Starweek Magazine

Mountain high our Pulag adventure

Ida Anita Q. del Mundo - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – Mount Pulag in Kabayan, Benguet has become the destination of choice in the past years for serious climbers and climbing enthusiasts alike. The Akiki trail is challenging enough for avid climbers, while the Ambangeg trail makes the summit accessible to the less experienced. Pulag is always on travel bucket lists, and understandably so, as the highest peak in Luzon (third highest in the Philippines at 2,922 meters above sea level) offers breathtaking views, and the magical, surreal experience of being above a sea of clouds at the summit.

Peak season to visit this peak is during summer, where there is the best chance of dry weather. From June to October, there is a good chance of rain, which gives the mountain a different life altogether. To experience Mt. Pulag at its coldest, the best months are December to February. Temperatures reportedly reached zero degrees Celsius on Christmas last month, and lower still, to -2 degrees.

Our group – a small pack of six, mostly musicians – decided to brave the Ambangeg trail early December. We booked a private tour and chose two weekdays, avoiding the weekend crowd that comes in droves. Sure enough, we were pleased to share our camp with only a few other small groups. During busier days, our guide tells us, tents fill the campsite.

The Ambangeg trail is not the most difficult or treacherous trek I’ve done. It is very long – some four to five hours of walking. There are some challenging, steep uphill portions that will leave you out of breath. We took many breaks along the way, some of them disguised as photo ops.

The mountain changes as you go up higher and higher – from the rows of cabbage at the base, to the mystical mossy forest that looks like the setting of a fairytale. And, like every good journey, you can feel yourself change with each step.

Know yourself

Knowing yourself – your strengths, your limits – is essential both as you prepare and pack for the trip, and during the trek itself. Before embarking on the trip, I had read numerous blogs about climbing Pulag. Each would narrate a different experience of the cold and give different tips on what to wear. Knowing yourself well – your tolerance for cold, for example – is the only way you will be able to prepare adequately for the trek. Layering clothes is ideal, especially because the weather conditions change throughout the trek, so having the option to add or remove layers is better than having to choose between either sweating or freezing.

A fleece or thermal jacket is highly recommended, as well as a vest – anything to keep the chest warm. Headgear will keep the heat from escaping through the body’s chimney. A raincoat or poncho is essential.

As a new policy, due to a recent death in the mountains, those who visit Mt. Pulag are also required to submit a medical certificate before they are allowed to proceed.

When climbing the mountain itself, the guides are experts on the path and the terrain, but only you will know when you need to stop and rest along the trail; when you feel you should add on more warm layers; when you need a sip of water even if your bottle is strapped tightly to your backpack. You are the only expert on you.

Leave your baggage behind

Packing light is one of the most important things to do for the trek. Bring only the essentials. The prime real estate in your bag should be taken up by just the right amount of carefully planned clothes; it’s worth bringing extra socks and gloves because once these get wet, they will only make your hands and feet colder. I found that every item I brought to keep warm – beanie, scarf, malong, emergency blanket and hand warmers – was worth the weight.

The gadgets I brought were not as essential as I had thought. The numerous extra batteries and chargers were not needed.

Buying a new backpack, specifically for trekking, with chest and waist support straps that take the weight off the back and shoulders, was my best investment.

Leaving your baggage behind also means forgetting your urban worries, even for a few days. Surprisingly, there is cellular reception at the camp, but not enough to keep you constantly connected to the outside world. In any case, visitors will be compelled to put down their gadgets – even cameras – and just take in the magnificent view.

From our perch at Camp 2, we could see the summit in the distance. It looked near enough, attainable. We watched as the clouds engulfed the mountains in the distance. The setting sun painted the sky golden. We told each other, even just reaching this point has made the trip worth it.

As night fell, the cold really set in, one of the biggest challenges that we would have to hurdle. Soup, cooked by our able guide, never tasted so good. Huddling together, we relied on our friends for warmth in body and spirit. Keeping both warm is essential for survival. If you become too cold, you’re in trouble.

Getting through the night, we tore ourselves from the comfort of our tents at around 3 a.m. to make the trek to the summit. From Camp 2, it would take only one hour and 30 minutes, maybe two, judging by the rate we were going the day before. It was drizzling quite heavily, but the promise of a sunrise above the clouds and a hot mug of coffee fuelled us as we geared up with extra layers of clothes, rain ponchos and headlamps.

It had rained through the night while we were sleeping, so the path was muddy and very slippery. Only a few minutes into our trek, we encountered a group that had started ahead of us. They had turned around, and after a few moments, our guide decided we should turn back as well – the rain and wind would only strengthen as we neared the summit. So, a little bit disappointed, we made our way back to camp and tucked ourselves into our tents which now felt so cozy.

When we woke up for the second time that day, the rain had died down. We headed back down the mountain, pausing occasionally to take more photos of sites we did not notice on our way up. Each time we looked back, we would marvel at how far we were able to walk.

At the Ranger Station, we still bought our “I Survived Mt. Pulag” t-shirts, with the vow to return another time – maybe in the summer, when the weather is not as harsh – to finally reach the summit. After all, we indeed survived the mountain. We just have not conquered it – yet.

Ultimately, you cannot plan or control everything, be it Mother Nature or the forces of the universe conspiring.

You are but a small part of the vast universe. You can only set out to conquer each hurdle, one at a time, one foot in front of the other. And, if like us you do not reach the summit, you will still have become stronger by making the journey, ready to face more challenges, more adventures, more climbs in the future.



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