A litre of water weighs a kilogramme, excluding the container, and the regulation for a two-day tramp for climbers with smaller body mass is eight litres. To accommodate the mammoth water load I had to use ultra-light equipment and judiciously let go many trail and camp comforts without putting my well-being at risk. It helped that I had climbed the mountain once previously, and learnt how difficult it was to carry 10L on top of a two-person tadpole tent. It is by no means impossible, but with the benefit of experience I was content to leave that option to my colleagues, most of them between 15-25 years younger. Thus did I trim the load to 5.06 kilogrammes excluding consumables like water, food and fuel.
1.085 -- cuben fibre pack with stays, single bin liner, pack cover, 2 rubber bands
0.36 -- 1/4 ground sheet, 3/4 homemade sleeping pad, emergency thermal blanket, absorbent cloth
0.765 -- silnylon shaped tarp, kernmantle rope, aluminium stakes, stuff sack
1.145 -- poncho, waterproof shell, long-sleeve baselayer, rain pants in individual ziploc bags, nylon mitts, stuff sack, slippers, plastic bag
0.35 -- wood stove, titanium cook set, lighter, plastic bag
0.355 -- first aid kit, bug repellent, sunblock, headlamp, mess kit, toiletries, ziploc bag, carabiner, bottle clip
1.0 -- rope
I left behind the sleeping bag, earth pad, tent poles and tent body, fleece jacket, wool socks, and balaclava. In their place I used a single-wall tent-like tarp that hung from a string tied between two trees. But for this to work I first had to make sure the camp sites provided enough shield from the wind, as well as tree branches for hanging the tent substitute.
Trowel and extra batteries were also dispensed with, and yet it would have been a self-contained pack had I brought a knife. My stove did not require any bottled fuel. For everything that could not be left behind at home I packed the lightest option available. The exception was the rope. We never found a use for this hefty item, nor did I think was it necessary, but it was a form of insurance, comfort gear to address doubts and unspoken fears at the back of our minds, and I was happy to lug it across.
Heavy rain two nights before the climb turned the rivers downstream brown, but gave us confidence that springs which usually dry up in the summer would be gushing when we passed by, allowing us to reduce the water loads -- though not by much. Even a slight miscalculation here suddenly turns the climb into a life-and-death situation, forcing you to raid the giant pitcher plants along the trail to drink the nectar swimming with dead trapped insects.
7.5 -- trail water, water containers, bottle clip, carabiner
1.64 -- trail food, group meals, packed meals
My club is renowned for the quality of its camp kitchens and victuals, but when doing the more difficult mountains the norm even for us is to simplify -- one dish per meal, with minimal water requirements for cooking. My total pack load was an acceptable 14.2kg on the way up -- and maybe 8 or 9 kg on the way down the following day. I am sure my colleagues' packs were way heavier.
2.515 -- bush hat, distance glasses, shirt, arm warmers, altimetre watch, work gloves, compression shorts, trek pants, socks, mid-cut trek shoes
0.55 -- point-and-shoot camera, keys, mobile phone, nail cutter, ziploc bags, waterproof sport case, money, eye drops, pen (my sole luxury item)
The rest of my gear, weighing another 3.065kg, were carried or worn. There's a lot of room to slash clothing weights there. The decision to wear a single pair of thin socks came back to bite me though. I grew a huge blister on the left foot the very first day.
But wait a minute. Do you really need to fleece the goose of its feathers?
Over the past year I have made it a point to re-evaluate mountain fashion in the Philippine setting, using my old body as the guinea pig. I believe it's a worthwhile experiment because I am a cold sleeper and get chilled easily, so much so that I sometimes trek in a raincoat under blustery conditions.
The surprising conclusion? Save for the tallest peaks, those above 2,500 metres, we have been overdressing.
The layering system, I believe, was copied from backpacking manuals in the temperate zones, where night temperatures regularly hit or even plunged below zero Celsius in the spring or fall. Admittedly, they do not have to deal with our worst thunderstorms. But although Filipinos raised in the lowland tropics begin to feel cold in the low 20 C's, it does not mean they need to wear all that stuff to find reasonable comfort.
For many of my climbs of the past year -- the notable exceptions being Apo and Amuyao -- I have consciously left behind my mid-layers, wool mitts and caps and settled on lighter combinations. Because it is bulky, dumping the fleece, or the down, along with the sleeping bag at times, is an easy decision to make as I have been forcing myself to use lighter, smaller-volume backpacks. I think I have settled on lighter alternatives that are just as, or nearly as, effective: Long-sleeve base layers, or alternatively short-sleeve base layers and arm warmers, beneath a rain jacket and an emergency blanket. By patient acclimatisation this combination would deal with temperatures in the mid-teens. If that is not enough, I just wear my raincoat on top. Fleece and mummy bag are easily 1.2-1.5 kilogrammes of ballast riding your pack.
