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A TARP FOR ALL SEASONS

One Halloween night nearly three years ago, a rogue typhoon changed course and came down hard on a bare Cordillera mountaintop. Rain runoff swamped my improvised earthpad and I was in a shallow flood all night, cold, shivering and wet but swaddled in an emergency thermal blanket. I was using an open-ended A-frame for only the second time, and I had never prayed harder in my entire life. Thus was my rough introduction to the challenges of tarp camping.
Many mountains later, the solo MLD Grace Tarp remains my principal shelter for the outdoors. I have slept under it for a total of 24 nights, nearly a month's worth, through typhoons, heavy rains and other difficult conditions on some of the tallest and most difficult mountains in the Philippines (headline pic: Mount Pulog saddle). For 13 other nights since I was in 2P tents or tarptents, while the rest were day hikes. But never again did I experience that epiphany atop the Batangan peak in Benguet above the Amburayan river. Maybe I have become a better, wiser backpacker. Maybe I am tempting fate, but maybe, just maybe, A-frame tarps are really the way to go as a shelter solution in tropical mountain settings.


Kanlaon volcano

The shelter is a catenary-cut nine-foot silnylon rectangle, wider at the head and narrower at the tail stood by two sticks at either end. You seal the stitches along the ridge once with silicone gel. I sometimes use found wooden sticks or borrow the trekking poles of my hiking colleagues for the night, but most of the time I use a pair of ultralight aluminium tarp poles designed for another product. I use up to eight Y-stakes to secure it to the ground, with three short guylines, permanently attached to the tarp via bowlines, secured by trucker's hitch on each side and two long ones tied to the top of the poles, usually via clove hitch if I don't get lazy, and trucker's hitch to attach them to the pegs. The entire assembly weighs about 700g. A thin polycryo plastic ground sheet, an improvised sleeping pad scrounged from a hardware shop, and an emergency blanket rounds out my 145g sleeping kit. If I get paranoid about the cold I add a batthtub and mesh insert and swap the blanket for an emergency bivy, adding half a kilo to the setup.
It's a space-saver because you only need about five feet of width, though camp site selection is crucial. You don't want flat or concave ground where rain water


Sicapoo

would pool, and you use natural features to block the wind and rain at both ends, which are open. Sometimes it just means pitching it under the forest canopy, or lacking that, use rock, hedges, or tall grass to bookend the shelter. If it's raining or windy I usually use my raincoat to block the head side and my backpack to seal the foot end.
The generous length means ample distance between you and the elements. Even at more than six feet tall I still have about about two feet of canopy overhang on the head end. Silnylon sags a bit overnight, but I have never found the need to fix the guylines.
Also, it basically has no privacy, so you have to change underneath the emergency blanket if you don't have the benefit of a nearby forest to shed your trekking clothes for camp clothes. But because both ends are open there is little condensation to worry about, a key issue for wraparound singlle-wall shelters.


Pinatubo volcano Delta 5 e-camp

The upside of course is weight savings. The entire setup is at least half the weight of conventional solo tents, and maybe a third of two-person domes. Now of course mainstream manufacturers are producing ever lighter tents, but they cost two to three times more.

A PORTER FOR THE LONG HAUL

After three and a half years the base has the colour of bare earth, the front and sides are smudged with the used black grease of old passenger bus undercarriages and the burnt trunks of even older pine trees, and the insides of the collar are starting to fray. But frankly I did not expect it to last this long, and up to now it remains my go-to backpack (Headline photo: with Kelvin Yap and an orange waterproof stuff sack along the Delta 5 trail of Mount Pinatubo, March 2016).
When I bought the 55L HMG Porter in late 2012 it seemed like a vanity purchase. The waterproof fabric, cuben fibre, was then revolutionary but largely unproven, and, even now, I suspect I am the only person stupidly using a lily-white pack, designed for alpine conditions really, to climb in the brown-mud conditions of wet tropical mountains.


Dulangan River, Mount Halcon, May 2015

But it was about the time I was shifting to ultralight and, after converting to tarp shelters and bivvies, the pack checked all the boxes: sub-kilogramme, weighing a mere third of an equivalent conventional weekend pack, it is basically an oversized sailcloth stuff sack with one opening and no zippers, top lids, kangaroo pouches or pockets and other frills. The shoulder straps do not even have load-lifter adjustments. Inside it has aluminium stays and a light, thin pad sewn in but no internal frame. The hip belt is spare and utilitarian and to close the pack you press the velcro together on the lid, roll it down, and strap it on both sides and across the top. The rather thin pack rides tall and stiff above my pelvic bones, just as I wanted.
Overall, it has performed as expected. I have taken it up and down about three dozen mountains I believe -- since last year without any pack covers. My first pack lasted four mountains, and my second one less than two years. The third, like my current one made with space-age fabric, is still with me, but is now too huge and heavy for my taste.


