“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” ~ Sir Edmund Hillary
While most people opt to head to the beach during summer, another fun activity that you can do where you can cool yourselves off is by heading not to the waters but to the mighty mountains. In the summer of 2011, we found ourselves scaling Mt. Pulag, fondly referred to by its locals as the “Playground of the Gods”.
Mt. Pulag is located at the borders of Benguet, Ifugao, and Nueva Vizcaya. It is Luzon’s highest peak at 2,922 meters above sea level and one of the country’s highest mountains, ranking third next only to the second highest Mt. Dulang-Dulang in Bukidnon, and the Philippines’ highest mountain, Mt. Apo in Davao-Cotabato.
Roadtrip to Benguet
We went on our climbing adventure along with Edge’s then office mountaineering club and an expert freelance mountaineering guide, Sir Alvin, who has climbed Pulag as well as Mt. Apo multiple times in the past. In order to get to Benguet, we rode a Victory Liner bus, leaving its Cubao terminal at around 11 PM for Baguio. There were two stopovers, in Tarlac City and in Sison, Pangasinan, where passengers can run to the restrooms, take a smoking break, or even enjoy a hot bowl of instant noodles courtesy of the surrounding overnight shops. After a five-hour road trip, we finally arrived at Baguio at around 4 AM. A monster jeep was waiting for us at the terminal. We then continued on with the five-hour trip to Kabayan, Benguet.
The way to Kabayan is in itself a fun adventure — just imagine riding a larger than life jeepney that’s zooming, ascending, and descending along zigzag roads. One look out of the window and you would be treated to a spectacular and heart-stopping view of Mountain Province’s majestic cliffs. For added fun, you can even ask the driver for permission to ride on the roof of the jeepney during the trip — but this is definitely not for the faint of heart.
Along the way, we also took two stopovers, one at a roadside eatery where we had a satisfying breakfast. The other stopover was at a balcony overlooking the Ambuklao Reservoir. After a brief photoshoot with the awe-inspiring reservoir in the background, we headed straight to the DENR Park Office at Bokod, Benguet where mountaineers are required to attend a brief orientation about Mt. Pulag, which is a declared Protected Area.
At the orientation, anyone who plans to climb Mt. Pulag will learn about the mountain’s history and biodiversity. Their strictest rule: “Respect Mt. Pulag.” The natives consider the mountain as a sacred place where their gods and ancestors’ spirits live. Mountaineers will be discouraged to do things that might offend the gods like littering, shouting and creating unnecessary noises, bringing and taking of any alien flora or fauna, and doing any sexual activities. Another strict reminder is not to bathe in the springs because this is a valuable water source for the locals, and any kind of contamination must be prevented.
After the orientation, we finally left for the Badabak Ranger Station, which is also the jump-off point. This is where we ate lunch, brushed our teeth for the last time until two days later, and got to meet our local guides and porters, Mang Ramon and Mang Cornel. Then we were off to go.
Camp 1: Inside the Mossy Forest
There are four trails leading to the summit of Mt. Pulag: Akiki, Ambangeg, Ambaguio and Tawangan. We took the Ambangeg trail because it’s the easiest and most common route taken by most climbers. Given that you’d have to start the climb from Nueva Vizcaya and even do a river crossing, the Akiki trail is the most challenging and is mostly taken by expert climbers. The trek from the Akiki trail could last up to three days, whereas a trek through the Ambangeg trail will only last a few hours.
It took us more than an hour to reach Camp 1 from the jump-off point. The path was rocky, dusty, and quite steep. It’s tiring to navigate around loose and tiny pebbles in the ground. But the effort of hiking under the hot rays of the sun paid off because of the amazing view of the thick pine forest. A few meters higher and we finally entered the mossy forest where the temperature dropped significantly. The forest canopy provided us with glorious and much-needed shade from the sun. At Camp 1, several wooden benches have been set-up where hikers can stop, sit back, and regain their energy for a more grueling hike to Camp 2.
Camp 2: Our Abode for the Night
Compared with the previous trail, the one going to Camp 2 was relatively smoother but definitely longer. At this point, a hiker would find himself deeper in the mossy forest, and the trail here could be wet and slippery, and one must be cautious at all times.
Two hours later, we finally arrived at Camp 2 where we were greeted by another change of scenery. Emerging from the thick and almost-claustrophobic mossy forest, we came to a vast expanse of grassland. Because of the high altitude, hardly any trees are visible in this area, and the dominant plant is the endemic yellow and straw-like dwarf bamboo. Here, hikers are given time to pitch their tents, prepare for dinner, and even take a lengthy rest. Always remember to waterproof your tent because it could rain anytime during the night.
At Camp 2, you would be treated to a marvelous view of the afternoon version of the “sea of clouds” that Mt. Pulag is famous for. If ever you’re lucky to arrive here before sunset, one can hike atop the lower hills surrounding the camp where you can take in the scenery and snap one-of-a-kind sunset photos.
