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The Mountains are Calling


Mt. Halcon’s ‘diving board’

Growing up in the province, trekking up the mountains was not that all too foreign for me. I can vividly recall accompanying my grandfather up the mountains to plant various seedlings during summer vacations. This was a fond memory of my elementary years at my mother’s home province in Zamboanga Sibugay. This tree-planting family bonding is almost always accompanied by in-season fruit picking and occasional rides on carabao-driven sleds.

The mountains have always been a familiar territory and the allure of the mountains never ceased to pique my attention. My high school years were effectively capped off by Mt. Makiling as this was the site of the 2004 National Scout Jamboree of the Boy Scouts of the Philippines during my fourth year. The next school year, I entered the university at the foot of Mt. Makiling, the University of the Philippines-Los Baños. My university life passed by in a confusing haze of academics, extracurricular, lots of alcohol—too much, in fact—and, as it were, it never even crossed my mind to attempt to climb the mountain.

It was only in 2013 that I had the chance to climb Mt. Makiling and reach its summit with a small group of friends from college. By then, I had already been into mountaineering for a good four years and I felt climbing Mt. Makiling would be non-negotiable. As much as it was physically excruciating due to the steep trail toward peak two (plus the horde of pesky limatiks along the trail), it felt more like a homecoming.This is the most important lesson that the mountains teach us: Many species of flora and fauna call it home and it deserves all the respect any visitor accords a host’s house. It is in relation to this that the basic tenet of any outdoor activity is pegged at the Leave No Trace (LNT) principle.

I formally started mountaineering in 2009 and it was then that I finally met my first mountain: Mt. Pulag. As a complete mountaineering novice, I was ill-equipped and ignorant, to say the least. For my first foray into mountaineering, I brought two jackets (a hoodie and a sweater), two shirts, jeans, and a pair of basketball shoes. During the time,the popularity of mountaineering had not yet exploded. The only mountaineering equipment and apparel that was accessible to me then were branded and expensive ones, which I could not afford because I was just a fresh grad then working with an entry-level salary.


Mt. Pulag

“I can survive with these. It’s not that cold up in the mountains and, hey, there’s no snow in the Philippines anyway,” I thought. I was wrong. I was already shivering even before the trek started at the Babadak Ranger Station, the jump-off point for a Mt. Pulag climb.


Assault on Mt. Apo

Luckily, our expedition leader, who also happened to be my boss at work, lent me his surplus mountaineering apparel (after spending a good full minute laughing at the things I brought). The proper layering of clothes and jackets helped me survive the night and the succeeding pre-dawn assault to the summit. Seeing the sunrise at the place dubbed as the “playground of the gods” was a surreal experience and it was then and there that I thought I would never get enough of it. In fact, I went back to Pulag in 2012, 2013, and via the Akiki trail in 2014—which of course packed with lots of campfire-worthy stories to tell.

Lesson number two sent shivers down my spine quite literally: Never underestimate the mountains. We can have pre-conceived notions on what to expect in climbing any mountain but you can never predict what the mountain has in store for you.

As such, there’s no substitute to proper physical and mental preparation for any climb. You owe it not only to yourself to be aptly prepared but also to your team members as well.


Mt. Tirad’s peak


Descending Mt. Kitanglad

Lesson number three: Mountaineering is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental. This was what the dreaded Mt. Halcon in Mindoro has thought me. “Sialdang” as it is locally called by the Mangyan, has one of the most pristine trails in the country and is one of the famed “Philippine Knife Edge Trilogy.” Nestled within the interior of Mindoro, you’ll have to trek a couple of mountains first and cross the roaring Dulangan river before you even reach the foot of Halcon. In some cases, climbers are forced to turn back if the local guide deems it dangerous to cross the river. The climb is long and arduous and it will not only test your physical capability but also your sanity. The mountain’s weather pattern is unpredictable and you should be prepared to battle the elements. In fact, three out of our four-day expedition was plagued by rain and it was particularly dangerous in areas that are exposed especially knife-edge trail segment toward the summit. The roaring wind, coupled by the rain can bring down temperatures further that the threat of hypothermia becomes apparent. In 1994, Mt. Halcon claimed the life of Neptali Lazaro due to hypothermia and to this day, mountaineers stop by at a marker near the summit to pay respects to the fallen hiker.


Mt. Halcon

In challenging hikes like these, I would repeat this over my head: “One-two, one-two” as I pace my steps. Physical exhaustion is always part of the experience and you just must push on, one step at a time. You don’t need to be the strongest hiker, you just have to be that person who does not give up.

This year marks my 10th year in mountaineering and having experienced over a hundred expeditions both here and overseas (most notably Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and Mt. Fuji in Japan among others), there’s still more to learn and much more to see and experience. These three lessons however remain to bemy core philosophy in mountaineering. The mountains need to be respected and by giving it the respect it deserves, we preserve it for the next generation of mountaineers who come to its slope not only to challenge themselves but also to search for their individual truths. Mountaineering taught me life lessons more than any books can and more than anything else—it served as a refuge for my soul.


Author in Mt. Kilimanjaro

The Philippines has much more to offer: From the jewels of the Cordilleras, the fiery mountains of Bicol, the towering Kanlaon of Negros, the mighty mountains of Mindanao, and our southernmost sentinel, Bud Bongao in Tawi-Tawi. So, pack your bags, dust off your hiking boots, and brace yourselves.


Margaja Vallen in Mt. Kanlaon


Towering Bud Bongao

Source: Manila Bulletin

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