The first solo trek of Purgatory, January 2013

There were some minor adjustments I had to make to make its spare qualities work. There is no place to stuff your water bottle in outside, and for somebody who consumes a lot of fluid on the trail it was a bit of an inconvenience at first. Initially, I attached a tiny Nite-Ize carabiner on the shoulder strap and used a bottle clip to hang mineral water bottles outside at first, until I lost the clip. Now I just impose self-discipline and stuff the water bottles inside, atop the bin liner, re-hydrating only at rest stops. It also takes more effort to open the pack compared to ones with top lids, and with the benefit of hindsight I wish I had opted for one with full-fabric outside kangaroo pouches sewn in front and on both sides, like a tear-resistant HMG Sou

THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

It's single wall with mesh inners and a bathtub floor that sleeps two. The material, silnylon, is superior to the mainstream dome tents but the rig costs nearly half less. It weighs 1.2 kilos, about one Nalgene widemouth litre bottle filled with trail water, though occupying about twice the volume in your backpack. It's an outstanding compromise between a traditional, freestanding tent and a floorless ultralight shelter. What's not to like?
I have had the Tarptent Double Rainbow since late last year, but there had been few opportunities to use it because I've become comfortable, in all types of weather, with a solo A-tarp that is half as light. I finally got to use it at Mount Apo a few weeks before the mountain burned down. Most recently I used it at a coconut grove about halfway up Mount Naguiling in eastern Batangas. Both were in exposed locations and were both hit with rain, the former light, misty but continuous, and the latter in short but torrential bursts. I slept through both occasions, dry and comfortable -- maybe too comfortable as to get me thinking about abandoning A-tarps altogether. I've yet to sleep in it during a wind storm though.



All Tarptents are in rather drab greyish silver, but the main attractions for me are the bathtub floor and the privacy from the fabric canopy on all four sides -- things you give up with A-tarps -- for only half a kilo more or thereabouts. It's long, comes in one piece, and has a really tall ceiling and vertical walls. It is spacious enough for two, though it would probably be a squeeze if I shared it with a man of my size. I also like that both vestibules can be raised and set up as porches during humid conditions, or when the rain or cold are not major issues.
The main issues are the condensation on the ceiling, which would be a shock to those who have used double-wall shelters all throughout their backpacking lives, and the draught coming from both ends. The water will cling to the fabric though unless you touch it, but you can wipe it off with your headband. The walls at both ends are not flush to the ground, as they act as air vents to reduce condensation and improve airflow inside, but the tub floor is clip-on at both ends so it can be adjusted to block the draught. There are vents on both sides above the doors, but usually are not enough to prevent condensation.
Setup ranks as easy for me, once you get the hang of threading the long shock-cord solo pole running atop the roof through a yellow sleeve. A detachable brow pole can be threaded across the top. After that you peg the four corners and the two vestibules and you're done. Tarptent uses ultralight aluminium nail stakes, which are fine unless you are dealing with loose soil or sand.
When Tarptent first came out in 2002 its models were some of the lightest four-walled shelters on the market. Now though, 1.2 kilos feels heavy when stood side by side with models using space-age fabrics and materials, or volume-manufacturers using ultra-thin, rip-bait conventional fabrics. For sheer bang for the buck though, the Double Rainbow is right up there with the best. I would pack it to share, though A-tarps will remain my go-to 1P setup.