For our legs there is more leeway, but still the Philippine norm is to use trek pants or rain pants under a wraparound Muslim skirt. But I believe I have upended the underlying theory there as well.
I have proven, at the expense of some ridicule, that running shorts can be worn comfortably at camp, even at leech-infested ones like the Kibungan mountains (use anti-bug lotion, in tiny sachets). They are not for the finicky, nor are they pleasing on the eye, but shorts with sleeping bags work for me, or alternatively rain pants and emergency blankets.
I would however still bring my mid-layers to known cold spots. The Pulag saddle camp is one, the Napulauan summit, and perhaps Halcon, if I get to climb it. But I don't really need them for many other peaks.
I first read about this minimalist stove last year in my obsession to downsize my backpacking equipment. The number-one attraction is you no longer need to carry fuel, be they 165g butane cans for Kovea stoves or 650g of white gas for MSR liquid-fuel ones. I only got one last month though. They are hand-made by a cottage manufacturer somewhere in the icy wastes of Canada, and shipping it the Filipino way took time. I finally got to field-test it in my latest climb, my first traverse of Mount Guiting-Guiting. Three words: It actually works! And in terms of craftsmanship it's a work of art.
Once you are able to build a fire, the Bushbuddy pretty much burns anything -- driftwood, cattle or horse dung, plastic, rubber, leaves, grass. If you are not careful though it will also singe your tent, your rain jacket and base layer. Technically it's an inverted downdraft gasifier stove, and burns more cleanly than my mother's full-size wood stove. The solid fuel is burnt into gas form, which is then pushed down the grate and up the chamber between the metal sheets, where it mixes with cold air sucked in from the holes lining the bottom of the outer sheet. The rich air mixture is then piped back into the fire box for a second round of combustion through holes that line the top of the inner sheet. We used driftwood found on the riverbank, dead twigs snatched off standing trees, and dead shrub and grass to cook a huge pot of fish stew a few hours before we set off at the trail head, and it also helped cook the pasta sauce. The tricky part is getting the bigger pieces of wood to fit into the box, so that embers do not fall onto the ground and cause a fire. Use your booted feet to cut them into manageable bits.
Also, building a fire takes some practice, but this is understandable. It took our paleo ancestors tens of thousands of years to tame the flame. I piled the bigger twigs at the bottom and the tinier ones on top, then used strips of the torn itinerary printout to ignite it. It took maybe a dozen attempts, but once it caught the fire was stable and hot. You only need to feed a branch or two into the fire box every few minutes through a gap in the pot base.
The ethical consideration in this hypocritical age of political correctness is whether burning dead twigs collected along mountain trails and around camp sites does not go against the so-called Leave No Trace Principles, but a cursory reading of the LNT website banishes all those concerns. The grate is also built well off the ground, so only harmless ash hits the metal base and does not scorch the ground.
The Bushbuddy has been around since 2006, the year I began climbing mountains, so I am building on accumulated knowledge on its use. Gather twigs along the trail, so you have enough fuel when you reach the camp site. Better to collect dead branches off a standing tree, because it takes harder for the sun to evaporate the moisture on wood lying on the ground that is likely moisture-laden. Flying sparks are caused by tiny steam explosions as damp wood is burnt, according to the manufacturer. It is supposed to be more difficult to use on wind-swept camp sites and during rain, but I have yet to experience either of those conditions with this stove.
It cooks more slowly than conventional stoves, but weight-wise it blows away the competition. By comparison the MSR Whisperlite with fuel pump weighs about 350g minus the fuel and fuel bottle, and the tiniest Kovea, the Power Nano, is 110g but you would still need a 230g fuel canister for an overnight climb. I store the Bushbuddy in a 1.4-litre titanium cook set and the entire package weighs about 360g. Worried about soot? Not a big deal. Just wrap the thing with a plastic grocery bag.
Well, he hadn't reckoned with the crazies of this world. Last weekend I and a handful of my friends joined a select group of relatively few humans (they number in the mid-hundreds, according to Remy Robiso, the guardian of the Olango-Tampayan trail) who had gone ahead and crossed it. But even amongst this traverse club there are several degrees of lunacy. The superintendent of the Mount Guiting-Guiting National Park, as this leg-shredding mountain range is known, requires a three-day climb, with a guide for one group and with every three team members requiring a separate porter each. The precaution is justified, since climbers have been known to run out of trail water, so the porters in effect become human camel backs. Angelo, one of our porters, once distinguished himself carrying an injured climber all by himself down the mountain, according to Remy.
