Saturday, June 7, 2014

Baguio: Mt. Pulag, Climbing My First Mountain

Mt. Pulag, Climbing My First Mountain

Climbing Mt. Pulag in Bokod, Benguet in mid May this year served as my 'introduction' into the interesting world of mountain climbing. Read more about my experience in the blog post below. 

The sunrise over Mt. Pulag in Bokod, Benguet. Sadly, no sea of clouds, but still an awesome view!
Ever since I can remember, I've always wanted to climb a mountain. Sure, I've hiked up a few mountains here and there once-upon-a-time in a land far, far away... But by climbing I mean actually hiking up a steep incline with a ton of stuff strapped to your back, making camp and cooking your own food, enduring the rain and freezing cold at night and then finally being able to actually see the sun rise over a place first, with your own two eyes. This is exactly the type of 'mountain climbing' I experienced when I climbed Mt. Pulag, My First Mountain in mid May this year.

Mt. Pulag Details:

But before we head to how I actually climbed this thing, here are some interesting facts about Mt. Pulag:
  • It's located in Bokod, Benguet. (That's a little bit up northern Luzon past Baguio for you geo-graphically challenged folk :p)
  • 3rd Highest Mountain in the Philippines
  • Highest peak in Luzon at 2922 MASL (Meters Above Sea Level. Basta it's really really high!)
  • 4 Major Trails:
    • Ambangeg Trail (Easiest trail. I think it's sometimes called the Executive Trail.)
    • Akiki Trail (Harder Trail.)
    • Tawagan Trail
    • Ambaguio Trail (Hardest trail since the launch off point is in Nueva Vizcaya

Ambangeg Trail Details:

For this trip, we took the easiest trail called the Ambangeg Trail since for most of us in the group (we were 16), it was our first time to climb a mountain. Here are the details of the Ambangeg Trail as provided by the website Pinoy Mountaineer.

Major jump-off: Ambangeg Ranger Stn, Bokod, Benguet
Days required / Hours to summit: 4-5 hours / 1-2 days
Specs: Major Climb, Difficulty 3/9, Trail class 1-2
Features: Sea of clouds, dwarf bamboo slopes, pine forests

Climb Details:

Climb Date: May 16 to 18. (Friday to Sunday)
Group Size: 16 people. 
Average Age of Group: 23-24
Skill Level of Group: Mostly Newbies.

Backpacker's United:

During this trip, we decided to have the climb administered by an experienced mountaineering group in order for them to show us the ropes of how it's actually done and teach us their ways of climbing really really huge things. 

The group we selected was called Backpacker's United. The main man behind Backpacker's United is Deo Calumba. He's been climbing really big things for over 10 years if I'm not mistaken. But he only recently started forming groups and offering to administer climbs 5 years ago. So far, Backpacker's United has been arranging climbs every weekend to local mountains and such. But once in awhile, they arrange international climbs for their more experienced members. 

Backpacker's United took care of the arrangements, transfers and food that we would be needing for the climb. 

Deo is a really swell guy. Very friendly and he knows his stuff! I got his contact details from a friend of mine he climbed with before. He took care of the mostly noob group of climbers really well and he was able to show us the ropes of how it's done in the mountains. 

Alright! Enough with the details! On to the.... Climb! (Note: I did not use a Miley Cyrus reference.)

The Climb

Day 0 (May 16, Friday)
Bus ride from Manila to Baguio - 6 Hours

The group met up at Victory Liner Bus Terminal in Cubao, Metro Manila at around 8 PM to wait for the 10:00 PM bus to Baguio City. It was crazy getting there during Friday rush hour! We had a hard time getting a taxi to take us. Some of the group almost got left behind since they couldn't get there on time.

The bus we took was an Aircon Bus (average cost of ticket to Baguio is PHP 450). The climb admin reserved us seats before hand so each climber had their own seat but the bus was not private. The total trip took 6 hours and there were 3 toilet stops during the night.

We arrived in Baguio at around 4:00 AM and immediately proceeded to our waiting Monster Jeep. A monster jeep is like a normal jeep on steroids. These jeeps are the norm around the mountain provinces since their bigger tires and engines enable them to take on the grueling task of ferrying people around the rough and inclined terrain that makes up the north. 

Our pink Monster Jeep.
Day 1 (May 17, Saturday)

Our Monster Jeep could fit our group of 16 just fine. We loaded most of our bags on top and we were off down winding roads in the early hours of the morning.

Note: For those with motion sickness, take a Bonamine tablet before you ride this monster since you'll be bumped, shoved, pushed and pulled all the way to the next stop. 

The scenery during our early morning trip. 

After a 2 hour ride down zig zaggy roads, the sun started to rise and it was then that we knew that it was time for breakfast. Our breakfast stop was called Jang Jang Eatery somewhere in Ambuklao, Benguet. It was a welcome stop after a bump trip and we starting to feel the need for hot food with the chilly air.

