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Writing on Air by Jim Paredes

Archive for March 17th, 2013

On top of Mt Pulag, you discover what you brought up with you 1

Posted on March 17, 2013 by jimparedes

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated March 17, 2013 – 12:00am

My wife Lydia was excited and raring to go. I just nodded along when she presented the plans to climb Mt. Pulag with some friends. It seemed like something way off into the future and I was preoccupied at that time with other things. I agreed without really looking at the plans. I just knew we were going to set aside three or four days to do it.

We drove up to Baguio on a Monday to have a day of rest before the climb the next day. Early Tuesday morning at 5 a.m., our group of 18 friends (seven of us senior citizens) met at the Petron station near Pancake House. It was there where we also met our guides from Trail Bound, a mountaineering outfit run by Boboy Francisco who has been climbing peaks since his college days. He is almost 60 years old now and he is still at it.

We rode off in two big jeeps towards Benguet for about an hour and a half. We stopped for a sumptuous breakfast at a Pinkan eatery that served varied choices of delicious home-cooked food — rice, papaitan, squid, eggplant omelet, eggs, bulalo, etc. — in big servings. And all these for less than 100 Pesos per plate including bananas and mangoes.

After breakfast, we proceeded past Ambuklao dam going higher northward. It was not hard to notice that as we went farther away from Baguio, things got more and more rustic. The roads became narrower and rougher until it was down to just one lane. Sometimes the ride got so rough you felt you were being physically pushed and shoved around inside the vehicle.

We stopped again at the DENR office where we got a briefing on how to conduct ourselves during the trek. Mt. Pulag, we were told, was considered a sacred site by the different tribes who live there. We were not to leave any trash. Nor should we behave in a boisterous manner and must be respectful of the customs and culture of the ancestral people who have occupied the place for ages. No picking flowers or any vegetation. No shouting. No drugs. No scandalous behavior. And yes, no sex!

We continued on our ride to the Rangers Station at the base of the mountain. But just before getting there, we made an unplanned stop by a small community where we took photos of kids in a decrepit shack that passed for a pre-school house. We were thankful Teacher Luzviminda allowed us in and even got the kids to sing for us. Out of gratitude, we pledged to send them notebooks, pencils, etc., which the guides said they would bring to them on the trek next week.
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When we finally got to the Rangers Station at the base of the mountain, we had a quick lunch and proceeded to do the three-hour trek to the camp on top. That would be our home for the night even if just for a few hours. We gave all our heavy bags to the tribal women who acted as porters. They would be carrying them for us all the way to the top of the mountain and down to the Rangers Station the next day. At first I was hesitant to have my bag carried since it seemed like “cheating.” It did not take too long (after just 15 minutes of walking up the mountain) so I was so glad I did.

The trek up the Ambangeg path can easily tire you because the air pressure at that altitude is light. It is a three-hour hike on sometimes smooth but mostly rough upward trails that are narrow and even treacherous at times. It is a real test of physical endurance. Often, we had to stop, drink water or just simply collect our breath. We caught ourselves a few times half-jokingly expressing the thought that perhaps this whole Mt. Pulag adventure may have been a mistake for seniors like us who walked more slowly than the rest. But we knew we had to plod on. And we did.

The stunningly breathtaking scenery all throughout compensated for all the hardship. We went through marvelous flora; pine forests that got thicker with more species of trees, moss, and general foliage which became even more lush the higher we went. During the walk, I caught myself amused at the thought that this was really the first time Boboy Garrovillo and I were living up to being a part of a true Hiking Society. It was cold and it seemed to get even colder when we would stop walking. It was better to keep moving.

When we finally got to the camp late afternoon at some 2,500 meters up, we were met with even more biting cold. But it was beautiful up there. Brown undulating hills covered with tall grass stood majestically before our eyes. We all sighed in awe and relief. We were finally there and it was a great feeling. In near total exhaustion, we crept into our tents, unpacked our sleeping bags and just rested. I caught a few winks. I remember everyone dozing off amid the temperature drop.

We were called to dinner at 7 p.m. But not everyone ate. Some were just too exhausted to get out of their tents and just continued sleeping. I had some soup, adobo and rice in the unforgiving chill, eating while standing under a beautiful starry night sky. I figured I had to eat since I would need all the fuel for our trek to the peak very early the next morning

There was a passing cloud on the otherwise clear night that sprayed everyone with a fine mist that further added to the already high humidity. The wet cold on Mt. Pulag can permeate everything. I was happy Lydia had remembered to bring Ziploc bags for cellphones and cameras that we had brought up.

