Hiking matters #81: Survival in Cristobal

Even before I discovered the world of mountaineering, I passionately sought to climb mountains. After my first major climb, Mt. Banahaw in 2003, I attempted to climb Mt. Cristobal the next year. But as this account will show, the results were catastrophic. This first “major fail” was a big early lesson for me never to underestimate a mountain, and plan ahead of a climb. The unedited, handwritten account in my travel journal is transcribed as follows. Looking back, I could see how very “new” the world of mountains was to me then. Both ‘rattan’ and ‘lipa’ were unknown to me at that time so I had to describe them in detail.

A fun hike turned out to be a do-or-die two-day ordeal when we got lost in the forests of Cristobal last Wednesday. It was I who planned this trip, and four of my friends, James, Andrew, Ephraim and Jekjek were with me. Very early that day I convinced my friend and high school classmate Elmer Reyes to accompany us. So we arrived, at around 0730H, in the Reyes residence in Brgy. San Cristobal, San Pablo (bordering Quezon province). For an hour we trekked through the bukid scene in order to reach the Reyes farmland, which was along the way to the peak, or taluktok in old Tagalog (which is still used in those parts). Even there, in Elmer’s outpost, the view was already spectacular. We had the option to hire a guide, but Elmer and I thought it unnecessary. This decision proved to be our undoing. But at that time we were confident that we could reach the peak in four hours, spend an hour in the peak and in another four hours reach the barangay. Thus we decided to leave our tent in the outpost and at around 0900H we headed to the forests for our adventure.

At first the trail was visible, but somehow, somewhere along the way we deviated from the right path. Before lunchtime we knew we were lost, but there were still traces of humanity – some bottles of Ginebra, or stones used for cooking. But since there was really no trail we could see, we just decided to head northeast. How did we know where was northeast? It was thanks to my altimeter watch, which not only showed us directions, but also indicated our elevation.

In this situation we had to make our own trail. Sometimes it led us to steep slopes, and we were almost crawling to progress a few meters. We would come across places where wild palms abound, and they were most inconvenient, oftentimes painful, because of their curved thorns that attach to skin and clothing. Twice it even clung to my ear and I had to ask Elmer to remove the thorny branch, lest it a peel part of my precious ear. We wandered in this manner until 1400H, and by that time we were nearly a thousand meters above sea level. I had to apply some alcohol bandages to James and Jekjek, who complained of the biting itch they got from some poisonous plants (these are a common experience to mountaineers, and even in Mt. Makiling we have them). James happily volunteered to lead the way – that is, to cut plants by a bolo in order to make our own trail. Elmer also undertook the job in many occasions. It even rained while we were in the forest, adding to our peril. The black soil soon became slippery, and I only had slippers with me so I decided to move barefoot – my toes enabled me to cling to the rocks and the small trees. It was in this condition that we had lunch. Anyway, at around 1430H Jekjek discovered the border between the forest and the cogon sloping grassland. Thinking that such a place will inevitably lead to the peak, we decided to cut through the grass. Until 1800H we were doing that, but our slow progress rendered it impossible to arrive in our destination. Our supplies were almost depleted, too. Jekjek had run out of water, and I had only 400 mL left. Elmer did not bring any food, and we realized that we had to make our makeshift resting place there in the cogon. Final altitude: 1,275 M.A.S.L. It was almost the peak, in fact our place may have been far from the peak, so it was a ‘separate peak’ for us. Looking back I’d say it was more than reaching the peak, for the 1,275 meters was our effort, our teamwork, our suffering, our wounds and the testament to our adventure.

We felled the 10-12 ft. high cogon grass, and had dinner. I still had leftovers of my packed lunch of roast pork and rice, but the rest had to make do with Skyflakes and corned beef. We didn’t even have the opportunity to build a fire, because one mistake may burn the hectares upon hectares of cogon grass that covered us. By 1900H we were already trying to find the most comfortable position to sleep, although nothing seemed suitable. There were sampinit – wild berries with the cogon, and it’s a thorny little plant, that is why in the process of turning and moving to find the best position, I was hurt. And by this time my clothes were so dirty. We talked for a short while, and everyone described our ordeal as their ‘most unforgettable experience’. Indeed, some minds even drifted to the thoughts of possible death! But such a dark notion never crossed my mind; somehow it seemed to me impossible. Not that I thought of myself as invincible, for it was that night that I realized my helplessness against nature. It was just that I trusted God as I trusted myself; I have never forgotten the Christian saying, “God will not lead me where He cannot guide me.” Still, I prayed fervently, asking for Divine help and rescue. We were lost and in great danger. But thankfully I managed to fall asleep, even for an hour. Grass for my pillow. Such is an old Japanese phrase used to describe a dangerous, great adventure; such was what Takeo of the ‘Tales of the Otori’ had to go through, but it was totally unexpected that I should experience a similar fate. That night, we literally slept with grass for our pillow.