MINCED MEAT AT NAGUILING

I counted two complete rollovers before landing on my day pack halfway down the steepest section of the trail on Mount Naguiling. You are helpless up there once your feet leave the ground, so you might as well start counting. Miraculously, I did not break any bone though there was a distinct crack as I ended on my back, and I feared for the camera lens and the mobile phone. Like a superb sweeper though, Froi had done a good job moments earlier along the trail when I asked him to stuff the Canon inside the Deuter 15L behind my back. He had wrapped the camera in the ground sheet and put the empty water bottles in front, so the crack I heard was nothing but cheap PET bottles. I bashed my shin on the loose limestone rock on the first turn, but these injuries are acceptable on these sorts of climbs.
The mountain, about 940 metres above mean sea level on my friends' altimeters (I forgot to bring mine), rises like a dark green spearpoint above the rice farming village of Jaybanga, the usual trailhead. It is likely the tallest point of Batangas province, part of the Lobo range of mountains that also includes Nagpatong, Bangkalan and Banoi, all located in the hill country of Lobo that adjoins Quezon province. A few groups had made the multi-day traverse to Nagpatong and Bangkalan since the mountain opened in 2014, according to locals. Probably the only reason it had not been climbed as often is the absence of public transport to the hamlet. It is a good one-hour SUV drive after you cross the bridge-less Kansahayan river, a historic waterway for the Muslim slave raids of the pre-colonial era but which now acts as a moat in the wet season. The road beyond the river is beautifully paved, though with acute inclines and flecked with rock slides.
It was my first climb in exactly three months, and it showed. I was a step (or two, or three) behind my young friends, and the lead pack would be typically 15 or so minutes ahead of me at the rest stops. Your lung's capacity to process greater volumes of oxygen is diminished once, through work, medical reasons, or sloth, or a combination of all three, should stop you from climbing and running over an extended period. It feels as though your chest would explode from the deficit, and it takes a few hours to get yourself into groove. By that time though you'd be fighting leg cramps, which are, in a way, even worse. It's the equivalent of putting your thigh and calf muscles through the meat grinder.
The trail is roughly divided in two: The lower section of orchards, coconut plantations and slash-and-burn slopes are settled by migrant farmers in search of land, mostly out of Mindoro island across the Verde Passage. As the settlements expand, public access should become an issue as trails are blocked by barbed wire. The designated camp sites, just below 500masl, are now private property.
The beauty of Naguiling shows once you get past the coconuts, technically an invasive species. The rest of the trail to the summit corkscrews, counterclockwise, with good views of the grass top and rocky sides of Nagpatong before diving into the canopy. The tropical lowland forest is in good shape for the time being, looking mostly undisturbed and dominated by giant-boled fruiting figs. Hornbills croak above as you negotiate the steep and slippery single-track that is perennially wet, and we surprised a perching Brahminy kite early in the descent. The last part of the ascent is negotiating under and above fallen trunks near the top of a ridge. Froi, Rovi, and Corina took pictures of lichen, shiny giant centipedes, and wild orchids as they kept me company while I battled through cramps on both legs. Dekz, Josh, Angie and Jeni patiently waited for us at the summit, a lushly vegetated speartip with narrow windows to the south, with views of Nagpatong, Bangkalan, Verde island and the low mountains of northern Mindoro, and northeastern Batangas on the other side.
Excluding the extended lunch stop at the camp site, the 800-metre ascent takes about four hours, at my current pace, and nearly three hours on the descent. You'd need three litres of water or more for the entire climb. We stuffed ourselves with coconuts and soda at the first settlement on our way down and were back at the road well before dark.

BA'T NILILITSON ANG BUNDOK

Meron akong nakita sa FB dati naawa ako. Mga nagse-selfie sa summit ng Batulao ata. Parang ala silang kamuwang-muwang sa kung bakit itim yung mga damo sa paligid nila. Parang to them it was the most natural thing in the world na hindi green ang kulay. On the first hand, gusto mo iangat ang environmental awareness ng mga mas bata sa yo pero at the same time, napaka-mean mo namang tao pag mambasag ka ng trip. Parang based sa caption talagang unang bundok nila ito and it was with an immense sense of pride na mai-share nila ang supreme achievement na nakarating sila dun. Sa mga gaya naming namumundok, yung first climb namin, yung first summit, will always have a special place sa puso namin kahit gaano pa siya ka-chaka. Parang first love. So nag-facepalm na lang ako sa sarili ko.
Usually, dalawang klase lang ang mga sunog sa bundok o gubat. Una yung mga natostang area na di madalas puntahan ng tao sa pang-araw araw, like Apo or the Margaja Valley of Kanlaon, tapos yung mga malalapit sa mga kabahayan, like yung mga Batulao, Talamitam, Ugo etc. Me isang common denominator yan. Mas malayo sa tao, mas madalang ang sunog. Pag mas malapit sa mga communities, nakow, kadalasan by schedule na yan. Gusto ko mag-focus muna sa panghuli.



