BUKIDNON, Philippines – The 26 mountaineers caught climbing Mt. Kitanglad without a permit on Thursday, December 9, disregarded government protocols, endangered their lives, and disrespected tribal tradition in Bukidnon province, organized mountain climbers said on Sunday, December 12.
The Northern Mindanao Mountaineering Society Incorporated (NORMMS) said the 26 mountaineers, mostly from Luzon, weren’t supposed to be at Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park in the first place because it has been temporarily closed since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
NORMMS said the park was also undergoing rehabilitation, hence, it was declared off-limits.
In pre-pandemic times, mountain climbers were asked to seek permission first from the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR). The PAMB then informed the tribal leaders so they could perform rituals, said Raul Ilogon, NORMMS corporate secretary.
Ilogon said the mountain climbers also broke a 15-person limit set by local officials.
The Kitanglad mountain range is listed as an ASEAN heritage site and one of the few remaining intact rainforests in the Philippines that serves as a major watershed for Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental, and Cotabato City.
Mt. Kitanglad is also an important habitat of the Philippine Eagle and home to the Bukidnon, Higaonon, and Talaandig tribes.
The 26 mountaineers, including one climber from Medina town in Misamis Oriental, were charged with violating the Mt. Kitanglad Range Protected Area Act of 2000.
Seven more, who served as porters, now stand as witnesses against the mountain climbers. They were hired from Maramag town, Bukidnon, according to Ilogon.
Merlita Tabamo, the park’s chief operating officer and protected area superintendent, told Rappler the PAMB was serious in bringing the erring mountaineers to court.
“We did our part. We filed the complaint. We are now waiting for the prosecution’s resolution. We hope and pray that justice will be served because of this violation” of park rules and cultural insensitivity, said Tabamo.
The climbers were brought for the inquest at the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office on December 10, a day after they were caught and brought down by authorities from Mt. Kitanglad.
Authorities sought a P30,000-bail bond from each, and a P40,000-group fee for the tribal council for their failure to undergo a compulsory ritual before the climb.
Ilogon said the mountaineers were facing five-year jail terms and a fine ranging from P1,000 to P100,000 each.
“For years, we have strictly enforced the rule that only 15 climbers are allowed per trek. This has been regulated. A permit is required to scale Mt. Kitanglad,” he said.
Ilogon said the absence of the permit meant that the mountaineers proceeded to climb Mt. Kitanglad, bypassing the tribal council and disrespecting the local culture and tradition, a serious offense as far as locals were concerned.
He said the mountaineers were led by a man who gained notoriety for breaching park rules and accepted mountain climbing policies around the country.
“This climber refuses to follow protocols, forces his way in, and thinks he can always get away with it,” Ilogon said.
Ilogon said the group’s itinerary was to climb and traverse from Mt. Kitanglad’s peak to Mt. Dulang-dulang.
The plan was simply dangerous, according to Ilogon.
“This group underestimated the dangers of that trail. Many climbers had hypothermia while taking this path. One incident involved a seasoned climber who had scaled the Alps. He downplayed the cold until hypothermia set in, endangering everyone,” Ilogon said. –Rappler.com
Grace Cantal-Albasin is a Mindanao-based journalist and awardee of Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship