After not having seen the fabled sea of clouds on my first trip to Mt. Pulag, the decision to return was an easy one. Even though the chance of catching the amazing sight of endless clouds was really hit or miss, I had to go back. I did just that the weekend after Christmas.
After not having seen the fabled sea of clouds on my first trip to Mt. Pulag, the decision to return was an easy one. Even though the chance of catching the amazing sight of endless clouds was really hit or miss, I had to go back. I did just that the weekend after Christmas.
Every other soul in the country was at the bus terminal trying to catch a ride to their respective provinces. Along with them, a multitude of hikers who, like me, were also looking to climb Luzon’s highest peak. The six-hour drive to Baguio City was uneventful as most in the group slept through the trip. Baguio City greeted us with temperatures in the low teens and instantly I knew we were going to brave really cold weather at the campsite the following morning.
We went through the same routine as we did the first trip. An hour drive to where we had breakfast and another hour-and-a-half to the DENR office with a quick stop at the Ambuklao Dam. We endured through waiting our turn for the orientation here we were shown the same sea of clouds video that was shown on my last trip. The superintendent joked that at least we had seen the video of the clouds in case the latter did not show itself at the summit. I was worried. The sea of clouds was what I came back for. The ride to the Babadak Ranger Station showed some encouraging signs that I would not be disappointed and that we were going to be treated to the elusive feature that draws so many to Pulag.
Though it was my second time through the trails of Ambangeg, it was still a pleasant hike. We were not bothered by rain like we were in May. The clear day gave us a view of Mt. Purgatory, another mountain which I hope to climb. The blue skies also
offered a beautiful backdrop for the Cordillera landscape. The mossy forest gave relief from what would have been a hike in
We reached the campsite after two-and-a-half hours. Tents were already pitched and we got settled in. As we watched the sun set in the west, clouds rolled in and sprayed us with mist, as if we weren’t already feeling cold. The temperatures plummeted through the night and by midnight I woke up shivering. I was in and out of sleep between then and our 3 AM wake up call. It was difficult to give up the little warmth that the tent offered to go outside and gather with the team for the summit assault. Five layers of clothing and gloves did very little to protect me from the cold. Each breeze that came in was a bone-biting feeling in my fingers.
The skies were clear and I thought immediately that the sea of clouds may have eluded me again. I had second thoughts about proceeding with the assault which would prove to be a massive mistake.
The hike to the summit goes through Mt. Pulag’s grassland slopes and five peaks. It takes about an hour-and-a-half to two hours. About an hour into the hike, we were between the summit and one other peak. The faint light from the stars showed at a distance what I had been longing to see the entire trip. Hurriedly, I scrambled up the final steps to the summit. “Banzai!”, I screamed as I made it to the top. After the high fives, everyone in the group looked for their own spot to watch what was the spectacle to be. As the sun started to rise above the horizon, it slowly showed the magnificent sea of clouds. My return to Mt. Pulag had not been in vain.
The sea of clouds was just as stunning as I had imagined it to be. Seeing it in person was so much better than seeing pictures or videos of it. In all its simplicity, the endless expanse of condensed gas reflecting the orange glows of the rising sun was overwhelmingly beautiful. I cannot wait to book a return to this mountain locals call the playground of the gods.
For those who want to hike up Mt. Pulag, you may check the schedules of TrailAdventours as they have frequent trips to Mt. Pulag via the Ambangeg trail.
For those of us who have city jobs, finding tranquility is like finding an oasis in a desert. It is rare. Even for one like me, who escapes to the heights of mountains, I could never get complete silence. In the midst of the fast paced rustle and bustle of the city, I always try to find a way to get out, slow down and retreat to a peaceful place. A place where I could just lie down out in the open and stare up at the sky and watch the stars. While that is easier said than done, I finally got the chance to do it.
Over the weekend, I joined a trip that took me to Cagayan province in Northern Philippines. The group tour included a visit to Palaui Island’s Cape Engaño, the Callao Cave and Anguib Beach. Not knowing anybody else in the group except Harry, the organizer, I really did not mind. This, I was sure, was going to be the trip of year. And indeed it was.
With plans nearly ruined by Manila traffic, we set off for Tuguegarao City in Cagayan at 9 PM of Thursday. It was a 9-hour drive through Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya and Isabella. We reached Tuguegarao at 6:30 AM. Time instantly slowed down and it felt good to be in such a laid back place. Breakfast was in Jollibee and I found it funny how 11 people can spend 9 hours together in a van and not sit together over breakfast.
The Callao Cave was on the way to Sta. Ana Town so we did a pit stop here. Callao Cave is massive with seven chambers which certainly made me feel small. Roofs in five of those chambers have collapsed allowing sunlight into the cave. Most notable about the visit to Callao is the Callao Man. In an excavation site by the mouth of the cave, a metatarsal determined to be of a homo sapien was found, which pre-dates the Tabon Man of Palawan by 14,000 years, making the Callao Man the oldest human in the Philippines. Because the cave is visited often, voices of tourists reverberate through the walls of the cave. This was not yet the tranquility I was looking for.
It was time for lunch by the time we headed out of Peñablanca. Back in Tuguegarao, a panciteria was suddenly swamped with 18 orders of Cagayan’s Pancit Batil-Patung, a plate of chow mien noodles, bean sprouts, carrots, cabbage, a poached egg and a dollop of liver. I would actually have it again sans the liver.
We postponed the heritage tour to Sunday, when we would be making the drive back home, as we were visibly exhausted from the trip. We had just another 2 hour drive to Sta. Ana, the jump off for our Palaui Island Excursion. I spent a good hour watching the sunset by the beach. It was peaceful but not yet the peaceful I was looking for.
