The first rays of the sun break on the horizon and warm orange light slowly seeps through the cold cover of clouds. As the veil of the night sky lifts, a sea of ghostly mist drifts by on the grassy rolling hills of Luzon’s highest peak.
This was how I envisioned my trip to Mt. Pulag, my first trip of the year and first ever ascent up a mountain (the second highest in the country). But that didn’t go exactly as planned.
What I got was bitter cold, rain, fog and mud so thick that it blackened my feet through my shoes and two layers of thick socks. There were times while hiking that I felt like one of zombies in “The Walking Dead,” just mindlessly shambling on, putting one foot in front of the other, wondering when the misery would ever end.
I’ve been wanting to go to Mt. Pulag ever since I saw photos of the sea of clouds. Mountaineer friend Rei, who I previously traveled with to Tarlac to cover Aeta festivals organized a climb for friends who work in several environmental orgs, and I decided to tag along. To avoid the weekend crowd that usually climbs Mt. Pulag on Saturdays, the group decided to leave Manila on a Thursday, climb up on Friday, and head down on Saturday.
The trip started on a high note. After a 5-hour long bus ride from Manila to Baguio, we boarded a rented jeep from the Dangwa terminal to Benguet for another 5-hour long trip, with several stops for food and photo ops along Ambuklao Dam and a hanging suspension bridge along the way. The sky was clear and the weather seemed perfect. Everyone was in good spirits.
After signing in at the DENR Station, we had to watch a short video orientation on the guidelines for camping at Mt. Pulag National Park. As a protected area, mountaineers are expected to leave no trace, bring back all garbage items and follow only the designated trails. The Ambangeg Trail we were taking is the easiest of several routes to Mt. Pulag and involves a 4-hour hike to the camping grounds in the afternoon followed by a 2-hour trek at dawn to catch the sunrise. More difficult routes are the Akiki Trail (called the “killer trail” because of an uphill ascent for 8-12 hours) and Tawangan trail (dubbed the “bloody trail” because of encounters with leeches).
From DENR, we took the jeep up a steep rough road to the Ranger Station, our lunch stop and the starting point for the actual hike. There was a bit of a fog as we made our way to Camp 2, but the view was still spectacular with views of pine trees, bonsai and mossy forests, Harvest Moon-like cabbage patches and terraces along the way. I think the hike would have been easy enough if not for the high altitude and cold. During the climb, I found my heart racing faster than normal, I kept getting out of breath and was suddenly hit by a bad migraine.
While all this caused our group to take our sweet time on the trail, the locals of the community who serve as porters for hikers seemed to have no problem whatsoever. I really admire these teenage girls and elderly women who can easily bear the weight of the heavy backpacks, and in fact were running ahead of us on the trails. There was one grandmother who carried a gigantic backpack that contained all the food and cooking gear for the group, that must have weighed more than 20 kilos.
The mountain hosts diverse plant species and is the natural habitat of the endemic Dwarf Bamboo, and the Benguet pine. I didn’t take too many shots going up, as I wanted to conserve my shots for the summit. On the last stretch to Camp 2, we passed through a clearing of mossy forest, which looked really otherwordly.
After a few minutes, we finally reached Camp 2, where we pitched our tents for the night. I had been warned that it could get freezing cold at night because of the high elevation. In fact, Mt. Pulag is where you can experience the coldest weather in the country. I felt that firsthand later that night, as we huddled under the kitchen tent for dinner. But it wasn’t all bad. The delicious sinigang that Rei cooked for dinner was really good and warmed us up in no time. The night sky even cleared up a bit, revealing the constellations.
We woke up at 3am to start the climb to the summit and the weather didn’t look too promising. Some of the tents had gotten wet during the night because of the rain. My memories of the trek to the summit from Camp 2 are mostly slushing through ankle-deep mud and tall grass, slipping on the path several times and just wanting to curl up in somewhere in the grass along the trail and sleep. After what seemed like hours of endless walking when I thought we should be nearing the summit, I asked the guide if we were near. He replied “medyo malayo pa” which scared the hell out of me, since I know guides often sugarcoat distances when talking to visitors.
At the height of my misery, I was cursing every single travel blogger I know who ever posted a perfect photo of Mt. Pulag’s summit, with their “looking into the distance” emo shots and celebratory jump shots with the awesome landscape in the background. Yes, I know that’s not what climbing mountains is about. I know that it should be about the journey and not the destination. But I wanted the perfect sunrise. I had such high expectations from the trip and it seemed like such a letdown after traveling such a long distance not to have any good photos to make the trip worthwhile. It took every bit of willpower to climb to the top of the summit, but when I finally made it, all I could do was collapse behind some shrubs to shield myself from the wind. Instead of a sea of clouds, I was met with heavy fog and a blast of wind that seemed to bite through my four layers of clothes.
Just below the summit, I caught the rest of the group trying to warm up with light breakfast of coffee and bread. Despite the disappointment and harsh weather, everyone still managed to smile and make light of the situation. It was a real morale booster to be around people who just wouldn’t give up. I guess it’s easy to enjoy a great experience together, but there’s something about traveling with friends through the most miserable conditions that brings you closer together.
I didn’t take a single photo during the long trek down from the summit to Camp 2, during breakfast and packing up all our gear in the rain, and the trek back to the Ranger’s Station. I wanted to kick-off 2013 with a great trip. Was it was all worth it? During the climb, I didn’t think so. “Di bale, next time na lang,” the others reassured. “Next time? Next time?” No thanks, I’m not going through this again, I thought to myself. “Hahanapin mo rin ang lamig,” Rei told me. I didn’t think so. But looking back, I’m already having fond memories of the trip. I may not have gotten the perfect sunrise, but I think I came out of the trip with something better. I guess in the end, it’s best not to have any expectations.
EPILOGUE: Just one day, ONE DAY after we left, we caught about 150+ people from the Byaheng Victory tour group (organized by Travel Factor and Victory Liner) heading up to Mt. Pulag. Apparently, the weather cleared during the night and they got a perfect sunrise during their climb. Sometimes the universe has a sick sense of humor.