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RANGYAS ON BATOLUSONG

The trusty, frills-free Petzl tentatively lit up, blinked and then died after I loaded batteries recycled from two previous climbs. Corroded terminals, which I had stupidly neglected to check when packing for a day hike. It was at least two hours before daybreak.
Normally, when on a night trek in the mountain wilderness and your equipment fails, you're dead meat. But these are not normal times and this is not a normal mountain. The village was already buzzing with climbers, and shops were already open. Need batteries, no problem. Forgot your slippers, no problem. Want to buy a powerbank, no problem.



Batolusong, the young day trippers call it, a reference to the downs frequently enveloped in morning fog. Sea of clouds, is the popular term, a poor man's Mount Pulog. The mountains near Manila, as well as those near provincial centres, are now major tourist draws for a young, upwardly mobile population probably raised inside the virtual nurseries otherwise known as giant shopping malls and looking for something... different. I heard people actually have to queue up for up to one hour to have their pictures taken at Gungal Rock, the prominent outcrop at the Ampucao Ridge in Itogon that has been conveniently renamed, um, Mount Ulap. The line to get oneself tattooed with crushed charcoal by an old Kalinga woman in Buscalan is supposedly even longer, poor granny.
We boarded vans past midnight for the low hills of Tanay, near the southern terminus of the Sierra Madre, to view the um, sea of clouds, from



the best possible perch. Rangyas peak rises some 765 metres above sea level above the grassy flats, the muddy trail cloaked in a bamboo grove with feathery culms that cause skin rashes. Given a new leash on life by the cheap AAA batteries and with a full-size metal tripod slung from my shoulder, I brought up the rear as we were given instructions by the team leader Diane to "run" to Rangyas in two hours to catch the sunrise and toast her birthday with sparkling wine. These were young people who had just completed their basic mountaineering course and could run a marathon at a moment's notice. Some wore hydration vests for ultra-marathoners instead of the more traditional day packs. The kids promptly disappeared from our sights about halfway into the climb.



San Andres, the trailhead, is that sort of place that is in between an upland farm and a Manila slum. The first part is a dirt road where you still have to ford streams and refill your water bottle from a spring, but with the poor migrants busy burning the hillsides to convert into farms and where shopkeepers erect temporary huts along the trail to sell coconut milk, coffee, and noodles to visitors. Just before Duhatan, the designated Batolusong camp site marked by java plum trees below the downs, I and a fellow sweeper left behind a third member to chase after the rest of our group.



Too late, dawn had broken by the time we scaled the rock face guarding the summit. We missed the start of the birthday party, where Diane celebrated with balloons made of condoms, and there was no sea of clouds. We could see Laguna lake, Talim island, and the Pililla windmills to the right. But never mind, I'll take the golden light over clouds anytime. Still, we were the first group to reach the top, and on our way down we met many of the late arrivals. The descent is about an hour long if you're a trail runner.

THE VANISHING CABBAGE MOUNTAINS

A furious firefight underway in a remote Muslim Mindanao town may have killed off my long-term plan to climb the 10 tallest mountains of the Philippines. The swamplands of Butig south of Lake Lanao may not ring a bell, but with militants clearly having gained a foothold, it means #7 Ragang, the 2,815-metre-high wall that separates the Lanao region from the Cotabato basin, will probably be off limits for years.


Women porters join backpackers on the paved trailhead of Mount Pulog's Ambangeg trail. Terraced farms in the background

But what of the others? After 10 years of trying I have managed to tick off #1-6 and #10 so far in Pinoy Mountaineer's bucket list -- Apo, Dulang-dulang, Pulog, Kitanglad, Kalatungan, Tabayoc and Amuyao -- and I will probably make the effort over the next few years to visit #8 Maagnaw, the other peak of note in the Kalatungan range of central Mindanao.
A backpacking friend, Dave Rainwalker Llorito, has made the important observation that there have been no accounts of climbs in many of Gideon Lasco's list, one version of which sets aside Calauitan, which appears to be at least as tall as Amuyao. Excluding Calauitan, I myself had only done a modest 12 out of those 30. Nearly half Gideon’s list are Cordillera peaks, and eight are virtual unknowns.


