Mt. Pulag: At the Roof of Luzon
What more allures every Filipino mountaineer than to go to a summit and commune with the sea of clouds that no other Philippine peak can absolutely
equal while waiting for the sun to shine in its magnificent glory? Freezing that could even go as low as 0 degree Celsius, every trekker witnessed the changing of the dark sky from velvet blue in the beginning to a shade of purple pink, red orange and yellow. And as this happens, the cold wind gently blows the clouds as they carpet the mountain ranges reaching as far as you can see – a work of wonder one can rarely witness. Indeed, the picturesque Mt. Pulag charms any mountaineer to take a visit or two… and even more! At the summit, the grassland of dwarf bamboo (Yushania niitakayamensis), endemic to the Cordillera Mountains, is such a perfect combination for sightseeing. The flora and fauna are stunning and the trail along Akiki, the killer trail, is equally gorgeous and challenging.
The road to the jump off point is a combination of a paved highway on the first half and a rough and rugged road on the other half, and at some point perilous, requiring an experienced driver. However, even when one thinks of the cliffs and the dangers, the scenery depicts the captivating Benguet Province and the rest of the Cordillera Region. The outlines of the mountains from the distance are as crooked as they can be and their sizes are varied in form. A reality, nonetheless, is that some mountains are denuded and the siltation along the river is very evident. It was quite an experience and a concern on my part.
The 3-hour ride to the Department of Environment Natural Resources (DENR) in Kabayan, Benguet is incomplete without a visit to Ambuclao Dam, one of the biggest dams in Asia in the ‘50s but no longer functional due to heavy siltation. It serves as a museum for those who wanted to see up close how a dam looks like.
Every mountaineer who visits Mt. Pulag National Park must register and attend a 15-minute orientation at the DENR Visitor’s Office. The orientation was one of the best I had. Ms. Emerita Albas, the park superintendent and a famous persona among mountaineers, is a speaker extraordinaire. Her different antics make it enjoyable for everybody. The office is also a sanctuary for banners, pictures and memorabilia of different sorts from various mountaineering groups.
There are three famous trails on the way to the summit: the Ambangeg trail, an easy trail; the Akiki, the difficult trail; and the Ambaguio trail, the longest of them all and this one is in Nueva Viscaya.
Our group is going to take the Akiki-Ambangeg traverse. From the DENR office, we had another 1-hour bumpy ride to the jump off point. At this time, I felt so sleepy but I couldn’t sleep. The road was getting bumpier and bumpier. Everyone was so quiet gripping tight so as not to slip from their seats.
My stomach was already grumbling since it was already around 1pm. The last time we ate was around 7am at Pinkan Jo, a famous eatery along the highway before the Ambuclao Dam. I didn’t bother to eat some of my trail food and instead reserved them for the major climb.
I Passed Out at the Jump Off Point
The first thing that popped up in my mind when the jeepney stopped was, “Is this the jump off point?” It was like in the middle of a road less traveled beside the slope with a signage: Akiki Trail, Difficult Trail. I was yet to get energized from being sleepy, sluggish and hungry but I have to get my bag and start walking. I wasn’t prepared for a walk yet. It was literally a 60-degree incline at the start!
Walking up on the slope, my heart began pumping and pounding hard that I couldn’t catch my breath. When I was only a few meters away from the Visitor’s Office, I told my team leader, Carlo, who is a nurse, that I was about to pass out. I managed to sit under a pine tree, rested for a while with my eyes closed. Good thing I was still conscious of what was happening around. I firmly believe that that wasn’t the end of my journey, that I need to reach the summit before anything else could happen to me. The cool breeze helped me recover faster. I was sweating cold while I followed the instruction to breathe in, breath out and to drink water. After a few minutes I recovered then we had our lunch there.
On the Way to Eddet River
We started the first assault at a moderate pace. I was still hardly catching my breath but I coped with walking on my own pace. The magnificent view of pine trees around, complemented by beautiful mountains, blue skies, vegetable terraces and the cold wind was indeed a therapy to everyone’s fatigue. As we hiked along the way to the Eddet River, I regained my strength. The rest of the 2-hour trek was not much of a challenge for everyone. We rested occasionally to regain strength, eating some trail foods. After the first assault, the trail seemed like a fun climb for the rest of the gang. We were actually ahead of our schedule, arriving early at the first campsite when the sun was still up.
The First Night at the First Campsite
There were already groups of mountaineers ahead of us when we arrived at around 3:30pm. Before the darkness fell, we had already pitched our tents. I cooked our food for an early dinner. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to check the area to get a glimpse of the river and take a picture or two because of my responsibility. My officemates did.
The sound of crickets signaled the dusk, and the splashing sound of the river made it more relaxing and conducive for sleeping. Yet the occasional laughter and loud chatters of some mountaineering groups who were having some booze bothered me somehow because I needed to get a good sleep for tomorrow’s major assault. Lights off at 7pm, but I believe I was able to sleep around 9pm.
Assault to the Marlboro Country
The group agreed to wake up at 2am and start our climb at 4am the following day. However, moving was a challenge because the temperature reads 9 degrees at that time. Nonetheless, we braved the freezing temperature, ate our breakfast and started packing up. We were only able to begin the trek at 5:45 am.
Just like we usually do, after some stretching, we started at a slower pace. Subsequent to crossing the river through a steel hanging bridge, the 45 to 60-degree climb starts. And as we walked higher, we had a glimpse of the campsite glittering with headlamps and flashlights of the other mountaineering groups.
