Monday, September 1, 2014

Hiking matters #420: Cleopatra's Needle Day 2 - Through the jungle to Puyos (summit) campsite

Continued from Hiking matters #419: Very early the next day, we broke camp and by 0340H we were starting the trek again. For a good three hours, we were still crossing more than a dozen sections of river, and though the waters have subsided, it was still trickier and at times I would go tandem walking with James. By 0640H, Tatay Leonardo declared: "Tapos na ang ilog!" (Done with the rivers!) and we rewarded ourselves with breakfast of fish and bread.
We entered the jungle at 0700H. Starting at only 300 MASL, we had over a thousand meters to gain to even reach the summit campsite so I knew that it will not be an easy task. However, the fact the trail was relatively straightforward (though there are some ups-and-downs too) and relatively well-established (though sometimes it feels like Mantalingajan) reassured me. So too did the sight of woodpeckers, Palawan tits, and other fascinating fauna, not to mention the majestic almaciga (Agathis philippinensis) trees.
We reached Solpan campsite (10°6′13.4′′N, 118°59′37.3′′E, 808 MASL) at 1000H. This was where the rest of the group had camped, and we knew we weren't that far away from them if they had started at 0800H. Past the campsite, the trail was still straightforward but beyond 1200 MASL, it becomes very steep, and narrow like an inclined tunnel - one has to grasp onto bamboo and grass to go up - reminiscent of the assault of Mt. Masaraga in Albay or Mt. Manaphag in Iloilo. With rain and mud, the challenge becomes greater. But the my altimeter - which showed signs of rapid altitude gain - reassured me.
At 1230H, we reached the Puyos (summit) campsite (10°7′15.3′′N, 118°59′41.2′′E, 1474 MASL). Puyos is a Batak word for 'highest peak' and short of naming the mountain itself after this more original term, I am using it at least for the campsite. I was happily reunited with my good friends Jessa, Karina, Edgar, and kindred spirits who share the same passion for the environment and the outdoors - as well as a merry company of Batak guides.
Until that point I was still harbouring thoughts of descending back to at least Solpan, for a headstart the next day. However, I also felt that it would be a pity if I were to go back to Puerto Princesa without seeing the fabled views from atop Cleopatra's Needle. Sometimes, waiting for a day doesn't really help (as in our Mantalingajan hike) but with optimism - and egged on by our friends - we decided to stay with the rest of the team and go up the summit at sunrise the next day. A clearing just before nightfall, revealing the peak, and the mountains and lights of Puerto Princesa, raised our hopes. Continued in Hiking matters #421.
Hiking matters #421: The beautiful summit and the long descent
Hiking matters #422: Batak village and back home

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Hiking matters #419: Cleopatra's Needle in Palawan Day 1 - The endless crossings of Tanabag River

PUERTO PRINCESA - I'm back in Puerto Princesa after a great adventure up Cleopatra's Needle, the highest mountain in Puerto Princesa and the third highest in Palawan! I've always dreamed of climbing this mountain, and when my friends at the Center for Sustainability invited me to tag along one of their documentation hikes, I heartily agreed, accompanied by my good friend Journeying James, who also happened to be in Palawan.

The Center for Sustainability, among other environmental groups, has been pushing for Cleopatra's Needle to be declared a protected area (see the Inquirer article here). In keeping with the wishes of the Batak tribe - whose population has dwindled to about 200 - they wish to promote ecotourism in the mountain as a way of both raising awareness about the mountain's beauty and providing an alternative livelihood to the tribesmen. I thought one way I could help was to document the hike and share it with our fellow mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts.

The rest of the group had already gone ahead of us the day before with a more relaxed five-day itinerary; our plan was to catch up with them at the end of our first day or on the second day. James suggested that we just motorbike our way to the trailhead, 64 kilometres north of Puerto Princesa City proper, in Brgy. Tanabag. We left Puerto Princesa at 0715H and arrived at around 0900H. When we reached the "Palay store before the bridge", our guide Leonardo, a 64-year old Batak, was waiting for us.

The day started with good weather, and the knee-deep rivers were easy to cross. With clear waters and nice stretches of woodland between each crossing, the trek was pleasant: we saw Palawan hornbills and other birds along the way. We reached Kalawkasan, the Batak village, after 80 minutes of trekking. There, we met Kyra Hoenevaars, the executive director of the Center for Sustainability, who was on her way down, having joined the group for only one night. We also had some snacks there while waiting for Tatay Leonardo to get ready with his provisions for the trek.

We resumed the trek at 1100H, and so did the river crossings. One highlight of our day was 'Pulang Bato' - a section of the river where the rocks were all red! At this point, the sun was still up and the waters continued to be pleasant. However, rain showers came past noontime and the river crossings got trickier - still manageable but requiring greater caution in choosing which route to take. Tatay Leonardo, 64 years old, had seen the river in all its faces and we followed his lead.