A cabbage farmer on the edge of the remaining Mount Data summit forest

I believe I found the answer five years ago on a solo hike to Mount Data. The mountain itself just fails to make it to the top-30 list, but I went there to see for myself the birthplace of three of Luzon island's greatest river systems -- the Agno, the Abra and the Chico. What I found was a mere eight hectares of vestigial forest, besieged on all sides by bulldozers, cabbage fields, and even a large greenhouse for growing strawberries.


Near the Tawangan trailhead of Mount Pulog, being paved two years ago

Yes, many of the Gran Cordillera mountains of our imagination have disappeared -- burnt, bulldozed, ploughed, and backhoed to give way to cash crops. The process is remorselessly, illegally underway at Tabayoc, the first mountain I have ever climbed, where the Tabeo lake is now a mud wallow for the water buffalo that work the surrounding fields (see headline picture). This is not to knock the locals, it's just a statement of fact. The roads built to move the product, and people, to the markets of Baguio and beyond also make trekking easier for the backpacking community. But I must draw the line on "peaks" such as #9 Singakalsa/Timbak, where a clueless kid was bashed on social media for having a picture of himself atop one of the crosses built on a cabbage field at the summit not too long ago, or #16 Osdung, where one sees cabbage and potato plants after an hour-long hike. I don't plan to visit these places anytime soon because I do not think mountaintop farms with road access such as these deserve their places on the list.
That however still leaves many other mountains in play. I could not even find a reference to one mountain on the list, #25 Pawoi, elsewhere on the Internet. The Balbalasang National Park in the wild lands between Kalinga and Abra (#19 Cauitan, #20 Alchanon/Alchanar, #22 Bangbanglang and #24 Sapocoy/Saporay to name a few) as well as the sister peaks of Napulauan (including #12 Kapiligan) appear to be the last frontiers of the Cordilleras. I have climbed only three mountains in Kalinga, and we were hit with a signal number-four typhoon while doing so. Abra is basically off the country’s backpacking universe due to terrible roads and, until recently, law and order issues. As far as I know (and I could be wrong, as I've never been there myself) there are no existing accounts of climbs of these other mountains and no farms, since nominally at least, a national park is a protected area. But one never knows. It’s an open secret that our natural resources department cannot enforce these laws. We better get going before the cabbage farmers arrive.


Terraced mountaintop vegetable farm at Babadak, the trailhead of Mount Pulog's Ambangeg trail. The remaining tree cover, foreground, is being progressively burnt here.

CANDALAGA

Coffee and a shower were on my mind when I lost my footing on the slick ridge trail to our second camp on the high shoulder of Mount Candalaga. As is my wont when these things happen, I counted in silence while rolling sideways until my face broke the momentum by planting itself at the base of a thorny palm tree. Two full turns. Blood dripped from a cut beside my nose but I avoided more serious harm.


Nestor's group on a precarious bypass route above a waterfall

In driving as in walking, loss of traction is a scary thing that could lead to serious or fatal consequences. But they are normal fare in our sometimes masochistic love affair with the muscular brutes we call the Philippine mountains. You should see our trekking clothes at the trail head, and compare them to what they look like two, three or four days later as we emerge from under the labyrinthine green cave of the forest. And at 2,400-masl++ Candalaga, shaped like a primitive stone axe with the business end pointing northwards, stands out as a brutal technical climb, according to many of my young colleagues who flew south during the long Halloween weekend to make its acquaintance. The three-day climb crowned more than four months of training of my club's latest batch of recruits.



My pack load weighed 10.4 kilos, one more than usual, as we began the trek on a dirt road in Maragusan, a lush upland valley of rice paddies, bananas, and vegetables. Like most of Mindanao island, the region of Mansaka and Mandaya mountain tribesmen was settled by economic migrants from all over the country in the past half century, drawn by labour demand for first, logging, then the banana plantations and more recently, by illegal gold mining. The settlers named their new villages and towns New Albay, New Panay, and New Bataan to name a few, evoking their longing for home which they had had to leave to escape hunger.


