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The temperature must’ve been below 10°C when I woke up with chills creeping from my feet; even with two layers of socks, and shoes that I didn’t bother to take off, I can still felt the cold coming from outside of our tent. It’s almost 3am, Sunday, not much sleep for nearly 40 hours, dressed fat like a penguin, quivering inside an “igloo”, at eight thousand feet up in the mountains, the only question on my mind was “WTF am I doing here!!?”
Towering at 2,922 meters, Mt. Pulag is the highest mountain in Luzon and the third highest in the Philippines next to Mt. Dulang-dulang (Bukidnon 2,938m) and Mt. Apo (Davao, 2,954m).
Located along the provinces of Benguet, Ifugao, and Nueva Vizcaya; it was declared a National Park under Proclamation No. 75 on February 20, 1987.
With a temperate climate and rains throughout the year, Mt. Pulag is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, among which are the endemic dwarf bamboo and the 4 species of cloud rats.
Considered sacred by the indigenous people of Benguet, it is also inhabited by the tribes of Ibaloi, Kalanguya, Kankanaey, Karao, Ifugao and Ilocano.
The Road to Mt. Pulag
Mt. Pulag is considered the easiest of all mountains in the Philippines for climbers. With mostly rolling terrains and well established trails, requiring no specialized equipment, it is the choice among first time trekkers and beginners.
The jump-off point for Mt. Pulag is Baguio, 6 hours by bus from Manila. Together with a group of 18 persons, we met at the Victory bus station on EDSA, Cubao with departure set at 11pm on a Friday night.
Now whenever I travel, whether it’s by land, sea, or air, I just couldn’t get a wink. Maybe it’s the excitement, the anxiousness, or the constant motion of the vehicle I’m in that prevented my brain from resting. This has sort of become a “curse”, that zombie-like state of mind, neither fully awake nor in deep slumber; and I always envy those people who can easily fall asleep.
We reached Baguio before five in the morning, Saturday. The air was cool, even a bit chilly when the wind blows, a welcome respite from the months of sweltering heat in Manila.
After a heavy breakfast, we toke a chartered passenger jeep on a 3 hour ride to the DENR field office. Midway, stopped by the Ambuklao Dam in Benguet, the country’s first hydroelectric power plant.
Upon reaching the DENR office, a short briefing was conducted on the dos and don’ts while trekking Mt. Pulag. Trash, whether organic or non-biodegradable should all be brought down and disposed of properly. Staying on the established trails to minimize damage to vegetations and prevent further destruction of the mountain slopes. Noise must be keep to a minimum and no intimacy at the campsite!
From the DENR, it was another 2 hours ride, this time on mostly unpaved roads to the ranger station. Roads that provided you breathtaking views of the valleys and the terraces below while side openings and ravines enveloped you in a solemn silence of insecurity.
The ranger station is not some military structure in the middle of nowhere; it sits near a small village at the base of the trail and offer mountaineers a place for final preparation, cooking, rest, and last supply acquisition before the trek. This is also the site where you meet your guides and hire porters to help carry your bags to the designated camping grounds.
We started our ascent after lunch. From the ranger station, the sign says 7.5km to Mt. Pulag’s summit, and there were ominous gray clouds ahead.
I handed my backpack to one of the porters while some of my other companions chose to carry their own. The porters, farmers from the nearby communities actually, are out to supplement their daily income by assisting trekkers. They charge a standard 1-way fee of 250 pesos to carry your baggage up to the camp. You are welcome to give them more if you like and that amount often goes a long way in augmenting their livelihood.
About half way through the trek, and sure enough, it begun to rain. Apart from making the trail wet, muddy, and therefore slippery; we had to put on raincoats, adding another unbreathable layer to our already hot and sweaty discomfort. At this altitude, whenever you stop to catch your breath, you can already see clouds of condensations, this and hearing the rapid beats of your own heart amidst the eerie silence; you’ll then begin to question yourself and your sanity in being there.
It was still raining when we reached the campsite at about 5pm. The tents had been set-up and supper was being prepared. It was much colder at this elevation, even with 4 layers of clothing (a t-shirt, a wool sweater, a foam jacket, and a North Face Summit Series), I can still felt the penetrating coldness.
The rain stopped after a while; gray clouds gave way to an iridescent sunset, a momentary distraction from the cold as I managed to snap that scene before retreating back into the tent.
I can felt my body warmed up after dinner plus a couple cups of warm water. The environment was now more tolerable but you also realize that temperature will surely drop as the night progresses.
Sleep again eluded me as I can only lie on my back with so many layers of clothing. Cramped tent, light headache, uneven ground, and snoring companions, how I prayed it will be morning soon!
Under a Blanket of Stars
I did manage to get an hour or so of sleep. Our call time was at 3am, but I was up and shivering before then. Imagining yourself naked in a hot tub doesn’t help, it only adds to your delusion; and the tendency of questioning yourself surfaces… yet again.
It took a lot of effort to get myself out of the tent. But the moment I gaze overhead and saw the sky littered with stars, it gave me renew spirit and will power. Never in my life have I saw the heavens with such clarity and magnificence, and for the very first time, that white band of light known as the Milky Way, the spiral arm of our galaxy, I at last, behold.
The Race to the Summit
With only soy milk for sustenance and a cup of boiled water for warmth, the final trek to the summit commenced. In near darkness, armed only with individual flashlights, we walked single file in a bid to reach the summit before the sun rises.
The trails are narrow, oftentimes you find yourself on one side of the mountain and the steep slope below. You can see the path alright, but to determine clearly whether it was a crevice or slippery mud was another question all together. I stumbled several times during the course, and in one instance, almost twisted an ankle. That sprain injury prevented me from trekking in unison with the group and thus had to keep to my own pace. The summit race for the sunrise was no longer within reach I realized, but nevertheless, my goal to set foot atop Mt. Pulag remained insurmountable.
So with slow steps, pausing often to relieve the stress on my foot, I trekked on. A few lines of Jose Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adios came to mind, I trekked on. Climbers passed me by, a zephyr blew, the sky brightened, stars dimmed, dawn was breaking, I trekked on.
Sunrise caught me a few hundred meters below the summit; I paused and snapped, the crimson spectra were just glorious!
It took me a while longer before I actually reached the summit of Mt. Pulag, but the feeling (more of relieve) was truly encompassing.
The sun was still rising through several layers of clouds, casting long shadows, rendering the landscape in orange and gold. One can see the outlines of other mountain peaks, ‘lakes’ of clouds in luminous white a distance below, the long and winding trails we took, the unrestricted feeling of freedom, the sense of accomplishment, of fellowship, and the pride in all our hearts that says “yes, it was all worth it!”