Walk Above the Clouds
Ginggay Joven-dela Merced conquers the mighty Mount Pulag
My legs were quivering in exhaustion. My knees were buckling, and my ankles swollen. I was trembling because of the frigid cold. My chest was pounding. I could barely breathe. My thirst was unquenchable, and I was swaddled in filth and mud.
I muttered every curse imaginable, scratching my head in astonishment at why I ever volunteered to bring this torture upon myself.
“One foot in front of the other,” I kept reminding myself. Countless times, I wavered. But whether from a slight tap of encouragement from the person next to me or because of pride, I continued to drudge, endure and toil.
Then, after over four hours of misery… Finally, the peak.
I collapsed in relief, gazing upon the bleak sky. A blanket of darkness covered the atmosphere until a slight flicker of light awakened my droopy eyes. The pinkish horizon brightened as a prism of hues emerged. The sun soon surfaced as it sluggishly rose amid the billowing clouds.
A few moments more, and there it was in full glory. Simply captivating, the azure sky framing the majestic mountains, the sparse streaks of sunrays glimmering through the vista and the mesmerising slopes cuddling the misty clouds. These are the stuff romance novels are made of. It was entrancing, what with the clouds underneath your feet and the sky seemingly within arm’s reach. Swept in that blissful moment, I had forgotten about the aches, the cold and the thirst. This view, I remembered, is why I signed up for this. Truly magical.
How lovely it would’ve been if the story of my Mount Pulag experience ended here. Of course, it didn’t. My husband Noel violently shook me back to reality, and screamed, “We have to go down now!”
If you’ve woken up a sleeping dragon, you would understand the intensity of the ferocious lashing and glaring stare I threw back. With no sleep, a bursting bladder and fatigued limbs, I yelled, “I’m no Iron Man, you know?!”
Oh, Iron Man… That is how this entire excursion even began.
Last October, an insane group of guys flew to Barcelona to participate in their first Iron Man race. Naturally, the equally insane and condoning wives flew along to cheer and support their lunacy.
Among some 40 Filipino finishers were triathletes Jose Moreno, Mark Bustamante, Marvin del Rosario, Sancho Honorado, Noel dela Merced, Rico Manuel and Jerico Fernando, all of whom successfully clocked between 11 and 15 hours covering the required 3.8-km swim, 180-km bike and 42-km run.
The shared experience of conquering the seemingly impossible naturally established a bond among these men; and for us—their respective Iron Wives, Tin, Trisia, Ines, Jammy, Trixie, Pia and myself—a friendship fostered, founded by our common joys and worries in support of our husbands’ ridiculous passion.
So when the idea of climbing Mount Pulag was suggested, all the boys agreed without a moment’s hesitation. What’s a mountain to them after all? It took a little more arm-twisting for the wives to collectively agree. Besides, our fitness levels—or the lack thereof for some of us—are, by far, inferior to our spouses.
Despite all the grumbling, I actually enjoy mountain climbing. Sure, I whine and gripe throughout the entire thing but I always end every journey re-energised by nature and fulfilled with accomplishment. To do it with a group who shared something as remarkable as an Iron Man experience together simply made the entire endeavour more exciting. After all, who you travel with is even more important than the destination.
Prior to our departure from Manila, our tour guide Eugene Teraña of Trailadventours gave a low-down of what to expect. While the men asked distances, inclines and athletic gear needed, the women fussed over the bathroom situation and homestay amenities. Typical.
Preliminaries checked, we then settled into the comforts of Elizabeth Hotel in Baguio for our first night hosted by the Fernando couple, owners of the plush establishment. Waking up at 4 AM is typical for triathletes. To us wives, that’s unheard of. Thankfully, we managed to drag ourselves out of bed in that ungodly hour and took the twohour migraine-inducing van drive.
En route, we had quick stops in Banao’s for breakfast, Ambuklao Dam, Jang Jang Hanging Bridge and Daclan Sulfur Spring—gems of the mysterybeholden Cordillera region. We then had to undergo the mandatory hiker’s orientation at the Mount Pulag DENR Registration Office. There we learnt of the ancient belief that holds Mount Pulag as the “playground of the gods,” where spirits used to roam. Pulag literally means “kalbo” (bald) in Tagalog,
taking from the barren grasslands blanketing the terrain’s highest peak. It is the country’s third highest mountain towering at 2,922 metres.
Locals have set strict dos and don’ts while trekking the slopes; the most important of which is to leave no trace behind. After submitting the required medical certificates, we were also made to familiarise ourselves with the various routes to the summit.
There are several routes to reach the Mount Pulag Summit. The Akiki Trail jumps off from Barangay Doacan and takes three to four days. It is also known as the “Killer Trail” because of its steep slopes. Meanwhile, the Tabego Trail commences from Sitio Labang in Barangay Tawangan and takes three days. It is also known as the “Bloody Trail” because the path is leech-infested. The Lusod route, on the other hand, passes through the northern ridge of Mount Pulag from Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya, and takes six days to accomplish. Gulp. The easiest route is the Babadak Trail that begins from the Ambangeg Ranger Station going through dwarf bamboo slopes, a mossy oak forest and a desolate field of greens. It is eight kilometres to the summit with a maximum incline of about 75 degrees, and takes an average of eight to 10 hours.
Thought bubble: “That’s supposed to be easy? But fine, we’ll take it!”
We then head onto Baban’s Homestay, a charming and cosy haunt owned and run by the Baban family, natives of Sitio Babadak. All accommodations in this part of the Cordillera region are homes of locals who open up their residences to Mount Pulag climbers so they can relax and unwind before and after the arduous trek. It’s no Four Seasons, for sure, but the homey atmosphere adds a unique charm to the overall experience.
Lights out was at 6 PM to prepare for the midnight rise. With all necessities packed, our party hopped on the jeepney to the Ranger’s Station to begin our ascent. Together with our guides Eugene, his colleague Kent and two local ranger guides, we slowly navigated our way through the first and second
camps onto the first to fifth peaks, until we snaked through the winding steep grasslands to the summit with time to spare to witness the sunrise.
That day, it was unusually damp and extremely slippery. While we had a few minor slips, some altitude sickness and mild knee injuries (ironically, all from the guys who are supposedly Iron Men), we all conquered Mount Pulag healthily—all smiles, with our sense of humor intact. We joked: all couples still married, and friendship unbroken (in fact, deepened).
On the van ride back to Baguio, most were knocked dead, spent from the 10hour hike, when one of the guys asked, “So what’s next? Mount Everest?” All the ladies awoke and laughed dismissively at the ridiculous suggestion. The men, on the other hand, started googling Mount Everest stats, training programmes and costs. Pure absurdity.
One by one, the women started complaining all over again before starting to doze off. So to our challenge-seeking husbands, let the silence speak.
ON A HIGH FROM TOP: The trek to the summit; a snippet from the Daclan Sulfur Spring
OPPOSITE: Stunning views of Ambuklao Dam and Agno River
VERTICAL LIMIT THIS PAGE: Our group against the serene Agno River OPPOSITE FROM TOP: Beautiful scenes to behold at the backyard of the charming Baban’s Homestay owned by the Baban family, natives of Sitio Babadak; perched on a jeepney for the winding drive from Baguio to Babalak in Benguet; hectares of lush vegetable fields
we did it ! FROM TOP: We did it! Mount Pulag Summitersw, the group with Trail Adventours’ guide Kent Tan; Noel dela Merced on the Mount Pulag trail OPPOSITE: The captivating Cordillera landscape: majestic mountains conceal willowy trees beneath the blanket of clouds