Monday, October 31, 2011

Mt. Isarog, Camarnies Sur: Survival Trail

Survival Trail of Mt. Isarog (April 8-9, 2008) 
(Patag-Patag Trail)

I probably would not forget my experiences with Mt. Isarog, not in another lifetime or so. Amidst its formidable height, crawling vegetation, vertical slopes, and battalion of blood sucking leeches, I found myself humbled by its sheer beauty and innocence…

It was three years ago when I found myself on board an aircon bus to Bicol. I was a graduating student then, with ample time but with very limited resources. It was my first time to venture on such a trip outside the region, and the only thing that pushed my confidence was the company of friends. This was after all, our induction climb. 

I woke up hours after in a terminal station somewhere in Naga, Camarines Sur. I admit I wasn’t particularly conscious of our whereabouts. I let the group dictate our directions and let them chose whatever they thought was right. I became the silent follower for the whole trip.

We boarded another bus, this time going to the town of Concocep in Camarines Sur. The cool morning breeze that welcomed us was expectedly fresh and uplifting, very typical in a rural setting. The wind stirred my mind back to consciousness. Angel and Anj, two one my friends, started little conversations with the friendly locals. I just caught snippets of those conversations, laced mostly in the local dialect. (Luckily, I happen to understand Bicol dialect since I spent most of my childhood years in Catanduanes).

“Biga-taram nira, magayon daa ngani duman...Una ta kami ngani mga taga uya, dae pa kami duman naka-abot” (They say it’s beautiful there. Even us, who are from here, haven’t been there.)

We arrived at the little town of Consosep past five in the morning. After finishing our breakfast in a small canteen by the road, we geared up and each rode a habal-habal (motorcycle) for almost 20minutes to the jump off area. The few minutes of leisure ride introduced me to the verdant rice fields and imposing mountain ranges of the area. A taste of what is coming next…

The memory of our little exercise drills and physical tests creased my lips into a smile. The place was filled with laughter as we tried our best with the series of (never ending) 10-meter-dash, curl-ups, push-ups, body stretches, jumping-jacks, and more…

“Hahaha… byrone, wag kang ng umasang makaka 30 curl-ups ka ng tuloy tuloy! Mukha ka ng stress! Ahahha. ” teased Anj. (Byrone, don’t expect that you can have straight 30 curl ups… You look stressed enough!)

“Grabe, wala pa ngang start ng climb, wala na akong energy! Ahhahaha” Angel growled. (My, the climb’s not even starting and I don’t have energy anymore. )

An hour later, we marched our way to the slopes of Mt. Isarog. The first few minutes were already a test of stamina. The trail was particularly muddy and slippery. Wild cogon grasses weaved a maze of foliage, sharp enough to slice one’s skin. I can’t remember how many times I had to catch my breath out of exhaustion.

When we paused for a break in shade of tree, we discovered that the area was infested with blood-sucking limatiks. I can still remember the shock and shudders we felt realizing what we were up to. We were not ready to hear the word limatiks. But as we entered the thick rainforest, we understood the real meaning of the word infested. My goodness, I could only shudder at the thought.

The next hours were intense filled moments of non-stop trekking (we can’t afford to stop else the blood sucking creatures will crawl to our bodies). Due to the thick vegetation, the guide literarily has to clear the trail with bolo. There were some instances when we were left with no choice but to crawl. Yes, you heard me right: we did crawl underneath some thick bamboo undergrowth. And to think, limatiks were all around the area. And the thing is, bending could be a challenge if you’re carrying kilos of weight on your back.

We veered away from main the trail and had our pre-cooked lunch in a falls nearby. Since it was flowing water, we thought we would not find any blood sucking creatures there. But lo and behold, some part of the falls proved to be a haven of such things. The rocks in the area could also be very slippery (as one my friend, Byrone, slipped and almost jammed his head to the rocks… well, almost.)

We left the area after awhile and continued with our trek. I can almost feel the familiar aching muscles as I once again carried my backpack. As we traverse the area, the difference in vegetation is noticeable. The area is distinctly covered by different types of fern-like plants. I wish to goodness, I had enrolled myself in a decent botany class so that I could at least identify them. The forest vegetation is reminiscent of a Jurassic Park movie where huge ferns are a common sight. I saw a fern (or fern-looking plant) growing the size of a small tree.

I kept asking our guide “Malapit na ba, kuya?” (is it already near, sir?): Only to be answered every time with a smile that almost said “We are not even half the walk”. One of my colleagues has to unload some items (light load) and left it somewhere, due to fatigue. On the other hand, my dear friend Anj, has screamed her lungs out at every mention of the word “limatik”. Everyone seemed to be losing energy. I, myself, was succumbing to fatigue and hunger. Indeed, one should never really underestimate any mountain.

Minutes before sunset, we finally reached the camp site. I looked at my watch and started counting. I can’t believe we walked almost 10 hours to be able to get to where we were. And it was not even the summit yet. We immediately pitched our tents and started cooking our meals. We enjoyed a meagre tuna-in-can dinner. Later we tasted my Korean roommate’s parting gift: Soju.

