i think i've just finished the tarak ridge article. some photos may be viewed here. i'm submitting the article to some magazines. hope it makes the cut.

those interested in getting a preview of the article can see it below. my style is to let it sit for a few more days and i'll re-read it. only then will i be less attached to the text and find some things to revise.

early morning stretch
Living on the Ridge
Alman Dave Quiboquibo

The question could not have been any more ill timed, and I could not have been any less impertinent. Mar, wearing a huge grin on his face, asked me how I was as we sat our sorry bottoms on a piece of rotting log that was prostrate along the steep trail, and I snapped, “I’m dead tired, don’t talk to me.” The campsite was nowhere to be seen as we paused underneath the shade of many trees. It was in fact but a leap away, but I had grown doubtful of the “ten minutes more and we’re there” I had been hearing since about half an hour ago. One of the girls had all but given up. I watched helplessly as she unburdened herself of many of her things, including three 1.5 liter bottles of water. “There’s no water source in the campsite,” she whispered as she passed the huge containers to two other guys. The pain on my shoulders had become more profound than when I first complained of my heavy load, and I offered little assistance save to commiserate, as my plight was just as miserable.

I had deliberately ignored the description of Tarak Ridge in Mariveles, Bataan, as “Little Halcon”, thinking it a little too presumptuous. After all, the plan was to scale a minor mountain, only a little higher than 1000masl. While it has never been my habit to underestimate the difficulty of mountains, my mountaineer friends had a propensity to exaggerate. I had packed a generous helping of extra equipment into my pack, including my mom’s Teflon skillet so I could prepare my signature tuna and cheese omelet for breakfast. I threw in a few other things which I didn’t think I absolutely needed, but might find use for somewhere along the trail. The colors of my gear had been chosen with specific intention, and they were laid out on my bed long before I got dressed.

After I had packed, I tried my bag on and my mom worried it might break my back. My 50-liter pack, which towered high above my head, was quite literally bursting at the seams. Two 1-liter Nalgene bottles were attached by carabiners to the shoulder straps, and a few other accoutrements were tucked into its side pockets. I looked every bit excited when I disabused my mom of her usual concerns, assuring her that I had prepared well for the climb, including carrying the well-provisioned backpack over a long distance. She was unimpressed even as I hauled the bag on my back, and pulled on the straps for a more snug fit. When I said goodbye, she tucked some reminders into one of the many pockets of my pants. “Be careful son,” she said, and I began my journey early in the morning with a trip to the bus station.

calm before the storm
A Far Green Country

At the last stretch of a long bus ride, I looked out the bus window to find the sunrise illuminating our destination. There was a series of mountains in the horizon, and we had our eyes set on the farthest one. The range stood there like monuments of perfect stillness, both distant and remote. The bus sped along the Orion Highway with unusual haste, but the nearer we came to the mountain, the farther it tucked away.

The Tarak climb begins with a visit to the Barangay Hall at Alas-asin, which is a hop from the Hi-way, to register and pay the user’s fee. From there, it’s a short trek on a poorly paved road to the jump-off point. There are a few houses and scores of open fields on either side of the road. The sun was pelting her rays on our heads with terrible intensity, and the brief walk became something of an ordeal. From here, the first part of the trek begins where the asphalt on the road withers and disappears, overtaken by a wide dirt path which runs astride a string of plantations decked by barb wire fences. The choruses of many songs accompanied the tentative steps we took under the watchful glare of the sun. We hadn’t managed to complete any of the songs we started when we reached our first stop. Hardly any distance between us and the Ridge had been eliminated, and we hadn’t achieved any increase in altitude yet, but the wide clearing underneath the welcome shade of tall trees was sufficient reason to take a moment’s rest.

There was a long bench improvised from the trunks of young, slender trees on one side of the clearing. At the edge of the bench was a chair where sat a scruffy old man holding a rundown logbook. Behind him was a sorry-looking shack. His disfigured legs rested on a wooden box with pillows, while his crutches leaned beside him, and he asked how many we were in the group. He explained that we had to pay an environmental fee as he passed the logbook around for us to sign. Our team leader said we had already paid the user’s fee, but the old man invoked a DENR regulation. Not wanting to stir controversy, we gave another ten pesos each, and demanded that we be issued a receipt. He promised to give one the following day, although he was nowhere to be seen when we had descended from the mountain.