The following day started early. And wet. It was pouring when I woke up and I was instantly worried we would not be able to make it to Palaui Island. Thankfully, the weather improved. After a breakfast of Tuguegarao longganiza and Cebu danggit, we all got ready for Palaui Island.
It rained again while we were at sea on the way back to the San Vicente port. Upon docking, we hurriedly picked up and packed up our gear for the overnight stay at Anguib Beach. The beach can be reached via a 30-minute tricycle ride from Sta. Ana. But where is the fun in that. Back on the bangka for another 45 minutes, we headed east in the waters of what was now the Pacific Ocean. As the vessel dipped to the trough of the wave, we could clearly see each of the coming waves being taller than the boat. The waves only started to calm as we entered the cove to Anguib Beach, an undisturbed and unadulterated stretch of white sand beach. I loved how it was so void of commercialism. It felt so raw. So good. We pitched our tents immediately after landing.
I stood by the beach again to watch the sun set. The tide started to recede and all I could hear were waves, both the large ones from beyond the cove and the small ones crashing on to the beach.
Everyone started to bond after dinner. From a group that could not sit together over breakfast the day before, we found ourselves pulling chairs together so we could enjoy dinner in the company of each other. I spent some time playing around with the camera, making night into day. Cel, Deks, Dette, Mhaya and Gracie joined me shortly after and I happily took photos of them under the stars.
A number of folks in the group turned in early, while some stayed up. Those of us who stayed up shared ghost stories and played categories. When all that was done, I finally got to lie down and just look up and stare at the stars, wait for one to fall, and watch the moon set. Staying up all night, enjoying cups of coffee while geeking out on constellations and sharing endless stories made this the best trip all year. I definitely have to find tranquility again.
The first time I read about Palaui Island was in an article that listed Cape Engaño Cove as one of the best hidden beaches in the Philippines. I immediately fell in the love with the place just by looking at the pictures. It instantly made it to the top of my bucket list. The clear blue water, the white sand cove and the lush green forested mountains made it an irresistible destination. So when my friend Harry organized a group tour to Palaui Island, signing up was a no-brainer.
Palaui Island is one of the northern most islands in the Philippines. It is off the coast of the municipality of Sta. Ana in Cagayan Province. It is a National Marine Reserve home to 21 commercial species of fish and about 50 hectares of undisturbed corals. It is also a sanctuary to 90 migratory birds.
The focal point of a visit to Palaui Island is the Engaño Cove and Lighthouse. Getting to the cove is an hour long bangka (motorized outrigger) ride from the San Vicente Fish Port in Sta. Ana which will feature the rock formations along the coast of the island. Once at the cove, ready guides can take visitors up the 229-step stairway to the lighthouse. A magnificent view of the cove can be seen every step of the way prompting visitors to stop every so often for a photo opportunity. When I asked Harry how long the hike to the lighthouse would take, he replied, “Forever” because of how people usually stop to take pictures every time they turn around and look at the cove.
Alternatively, a hike from Punta Verde on the southeast tip of Palaui Island to the lighthouse can also be done which can be a rewarding way to reach the cove and lighthouse. Something I will do next time.
Articles I have read say the Spaniards named the cove Engaño because of the its beauty. It totally did not make sense to me as engaño is a Spanish word for deceit or deception. After a short discussion on this with someone, we could only surmise that perhaps from afar, the cove must not have offered anything visually appealing but upon entering the cove, Spaniards saw how beautiful the place is, thus thought how they were deceived by how the cove looked from far away. All speculation. I hope to read an account of one of its discoverers one day.
Immediately after getting off the boat, we took a short walk on the beach, heading towards the hill where the Cape Engaño Lighthouse is. The white sand beach mostly had rocks and pebbles. The water is most inviting. As if calling out to passers-by to jump in.
As mentioned, every step of the way, we were treated with a magnificent view of the cove and the bay behind it. I wished the skies were clearer so the photos could show the clear blue water of the cove. It just gives me a reason to book a return to this beautiful piece of paradise.
The Cape Engaño Lighthouse is on the summit of a hill northwest of the Engaño Cove. Known to the Spaniards as Faro de Cabo de Engaño, built in 1888 and completed in 1892, the Cape Engaño Lighthouse has a 360-view of Palaui Island, the Babuyan Channel and nearby Dos Hermanas Island. In it’s current state, all that remains of the structure are the walls and the tower.
The age of the lighthouse shows in every single nook and cranny of it. Visitors could still scale the tower and take a peek at its views from the windows. All that is left of the structures around the tower, which included what possibly would have been workers’ quarters and a mess hall, are their foot-thick walls. The tower’s north window offers a picturesque view of the Dos Hermanas Island and the surrounding ruins as seen below.
After getting a fill of photos and selfies, the short hike to the beach was still a treat as I took in the beauty of the cove one last time. And what could be better than enjoying a meal by the beach or swimming in the crystal blue waters of the cove after even a short hike like what we did.
The return to the San Vicente Port in Sta. Ana was just as scenic as the view from the lighthouse. As the bangka makes its way out of the calm waters of the cove, the Dos Hermanas Islands appear on the right and looks even more glorious than its view from the lighthouse. A treat of several rock formations is seen on the left. Finally, as we approached the port, Crocodile Island, named so because it looks like a crocodile lurking in the shallows, can be seen just ahead.
Palaui Island is crossed off my bucket list and is probably the fastest to get crossed out after making it to the list. However, a second visit, even a third, is never out of the question as I am sure it will all be worth it. A visit to this tranquil paradise in the north is a bucket-list-must.
While nearly everyone left for the sandy beaches of Boracay on Labor Day for #LaBoracay weekend, I, as expected, took to the mountains to chase the fabled Sea Of Clouds. At 2,922 meters above sea level, Mt. Pulag is the highest mountain in Luzon and the third highest in the Philippines. It is considered a playground of the gods by the Ibalois, Kalanguyas, Kankana-eys and Ibanags – ethnic tribes who call Mt. Pulag home.