However, creating the artificial limit is like hanging a pinata in front of a designated hitter -- it's a tempting target to break. Sure enough, everyone now wants to complete the traverse trail in two days -- our group of six did it in 27 excruciating hours of hiking. Some others had actually gone up there on a day hike, albeit this would be stretching the definition of a 24-hour day. It was my first traverse and second climb of this mountain in six years.
Although the chainsaws are not far away, Guiting-Guiting, located in the middle of Sibuyan island in the exact centre of the Philippine islands, retains a near-complete a forest ecosystem, something as rare as diamonds in a Filipino island setting. A tropical lowland forest starts across the river off the town of Magdiwang on the north side, some 105 metres above sea level, graduating through several levels upward to a cloud forest at the site of an old plane crash on the other side. Towards the peaks the rocks fully outgrow the trees, which are reduced to the size of potted plants. But the mountain's defining flora are its giant pitcher plants, with blooms the circumference of a one-litre mineral water bottle. Pitchers this big can trap and digest a fully-grown mouse. Above the normal-size treeline, rocks dominate the landscape, some as small as sofas and others as big as cathedrals. Some had the surface and colour of Pancake House waffles, though my perception could have been affected by sugar deficit. Laterite, according to the mayor of San Fernando on the mountain's west side, rich in nickel ore. Dindo Rios, a keen spear fisher and open-water swimmer, claims he was cheated out of victory in last month's vote by the country's mining lobby who want to dig up and haul away the ore.
My colleagues said they saw tiny black lizards crawling atop the rocks three times during our climb, though I did not see any myself. The most surprising thing is the impervious serenity of the place. A few swiftlets would sweep in from time to time, but the only sounds you hear on a regular basis are the chirps of mountain frogs, the sound of your clumsy footfalls, and your infrequent gasps of pain as you hit your knee or shin on a rock as you slip and stumble through. The fog rolls in and out with surprising speed, so that at times I could not see the lead guide when he strayed more than 20 metres ahead. The sting from the burning sun was relentless, even under cloud cover and even though the season was turning to wet from dry.
Alone amongst the known mountains in the Philippines, the modest-height (2,058masl) range inspires both fear and awe in the local climbing community. "At least in other mountains, when you slip you don't die," according to Niel, our former president at my club AMCI. "When in doubt, butt-slide," Grace added. Coming down from the summit on our second day the group got to benchmark itself with the range's infamous Knife Edge (or Knife's Edge, if you want to be pedantical), a stretch of treacherous ridge between Mayo's, the base camp of the traditional trail, and past a subsidiary peak just in front of the main summit that is aptly called the Peak of Deception. On this stretch there is a 90-degree wall that terrifies people, where you basically hug the vertical cliff face and pray that the next foothold arrives before your left leg runs out. There is another block of rock suspended atop a 200-metre rocky precipice called "Kiss the Wall", where you round the corner with your entire body hugging the protrusion. The trail runs generally northeast until the summit, takes a left turn straight down Mayo's, and swings left some more to the Camp 2 of the traditional trail to form a half-circle around two deep valleys, before running due north until the end of the trail.
With this mountain, as in most others, what you gain in terms of speed you lose in terms of perspective. To make it to the summit before dark on an overnight climb made it necessary for us to start at the ungodly hour of 3am. Tessa our team leader had us cook and pack breakfast and lunch for the first day, and Remy, a pastor in a Protestant denomination, led eloquent prayers at the trailhead, matched on the descent a day later by Basio's Islamic incantation. We did not really have a view in the first two hours of the climb, though we felt more than perceived that we walked on fairly level ground for the first 45 minutes and then wet our feet crossing the Olango river. After that it was a brutal ascent under the trees, led by our boyish guide, Don. We reached Camp 1, just below the first rocky ridge, at 6am and ate breakfast there. At infrequent clearings we could see the peaks of Guiting-Guiting arrayed like giant green sliced bread to our left, and the thin silvery ribbons of two rivers snaking their way seaward behind us.
We reached the second camp around 9am, but I have no recollection of the place, weighed down as I was with cramps on both thighs. It was like strapping leg irons on them then trying to keep up with Basio, who was dialled in on the lead guide's contrails. The regulation water load for the entire traverse trail is a minimum of eight litres, laced with more than a pinch of irrational optimism that the few water sources near the trail have been miraculously replenished by rain. I remember consuming seven litres on the first day alone. I was the last to reach Camp 3, behind Ann, as the rest of the group was finishing lunch there. The imperative was to reach the crash site, 300 vertical metres away, or risk taking on the three hours of the remaining boulder fields after that on the way to the summit in the dark, which would multiply the agony by at least a factor of two.
