first love never dies: a journey of re-discovery at mount pulag

the wind was bitingly cold as kim and myself lay our backs down on a groundsheet, our hands tucked under our arms as the temperature was dipping to 8 degrees celsius, while our eyes were fixed on the immense black sky, searching, among the twinkling jewels, for the collection of diamonds called the great bear. but ursa major was elusive that evening, and i could only spot the little dipper, an asterism that's part of the constellation called ursa minor, or little bear. there were far too many stars in the sky that particular evening, and every few minutes, one of them would be falling. people who have not seen falling stars, i always insist, are not unlucky; only, they have not looked at the night sky long enough.

of course, evenings are different when you are an arm's stretch from the heavens, when you look down at a sea of clouds from a mound of earth. we were prostrate only a few meters below the highest point in all of luzon, in a saddle campsite under the long shadow of the summit of mount pulag. i came here out of a longing to be at peace with myself, and to lend a hand in the induction of a new set of members to the AMCI mountaineering club.

together with 7 other mountaineers, i rendezvoused with the induction climb team at the babadak ranger station. we left manila at 10pm, and by 4am, we were speeding towards ambangeg. i hadn't slept at all in that bumpy 5 hour jeepney ride. when we reached the DENR office a little after 6am, even after an hour's stop at a roadside vulcanizing shop just past ambuclao dam, i wondered what evil had possessed our driver, or what kind of progress had seized this part of benguet, that our trip had been cut short by as many as 2 hours. at the DENR office, i met 2 caucasians -- an american and a dane. i made small talk with them, and they asked if they could ride for the remainder of the trip to babadak.

after about two hours, we reached the ranger station, and it was no surprise to find gilbert already there. what baffled the imagination, however, is why everyone else wasn't there yet. the previous year, when we did the ambaguio-akiki trail, we hit the ranger station just before 5pm on day 2. but then again, we had somber skies, so exhaustion from the searing heat of the sun was not a factor. but then, i received news that the inductees had been taking it easy, and the hike had none of the elements of the previous IC1 at kalinga. this was cause for concern, and even as we relaxed our sleep-deprived bodies waiting for the rest of the group, eating our packed lunch at 9am, i wondered how the rest of the climb would be. i met the rest of the inductees at the top of the steep climb, and many of them were very mildly surprised to find me there, photographing the horizon. when everyone had arrived, i decided to get ahead and wait for the rest of the team at the campsite. i reckoned a trek of about 4 to 5 hours tops.

it was a day unlike any other, much like the first time i hiked up pulag in 2003, my first climb ever. the sun was an ever-present company, and parts of the sky that had no clouds were the bluest of blue. on my second time to pulag, we hiked to the grassland campsite after dark. last year, on my third trek, it was mostly sunny after we'd left ambaguio, although we were visited by gusts of wind and sprinkling of rain from babadak going forth.

i started out cold. my hamstrings and my calves are always prone to cramps at the early stages of a climb, and i feared, even as i ate up the trail like a horse on steroids, stopping only to take photographs, that i might end up grimacing in pain. but i reached the junction to lusod with about 20 minutes to spare until the rest of my group found me. this is my fourth time to pulag, and i had always wondered what lay beyond the sign pointing to the direction of lusod, which was approximately 20kms away. i put down my backpack and braved the unknown, and it was something i would not regret doing. although i had expected to see more ranges of mountains in the distance, and perhaps a trail that stretches all the way to lusod, i was instead treated to a most unusual sight. on one side were the tops of trees in different hues. striking among them were the white trunks of dead trees. on the other side was a boulevard of clouds, resembling pale cobblestones that stretched forever.

from the junction, the grassland campsite was only about 10 minutes away, and we passed by the nearby water source. after a brief break, we pushed on. we had no lunch to eat anymore (it had been gobbled up at babadak), and it promised to be another 2 hours to the saddle campsite, and between the last water source and the scoop just below pulag, it was nothing but open trail: grasslands turning from green to brown right before our eyes. burdened by all that sun, i pushed towards the campsite with the determination of an ox. i wanted to get there early and get busy with dinner. the many peaks around the summit resembled hills of chocolate, with hints of green peeling away generously. on this good day, the communication facility near the grassland campsite was very visible. it was straight out of the imagination. i know that many have climbed pulag to see its famed sunrise, to marvel at its sea of clouds, only to ride and hike all that way to find a white out, a vacuum filled with featureless fog. i must have been too blessed to have seen all of these beautiful things in all of my visits to pulag.

