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.