From here, the dirt road funnels into a narrow path no longer passable by any vehicle running on four wheels. The path gradually rose, slithering through the beaten trail. Many boots have passed this way, and we traced the steps of the climbers who have gone before us with just as much passion and love for creation. The shade of trees came intermittently, and the sun was an ever-present companion as our trek continued. There were signs of a recent tree-planting activity along the trail, which was done rather carelessly as many seedlings had withered and died, parched by the radiating heat. Manila Bay was already beginning to hint its enormous presence, but hardly any breeze could be felt. Tirelessly, the group dismissed the prickly weather with stories and jokes, and the laughter went far ahead, mitigating the sun’s impact on the trek. At about this time, a small, sickly dog had appeared from behind and walked with us as we sought our first destination: Papaya River.

here i am at the papaya river
The River Beckons

The next stop took place in an area called the Triangular Cogon Clearing where the color of the earth hews closer to red than brown and which sits atop a sudden incline. We had already spent close to two hours on the trail, and I was still far from nearing exhaustion, although I had already consumed more than a liter of water. When finally I reached the rest area where my companions were busy snacking on their trail food, Dong asked me to follow him before I even managed to find a place to sit. I dropped my bag and went to where he stood. Before us was an unimpeded view of bustling Mariveles and the wide expanse of its harbor below and the somewhat bleary apparition of Manila Bay beyond. The Bataan Peninsula bent like a huge hook enclosing the entry into the famed port of call. Also visible were Corregidor and Carabao Islands. When a mountain torments me to the edge of my sanity, all I need to do is to take a moment to look around for precious views like these, and I am acquainted once more with the primordial reasons which drive me to hit the trail. Before I could continue to muse about the breathtaking sight, Dong tapped me on the shoulder and then pointed at our destination. The summit of Mt. Mariveles was still far ahead.

Before long, we heaved our bags onto our tired backs and continued our trek. We entered the forest line where the trail tapers into a footpath. We hiked single file, and it wasn’t long before I grew tired of staring at Dong’s bag, bobbing up in down, in front of me. I had almost run out of drinking water when finally we heard the gushing of a strong current. “Papaya River,” I heard someone say, and our pace quickened. The sound of a waterfall plunging into a deep pool played like a secret and sonorous attraction which we all were too eager to reach. Besides, we had designated it as our lunch area.

The river’s cascades provided us a steady accompaniment as we dismissed the half hour between us and a long leisurely lunch. Half of the group had gone far ahead, and Jerome, who was in front of our bunch of first timers on the mountain, asked if we were going the right direction. He had started to descend down a steep path covered with a succession of huge rocks, and which looked so much unlike most of the trail, but which seemed like the most logical way because the river’s music was increasing in volume. Jerome kept repeating his question, and ten of us had already started to go down the difficult path when Mar caught up with us and shouted that we were going the wrong way.

We regrouped, placed a trail sign on the path which led to the wrong turn where the rocks clung loosely to the ground, and in no time at all, we found ourselves traipsing along one of the many streams of Papaya River. It was just after 12 noon, and my companions were already heating their meals for lunch. I forgot about my hunger, stripped to my shorts, and proceeded to the modest waterfall not two minutes away. I took along my empty water bottles and refilled them with the cool, refreshing bloodstream of the mountain, and the exhaustion of the past three hours was quickly erased. I sat on a rock just underneath the pouring waterfall and felt the life of Mariveles flow through me. I soaked in the water longer than was necessary, and Dong came looking for me as the hour we had allocated for our stop was almost up. He asked me to hurry as we were about to begin our assault. I wolfed down my lunch and repacked my bag.

As I was getting ready for the steep climb, a few of our companions had already left. There were two other groups who had decided to go up Tarak Ridge while we were there and an advance party was selected to secure, so to speak, the campsite. I didn’t know what that meant initially, and I felt no particular urgency to leave my comfortable station beside the river.

the campsite
The Mountain is in the Mind

The uprooted huge tree which doubled as a bridge over the dry, shallow bed of a dormant stream was one of the last few flats we encountered after we left the banks of Papaya River. Everything else was uphill from there. The trail snaked from left to right under the dense cover of trees, rather than straight ahead, because the mountain sloped at a deep angle. “This is what’s called a switchback,” I heard Mar saying from behind me, but in my state of misery, I failed to appreciate the value of his lecture, since I was beginning to realize how a few ounces put together could contribute to make a pound, and that an extra five, given more time, can break a back. The negligible weight of my table tripod, the spare malong, the switchblade I never got to use, the emergency poncho, and other unessential bric-a-brac were conspiring to send signals to the pain receptors on my shoulders, all the way to my knees.