It is easy to see why Mt. Pulag is a favorite destination of hikers – novice and seasoned alike. Seasoned hikers can take the long Ambaguio trail or the steep Akiki trail, while beginners can take the very friendly Ambangeg route, the trail we took. All these trails lead to a grassland summit and the phenomenon that draws people to Mt. Pulag. The Sea of Clouds. This time-lapse video of the Sea of Clouds by Bong Bajo was shown to us at the DENR office.
This is an account of the Mt. Pulag hike over the Labor Day weekend.
We arrived in Baguio City just after 5 in the morning of Saturday. After picking up our bags, our guides, Ryan, Mikhail and Roanna, led us to the jeepney that would take us to the ranger station. We quickly loaded up and got ready to move out. We were to ride a little over an hour to a small eatery north of Baguio City that welcomes hikers. After breakfast, it was a long ride to the DENR station for an orientation and then one last ride to the ranger station. Sleeping while riding a Philippine jeepney is not at all impossible. Staying asleep on the other hand is. Since sleeping was of the question, there was no other way to enjoy the nearly 3-hour drive to the ranger station than to ride top-load.
The roads are paved almost the entire way, an improvement according to our tour guide Mikhail. Unfortunately, the improvements are not finished. We all had to get off the jeep a good 200 meters before the ranger station because the concrete was still curing. With little sleep but full of excitement, we carried our bags to the small community where the ranger station is. It was around noon when we got settled for lunch. I think everyone had fried chicken. I had four rice cakes – easier to eat. After lunch we made final preparations and hired our porters. (The porters charge P500 for the first 15 kilos and P20 for every kilo over that) Just before we started the hike, it rained but didn’t last long.
The first leg of the hike took us through a dirt road and then a steep trail in the dense bonsai jungle which ends at Camp 1. This takes about an hour at a relaxed pace. There is a gazebo at Camp 1 and enough space for maybe a dozen tents. But we were told no one ever camps here. I trailed everyone to accompany Mommy Rose and her daughter Angel. Mommy Rose had wanted to quit even before the hike even started. After being the discouraged in my last hike, it was easy to be the encourager.
The next leg takes another hour and a half to 2 hours which really is a long walk in the park and ends at Camp 2. Rarely does the trail ever go steep. Parts of the trail have long stretches of nicely laid out rocks like the cobblestone streets of Vigan. There are 2 water sources along the trail. This part of the hike really becomes more like a leisurely stroll.
Camp 2 is a massive area that can well fit upwards of a hundred tents. It is divided into two sections, the main camp and the extension with the extension being at a higher elevation and is closer to the start of the trail to the summit. The extension camp has a better view of all three peaks of Mt. Pulag. It is also the base of what I call the “false peak” which offers a birds eye view of the campsites below and the trail to the summit.
Weather was a concern during the hike as we all expected rain based on forecasts online. Clouds constantly rolled in engulfing the campsite in mist.
It was cloudy nearly the entire afternoon and with the mist that kept rolling in, it erased all hopes of seeing a decent sunset. Thankfully, the clouds were kept at bay long enough for us to see the sun set.
The rain poured a good 20 minutes just after everyone had dinner so everyone decided to get a head start on sleeping. It was certainly scarier hearing rolling thunder and seeing flashes of lightning up in the mountains. The thought of lightning striking the tent while I was inside haunted me throughout the thunderstorm.
Wake up call was at 3 AM. The rain definitely made the night colder. Fortunately, the wind decided not to join the party or it might have been much colder than we all had prepared for. I woke up around 9 PM and got out of the tent and the first thing I did was to look up and check the sky. It was not as cloudy as it had been a couple hours earlier and it was encouraging to see stars over us. After a short chat with one of our guides, Roanna, I headed back in the tent and turned in for the night. The cold woke me up two more times. At 1:30 AM I decided to just stay up and wait for everyone else. Again, I looked up when I got out of the tent and was extremely happy to see a clear night sky. While heating water for coffee, I took some shots of my new favorite subject.
At 3 AM everyone was awake, excited to take on the last leg to the summit. The trail starts out as a narrow path through bushes and then the wider path of the grassland area which is strikingly similar to Mt. Batulao. Unlike Mt. Batulao, though, the grassland trail of Mt. Pulag does not constantly go up and down. For the most part, it felt like walking on level ground but we were actually ascending. Like Mt. Batulao, the trail passes through peaks before reaching the summit, in this case 2 peaks before the summit which may be scaled to the top. We all opted to take the path on the slopes. Also, like Mt. Batulao, in several parts of the trail, a fall to the left would mean game over. The Akiki trail meets the Ambangeg trail just below the summit and then it is just one last steep assault. Just before 5 AM, we made it to the summit of Mt. Pulag. The sun had just started to rise and the orange streaks of light in the horizon revealed the fabled Sea of Clouds in the distance.
It was not exactly the Sea of Clouds I had hoped for but it was still beautiful.
Fr. Bogey celebrated mass at the summit, one of his greatest joys during this trip.
Shortly after mass, we headed back to camp.
We broke camp after breakfast and started the long hike back to the ranger station.
This completes the second leg of the Philippine Trilogy Series – a quest to climb the highest mountain of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.
Read about these 5 lessons if you plan to climb Mt. Pulag, written by host Gretchen Ho.
Many thanks to our Team Leader, Ryan and guides, Roanna and Mikhail of Trail Adventours.
To my new friends Yssa, Jenny, Tim, Maciej, Roanna and Mikhail, thank you for the awesome company and yes, bacon jam. I got it. 🙂
Congratulations to Fr. Bogey, Sr. Bubbles and Bro. Aikee for conquering their first 2000+ MASL mountain. Thank you for having me join your adventure!