Di na ako mag-dwell masyado sa kung sinadya o accidental or sinunog lang ng lasing na walang magawa. Or kung asan ang proof ko. Di naman tayo pinanganak kahapon di ba. Taon-taon nga umaapoy e, so man-made yan. Subukan niyong silipin yung ilalim ng berdeng damo sa camp site niyo next time na mag-overnight hike kayo sa mga mabababang bundok. Malamang me mga maitim sa base ng clumps ng damo, mga shrub and tree stumps, or partially burnt na pine cones. Di ba kayo nagtataka kung bakit ang iksi at ang fresh ng mga dahon? Aba e dinaanan ng sunog diyan bago naulanan.
Dahil sa dami ng environmental warriors natin ngayon at mga platforms available sa atin sa social media, parang tinitingnan natin na bagong phenomenon ang mga sunog na ito, something calamitously out of the ordinary. Sunog ang Apo. Sunog ang Batulao. Sunog ang Kalatungan, sunog ang Kanlaon. Grabe. The sky is falling! Pero hindi e. Hindi to bago. Matagal nang nangyayari ang mga katarantaduhang ito. Yun nga lang, pinakamarami kasi sa mga nakaka-afford pumanhik ng bundok mga city rats. Yung di lumaki sa bukid, so lahat ng makita nila doon bago. So yung mga nakikita nila sa bundok na unspoilt, virgin, breathtakingly fresh, yun yung idealised notion nila as to how a mountain should look like. So talaga namang super upset ka pag yung reality na nakikita mo kaiba sa inaasahan mo. Pero dalawa ang gumagamit ng mga bundok na ito e. Yung mga locals saka tayo. Saka bisita lang tayo and halos unheard of ang lahi natin bago 1970s. And yung notion ng mga nauna sa atin ng land use and function over beauty, di magkatugma sa nais natin.
Hindi sa kinakampihan natin ang mga nanununog dito ha. We just want us to understand where they're coming from. Locals itong mga nanununog mga kapatid. Mga magbubukid, mag-uuma. Mga bundok at gulod na malalapit sa mga kabahayan sinasaka na lahat yan. Either tinatamnan ng mais o kamoteng kahoy o niyog or mangga o atis o chico, or pinapastulan ng baka. Wala na tayong complete wilderness sa bansang ito. Pero bago naging mga farms ito, mga lowland forests ito. Kinahoy ang makakahoy saka sinunog bago ikaingin, tas pag me tutubo ulit uulingin. At yung farm naman kahit saan, kung di mo linisin mayat' maya matatabunan yan ng mga tumutubong bagay. Mga damo, baging, brush, pati ipil-ipil na din. Di mo na matatamnan. Yung mga alagang hayop, pag lumago masyado yung mga halamang yan wala na silang makakain na damo. At di rin sila kumakain ng patay na damo kung me choice din lang sila. Bawat isang baka needs a large area, ektarya ang bilangan, for grazing or lalabas ang ribcage niyan bago mamatay sa gutom. At kung ekta-ektarya ang mga damong pinatay ng tagtuyot na kelangan linisin, ano dapat ang gamitin para mabilisan at di ka malugi? Kumpay? Gulok? Apoy di ba? No surprise there. Alam ko, naging farmer din yung nasirang tatay ko. Dati tinutulungan ko din siyang manunog ng mga tuyong dahon ng saging saka mga di kaaya-ayang plants sa lupa niya. Kahit nga diyan sa NLEX nanununog yung mga farmers ng ipa pag tapos na ang anihan di ba, kinakailangan pang tumawag ng bumbero kasi zero visibility na sa toll road.
Ngayon tanong niyo, bakit walang umaamin dun sa mga communities na inaakyat niyo? Bakit wala kayong nakikitang nagsisindi ng apoy sa trail pag mag-climb kayo sa weekend? Ba't ang sabi-sabi accidental lang daw, or sinunog ng lasing or ng walang magawa. Or kesyo natural occurrence ang mga sunog sa bundok. Ang sagot diyan e, kung di sila ang gumawa, ba't wala man lang effort by any community anywhere, na gumalaw para pumatay sa mga sunog na ito? Me nakikita ba kayo? Kunsabagay pwedeng tigang ang lupa, patay ang damo at kumidlat, nag-apoy. Pwedeng pagmulan ng sunog. Pwedeng yung basang dayami nag-chemical reaction kusang nagliyab, pwede din, me scientific proof din yan.
( Pero pwede din kayang me mga fire-breathing dragons or animals na lumalabas sa gabi na di natin napapansin na umaatake sa mga bundok natin? Marami akong discussions with other members of the local climbing community about this pero walang isa sa amin ang me alam na animal na gaya nito that has been documented by science, so di ako masyadong naniniwala dito. If it is proven otherwise fine, pero sa tingin ko masyado tayong credulous, or worse, disingenuous pag isisi pa natin lahat ng sunog sa bundok sa mga nilalang na ito.)
Pag wala pang nasunog sa inakyatan ninyo, stay behind after the weekend para makita niyo ang kaganapan. Ganito lang yun:
*Although hindi sa pangkalahatan, yung sadyang pagsusunog madalas ginagawa ng locals sa gabi hindi sa araw
*Mas madaling makita and therefore ma-control ang apoy sa dilim. Subukan mo sa araw at kung hindi baka gapangin ang bahay mo
*Pag sa araw ka manunog baka malitson ang mga baka't kabayo mo na pinapastol sa bukid. Isisilong muna ang mga kahayupan at ang mga pinapatuyong bigas o mais sa takipslim bago manunog

