Mt. Pulag - Of Golden Slopes and Sunrise

Friday, March 06, 2015Ryan Mach

The dawn had just broken. The sun began to peek over a sea of clouds. Panting, huffing and puffing like a dog, I made a sprint to the top to catch the rising sun, dodging fellow trekkers along the trail who were equally eager to see the most-awaited moment and the highlight of the trek: the sunrise. It's going to be magical and dramatic. I was going to play that scene on my head over and over again.

Once I reached the top, I realized that I was alone. There was no familiar face on a sea of strangers, save for this one guy who's also part of the group I was in for this Pulag trek. I started to worry. Who's going to take a photo of me with the sea of clouds in the background - proof that I have indeed scaled the summit of Pulag victoriously? I spotted a group of tour guides huddled on a slope and asked the one with the most genial-looking face. His friends giggled and  teased him as he fiddled with my camera. The shots were not bad. I thanked him and looked for a nice spot where I could concentrate. I needed to take it all in.

I thought about that sad, heartbreaking short story I read when I was in college. It's about a couple who decided to spend a day in Mt. Pulag before going their separate ways. They reminisced painful memories and they shared bittersweet reveries. In the end, they parted ways. It's devastating. 
The desire to watch the sunrise in Mt. Pulag was fueled by that story. The author's descriptions on the sea of clouds were simply captivating, I have since wanted to go hiking in Mt. Pulag. Written by one of my favorite local writers, Eli Guieb, the story entitled 'Kasal' (Wedding) won first prize in Carlos Palanca Awards. Even before seeing pictures of Pulag online, I've long imagined how beautiful it would be to watch the sun rise on top of the mountain with the one you love by your side.
Friends would ask what my ideal date was and I would nonchalantly say, an overnight camping in Pulag. The love of my life and I will hold hands while we trek, smile at each other while we pitch our tent and kiss passionately while we watch the sun rise.

As you would probably have realized by now, I didn't climb Pulag with the person I love. But the trek - wait, this is going to be mushy - was born out of love. It's true what they say that when you love something, you defy the odds just to get or do the thing you love. And for me - well, in this context - that simply means braving a 9-hour road trip from Manila to the Ranger's Station, 3-hour trek from the jump-off point to the camp and another one to reach the summit. Once you're up there, you'll forget how cold it was inside the tent or how sore your legs were. What you'll remember, probably for the rest of your life, is how great it feels to be up there.

The trek was made possible by Biyahe ni Jhyng, a start-up tour company managed by my friend Jhyng who, exhausted of the rat race, decided to quit the corporate world and organized tours instead. The buck never stops from flowing because there are always people, most of them young professionals, wanting a quick getaway. And Jhyng, fueled by her passion to travel, is always willing to take them on an adventure. Her tour packages are affordable and always come with food, which she prepares herself (she's an awesome cook).

There were about 20 people joining the trek, most of them were Jhyng's former colleagues from various companies she worked for. A few were strangers who learned about the tour through Jhyng's Facebook page. The rest were friends tagging along at a discounted rate - myself included - but each had a role to play to make the tour easy, i.e. helping out in pitching the guests' tents, preparing dinner and breakfast and what-have-you. 
Jhyng made the entire thing a breeze because she practically took care of everything - from the bus reservation (to and from Baguio) down to the carrying and pitching of tents and fixing dinner. You read that right. Guests did not have to bring their own tent since Jhyng got that covered. For first-timers, this is very convenient as a heavy backpack can easily exhaust one down.

The adventure began 11PM at the Victory Liner terminal in Caloocan. Half of the bus was occupied by Jhyng's guests who slept the trip off, only waking up 6 hours later when the bus halted in Baguio. We all hopped out rubbing the sands off our eyes and feeling all giddy. As I slurped down a cup of strawberry taho, I watched the eastern sky with trepidation - the clouds were dark and thick, it didn't look like it was going to be a sunny day. But my worries slowly wore off once we were on the road to the Ranger's Station.

We were taking breakfast at a karinderya beside the highway when Jhyng cautioned that the sea of clouds wasn't always guaranteed.
She knew of a few people who have gone to Pulag twice but have never seen the most sought-after 'sea of clouds'. What a downer! I had a strong feeling though that it wouldn't be the case for us. With the sun hammering down on our way to the DENR office where a requisite orientation is done to all trekkers, I didn't think that the rain was even a remote possibility. But it happened - the sky turned grey and dark when we were preparing for the trek at the Ranger's Station.
As I was invariably dressed in a poorly fashion that was remotely ideal for climbing mountains (shirt, shorts, open sandals and company jacket), I knew that I had low defense against the rain. I never really learn, to think that I had subjected myself into a terrible ordeal a year ago when I joined the climb in Tarak under a heavy downpour. But I thought as long as my clothes were safely tucked inside my backpack, everything was going to be all right. And everything turned out to be quite all right.

The rain started to fall, light at first then it poured hard, but we strode quickly, sure-footed down the rutted path, occasionally stopping at some strangely beautiful moss trees. The trail is dotted with a treasure trove of enchanting and wild plants and trees.
Some parts were slippery but we managed to get to the camp in one piece and half-dry. 
A lot of tents had been already set up at the base camp, I wondered if there was still some space left for us to pitch ours.  We found a decent spot down a clearing near the latrines. Braving the cold, we built our tents in a hurried fashion while fogs rolled in and the temperature quickly dropping. A quirky fellow surprised us when he emerged from his tent on his boxer shorts.
 After a quick and uncomfortable dinner, we all cocooned inside our own tents and braced ourselves for a long, cold night. I covered myself up with three layers of clothing but the cold stubbornly seeped in, waking me up from time to time.  
Back at the orientation at the DENR office several hours earlier, we were warned by the facilitator that the cold could be unforgiving. At that time, I didn't take it as a threat but a challenge. After all, I was confident that I had high tolerance for the cold. The temperature in Mt. Pulag, suffice it is to say, is something that shouldn't be underestimated. It's especially colder at dawn when the trek to the summit normally commences. I often caught myself wiping the colds which ran down my nose unnoticeably.
The chilly wind blew fiercely against my face as I struggled to keep up with my group. I was in a bad spot because I didn't have a flashlight. It was quite a challenge to tread on a rocky and muddy trail in the dark.  There was a lot of groping going on as everyone fought their way to stay on the right track.

The way back from the summit is a different story altogether.  

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