Walk Above the Clouds

Ging­gay Joven-dela Merced con­quers the mighty Mount Pu­lag

Philippine Tatler Traveller - - Contents - WORDS AND pho­tos Ging­gay Joven-dela Merced

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

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