shortly, we went around the summit and i pointed down at the saddle. "campsite!" i screamed. a solitary tent already stood there -- gilbert's. he'd gone ahead along with shai. together with TJ, kim, miraclecello, bing, and the guide, we descended to the saddle which at that time was still basking in the sunlight of the late afternoon. very quickly, we pitched our tents, put up a tarp, and awaited the rest of the team. when they arrived, i orchestrated dinner. long before sunset, we already had a pot of perfect rice, a pot of black pepper chicken, a small pot of soup, and an excess of comedy. by 5pm, we had all eaten, and having done my part, i left the kitchen clean-up duties to everyone else. while jenny tried to ward off chills and a headache, i proceeded to the peaks on the western face of pulag to watch the sunset: a cliff that dropped down many thousand meters below, and opened up to the halsema highway in the distance. i was decked in slippers, a pair of shorts, my camp shirt, a cheap brown sweater, and a bonnet. it was the exact same thing i wore on that campsite last year except for the slippers. i pulled genie along with me, and we marveled at the artistry of the sun's swan song. the sky just before dusk was ablaze and afire with a full range of bright colors. a glint of pink was stretched across an imaginary line that separated the carpet of white clouds below and the blue sky above. hints of yellow, orange, and red were dancing around the setting sun. a thin fog was swirling and twirling in the gap between me and halsema. when people ask why i climb mountains, i stumble with an appropriate explanation. it is because a sight as beautiful as this cannot be described by a convention of poets, interpreted by a group of painters, or captured by a collective of photographers. beauty is always best experienced in person.

but beauty of this kind also comes with a steep price. not only have we suffered throughout the trek, lugging a heavy pack, the wind blew on us relentlessly. my gloveless hands were freezing, my toes were clawing on my slippers, and i had to return to the campsite and add more layers into my attire and expose less flesh.

when night came, cutebalddiver convinced us to imbibe his cheap drink over the jose cuervo i had stashed in my sigg bottle. i joked about the amount of the spirit being directly related to how much he valued the inductees. tads joined us in our session, exchanging stories and laughs, resisting the temptation to retreat into the relative comforts of our tents where the temperature was more tolerable, although he was charged merely with passing around the shot glass. TJ may be a man of few words, and i had taken liberties on his ancestry, but he got away with a short stab. i asked: "what's the definition of a pedophile?" and though he was mostly lost in the background, his small, sore-throaty voice squeaked: "alman". later on, i would make jokes about TJ having a non-infectious disease that deprives him of the ability to have an echo.

but what defined that evening, really, was the surplus of drama that occurred just prior to 10pm. leo visited us asking about the wisdom behind exceeding the IT -- something we had not questioned at all last year, delighted as we were that we had broken records when we bested the IT by more than half a day. while all this was going on, a very histrionic genie came rushing to our area, screaming, "kiiiiiiim! whyyyyyy!" this was in response to the SMS kim had sent me on the evening we left manila. she had jokingly said that her batchmates were whiners considering they had a much easier challenge, and that the ordeal that was ambaguio-akiki felt a lot like an extended 5-day fun climb. pretty soon, we were served with high-altitude drama: when the confrontation took place, tears rolled down kim's face, apologies were thick in the air, and these two girls kept hugging and kissing. and us guys were stuck in all that mucky cheese, so i had to douse the overdose of awkward responses by making references to male fantasies, like girl-to-girl action, etc. when you are this close to heaven, the weather can play tricks on your little head. kim had felt that she was being alienated by her batchmates because she made that comment, but i think that her comment, though jokingly made, had a point. there really was nothing about pulag to complain or whine about. the ambaguio part may be long and drab and exhausting, but it is nothing like IC1. kalinga is an altogether different experience, and there is nothing about pulag which compares to the depth of the challenges posed to us by the entirety of the kalinga climb as well as the decisions that resulted in our being separated on day 3.

