Monday, September 29, 2014

Hiking matters #429: Exploring Mt. Kalbo in Aborlan, Palawan

The mountains of Puerto Princesa including Mt. Salakot (centre) as viewed
from Mt. Kalbo in Aborlan, Palawan
PUERTO PRINCESA - Last Wednesday I woke up to a beautiful, sunny day in Pueto Princesa, did my usual jog around the Baywalk to the sight of Mts. Thumbpeak and friends,  had breakfast, and prepared to do my daily work routine. Until, at mid-morning, mountaineer John Yayen messaged me to say that a guide has been found for Mt. Kalbo in Aborlan, the town just south of Puerto Princesa, and asked if I am interested to climb the mountain on that same day.
Not wanting to forfeit an opportunity to climb another mountain in Palawan, I said yes, and in an hour I found myself at the San Jose terminal preparing to board the van to Aborlan (P120). Arriving there at around 12:30, we took chartered a trike to Brgy. Cabigaan, dropped by the barangay hall for registration, while John's friendly relatives secured our Tagbanua guide, Dubi. Together, the three of us went to the Dam (9°26'47.14" N, 118°26'39.59" E, 112 MASL) which doubles as a Scouting venue and the trailhead for the Mt. Kalbo hike (which also figures as part of Jamborees past).
It was exactly 1400H when we started trekking. At the onset, we had to cross a section of the river just downstream from the dam, and from the there, the hike is a continuous, moderate ascent, via a surprisingly well-established trail through a very nice rainforest. Native dipterocarps grace the trail, and of course the majestic almaciga, which is always at home in Palawan.
The moderately-steep part ends at around 400 MASL, after which the trail becomes more gradual. With the exception of two short descents, each less than 50 meters, the trail is very straightforward. At the upper reaches, views emerge of the north, including the mountains of the Napsan valley, including Mt. Salakot (see Hiking matters) and more proximate, hitherto unexplored mountains.
After 90 minutes of hiking, we found ourselves at the summit of Mt. Salakot (9°27'32.7" N, 118°25'37" E, 752 MASL). A cement block stands as the only remnant of a communications tower, and true to its name - I'm sure you will be curious by now why it's called such (kalbo, meaning bald), the summit is bereft of trees, but is instead covered with grass and shrubs. (Our guide, however, recalls a time when the mountaintop truly looked barren as viewed from the lowlands).
I stood atop the cement marker, seeking to orient myself around unfamiliar territory, trying to identify some of the mountains. To the south I saw some high slopes that must be part of Mt. Victoria, and to west, a tall and wide mountain, at least 1400 MASL, stands: this must be the northern peak of the Victoria Range - and one that I hope to climb in the future. 
 
The trail had all the ingredients of a quick descent: well-established, gradual, and without slippery rocks. And so by 1600H, we found ourselves back in the dam, and even though it would take a few more hours before we managed to reach Ka Inato, our traditional postclimb restaurant, I counted the day a great success, blessed as we were with an unexpected adventure - yet another pleasant dayhike from Puerto Princesa!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Essay: "To the Mountains" by Kevin Jason Manuel

by Kevin Jason Manuel

Kevin Jason Manuel is an outdoor enthusiast from Marikina City. He wishes to dedicate this piece to his fellow mountaineers.

IT BEGAN WITH a desire: a longing to get out of the city. I needed to get away from the crowds, the insufferable traffic, the apathy that descends upon the streets like rain, and break free from the routines that made up my days. I needed to escape the depravities of commercialism that blinds with material objects which we absently spend for in an attempt to give our existence some sort of value—some sort of worth.

I wanted to make something more out of this pale death I miscalled my life.

I grew up in the countryside slopes of Baguio, in a small house flanked by enormous pines that reached for the sky. I adored those trees, which I sometimes imagined to be mighty sentinels standing watch.

As a child, I had very little to occupy my days—save for a few well-loved toys and my own company. I often played alone in the gardens, and fancied staying there until dark: a little boy, perched in a garden facing west, watching the sun slowly set, casting the sky in glorious flames before disappearing entirely beyond the far mountains.

I spent many sunsets that way: serenely huddled in a warm jacket as the cool winds gently played at my hair, admiring the sun and the sky and the mountains on the horizon.

I grew to love nature then.

But that sort of bliss came to pass when life brought me to the metro. The beauty of the land was lost to me for many years, replaced by shoddy and crowded parks, noisy streets, and the wretched stink of pollution and waste. At night, I would often dream of our secluded home in Baguio, where the cold air was redolent with the sweet smell of pines and dama de noche, while the crickets filled the night with their soft, enchanting music.

My heart broke a little for every morning I woke with a deep longing for home.

Thankfully, after a few years, I met the people who led me to higher grounds.

Mountain by mountain, my friends and I soared.

