Conquering Mt. Iraya: Batanes on high
Stephanie Yu (The Philippine Star) - September 28, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - My sense of travel and adventure has always brought out the best in me.  The excitement, the motivation, all those endorphins running through my body – it’s such a great feeling. So when my friend Joyce asked if I wanted to go to Batanes, one of the Philippines’ last frontiers, for a few days of sight-seeing and hiking, the answer was a quick “yes.”

I later found out we were actually hiking Mt. Iraya, Batanes’ highest mountain at 1,009 meters. It might be a bit professional for a first timer like me but hey, it should be just like playing a mountain (golf) course, right?

Hike Day.  I wake before my alarm clock rings. I didn’t sleep well and on any other day I would be cranky and fearful my immune system would drop, but not today. Today I am going to hike a mountain and I am totally motivated. Our guides Wilbert and Edward are ready for us at 6 a.m. The launch point isn’t too far away – nothing in Batanes is – so we stop by a talipapa to get supplies – water, gatorade and snacks. At 6.45 a.m. we begin our hike.

We cross a small gully and walk through a settlement of Ivatans. The trail is wide and easy, our pace good and we manage to take a lot of happy snaps. The only danger at this point is death by pomelo as they were ripe and falling to the ground.

290 m. We have been solidly hiking for 40 minutes and I am drenched in sweat. We maintain our pace even if the terrain is steeper and the trail more twisted. I am absolutely puffed and we are only one quarter of the way! I take a sip of water and try to catch my breath quickly. I seem to be the only one completely out of breath.  Suck it up, Steph!

385 m. BAM! I hit my head squarely on the hardest tree branch on the planet. The trail is less visible and the terrain has become tougher.  The ground is littered with vines that constantly grab my ankles. I am so pre-occupied with my footing I fail to notice the many branches criss-crossing our path. The group checks if I am all right and I signal to continue. My hard-headedness, literally and figuratively, allows me to proceed with ease.

550 m or something like that.  The GPS app on Wilbert’s iPhone is not refreshing and we don’t know for certain how high (or low) we are. I am less tired now than I was at 290m. I realize that footing is crucial and I must only take average sized steps. Big steps will kill your quads and require much more effort. I check my liquids and I still have a lot left. Good.

709 m. It’s been almost three hours. Are we near yet??? We take another break, mid-stride. The terrain has changed significantly. There now seems to be no trail and we are climbing over tree roots and under branches. We seem to be pioneers blazing a trail rather than hikers following one. I stretch my legs out as I start to feel my thighs tighten. Uh oh, too early for that. My exchanges with Joyce get less and less as I need to concentrate on my footing.

We are still very upbeat though. Wilbert mentions we are close to the shoulder, the area before the steep climb to the summit. Yahoo! Can’t wait for the “real” challenge to begin!

826 m. A small clearing! It started raining a while back and we now stop to put our rain gear on. This hike certainly has a little bit of everything and is quickly becoming one of my top five adventures!

869 m. Finally at the shoulder! At this point, there are no more trees and the mountain is covered with tall reeds the height of corn stalks. Looking at the way up, there really is no trail – nothing man-made at least. We are to hike, actually climb is more appropriate, the steep path created by the water when it flows down the mountain. Okay – this is now my top adventure ever. 

We start the ascent, grabbing onto reeds to stabilize us as the ground is really steep and muddy. My concentration is at its highest, staying in the present and taking it one step at a time. It seems like forever, but at last the end is in sight and I climb faster.

1,009 m. At last, the summit! After four hours and 15 minutes, we make it! I fill my lungs with the fresh air and feel the cool fog on my skin. It is cloudy at the top and there is no view, yet it doesn’t diminish the fact that I am standing at the top of a mountain. The mountain seems to appreciate our efforts and parts the clouds for a moment. The view is breathtaking.

Wilbert sets down his backpack and pulls out containers of food, more water, rubbing alcohol and even a power bank. He’s definitely done this before. After lunch we take some more happy snaps and start packing.

1,009 m, going down. Oh boy. Hard as it was going up, nothing compares to going down. I would love a giant zip line right about now. Okay, one step at a time, grab some reeds, steady footing, distribute weight. The angle of the slope makes it harder to grab the reeds and frankly, sometimes there is nothing to grab. I slip and slide often, stretch my tendons and ligaments to their limits and fall on my backside more times than I care to admit. But nobody’s counting; everyone’s concentrating on the next step.

It starts raining again and the trail gets muddier. My shoes are caked with mud and has very little traction, not to mention they are heavy! I try to focus even more on my balance and stability but my mind is getting really tired. My neck is painful from looking down and my legs start to give. My right knee is locking frequently and thoughts of injuries cross my mind. But fear has no place in a situation like this, and I call on every ounce of my athleticism to hold me together. The body is weak, the mind is fatigued, yet the my will never wavers. 

We only have one break the whole way down. I don’t know whether that was Wilbert’s way of motivating us or maybe he just has a hot date to prepare for. Either way, at 4 p.m., we get down the mountain in one piece and have the rest of the day to savor our triumph.

It was extremely difficult and exhausting, there’s no doubt about that, but the experience was incredible. I love that it re-awakened a part of me I thought I had lost, that indestructible feeling when I was younger and the world was at my feet. The mountain wore me down mentally and physically, but she also reminded me what I am made of.

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