River trail

The trail tracks the Agusan river to its birthplace, more than 300 kilometres south of the rivermouth on the Butuan coast. Organised in small groups, we followed rocky streams upward, periodically scrambling up and down thickly wooded ridges to avoid slot canyons, where the water funnels into deep channels, as well as waterfalls. By my count we probably passed by nine of Maragusan's 20 listed waterfalls. The bypass ridge trails were severe in their inclination and difficulty, frequently requiring the lead group to install rope aid. At times you rappel down without knowing what lies at the end of the rope below, while at other times you lose your foothold scaling a wall and you are left dangling on the rope and needing rescue. Walking with a full pack through the lush underbrush is an effort, since some plants have thorns. The canopy has many if not all the attributes of a tropical lowland rainforest, with the dim world beneath the giants populated by huge ferns with stalks the size of human wrists.


Iah rappels down a ridge wall

I do not know how the mirrorless camera survived my fall, but at least it was inside the pack at the time. Throughout the long river treks, it was in constant danger of being dunked into the water along with its rather clumsy owner. Some of the falls were tackled frontally, at times using logs as stairs. Even the simple act of picking your way through river rock, some jutting out as barriers and some submerged and unstable, saps one's strength. And just like most if not all river systems, the rocks grow bigger as the channel narrows while you walk upstream, raising the level of difficulty. At the first camp site some 10 hours later we regaled ourselves with stories of people crying, tumbling, hitting their shins or heads on rock, being bitten by leeches, pricked by thorny vines or being stung by nettles.


Olive and Tristan's tents

The second day was more of the same but minus the waterfalls as we gained in elevation. At the end of the river trek early on the second day I loaded four extra litres of water, planning to use most of it as a do-it-yourself field shower. I and two other members of my group decided to head straight for the camp site to secure the best sections for pitching our shelters, instead of going up to one of the minor peaks on day packs, which was just as well because I was wasted by the 500 vertical metres or so of climbing to the ridge top.


Field surgery without anaesthesia

It is during situations such as these when this pursuit becomes most dangerous. Fatigue causes your brain to switch off as it instructs your legs to go on autopilot. This was what happened when I went into my nosebleed fall. The early arrival at the camp site gave me the luxury of an improvised shower and coffee, but I then suffered a nasty cut on a foot artery as we cleaned the camp for those who went up the minor peak. I was stitched up underneath the camp kitchen, without the benefit of anaesthesia, by Shy, a real doctor, and Oli, a real nurse, allowing me to descend with the group back to Maragusan on the third day. Our reconnaissance team had covered this section in 2.5 hours, but the team took at least four hours, hampered by the mountain's extreme angles that required more rope assistance and caused more trail bottlenecks. Some of the stragglers were still streaming back into Maragusan by late afternoon. I myself feared the inch-long wound would be pried open by the effort, but the stitches survived without any swelling.


Break camp, Day 3

The second camp, the same one that split my foot open, also tore my polycryo groundsheet into useless shreds. It also swallowed up my spork and my toothbrush for good measure.

A NEAR-LEECH EXPERIENCE

It felt like grit in the eye, big and unmoving as my legs warmed up to the steepest sections of the descent just off Makiling's Peak 2. In 10 years of backpacking in the high-altitude wilderness of the Philippines I had been bitten by leeches many times in many mossy-forest trails, but none above the torso. I carefully removed the itchy worm with a brush of my fingers, fully conscious of the terror suffered by fellow climbers who had had the blood-sucking creatures tunnel into their eyes, ears, nose and other body orifices, sometimes resulting in hospitalisation. Early on in this hike Dave Rainwalker Llorito told us about the time a nurse colleague of his used tweezers to pluck a leech that had lodged itself in his eye. Apparently the one that stuck to mine hadn't managed to slice my eyeball open though, because there was no bleeding. In the event I did not panic. I always carry two types of eye drops with escalating levels of salinity -- enough, I think to deal with any problem even if the leech had managed to attach itself.