IRAYA

Bernard the Ivatan removed his flip-flops and slung them on the haft of a machete hanging from his rope belt as we reached the shoulder of Iraya, the Philippines' northernmost peak. Parts of the trail had been muddied up as the moist fog thickened and the cold wind picked up, leaving all three of us wet as we pushed on for the last 200 vertical metres to the summit with just wild palms and tall reeds for shelter. We had been warned the mountain is home to deadly pit vipers, but the barefoot guide, who looked a mere few years out of his teens, was not worried, giving us a colour-coded crash course on herpetology: The brown ones are harmless, but the yellow and green ones packed venom. I left it to my colleague, Jasmin the University of the Philippines biologist, to sort that out for ourselves as I gratefully took on sweeper duties at our rear.
I first saw the volcano on a solo trip to the remote and windswept Batan group near Taiwan about a quarter century ago, but for a long time, transport was a formidable barrier to ticking it off my bucket list. I had not at the time taken up my two all-consuming pursuits, mountain-climbing and bird watching, but I saw a short, powerfully-built Englishman with binoculars on the plane in who was there for the outlandish reason of watching birds. We were the only two tourists on Batan island and split the two available rooms between us at Mama Lily's, the grandmother hometel of them all in the now-world-famous Batanes tourism industry. Birder colleagues later suggested the strange man whose name I could not now recall must have been the late Tim Fisher, one of the organisation's founders. The older man staring at the camera on a wall at the birders' mountain lodge up on Mount Kitanglad in the far south certainly looked like him.



Iraya has no camp sites because the climb is done in less than a day -- just one whole morning for strong hikers certainly. All six other members of our birding sortie initially wanted to join me, but, since I was surprisingly the third youngest member of the party, I succeeded in scaring all but one of them off with what I thought were exaggerated descriptions of the trail. Our bird guide Roger Amboy took us to a corn farm at the end of the Basco airport runway at sunrise to pick up the climb guide, who despite the early hour was wearing dark sunglasses. He was instructed in Ivatan to take us to the summit and at the same time to spot birds for us along the way. He had just had a road accident in a truck, sported enormous black eyes behind his glasses, and thus could not see properly in one eye. There was an ugly long cut high on his forehead that required several stitches to close, and one shin was still raw from an open wound.
We began the ascent at birdwatcher pace, following a narrow gully that took us through the hill farm of Bernard's grandmother. Here they plant rice in dry furrows, in much the same way other people would plant corn. Jasmin is among the club's top bird spotters, and no movement or sound in the canopy, even cicadas, was too insignificant as to be ignored. She also liked to inspect seeds, flowers, and litter on the ground, which was a welcome relief for me who is accustomed to young people who are mostly interested only in getting to the summit at the fastest clip possible. It has been nearly 600 years when the volcano last erupted, and it now must have the densest bird population by species per square kilometre in the Philippines. We feasted on good views of breeding Japanese paradise flycatchers, cuckoo-doves, chestnut-eared bulbuls and black-chinned fruit doves in the dense tropical lowland rainforest. The terrain through the first half of the climb -- unbroken canopy with long windy ridges sandwiched between abrupt vertical sections, served our purpose well and Bernard, a local hunter, proved an excellent spotter even with just one good eye. When God handed out consonants though the Ivatans took only one, all the local bird names apparently began with the same letter V. Most place names are replete with the letter, and even the word for snake starts with it -- vuday.
At around 600 masl everything became wet, birds became scarce and taking out the cameras for photos became a major equipment risk. The dipterocarps gave way to palms and montane forest until the shoulder at 800 masl, where reeds reigned. The last section featured vertical walls taken on all fours. I was lucky I wore arm sleeves and gloves, and consumed only half my three-litre water load because of the lower temperatures. A few metres from the summit we saw what appeared to be two craters dangerously close to the trail, both less than two metres across and hidden beneath grass. Bernard swung his blade to reveal the ochre mud of the footpath. Even at our pace, we reached the summit -- 995 masl in my Suunto -- in a respectable four hours and change. There was no shelter nor any view there at the time, a complete blanket of cold winds and white fog. It was not called by locals the mountain of winds for nothing. We hurried back to the reed thickets to eat our packed lunch after taking a few celebratory snapshots of ourselves, and actually took longer to descend as we birded some more to our hearts’ content.

PINATUBO DELTA 5

A ragged line of headlamps crawled from the bank and down the dry riverbed about half an hour before daybreak. The sand is fine and mostly soft at the wide, lower reaches of the Pasig-Potrero river, slowing you down the more your legs put in the extra effort. Finding your way in the dark would be impossible without the lights ahead, but that moving glow worm, the standout image that drew me into the sport of backpacking a decade ago, is your safety rope.
Even in daytime, it would be fairly easy to get lost in this long, hot, and bruising river trail called the Delta 5, as we found out four months ago when our team attempted to reach the crater rim of the Pinatubo volcano, about 19 kilometres upstream, without a local guide. About seven hours into the hike, we made a wrong turn and ran into a waterfall and a solid rock wall that barred all further progress. This time we hired two bushmen at an Aeta settlement near the Porac section of the Subic-Clark toll highway. The silent, fleet-footed little men of the Zambales mountain range hold the key to the secret paths hidden amongst the tall reeds, cathedral-size boulders, tricky streams, and crumbling sandy riverbanks that makes the hike, a one-way 13-15-hour effort for mere mortals like me, just a tad more bearable. Delta 5 is the big, bad uncle of Santa Juliana, that Capas honeytrap where tourist cattle are driven up the O'Donnell river via big-tyre jeeps for the derisory 30-minute trek up the steps to a paved crater view deck.



