This featured post was the cover article of Manila Bulletin Travel Magazine in April 2009 under the “Gidyonder” column which the blogger run from 2008 to 2009.
THERE EXISTS WITHIN men the desire to go higher. To ascend, to uplift one’s body and spirit, to elevate one’s state in life: all these perhaps point to man’s destiny to soar and to reach beyond the material. Up high in the mountains, one can temporarily suspend the mundane, momentarily realize this glory, and experience a new world that is cold and beautiful.
Mt. Pulag in Benguet perhaps sums up all the best that Philippine mountains can offer, and it is literally the highest one get can in Luzon. At 2922 meters above sea level, it is just over thirty meters short of Mt. Apo; but latitude compensates for altitude, making it the coldest place in the Philippines. Frost is no stranger to this domain; pine trees thrive in the lower reaches, before giving way to moss-covered montane forest, which in turn surrender into a vast grove of dwarf bamboo, carpetting the summit with a brown, almost golden glow.
Such a sight, witnessed from all over the majestic Cordillera Range, must have inspired the locals of old to call Pulag “the playground of the gods”, for could mere mortals ever claim such a lofty, beautiful place as their home? The apartness of Pulag is manifest even in its unique fauna, the most illustrious of which is the dwarf cloud rat. The Kalunguya tribes that dwell in the slopes of Mt. Pulag complete its profile: pristine, cultural, and yes – lofty.
I was first given the opportunity to climb Mt. Pulag when I was 17. I joined a group that climbed Mt. Pulag via the Ambangeg Trail. Today it is known as the easiest trail but back then the trails were much longer because the paths were still inaccessible to jeepneys. I could not forget the moment when I reached the summit. It was raining and chillingly cold, and I was all alone save for a dog who accompanied us all the way up. Her name was Chica.
Since then I’ve kept coming back, taking other trails and even visiting the ‘far side’ of the Pulag – where the fabled Four Lakes are nestled, and where Pulag’s companion rise, Mt. Tabayoc – the second highest in Luzon. There are other trails though that I want to take, particularly the Ambaguio Trail which leads to Nueva Vizcaya.
My most recent trip to Mt. Pulag was with a large group – in the first PinoyMountaineer Annual Charity Climb. It gave me the opportunity to retrace, once more, the adventure of climbing this grand mountain . Every time I climb a mountain, I try to relive the experience of climbing it for the first time… And although we were again taking Ambangeg, the easiest trail, it was no less an adventure. For each climb brings forth new companions, new adventures, new lessons. Indeed, each new day brings a new sun.
The cold of Baguio greeted us in the morning of February 7, but I knew it was nothing compared to the cold we would soon feel. Jeeps ferried our large group of over 80 climbers through the Ambuklao Road, and we passed by one of the large dams, the Ambuklao Dam. Some patches of terraced highlands evoke the grand wonders of these parts – the Ifugao Rice Terraces.
As we trudged the rough roads, local kids waved at us with happy smiles; I wonder at what age they cease to take delight in the greeting of strangers. Yet such innocence represents the world they live in; it begins as pristine as the heart of a child but as time passes, things change. I could only hope that in the case of Mt. Pulag it would be for the better – and that its natural beauty would be preserved.
We arrived at the Visitors’ Center in Bokod, Benguet in the morning for an orientation, then we set off for the Ranger Station by jeepney. The roads were steep and rough, but the drivers know how to maneuver in those circumstances. Behind us lay the entire stretch of mountains in which, on one end Baguio’s Mt. Sto. Tomas and on the other, Mt. Timbak, the third highest in Luzon. When we reach the summit, we would be able to trace the mountains as far as Kalinga and Apayao, then Mountain Province, Ifugao, Nueva Vizcaya — and Central Luzon. The visual circle, if God grants good weather, would then be complete.
From the Ranger Station, the wide trail gives its own sights: moss-coved trees, cheerful pink
flowers called ayosep, and the occasional birdcall of avian treasures. There were no difficult parts; it was just a relaxing climb that takes three to four hours.
Then just before nightfall, we reached the campsite – where the forest ends and the grassland begins. We camped as the evening cold fast approached. Is the cold to be loved or hated? Fortunately I was able to sleep amid the drizzle that threatened to ruin our hopes of reaching the summit and having nice views there.
Very early morning the next day, that threat still loomed. A mild drizzle persisted, and I was almost unable to wake up because of the cold. Still, having come thus far we decided to go ahead, regardless of the weather.
Why climb? Is it just for the thrill of reaching a new summit, the adventure of something new? If so, then why keep coming back? If it is just for the view, then why we are pushing on just to set foot on a piece of land no different from the one we camped on?
These questions weighed heavily on me as the prospects of a beautiful ascent were still as dim as the failed promise of a sunrise.
Then all of a sudden, the blue skies peeked, then widened, until no trace of rain remained; all that stood was the fresh morning sun, fast rising in the East. It happened swiftly and overwhelmingly. There was a sea of clouds beneath us, and spectacular cirrus formations up high. A blessed day had begun, and I thanked God for giving us this window to glimpse over his wonderful creation.
“This is truly the way to the clouds,” I whispered. And the gates? Rainbows.
Pictures courtesy of PinoyMountaineer Annual Charity Climb participants: Dr. Allen Tria, Max Salva, Quincy Buenaflor, and Sir Martin Cortez. Many thanks!