Lifted off the web. Graphic by Aaron Harden/Dispatch

I had a good view of a leech that attached itself to the mode dial knob of my camera. It's grey with a broad yellow stripe running through its entire body length. Parts of the yellow section were left on the knob when I ripped the bastard off it. In part it's a problem I think of my height and speed, or lack of it. Makiling is the type of damp mountain where bloodsuckers wait in ambush on overhanging vegetation. Being so tall means I invariably have a brush them with my head, which is why I wear a bush hat even under the forest canopy to protect my face from injury. I can't do much about my hiking pace though, and this is a 15-kilometre hike roundtrip (22 kilometres according to Dave’s smartphone) with a net elevation gain of 900-plus metres. I brought along my kid sister for this day hike from the Los Banos side, only her second mountain. She said it was more difficult than Mount Pulog's Ambangeg trail, but she turned out to be faster than me.
I actually survived without a leech bite for this climb, which is remarkable considering my pace. We used alcohol spray for the most part, which is the expensive option. Igorot guides load a piece of detergent bar and salt into an old sock to get the bloodsuckers off their skin, while I know of people who lather their trek clothes and feet with Vicks vaporub.


My kid sister on leech alley

Here are some fun facts and figures to get you sufficiently horrified:
* A leech can ingest 3-10 times its body weight in blood at a single feeding
* A leech wound looks like a Mercedes Benz logo, from its three sharp teeth located on its upper jaw
* Leech saliva contains hirudin, calin and bdellin, which extend bleeding time by inihibiting blod clots
* A leech bite can lead to bacterial infection that may cause pneumonia, blood poisoning, or even gastroenteritis
* Some leeches feed only once every few months, hiding under rock for most of the year to digest their food
* Leeches look for soft skin tissue with just the right taste before biting

LOAD ANALYSIS

A laundry-list dissection of my pack contents for the 3-day Bakun-Kibungan mountain traverse last weekend. The key takeaways:
1. In an enclosed shelter, I have no need for sleeping bags or bivvies for all but the tallest Philippine peaks, even in the wettest months of the year
2. I've yet to find a raincoat with a good weight-utility ratio and which does not tear easily
3. I botched the Tarptent seam-sealing so I need to do it all over again
_______________
2.060 kgs. trail water. One mineral water bottle too many in the rain, with Platypus unused for Day 1
1.500 food load. I was assigned to carry five cans of tinned fish and about half a kilo of vegetables. I ended up bringing home two cans
1.350 Tarptent 2P. Some seams leaked on the first night, which could have been nasty had the rain not ceased. We rigged a parawing over it on the second night to solve the problem
.935 5P cookset, smallest pot, cups, ladles removed. Its mesh sack was excess baggage
.900 backpack
.586 camera, bag. Not rainproof, so it stayed in the pack most of the time, a heavy ballast
.305 trail food
.260 fleece jacket. Unused on the first night
.200 packed lunch
.197 mobile phone. Drained on the first night, not worth bringing, as I had no intention to pack a powerbank
.196 shell. Water-repellent, not water-proof, so almost a disaster. Problem getting from the tent and camp kitchen and vice versa in the rain and wind
.180 slippers
.164 Coleman poncho. Front ripped open from heavy use, ponchos not advisable as bulky during treks, and wind-blown rain gets in at the sides
.141 rain pants. Took the place of a sleeping bag and a terrific investment
.114 long wool socks. Unused
.105 dri-fit shirt. One set of camp clothes for the entire climb
.105 shorts. Ditto. Best for 2000masl and below altitudes
.102 headlamp. Forgot to remove the extra battery, which was a deadweight
.100 improvised earth pad. Probably a bit too long, can be shortened
.087 stuff sack for the camera. Water soaked through, so I threw it into the garbage bag
.086 tissue. Too much
.080 backpack liner
.075 emergency blanket. This takes the place of the sleeping bag and/or tent, should things go south
.068 ground sheet
.053 extra guy lines
.045 undies
.040 lunch box. Next time the lid stays home
.040 First Aid kit
.030 Platypus water bladder
.025 toothpaste
.021 keychain knife
.020 toothbrush
.020 stuff sack
.020 mesh bag. It tore, needs replacing
.020 chamois
.015 plastic grocery bag. For the cookset
.014 extra peg. Alternate trowel and for anchoring extra guylines
.009 spork
.003 comb. Unused
.003 mini carabiner for the trail water. Got lost
.003 water bottle clip for the trail water. Got lost
.001 large rubber band, for sealing the backpack liner
_____
10.081 kilos

CHALK MARKS

The giant green chalkboard was alive with throbbing vertical white lines as dusk enveloped the wet rock face of Mount Kabunian. It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime picture for many of us who, unlike the few hundred people living in the next valley in this patch of the central Cordilleras, do not normally use the insanely angled carved stone steps beside cliffs even in the wettest months of the year to trade for salt, vinegar, blades, dried fish, and tinned food in the towns downhill. It was THE picture of the three-day, 19-kilometre climb.


A water curtain over the rock face of Mount Kabunian

Yet I dared not whip out the camera from the safety of my pack. Rain was pouring in sheets and the chalk marks, hundreds of metres long and more than a dozen of them spaced almost evenly across the face of the mountain, were actually thin waterfalls, less than two feet across, instant rivers formed by a day's worth of precipitation around the summit, a few hundred metres straight up from where we, jaws dropping in awe and wonder, had put our sodden packs down and stood to watch. This was the penalty for cheaper systems. After opting for larger sensor size over weatherproofing to improve image quality, I was the one, ironically, without a photograph to show for it (mobile phone photo courtesy of Corine Mae).
Imagine my frustration then when the wet afternoon of the first day turned into a near-full three days of relentless rain, turning our mountain hike into a cold slog over muddy, slippery trails, and our night camps into howling wind tunnels of spray where gusts pulled up the parawing stakes of our camp kitchens as we struggled to fire up canister stoves to cook our tuna sinigang, beef rendang, curry sauce for the pita bread and clam chowder, and where beads of moisture soaked through our supposedly waterproof tent roofs and down to our fleece- and -down and bivy-wrapped selves curled up on the womb-like safety of our bathtub floors. Nothing to worry about if you apply what you learned from our club's intensive basic mountaineering course, which was the entire point of climbing in wet weather. But as it was a traverse hike, whatever you missed going up you will not be able to see again on your way down. I took a few desultory frames from under the relative safety of the conifer forest on the first day, plus a few more between a short stretch of becalmed pines between the first camp site and the hamlet of Bulisay, where the rain resumed and we were greeted with a few more instant waterfalls that for me, was the cause of a few more heartbreaks and gnashing of teeth as the camera rode the pack unused, a half-kilo ballast on a 10-kilo pack. The trail is studded with foot bridges, either metal hanging ones, solid concrete, or mere felled logs or giant fern trunks.


Tristan and Rhea negotiate a cattle fence

The mountain town of Bakun, the lifeblood of a number of electricity-generating power plants on Luzon island’s parched west, is probably the wettest municipality in the entire Philippines. Whereas the place is relatively dry and its unique, chicken-droppings-shaped mountains covered in the ochre of drying grass with a sprinkling of Benguet pines after Christmas, here in the wet the vista is almost uniformly the black of rock and the green of vegetation, and everything is frequently obliterated with a cream cake topping of clouds. But the rainy season is also the time of the year when tiny pink and yellow flowers bloom on the exposed rock face, a sight to behold in the most unexpected places as you drive on and try to keep your core body temperature from plunging using ponchos, umbrellas, or even improvised garbage bags. Of course, where cold water is the blood-sucking leeches are not that far away. Often in these situations, the antidote to both hypothermia and leech bites is to keep on moving. As I found three bites today, it appears I was not moving fast enough, though I did not become a baggage for the team. It was a vast improvement over my last climb in the Sierra Madre, when I was among the last to reach the overnight Mount Mingan camp site. The silver lining here is that you can load a lot less trail water and survive.


