Not everyone gets to say that they have died and gone to heaven. I can.
Mt. Pulag Akiki-Ambangeg Traverse 2011 literally was a walk among a sea of clouds. The majestic and sacred third highest mountain in the Philippines and the highest mountain in Luzon was as amazing as we have expected and much more. But then, this is jumping ahead of my story. And yes, the word “walk” might be a little of an understatement, it was more like “dragged our feet” or “crawled” or… well… you know what I mean. So first, here’s the story…
Day 0: Sleep please
More than the steep trails, one of the hardest parts of a climb is probably sacrificing one night to sleep on a bus just to stick to your itinerary; well to be honest it’s really to stick to your limited budget. Yes, people will probably think mountaineers are so hardcore, so used to sleeping on the rough, but believe me, if you’re faced with 11 hours of steep climbing, then sleeping on a moving bus prior to the climb isn’t really as exciting thing as you would think.
But no matter, at 11 pm, still bright eyed, we all met at the Victory Liner bus in Pasay. By 12 am our bus was off to the North. In my drugged and sleepy state (read: runny nose, phlegmy lungs and drowsy-Neozep-filled head), I thankfully slept through the whole ordeal and woke up only once in a stop over in Pangasinan. The group also got some needed shut-eye.
Day 1: What a long day means
An early morning 6 am Baguio greeted us as we got off the bus station. The weather was very promising but it was the start of our battle against the cold. We saw some mountaineers boarding the bus going back to Manila and we asked them how the weather and temp was in Pulag and they (jokingly, I hope) told us the cold was nothing and they were even able to sleep uh, naked.
After a quick breakfast at the 7-Eleven in Baguio City, we boarded a rented jeep. My last visit to the City of Pines was with my Mabuhay Magazine team almost 2 years back and the city was as crowded as I remembered. But off city proper, the view changed dramatically: rougher roads, fewer houses, and more pine trees (ahhh! me lovey nature!). We made a quick stop to buy our lunch and a quick pictorial at the thundering Ambuklao Dam.
Geek bit: Ambuklao Dam in the mountains of Bokod, Benguet is the first hydroelectric plant in the Philippines and one of Southeast Asia’s largest. The water comes from the Agno River. Once there, all we could do was stare at the thundering and crashing magnificent piece of water work. Apparently, kayaking is also an option! (Maybe next time!)
At 10 am we arrived at the DENR office for the compulsory briefing. Mam Mering, the Park Superintendent wasn’t around but the kind manong assisted us. There we found out that there will only be 2 groups climbing through the Akiki-Ambangeg Traverse. We met the other group during the DENR briefing.
Mt. Pulag, being a designated National Park, was as strict as it required DENR briefing up to its toilet management (yes, there are make-shift toilets in the campsites, so no peeing anywhere else!).
The DENR briefing, was er… brief, so after saying our “we’ll be back soon” to manong, checking out the banners of all those mountaineers seemingly boasting about their success in climbing Pulag (and vowing we would too, with a banner of our own), we went back to our jeep for a butt-wrenching, dust-filled, one hour drive to the Akiki Trail jump off.
Geek bit: There are 4 trails to Mt. Pulag. The Ambangeg Trail which will take you to an easy, breezy 4-5 hour trek for simple nature lovers is the easiest. For those who are more prideful and have a reputation to uphold as a mountaineer, they take the 10-11 hours, two- day trek called Akiki or Killer Trail (killer? ’nuff said). Those super hardcore addicts who must have iron rods as legs, take the Ambaguio Trail which starts at Nueva Vizcaya with 3 days of trekking. And lastly, the Tawangan Trail is for maniacs. Period.
We had a reputation to uphold so naturally, we took the more popular traverse-Akiki Trail (ascent) and Ambangeg Trail (descent). Kidding aside, we decided on this trail because it supposedly promised a better view (killer views!) and also to complete a major climb experience with all the huffing and puffing for full effect!
And huffing and puffing indeed! At the jump off, we needed to lug our “un-repacked” bags through a steep cemented stairs (and tried not to be intimidated by the “difficult route” sign at the base) going up to the Ranger Station to meet our guide and have our lunch. If this was a preview of the trail ahead, then it was aptly named Killer. At the Ranger station, we had our lunch, customary stretches and customary repacking and secured ourselves with one porter and Uncle Narsi Adais, our cherished guide.
Geek bit: Pulag is inhabited by several different tribes such as Ibalois, Kalanguya, Kankana-eys, Karao and Ifugaos and Uncle is a Kalanguya
The other group went on around 30 minutes ahead of us. By 2 pm we started the trek to Eddet River (where we will be camping for the night). It was quite an easy open trail trek and it was a gradual upward climb. The view was already breathtaking, pine trees were everywhere and the cool breeze was just right for an afternoon trek. The mountain expanse was so wide though, we didn’t dare ask which peak we’re headed to (if we could even see it already). Shortly after, Uncle pointed us to a traditional burial cave where skeletons of some of their ancestors lay in the open as if in a welcoming greeting.
