning that we cut it. they just had some dramatic highlights along the trail, which we laughed off as the afternoon wore on. a while later, kuya mar and tito boy arrived, and one by one alexis, and the rest of the sweepers. before 5pm, we had all pitched, changed, and started preparing dinner. our SAVERS guide was nowhere to be seen, and we had trouble completing our meals, so i just reheated a portion of the adobo, when all of a sudden, alexis declares that the bangus was in his bag all along. i wanted to wring his fat neck! half of the bangus was already spoiled, but this did not deter us from having a sumptuous dinner. my mom’s adobo was as usual excellent, and we opened the next liter of tequila. i think one of the guides had more of it than we did, because we planned to be sleeping by 8pm.
so after two shots of tequila, i was peacefully sleeping, with a clean alexis beside me. i slept soundly despite the rain, and woke up only when a cold draft of air came in through alexis’ door. he went out to for a minor and omitted to close the fly, so i zipped it shut and went back to sleep. at 1am, my alarm went off, it felt like a strange hour to get up and get ready. as we busied ourself with a quick breakfast, alexis was already getting ready to start trekking. i handed my mini maglite to his personal guide as i fried the fish with oil from the sweepers. much of our stuff was with argel, the guide. he had complained early on that his pack was heavy, but he would’ve shut up if he tried my bag on for size. alexis finally left at 1.30am with packed breakfast and no lunch. we munched on our meals quickly and got ready to start trekking by 3pm. i finally left the campsite at around 3.30pm.
the previous day, the first 20 minutes into the forest was difficult, even while there was sun. imagine how much harder it must’ve been with only the aid of our failing lights. you make five steps up, and slide down a step and a half. this we had to endure for over 2 hours till any hint of sun appeared. at around 6am, we came upon the first holding camp. four groups had cramped there, some tents resting on awful slopes. seeing how they’d crammed themselves into every available inch, we realized the wisdom behind going back down. we at least had good campsites and a good night’s sleep. when we passed, many of the groups were only just beginning to cook breakfast, since they weren’t informed of the 6am start of trek.
lyn and i continued trekking (dindo endorsed her to me, saying “alman, take care of my wife muna”) and we passed the second holding camp. the other groups there had already broken camp and were ready to start trekking in a few minutes. not far away from them, the boulders began. at first, it appeared to be just a series of moss-covered white rocks sandwiched between and under the clasped branches of the forest. then, a putrid, foul smell not unlike rotten egg dominated the trail. up ahead, the hues changed wildly into either sickly green or pale yellow. it is the color of spoiled food. there was a huge cleft on the mountain, which was surrounded by crushed rocks. it looked as if an immense hand had fallen on it with a powerful karate chop. fumes were emanating from its side. we had reached the sulfur vents of mount apo.
from there, we could see an endless ascent populated by chunks of rock. one can imagine the difficulty of trekking through all this when clouds are not in attendance. in the distance, what seemed to be two trees sat like small shrubs. it was the ridge to the summit, and i imagined it must’ve been our destination. at this point, lyn and i overtook alexis. loree started calling me nanny alman, because for the second time, i had to wash alexis’ face. he appeared to be a grimy little fat kid.
people have been saying that by the time we got tired of looking at rocks, we’d be done with the boulders. but to be very honest, this was my favorite part of the trek. the view was magnificent and i didn’t tire at all of rocks. despite my load, i dug deep into my agility and hopped from one rock to the next, refusing to take the easier trail and assaulted my destination head on. midway through the trek, as a thick white cloud hovered over us obliterating the ridge, i had a major call of nature. so with lyn ahead and tito boy behind, i sat between two huge boulders and finished my business. someone asked how the boulders looked like it was: alien, almost otherworldly. i explained it with the confidence, but not with the knowledge, of a geologist.
finally, i reached the ridge. arnel was there smoking a stick. he had opened the huge tarpaulin banner, and it may have been a bit deceptive, since the summit campsite was still a good hour’s trek away. over the ridge was a very still, unmoving lake venado, and a thick, mossy forest, a rather stark contrast to the barren lands that is the boulders. from miles away, the boulders is discernible, making apo appear like a snow-capped mountain. when lyn and i arrived at the summit campsite, there were very few people there. on the way, we saw the crater lake, vandalized by rocks arranged to form letters and spell out names. our groupmates had already started sneaking in sleep, but we had to deal with hunger, so we cooked lunch instead.
