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!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Mt. Bloomfield (787+) in Puerto Princesa, Palawan

Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Major jumpoff: Sabang Beach, Puerto Princesa
LLA: 10°11′47.8′′N 118°52′19.2′′ E, 787 MASL (+787m)
Days required / Hours to summit: 1 day / 3-4 hours
Specs: Minor climb, Difficulty 4/9, Trail class 1-4
Features: Ultramafic forests, scenic coastal views
Article created: August 19, 2014
Last updated: August 19, 2014

One of Puerto Princesa's beautiful mountains, and one that is conveniently accessible to visitors of the famed Underground River, with its trail starting from Sabang beach itself, Mt. Bloomfield offers the unique opportunity of trekking on a mountain that lies within a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The trek starts from Sabang beach itself, and after a brief march through agricultural lands, the trail quickly turns rocky, until you reach the purely ultramafic slopes that lead up to the mountain. As is the case elsewhere in Palawan, these rocks are actually nice to walk through, and are not very slippery.

A view of the sea that faces Sabang beach quickly emerges, and follows you even after you enter the forest. Stunted trees, akin to those of Mantalingajan and Victoria, cover the higher reaches of the mountain, allowing hikers a 'sneak preview' of what it feels to be hiking in Palawan.

At the Eagle's Ridge, an excellent viewpoint right before the summit, the views are stunning. Mt. St. Paul, the mountain which houses the Underground River, rises like a behemoth to the north, and behind it, Cleopatra's Needle, the highest mountain in Northern Palawan. Amazingly, even the distant Mt. Capoas in Malampaya Sound can be seen, if you follow the western shoreline. (Past the Eagle's Ridge, there is a quick but steep ascent to the summit proper, which is covered with trees and doesn't offer much of a view.)

Mt. Bloomfield gives outdoor enthusiasts a great reason to spend the night in Sabang, after an Underground River tour. Certainly, hikers used to seeing Philippine forests would find it way more interesting than the Jungle Trail. Also, the hike is just 1.5-2 hours away from Puerto Princesa, making it an attractive dayhike for locals. Either way, Mt. Bloomfield with its amazing scenery and great ultramafic trails makes for a rewarding day in Palawan.


From Puerto Princesa

0530 Take shuttle van to Sabang
0715 Arrival at Sabang. Register at the Park Office.
0730 Start trekking
1100 Arrival at Eagle's Ridge
1130 Arrival at summit. Head down to the Lunch.
1300 Start descent
1530 Back at trailhead. Tidy up
1600 Take van or jeep back to Puerto Princesa (last trip: 1800)
1800 ETA Puerto Princesa.

From Puerto Princesa
*Note: It is necessary to make prior arrangements for the Underground River permits as well as the guide/s for the Jungle Trail.

Day 1
0530 Take shuttle van to Sabang
0715 Arrival at Sabang. Leave things at your hotel; Register at the Park Office.
0800 Start trekking via the Jungle Trail
1000 Arrival. Commence Underground River Tour.
1200 Head back to Sabang by boat
1300 Late lunch.
1400 Relaxing afternoon in Sabang.
1800 Dinner / socials

Day 2
0500 Start Mt. Bloomfield trek early in the morning
0830 Arrival at Eagle's Ridge. Enjoy the views.
0900 Summit assault.
0930 Back at Eagle's Ridge. Start descent
1200 Back in Sabang. Lunch / Tidy-up / Checkout
1400 Take van or jeep back to Puerto Princesa (last trip: 1800)
1600 Back in Puerto Princesa

from Puerto Princesa
Public (1) Shuttle van: San Jose Terminal to Sabang [140 pesos; 1.5-2 hour]

Private Take the Puerto Princesa North Road and follow directions to Sabang. You can park at the main parking area near the Puerto Princesa Underground River office.
At the PPUR Park Office in Sabang
[No fees as of Aug 2014]
Forest rangers of PPUR can potentially act as guides, but availability is not always assured (Suggested rate is 500 pesos/guide/day)
 Jessa Garibay (volunteer coordinator): + 639272285321
The summit itself can potentially act as campsite, but with space for just a few tents
Water sources
None identified
Cellphone signal
Weak at the trailhead, stronger from 400m upwards, sporadic at first, but brisk at the summit
River crossings
Roped segments
Hiking notes 
This is a very new hiking destination so many changes may still happen in the itinerary and in the process of going up the mountain.
The Jungle Trail and of course the Underground River (see itinerary above). Additionally, the hike itself can be done as dayhike that is part of a multi-day Puerto Princesa hiking trip. 
Alternate trails
Possible traverse to the southwest face of the mountain in Brgy. Cabayugan.
Yes (3-4 hours to summit; 2-3 hours down)
400-600 pesos (Dayhike)
1500-2000 (Overnight including Underground River and basic hotel stay in Sabang)

Mt. Bloomfield and the other mountains of Puerto Princesa (G. Lasco, 2014)

Ascending through the ultramafic rocks of Mt. Bloomfield (G. Lasco, 2014)

View of Mt. St. Paul, the mountain that houses the famous
Puerto Princesa Underground River (G. Lasco, 2014)
The blogger at Eagle's Ridge, 700 MASL (J. Garibay, 2014)
An account of the blogger's hike up Mt. Bloomfield is narrated in Hiking matters #406.

