In the shadow of a mountain
BATANGAS, Philippines - In the world of search and rescue workers the word "retrieval" is an ominous term, one that marks a departure from optimism.
When search and rescue workers say that they are shifting to retrieval, it almost always means they have exhausted all hope for a positive outcome. Usually, the transition is smooth, though it's never the case for the family of the missing.
Such were the circumstances when we arrived in Batangas on the 14th of April -- it was our 4th time in a week to climb the popular Mt Maculot in the midst of a large-scale search for a climber who had gone missing on Easter Sunday.
We had been among the first to respond to the call for assistance from the family and friends of the UP-educated Victor Joel Ayson who, after having climbed the much grander Mt Guiting-guiting in Romblon, made an unscheduled climb to the 947-meter peak in Cuenca, where he eventually disappeared without a trace.
The volunteer search had officially been called off by Victor Ayson's father after an initial sweep of the mountainside failed to produce results. We were climbing the mountain to meet with local mountain guide Richard Puso, a long-time acquaintance and owner of the store at the "Grassland" campsite of Maculot where Victor Ayson was last seen.
Richard had also been working as a ground coordinator of the search and rescue efforts on the mountain, having extensive knowledge of the trails and its terrain. We wanted to find out from him personally if the missing climber had been found.
We didn't get too far, however, before we ran into Victor Ayson's father. He was staying at a house along the trail that had been the base of operations for the search and rescue effort. We were surprised that they were still there and that the operations board was still filled with assignments.
It was surreal as well that there was a lot of food on a table meant for the birthday of Victor, the missing climber. Apparently, in his absence, his birthday was being celebrated in the camp. The mood was understandably somber, and though preparations had been made and friends had arrived to celebrate the life of Victor, it was hard to miss the irony of it all.
Victor's father offered us food and asked us to stay. I wasn't sure if he was just tired or he looked like he needed the company. We wanted to stay but then a call came in from Richard Puso, the local guide. He was with two of his brothers and a party of Police officers and Air Force soldiers. They were trying to climb down from a place called the West Wall at the foot of the Hindulanin, the fin of rock that is also known more popularly as "The Rockies."
They had attempted to recover the body of Victor where it was found by Richard's brothers, but the extreme difficulty of the terrain had made their situation precarious. We wasted no time and organized water and food supplies to be transported to the base of the route that they had taken.
To get there, we had to carry the supplies down the infamous 1,500 steps of Sitio Don Juan to the village of Napapanayan. From there, a local resident named Ellis Zara helped us find an outrigger boat that could drop us off at a point along the lake just below The Rockies.
It was past midnight by the time we arrived at our destination and we quickly set up a camp on the beach and waited for the people who were descending the mountain. We could see their lights and hear their voices, but it took another hour before they reached our camp. A cursory inspection of the trails above the beach revealed that the retrieval of Victor Ayson would not be an easy one.
The forest began just a few meters away from the water's edge and the terrain pitched up into a wall further inland. I advised Councilor Lani Adia of Cuenca, who was coordinating the retrieval operation for the local government, that she immediately ask for technical assistance from the UP Mountaineers (UPM).
It was Jong Narciso of the UPM whom I was able to speak to and he acted quickly, bringing a fully-equipped team with him a few hours later, along with members of the Alpine Club of Manila and Jeanot Boulet, an experienced alpine climber.
The plan was to build supply camps along the route to the retrieval site in preparation for the arrival of the technical team. Volunteers from the local police, the Air Force, local residents, and other volunteer groups began ferrying water and food up the mountain.
By the time the UP Mountaineers and Jeanot had rigged a rappel line down a gully on the West Wall, the ridge parallel to it was teeming with volunteers who provided support and communications. The technical team brought Victor Ayson down the mountain on a single line, breaking up the rappel into several sections. It took only a few hours to complete the entire operation, from preparing the body for transport to its final exit from the mountain.
In spite of the speed and efficiency, however, it wasn't until after nightfall that the technical team could clip off their rappel line and finally carry Victor's body down to the water's edge. Victor would finally make his exit from the mountain through an isolated pebble beach. His remains, still wrapped in a body bag, were strapped to a bamboo raft and pulled by a boat into the darkness of Taal Lake.
The rest of the retrieval team boarded another boat, and soon the coastline fell into a quiet darkness. The only clue of what had happened there were the candles that had been left burning on a boulder by the water. We watched their yellow flame disappear into the distance as we motored off into the night and made the final transition from rescuers to the faceless many who, at one time, were part of the story of a tragic loss and a fortunate discovery in the shadow of a mountain.
It is undoubtedly of some consolation to have finally found what we had been looking for in the mountains for the past two weeks. Though it would have been so much better if we came back with news of a life that had been saved.
Indeed, it had been the motivation of everyone from the very beginning, that slim glimmer of hope that we would come across Victor Ayson in the mountains, tired and perhaps a little worse for wear, but alive to tell the tale. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
It is therefore with a great sense of camaraderie with my fellow volunteers, and with no small feeling of loss, that we finally lay this story to rest. For the many faceless volunteers I met in the deep gullies and sun-bleached ridges of Maculot during the search, this story is for you. And if there is one last thing that we would all like to say to the fallen Victor, may you climb higher than this world, knowing that we have done all that we could. Rest in peace. - Rappler.com
Myles Delfin works mainly as a creative strategist but also as an adventure writer and photographer whose work has appeared in major adventure and travel publications in the Philippines. In addition to over 20 years of experience climbing the major summits of the Philippines, he has also competed in adventure races and endurance mountain bike events. Visit mylesdelfin.com for more information about the author.