BMC trainees climb through the fog

The trail between Kabunian and Mount Tagpew, the mountain on the Kibungan municipal boundary that was our second camp site, continues across several streams on the thickets of the valley floor and through the village of Amposungan, the start of a long ascent that takes half a day to cover. The trail, of red dead pine leaf litter and framed by green shrubs, frequently turned into water courses. The leaves of giant ferns, some incongruously rising above the trees in the lower montane forest, swayed under the weight of the raindrops as my grupetto of four members and a trainee bypassed the designated lunch area to try and catch up with our group leader Sharon Obusan Sarmiento, who towed most of the trainees with her. Somewhere behind us Corine Mae and Hazel Grace L. Perez escorted the walking wounded Olive Rapada Callo, while Tristan Pineda swept up after the remaining trainee. An Amposungan woman offered us the shelter of her doorway, displacing two outraged puppies, to cook noodles and warm our stomachs after our miserable botched attempt to set up a tarp on her yard.



The rain and high winds atop Tagpew split the climb party into two, with about four groups staying with the climb staff on the exposed ridge and four others crossing across the mini forest to pitch tents at a fallow cabbage field, protected on one side by a hedge of tall reeds. We rigged an extra parawing tarp over my shared Tarptent to keep out the rain which rattled all through the night. After a mere five mountains, it will need a new round of seam-sealing to patch up the seams as I probably messed up the job the first time. My latest poncho also did not last the entire climb, its front torn from constant pulling to give my head some swivel room from the constricting hood.


Hadji and Charles have their passport photos taken

Thick fog crawled up in slow motion at one of Tagpew's grass-covered rock faces at the start of our descent on the third day, like milk being poured slowly into a tall glass. Of course with the rain, even a gentle one, I could not take a picture of it. And irritatingly, the weather kept improving as we neared the endpoint, a cesspool of a dirt road behind a vegetable pear farm across the hanging foot bridge of the Mayos river. By then of course I did not bother digging the camera out of the pack to get a bird's eye photograph of the Palina rice terraces. This is a climb worth doing over and over, even on a yearly basis, and there will be other times in the future when the place will allow me to shoot a few frames in peace, perhaps even with a tripod. The municipal hall, we found out yesterday, rented out their upper floor rooms at backpacker-bargain rates.


MINGAN EAST

An old woman in Davil-davilan told us she saw many tiny lights on the mountaintop the night we climbed the storm-tossed east face of the Sierra Madre. I thought the gallon hat-shaped Mingan peak was too far from Dingalan Bay to pick out lit headlamps at night. Was that your group, she insisted, as we waited for our ride to the wash-up area. Was it cold?



I was certainly overcome by sensory overload during the fairly difficult outing, but getting cold was not one of them. I trekked in the rain for the last two hours or so of the climb to the mossy forest camp site without using a raincoat, and again for the assault to the summit and the first part of the steep descent in stormy conditions the following morning. It was cosy inside the single-wall Tarptent Double Rainbow, even with the vestibule open and in awning mode the entire night amid gentle rain, and I was in running shorts and a long-sleeved trail running shirt for most of the night, only pulling on a DriDucks set after midnight. Yes, I use a raincoat for sleeping. Much lighter than a shell jacket but serves the same purpose.



It's a beautiful mountain, Mingan is, and so rarely climbed its itinerary does not even appear in my friend Gideon’s popular PinoyMountaineer directory. There are few mountains left with unbroken tropical lowland rainforest canopies due to uncontrolled migration by disenfranchised farmers in search of land. But Mingan is one, give or take one or two swidden farms above the river approach. Its remote location, on a place that serves as a landfall for about a third of typhoons coming from the Pacific Ocean, works in its favour, for now. Over the past 15 years a team of US and Filipino scientists discovered more than two dozen new mammal species in nearby mountains.
We climbed this mountain from the west side two years ago, on a rosary trail from Gabaldon. This time, we took the east side from Davil-davilan, about 4.5 hours by chartered bus from Manila. The ascent is roughly divided into three parts -- the fairly flat river trek that takes about three hours with an elevation gain of just over 200 vertical metres, the lowland forest that reaches up to around 800 metres above sea level, and the lower montane forest of moss-backed thin trees that takes you all the way to the camp site.



