I knew that at 2926 meters above sea level (the signage might no longer be accurate, says a senior ranger), Mount Pulag was the highest mountain in Northern Luzon. I also knew that a long time ago, she was the mountain that replaced me.
It was at that point that I lost all desire to write. And I mean really write. Serious literature, not the hanapbuhay essays that I continue to do for a living to this day. Serious writing is about recording beauty all around us. But what was the point of doing this kind of writing when I was hating and being jealous of anything that was beautiful in any way, much more recording it for posterity with my fingers?
I’m telling you this in hindsight, because I didn’t know how deep the cut was until this year, when I got accepted to the Workshop.
I’d attended several writing workshops before, but this was the one that awakened all sorts of dormant memories. The sessions were intense. One in particular reduced us to tear-stained rags. Our mentor, Ricky Lee, calls the culprit “bubog.” Shards of glass inside ourselves, their sharp edges like arrows, giving direction to our character, our destiny.
And the arrow of destiny pointed me ever upwards, at 2926 above sea level, to a place where clouds were king. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find out why this mountain was so paking special.
Some of my climbing companions would later share that at the peak of their suffering, they started asking why they were climbing the goddamned mountain in the first place. For someone like me who’d just recovered from a major illness and wasn’t really in top physical shape, my negative “why” was a source of energy, pushing me forward, making me accomplish the impossible.
But really, the mountain could just as well be accomplished with a much lesser drama. My husband #Robert, our 16-year old son #Alon, and three more dear friends #Jeff #Kat and #Regina were all first-timers doing the climb purely for fun, and they all reached the summit anyway like I did, only I had more “baggage” – literally and metaphorically.
In my backpack I had a pair of sandals, a change of clothes, binoculars and even toll receipts (which I’d forgotten to transfer to my other bag). Later, when the climb was over and we weren’t snappy anymore from the absolute fatigue, we would all laugh about my bag, which Jef called “the refrigerator.”
Our mountain guide, Angie, was a dusky, freckled, rosy-cheeked 15-year old who couldn’t have been more than four feet tall. She was an excellent navigator but not so much a motivator. When the going got very tough several times along the way, all she could do was stop and watch with a kind of bemused concern as we all struggled to catch our breaths in the ever-thinning air. We missed our expert mountaineer friend #Neil at these crucial times. As Robert remarked: climbing a mountain at this level of difficulty is not just about physical stamina; it’s also about the mental conditioning. We remembered how Neil had confidently directed and set the pace for our previous climbs in Batulao and Pico De Loro.
Mount Pulag (the Ambangeg trail we were on, at least) was a Level 3 in terms of difficulty. What made it really challenging, however, was the altitude. You had to provide a medical certificate at the Ranger Station to prove your fitness.
You can read all the available literature online about the mountain, about high-altitude climbing, about temperatures dropping down to eight degrees or lower even in the summer, about the rains that muddied the trails and ruined rubber shoes, to help prepare yourself. You can do 42-kilometer marathons or 300-kilometer Audax bike rides to get yourself in tip-top shape. You can jog or swim everyday. But all of that wouldn’t be enough to prepare you for Mount Pulag.
She was stormy, feisty, difficult. She was four seasons in one day. Everyone wanted to be with her.
Her wedding trail was long and beaded with many footsteps.
Now, it had mine.
It was cold and foggy when we started our ascent from Ranger Station in Babalak, Benguet Province at one in the morning of May 14, fueled by cinnamon bread, noodles and instant coffee bought at a sari-sari store a few minutes down from our homestay at Baban’s.
Hundreds of other people were also doing the hike, racing against time to catch the famed sunrise with sea of clouds at the summit. We all had to make the 8 kilometers in four hours. There were many foreigners. Some parties were really loud, which was both an annoyance and a relief all at once, as one could actually fall asleep while hiking. We found this all too true with Jef, who, on our way down the mountain later, was constantly asking if we were on the right path as he couldn’t remember anymore.
It was amazing how, despite having to wear three layers of tops (dry-fit, fleece and waterproof), two layers of leggings, and two layers of socks due to the intense cold, I was in fact sweating. I had to concentrate as I had poor balance and feared twisting my ankle on some rock. Only the path in front of me was illuminated by my dim headlamp – everything else was dark. I could barely look up the sky as I was so focused on the path ahead: stony one moment, muddy and slippery the next; gently sloping one moment, spiking at 45 degrees the next. As the night wore away and light creeped in, I could see outlines of mountains and trees in the distance. Three or so hours into the climb, I could also see the path narrowing until it was only the mountain face on your right and the valley of death on your left. Everybody tugged for dear life at the cogon grass on their right. I had already worn my gloves at this point and glanced back at the view. It was magnificent. A beeline of headlamps was making its way up the mountain as the fog and light rain swirled all around us.
But even more marvelous was the sight of Alon in front of me, carrying his heavy backpack. He’s always had allergies and respiratory ailments but there he was, climbing strongly in the thin air, never losing his footing. Occasionally he would let out a grunt to express his frustration, but that was it. He stopped walking only when we did. He was so slim but so strong and flexible as bamboo. Also, he looked like a very handsome llama with his long neck, nose, curly hair, and ability to carry a heavy load. What a beauty he was turning out to be.
The sky was a curtain of dirty white when we neared the summit. In the beginning, only Reg and I bothered to walk the rest of the way to where the signage was. Photos or it didn’t happen, says the Instagram generation. Everybody else had the same thought as they patiently waited for their turn to do the requisite hallelujah-I-survived-Mount-Pulag jumpshots at the signage. Eventually, the rest of our party came to their senses and moved our rest spot further up at the summit and also had their photos taken at the signage.
The summit is always cold
The warmth is had in the trying
You climb and reach the sky
Because it is there
And then, like magic, the curtain of dirty white fog and cloud parted to reveal the sun. People gasped in awe and furiously whipped out their cameras. Then the sun hid again.
I had an inner knowing that the view would come back; I only had to wait. True enough, it came back. The fog disappeared, the sun showed up and the clouds rolled underneath the sun like massive waterfalls without sound.
After the furious picture-taking, we hunkered down to our military-grade, ready-to-eat meals. I quickly made heat by pouring a bit of water into a plastic bag of gunpowder solution. It boiled quickly and I warmed my frozen hands on the fumes. Actually, we were all too tired and cold to eat and raring to get down the mountain already. Also, it was getting quite windy at the top.
Without another word, we started our descent. And in the daylight, we finally saw how breathtaking our path had been. Rolling hills everywhere, winding paths of broken stone, flowers that looked like moths, great tree trunks stretching out onto the valley like arms, mossy trees straight out of Little Red Riding Hood.
Two things about the mountain in particular made me stop and live in the moment for a while. First was the spring water gushing from a black plastic tube. I cupped the water on my palm and drank. It was clean but not sweet. Second was the edible berry from the shrubs. I remember being so focused on looking for the blue ones and not the red. I remember eating a few and relishing the sourness.
Then the light bulb moment came.
The mountain is generous. The mountain is kind.
I have felt something happening over the years in my own life. As I matured, I became more needed and as I became more needed, I felt more compelled to give. And as I gave more of myself, I found myself wanting to stay more often at home to be with my loved ones. I traveled rarely, and even then, it was always with the people I loved. For the most part, I simply became more and more rooted, irreplaceable…
Just like the very mountain that once replaced me.
May 20, 2017