since we had agreed to wake at a quarter to 4 the following day, by a little past 10pm, i went to my tent, cocooned myself into my deuter dreamlite 500 mummy sleeping bag, and tried to find sleep. it was a most difficult task. my fingers were extremely cold, and i had done everything to try to keep them warm. my socks felt like they'd been left inside a freezer, and i would wake many times in the night because of the cold. finally, when my phone rang its alarm, i got up. i must've slept only about an hour.

at a little past 4, the members marched towards the summit, and i along with cecil ferried the remaining inductees of AMCI's BMC2006 up the summit. it was only about 15 minutes, but it was tiring nevertheless. in the blackness of the morning, the only things visible were the streaming lights from our headlamps, as well as the distant lights of highland towns.

i emceed the induction rites, which were presided over by bajay, bing, and TB. this, by far, has been the most smooth and solemn induction rites i have ever taken part in. just as the east behind the members began to bloom like an orange flower, opening the dark sky with slivers of light, 9 new members of AMCI emerged wearing their dogtags. for the next half hour, we witnessed the birth of a new day perched close to 10,000 feet above sea level. as the sun slowly emerged from beneath her sheets of clouds, her brilliant eyes threw a blinding light all across the places close to heaven. to the north, peaks of other mountains jut out above the clouds. the summit of mount pulag is a small patch of earth resembling a teardrop headed south. in this inhospitable yet beautiful place, only dwarf bamboo are able to grow. some of us seek refuge in them, if only to escape the cold. even as the rising sun casts a warm glow on our faces, i looked around me and there was nothing but sky, mountain, sun, and clouds. the experience is humbling because you realize at once where you are in the fabric of the universe, and that you are but an infinitesimal thread, spun temporarily into the yarn.

when the sun rose higher, and the shadow of pulag's summit retreating, we made our descent to our campsite. we prepared breakfast, and i was among the last ones to break camp. between myself and the akiki trail, there stood what mountaineers refer to as junior pulag. when i reached the top of this minor peak, before me rolled ranges of green. just below was the enchanted mossy forest of above the akiki trail. farther beyond are badly browned mountains with strokes of pine. it looked like the canvas of an intricate painting. on my right was a broken rainbow. i wonder what promise was not fulfilled by it. slowly, i made my way to the forest. the trees are stunted, only a little taller than the tallest among us, perhaps. they resemble slender bushes, or tall bonsais, twisting and gnarling in response to the weather being thrown at them. kla asked me whether the descent would go on much longer, and i replied by saying that it will likely get worse.

after the first water source just below the mossy forest, we begin to enter a labyrinth of pine. big log is just below, and this has been designated as our lunch are for the day. with plenty of time to spare, we cooked lunch. another pot of perfect rice and a pot of my thai garlic pork. after having our fill, and having rested well, we continued with the descent. akiki slopes at an angle of between 40 to 70 degrees. the trail does not go down in a straight line, but zigzags from corner to corner. those who climb via akiki might call this a killer trail. and the experience is no less agonizing, or painful, when you descend it. your knees are punished severely when you carry your weight and the weight of your pack all the way to the next campsite at edet river.

i followed our guide closely, and i may have been carried away, since i would take extended breaks waiting for my companions to appear from the thickets. by this time, i was once again referred to as a mountain goat. finally, at a quarter before 3, i was looking once again at the boulder-strewn bed of edet. i crossed the hanging bridge, proceeded to the campsite, spread my groundsheet on a spot where i intended to pitch my tent, and went back to cool my body that had suffered too much from the heat. my lower lip had turned rough and was starting to break apart. but this is nothing compared to the sun's impact on kim. her nose resembled a roasted tomato, although TB had insisted she had a really nice tan. TJ, who for part of the hike seemed detached, aloof, and generally stirred wrongly, looked like a japanese fugitive, an immature mustache growing above his upper lip.

in spite of the searing heat of the sun, the waters that rushed down edet were prohibitively cold. it must have taken me about 5 minutes to psyche myself that, yes, i will take a dip, yes, i will soak my tired body, yes, i can endure the sting of freezing waters. while i frolicked on the waters, stubbing my toe every now and then, i looked up above me, and one by one, they appeared from the wispy pine forest. they can see and hear me, i was sure of it, and i can only imagine the added agony of being so near the river, and yet so far. of suffering some more while others are gleefully allowing their cares and their pains to be taken away downstream. i took the opportunity to rediscover edet, and camwhored like there was no tomorrow.