Jang Jang Eatery was a nice and simple place that offered karinderia style victuals that were hot and tasty enough to recharge a hungry traveler for his path ahead. The place also served as a toilet stop as well as a place where we could unload some of the items we didnt need on the climb and retrieve them later on.

Note: Make sure to try the coffee when you're in Benguet! They have unique and delicious blends that you won't get to find anywhere else. For this eatery, we were told the blend was the 'Cordillera Blend' and it was a deliciously sweet and flavorful cup of joe!

There were some group activities and ice breakers after breakfast and the admin explained to us the nitty gritty details about the climb. After that it was off again for a 1 hour and 30 minute ride to the DENR's Visitor's Center. 

After the hour and a half ride, we made it to the DENR Visitor's Center for our registration and orientation. The orientation would've been a one hour video screening of what to do and what not to do in the national park but thankfully there was a power outage. So they gave us a lecture instead. (Pretty boring and mostly babbling)

Note: You have to wait for the group ahead of you to finish being oriented before you can enter their orientation room. This will take some time especially if there are a lot of visitors. 

After about an hour, we were off again and this time for a 30 minute ride to the start of the hike to the Ranger's Station.

Note: You can ask your driver if you can ride on the top of your jeepney on this leg of the journey since the roads aren't as bad as what you have previously passed. 

Since the road to the Ranger's Station was under construction when we went there, our monster jeep dropped us off 30 minutes early into the hike and we had to complete the 45 minute hike on foot to get to the Ranger's Station.

The roads are concrete since they're making a way to the Ranger's Station that is accessible to motorized vehicles. If you look around you during this part of the trip, you'll still see traces of civilization in the form of numerous vegetable farms.

Note: If you have extra baggage that you find too heavy, you can have a porter bring your baggage to the Ranger's Station from the Jeepney Drop Off Point for Php 100. 

Arriving at the Ranger's Station.
After the 45 minute hike, you'll arrive at the Ranger's Station for you to enlist the services of guides and porters if need be. It will also be your last chance for a visit to a decent CR and to do some last minute grocery shopping from the nearby sari sari stores.

Note: You can opt to hire a porter to carry your extra stuff (like tents, water, etc.) from the Ranger's Station to the Mt. Pulag Saddle Camp and back for Php 500 pesos. This is inclusive of the porter's own food allowance. This includes Day 1 and 2. They will be there to pick up your stuff and haul it back down for the descent. 

Happy faces before experiencing real hiking. 

Now is the start of the actual climb proper. It'll take you about One Hour of Hiking to reach your Lunch Stop. 

The climb will look really easy at first since the roads will be even but as you go on, the climb will start to get more challenging with the trail narrowing and becoming slippery especially if it rained the previous day.

Note: It really helps if you bring some sort of Trail Mix. Eating this combination of nuts, fruits and sweets can give you the energy to continue your climb since your body will be burning lots of calories. You can make your own by simply combining some M&M's, dried fruit preserves (we used raisins) and different kinds of nuts (we used almonds, normal peanuts and cashews). 

The trail inclines. 

After climbing for an hour and a half, it is now time for Lunch at Camp 1. 

Deo (our admin), broke out his cooking utensils and promptly started the whip something up for the hungry campers. It is only now that I have truly realized the things that a man can do with a portable burner and a cooking pot.

Deo prepared some pretty kick-ass Chicken and Pork adobo with lots and lots of onions and potatoes for us in a span of a few minutes because he already pre-packed the adobo in a huge zip lock bag. A little bit of pre-climb preparation really saves time, energy and the day itself.

Note: Be wary of the swarms upon swarms of flies around the mountain. I don't know why, but there just seems to be way more up there than there are in an urban environment. I wonder why. 

Chicken & Pork Adobo with lots and lots of potatoes and onions. 

A 'Secret Garden', one of the sites prominent during the trail. 

After lunch, we resumed what would have been One Hour Hike to the Saddle Camp. But somewhere in the middle of that hike, the rain came pouring down on us. Most of us had to break out our rain gear and cover our bags with rain repelling covers to ensure that none of our gear got wet.

Didn't take that many pictures due to the fear of getting my camera wet.

Note: If you're planning to climb the mountain during the months of April-November, make sure to be prepared for rain! Rain proof everything. I brought rain jackets, rain covers for our bags, and even placed my underwear and some clothes in zip lock bags just to be safe. My effort wasn't in vain since the ziplocked underwear made sure that I had comfy nether regions after the deluge later that night soaked most of everything that other hikers had. More on that later. 

Saddle Camp after the rain. 

When we reached the Saddle Camp, we had no choice but to pitch our tents on wet ground. We laid out our wet gear to dry but the sun didn't come out for more than a few minutes since our arrival at the campsite. Our gear was wet and damp up to the summit assault the next day.