I was fine during the flattish river trek, on one of my favourite surfaces, rock outcrops with water traps. I took position at the rear of my group, as one of the sweepers, advancing on occasion to help out a teammate or search for an alternate trail. Our group was led by Sharon I think, our Duracell/Energiser bunny who does not stop to rest until the charge is exhausted. Ian our group leader took the middle. We reached the J-shaped waterfall, the endpoint of the river trek, an hour ahead of schedule for an early lunch. From water and rock, the trail became a vertical wall to the left of the waterway.
As a rough measure of the condition of a forest ecosystem I use the birdlife. The ones that harbour rufous hornbills, one of the country's largest and most beautiful birds, rank up there for me with those that still allow the Philippine eagle to survive, and Mingan is one of the former. Their honking calls, described by some colleagues as very like those of barking dogs, reverberated in the canopy as the trail transitioned into a real climb. My legs basically gave way when we reached the top of the canyon, arbitrarily named Camp 2, hit with familiar cramps, even though I carried no more than 9 kilos on a self-contained pack. Salt sticks and stinging balms were of little help. Two colleagues stayed with me while the rest of the team went ahead, and we joined the rest of the stragglers behind us, people who, for the most part, were doing only their second mountain in their entire lives.
The slower pace and frequent stops did give me time to appreciate the forest, though for the most part I could not be bothered to take pictures. It is a land of giants, trees with huge boles, trees with large white spots on their trunks, glabrous trees on which the Filipino legend of kapre was built, and strangler figs, massive, tree-like vines that wrap themselves around proper trees, like reticulated pythons moving at a glacial pace. Crawling underneath fallen trunks to get across was a constant effort.
Some trees have hollowed out bases, as if their insides had been consumed by a fire, though there was no sign of human activity beyond the single-track trail. At Camp 3 we saw a huge, electric-blue earthworm slithering above the forest litter. It must have been a foot long, its body as fat as my ring finger. I was stung on the crook of the elbow by a wasp beneath a giant balete, and David had to dig out the needle with his fingernails.



As we reached the edge of the lower montane forest it began to rain, which was relief for me. Here the most dominant flora in terms of the ground litter are the giant palms, though you only tend to notice the green plant ecosystems sprouting on the trunks of the trees. This part of the forest is at cloud level and is almost always wet with fog. At one point my right arm broke a dead branch, and resident tiny ants took revenge with minute stinging bites. The ascent must have taken me nine hours. I used a pair of gloves but still ended up with cuts on my fingertips.
Inconsiderate, space-hogging other members of the climb team meant my group only managed to pitch four tents, mine included miraculously, though I worried about the thorny rattan vines on the ground puncturing the tent floor and the vestibule catching fire from the many stoves that were simultaneously being used in close proximity. We had to cook the penne, vegetarian kare-kare, rice and coffee by the door with the vestibule rolled up. Behind us was a wooded cliff facing into the wind, so there was no place else to stand the other tents. We improvised by lashing three tarps among the tree trunks, with three of the tents bracketing the sides of our camp kitchen. Eight members of our group slept under the tarps after dinner and socials. It was such a squeeze I gave up on taking pictures. Some other groups were worse off, actually, left to pitch tents on 10-15-degree inclines. I saw Lester, one of the team sweepers, setting up his shelter beside the trail until somebody gave him space in the place where the climb staff set up theirs.



If the ascent was hell for me the descent the following day was cakewalk by comparison, even though the rain had turned sections of the trail into a mudslide. Maybe I am lucky in that sense because most were in all sorts of difficulties here. It's more of technique and commitment rather than strength and endurance, and of using the law of gravity to speed up the process while making sure you do not end up with a broken neck at the bottom. I ignored the rope at the steepest sections, preferring the trees and shrubs on the sides and trusting in my footwork, to catch up with the first groups to descend at the coconut grove by lunchtime. I hope to improve on my ascending with more regular runs, though realistically that would be a challenge to squeeze in between work and other interests.

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.