It came to a point, however, that the raging river got too much for us, even as the rain continued unabated. Confronted with murky, chest-deep waters, we had no choice but to stop the trek, bivouac near the river, and just wait till the next morning, when (hopefully) the waters would have subsided. Meanwhile, I prepared a hearty dinner of salmon and couscous and set the alarm to 0300H. With so many rivers to cross and over a thousand meters of altitude to gain, the next day promised to be tough.

Hiking matters #419: Endless crossings of Tanabag River
Hiking matters #420: Up the summit campsite
Hiking matters #421: The beautiful summit and the long descent
Hiking matters #422: Batak village and back home

Monday, August 25, 2014

Essay: Going outdoors and staying online

A hiker uses a Lenovo Yoga tablet on a hike up Mt. Salakot
"When was this?" Asked one of my blog readers, upon seeing my picture at the summit of Mt. Tibig in Lobo, Batangas - one of the my more recent hikes.

"Right now. I'm on Tibig at the moment!" I replied.

What was once unthinkable is now a reality: The ability to bring our virtual worlds to the outdoors. Thanks to 3G or even LTE connectivity, we can now post pictures and even videos instantly, and similarly, people - whether they are on their homes or on campsites - can read what you are posting. 

What are the implications of this kind of connectivity for the outdoor experience? In this essay, I consider the ramifications of technology, particularly the proliferation of gadgets and Internet access in the outdoors.

First of all, I think our gadgets - smartphones and tablets - have a great potential when it comes to mountain safety. The sheer ability to communicate to others from the mountains is a powerful safety mechanism. In the past, people had to rely on two-way radios with limited range. Today, mountains are increasingly covered by mobile networks, and calling for help has never been easier. This has proved to be a lifesaver in many instances, including Joey Vergara's rescue in Malipunyo, and in many incidents where hikers got lost - but were still able to communicate to rescuers, relaying vital information about their whereabouts. You can even post a status message to say you're lost!

It is not just the ability to communicate that makes. It has navigational uses too - as a digital compass, and increasingly, as a GPS device. Though (expectedly) not as accurate as dedicated GPS devices, it can still give your general location to other people if necessary, or, more usefully, it can help you find your way back. Not many people use this function but in the future, I see that this will be more widespread. Indeed, I see that more and more apps will allow you to track yourselves on a certain route, with the option having the app send this information to rescuers if necessary.

Second, our gadgets have allowed us to bring our loved ones closer to the hiking experience. I have experienced Facetime-ing from on a campsite - showing my loved ones the moss and the clouds, the tent and the camp food. In the Paray-Paray campsite of Mt. Mantalingajan, I spent a good portion of the evening chatting with some of my friends who have done the traverse ahead of me, and I was asking them questions about it. Parents can rest easier when they see their children online, available for chat, albeit on the mountain.

Third, gadgets have allowed a broad range of technologies previously unavailable - or prohibitively expensive - for the outdoors. Before, one had to use an expensive and bulky camera to take good photos. Today, your phone can do the trick - although of course the dSLRs still have a great advantage. But even they have improved greatly, owing to improvements in digital photography. Daryl Comagon taught me how to use an app to take time-lapse videos, and when I uploaded some of them, there were incredulous folks when I said I just took it using an iPhone!

The GPS units and altimeter watches of the past were so expensive that became (and still are) prestige items among hikers. But like I said, many of our gadgets now can come with GPS and navigational apps. I used to bring books during my climbs, though that too, has given way to just having e-books in my phone or tablet.

Camped in Hungduan, after a successful Napulauan traverse dayhike, Koi Grey told me that I should listen to the music of Florante, a Filipino folk singer. My interest piqued, I went to iTunes and downloaded an album of the singer's greatest hits, and we had an enjoyable roundtrip. I could just as easily have downloaded any song - and in the future - perhaps watch any movie. With the world within our reach wherever we are, however, what is left to be desired?


AS ALWAYS, HOWEVER, technology has a downside. Overdependence in a mobile phone or any gadget can make people powerless when the battery goes down - or when you drop your phone on a raging river. Power banks are great, but they can also break down and eventually lose power - no matter how much milliampere hours it has in store. While your phone is a great tool in the outdoors, mountaineers must still prepare for situations where there there is no signal, no battery, no phone, and you are left to the basics - like using your whistle, compass, and following the trail using all that we have learned from mountaineering courses and our experiences. In the end, the greatest survival tool we have is still our own minds.

The reliance on technology also applies to the ways in which people can enjoy themselves. For example, the music of the forest can be drowned by the ballads, the reggae and the EDM that we bring with us. Having computer games can make us forget the physical games that can be just as fun - and much more engaging. In Mt. Elbrus' Barrels campsite, we spent a whole day playing pusoy dos, and ultimately, the game would count among our happy memories of the expedition. (As an aside, I also suspect that the less technology-dependent we are, the less impact we make on the environment.)