It has been 10 days since returning from the Mt. Tapulao trip and for some reason, I am still bothered that I was so eager to quit. The only difficulty the trail offered is its length – 16 kilometers to the camp grounds covering an elevation of 1,500 meters, more than the elevation gain of Mt. Apo. The trail is exposed with very few areas where one could get reprieve from the sun. However, except for the first two hours of our hike that day, we had an abundance of cloud cover. Normally, rain would spell bad news for a hike, but not in Mt. Tapulao. The trail is mostly rocky and therefore making mud a non-issue. With a trail as exposed as Mt. Tapulao, I would actually prefer it to be raining than having a beautiful sunny day. Everything on that day should have made a great hike but I wanted to stop and turn back. Now I look back and figure out why.
The Aborted Mt. Kanlaon Hike
We were supposed to climb Mt. Kanlaon that week but a storm forced us to call off the hike. On the day we were supposed to fly to Bacolod, we found out the storm had dissipated. We settled for a weekend climb on Mt. Tapulao. That is probably one reason. We settled. I was not too excited about climbing Mt. Tapulao. All the excitement for Mt. Kanlaon was flushed down the toilet leaving little for a hike that we settled for. I was really half-hearted about this hike. This made the fatigue set in quicker. In previous hikes, I would normally get very little sleep owing to having to start the hike early. I would get tired, yes, but it had never caused me to stop or want to stop. This hike, though, was different. I was so quick to say, “I’m tired.”
The 11-hour Ascent Over 16 KM
When I climbed Mt. Apo last December, I was never worried about having to hike up a mountain 11 straight hours in one day. If there was one time my knees buckled while I was seated, it was when I read a blog about how long a hike Mt. Tapulao would be. ELEVEN HOURS AND 40 POUNDS OF GEAR ON MY BACK. What was I thinking?! This eventually contributed to the half-heartedness of my wanting to climb. Kilometer markers mark the trail every 2 kilometers and each of them taunted me all the way to the 12th kilometer. We found out later that we crossed seven mountains before getting to the camp grounds of Mt. Tapulao. Those mountains also taunted us during the hike. Many times we thought we were close and then the silhouette of Mt. Tapulao faintly showed itself from behind layers of clouds.
The Easy Trail and the E-Camps
Yes, Mt. Tapulao has a very easy trail. It is well-defined making it nearly impossible to get lost. This made it very easy for me to consider turning back and have my cousin continue the hike while I wait at the eco-center until the following day. I remember arguing with myself, telling myself that each step I take forward will mean it will take longer for me to get back to the eco-center – TURN BACK NOW!
E-camps is short for emergency camps. We passed two of them on the way up – one just before the KM8 marker and the other at the KM10 marker where the hunters’ hut is. I wanted to set up camp already at the KM10 marker. I really wanted to stop at that point. The thought of 6 more kilometers was agonizing. It meant at least 3 more hours of hiking. It was really hard to tell my brain to stop telling me to quit.
Thankfully, I had my cousin with me. I was not lacking in telling him countless times that I did not want to continue. He just kept saying, “NO. Let’s just get to the campsite and make all this worth it.” Lesson #1: Just move forward. The group was never in any real danger. I was just tired and not into it which was even more reason for me to just move forward. Making it to the camp grounds, and the summit the following day, made that 16 kilometer stretch of whining (silently) and wanting to quit all worth it. Lesson #2: As mentioned in the chronicle of this hike, an adventure in the absence of a challenge, is not an adventure. Lesson #3: If you buy a damn ticket to Bacolod to climb Mt. Kanlaon and the airline does not cancel because of a storm that never materializes, take the damn flight!
Man’s objective is to conquer the mountain. The mountain’s objective is to make man give up. If there is one place for such a battle to take place, I could think of no better place than Mt. Tapulao. Though it is a gradual ascent to the campsite which is at 1600 meters above sea level, the starting point is at an elevation of 160 meters. The hike covers 16 kilometers from the eco center to the campsite and another 2 kilometers to the summit. A marker is set every 2 kilometers which either encourages or taunts. This is definitely one mountain that will push anyone to their limits.
Here is an account of the Mt. Tapulao climb last weekend.
At the bus station, we still kept telling ourselves (my cousin JJ and I) that we could have been at the campsite of Mt. Kanlaon. A storm threatened the Mt. Kanlaon trip which forced us to call it off, only to realize that the storm never made it to land. Mt. Tapulao would be, as JJ refers to it, our penance for not pushing through with Mt. Kanlaon.
Mt. Tapulao, the highest mountain in the Central Luzon region, is 2,037 meters above sea level. It offers nearly the same features as does a Cordillera mountain which is probably why it is dubbed the “poor man’s Pulag.”
The bus leaves at 11:45 PM for the 5 hour trip to Iba, Zambales. From there, it is an hour long tricycle ride to Palauig, where the jump off of Mt. Tapulao is. Our hike started at 6:30 AM.
The entire trail, except the last assault to the summit, is exposed. By the time the sun was high above the horizon, the only reprieve we got were from clouds and the occasional tree that we passed by. We were taking our time at a pace covering 2 kilometers an hour. We made it to the first water source at the KM6 marker by 9:30. I took a nap. The bus ride prevented a good sleep and I had already felt my thighs starting to cramp. I needed this.