Trekking along long-trodden and unused trails alike, day after day after day, often well into the night, and sometimes even until morning. Facing formidable obstacles and difficulties like crossing raging rivers intent on carrying us downstream, using fallen trees as bridges high over foreboding ravines, and holding on to roots and rocks and vines and grasses for dear life. We’d be kissing bare rock-faces, trying with all our might not to look down should our knees buckle at the suicidal heights we found ourselves in.

I remember the insane grins on each of our faces as we negotiated past knife-edge trails, even as the wind threatened to knock us to a rather lengthy and painful fall. Crawling through the mud and muck, slipping and sliding our way down, and falling on our already-sore rears all throughout (to the point that even as we slept, we dreamt about slipping and falling that we instantly woke up with a shock); going over and under branches and trees and boulders, scaling insanely-angled ascents with nothing but a prayer (and going back down through these parts were often more difficult); getting lost along the trails, bearing the unbelievable cold that froze even our facial muscles, being burned by the rays of the unforgiving sun, and braving the hammering rain. Through all these obstacles, step by little step, mountain by mountain, this is how we soared to the summits and discovered what such joy it is to truly live.

These, among others, are the experiences that are in our savings account of moments that we take pride in having lived.

Physically extravagant efforts aside, there are other experiences that make mountaineering truly an incredible adventure. Like that time when we managed to nervously smile at gun-totting NPAs that we crossed paths with. Looking back, I wish I had interacted with them to learn about their way of living, and what they were fighting more.

From suffering a horde of blood-thirsty limatiks, to avoiding fearsome ants and slithering snakes; from enduring the remarkable pain of little thorns prudently digging into the skin, to running away from angry bees, wasps, and wild carabaos and pigs bent on skewering you with their beastly horns. These are but a few of the things we would have missed had we chose to spend our time mindlessly roaming a mall.

Climbing mountains is not easy, but the rewards are definitely worthwhile. The effort of carrying a backpack that can weigh anywhere from 15 to 30 kilos is something that demands more than physical strength and endurance: it also takes a lot of mental toughness. Because after some time, the burdens of carrying a heavy load and walking for hours wilts away to nothing more than an accepted state of reality. Pain becomes a constant: aching muscles, collapsed knees, and sore feet afflicted by fallen arches and numerous paltos. Cuts, bruises, bodies racked by fatigue, and dear physical discomfort all mean to argue that there is no greater pain than physical pain.

***

NATURE TEACHES US a lot. The least of which is to appreciate the little things that you normally take for granted—a hot cup of noodles, a shower, and—blessed be—a toilet bowl, to name a few. One of the things I’ve found is that there is no one more blessed than someone who can appreciate the smallest and simplest of things.

Another lesson that you’ll find is that the mountains teach humility the hard way. You will learn that people are weak and frail, and at the complete mercy of the world. That we are but specks of dust compared to the mountain; that our bones shall long be nothing but dust and yet the mountain shall still stand. And so you learn that you never do conquer a mountain, you conquer yourself, and you let the mountains change you.

Experiencing the beauty and greatness of nature is something that demands effort and perseverance. It is not something that can be bought like some cheap thrill. The experience of actually living, independent of most of the comforts and conveniences of these modern times, is unlike any other.
Yet there would be those who would question our sanity and take us only as the masochists that they understand us to be.

One can only give a rudimentary explanation why we do this; why my friends and I eagerly put ourselves in such uncomfortable situations—not to mention potentially dangerous:

Man exists for the achievement of his desires. And it’s entirely up to the individual whether his desires bring purpose and meaning to his life. I've found that for those who climb mountains, our unspoken desires are pretty much the same: we climb because we are restless. We climb to see the world, to see sceneries that are infinitely more beautiful than any photo can ever portray. We climb because it's like we have a raging fire deep within our hearts, a passion for adventure burning hotter than a thousand suns, urging us to go farther, reach higher; urging us to live beyond the conventions of the city life that seem to be more bane than boon.

We climb because we want to find the best within ourselves.

And as Gideon Lasco said, the only thing better than an adventure of a lifetime, is a lifetime of adventures.

And so my friends, let us go... to the mountains!

Pinoy Mountaineer welcomes submissions that are in line with our goal of informing and inspiring people to discover and keep pursuing the outdoors. Submissions are welcome at info@pinoymountaineer.com.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hiking matters #427: Mt. Bloomfield revisited - truly a gem in Puerto Princesa, Palawan!

Passing through one of the seasonal waterfalls in Mt. Bloomfield
in Sabang, Puerto Princesa, Palawan
PUERTO PRINCESA, PALAWAN - Last week, I revisited Mt. Bloomfield in Sabang, which I consider one of the most beautiful dayhikes in Palawan (see Hiking matters #406). This time around I was joined by Agot Isidro, whose last hike was a very nice Maktrav dayhike (see Hiking matters #390). Fortunately Journeying James was also in town, and once again he motorbiked his way to Sabang, joined by our good friend, environmentalist Jessa Garibay. We were guided by Kuya Aying, who had also guided us during our first hike up the mountain.
I had long spoken highly of Palawan's mountains to Agot and when she finally found time for a short break, we went for Bloomfield, while she got to explore Sabang's wonders, including of course the Puerto Princesa Underground River. What's awesome about Bloomfield, as I've said previously, is that like the Underground River, it's actually within a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

We started the hike at 0630H from the Sabang Wharf and when we entered the trail, I immediately felt that the mountain had changed because of the season. The then-trickles of water that go through the ultramafic rocks we bouldered through on our way up became truly deserving of being called 'waterfalls'. Also, the rocks were much more slippery now.