My cramps gradually disappeared and at 4pm we reached another subsidiary peak that had a breathtaking all-in view of the summit, the Peak of Deception, Knife Edge, and Mayo's Peak. All in, that is, if you have a super-wide lens, or you risk falling off the cliff at the back side. If I get to climb this monster a third time I would be carrying a DSLR camera and a wafer-thin, super-wide lens. We reached the camp site before it got dark. The guides called it, with biblical flourish, a Secret Garden, and it's true you wouldn't even know it was there even after half an hour scanning the treetops. But even though it was fully sheltered from the winds it got down to 16 Celsius a few hours before dawn. Not having brought a fleece sweater nor wool socks as usual, I woke half the team trying to unfurl an emergency blanket under my flimsy tarp, which hung on a thin kernmantle between two trees.
The next day, fully recharged, I led the trek down to the Knife Edge all the way to near Mayo's Peak, the camp site for the traditional trail from Magdiwang, until Basio sprinted past to prepare his usual gallon of brewed coffee, to go with lunch.
The descent to Tampayan and the DENR office in Magdiwang was a sort of anti-climax for me, having seen the trail previously. But even for first-time visitors, the superb, sweeping vistas and potentially life-threatening incidents behind us were hard acts to follow. Adventure junkies are always on the lookout for more. After refilling at Bulod spring, the headwater of one of the San Fernando rivers, we flew down to Camp 2 in less than two hours. The humidity did not relent with the shade -- it was like walking through a sauna, fully clothed.
We reached the river at the Tampayan side at dusk, and trekked with headlamps on the rest of the way to the park superintendent's office. All in all we spent more than 12 hours on the trail on the second day, on top of 15 on the first. I gave my newish raincoat to Angelo, the sweeper guide, as a gesture of thanks, and sheepishly asked JR, the other porter/guide, to accept my soiled bush hat as a memento. I ate most of the three pieces of grouper fish that we shared with the guides at the wash-up area later that night.
Having convinced myself that conventional tents are too heavy and some parts like floors and double walls redundant, I now use almost exclusively a floor-less, poles-free shaped tarp called a Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar (the brown one, below). The material is silicone-impregnated ripstop nylon that weighs about 482 grammes, less than half a kilo. With guylines, trekking pole support and conventional stakes the weight rises to 985g, or half that of the previous solo dome tent I had used. The weight could be trimmed down to 800g by replacing the pole and stakes with expensive materials, but I'm happy with what I have. The shelter is more storm-worthy than most tents, the only downsides being condensation beneath the tent wall and potential flooding during heavy rain. I just need to be more selective on where I pitch it. Grassy mounds is the rule of the thumb.
After concluding that I did not need bed-like sleeping pads, I banished my Therm-a-Rest and made do with a stripped-down car windshield visor atop a trimmed-down tarpaulin sheet. Together with an unlined sleeping bag the weight adds up to 670g. There is room for improvement here -- I am thinking of replacing the bag with a water-resistant ultra-light bivy and ditching the tarp for sorties into all but the tallest mountains where I would have to sleep way above 2,000 metres. That should cut half a kilo.
Going without a sleep pad means I do not have material to shape an ultra-light backpack without internal stays, so I settled on the Hyperlight Mountain Gear Porter pack with a single bin liner. The cuben-fibre fabric is white and while water-proof, it could be prone to punctures from thorns, and so I use an old pack cover. When at camp I also use the latter to wrap the handle of the trek pole, to prevent a puncture on the tent fabric. These add up to a measly 965g -- a conventional day pack weighs at least 1.3 kilos.
All together my so-called big three items of tent, pack and sleeping gear are at 2.62kg. That's equivalent to the weight of one conventional two-person tent. My colleagues would be carrying the equivalent of 4.5-5 kilos for these items.
I still use my MSR Whisperlite white-gas stove for efficient group meal cooking, a full-size Petzl Tikka 2 headlamp, and a plastic lunchbox with a cover for those packed lunches eaten along the trail. I have, however, acquired a wood stove burner called a Bushbuddy that should trim the stove weight by nearly a kilo for solo hikes. I now use a 2-litre Platypus container to store most of my trail water. I have switched my old Gerber paraframe knife to a Buck keychain-knife. While I have gotten into the habit of making do without a mid-layer fleece jacket, and using running shorts and singlets at camp I still tend to bring too much first aid and toiletries. My base pack weight currently stands at 5.18 kilos or 11.42 pounds.
The rest are food, fuel and water, which add up to just between 3-5 kilos depending on the length of the trek and water availability on the trail and at camp sites, giving me a maximum full pack weight of about 10 kilos. While it's not strictly ultra-light it's a remarkable weight saving -- some of my colleagues routinely haul 16-18 kilos for an equivalent climb.