the induction rites were scheduled at lunch time, but at 2pm, the officers who were supposed to preside over the rites were still making their way up the boulders. finally, at around past 3, we were rounded up, each with a liter of water. malvin ordered alexis and i to carry an extra liter each. we proceeded to one of the summits and had our memorable, chilling and dramatic induction proper. of all the vivid experiences we underwent in the climb, it is the only one which will be left mired in mystery, undescribed, untold.
we descended from one of the seven summits of mount apo each adorned by a dogtag inscribed with our names in red, AMCI, our serial number, and our blood types. i guess the realization that you’re now a member doesn’t immediately sink in, since you have very little time to ponder the change. instead, you’re rushed to prepare for a “short” descent to lake venado. the last lights of our third day were being eaten by an overpowering darkness, and it looked as if the lake wasn’t far away. we figured an hour or two would be enough before we could finally pitch our tents.
the descent, it turned out, was long. the sun had surrendered on us, and many of us nearly surrendered on the trail. what started with a lot of singing and a lot of jokes turned awry for many. the trail became very dangerous at parts, and extremely muddy in most. although i started only with lyn, i ended up with a handful of girls whom i had to assist along the way. they were calling me mountain goat because of the way i maneuvered through the trail, refusing to sit and slide on the trail. although it seemed to be a breeze for me, it was doubly difficult for my wards. at one point, wency slipped and she screamed “alman! bangin! bangin!” when i turned around, i just saw her feet, wriggling, and the rest of her body was on the downward slope. i rushed to her and had to muster some unknown strength to pull her back up. jenny had nearly given up, crying and complaining about being very tired. she was sick. i had to empty my pockets of all the encouragement i could think of, and i was running dry of optimism. but i had to hold it out for another hour more, even as our feet sunk deep into the mud past the ankle. as our feet squished and sloshed through the beaten trail, i confused stars with headlamps, and kept saying “we’re almost there jen, just a few more minutes.” i must’ve been hallucinating because i’d assure my girls that, “i can hear voices. it must be the campsite.” i would’ve stuck batteries into my enthusiasm but i had barely none left for my headlamp.
more than 3 hours after we started our descent, we reached lake venado. it was teeming with faint lights, whispered voices, and the shapes of people and tents. i searched for my group and we set up camp. i washed away the filth of the descent to the lake. i can imagine this must be a triumphant moment for me and for many: to have scaled the slopes of mount apo and to have actually stood on the roof of mindanao and entire archipelago is a feat which comes far and few between, even for the most seasoned of mountaineers. but with the rage of emotions running through your mind, the fatigue, and the need to get down back to the plains leaves little space for reflection and contemplation. since training with AMCI started, i have had little time to just stare blankly at the horizon and empty my mind of my mundane concerns. instead, i have filled it with greater burdens: taking care of other people, worrying about others who have been left behind, and wondering whether my body can continue to withstand all the abuse.
nevertheless, dinner was a huge feast. argel had unloaded everything, and we cooked the binagoongan and served the laing. i had a swig of tequila before i finally dozed off. i knew it would still be a long day 4 up ahead.
at around 4am, a steady buzz hung over the campsite, and it was ascending in volume. many of the groups planned to start trekking by 5.30am. malvin had other plans, of course. having been the first team up the previous day, we wanted to catch up on sleep and start trekking by 7 or 8am. but janet would not let up. she kept barking out my name in a sweet melody: “alman, sweetie, wake up.” i’d open my eyes each time she said this, and she would not stop until i actually showed up. i wanted to go out of my tent and shake her shoulders violently. but i just showed up with a sleepy smile until they finally started trekking. i went back inside and slept a little more. breakfast can wait.
many of the groups had already left and some have packed when we started breaking camp. it was not nearly possible to appreciate lake venado in all that rush, although it was robbed of any of the foretold charm and mysticism which wraps it like the mossy forest and the wispy clouds. there are actually stores around lake venado. i counted two, each selling anything from tinned meals to tanduay to soda in cans. we were also not alone. several other groups were in the area. some of them even watched us with much interest, talking about our gear, and the flashy, expensive brands that displayed themselves when the sun appeared.
finally, at 8am, we left lake venado with a prayer. a huge trash bag had been left behind and one of the SAVERS insisted it was one of ours. i inspected it and its contents were decidedly so not AMCI. the trek through the nice forest was nice, although it was very long. we were accompanied by the songs of birds overhead, and i even saw an endemic apo myna along the way. we eventually caught up with malvin and alexis (the only thing i heard from him was “wasted na ako”, which he’d been saying since day 1) at the century-old almaciga tree campsite. this should have been our campsite for day 4, but i could hardly find an area where more than two tents could fit.