How much longer, I asked, after only about an hour, and Dong said, we’re almost there just a little more, with an absolute lack of sincerity, but with every bit of firm encouragement. I leaned over to free my shoulders of some stress. Dong and others asked if I needed help but I felt too proud to share my load. In truth, I had decided to shift gears and draw strength from the voices between my ears. My mind had started to take control of the situation, as my body was nearing its limits.

We continued our assault of the indecisive mountain. On the way to the river, the trail rolled gently, almost with tenderness, but beyond that, itdithered, rather quickly, into a punishing ascent complete with a variety of obstacles. Robbed of all traces of its previous kindness, I was beginning to regard the mountain as brusque and callous, treating us with abundant cruelty. I was beginning to rant, but I quickly recovered from my disrespect when I caught a whiff of something pungent traveling from high above the line of resting trekkers. Apparently, someone else was in worse shape than I as a poor fellow was applying, with great generosity, a cure-all Chinese balm on his trembling knees.

I would have acquainted myself with the rotting piece of log a lot longer while contemplating the reasons why I’ve decided to subject myself to the rigors of mountaineering, but Mar was pushing us to go on. I had come close to crawling when the forest around us started to clear, and we began moving out of its shade. The sun reappeared, and I was accosted by the open, windswept expanse of Tarak Ridge. The tall cogon grass reclined close to the ground, and I looked around for the campsite. “It’s just over that hill,” Dong explained, this time, without much exaggeration.

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Camp More

The Tarak Ridge campsite sits on the narrow saddle just below the summit of Mt. Mariveles. There is precious little available space, and we crammed twelve tents where the Ridge permitted. Some of the tents were pitched a tumble from the steep edges, and there was hardly any room to extend the vestibules. All of a sudden, I was imbued with a fresh dose of life, and I was busy running up and down the Ridge, admiring the view which was even more awesome from this height. The pain and misery that I thought I felt on the way up had been wiped out by the modest achievement. Although the Ridge consists generally of cogon grass and scattered rocks, a few paces from our tents was a small cabal of young trees, a tiny forest if you will, where one could escape the sun.

Just before 4pm, Jeremiah and I started preparing dinner. We took out our stoves and I measured our rice while he heated a pot for the Bistek Tagalog. The dog suddenly popped out of the bushes and watched us with religious patience. At this time, the sun hid behind the same clouds which obscured our view of the summit, and a refreshing breeze crawled up our napes. When darkness fell and the lights from as far as Roxas Boulevard twinkled in the dreamy horizon, we gathered our meals under a tarp whose ends were tied to our tents, and which was kept up by an extended trekking pole. All of a sudden, a mild but consistent rain arrived, and since the tarp was too small to accommodate all 24 hungry hikers, some of us had to eat under the drizzle, the raindrops turning our dry meals into thin soups.

The shower continued till after dinner, effectively forcing us to crawl into our tents earlier than usual, and it kept pouring until early the following morning when I snuck out of the tent to find a far-away place to unburden my bowels. It left only when the sun finally stretched its first rays to mark the beginning of a new day. The campsite was still dripping when I started preparing breakfast.

When the sky had cleared, we tore down the crowded campsite, and the amazing clutter of multi-colored tents, stoves, pots and pans, ground sheets, and trash was reduced to 24 compact backpacks. We started to descend from the mountain with some trepidation, because the trail was wet and slippery. On a steep path like the one leading from the Ridge back to Papaya River, the hike isn’t exactly easier. In a lot less time than we took to assault it, but with just as much punishment to the knees, we had reached Papaya River, and had our lunch there.

The trek continued, and in a few more hours, we were at the Alas-asin Barangay Hall which, for a minimal fee, allowed us dirty and smelly campers to take a shower and shed all traces of the grueling albeit remarkable experience on the way and back from Tarak Ridge. We changed into a fresh set of clothes, and before long, were onboard the fastcraft to the Cultural Center of the Philippines. We cruised across Manila Bay at a peaceful and steady pace. As the ferry left a long trail of sea froth, the silhouette of modest Mt. Mariveles slowly diminished in size, lost in the haze of bustling Manila Bay, but I could not quite remove the imprint it left in my mind. I promised to return to Tarak Ridge, perhaps with a lot less gear, and a lot more humility and respect.