July 8th, 2017


After 10 years of regular sorties in the wild, I finally realised what was wrong with my photos. The lens was almost always shooting downward.

To be fair it is the natural position on a trail going up a mountain. The ground in front of you is at a higher level than your footholds, so unless you make an effort to tilt the camera upwards, you get to shoot the tree trunks and the protruding tree roots, instead of the leaves. Add the fact that I am taller than most Filipinos by at least half a foot, so the angle becomes even more acute. It seems counter-intuitive, but I tend to shoot more frames while labouring uphill than when when I'm on my way down, when my sole purpose in life is to get ahead of the long queues for the showers. It is not much of a problem on open trails because I tend to crop most of the sky anyway unless there are interesting forms on the horizon, but canopies are another thing. I am always envious of trail shots with lots of high ceilings, where the hiker looks as if he or she is walking down the aisle of a Catholic cathedral. Theoretically it would be easy enough to kneel or squat to change the angle, but try doing that while in the company of strong, young climbers. Composing on the run with a pack load is an effort in itself, but breaking off your stride is a surefire recipe you'd get left behind. It was no different at my last sortie, a rosary trail of Kaybigas and Tilos, low peaks above Lobo and the coastline of eastern Batangas.

A sleepy town near the Quezon boundary, the atis (sweetsop) capital of the Philippines hosts some of the lesser known destinations not yet riddled with climbing tourists armed with selfie sticks. There is not much to see below 400 masl unless you looked back at one of a few clearings and ridgetops for a view of the Verde Passage, the busy sealane between Luzon and Mindoro. The tropical lowland forest has been stripped off and replaced with ipil-ipil, a Central American legume tree whose leaves the locals use to feed their cattle and the fast-growing trunks they burn into commercial charcoal. The rest of the trail to the summits features ridges carpeted with low-slung lowland forest trees, rocky outcrops, and -- in between bare faces of cogongrass and tall reeds -- perennially damp gullies where trees get to grow taller and where mosquitoes thrive, attacking the exposed limbs of those who chose to brave the razor-sharp blades of grass with cropped trek pants or running shorts. There were roped sections as well as steep sections of rock rising 10 feet or more that are approached with worryingly thin and rickety wooden ladders and that had some of our trainees calling out to God for salvation and assistance. Both are dry mountains, which meant I had to haul a 13-plus-kilo backpack loaded with more than seven kilos of trail and camp water, containers included.

I have recently committed to shoot photos in full manual mode only, both for body and lens, to force myself to learn, which makes camera work even more complicated on the trail. It is not light either. The setup adds more than a kilo to my pack load. To keep the pack weight under control I ditched all thermal insulation -- jackets and bivy bags -- save for an ultralight raincoat.

Our camp site was a wide expanse of reeds on a minor Kaybigas peak, perfect for a large party and Alman's drone camera. Just flatten the reeds, lay your groundsheet and start pegging your tents; no need for earth pads. Sharon's Mabalasik group was even bolder, going without tents and sleeping out underneath three large kitchen tarps. To the south and west were Isla Verde, the Verde passage, and the outline of the Batangas Bay coastline, but there was no breeze to ease the mugginess. The faster members of our group got there around after only five hours. I could not keep up, so I and two others elected to take long stops and short naps on the trail as a respite from the ferocious midday sun and arrived at the camp in mid-afternoon, which had us cooking dinner before 5pm, and in which my only contribution was to lend a stool. I brought along a tabletop tripod to shoot a red sunset and a Milky Way rising above my Tarptent at midnight, but all we got were clouds, thunderstorms and showers. It's a hit or miss thing, these climbs.

The following day many of the team had run out of trail water by the time they reached the Mount Tilos summit, around 655masl on my uncalibrated Suunto. We rued our decision to use a litre each to bathe behind the reeds near the camp site the previous afternoon. The rolling descent turned out to be tougher than expected, mostly due to long bottlenecks at technical rock sections and steep drops. I doled out my last half-litre to desperate friends, gratefully accepted a little volume of rainwater collected by Volt the previous night, but ended up without any myself for the last hour of the descent, which took me five hours to complete. I remember consuming more than two litres of Royal Tru-Orange at the first backyard grocer before heading for the pickup point on the highway.