With 3-hours done, 10 kilometers, 8 hours and 1200 meters in elevation to go, it was here when I started to question whether I wanted to continue. We made another quick stop at an emergency campsite just before the KM8 marker and we saw what we were just about to encounter. Rain. Just great! Almost instantly, streams of water ran down the trail as we were heading up. We found it funny that we got rained on even after avoiding a potential stormy hike on Mt. Kanlaon. We slowed down considerably as the fatigue from the lack of sleep set in. I had to stop several times to take two-minute naps. At the KM10 marker, we took shelter in a hut set up by hunters. We also refilled our water bottles at the nearby water source. I seriously wanted to stop and set up camp here already. JJ said no. We moved out after I napped (again), had some food to eat and the rain stopped.
The trail after the KM10 marker is steeper and rockier. The rain was on and off as we pushed forward. I still wanted to quit. Every step forward for me meant it would take longer to get back if I stop. The absolute bottom for me was when we reached the KM12 marker. Just before the rain poured again, we caught a glimpse of Mt. Tapulao. We were nowhere near the mountain yet. When the rains poured, I bounced back up and got tired of getting tired and just wanted to finish the hike. So, forward. The rains stopped by the time we reached the KM14 marker. 2 kilometers to go. At 5:30 PM, 11 hours after we started, we approached the campsite and these were the views that greeted us.
High fives were in order. We made it to the basecamp despite having half the team (me) wanting to quit several times. As we were setting up camp, we were treated to a wonderful sunset.
After a quick dinner of tuna, macaroni, chow mien noodles and corned beef, we got ready to turn in. We had a 3 AM wake up call for the summit assault.
My alarm goes off at 3 AM. The cold was bearable. It was not as cold as I had expected. I got up and had some oatmeal cookies. I get out of the tent and I was happy to see that the skies completely cleared. The moon was setting in the west and had a reddish glow. The stars were a sight to see.
The hike to the summit takes between 45 minutes to an hour. The initial hike goes through the pine tree slopes and then into the mossy forest. It was unfortunate that clouds rolled in when we arrived at the summit (even more unfortunate that the clouds cleared when we were back at the camp). The summit is a dense jungle filled with bonsai trees. One tree in particular, the “World Tree,” was the subject of most of the summit photos. There is also a huge pit in the middle of the summit, said to be made by treasure hunters during the Marcos era.
I did it. I made it to the summit of Mt. Tapulao. The adventure, though, was far from over. We made our way back to the camp site, stopping several times after the the mossy forest section to enjoy the views around us. Upon reaching camp, I ate the rest of my sandwiches AND a whole roll of Oreos. The coffee was the best part of the morning. We broke camp soon after. By 8:30 AM, we were off. Time to go home. We were making really good time on the way down. We covered 4 kilometers in an hour. We were an hour and a half in when we reached the KM10 marker where we refilled our water bottles and took a breather. With barely 4 kilometers left, the weather decided to spoil our moment. It started to rain and persisted until the end of the hike turning the trail into a river.
1 PM. We were back at the eco center. We were done. I had done it. I conquered Mt. Tapulao. Was I tired? Exhausted. Was it worth it? Definitely. I always end up telling myself that an adventure in the absence of a challenge is not an adventure. This was definitely a challenging one. Note that the challenge did not end when we reached the summit. We had to deal with the rain on our last 4 kilometers. It just tells me that while I am on that mountain, I am at its mercy. In this battle of man versus mountain, I think it is safe to say man won. I can’t wait to do it again!
After telling myself I would never return because of how crowded a mountain it is, I found myself once again on the trails of Mt. Batulao. To be perfectly honest, it is my favorite mountain because of the picturesque view it offers while I hike. This time I was with my uncle, Fr. Bogey, and cousin, Daniel. In September last year, I guided Fr. Bogs, Daniel and Sr. Bubbles on an aborted attempt to conquer Mt. Batulao when the mountain was battered by rains that left the trails muddy. This was payback for Fr. Bogs and Daniel.
I accidentally timed this trip earlier than usual. It turned out to be a blessing. We arrived at the jump off a little past 5 AM. It was still dark. This got me excited. I took out my headlamp and led the way as we started the hike. The blessing came just twenty minutes into the hike. The sun had just started to peek over the horizon and by the time we hit the open trail, we were treated to a magnificent sunrise.
I was quite pleased that we caught a day where there were very few hikers and campers compared to my trip here last month. The early morning breeze also made the hike even more pleasant. Just as pleasing was how beautiful the day was. Blue skies and all. We made it to the summit after two and a half hours of hiking. Fr. Bogey and Daniel had finally conquered Mt. Batulao. This was Fr. Bogey’s 6th summit. Because we were early, the summit was not crowded. We had an unobstructed 360 view of Batangas.
It was my fourth time up this mountain and I will never grow tired of climbing it. That sunrise, though, made this the best Mt. Batulao climb ever.
I climbed Mt. Batulao over the weekend with some friends. Monchie, Nancy, Kevin and Lester joined me on my first hike of the year. For Monchie and Nancy, it was an anniversary hike. Their first ever climb was here when I took them in February 2013. It was Kevin’s first time and Lester’s Nth time. It was my fourth time on the trails of Batulao and reached the summit twice before. Noticeable on this climb was the sheer number of people. Mt. Batulao has always been a popular target of dayhikers because of its proximity to Metro Manila but the number of climbers was just ridiculous. It seems like there are no off-peak weekends. Last weekend was no exception. It was so crowded that hikers heading down from the summit looked like ants on an anthill. As pinoymountaineer.com blogger, Gideon Lasco put it, Mt. Batulao is “a good option for crowd-seekers but not for those looking for some mountain peace and quiet.” This, of course, did not stop us from climbing this beautiful mountain.
Our day started early. Monchie and Nancy passed for me at my place at 4 AM. We drove an hour to Nuvali to pick up Kevin; another hour to Tagaytay where we had breakfast; a half hour to Evercrest where we waited for Lester; by 6:30 AM, we were at the jump off. As we entered the road, two kids ran towards us, offering themselves as guides. More kids offered to be guides after we had parked. We declined but promised to pay one to watch the car. At 6:48 AM, we were off.