The Delta 5 trail is roughly divided into three sections -- the flat, wide lower third of desert-like environment, a middle section featuring waterfalls where the rocks grow bigger, green vines sprout from the drying tidal pools of the dry season and red jungle fowl and reddish cuckoo-doves shoot across from above as the water channel narrows, and the vertical final section where you scramble up walls and through narrow slots where the Pasig-Potrero river is born to reach the open grassland leading to the crater rim. The riverbank camp sites are arbitrary, a testament to the fury of nature that alters the features of the river through the seasons. Fresh and fearsome rock slides dot the river banks, and a camp site that we used near the crater in another Delta 5 climb early last year has been overrun by boulders.
Drawing the wrong conclusions from two previous hikes up this trail however, I made the bonehead mistake of opting for water sandals and no socks, which I thought would be the solution to the miserable feeling of sand getting into your trek shoes. The cure was worse than the disease. I had pebbles trapped between the foot arch and sole that made it feel I was walking on nails, and the inner fabric of the straps trapped sand that rubbed on my skin, forming large blisters.



I was wasted by the time we left our packs at a clearing just above the last waterfall, the place we selected for our camp, and went on the final two-hour summit assault taking only with us water bottles, trail food, cameras and headlamps. I remember Laarni, Olive, Sharon, Corine and Hazel in that order zipping past me on the way up. To save myself from further embarrassment I got into Hazel's slipstream. We reached the vertiginous rim maybe an hour before sundown in overcast conditions, with a thin haze enveloping the lake and the blasted crater rim, leaving us to contemplate the rivulets of yellow sulphur flowing into the water's edge far below. The sun broke through just long enough to shine its rays on the edge of the water before it was time to go down. I hurried to join Angie and her son on the trek back, lest I be forced into a night trek with a just tiny Petzl e-Lite for illumination. Returning to camp proved to be more difficult than expected. At times it felt as though my chest was about to explode, so I sat myself atop big rocks from time to time like an old man, rolling up my sleeves and taking off my hat to catch my breath. In the end I had to do a 30-minute night trek. I had the tail guide, who had bioprospected with two clumps of wild orchid under one arm, for company.
Camp conditions were so mild that a few members of the team, including Kelvin and Nabil, slept out in the open without bothering to set up tarp shelters. Those in the tents had their vestibules turned up. I used rocks to anchor my guylines and had the tarp pitched high with the skirts half a foot off the ground to let the air in, which would have been suicidal had it rained. I had the satisfaction of having used all items in my sub-9 kilo pack load, including the emergency blanket as improvised pillow. The next day, we zipped downstream back to the village of Pidpid in just under seven hours.



Team leader Ian, trail master Tristan, Al, Mon, Francis, Nelson, Clarence, Jerico, Toti, Irving and Aldrin also joined this trip.