It's a sad story, but one that is not exceptionally rare in the Philippine context. Their farms scar the upper portions of the surrounding wall of mountains that used to harbour some of the richest flora and fauna of the archipelago (There are dozens of bird subspecies that are endemic to the range, I learnt). They used to practice slash-and-burn farming in one patch then moved on. It was a sustainable form of farming, but now they have no place else to go, said this modern-day disciple of Saint Columban, apparently without much conviction. And now it's just burn and burn, I completed his story for him. I am just five years older, but the gap in terms of cynicism is huge.
I joined a three-day climb of the range's North Peak, a modest 2,085 metres above sea level on my Suunto. Its summit is about 300 metres or so lower than the main peak, which when we were there was hidden by the thick fog. Piktandazan, the Subanen call it, the wellhead of the region's rivers. I had insisted on bringing my full pack to the summit (I'm an ultra-lighter now, it's less than 10 kilogrammes, what could go wrong?) during the 3.5-hour assault and duly suffered, reaching the top about 10 minutes behind the bulk of the party. Getting your body and your pack under and over the mossy, fallen trunks drains the life out of a big climber like me. I was just thankful that it was mainly cool under the still impressive canopy. People actually donned shell jackets as our sweat dried. I made do with a disposable raincoat. Once we had lunch however I was fine and back to speed. The descent back to our base camp, the yard of an elementary school that has but one teacher in a village called Barangay Lake Duminagat, took just over two hours.
The main peak is closed to visitors, which has no established trails, we were told by our guides. As far as they knew, only two attempts had succeeded in reaching the main summit. I take this to be good news for Father Brendan as well as for myself, because it's depressing to see the desperate poverty all around you even as the treeline creeps higher and higher. According to Lester, the region has the infamous distinction of siring the Kuratong Baleleng, second only to the Abu Sayyaf as the most notorious kidnap-for-ransom gang to have emerged from the Philippines.
We tend to make noises against illegal logging, but maybe because it is politically correct as well as convenient to do so, we refuse to call out the ordinary people who are doing all the slashing and burning to eke out a living, acre by acre each planting season. The forest soil is thin, and is only good for a few plantings, as the priest himself knows by now, so they have to move even higher, across ever steeper slopes, just to get by. They are on a treadmill that keeps getting steeper. When they reach the summit, what then? The main Subanen village of Lake Duminagat, with about 50 households, is at about 1,400masl, but there are now farms on the subsidiary peaks above 1,700 metres. Is the government even paying attention? Malindang is supposed to be a protected nature park. When he and Father Brendan celebrated a thanksgiving mass three day later the Tuguegarao archbishop Sergio Utleg, the team leader of our 10-member party, ranted about the abaca farmer who cleared a patch of forest on the far shore of the lake to plant his hemp. But what to do?
The hamlets below the lake -- Gandawan, Barangay Lake, and Masawan get by with vegetable plots and yams. Pack horses are the main beasts of burden, and only motorcycles can penetrate the rutted roads higher up because their officials had stolen the funds for road-building. Locals amuse themselves with a relentless brand of karaoke. It took us a two-hour hike to reach Barangay Lake from Masawan, which is accessible via a hair-raising, helmet-free dirt-bike ride along mountain dirt roads. At our first camp site I was apparently the only one who got a good night's sleep because I'm immune to noise distractions as long as the inside of my shelter is dry -- or at least the top of my ground sheet. It got quite cold at 11 Celsius before dawn, and I was thankful there was no rain to flood the floor, as I had ditched my fleece and down mid-layers for the trip. Bugsy got a bit of a culture shock in such spare accommodations. The upside is that I carry less than a kilogramme for the floor-less shelter, instead of nearly three for a conventional tent. Archie and Aggie use a Tarptent Contrail, a sort of in-between shelter with a trek pole support that retains a bathtub floor, without the extra weight, while Lester and Attorney Nuesa now both use identical one-person Big Agnes Fly Creeks, conventional double-wall shelters that, due to new designs and fabrics, likewise weigh less than a kilogramme.
We moved our camp up to the lake shore, about 35 minutes uphill, soon after we got back from North Peak. The trail follows a narrow saddle that I imagined was the lake's spillway. Parts of it passed beside huge, moss-backed boulders. Walking uphill during a storm would be a terrifying prospect.
We had four guides for this trek and three local tag-alongs. The lead guide is Kramy, who is associated with Habagat, one of the oldest local outdoor brands in the Philippines, and the others, I was told, were accountants. It's a pretty well-knit group based in a region that boasts some of the most imposing local climb destinations. These guys are habitues of Kitanglad, Dulang-dulang, Lumot, Sumagaya, Kalatungan, and many lesser peaks in between, and appear partial to hammocks. It's good news because it means they use mostly wooded camp sites. The visiting climbers themselves are a mix from Manila-based AMCI, people from Laoag and Tuguegarao, Archbishop Utleg's territory. We agreed on most anything except red meat and durian, but getting around the dietary restrictions was an exercise in bonding itself.