But my light sleep was interrupted by the sound of an airplane. And when I opened my eyes clouds were upon us. It was cold, as cold as a December night in Baguio, and the occasional gusts of wind made us shiver. Only Elmer seemed to sleep soundly. And I was fearful of the possibility of rain, because it will definitely lower our ‘chances of survival’. Once again I prayed to no end (I found out later that Ephraim did the same), asking God to defer the rain. I again fell asleep, and when I woke up all the clouds were gone; Leo – the constellation – greeted me, and just as it is a sign of courage, it also seemed to me a sign of hope, that we will manage to survive and reach San Pablo in the coming day.

Soon there were already faint traces of sunlight; when we woke up the flattened cogon were already slanted  downwards. That was around 0530G, and after realizing how badly we slept, we decided to turn back through the trail that we made. Very soon we found no trace of our own trail, and we had to revert to our method of making or own way, this time heading SW. Unforgettable was our experience of having to go down on a deep valley, or bangin, and having to go up from it after reaching an almost-dead end.

And to add to Elmer’s woes, he lost his slippers while sleeping! So he made the descent without any footwear! Poor Elmer – the forest was full of thorns! Anyway, after wandering in the forest we soon saw traces of a makeshift campsite. Evidently the trail was not far, and lo and behold we saw three paths. We took the one which pointed to the same direction we came from – SW. We were still around 900 M.A.S.L. then, but in just two hours we reached 500 M.A.S.L. At around 1230H, after 10 hours of ascent, 11 hours of rest, and another 6 hours of descent, we reached the Reyes farmland. By then we have depleted all of our water and most of our food. It was only by God’s grace that we found the trail. Otherwise the worst may have happened, because we were still 900 M.A.S.L. without water. The mountaineers I met last year (Makati Rovers) were ready to organize a rescue team, but it was no longer needed. We were safe. Just as the danger and suffering were unspeakable, so were our relief and gladness. After thirty minutes resting in Elmer’s place we took the trail and eventually the road to San Ignacio, most of the way by tricycle. We reached Maharlika highway at around 1430H, and by 1500H I was in my grandparents’ house; a delicious plate of squid and a pitcher of mango shake was in front of me.

Teamwork was indispensable. James’ daring proved invaluable; same is true with Elmer’s knowledge and efforts. I gave the direction and the information; I provided first aid and also applied all I can from my Eagle Scout training. For their part Jekjek and Ephraim did their best to help, and Andrew took care of allocating the food. Of course you can find some faults with them, just as you will in every person, including myself. But all this I have taken for granted. What is important is that we’re safe. In the end, Elmer asked me to invite him whenever I ‘set off on a journey’ – whenever I climb a mountain. Jekjek declared he’ll never climb a mountain anymore; Andrew for his part said he’ll ‘rest for a year’. But as for me, my passion for mountains has only become stronger.

We had our taste of wild fruits: Katmon, sour and exotic looking; Takayaw, which is like raw mangosteen; wild grapefruit or suha, and another tasteless, nameless fruit. It was really fun; perhaps it’s really the most unforgettable outdoor experience I’ve had: Survival in Mt. Cristobal, May 26-27, 2004.

San Pablo City, Laguna
May 28, 2004

PinoyMountaineer.com thanks the “Survival in Cristobal” team from San Pablo City: Andrew and James Montecillo, Ephraim and John Calvin Cuya, and Elmer Reyes, for joining him in his early and unforgettable adventure. 


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14 Comments on "Hiking matters #81: Survival in Cristobal"

11 years 11 days ago

never underestimate the mountain as the saying goes. prepare every details of the climb and always consider worst case scenarios. always take locals with you for they are the one who knows where to go in case of emergencies. they know the exit routes and they surely know the hazards and perils up there…they are small fellows but rich in experience. they are our partners. love them and take good care of them for they are the ones we can depend to when the needs arise….

sir manny

11 years 13 days ago

wla po registration s brgy nung umakyat kmi dun..ewan ko lng kng ngaun kng meron man bka mura lng mab2it mga tga dun..


11 years 14 days ago

may rgstration fee ba sa tagapo??????

salamat sa mgre2ply…

11 years 14 days ago

we are also planning to go there at the end of the month..

11 years 17 days ago

sir tanung lang bukas ba cristobal ngaun akyat kmi sa apr 17 eh