Good Night, Freeze Tight
Contrary to the beautiful scenery, night time at Pulag is brutal. Aside from the total darkness that enveloped us, it was very, very cold. Temperatures near the summit could drop to 4 or 5 degrees Celsius. The cold here is not only skin-deep; it’s bone-deep. Around 3 AM, sleep was impossible because I was shivering inside-out. Donning two jackets, thick socks and gloves, and being tucked inside a large sleeping bag and thick blanket didn’t help much in warming us up. It was freezing cold that our water and Gatorade bottles even seemed refrigerated when we drank them!
We got up at 4 AM to begin our assault to the summit. “Assault” is the mountaineering term used when a hiker leaves his heavy bags at the camp and continues hiking with only smaller packs. It was still mostly dark, and we only had the moon, our headlights and flashlights as our only light source against the backdrop of deep darkness. At this point, it’s possible for a mountaineer to be exhausted and still sleepy from lack of sleep, but it’s best to begin the assault this early to reach the summit in time for the sunrise.
Personally speaking, this might be the easiest and most exciting part of the climb. Climbing with nothing but a small bag takes the toll out of the climb, and it’s inspiring to know that with with every step we took, we were getting closer to the highest point in Luzon.
After an hour of hiking, we finally made it to the top! All the exhaustion from the trip vanished when we set foot on that summit. The view was by far the most amazing sight I’ve ever seen. All around, the mountain was surrounded by a boundless sea of clouds. In the distance, peaks of surrounding mountains look like small islands floating in the sky. When the sun finally came up, it was just breathtaking. Most importantly, being at the summit will give a mountaineer a sense of pride — who would’ve thought that you would be able to find the inner strength to conquer this amazing creation?
Descent from the Heavens
What goes up needs to come down. So, after an hour of enjoying a short breakfast of almost-frozen sandwiches and coffee, taking hundreds of selfies and groupies, and relishing in the feeling of being higher than anything in Luzon (aside from the airplanes, of course), we began our descent. We returned to the camp where we dismantled our tents, packed up, and cleaned up. A few hours of hiking and you should find yourself back at the Ranger Station where you can enjoy lunch before the monster jeepney takes you back on another six-hour ride to Baguio.
- Mountain climbing is an activity that is sure to take you out of your comfort zone. You will be forced to do things you don’t normally do and you’ve never thought that you could ever do. For example, aside from missing a couple of baths and toothbrushing, it’s necessary to use the latrine for personal businesses. Indeed, it was uncomfortable and also frustrating to walk from the campsite to the latrine located about 20 meters away from the camp every time nature calls. But you’re in the wilderness and you have no choice but to obey its rules.
- Couples are highly advised to go on mountain climbing trips like this. Launching yourself at the fierce wilderness strips a person to the core, and this provides a person with better opportunity to know his/her partner. Pushing yourselves to the limit also makes your relationship stronger. Of course, the view at the summit is very romantic, too.
What to Bring
- Proper climbing clothes and gear – A thick insulating jacket, a couple of thick sweaters, pants, thermal leggings, a pair of hiking shoes/sandals with excellent grip, several thick socks, and a pair of comfortable gloves. It’s also advisable to bring a bonnet or mask since the temperature at the summit is painfully cold.
- Make sure to bring your sleeping bags and mats since it is a natural occurrence for high altitude areas like Pulag to rain, well aside from the natural low temperature. There are reports of occasional drops in temperature and frosts. Also, bring rain cover/rain coats.
- Bring headlights and flashlights (and several batteries for backup) and a trekking pole to support you during the climb if necessary. It is also wise to bring portable chargers and extra batteries for your cameras.
- Meals, trail foods, water and energy drinks – If traveling in a group, you can always discuss among yourselves what to bring/cook for your dinner and breakfast during the climb. Aside from these meals, always have a pack of chocolates, biscuits, cookies, and gelatin handy. The uphill trails can easily tire you out, and eating a bar of chocolate or popping a lychee gelatin could give you that spurt of energy you need to get going. Water is the most important necessity, but you can also bring energy drinks.
- Don’t ever forget to bring first-aid kit and medicines with you for emergencies. This is usually the most overlooked essentials in outdoor activities.
- Respect Pulag. Remember that the mountain is a very sacred place for the locals, composed mainly of indigenous tribes namely Kankaney, Kalanguya, and Ibaloi. How would you feel if somebody were to desecrate your own place of worship?
- Respect the other climbers. It’s not impossible to encounter other climbers on your way to or back from the summit. Greet and flash a genuine and friendly smile to the hikers, especially to the locals who usually work as porters. This friendly exchange can also be a strong motivator.
- Coordinate with local DENR Office, through the Protected Area Superintendent (PASu) in charge of the Mt Pulag National Park Protected Area. They can perhaps advise you of conditions in the area and provide guidance (ex. accredited transport, guides).
- Check the local weather through Project NOAH App of DOST-PAG-ASA or Accuweather.com
- Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.
You can inquire directly with DENR-PASu Office (PASu Emerita Albas or Mam Mereng) – 09196315402 for official information and guidelines on Mt Pulag (via PinoyMountaineer). For complete information on Mt. Pulag and other mountains, visit the PinoyMountaineer.
*Big thanks to Sir Alvin S. and to fellow kampingers of then PCARRD Mountaineering & Outdoor Club