The trailhead is on a mountain town named after one of the Chinese-Filipino entrepreneurs who settled in the region, but to get there you have to take a roundabout route taking you to the south of Misamis Occidental province and tiny mountain towns of the adjoining Zamboanga del Sur province, including Tambulig, Molave and Josefina.
From our lakeside camp it was a short three-hour walk back to Masawan, followed by a dirt bike ride back to Father Brendan's church to compare notes. It is fashionable among some of my friends these days to disrespect priests, but not me. They get to travel a lot and listen to the people, so they are walking encyclopaedias and a rich source of information, even with the restrictions imposed by the confessional box. I hope that he does not become discouraged, because there are a lot of poor souls that need to be saved there.
The year 2013 has been a curious four months of backpacking for me. I embarked on my first solo multi-day hike, have managed my one mountain a month desired average, and began a gear retooling process designed to bring me from the world of lightweight hiking and into an ultra-light one. However I have managed a mere two nights sleeping outdoors beneath a tent, because the three last peaks I had climbed were not difficult enough to warrant even an overnight effort. Arayat, Batulao, and now a Makiling traverse, all could each be done in a day.
I had done my first day-hike of Makiling more than two years ago, an off-trail adventure that took me nearly 20 hours to complete. It meant I was unfamiliar with the place names used in conjunction with this mountain, like Sipit and Palanggana, two hamlets that gave their names to trails that merge somewhere before or after the wall. Our previous sortie had started from a sinister place called Kabaongan. This time we arrived at the trailhead at past 8am however, and by the time we passed the traffic of climbers across the rocks it was nearly 2pm.
The Makiling traverse is an extended day hike, meaning you need more than eight hours to get down to the other side, assuming you are not delayed by injury, trail bottlenecks, or plain fatigue. The route to Peak 2 is 27 kilometres, according to the park ranger at Sipit, and I know the descent to the UP Forestry college on the Laguna side is more than eight kilometres long. Mher's stick pedometre measured only 15kms across the entire climb though. But whatever the case, it means you pack as if expecting to be delayed and be forced into making an emergency camp for the night along the trail. This entails bringing emergency food, emergency shelter, a headlamp, more trail water, and body protection against the cold. We caught up with the first group to leave the Sipit trailhead near Peak 2, two young men who had run out of trail water, and they went with us the rest of the way.
Starting from the balete tree above the treeless lower ridge the trail flattens out so that it becomes an easy stroll beneath the canopy as the forest changes from tropical lowland to lower mossy forest above the big rocks just beneath Peak 3. We heard a Philippine hanging parrot, or colasisi, along with a fruit dove, a coppersmith barbet and a brush cuckoo amongst the trees, but I could not quite find them with my full-size binoculars. Birding and climbing do not mix, as I should know by now, though I never seem to learn. One of the young men from the other groups we met along the trail asked if I belonged to a club, so I said sure, we're AMCI, but it turns out he noticed the binoculars and that we both belonged to the Wild Bird Club.
The Makiling ridgetops are a beautiful, largely undisturbed patch of forest, but are quite a challenge to navigate, especially in the rain-free heat of April. It's an obstacle course of fallen trunks, wayward roots and steep and muddy drops that tend to sap your strength in the heat of early afternoon, most especially for tall climbers who have to go down on all fours, as well as vertically-challenged ones who have trouble negotiating the slippery drops.
Learning from the experience of 2010 I packed a headlamp as usual and a lot of trail water. My day pack, a heavy, conventional 32-litre internal-frame one, contained a disposable raincoat, a folding trek pole that I did not use, made-in-Malaysia canned fish and coffee from Jepay, who was visiting from Singapore, my wash-up clothes, anti-bug lotion and sublock, packed lunch and the binocular case. The pack weighed about 8.5kg. I intend to carry about the same weight during multi-day expeditions in the future, using much-lighter gear.
Once you've it past Peak 2 you start wondering where Peak 1 is. It's not on the trail though, and instead it's a straight descent down to a rocky forest road on the lip of a deep, forested gully. You go under massive dipterocarps, trees that must have sprouted during the anti-colonial revolt against Spain, but then the road gets boring after a while. Stepping on rocks is also uncomfortable, punishing on the balls of the feet as well as your knees. Once we got to the coconut stalls above the College of Forestry, we rode motorbikes down to the college town to avoid taking the last 4K on foot.
