To the Playground of the Gods and Back. . .Again and Again
by Osep Reyes
On Christmas Eve of 2008, my phone beeped to an invitation from my best friend to hike Mt. Pulag, the highest mountain in Luzon and the 3rd highest in the country. It was probably pure excitement and pure lack of foresight that led me to accept and join the hike that was to take place a day after Christmas. I was told we were hiking for three days, going up the Ambangeg trail, and descending via Akiki – aptly dubbed as the “Killer Trail” which I eventually learned for myself.
It must be clarified that prior to this I had absolutely no experience of climbing mountains or camping (sleeping in the school auditorium during grade school Scouting doesn’t really count, does it?), and I was nowhere near fit for what lay ahead. On the night of the 26th I showed up at the meeting place in a cotton shirt, khaki shorts, high socks and basketball shoes. Packed in my borrowed 40L bag is a light jacket, a raincoat, jogging pants, some shirts, a scarf and a bonnet, among underwear, a plastic plate, utensils, headlamp, toiletries, and my share of the group load: rice, a couple of canned goods and the tent body. We then set out for the terminal where the midnight bus would take us to the starting point of our unforgettable adventure – or in some ways for me, misadventure.
Stepping out of the bus and onto Baguio should have warned me of what sort of cold is expected up in the mountains. We made our way to Ambuklao on top of the monster jeep with the freezing December morning air whipping our faces plastered with eager smiles anticipating a scenic view of the dam, the appetizer for many more spectacular sights to follow.
Day 1 of hiking proved to be manageable for my untrained, sedentary body. We walked through cool pine forests and cooler mossy forests until we reached the wide rolling grass hills of the campsite at around four in the afternoon. Each time the setting sun stole a glance behind the capricious fog that hovered about our makeshift community, it would splash our entire settlement with warm orange radiance. My distress began the next morning when we woke up at three in morning to break camp and assault this island’s highest peak.
My limbs were stiff from sleeping as still and icy as the ground I lied on. My fingers felt nothing but thick and clumsy, which made fumbling about slow and difficult. Outside, the sky was the blackest, yet the brightest I’ve ever seen. Stars of all colours hung frozen across the vast dome ceiling. Every minute or two, one of them would wake from their immemorial stillness and dive towards the fringes of the world. We made our way stealthily into the night through hills and slopes of mud and black grass, our marching line resembling the stars that curiously watch over us. The air was elusive, thin and cold, making each breath a great task. The sharp ascent to the summit and the heavy pack strained the muscles of my thighs and calves with every step. The pin lights above gently disappeared as dawn broke, pouring bright colours that diluted the obsidian sky into gray, navy, purple, pink, tangerine and gold. While the orb of the rising sun fought its way through the darkness, a thousand hues such as I never saw before shimmered and changed in the horizon and rose up the dome ceiling, each one brighter than the last. Standing atop Mt. Pulag, the playground of the gods as the locals call it, was like being on an island surrounded by a sea of snow-white clouds with the peaks of neighbouring mountains jutting through them like sister isles, their coven forming a heavenly archipelago. I don’t know whether it was the grandeur of the scene or the thinness of the air around me, but the enchanted moment took my breath away.
Part of the difficulty of this hike is getting the reward before the ordeal is over. Two days and many more kilometres in probably the coldest mountain in the Philippines lay before us. When the sun has finally succeeded in turning darkness into light – and after getting our fill of photos – we began our descent through the notorious “Killer Trail.” While it is unquestionably more difficult than our trail going up, Akiki is also unquestionably more beautiful. One would not have a lack of view of wide grassy slopes and dark blue mountain ranges in the distance. The mossy forest is alive with various shades of green and is denser on this side of the mountain, which conceives of a dramatic drop in temperature upon entry. The pine woods are filled with immense trees showering the trail with a carpet of brown needles and dried cones. It is at this point that my weak, inexperienced knees started to turn into jelly. Many times I would sit down to rest or to slide on steep trails of loose soil. By noon, I could not carry my pack anymore and had to allow our local guide to do it for me, much to the expense of my ego. Every step thereafter was a desecration to the playground of the gods as each one is accompanied by crisp, heartfelt swearing.
We made camp at a tranquil site across a bridge that hung over the Eddet River where I was more than happy to remove my shoes and collapse on the soft grass with the relaxing sound of rushing water in the background. A bloody sight greeted me when I took off my battered shoes: the blisters that have formed on both my smallest toes where the skin chafed the most have ruptured, leaving sore wounds in their stead. Despite the freezing water, it was a relief to wash and soak in the stream. Sleep that night and waking up the next morning was more pleasant since it was not as cold as our first camp and we had trees around our tent to serve as windbreakers.
The last leg of our descent was significantly shorter than the previous day’s (and probably less steep too), but it felt as hellish for me. Still, with every step came the worst curse word in the Filipino tongue. Upon reaching the end of the trail, as if on cue, I turned around the yelled one last profanity at the mountain that had exhausted me as I’ve never been in my whole life. I swore I will never climb a mountain again.
I’m not entirely sure what makes one fall in love with the outdoors. Is it the fresh air sifted through the lush leaves of verdant forests that satiate lungs clamouring for oxygen? Is it the cool rivers and the crashing falls that soothe and refresh the weary body? Is it the towering heights that put the traveller on top of the world, higher than the white woollen blankets of the sky itself, and fill him both at the same time with pride at the accomplishment, and humility at the recognition of his insignificance to the enormousness of the world around him? Or is it the unacknowledged masochism of seeking the aches and cramps of body parts one never knew were there; the burning of nape, arms and face; the piercing chill that leaves the fingers and toes numb as it seeps through the bones; the bulbous blistering of feet; and the chafing of all pieces of skin conflicting with skin as the pilgrim treads ever on? Perhaps it is one or all or none of these things.
To date, I have climbed Mt. Pulag for a total of 21 times. In 2012, I was there at least once a month. I have also been to other peaks higher and tougher than my first. In retrospect, I could never have imagined being a mountaineer, much less a mountain guide. But perhaps the gods have decided to play when I first visited 5 years ago, and have invited me to share their playground as well.