Finally, connectivity to the outside world can lead to less interactions with those who are actually physically with you. In the past, people really get bonded with each other when they go hiking because they leave the outside world, and form a new social world together, if only for a while. However, today, it is possible for a hiker to hole up inside his or her one-man tent and go on an night-long Facebook chat, play computer games - or even do a movie marathon. When we reach the summit - instead of celebrating and relishing the moment with others, do we instead rush for that perfect solo picture - or selfie - and painstakingly try to upload it? We must always remember that the the view is more important that the picture.

Perhaps, even as a thought experiment, we should consider that there are also security threats inherent to our overly-connected world. Though I have not seen it happen before, imagine what can happen if a thief sees a rich man post this status message on Facebook: "All alone in Mt. Maculot for the night!"


IN A WAY, to quote Master Yoda, what's inside every mountain we climb is "only what you take with you." Bring five power banks and your campouts will turn into movie marathons or Facebook nights no different from your being in your own bedroom, but bring only a basic phone without 3G and you will be more likely to see shooting stars - and make new friends; bring a pair of binoculars and you will see the beautiful birds of the forest. Just as the city lights can drown the glow of the distant stars, so can smartphone screens drown the faint glow of the fireflies.

Personally, I embrace technology, and have maximised the ways in which my gadgets can be utilised when I'm outdoors. But I always remind myself that the mountain is my sanctuary, the place where I can let go, and that oftentimes, I need to log out of the outside world to see the beauty that happens in the here and now. 

In conclusion, I think it is good that with technology, there are now powerful ways by which, no matter the distance, we can be connected to others and to the comforts of our cities and homes. But ultimately, we must always bear in mind that what mountain provides us is a place where we can be connected to nature, connected to God, and connected to ourselves.

Gideon Lasco
August 25, 2014
Puerto Princesa, Palawan 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hiking matters #418: Mt. Salakot, another great dayhike in Puerto Princesa, Palawan

PUERTO PRINCESA, PALAWAN - Today, for my seventh hike in Palawan, I hiked up Mt. Salakot in Napsan with a couple of my newfound friends here: Karina and Julius. Salakot is mountain that lies at the southern end of the same mountain range that boasts of illustrious peaks such as Thumbpeak and Beautfort. This mountain is under the jurisdiction of the Philippine Air Force and we had to seek approval from the Antonio Bautista Air Base for the hike.
Bereft of private transportation and not wanting pay a ton of money for a chartered van or multicab - which would have cost thousands, we decided to just take a van to the Napsan Junction along the Puerto Princesa South Highway, and try to hitch a ride from there. Fortunately, two kindly motorcycle  drivers gave us a ride to the. Still, it was 1000H when we got to start trekking. Though it is within the limits of Puerto Princesa City, don't be fooled -- Napsan can feel far, far away!

The trail is, by Palawan standards, very well established - which is good because we felt we didn't need a guide and didn't look for one at the jumpoff. It is just a trail wide enough for a hiker to pass through without hitting the peripheral vegetation, and is consistently clean and open. The environment itself feels like the lower reaches of Beaufort or Thumbpeak. Only at the upper reaches do the ultramafic rocks come out, but even then, only a bit. It is really more a soil than a rock mountain. We saw a green viper, purplish crabs, centipedes, millipedes, and other fauna along the way...including the mountaineers' favorite: limatik!
After over two hours of trekking, we reached the military outpost. In keeping with the protocol we agreed to with the Air Force personnel, we weren't allowed to take photos of the installations so we are left with a cloudy summit photo. Had the weather been sunny, we would have seen the west coast of Puerto Princesa and Aborlan, the surrounding peaks, and Puerto Princesa Bay on the other side. But every summit is a gift, and as with other gifts in life, you accept it as it is, with thanksgiving and joy.
On the way back, we saw the outline of Thumbpeak, and other mountains, but because it was raining I couldn't bring out my phone to take pictures, and we were hurrying down in the hopes to maximising our chances to get some transport back to Puerto. Still, we passed through the Salakot Waterfalls, which used to be promoted as an ecotourism spot in Puerto Princesa. Only the remnants of this effort remain, but the waterfalls is still there, modest in size but beautiful, with a small pool of tranquil waters.
Walking from the trailhead along the highway that is still largely under construction, we met a group of Palawan hornbills, some woodpeckers, and parrots. A service van of electric pole installation men came and gave us a free ride back to Puerto -- something we were very grateful for. Another Ka Inato dinner ensued, always a happy ending to every hike. Thanks to Sir Rommel, Sir Bim, and the Air Force for making our hike possible, and of course thanks to my friends Julius and Karina for joining me in another great dayhike in Puerto Princesa!

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