By 4pm, the soft rumble of the river was a welcoming sound. The campsite was gorgeous and with the soft grass plus the soothing sound of the river nearby, it was a very ideal campsite. The idyllic mood was only marred by unnamed insects which preyed on me while we were pitching the tent. After this incident, my arms looked roasted and looked like they were feasted on.
After Uncle and Kuya porter helped us get water from the river, they bade goodbye and promised to fetch us the morning after. They were going back to the Ranger Station to sleep (yes, Pulag is much like their very own cozy backyard for them!). We settled for an early dinner and an early and strict “alcohol-free-except-for-one-bottle-of-tequila” socials. The cold was bearable, the moon was full and the group was enjoying talking and it was very tempting to go well beyond our 9 pm lights out sched but we still had a long way to go and promised we’ll have a proper socials the following night.
Day 2: The Killer Trail with the Killer View
By 6 am we were up and about. Our hearty breakfast included staring at the formidable wall-like mountain we had to climb to reach the next leg of our trek-the mossy forest. Uncle told us it was a 3-4 hour climb but warned us it’s one of the most, if not the difficult part of the Akiki Trail. Simply looking up at the looming mountain alone gave me a neck ache already, I couldn’t imagine climbing it. By 8 am, we crossed the picturesque hanging bridge and started our ascent.
And ascent it was! Okay, the best part was the cool weather, the view (breathtaking, amazing… Pulag will really make you run out of cool adjectives to use!) and the pine trees everywhere served as shelter from the sun. The not-so-okay part was also the cool weather (cool enough to resume my runny nose state) and the view was as amazing as it was very overwhelming. If you look too far up, your knees will develop a mind of their own and will decide they will not cooperate with you. And if you look too far down, well, you’ll realize you’re too high up it would be easier to just roll and fall back to Eddet River than to clamber up. Simply put, this part of the trek can easily overwhelm you but then it’s all about proper mindset (read: proper mindset meant resisting the urge to jump on Uncle’s back and beg him to carry you all the way to the summit).
Side story: Yes, Uncle did make climbing seem so easy. He was even in a chatty mood while we could barely hold our breath. Uncle told us he acts as a guide and also is a farmer to make a living. He has 6 kids, the youngest was 3 years old. We asked him if his kids have already climbed Pulag, and he said some of his kids already did, one was a boy scout who once went camping there. He also shared that his wife previously climb Pulag also regularly (as with most of the women in their community) but says she has stopped after giving birth to their youngest.
A side story to a side story: Just a few months back, Mang Roger (the most famous jeepney driver who regularly brought mountaineers from Baguio to the Pulag jump off) was shot and killed by, up to now, unknown suspect/s. Some people claimed he was killed by local guides, though more people thought it was set up by one of his co-drivers. It’s a touchy subject but Uncle readily shared his thoughts. Being a local guide himself, he honestly didn’t think one of their own did it. He said, they get their living from guiding mountaineers in Pulag and will never risk their reputation much more be a part of something as senseless as Mang Roger’s death. He said Mang Roger was also a friend, and they were as shocked as the mountaineers were. He said there were some rumors that it really was one of the co-drivers because of jealousy. In any case, we were all in agreement; we hope they catch the suspect/s soon.
By 11:30 we reached the part they call Marlboro Country, a small grassy area before the mossy forest begins. It’s also called cow country, where you need to pass through a herd of cows (don’t make eye contact!) to proceed to the mossy forest. At that point, we were about 1500 MASL and still a halfway to go. Trying not to think about it, we had our quick lunch and rested for the next leg of the trek.
One of the remarkable features of Mt. Pulag is its different sets of environment. The mossy forest experience felt like we were climbing into another world and climbing another mountain. Here you’ll find different plant species and the last water source (before the Saddle Camp). They say there’s also limatik (leech) present, which thank goodness was unproven because here was where I mostly slumped wherever and whenever I wanted to. I don’t know how she did it one of us also claimed she even had a quick nap!
By 3 pm, the mossy forest turned into grassland and the phenomenal sea of clouds view started. At that time, I would have shouted for joy but remembered from the DENR briefing that this was strictly forbidden so, lest I disturb the gods, I instead settled for a misty-eyed effect (from the incredible view or from utter exhaustion, I couldn’t be entirely sure which).
A few minutes into the trek, we found out that it still wasn’t going to be that easy. The grassland seemed to stretch forever, and after you climbed one mountain, you’d think you’re at the Saddle Camp already but another one will sprout. I’ve forgotten how many times we were fooled into thinking we were very near already, that when we were actually near and in view of the Saddle Camp, we thought the fog and the tents were all part of a hallucination.