After the really wonderful section of ultramafic rocks, streams, and rivulets, the end of which marks the first third of the trail, we entered a beautiful forest, with pine-like trees and nice views peeking out of the forest cover.
After the forest, the trail becomes rocky again and this subtle change of environment signals the final third of the hike. Though at times steep, there are always branches to hold on to; else, the rocks are very easy to scale - though caution is required for at times the rocks are loose, and can easily tumble down the trail.
When we reached the Eagle's viewpoint (which is actually the virtual endpoint of the trail since the summit itself has no views) it was mostly cloud covered. We had glimpses of Sabang beach and the sea, but even without the fabled views that extend all the way to Mt. Capoas, the hike with its beautiful ultramafic forests is just lovely. We had snacks at rocks, took some pictures, and didn't stay long.

The descent was smooth and straightforward, taking less than two hours. Though it threatened to rain a couple of twice, we had mostly good weather. As I descended, I thought that clouds, though they may obscure the view of the world outside, they make us look nearer, and in doing so, appreciate the beauty that is closer to us. In Mt. Bloomfield's case, it was the rocks, the trees, the birds, the sea breeze, and the waterfalls. And of course you can add to that the great company! Thank you Agot for visiting Palawan and James and Jessa for accompanying me in another wonderful hiking adventure!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Hiking matters #428: The Mt. Magarwak Hiking Trail - a nice and easy hike in Puerto Princesa, Palawan

Beholding the islands of Honda Bay atop the viewpoint
in Mt. Magarwak, Puerto Princesa, Palawan
PUERTO PRINCESA, PALAWAN - Palawan continues to amaze me. Today, I discovered yet another gem of a mountain in Puerto Princesa, one that is just 16 kilometres north of the city proper: Mt. Magarwak along the North Road that leads to Sabang and El Nido. Measuring only 301 MASL, Mt. Magarwak is actually a cluster of hills that stand between Honda Bay and the taller peaks of Puerto Princesa.
Jessa Garibay, who had already visited Magarwak, organised the hike, and we were joined by John Yayen, Jared Ignacio, Miguel Ferrer, and Julius de Vera, who were all from Puerto Princesa. We met at San Jose Terminal, but not finding an early-enough northbound bus, we just charted trikes at P200 apiece. By 0635H, just over 30 minutes past our meeting time in San Jose, we were already walking up the rough road in Citramina in Sitio Magarwak. 
The trail was rocky, very much reminiscent of the other ultramafic peaks of Puerto Princesa: Mt. Bahile and Mt. Beaufort. Even though the highway runs through Magarwak, save for its cement, the entire area was green through and through - a distinctive feature of Palawan that heighten the beauty of its mountains and the tranquility they offer. Sunbirds sang their cheery high notes, as if to herald a beautiful day.
The trail was not difficult to follow: there are green electric posts leading to a communications tower  and the trail is just beneath them. The tower  (9°51′29.9′′N 118°43′44.36′′ E 301 MASL) marks the highest point in the area, and in less than an hour we were there. Oblivious to our presence, the tower's lone caretaker sang to his heart's content, as we trooped to the viewpoint (9°52′42.6′′N 118°43′44.8′′ E 282 MASL) just five minutes away. 
At the viewpoint, Honda Bay is the main attraction, along with its islands. Then to the south, Puerto Princesa Bay and the city proper can be seen. On the opposite side, behind the trees, one can have a glimpse of Mts. Tapyas and Bahile, and I can imagine that on a clear day Cleopatra's Needle can be seen as well.
The trail up the Healing Cross is one brief ascent with a view of
the winding North Road that leads to Sabang and El Nido
We took our time to appreciate the scenery, then began the descent, taking a shortcut that ends up closer to KM. 17 (instead of 16). Realising that the 'Healing Cross' - set on a hill which is just below the tower, we decided to do it as a sidetrip. A 10-minute walk, then a 10-minute hike, took us there, and at the Healing Cross (9°52′34.1′′N 118°43′25.8′′E 124 MASL) we once again had the opportunity to enjoy the verdant scenery of Magarwak.
The cross is somewhat reminiscent of the Grotto in Mt. Maculot
The descent was quick; much longer was waiting for transport back to town and we're so thankful to the truck driver who gave us a ride! Following what has become a tradition, we had lunch at our favorite Ka Inato, with its hot and spicy chicken inato. Thanks John for the treat! By 1200H I was back in my place here in Puerto Princesa, with much of the weekend still ahead of me, very much fulfilled by the wonderful hike. 

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