Mt. Bahile (747+) in Puerto Princesa, Palawan

Puerto Princesa City, Palawan
Major jumpoff: Rural Agricultural Center, Brgy. Salvacion
LLA: 9°59′7.87′′N 118°44′32.3′′ E, 747 MASL (+700m)
Days required / Hours to summit: 1-2 days / 4-6 hours
Specs: Minor climb, Difficulty 5/9, Trail class 1-4
Features: Ultramafic forests, unusual fauna, scenic views of east and west coasts of Puerto Princesa
Article created: August 18, 2014
Last updated: August 18, 2014

Palawan is known as one of the last hiking frontiers in the Philippines, but you need not go far to experience what the island offers. Mt. Bahile, for instance, is just 30 kilometres away from the city proper of Puerto Princesa, making it one of the closest mountains to the airport, and therefore a good candidate for a dayhike for people who are traveling in Palawan.

In some vantage points, Mt. Bahile is overshadowed by its larger companion mountain, Mt. Tapyas, with which it is connected by a saddle which is over 500 MASL, giving Bahile itself a prominence of only 200 meters with respect to Tapyas. From the trailhead in Brgy. Salvacion, however, the altitude is less than 40 MASL, giving the mountain a respectable 700-meter altitude gain.

Mt. Bahile is a little-explored mountain, and hikers must brace for rattan thorns for a good portion of the trail. However, it is a very rewarding hike, with the ultramafic rocks and forests characteristic of most mountains in Palawan. Then, there is the rich wildlife - from the mountain's many viewpoints one can spot eagles, and in the forests, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and many other avian species. During our trek, we spotted two snakes - a pit viper and a mock viper. Surely, there were many more our untrained eyes failed to notice!

Because of its location, the scenery is fantastic. From Mt. Bahile, one can see Palawan at its most slender - with only a few kilometres separating Sulu Sea, represented by Honda Bay, and South China Sea, represented by Ulugan Bay. Islands on both sides enthral, particularly the vari-shaped ones of Honda Bay, each with a colourful name. At the summit, Cleopatra's Needle, monarch of Puerto Princesa's peaks, stands proudly to the north, while on the clear day, the cluster of Thumbpeak and Beaufort are also appreciable. Meanwhile, Mt. Tapyas looms to the northwest - inviting hikers to attempt a traverse in what promises to be another exciting hike in Palawan!



0530 Take van or chartered multicab/vehicle to trailhead
0700 ETA Rural Agricultural Center, Brgy. Salvacion
0730 Start trekking
0900 ETA ultramafic rocks
1200 Arrival at summit. Lunch.
1300 Start descent
1630 Back at trailhead. Tidy up
1700 Take van or jeep back to Puerto Princesa
1800 ETA Puerto Princesa.

from Puerto Princesa
Public (1) Sabang- or any northbound jeep or van from Puerto Princesa  [40-50 pesos; 1 hour]

Private Take the Sabang-bound road. Follow through from the junction in Salvacion, and make a left turn at the Rural Agricultural Center. Follow the rough road for about 500 meters to reach the trailhead. 
None as of Aug 2014 
At least two locals have gone up the mountain and can guide, but availability is not always assured (Suggested rate is 400 pesos/guide/day)
 Ronald Amada (volunteer coordinator): + 639106946227
Balatikan campsite (13°40′18.1′′N 121°11′39.4′′ E, 548m)
Water sources
At the ultramafic rocks (9°58′37′′N 118°44′31.7′′ E, 380m)
Cellphone signal
Absent at the jumpoff 
Present from 300m upwards, sporadic at first, but brisk at the summit
River crossings
Nothing significant 
Roped segments
Hiking notes 
This is a very new hiking destination so many changes may still happen in the itinerary and in the process of going up the mountain.
The hike itself can be done as dayhike that is part of a multi-day Puerto Princesa tour. 
Alternate trails
Possible traverse to Mt. Tapyas but still undocumented 
Yes (4-5.5 hours to summit; 3-4 hours down)
200-500 pesos

Illustrated picture showing Mt. Bahile in relation to the other
mountains of Puerto Princesa (G. Lasco, 2014) 
Hiking up the ultramafic rocks of Mt. Bahile (G. Lasco, 2014)
At the summit of Mt. Bahile with Ulugan Bay and Cleopatra's Needle
at the background (G. Lasco, 2014)

According to Puerto Princesa environmentalist Jessa Garibay, the word 'Bahile' comes from the Spanish 'baile' - dance -  because it used to be a place where festivals were held by the indigenous Tagbanua people.

An account of the blogger's hike up Mt. Bahile is narrated in Hiking matters #417.

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