I realized that night, as I gazed at the night sky, that when you’re on the top of a mountain, the stars are actually brighter and bigger: Seemed like you’re closer to the twinkling lights. Funny thing is, you only notice the stars when you have nothing left to see but their light. It was the best star gazing moment I had in my life. That time, I felt like I was in a different world. I was actually thinking of the drama series, twilight zone.

It was a particularly cold night. I thought exhaustion will eventually doze me to sleep. But hunger woke me 2 in the morning. Shivering. Famished. Very tired... And what’s more amusing was, I was not alone in the wee hours looking for something to eat. Good thing, Angel came to the rescue with her cooking skills (or shall I say, re-heating skills, hehehe). 

When I woke up, breakfast was already cooked and the aroma of coffee seemed to fill the air. Later, we were instructed to fetch drinking water from a nearby spring. When I came to the area, I was hesitant that the water from the very small spring was actually potable. Well, I never had any experience drinking water straight from the ground. And I was uncertain that it’s safe even in such a location. It looked very pristine, yes, but my Microbiology class tells me how millions of bacteria could be thriving there. Pristine beauty could be deceiving underneath a microscope.

After a long pause, finally, my thirst and the sheer lack of willpower to question won over. I drank straight from the spring. And you know what, it actually tasted good… a lot different from your bottled water. And I survive to tell the story (without stomach ache to note, hehehe). 

We left the camping sight and headed to the summit. It was still a good 2 and half hours of fast trekking. I believe, Mt. Isarog, which is among the highest mountains in Luzon, is also one of the most challenging climb with its vertical sloping trails, dense vegetation, risky turns, and deceiving ravines. I lost count of how many times I had to hold on to a twig to prevent myself from slipping.

When we arrived at the summit, the ceremonial induction started. I wish I could tell more about it. But for most of the time there, I was blindfolded and was told only to listen… Until now, the memory still makes me smile.

Later, we had our fill of the summit’s beauty; but only for a while. Thick fog soon covered the whole area. The view was not as breathtaking as what I’ve expected it would be, but I guess the mountain has given a whole new meaning to the word, journey.

We decided to go back to the camping site. Break-camp soon ensued. Silently, we prepared ourselves for the limatiks that would be waiting for us down the slopes. Every skin part was covered, every opening was sealed.

I laugh and even commented, “Parang tayong makiki-laban sa bio warefare ah, hahaha” (Looks like we’re fighting a bio-warfare). 

After a hearty brunch, we made our way down the trail. If going up will exhaust you, going down will also be another challenging feat. The gravity just pulls you down with rising acceleration, enough to fracture your bones. I had to cling for my life as we made our way down. Behind me, Anj’s familiar and incessant shrieks became our background music. I had a good laugh with her hysterics.

It seemed like forever when we finally reached the first station. The sun was barely on the horizon. As we waited for others, I sat quietly on the flower embellished grasses. At a distant, the majestic view of Mayon Volcano seemed to lure you. Not far from it, you’d glimpse Mt. Asog and a lake I assume was Lake Buhi. Against the setting sun, the view was very panoramic. I wished I brought with me a decent camera. Words seemed inadequate to give justice to the beauty I behold. 

It was dusk when we started descending again. It was my first time to do night trek and it was quite challenging. The only thing that illuminated my way was the moon and my feeble headlight. Somehow, the bitter coldness was comforting. Our last challenge was avoiding a mad cow which turned night guard for some unusual reasons. It was both funny and frustrating at the same time.

At first sight of paved road, I kissed the grounds out of utter madness and pure glee. It was such a relief to find such a familiar sight. And though it was more than half a kilometre walk to the jump-off area, I was already singing a happy note. Our pace was rather easy and jabs of comic stories filled the night skies. Everyone seemed happy. Relief and exhaustion were painted in everyone’s faces. Behind us, the view of Mt. Isarog was clouded in its usual mystic night fog. The next thing I knew, we were on board a tricycle heading for the nearest bus terminal.

Due to very limited budget and time constraints, we opted for a non-aircon Raymond bus. Well, it was probably the biggest mistake we’ve made in our trip. We thought exhaustion would finally doze us to sleep, but the discomfort was unbelievably unbearable. 

We were sited on the last row and every time the driver would suddenly hit the break, we would almost be thrown in our seats. And it was the scenario for the succeeding ten hours. 

It was perhaps the longest and agonizing trip I’ve had in my life. And did I also say we were also stranded for two hours somewhere in Quezon? A road accident prevented vehicles from passing. Imagine yourself in a bus without enough ventilation and you’d go mad. 

As we parted ways I can’t help but smile at what we went through. At the back of my head I was already screening the pictures I’d be uploading in my site. But more than the pictures and the stories, the feeling of surviving something that could prove arduous for most is something no words or image can ever describe. That journey has brought out the best and worst in all of us.

“Ang dalisay na hanging ito at ang mga batong itong napakalilinis ay mapupuno ng karbon, ng mga kahon at bariles, ng mga bunga ng sipag ng tao.”

José Rizal, El Filibusterismo


I can't believe why The trail is called Patag-patag when it seems to be nothing but vertical slopes! hahaha. As pinoymountaineer puts it: a complete misnomer. And I, for certain, can surely attest to that...

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