A fork in the road was the first encounter. On my last hike here, the tricycle took the left road up to where we actually started the hike. Naturally, I followed my memory and went left only to be told by a lady that I was going the wrong way. The road on the right was the correct route. So we took the right. It was the same road which the other road would have led to (if that made sense). This was an easier start, though, compared to the other jump off I remember. Later on, we found out hikers could take a tricycle to a new jump off which saved 20 minutes of hiking time. It was a beautiful day to hike. The sun was just over the horizon. Mt. Talamitam seen from the trail and a very clear Mt. Palay-Palay (Pico de Loro) just behind her. The trail was dusty. It was hard to imagine this was the same trail where I had gone in knee-deep mud just four months back. The hike in ‘town’ was pretty straight forward. We amused ourselves with how the homes had loud speakers playing 80’s and 90’s hits very early in the morning. It was 40 minutes after we began where the real trail started. After the last house, a narrow trail, lined with tall grass on either side, led us up a hill. Over the hill, the trail, still narrow and at one point a deadly drop on both sides, continued until we reached the first kubowhere we took five.
A few hundred meters after the kubo, we came to the fork that led to either the New Trail or the Old Trail. I have not ascended via the Old Trail before but I only imagined it would have been boring. Unlike the New Trail, the Old Trail goes through a forested area until reaching Camp 1 where the registration center is. The Old Trail goes through 11 campsites with the summit being the 11th. The New Trail is completely exposed to the sun. The trail follows a narrow path up and down 12 peaks with the summit being the 12th. Many times throughout this trail, ravines line both sides of the path. One wrong step, game over. I like ascending via the New Trail because it is scenic. There is a constant view of the summit which is nothing short of amazing. The New Trail was the consensus. So up and down we went through the peaks of the New Trail. The most winded I got was from Peak 1 to Peak 2 (the profile picture with the blue sky backdrop on the right side of the page was taken on Peak 2, when I climbed Mt. Batulao in February 2013). From Peak 2, we could see the packed Peak 7 campsite. We reached Peak 7 and saw its unfortunate state. As we passed, we only hoped the folks would clean up after themselves. The registration center is just below Peak 7. From here, we had a majestic view of the remaining peaks we would pass and the summit. We took another breather here. Lester had his coffee. After registration and payment of the P20 fee, we headed out.
From the registration, there are two ways to move forward. One is up the other is forward. Hikers could head up to Peak 8 and head back down to the main trail or just continue on the main trail. We chose to stay on the main trail and moved forward. Approaching Peak 9 is another fork. One path, the right, leads to a forested trail, which if followed, hikers emerge between two rocks and then back to the main trail. The other path leads to grassy side slope trails which ends with a steep hike to Peak 10 where a local sells buko juice and Mountain Dew. We did not pass up the chance for a nice cold bottle of Mountain Dew. Climbers heading up and coming down intersected a lot here and the small viewing deck we were on quickly got crowded. We moved out the moment we finished our drinks. Peak 11. My favorite. It does freak out some people. There are two ways to negotiate Peak 11. One is to climb it or take the trail on the side of the peak. The climb option is dangerous. The trail is uneven and there is absolutely nothing to hold on to. One wrong step, game over. On both sides. The trail on the side is much safer. The last leg of the ascent is ahead. The trail becomes steep and extremely dusty. Because the people on the summit were very visible from where we were, and those headed down the trail, it really did look like ants on an anthill. We decided to stay put for a while and wait for the horde of hikers coming down to pass us. This took a good 20 minutes. We continued as soon as the trail cleared. The last assault dragged a bit as another group headed down as we headed up. As soon as we finally got up, we had a 360-view of Batangas. Add in the blue skies and puffs of white clouds, the view was spectacular. Something I would never get tired of. A view definitely worth coming back for.
We were due for another bottle of Mountain Dew right about this time. There were two stalls at the summit and both sell buko and Mountain Dew. Unfortunately for us, Mountain Dew was the best-seller and both stalls sold out quickly. Thus began our quest for Mountain Dew.
We stayed at the summit a good hour while a horde of hikers made their way up from the Old Trail. We started the descent as soon as the number of hikers subsided. The roped section of the Old Trail is another favorite. It is a 70 degree slope that drops about 10 to 15 meters. A rope is tied to a stump for hikers to use. Just ahead was another steep descent that led to a shoulder where Camp 8 is and where a large group of hikers took a break. Here there is, too, a stall selling Mountain Dew but luck was not on our side as the group bought the last few bottles. Camp 7 was another 50 meter steep descent and it is where the iconic tree of Batulao is. At camp 6 was another stall, but again, Mountain Dew was sold out. The descent after Camp 6 was the easiest part as there were no steep sections. We reached Camp 1 still hoping we could get a bottle of Mountain Dew. Sold out. After taking a short break here, we headed into the forest. The trail here is a long winding path that goes around the bottom of the peaks of the New Trail. We reached the fork on the main trail where the Old and New trails split close to an hour later, happy to find the stall there serving halo-halo AND Mountain Dew. Nancy and Lester ordered halo-halo, while the rest of us had a bottle of Mountain Dew. Finally. The quest for Mountain Dew was over. Another hour of hiking and we were back at the car.
I found myself contemplating whether I would still do another hike on Mt. Batulao. The number of people was just insane. I climbed this mountain about the same time last year and there were less than a quarter of the people we encountered today then. I love that people are out exploring the outdoors. Sometimes a crowded mountain just takes away how pleasant an experience climbing can be. I thought though that this is too petty a reason to not come back. Mt. Batulao is a beautiful mountain and I will definitely return!