It was especially hard to get around inside a tent and unpack sleeping bags and huge knapsacks, especially since we were so exhausted. The cold, the tight space and the thin air caught us catching our breaths quite often. We went to bed at about 8:30 p.m. I was able to get a few hours sleep. Lydia was cold, cramped and miserable and hardly got any sleep. Soon our alarm rang for our 3 a.m. wake-up call.

Stepping out of a tent on a two-degree Centigrade cold dawn can really wake you up. The icy temperatures penetrated to our bones despite our thick winter jackets. We all soon assembled and with flashlight, knapsack, headlights and walking sticks, we began the final assault to Mt. Pulag’s peak.

If we thought the trek from Rangers station was already tough, hiking in the dark towards the 2,900-meter peak was unbelievably difficult. The trails were mostly very narrow and muddy that we had to walk single file with one foot always ahead of the other. There was hardly any place to even stand with both feet together. On the left side of the trail was mostly a deep dive so one had to avoid falling. I was constantly reminding myself to concentrate. “Casualness produces casualties,” I kept telling myself. In the dark and cold, all this became doubly challenging. Two fellow trekkers lost their balance but fortunately avoided falling off the deep. They stood up and continued walking.

At certain points, we all asked each other what the hell we were doing there when we could be home dry and comfortable. Why did we say yes to this, we thought. We should have done this at age 20. We were 40 years too late. As we silently plodded on amid many rest stops, we mostly just heard our deep breathing carried by the howling wind trailing off into the darkness.

Mountain climbing is not just a physical activity. That’s just one of its many aspects. It will challenge your character and expose you to yourself and to others. If you are a whiner, it will show in a big way and may cause demoralization, not to mention irritation to the group you are with. You may even hate yourself after the ordeal for showing weakness. Luckily I was with a great group of friends. We were all unbelievably pleasant and supportive of each other. We pushed and pulled each other up when we needed to without fuss.

The experience also opens you to spiritual musings in many ways. I certainly thought of my own mortality as we faced this often extreme, physically challenging adventure. One also begins to realize that beyond the limit of what you think you can do, there lies much more strength and power one can harness if you say “yes” to the unknown and unconditionally deal with whatever comes up as it comes up. I felt many epiphanies amid the exhaustion. There we were, unable to go back and left with no choice but to plod forward. Actually, there was one other choice we had to make, and it was this; we could be grumpy and hate all this or rise up to the challenge with optimism and a sense of power.

We just had to persevere and continue. We soon discovered it was wise to just concentrate on every step we needed to do. To keep asking how much further we needed to climb was demoralizing. So we just continued walking.

And before we knew it, there we were!

Standing on Peak 3 overlooking God’s creation is quite an indelible experience. We were quiet and bone tired but our spirits were full and soaring. We did it! Yes, we certainly did it! And at our age! We felt giddy and triumphant. We were all smiles as we enjoyed the sunrise and the unspeakably tantalizing scenery that was unfolding with the dawn. All this as we sipped and enjoyed some coffee with giddy delight!

Buoyed by our achievement, we went back to camp with a seemingly light hop, skip and bounce. We then had breakfast, packed our things and soon headed down for the three-hour walk back to the Rangers’ Station.

Personally, this part of the trek was the most difficult. My left knee began to hurt quite badly with every step down the path. Soon it was excruciatingly painful. Luckily, long-time friends Tato Garcia had brought a rubber knee wrap and Betta Dans had a painkiller that helped me negotiate the path all the way down to the Station.

Climbing Mt. Pulag was life changing. It affected us on many levels and we got more than what we bargained for. We all felt we had conquered ourselves. But more than that, we also felt we discovered so much of the inner strength we did not know we had. “The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there,” as author Robert Pirsig put so aptly. It was quite a self-discovery!

I highly recommend it even just for the adventure and challenge. But at the same time, I do so with much hesitation and reservation. Mt. Pulag, after all, is not your usual picnic place. It is a sacred, almost inaccessible sanctuary and the tribal people feel it should remain this way. No unwelcome “development,” please, and no to big throngs of crass tourists and consumers.

It would be tragic if one day, we see condos, malls or food chains littering the path to one of God’s great hangouts. I do hope there are enough people who care and who can protect it from property developers! The way to kill paradise is to pave the path to it.

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