GRAM-COUNTING TO ULTRALIGHT

My epiphany happened during a Mount Amuyao traverse nearly four years ago. Crippled by cramps atop the infamous Barlig escalator I and a colleague surrendered our backpacks to the guides, the ultimate form of humiliation in the backpacking universe. Mine was a 75-litre monster that weighed 2.5 kilos empty. I must have been carrying nigh on 20 kilos. Right there and then I realised if I was to continue climbing I would have to lighten my load.
I was trained by a club that preached safety through redundancy and whose members took pride -- even and especially the women! -- in hauling the heaviest backpacks up and down Philippine mountains, so I had to look elsewhere for guidance. Several principles stood out:
1. Weigh everything individually
2. Kill the biggies
3. Need versus want
4. Multi-use
I now have two tabletop scales and a baggage scale, which I consider to be some of the most important equipment in backpacking.
Here's the battle plan I wrote after that Amuyao trip, updated to indicate where I am at the moment.
Bag. Pack. Tent. This is the unholy trinity that's weighing you down on the trail, apart from your consumables -- water, food and fuel.
But which of the three heaviest items -- or rather, systems -- to go after first? Obviously the backpack would have to be the last, all other things being equal, since everything else goes in there. That left the tent and the sleeping bag. Over the past 10 years I've gone from 2/3-person dome tents and tadpoles weighing around 3 kilos to 1.7-kilo solo tents and finally shaped pyramids and A-frame tarps weighing half a kilo.
Easier said than done though. The main thing is overcoming the shock of having to sleep basically in the open, with the grass and tiny creatures scuttling beside you in the dark because these shelters do not have bathtub floors. Also, you have to learn to change clothes in stealth mode, as these things do not have doors. For these, and to guard against leeches I bought an ultralight bivy.
Also, don’t forget that tents come with ground sheets. My first ones were thick, heavy tarps. I switched to lighter-grade ones, trimmed and with the grommets removed. For the past three years have been using plastic food wrap that weighs less than 50 grams. I am also experimenting with Tyvek, which is about 200g but covers a lot more ground. Also, upgrade the pegs if you can, as you are usually sold the heaviest, least functional ones.
We climb in the tropics where temperatures rarely drop to zero even at the tallest peaks, but my first sleeping bag weighed nearly a kilo. I later traded up for a 600-gram one, then graduated into a 400g unlined bag. There are quite a few local suppliers for these. The last move was to shift to a 250g emergency bivy. But after climbing Apo and Pulog over the past year without using these bags I am now convinced they are surplus to requirements. Pants layering plus a 55g emergency blanket will do. Maybe I will pack the ultralight bivy for leech-infested camp sites.
Below the bag usually is a sleeping pad. Did I need one? My first one was a cheap foam-lined nylon. I upgraded to a Therm-a-rest, which felt as if I was sleeping on my bed but weighed 800g. I figured if I wanted to be that comfortable all the time I better stay home. So I sold that and began using a 150g car windshield visor. Lately I have discovered double-sided reflective ventilation shaft insulators so now I'm down to 90g.
Once you've downsized these big items you now have the luxury of using a smaller backpack. For the rest of 2012 I used my 32-litre day pack for all climbs, be they overnight ones or five-day expeditions. Still, it weighed more than a kilo. I have acquired two sub-kilo packs since then, including a 482g one that cost about 3,000 pesos. How did they do it? Mainly by dumping the bells and whistles like top lids, pack covers, zippers, bungee cords, straps, pouches and pockets. Some went as far as dropping the frames, and even stays. Also, they were using newer or much lighter fabrics that are less durable, but are serviceable if you are careful with your things. Some are also terribly expensive, so you have to use your common sense there.
For the rest of my equipment, I adopted a ruthless "need versus want" rule. Do I really need this? If not, the item stays at home. If it is a need or is an emergency item, then I try to get the lightest one available.
I used to pack multiple sets of clothing, but now I wear one set for trekking and another set for sleeping. The camp shirt has evolved into a running singlet and the pants became running shorts and long wool socks. Do I need underwear? Can I wear my camp clothes at the wash up? Up to you. I also decided I did not need outer shells, making do with the singlet and fleece sweater. If I have to go out of the tent/tarp in the rain I would wear my raincoat over them.
Do I need slippers? The norm for ultralighters is no, but I can't get myself over it. I try to peel off my trek shoes only once I’m ready to go to bed, and once switched to 50g cloth slippers, but I hurt my soles stepping on the rocks at camp when going out to take a leak at night. So now I wear a Banana Peel (the brand), which weighs 155g for size 12.
For cooking, my first stove was an MSR Whisperlite, which weighed well over 300g minus the fuel bottle. About three years ago I began using butane stoves, the lightest one weighing about 100g in its stuff sack. If assigned by my team I still carry five-person aluminium cooksets, but I leave home the smaller pots. My mess kit is usually a 600ml mug and a 9g spork, both of which can be used for cooking. I replaced my heavy Nalgene bottles with recycled mineral water plastic bottles and a Platypus bladder. Did I need a seven-inch blade or a machete for peeling and dicing vegetables? Out went the big knives and in came a 23g keychain knife.
I don't pack extra batteries for the headlamp, though I always bring extra guylines. I carry the barest minimum of first aid stuff -- just pills, gauze and disinfectant for wounds, and a tiny toothpaste tube, a tiny roll of floss and tiny tissue packets. I use a tent peg for digging catholes. My wash-up kit is a shampoo sachet and disposable razor, no towels nor soap. Synthetic fabrics dry swiftly with your body heat.
Emptying my backpack onto the tent's bathtub floor I discovered I had forgotten to bring a bivy bag. Pitched besie a cabbage patch on the Kapatagan trail to Mount Apo, I was confident I would survive the night at 1,800 masl, but knew the real test would be at the summit, more than a vertical kilometre higher up.
In my never-ending quest to shave those extra grams off I got caught in two minds between bringing a bivy, which is a much lighter substitute for a sleeping bag, running shorts, rain pants and wool socks versus making do with the socks and two rain pants. In the end I got the wrong combo, though I was grateful I had adequate uppers with fleece, a raincoat and long baselayer plus gloves. I also had an emergency blanket.
My friends and I thought we had signed up for an easy climb when we joined Pau on his Kapatagan-Kidapawan "executive trail". I had been up this mountain three or four times previously, all going up through supposedly more difficult trails like Sibulan and Tamayong, and had planned to approach this trip in a leisurely manner. I loaded up with more than two kilos of camera equipment plus new backpacking gear for testing.
While the mountaineering community works itself up in a misguided, self-loathing frenzy over crowded trails and summits, illegal homesteaders are doing the real damage on Apo's lower slopes and foothills, slashing and burning their way through lower montane forest up to about 1,800masl on the Digos city side to clear land for planting cabbages, potatoes and carrots. The first two hours of the hike is a depressing trek through fog-drenched, newly ploughed fields. Higher up the forest remains mostly intact, with colourful orange and pink flowers in the underbrush. But even there there are early signs of burning, which is the first step to clearing forest land.