The Saddle Camp was something like a cool and honorable campsite for the brave and fearless. This was sort of reserved for people who took the Akiki route (fortunately during our climb we mostly had the camp to ourselves with only the other group to share it with), and the coolest thing is it provided better access to the summit which was a mere 20-minute climb (whereas the Ambangeg people had an hour more of climbing). Here, the view from the campsite alone made the climb so worth it. The only thing that I didn’t really like was the construction the locals were making. I know they’re building it to provide shelter for the guides but still, seeing a construction like that takes away the bareness and natural feel of the place.
No matter though, and to top the amazingness of it all, Uncle and Kuya porter asked us if we wanted to buy anything, they’re going down (through Ambangeg route) to get water. The group simultaneously cried for Coke and an additional bottle of Gran Ma, I didn’t know whether to feel thankful or feel ridiculous (going through all that climbing, and here we were being told they can buy Coke for us??!!)
By 7 pm we were huddled for dinner and socials shortly after. The 9 degree cold temp was manageable as we made our way through Tequila, Gran Ma and an impromptu Christmas exchange gift. We parted with some of our small stuff like bandana, bonnet, whistle, lighter, canned goods etc. and exchanged it within the group while one of us (he-who-will-not-be-named :p) looted the rest of us and attempted to play a prank and give a whole bag of loot including the receiver’s own broken shoes back to her! There may also have been cries of “we’re trying to sleep” from the other group of campers which was mistakenly heard as cries of “snake!” by our group but well, it was Christmas and it was only 9 pm and we were in Pulag and we weren’t that loud (they were just really very quiet!).
Day 3: For the lack of a more eloquent thing to say, AMAZING
By 4:30 am we could barely wake up and it was tempting to sleep through the cold but there was still the sunrise at the summit which we all came for. We were the first group to arrive at the summit at around 5am, and it was still quite dark. A few minutes later, groups of people started to arrive (there were more groups from the Ambangeg Trail, but we didn’t know if there were any coming from the other trails as well). Our group moved away from the usual spot and headed to the left side nearer to the downward slope and waited for the sunrise. And as the sun came up…
Here is where I might just ramble on and on, and fill this up with adjectives synonymous to AMAZING but really, could anything be more amazing than having your early morning coffee while freezing at 2,922 MASL?? Could anything be more amazing than gazing (more like ogling) awestruck at the sea of clouds as the sun rises up in the horizon?? Could anything be more amazing than staring at the rolling hills, the greenness of it all and the feeling that you are so high up it feels like you’ve just died and gone to heaven but the excited thump of your heartbeat says you’re very much alive?? Could anything in this world be more amazing than these?? At that point we realized what the charm of Mt. Pulag really is. As cliché as it might sound, words are useless in describing how marvelous it was and photos will never really capture the feeling but it’s one of those “you have to see/do it to appreciate it” moment.
After countless photos, we reluctantly went back to the campsite to break camp and prepare for our descent. Uncle fashioned a couple of walking sticks and I hurriedly claimed one. At 9 am we started our descent through the Ambangeg Trail. It was very much an open trail but you could forgive the heat if it gives you an equally wonderful view. The route was quite easy and in this trail, Pulag felt very much like the National Park that it really is because of several signs marking campsites, directions, distance and yes, potty directions.
Uncle was still chatty and he shared several more things, he mentioned about the elementary school in their community and lack of books (outreach climb soon- a must), and asked about how they can get more marketing done for their services, like getting more techie with a website and all (something which we couldn’t really help him with right away since they were under DENR jurisdiction and has to go through government nitty-gritty first), and even sharing and pointing at plants and trees that they regularly use as herbal medicines which if developed could be really helpful not just to them but for the others. To my horror (still, fearful of the risk of disturbing the gods) he plucked some vegetable samples for me – paminta-like seeds which their household use as paminta and for medicinal purposes. When he saw my reaction he said it was totally fine to pluck them out since they do this all the time and they get their vegetables and herbs etc from Pulag (no arguments there).
By around 11 am, we were closer to civilization, and as if in déjà vu, the trail turned very Mt. Tapulao-like – open, with loose rocks and scattered pine trees. We arrived at the Ranger Station in Babadak (Ambangeg jump off) at around 12:30 pm. And as if freezing two nights and one morning in a row wasn’t enough, we also had no choice but to take a bath in what seemed like melted ice (yes, the water was that super cold, people will not tease you for screaming out loud in the CR).
It was an exhausting return trip to Baguio City, with some of us completing their adventure riding atop the jeep in some parts of the trip. A heavy dinner at the 50’s Diner back in the city concluded our adventure.
Unbelievable AMAZING (still, for the lack of a better term)
As a Filipino and as a mountaineer, it was such a privilege to be able to climb Mt. Pulag and that we have something as amazing as this in the Philippines. Reaching the top and gazing at the majestic view was, in a way a surprisingly humbling experience. That nature is so vast, and you are but one creature, a small part of it all; and that as they truly say, you never really conquer a mountain, you conquer yourself.
(Photo credits to my bestfriend and fellow travel blogger: Vera Irinco)