Cordillera Administrative Region

Scaling the heights of Mount Pulag 

Mari-An C. Santos

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Scaling the heights of Mount Pulag 

'SURVIVORS.' The tour group welcoming the morning at the highest point in Luzon.

Mari-An Santos/Rappler

'In the face of nature, you cannot help but appreciate the beauty of a blanket of stars and changing landscapes, and acknowledge that, as a human being, you are a tiny part of that ecosystem'

“I’m in my forties and about to climb the highest peak in Luzon. What am I doing here?” This thought popped into my head as I put on my third layer of clothing at midnight, while outside, below 10 degrees Celsius awaited me.

As I laced my hiking boots, I knew I was at the point of no return.

Born in Manila, I was not raised to be outdoorsy. I preferred (still do) reading or watching movies or shows. I never learned to climb trees and summers spent with my cousins in Zamboanga City mostly entailed hanging out in my grandmother’s garden. The most time I spent in nature (if you can even call it that) while growing up was running in the grass in Luneta Park or a Makati park.

As a girl scout in grade school, camping was held at the field within the school walls. Our high school culmination included camping at Lemery Beach in Batangas. We had a canvas tent and my partner and I took time trying to get it to stand. When it was time to sleep, a light rain started, and the tent went down around us. We decided to sleep with our tent, now a blanket, on top of us. 

People, Person, Groupshot
READY. A group of trekkers before starting their journey up Mount Pulag.

I spent college on one of the most beautiful campuses in the Philippines, but the University of the Philippines-Diliman cannot be considered hilly by any stretch of the imagination.

But I have always loved nature. I like sitting under the forest canopy and hearing the songs of birds; I like sitting by streams and rivers, listening to the rhythmic sound that waters make as they flow over rocks; I like lying on the ground and looking up at the dark sky profuse with stars and a planet. 

When I worked for a Baguio-based nongovernmental organization serving Cordillera communities, I had the chance (and no choice but) to hike, trek, and climb in all five provinces – but not without difficulty. I was lampa (clumsy) even on paved surfaces, overweight, and tentative about going up or down landforms. But because I loved the work, I learned and managed.

Going up to Mount Pulag has been a dream for more than a decade. I learned about it from my mountaineer friends. They spoke reverently of the punishing but fulfilling experience of taking the Akiki Trail, one of the most difficult trails that traversed majestic and awe-inspiring sites. I thought I would like to do that one day, not take the “easy” Ambangeg trail that “just anyone” can take. But I never felt I was ready for it. 

Trekking feet

After the COVID-19 pandemic, my first outdoor trip was up to Mount Ulap in Itogon, Benguet: 1,846m above sea level. My friend (who is much more physically fit than I am) agreed to join me, though she had already been there. It took us more than eight hours to go up and down several peaks and took lots of photos along the way.

Last year, I went up to Doi Inthanon. At 2,565 meters above sea level, it is the highest point in Thailand. I found it more accessible because we went in a vehicle and went through the mossy forest walking on a wooden elevated walkway.

This year, I decided that it was time to finally go up the mountain of my dreams! I am in my forties, after all, recovered from pneumonia in my lower right lung due to Delta/COVID-19, and, to my surprise, in the best relationship with my body that I have been all my life. I’m no athlete, but I feel that I know my body’s needs and capabilities and, in a deeper sense, know myself better.

Profusely prepping

Three months before my trek, I started doing exercises targeted toward hiking and backpacking, though not consistently. A month prior, I was disciplined in my physical training. I got my gear ready. After Mount Ulap, I saw the value of investing in a trekking pole. I already had my well-fitted and worn hiking boots. I checked that my lightweight thermal and wool wear still fit, plus packed a quick-dry shirt. Then, of course, I booked my tour. 

The plan started with a bunch of school friends who wanted to join, too, but eventually, they were derailed and I was the last woman standing, so to speak. That’s why I was grateful that I decided to go with a tour group instead of planning the logistics dependent on my peer group. I am not an affiliate, but I gladly endorse Freesia Travel and Tours, which is owned by Kabayan locals, and their accommodations, Trekkers’ Homestay. Our local guide, a Kalanguya named Lorna, is a cousin of theirs.  

Nature, Outdoors, Sky
STEADY. First rays of sunlight just as a trekker ascends the Mount Pulag summit.

We started our “assault” (as they call it) at the appointed 2 am. As we ascended to Camp 1, I found myself catching my breath and falling back to the end of my group. Our sweeper, Lorna, reassured me that I would manage – after all, one of her recent guests was a 66-year-old man who completed the trek. Our tour coordinator, Roxanne, also said her mother, who was in her mid-fifties, had just come back from the same trip last month.

Apart from the physical conditioning, the task requires a lot of mental strength and humility. In the face of nature, you cannot help but appreciate the beauty of a blanket of stars and changing landscapes, and acknowledge that, as a human being, you are a tiny part of that ecosystem. We made it to the summit just as the grassland was bathed in an orange light and the ball of fire rose surrounded by fluffy, white clouds. 

I shed my warm clothes and eventually changed into a quick dry shirt for the last part of the descent, walking past a pine forest and picking some ripe wild blueberries along the way. As a reward for making it back to the homestay before noon, we had some carrot ice candy. 

So, what’s next? Am I dreaming of going up to Mount Apo and then Mount Everest now? Let me just bask in my achievement, surrounded by a cloud of mentholated bliss, and decide later. Much later. –

1 comment

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  1. GM

    This is a wonderful piece. It has suspense, frustration, triumph and grace. It’s also a great example for writers, especially young and developing ones, re how to write in the first person, without turning a story into an Oprah show, which too many do. Bravo and thanks to Ms. Santos.

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