This came out in the annual Prospects magazine of the Foreign Correspondents Association last month. I remembered I had been assigned to write the piece when a colleague vaguely dangling some form of access to Tibet approached me tonight and asked if I could take him on hikes too. I told him I didn't do mountains abroad but that he could apply to join our BMC programme come June:
In the first 11 months of 2012 I spent 24 days -- nearly a month -- toiling up and down Philippine mountains. As a write this, I am loading up my backpack for another weekend up there just before Christmas, rounding it off to four weeks for the year. Taking up this sport, or hobby, or whatever else you may choose to call it calls for a major investment of your time.
It is however time well spent in a profession where one works bad or uneven hours, is forced to eat bad food, and spend time in less than ideal environments.
The mountains are a world away from that which most of my fellow journalists -- or fellow Filipinos for that matter -- will ever experience in their entire lives. Savage beauty is a term we like to throw about in our copy every time we write about the frequent natural disasters that visit our islands, but few really experience it themselves. We do, every time we ford a river or raft downstream, with our packs as rafts, not knowing whether we would live to tell about it; each time we step on the tops of jagged rocks with cliffs on both sides of us; or rappel down deep drops with no safety harnesses. We feel it each time we hunker down at camp as wind and torrential rain pound our tents, or when we curl up inside a rolled sheet of tarpaulin on the trail to wait out the night because we had lost our way in the dark. I have survived a rampaging forest fire. I have also lost two dear friends to the mountains in just six years.
Our days are long, and sometimes they extend into the night. The packs are heavy, and the weather can change abruptly, brutally. Walking vertically on narrow trails is slow going, maybe a kilometre an hour. Mud is our ever-present company, we go without showers for days on end using a single set of clothing.
But oh, the rewards! The postcard-perfect pictures and video clips that we bring home and share with friends and family cannot possibly approximate the real experience. I have pitched a tent on a clearing surrounded by dwarf bamboo, by cloud forests, and on top of lichens. I've gotten up to a white dawn where everything was coated in fog. I have walked on trails carpeted with green moss, under thin, ghostly trees with crooked boles shaped by the high winds, and over fields of giant boulders flecked with the caked sulphur from fumes spouting from volcanic vents.A big bonus is acquiring the discipline necessary to enjoy this pursuit. I had taken it up fairly late, and as a result I sometimes climb with people only a few months older than my daughter. This forces me to train all year round, mostly through long-distance running, to be able to keep up with younger people. I am a lot healthier than most people my age, or even people half my age
In the end Carlito found the bird after several false dawns, dragging the rest of the team, some having already changed into their bed clothes, through the thickets to its perch. Jasmin won the lottery with a rare Canon SX40 picture of the grotesque-looking brown thing, its huge wide mouth really shaped like that of a frog.
The four-day sortie in Bukidnon can be likened to tourism with brains and a conscience, a pursuit where participants race against time travelling to the remotest corners of the world to see rare creatures before they are extirpated by the activities of man. Listed in one guide as one of the top 100 birdwatching sites in the world, Dalwangan, near the provincial capital Malaybalay, offers the best chance to see some of the rarest birds in their natural habitats, including the great Philippine eagle, a vast variety of fruit-eating forest doves and pigeons, hornbills, parrots and forest kingfishers, the creature-from-a-comic-book-looking Apo myna, two of the rarest Philippine sunbirds, the Apo and the grey-hooded species, and of course the Bukidnon woodcock, a large, snipe-type of ground-skulking bird that takes flight only at dawn and dusk. At times, birding became secondary as there was much, much more to see. Ruth rounded up five of the other younger members of the Wild Bird Club -- Paula, Charlie, Des, Jasmin and Abby -- and I brought along my kid sister Grace for a trip that took nearly a year to plan. When it came time to board the plane I almost missed it as I had forgotten the flight dates.
Much of the trip involved explorations of pocket forests on the north bank of the Sawaga river that echoed with the haunting call of the brush cuckoo. We braved leech bites in a vast plateau, much of which had been converted into farmland and which brought in other, more common types of birds adapted to living in grassy, wide-open spaces. Mud was the element that bound the two, which required our team to wear farmer boots, though I stuck to trekking shoes. One afternoon on our way back from the forest below Mount Dulang-Dulang, the country's second-tallest peak, we saw at least 50 yellow wagtails congregating on a field where farmers were sowing potatoes. As we passed into the lower boundary of the Mount Kitanglad National Park in one of these full-day sorties, we heard the unmistakable roar of a chainsaw motor. If there were any form of enforcement against felling trees, I could not see any sign of it.