at around 4, when everyone had arrived, i decided to return to the campsite not 2 minutes away. i had almost forgotten how hard the ground on the campsite was. i was apprehensive about pounding my TNF v-stakes with a huge rock, but the pegs would not go deep into the ground just with the heel of my TNF boots. i placed my tent strategically on a small mound, as was gilbert's and TB's, just in case the area were flooded. for dinner, some of the best campsite chefs i know -- namely bing and myself -- joined forces for an array of pastas. i prepared a tuna alfredo, which was an experiment more than anything else. i had forgotten about the butter, but it was loved by all down to the last drop. shai would later comment that it was her first time to have great-tasting food all the time. TB was all too happy about having perfect rice each time.

our after dinner delights consisted of my jose cuervo and a sometimes unhealthy exchange of jokes and potshots. TB continued on sharing his theory that attached women who join AMCI are likely to end up breaking up with their non-mountaineer boyfriends, because they're perceived to be stronger or more daring or more adventurous. we also discovered TB's talent at repeating what everyone else has already said. this time around, the new members also joined in the fray, throwing in their poisons into the buffet. one by one though, alcohol and exhaustion took its toll, and before midnight, we'd all returned to our tents to sleep.

i woke up the following morning to the sound of the river rushing and to the chatter of birds and mountaineers. we prepared breakfast. TB threw in an excellent macau sausage, while bing's group reheated chicken adobo. by 9am, most of us had packed and started trekking up around the hill between edet and kabayan. along the way, we passed the graveyard under a big rock where skulls of igorots killed during the last war had been arranged. we also walked past the american-sized bench. and although TB tried to block my way, he eventually gave in and allowed me to OT. we eventually reached the school just before 11am and lined up to take communal baths at a faucet with a tin basin and a tin can as a dipper.

we proceeded to the DENR station, then loaded our bags to our jeep, and left kabayan, topload. when we reached the DENR office in ambaguio, the former ms. tamiray welcomed us and announced that she was now a ms. albas or something, the circumstances of which i was not too interested to understand. while we were there, i inserted a brief chat with a solitary mountaineer who was going to make the hike up babadak for that day, and a solitary hike to the grasslands the following day. it's either foolish or exciting, i am unsure. many of us purchased shirts featuring the sign at the tawangan/lusod junction, and proceeded to jang-jang for a very late lunch. the other jeepney, however, encountered problems and arrived at the eatery over an hour later. then we proceeded to ambuclao dam for the requisite photos. they were letting water out when a giant of a bull of a pig came marching down the bridge. its testicles were as large as a human head. a scrawny boy tried helplessly to reel it in and tie it somewhere.

then we left for baguio and arrived with much time to spare. the requisite dinner at o'mai khan happened, where i met 2 amazingly cute and playful little girls who emerged from under our tables much to the surprise of kim. i had mongolian barbecue, and my second plate was disgusting. then we proceeded to kaffeklatsch for coffee and to unwind before our 11.20pm trip. i slept through most of that trip and i felt very very lost and confused when bajay woke me up to tell me that we were already near quezon avenue.

this trek reminds me of my first time to climb mount pulag in 2003, when i knew nothing about mountaineering and was teased about my absolute ignorance about the sport. ever since that time, i began looking at mountains differently. i look at them not merely as imposing creations of earth and rock rising many hundred meters into the heavens. i began seeing them as destinations, as special places for meditation where i could possibly contemplate my existence. during this trek, i managed to steal pockets of opportunities to reflect on my life. last year, when i did the ambaguio-akiki trail, i predicted it would be my last multi-day climb. and yet, mts. kinabalu and ugo happened, kibungan and kalinga took place, i returned to sagada's secret spanish trail. and alas, i returned to the first mountain i had ever climbed. and if misfortune strikes me and i will never be allowed to go hiking again, i would want pulag to be my last.

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Nasty on my batch, haha.

May I ask for a picture of me and the pig, the one of the lord of the manor taming the beast.
Hey dave... nice pics. I miss pulag too. I hope i could find climbing buddies to go back there. I really need to climb again. regards bro and sorry for your lost tnf shoe.
Re: Pulag...
hi art. why don't you organize a climb with our PSI friends and batchmates? :D thanks for dropping by. i love pulag.