“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
– Ed Viesturs, No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks
Having taken two days to climb to the top of Mt. Apo, I was dreading the thought of having only a day to descend. I knew instantly that it was going to be a long day of hiking. I was not wrong. The trail ahead led to the Venado Lake bed and then into the jungle of the Kidapawan trail and then the river crossings before ending the trek at the Lake Agko Resort. Joey described the descent by saying “Naa pa ta’y isa ka kalbaryo.” (We have one more challenge) Kalbaryo is a Filipino term for extreme hardship, difficulty or challenge. It is taken from “Calvary,” where Jesus was crucified after carrying His own cross.
As usual breakfast was light for us and heavy for the guides and the porter. By the time we were done, the sun was high above the horizon. Finally some heat. The wind still brought an 18°C chill. We broke camp and packed our bags. We had some time to kill. Bharath and I stood in the sun while taking about how he didn’t like beer until coming to the Philippines. JJ joined us and we talked about better clothing for cold conditions. AA lay on the grass and dozed off. The guides were still eating. By 8:30 we were doing final checks on our gear and made sure we had enough water. We would not encounter a water source until nearly 6 hours later. We moved out at 9 AM.
From the campsite, we took a left towards the trail to Lake Venado. From the edge of the summit area, we saw the lake bed and the trail ahead. Also visible on the right was Mt. Talomo. It was a steep grassy area and the trail zigzagged through it. I lightly twisted my ankle twice when I stepped on loose grass that was hanging on the edge of the trail. I slipped a few times in muddy areas. JJ wasn’t quick in drawing his camera to document it. The guides, the porter and AA went ahead of myself, JJ and Bharath. We took our time. At one point though, JJ went ahead of Bharath and myself to check on AA. We lost altitude fast. We were an hour into the hike when, from around 400 meters above, I saw Joey’s unmistakable orange trekking shorts emerge from the trees down at the lakebed. At our pace, we were at least another hour from joining him and Myron. We entered the tree line after losing roughly 600 meters in altitude. We were close. The trail gradually lost its steepness and we came out of the trees into the flat lakebed at around 2,100 MASL.
Lake Venado is 500 meters wide and is one of the highest lakes in the country though only a remnant of its size is left. A small lake on the north side of the Lake Venado area is what is left which also streams into a smaller pool in the middle of the huge lakebed. The only time the lakebed is completely submerged is when heavy rains come in. The existing lake rises and floods the area a few couple inches. During the peak of climbing season, this area becomes a town. Stores are set up where mountaineers can buy supplies, food and even alcohol. A little restaurant is also in place and they serve grilled food. Not today though. The lake was empty except for a few tents of campers who came up using the Kidapawan trail. We sat on what would have been the shore of the lake where there was shade. I looked at the mountain I just descended from. Nearly 800 meters and almost 2 hours. I looked back at my climbing year and realized I have not climbed down a mountain which required an 800 meter altitude loss. I did just that BUT I was far from done. Between Lake Venado and where our trek will end at Lake Agko is an elevation of 1,000 meters. This trek was FAR from over.
I ate a couple packs of peanuts and washed it down with water. I made sure I didn’t drink too much but just enough. The lake was not a water source. Somebody had drowned in it and was submerged for two weeks before being found by a local. I wasn’t feeling that adventurous. We thought of having an early lunch but the guides feared we would take too much time and we had a long hike ahead and they wanted to make sure we were done with the river crossings before nightfall. They said we would take our lunch at the next water source. It made sense so we agreed. We headed out shortly after. The sun was close to peaking. It was significantly warmer and the constant gust of the wind was gone. We crossed the entire area of the lakebed and entered a trail marked by a “Welcome to Lake Venado” sign. A few meters past the sign, logs. I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like this descent. We took a breather just before the trail became steep. From here it the descending was constant. Just a few minutes after the descent started, a 90°, 10 meter drop was before us. A ladder made of branches secured only by ropes was the only way down. We encountered two more of these ladders on the way down. On several occasions, a ladder was not needed but we still had our backs to the trail as we climbed down while hanging on to roots. The trail was also damp which made many parts slippery. The probability of a hard landing increased each time the trail involved walking on mossy logs and rocks. I slipped and hurt my shin when I crossed a gap in the trail and a branch was used as a makeshift bridge. The trail seemed like it would never end. It was just a continuous steep downhill hike. I’d be lying if the words “Are we there yet?” did not come out of my mouth.
The sound of water was encouraging. Joey saying it was still far away was not. I disregarded his comment and tried to stay optimistic until I caught a glimpse of the river below. It was indeed still a long way. At that point, I was secretly wishing for a helicopter to extract us but we pushed on. As the sound of the water got louder, adrenalin rushed through our veins and we picked up the pace. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the waterfalls. The relief was short-lived when I realized the trail did not lead to the waterfalls. It led to an acute cardiac arrest. A big chunk of earth had eroded months back that left a 100-foot ravine. On the other side of that ravine is another ravine. In between? A twenty-foot path that was a foot wide that could erode at any given time. I felt my knees buckle when I saw this. “Really?” I said to myself. I approached slowly fearing I would slip on the loose soil. I grabbed the loosely secured branch which doubled as a rail and slowly made it across. I looked back in relief. Relief this time was not short-lived. Just shortly after the ordeal with the ravines, we arrived at a small campsite with water from a hot spring nearby. As soon as I was told that there was hot spring water, I removed my shoes and dipped my tired feet in it. We prepared and ate lunch at the campsite. A water source was a short walk from here. The water had the distinct taste of sulfur. After a short rest, we got ready to go. Up ahead, river crossings.
