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Above the clouds

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By Zsarlene B. Chua

NEVER IN MY LIFE have I dreamed of climbing a mountain but somehow I found myself climbing Luzon’s highest summit (and the country’s third highest) in late February during a junket promoting the newest pickup truck variant of a Japanese automotive manufacturer.

Above the clouds

There I was, making the long trek up almost 3,000 meters about sea level. Suffice it to say, I was not at all prepared for both the beauty and difficulty that is Mt. Pulag.

The journey started on a Monday where the Manila media folk were hustled off to Baguio city in Benguet where we spent the night before getting up early Tuesday morning to drive towards the foothills of Mt. Pulag. The journey took around two-and-a-half hours, with the route passing by Ambuklao Dam — a hydroelectric facility as well as irrigation and flood control with the main source of water flowing from Agno River — in Bokod, Benguet.




The first stop was at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Visitors’ Center where climbers are asked to fill out a registration form, submit a medical certificate, pay the registration fee (according to pinoymountaineer.com, registration fee is at P225) and undergo a half-an-hour orientation about Mt. Pulag, which rises to a height of 2,922 meters above sea level.

Often called “Playground of the Gods,” Mt. Pulag is widely considered by the locals as a sacred place (some believe that once a person dies, his soul goes to the mountains; some tribes use the mountain as a sacred burial ground). Different tribes inhabit the area, including the Ibalois, the Kalanguyas, Kankana-eys, Karaos, Ifugaos and Ilocanos as the Mt. Pulag is at the borders of the provinces of Benguet, Nueva Viscaya and Ifugao.

Because of its reputation, there are many things one is not allowed to do on the mountain, topping the list is leaving trash as well as loud, raucous behavior. The main point of the orientation is for climbers to respect the mountain as they go up.

There are three official trails going up the mountain: the Ambangeg trail, considered as the easiest trail as one can go up and down the mountain overnight; the Tawangan trail, which can take up to three days; and the Akiki trail, the hardest one which can take up to four days.

The media group took the Ambangeg trail.

After the stop at the visitors’ center, climbers have to go up to the Ranger station — which takes about 20 minutes if one goes up in a vehicle, climbing on foot can take more than two hours.

It is at the Ranger station that climbers arrange for guides or porters. One guide can handle up to 10 people and the starting rate for five people or less is P600 (for Philippine residents) for those staying in Camp 2. The rate for 10 people comes to P1,200. Porter rates also start at P600 for bags weighing 15 kilos and below.

After the ranger station, which is around eight kilometers away from the summit, one climbs for about an hour to the start of the trail. Again, since the group was taking Isuzu D-Maxes, it took us around 10 minutes to get to the start of the trail. The only drawback in driving there is that the road is narrow and unpaved and right beside a steep drop.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Ferdie Solidum
Photos courtesy of Dr. Ferdie Solidum

It is a one-and-a-half to three-hour trek up to Camp 2 where a group can stay overnight waiting for the famed sunrise above the clouds. The trek is a picturesque and almost-calming climb as (not counting the 20-minute assault featuring loose rocks at the start of the trail) the whole trek to campsite was almost — but not quite — easy.

At the start, climbers go through a pine forest, with the guide pointing out a local variety of blueberries (fruits visibly smaller than those on cheesecakes) which grow abundantly. Note: it is forbidden to take anything, flora or fauna, from the mountain.

After around 20 minutes of wheezing one’s way up to Camp 1, which is actually just a hut with benches, climbers enter the mossy forest — this is where it starts becoming a bit colder.

The mossy forest is also the home of the Giant Bushy-Tailed Cloud Rat, the Philippine Deer, and a multitude of birds and mammals, making it one of the most biodiverse in the country.

Another hour or so will take one through the mossy forest, with tree roots providing comfortable seats or serving as natural stairs. This location is also decidedly wetter than the trail bellow and it’s easy to slip on wet, muddy spots. Nevertheless, it was most picturesque and otherworldly.

Those who would want to take in more of the sights can tackle the route in three hours while those in a hurry to rest can make it in half the time. (I did the latter).

After the mossy forest, climbers find themselves in a campsite at a windy grassland. With no trees, the only thing shielding visitors from the cold wind are the little groves of dwarf bamboo (the smallest of its kind).

At the camp, one can already see the shadow of the summit.

Come prepared as Mt. Pulag is one of the coldest locations in the country, with temperatures on the summit dropping well below zero during the colder months of January to February. Rain is also a constant companion, making it even colder. It is advised that climbers prepare their winter gear.

While we did not have to battle rain that day, from the early evening until the climb to the summit we were battered by strong winds that made it impossible to get any sleep. And it was the cold that made me suffer.

Above the clouds

The winds started up on Tuesday (Feb. 23) and continued on until Thursday (Feb. 25) at which point the DENR was forced to suspend any trips to the mountain as it was deemed too dangerous. Rock falls were reported at a part of the Akiki trail and, coupled with low visibility, it wasn’t advisable to climb.

Very early the next morning, at half past three, we decided to climb up to the summit which seasoned mountaineers said is harder than the trek to the camp but only takes around an hour to do.

The climb to the summit is a near-vertical assault across the grassland. It was also so dark that it requires climbers to use head lamps. One piece of advice given is to not look up during the last 15-minutes before the summit and focus instead on where you are stepping.

During the climb [or rather, during one of this writer’s rest stops], one of the guides noted that the mountain has greatly changed in the last 10 years. The trail to the summit was much narrower back then, and the ground was covered with Bermuda grass, making it possible to do the trek even barefoot, she said. Now the trail is wider and the grass has disappeared, leaving soil and dust.

She said that it was only now that the government decided to do something to conserve the mountain, something that should have been done years ago.

The mountain, aside from being a sacred place, is also where local tribes farm vegetables.

Stricter rules on climbing the mountain have been in place since mid-February, and park administrators have started turning away campers on weekends. Last year, 23,000 people climbed Mt. Pulag according to article in the SunStar Baguio on Feb. 12.

Other plans include closing the park — which spans more than 11,500 hectares — on Saturdays starting 2017.

An hour-and-a-half after leaving the camp, the group reached the summit and waited for sunrise. I honestly didn’t think I could make it — I had to use the portable oxygen can thrice and took many rest stops before reaching the summit — but it was worth it. That Wednesday morning wasn’t the best sunrise as the strong winds had scattered the clouds which make Mt. Pulag’s view so special, but it was still beautiful. Sadly, I only stayed for a few minutes before having return to camp as I was already suffering from hypothermia.

The climb down was as beautiful as the sunrise though, as one can clearly see the rolling hills being bathed in the sun’s glow (and with it came the realization that one wrong step during the climb to the summit would have meant certain death) — and it was faster.

Mt. Pulag was the longest and most arduous journey I’ve had to take, and while I won’t be in any hurry to do it again, it was worth seeing that sunrise above the clouds at least once in my lifetime.

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