The beauty of the Akiki trail began to appear as the sun lit the surroundings. Massive pine trees abound the slopes of the misty mountains that speaks of nature’s morning glory. Everyone was silent as everybody catches their own breath, only a small chat every time we had a short rest. It was our way of conserving energy.
The Zigzag Path to Marlboro Country
The reason Akiki trail is dubbed as a killer trail especially in this area is that once you slipped, you will end up at the foot of the mountain unless you can grab a trunk or a shrub sturdy enough to hold your weight. The way to climb the trail is through a zigzag path, making it less difficult yet even longer. The trail is deceiving as well. You seem to think that the top of the slope is already the plain field yet it is actually a commencement of another steeper trail. It was as though we were ascending forever. I can recall more or less five of these before reaching our first major stop at the Marlboro Country.
The place is not the setting of the cigarette advertisement but just a semblance. Some mountaineers made Marlboro Country their campsite as opposed to the Eddet River because of its vicinity to a water source and the proximity to the saddle camp. Absolutely one of the reasons many mountaineers wanted to do the Akiki-Ambangeg traverse is because the view is absolutely stunning! What more can compare than resting under the shade of the pine trees, the cold wind gently blowing, and the surrounding is perfected by nature through the ages? Personally, this is the summary why I climb mountains: the appreciation of nature’s beauty.
The Mossy Forest
The vegetation of Mt. Pulag along the Akiki trail is divided into four parts in ascending order: grassland, pine trees, mossy forest, and dwarf bamboo grassland. I noticed that the pine trees just before the entrance to the mossy forest are exceptionally huge, really gigantic that they appear to have been there for centuries. Mosses and lichens grew on their trunks and barks, which really amazed me.
The mossy forest covering around 11,500 hectares is home to four cloud rat species. It also serves as a watershed for the major rivers of Luzon. It is the home to 33 bird species and other threatened animals like the Philippine Deer.
At this time, I started to feel weak. I could barely walk a 10-meter distance let alone my heartbeat was around 200 beats per minute, more than enough of what my body could take. My fellow mountaineers were ahead of me because I walked at my own pace until I reached the area where we will take our lunch. It was around 11am.
The Bamboo Grassland
“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” were the only words I could utter. But I need to push myself to the limit and I did. I’m just thankful my bag was a bit lighter by then because of the three meals we’ve already had. To compensate for the exhaustion, I savored every minute that I was in the midst of the forest, scrutinizing every hanging plants and orchids that I saw, breathing the freshest of air, which I don’t have in the city.
At the entrance of the dwarf bamboo grassland, just when I went out of the mossy forest, I was greeted by a view I only saw for the first time. Ah, this is nature! I relished all the splendors of a superb landscape while sitting on a 50-degree slope for more than 10 minutes. The mountains at the distance were covered with a bed of clouds and the blue sky was truly imposing in its grandest form, worthy of multiple clicks of the shutter button.
The temperature read 5 degrees when I checked my thermometer. The clouds hovered as I took my stride towards the saddle camp. A few more steps and at last I was on foot to the plain field, then I found myself walking down to the saddle camp. The occasional appearance of Mt. Pulag’s summit which was partially covered with clouds was a joy in my heart.
I was dead tired when I laid my bag down. It was around 3:30pm. My first impulse was to lie down as well. We were all blessed to have arrived earlier than the other mountaineers because we had chosen the best area to pitch our tents.
The peak of Mt. Pulag looks majestic and grand. The saddle camp is the lone and the nearest campsite to the summit which can be reached by a 20-minute trek.
I prepared our dinner and I had hard time cooking rice due to the high altitude and dropping temperatures. It took quite a bit to boil. The thick clouds wrapped around the area and the mists and the strong wind made it even colder. Good thing I have a sturdy tent with double coverings that prevent moisture from entering its interior. It was a nice insulator.
Hundreds of mountaineers still arrived even at sundown, making the campsite a virtual tent city. There was chaos at first and silence at the end. We ate dinner consisting of pork adobo, rice and corn soup. It was really arctic cold, measuring 0 degrees outside and 5 degrees inside the tent. After eating dinner, I immediately went to sleep and so did the rest of the group.
Wake up call was 4:00 am for us to witness the sunrise and the sea of clouds. We all complied. However, the wind was blowing furiously and the cloud was thicker than last night. Still full of optimism, we know we will witness what we all have come for. The temperature was still at 0 degrees Celsius. Then we were off to the summit at 5:30am.
The final assault was even more challenging due to the strong wind and poor visibility. My glasses were misted over that
I needed to remove them, making my path more obscure. I was still optimistic we’ll have good clearing when we reach the summit. However, there were already groups of mountaineers who were getting their way back to the camp expressing their frustrations.
I couldn’t express my elation the moment I stepped onto the summit. Standing at the roof of Luzon was the fulfillment and the reason for my hardships, for passing out during the first few steps, for experiencing the fastest heartbeats I ever had, and for long preparations as though it will be the grandest show of my life. I shared the same emotions as my fellow mountaineers.
Everyone in the group waited and waited for the clearing yet the scenery we all wanted to see was so elusive. We stayed at the summit for more than an hour, sipping hot coffee, a compliment of Travel Adventours. Despite bad weather, we were still able to enjoy each other’s company at the top of Luzon’s highest mountain, a feat only a few are determined to do, us now included among those few. What everyone experienced was not the sea of clouds but a natural environment with a 0-degree temperature, a very, very rare Philippine setting indeed.
We had our 2-hour descent through the Ambangeg trail to the DENR Ranger Station, ate our lunch and tidied ourselves there before finally heading back to Manila.
“Sea of clouds, you might be elusive when I was determined to witness you, but I know I’m going to see you… soon, hopefully with my Akiki Team again.”