For somebody more used to extreme backpacking, our base camp the Del Monte lodge at 1,325 metres above sea level was luxury accommodations. The lodge offered a mattress and a bedsheet under a roof, the option of beach tents, running water, a dining table and a cook plus unlimited coffee, which was helpful as ambient temperatures dropped to 15 Celsius at night. A picture of the deceased Tim Fisher, a pioneer in Philippine birding, adorns the lodge kitchen. When I climbed the range's two highest peaks less than three years ago, I carried my own tent, had to fight off hypothermia in early afternoon, and was able to identify only one bird, the olive-capped flowerpecker. This time, our birdwatching sorties took us up to 1,560masl to the eagle viewing deck, and we reached up to 1,790masl, atop one of the subsidiary peaks of Dulang-Dulang, in our search for the Apo sunbird, its breast a shock of glorious yellow washed with orange flecks under the canopy of a forest recently ravaged by Typhoon Bopha.
I padded my life list to 217 with 25 new species, including the beautiful Mugimaki flycatcher, the flame-breasted flowerpecker, and the strangely named cinnamon ibon. Apart from the Apo myna, woodcock and white-cheeked bullfinch, I finally saw Philippine hanging parrots in the wild, huge and powerful swifts called purple needletails, and even my first-ever naked-faced spiderhunter. I was intrigued by the beautiful song of the white-browed shortwing but failed to spot it. Nor did I lay eyes on the Philippine eagle -- only Des did, from afar -- but then the highlight of the trip for me turned out to be meeting a five-star birdwatching guide like Carlito himself. These should be enough incentives for us to make a return trip sometime.
If you find the scene bucolic rather than tragic, or worse, if you see nothing wrong with this mental picture, you are not an aberration. It seems most Filipinos as well as officialdom cynically feel the same too.
Trekking up Mount Arayat is on a wish list that is rekindled each time I see its silhouette in the morning haze during frequent birding visits the remnants of the Candaba swamps. It finally happened yesterday after I invited myself to a reunion day climb that Carmel had organised for her 2008 AMCI batch. She had wanted to bring them up the completely logged out hills of Talamitam or Batulao in Batangas, but I suggested they do a mountain with a real forest instead.
We chose to climb its south peak, the one off a highway leading to Cabiao and the more popular of the two it appears. It was a good place as any to check whether I had mucked up the altimeter calibration of the Suunto. I had the Mall of Asia ferris wheel base at five metres above sea level, the Arayat ranger station at 90masl, and the peak at 920masl. I climbed a big tree for more when we reached the summit, but it only added five more metres.
Some from my team picked up candy and junk food wrappers dropped on the trail by unschooled backpackers, but we were really fiddling with minor detail while the forest burned. The lower slopes are a wasteland of tree stumps and burnt shrubbery. We passed by numerous huge, sinister-looking mounds of earth that emitted smoke. For the uninitiated these are tree crematoriums, where the trunks of the slaughtered trees are buried to be cured by fire and turned into charcoal. One of the charcoal-makers told me later each sack weighed 30kg and sold for 270 pesos. So you do the math and weep. It seems we're selling our forests at nine pesos a kilo. Sad.
Apart from the environmental disaster below, the mountain does have a beautiful and near-pristine lowland forest cover. After about an hour, we were relieved to finally get past all the burning and into the shade, where we followed an ancient rockfall up its slope. Arayat is considered an inactive volcano, and the trail beneath the forest was bone-dry. Katrice saw a white-throated kingfisher perched really close and we also heard tailorbirds, coppersmith barbets, Philippine bulbul, as well as flowerpeckers and sunbirds, species both unknown. The trail is robust if deceptively short. It shredded Tinka's three-year-old trek shoes, for one. Carrying just a hydration pack also stuffed with a headlamp, a raincoat and my packed lunch, plus an extra litre bottle of water on a clip, I reached the summit after just two hours and 35 minutes tucked in at the back of our lead group of Josh, Grace from the 2011 batch, Rol and Beth. We set about laying out a picnic mat, brewing coffee using Josh's butane stove, and eating bagel personally recommended by Gloria Diaz (fair-skinned, with varicose veins, but engaging, according to Grace). This pack took just 63 minutes to reach the ranger station later, when they descended at a run.
Team leader Carmel, Bojo (2004), and most of the rest of the 2008 party -- Katrice, Effie, Tinka, and Howard followed up the summit camp site soon after we had drank the first pot of coffee. Froi, who carried his son on his shoulders, only reached a stone view deck just below 700masl where the toddler went to sleep on the flat rock overlooking the Pampanga basin.
I marked the end of the treeline at 405 masl. As we also saw a still-burning camp fire at the summit I fear this line will be much higher if and when I decide to go back. I suspect the campfire was set up by the group of campers who had stayed the previous night. We met them on the way up. I doused the embers with precious trail water, but a second group of day trekkers that came up after us later used it again to fry hotdogs. Hopeless. I wondered why they were carrying such big packs, but their big wok explained it all.
Though we were told by the locals the park ranger's office was open only six days a week, I saw a truckload of soldiers from a local military detachment outside when we got back, so it's really a question of political will, rather than resources, at least on the enforcement side.