In the rainy season, this leg of the hike would have been almost impossible. Many times throughout this trip I thanked God for the beautiful weather. We reached the river 10 minutes after leaving the hot spring. The water was low but the current was strong. The rocks were at times slippery. JJ had to backtrack to find another way when we were confronted with having to jump from one rock to another with an small waterfall in between. For the next two hours, it was an alternating of crossing the river and then trekking in the jungle. Crossing the river involved either getting in the water or crossing a bridge. The scariest part of the trek was when we had to cross a bridge that: 1) was 2 meters above rocks and a strong current , 2) was made with two beams of wood, a long branch and a bamboo pole, 3) was loosely tied together, 4) had a rail, also loosely secured, that extended only half way. When I ran out of rail to hold on to, I was scared for my life, having slipped on a piece of wood only hours before. I shut out everything and focused completely at the task at hand. As soon as the rocks on the other side was within reach, I jumped. I prepared myself for the remaining bridges that we might encounter, thankfully, the rest were not as bad.
When we reached the last bridge, I was so exhausted I said to myself, “The highway better be there when I cross the bridge.” Sadly, there was no highway. What was there was a big rock where we sat down to rest and behind it, an uphill trail. UPHILL. After an exhausting 8 hours of hiking to where we were, the very last leg of this trek was an uphill hike. I was pissed. Joey was right when he said, “kabalo na ka kung hapit na mahuman kung dili naka mag ngisi ug maglain na imong batasan.” (You’ll know when its about to end when you could no longer smile and your attitude sours.) We continued. I took my time. My legs were dying and I was starting to feel cramps. Bharath and Myron also took their time. AA wanted to end the trek already so he went ahead of us. When I saw smoke over a hill, I thought, “This must be the highway!” I was, of course, disappointed to find out it was not. It was just a couple huts where a family lived. Bharath, Myron and I sat for a while to catch our breath. We were told were close to ending our suffering. When Bharath heard we were forty minutes away from the highway, he almost lost it. Forty minutes was an estimate the folks there used in comparison to how fast it took them to get to the highway, which was 10 minutes, and how fast they think it would take us. I told Bharath, “Let’s finish this!” The last hike took 20 minutes. At 6 PM, 9 hours after we started, the trek was finished. Myron and I hired a motorcycle to take us to Lake Agko where we waited for our van to Davao. We arrived in Davao at 10 PM. I flew back to Manila at 6 AM the following morning for the New Year revelry.
Waking up was not difficult. In fact, it was so easy, I woke up 4 times throughout the night because of how cold it was. Nearly every hour after 11 PM, I would wake up and instantly feel the bone biting cold. It was not helping that the wind was violently rocking the tent. The weather was fine. This apparently is normal on a perfectly beautiful night up in the summit camp. By 3 AM, I heard JJ’s voice calling out to me to wake up. I was up immediately. I put on my hiking shoes and got out of the tent. As soon as I got out, I wanted to just curl into a fetal position because of how cold it was. JJ was trying to wake up Bharath. “Bharath!” All we could hear was a moan. He called out a couple more times and then we finally got a full sentence out of him. “I’m up, dude.” You can tell by the sound of his voice that he too was curled up. We noticed he didn’t close the air vent of his tent. No wonder. We whopped up some coffee. I had two servings.
Initially I thought the temperature was not below 10°C, which JJ contested. I removed my watch and placed it on the ground so I could make use of the thermometer function. JJ had his little thermometer and he also placed that on the ground. Just before we left for the summit, my thermometer read 6.1°C, his had the mercury at 4°C. Add the windchill, it was FREEZING!! Despite this, taking pictures was still mandatory. I was also documenting the hike in writing. This meant I had to remove my gloves several times. It was like dipping my hand in a bucket that had more ice than water.
Joey and Rodel joined us for coffee. They, too, were cold. The constant wind made having coffee and moving around a minuscule effort to get warm. Worse, I accidentally poured some water on my glove. I distract myself by getting ready to go to the summit viewing deck. It was time to conquer this mountain. I secured my camera, made sure my backup camera, the iPhone, was working, and then stuffed a canister of water in my assault pack. I was ready. We headed out just shortly after 4:30 AM.
The summit viewing area is on the east side of the mountain. The hike up was not as steep as the ascents from the previous days. The trail is distinct for the most part. There are some areas where it gets confusing owing to the darkness. The wind became a more steady gust as we got higher. At 4:40 AM, high fives all around, we made it to the top. We climbed over a rock which revealed one more short trail to the viewing area. It was AMAZING. Here we could see Davao City, Digos and Kidapawan. We could see a sea of clouds to the west. To the east, we waited for the sun. The horizon was starting to get that orange sunrise glow.
Seeing the color of the sky change from black to a deep purple to violet to blue was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. As this was happening, we just sat quietly.
I love sunrises as much as I do sunsets. Seeing this sunrise from atop a mountain made it the best one I have seen. As soon as that sun was peeking over the horizon, it was hard not to get creative. We took out our cameras and started shooting. The silhouette, I think, was the favorite theme. In close second was the mountain selfie.
I am a newbie in this world of mountaineering. I had a few hiking trips in college which fed my desire to explore the outdoors. I started climbing almost exactly one year before this trip and I obviously fell in love with it. I did not expect however that I would, on my first year, go for a Mt. Apo climb. But I did. I conquered Mt. Apo. All 2,954 meters of it. It was a surreal feeling being at the summit. It took me back to the days when I was in grade school and how in social studies class we would talk about geography. Every year the discussion on Mt. Apo being the highest peak in the Philippines always came up. There I was standing atop it. Major props to my cousin, AA. It was his first hike on his first mountain. What a way to end 2013 for him.
We head back down to camp. As we were walking down, the sun rose higher and higher. By the time we got back to the campsite, there was an orange glow around us. We welcomed the sun and basked in it for a few minutes before we prepared our last breakfast on the mountain.
The account of the descent on Mt. Apo will be narrated in part 4.