My philosophy in life is to reward myself in every milestone I gained, big or small. Having your 23rd birthday is a major achievement (since you’re still here and all) and what could be a better way of celebrating one’s 23 years of existence than getting your 23-year-old heart to pump faster and your 23-year-old lungs to wheeze harder as you climb one of the highest peaks of the country?
Mai and I decided to climb Mt. Pulag on September 19-20, with her fresh from her climb on Mt. Daraitan and with me just eager to do something different for my birthday. It took every last ounce of willpower to convince my parents to climb on the day of my birthday, but they gave up in the end (happy birthday to me!), deliriously ignorant of what Mt. Pulag has in store for me.
Day 1, Friday, Mai and I meet up with fellow climbers at Cubao Terminal where we’re going to take a van going to Baguio city. From there, a jeepney will take us to Kabayan, Benguet. I had my dinner at Tropical Hut first, aware that this is going to be my last good dinner before the climb since Mai and I have decided to stick with the good ol’ Century Tuna Paella while hiking.
I remembered Mai asking me if I brought an emergency blanket or a sleeping bag. I said I didn’t, since my bag is heavy and bulky enough. Now this is a lesson we will soon learn: A heavy bag is not a problem, but if you come to Pulag with the mindset of ‘The cold never bothered me anyway’, you’re in for some serious frozen hell.
We slept mostly through the van which took off 10PM in the evening. By about 3AM, we reached Baguio and hopped into the jeepney taking us to Benguet. After 2 hours and a half of travelling, our companions had their breakfast at Jang Jang eatery while Mai and I sauntered off to the famous Jang-jang Bridge located behind the eatery.
We proceeded to DENR office to attend a brief orientation about Mt. Pulag. Now for some trivia, Mt. Pulag is the 3rd highest peak in the Philippines and the highest in Luzon. It is world-renowned for its captivating ‘Sea of Clouds’ at its summit. There are four trails to the summit but the two well-known are the Ambangeg trail (for beginners) and the Akiki trail (the killer trail)
Needless to say, we will proceed through the Ambangeg trail. If you’re only interested with the summit, go Ambangeg. If you want to be challenged by the mountain (as if the cold isn’t enough), Akiki is for you.
At the DENR office, we passed by a store selling insulator pads and I thought of buying it just in case. I consulted Mai but in the end, we decided that it will add more bulk to our baggage. Besides, we won’t be using it anymore after the hike. This, kids, is mistake #2.
We started our climb roughly around 10AM. The sun is shining bright and it looks it’s going to be a sunny climb for us. We barely passed the Ranger’s station when we experienced Mt. Pulag’s volatile weather. The fog soon engulfs the sun and we prepared our raincoat once the downpour begins.
I lumbered off to a slow start, enjoying the cold and the sights. Mai is haggling me to go faster but I don’t. I think most of our conversations are spent on arguing which is more efficient: climbing and resting at your own pace or climbing faster than you should and taking only minimal breaks. None of us wins since we were both dead tired in the end anyway.
While climbing, I always have a problem with steep parts of the trail (I mean, who hasn’t, other than Mai and her iron legs) and I would always consider them as a major pain in the neck. Later, the mountain would help me realize that an arduous journey uphill is just a temporary struggle. Later, as you go down the mountain, those steeply-inclined paths will be your source of relief. As the famous line goes, it’s all pretty much downhill from here. Pretty much like life, I guess.
As you climb further and further, the changes of Mt. Pulag’s topography becomes clearer. Here’s a mountain which can’t decide what it is: Pine trees and mossy forests at the base, grassland on top. One of our companions said that when you take the Akiki trail, the stark contrast of the morphing landscape is more evident.
Somewhere along the trail, I found myself walking alone. I told Mai to go on ahead. The weight of a 15-kg baggage is making my knees tremble. I’m now feeling sharp shots of pain in my shoulder whenever I adjust the weight of the bag. The thinning air of the high altitude is not helping either. I’ve always thought climbing in cool temperature is way easier than hiking under the scorching sun but the cold presents an unlikely adversary. I have to rest every 20 minutes and I swear if there are indeed spirits residing in Mt. Pulag, they would probably be angry at my loud, asthma-like panting.
After about four hours of panting, wheezing and almost dying, with my shoulders crying, we finally reached Camp 2.
After setting up camp and resting for a bit, Mai and I decided to explore the sights around Camp 2. Seeing the running hills leading to the summit evokes a certain kind of solitude and renewal that only getting closer to the heavens can bring.
Just after we were having our dinner, it rained. Hard. One of the seasoned climbers said that the rain is actually a good thing. One of the recipes of Sea of Clouds is to rain the night before, but raining till dawn will present a big problem.
Because of the rain, the temperature plunges down. Mai and I settled inside our desolate shelter we call our tent. Without blankets, without sleeping bags, without an insulator pad, we are done for. The cold seeps inside our tent like a Dementor sucking all the warmth in our bones. Mai is already wearing three layers of clothing and still, she feels her feet are frozen inside an ice block. We’ve managed to distract ourselves from the cold by laughing at our own stupidity and making jokes about why our feet is so vulnerable to the cold. Mai, being a professional physical therapist, stated dead serious that unlike hands, you cannot warm your feet under your armpits. I quipped that we should have conditioned our body through Yoga instead of running to prepare for this trip. We were laughing pretty loud and I’m thankful that the campers near our tent didn’t kill us in our sleep.
Day 2: After sleeping fitfully, we awoke at 3AM for our trek to the summit. The rain had just stopped and the night sky greeted us with a wonderful view of the stars and the faint section of the Milky Way. I swear if my camera was as good as a DSLR, I would run out the space on my card of pictures of the night sky than the sunrise.
The trek to the summit lasted about one hour. As expected, it is a long climb and the only source of light we have is our flashlight. I did some breathing exercises, concentrated on the path I’m walking on, but upon reaching Peak 2, I turned my head to the other side and froze on my tracks. The faint rays of the coming dawn offered me a glimpse of mountains drowning under the sea of clouds. If it wasn’t for Mai calling me from above, I would have stood there, transfixed, and waited for the sunrise there.
The last step to the summit is always a memorable one for me. It felt like I overcome something I never thought I could, but it’s far from triumph. It’s more of submission, a tranquil sense of fulfillment and gratitude to the mountain and heavens above for allowing you to glimpse this wonderful view, infusing you with warmth that rivals that of Pulag’s relentless cold, and keeping this memory for you to remember as many sunrises go by.
Mai turned to me and grinned, ‘Happy Birthday!’ I smiled. As far as birthday goes, this is certainly going to be one of the best I’ll ever have.
Our trip is organized by a cool Facebook page called Happy Trail. Check it out here: Happy Trail