A wispy figure stealthily left the trail as we stood up to resume our descent from beneath an ancient mangese tree on the lower skirts of Mantalingahan. I could see a pair of frightened eyes peering through a wall of dark green saplings, but it took a lot of slow talk and friendly hand gestures to coax the woman out of hiding. She had a small, delicate face, possibly prematurely aged by malnutrition and the hard life, and wore a colourful array of beads and a woven skirt. I could not understand a word she said, but I presume they were friendly. We had come face to face with a rapidly vanishing, tree-dwelling people, and it must have been a shock for her to see two huge, 40-something alpha males humping giant rucksacks made of synthetic fabrics and armed with long, aluminium poles -- shaped like spears, mind. We were rocking their world by our mere visit to this largely unexplored queen peak on the massif central on the south of Palawan island.
Tony my group leader and I had been ploughing through the rain-slicked forest floor for nine hours near the tailend of our climb column, were hungry and beyond exhaustion, it was about to get dark, and we were facing the unpleasant prospect of a night trek lasting four more hours. We had been up this mountain for the past five days, our head lamp batteries were nearly spent, we were down to our emergency food supplies, but at least we had the immediate possibility of a proper shower to look forward to to drive us on. By then, my sky-blue trek shirt had enough mud on it to stand it on its own, like a dome tent, as it were. Can you imagine the state of Angie's, who wore baby pink.
Why do we do this, is the stock question posed to people who deliberately use up their precious holidays by putting themselves through the torture of going up and down mountains. The pictures that we bring home with us do not really tell the entire story, because most would have been taken at the more pleasant sections of the trail, areas where you had the breathing room to stop, aim the lens and press the shutter. You do not have that luxury while sliding down a muddy trail, crawling under a log, squeezing through dense undergrowth, scrambling up a rock, hanging on for dear life on a root on the edge of a precipice after your foothold gave way, or struggling to free yourself from the clutches of a thorny bush, one of which managed to tear a single thread of Dyneema from my backpack, a fabric that is supposedly 15 times stronger than steel based on weight. The white thread dangling from the topload had the consistency of dental floss. (Although, Valen's photographic output for this climb was exceptional in this regard, I must say)
For me personally, it is a character-building exercise. And perversely, it is something I enjoy at least as much and as often as the quiet pleasure of helping my teenage daughter solve crossword puzzles while eating out at Pancake House.
Just like when trying to tame a wild beast, you do not approach Mantalingahan directly but do it the roundabout way. You drive south, past the agricultural chain gangs of the Iwahig penal colony, along roads that have never met concrete and where locals have yet to learn about Edison's 131 year-old invention called electricity. Then, on foot, gingerly circle south and east some more, going up and down its lower ridges crosswise so that at the end of two days, you have an elevation gain of less than 700 metres. Even though this was recently declared a national park, the lower slopes are inhabited by poor people who bear multiple children and cut down century-old trees to farm the clearings. Some lop off the crown of tall trees to build wooden platforms on which to erect grass huts. This is one of the demographic groups that my friends who support a reproductive health bill would want to deprive of their freedom of choice by halting their procreation.
There is a community about five hours' hike from the roadside trail head of Ransang that was visited by fellow journalists a few years ago and used the same guides as we did. But they paid for their lack of physical and medical preparation with their lives. For a while there I thought I was also out of my depth, struggling badly to keep up with my nine-member group on the morning of the second day, so much so that I was asked if I would consider turning back. The young women in my group -- Grace, Pam, Lyka, but especially the assistant group leader and camp keeper Danna -- were the real strong and fast climbers.
The noontime showers worked miracles though because it lowered the ambient temperature at the lowland tropical rainforest which I had always found oppressive. Refreshed, I was able to stick with FR's group, a unit that included eyeglass-wearers Mike, Cyril and Joel. I was climbing with distance glasses for the first time, but, even though I hurt my knee badly in a fall, we made good progress and by dusk reached the Kebgen helipad, a small forest community shepherded by a Baptist missionary. This was the same unit in our 39-member team who would find and bring back Madie when she went off trail and down the river trekking alone on the descent two days later. And it was in this same camp where Tony killed a three-foot snake while both were out at midnight to forage for food in the camp kitchen.
The third day was the only time we reached camp before sundown. My self-confidence fully restored and resuming my duties as group sweeper, the trek to Paray-paray, about 400 metres below the summit, was a pleasant mix of lowland dipterocarp, mossy forest, a boulder slope and stunted trees. Save for pine forests, Mantalingahan probably has it all. But at 1,700 metres, the camp was on the outer edge of comfort for my pack-light mode. I had ditched the fleece jacket and a lined sleeping bag and went with running singlet and shorts to save weight, and the unlined bag that took its place was not nearly enough to keep my legs warm inside the tent. Thankfully, the camp was sheltered from the winds.
As in all other days, our fourth called for a 3:30am wake-up call, this time to induct two dozen new members at dawn and to assault the summit. We set a 2.5-hour cut-off to hurdle the obstacle course, a dwarf forest mined with sharp rocks that you use as footholds, in lieu of a trail, a la Mount Guiting-Guiting. I counted just 14 people aside from myself who made the top before we turned around at 9:00am, including Niel, after I pulled him out of a five-foot hole that he fell into on the way up, and Lyka, Grace, Danna, Jay and Lester from my group.
Most had gone up with just a litre of trail water and were dehydrated going down. TJ, the team sweep and a member of my 2006 batch, went up with nothing but a trowel while FR was ordered to wear trek shoes instead of flip-flops. AMCI is a club full of characters.
It would take most of us two more days to double back to Ransang, and the trek extended to a sixth day for two, accompanied by four group and team sweepers. I was on the trail for a total of 48 hours, by my count. My hands and arms were tattooed with cuts and gashes. Mud caked my trek shoes and my trek pants from the knees down, and when I slipped them off my feet had the texture of dried prunes.