we paused there a while and i had a predictable hug-the-huge-tree pose around the almaciga. lyn and i continued walking to the water source where we stopped again for a brief brake. we were hoping to see signs of plains soon, since we were both hungry and tired and dirty. when we reached a plantation of corn, i took it as a good sign, since it meant the presence of a community. we could make out a house or two far away, but we had to manage a difficult descent where a rope had to be fastened. it was only after 3pm, but it was already getting dark. at the first house in lower garuk, a horseman was waiting. he’d been told that a fat, bald guy would be needing his assistance. we guessed he must’ve been tipped about alexis. he offered his services to us saying other horses were available in the area, and lyn didn’t think twice about relieving her back of her bag. i took out my tent and placed it in a sack. gilbert also unloaded a small portion of his load. i could still manage to walk with a pack, but the lighter load would do wonders for my pace.
nearby, we found roland and janice, breaking for a snack. the latter had been enduring her injury since the start of the climb. i suggested she take advantage of the horse to have her pack loaded so we’d reach marawer faster. i wasn’t very interested in looking at the IT anymore because at 5pm, we should already have been in santa cruz, and not in some sitio which doesn’t even show in the map.
colan was only about half an hour away, and there, we found some of the SAVERS, bajay and loree s. after a while, pres carla arrived on a horse. she covered her face with one hand. the people spoke about her toes which looked like pale, small vigan longanizas. the more i tried to imagine it, the more i felt her agony. we discussed the alexis situation with bajay and we told him it was not likely they’d make it out of the forest by sunset. so we left two headlamps for them as we made our way down to marawer. when our guide said it would still be 2 hours away, we didn’t believe him. we hoped it’d be shorter, but it must’ve been at least 3 hours. it was very dark, very muddy, and lonely. there were 6 of us, but only 4 had lights, so you can imagine the ordeal. lyn gave me her spare batteries. when we found a store, we decided to address our hunger first. we cooked noodles, had lots of bread, and softdrink. a multicab offered to take us to the barangay proper where the jeep that would take us to sta. cruz was supposedly waiting for us. this was providential, it turns out since the jeepney had just left. we found them in kapatagan, digos, having a flat tire fixed.
we entered the jeepney and inside, everyone seemed sapped of energy, looking like destitute survivors of a calamity. we were all very dirty and smelly. from there, we were delivered to the training center in sta. cruz. upon our arrival, very few people were present. most of them were at the resort, having dinner. we were taken there shortly. i may have said that i was unimaginably tired, but a karaoke was in attendance at the beach so i had it turned on and i sang 3 songs. we returned to the training center after the midnight snack and focused on cleaning our things. nearly every conceivable sleeping space had been occupied and i was left with no room but the drinking area. so instead of sleeping, i decided to drink. i had just carried a liter of tequila on my new sigg bottle up mount apo, and i took it down untouched. so we opened it and we drank while i cooked anything that was available. first i did my pesto pasta with mushrooms. people loved it and asked for more. so although i only had a vague idea how to make it, i cooked a pasta alia et oglio dish with tuna and anchovies. while i drained the pasta, all the noodles fell from my pot and onto the ground. i hadn’t slept in the last 22 hours, so i suppose it was inevitable. i kept saying sorry as may helped me pick up the pasta and returned it to the pot. i rinsed the noodles and prepared the dish nevertheless. people still ate it.
around 4am, the last of the sweepers arrived. alexis and malvin were with them. i gave malvin a pat on the back and alexis a little applause. he could barely get off the vehicle. and when he did, he just wanted to sleep. i said he had to clean up first. i assisted him with his boots, his shirt, and his gloves. nanny alman, remember? while the valiant sweepers ate, JC and i provided them entertainment. they’d just been through a lot, and a few of them were also in a really bad state. sir manny commented that the entire complement of the sweepers focused on carla, while the main team had no one to bring up the rear save for malvin and pres arnel. others were saying the sweepers swept themselves.
by 6am, the other groups started loading to leave for davao city. ours was still lounging around, not in a hurry to leave. with my tent dry, i was finally able to start packing, and prepare for more activities the rest of the week. a normal person would probably just drop on a nice, comfortable bed and sleep all day. but sleep was last in my agenda. instead, i looked forward to spending a few more days in mindanao. some side trips had been planned, and i was eager to experience all of them.
as i prepared to leave the training center in santa cruz, i tried to contemplate the dog tag that now hangs from my neck. it is the fruit of the past 4 months’ labors and sacrifices, and i guess it felt good to be wearing one, and to know that it was well-deserved. but at that precise moment though, it just meant i could forget about 4-day climbs and just focus on easy overnighters.
but then again, maybe not.