I had always struggled up forest trails, and this was no exception. It took me 10 hours to cover the final stretch to the summit. That was longer and more diverse than the Santa Cruz trail as I recalled. Plodding along like an old man and easily winded. I also did badly at my favourite surface, the boulders, which segues abruptly from the montane forest. I reached the lip of the old crater at sundown, testily surrendering my camera to my friends, telling them to go get their own summit pictures of themselves. I let a friend pitch the tent and promptly crawled underneath it to sleep. I woke up sore past 7pm and joined my friends for dinner before everyone decided to call it an early night, diving into our shelters as the wet fog and temperatures dropped. I love extreme vertical descents though, and I did better on the way down the following day as we clung on to the spurs of an ultramarathoner of a guide, reaching the ramshackle Agco resort in nine hours even with nearly two hours’ rest stops along the way. Most of the team were doing Apo for the first time however, and some laboured in the super-steep descents and river crossings. A few were freaked out by the wooden ladders with spaced-out rungs (not for short people!), staggering home before dawn the next day. As Pau later explained, the "executive" trail was a different kettle of fish altogether to the "VIP" trail also ending up in Kidapawan but which involves a mere half day's hike from about 2,400masl to the summit via the same dried-up Venado lake.
The best thing about climbing Apo is that it becomes your yardstick for all others. At both camps I woke up with a tent ceiling full of condensation, which was expected of the tent model. On the first night the condensation stayed on the roof as I slept with my trek pants on, not even bothering to wear the fleece sweater. At the summit though the trek pants were already wet from the hike and I was left with the running shorts and rain pants. It was fine until past midnight, when my leg bones began to involuntary rattle with the cold. I wrapped the crinkly emergency blanket around my legs, past caring whether the noise would rouse my tent mate. Surprisingly, that stopped the rattling. Some condensation also dropped on my face from time to time, apparently from a plastic clip sewed onto a ceiling seam that would need another silicone coating. In the end I survived the country's tallest peak without a sleeping bag or equivalent.
I give the tent, a silicone-impregnated Tarptent Double Rainbow a passing grade. Its high ceiling means you can avoid touching the condensation when sitting up, though it’s snug for two. As to the Petzl e-Lite, I had planned to use it as a replacement for a heavier, more conventional model, but the former turned out to be a bit impractical. It's a bit more difficult to direct the thinner beam, while the string strap is a pig to use. I will probably keep it in the pack as an extra headlamp, since at 27g with battery it weighs practically nothing.

10 FOR 10

Celebrating my 10 years* of backpacking, in 10 snapshots permanently imprinted in my brain:
1. The otherworldly swamp of the widows, Hardin sang Balo, at KANLAON. Also the riot of colour on the treeless, wildflower-studded ridge just below the summit.
2. The desolate, fog-covered red rock field with bonsai pines and oaks near the summit from the back end of GUITING-GUITING. More hauntingly beautiful than the iconic knife-edge and sawtooth peaks I think, but then that’s just me.
3. The golden light between daybreak and early morning, and then around sunset bathing the vast expanse of grassland above the treeline of PULOG towards the end of the long Tawangan trail.
4. The thin, white trunks of the ghost trees on the descent to the Aplaya camp site, with the waterfall curtains of HALCON for a stunning backdrop.
5. A whiteout at NAPULAUAN, the 360-degree wall of clouds turning into a kaleidoscope at twilight.
6. The giant APO boulder field, sprinkled with yellow sulphur crystals and enveloped in fog and the rotting foul smell of poison. Also the waterlogged grass carpet that traps unsuspecting climbers on Venado lake.
7. Tiptoeing atop jagged rocks sticking out above twisted dwarf trees near the summit of MANTALINGAJAN, and pulling up a friend who fell through one of the gaps.
8. The eerie, post-apocalyptic silence of the lahar-scarred Pasig-Potrero river, its towering banks bombed out by the eruption of nearby PINATUBO.
9. A three-day trek of the DARAITAN river from Tanay to the Pacific coast. And I can’t even swim.
10. Star-gazing and divining the meaning of life while shivering cold, parched and hungry, lying on our backs on garbage bags on the bank of a creek, having gotten lost on a day-hike mountain traverse to ANAWANGIN beach. The same range would claim the lives of two of my best hiking buddies less than two years later.
*Peak #1 Tabayoc, March 2006. Peak#117 Pinatubo via Pasig-Potrero, November 2015**
**Got lost and had to backtrack