Note: Bring an insulator that you can put between the ground and your sleeping bag. This will really help you get to sleep at night since you won't have to experience sleeping on the freezing ground. Some people compare it to sleeping on ice. The insulator can be anything from actual insulating panels to yoga mats. Just get something between the bag and the ground. 

After pitching our tents, we were pretty much left to ourselves and we decided to explore the campsite until sunset. Campers started trickling in little by little after we arrived. By the end of the day there were around an estimated 100 campers on the site. You can see the colorful tents dot the mountain side below. 

The Saddle Camp. 
Soon after, Deo started breaking out the provisions for dinner. Looks like we were going to have Sinigang that night. Which was perfect for the weather since it can get really really cold on the mountain at night!

Note: Temperatures drop after the sun sets. It's imperative that you find ways to raise your body temperature like drinking something hot or bundling up in layers and layers of clothes to conserve body heat. 

The sinigang being cooked.

The finished product. 
Note: All of us brought one plastic container that served as our plate and a set of utensils. To conserve water and to refrain from having to wash our 'plates' after eating, we were told to simply place a removable plastic over our container (as seen above). After eating, we would simply take the plastic off along with all the left overs and put it in the trash. 

The camp site isn't that big. You can get from one end to another in a couple of strides. The area surrounding the camp is pretty hilly. Lots and lots of rolling hills. It's pretty steep too where there are no paths so expect to do some climbing here and there if you plan to explore.

The fog was rolling in and out during that time. It was kind of hard to get a shot of the camp illuminated by the sun but when it did, it made for a picturesque scene.

The fog makes for a great photo opportunity. You can see my friend Jake pictured here. 

Taking a breather. 
Note: One regret I have is not using the proper shoes to climb. I used these beat up cross trainer (pictured above). They're good for running and gym use but they do squat for water resistance. When it rained, my feet immediately got wet. I thought I could skirt around the issue by bringing 4 pairs of socks but the number of times that water came into contact with my feet far outnumbered the pairs of sweet dry socks that I brought with me. 

The cloudy sunset over the campsite. 

During the night it rained...

...and it rained hard! I'm talking about thunder and lightning and ruptured water pipe mains hard. But thankfully, the wind was kept down to a minimum. Our amount of waterproofing couldn't have prepared us for the downpour that hit us that night.

The rain came at around 9:00 PM and lasted until about 11:00 PM. Most people were already in their tents when it hit. Being in the tent myself, I thought we'd be spared from the worst; but boy was I wrong. The rainwater found a way into our tent courtesy of a small tear in the tent's outer layer. The rain was also so strong that some droplets made it through the water resistant outer layer.

We basically had wet feet from the water that entered our tent and seeped into our sleeping bag and we had wet faces because of the droplets pattering down on our uncovered faces. We were luckier than the other campers on the mountain though because some of them pitched tents on uneven ground. This led their tents to flood so some of them had to relocate to newer tents after the deluge stopped.

Note: I can't stress the importance of waterproofing our gear enough. I saved my camera from the water and the moisture by placing it in a ziplock bag along with all my electronics. My cellphone and leather wallet were saved as well since they had their own individual ziplocks. 

Day 2 - (May 18, Sunday)

After sleeping for a few restless hours, we were awakened at 4:00 A.M. for the Summit Assault. The temperature was freezing and most of the hikers had to deal with wet shoes, socks and gear during the One Hour Summit Assault. 

Sadly, some people had to stay at camp due to complications that developed due to the night's rains. Others complained of chest and lung pains due to the cold but soldiered on.

We began the assault quite late at around 4:45 A.M. This time, our hike was different because of the dark, the wetness and the cold. The going was slow since we had to go slow in the dark for fear of slipping on the trail made wet by last nights torrential rains. The cold was an unwelcome companion on the assault as well since it compounded itself in most of the camper's wet gear (especially socks) that they were unable to save from the downpour. This biting cold was further aggravated every time a hiker had the unlucky chance to step into one of the many pot holes of freezing cold water that materialized in the night.

Note: A Headlamp and a Walking Stick are great things to have during this part of the hike. The headlamp will give you the use of both hands when hiking to either add to your balance or allow you to grip and hold on to things if you slip. The Walking Stick on the other hand acts as a third leg and will stabilize you especially when tackling an incline. I couldn't count the number of times that a Walking Stick saved me from a nasty slip during the hike up. 

Note 2: Some Gloves and Waterproof Socks (Yes, there are such things), would have made the climb easier. 

I was unable to take any pictures during this time because I concentrated more on not loosing my footing rather than to document our ascent. But rest assured, we made it up to the summit and we were rewarded with one of the greatest scenes ever laid before our eyes.

Day breaks over Mt. Pulag
The sunrise over Mt. Pulag was truly something else. It was as if the lucky few on the mountain that day were the first ones to witness the sun sprout from the ground and usher in a new day for the Philippines.

Even though the famed Sea of Clouds wasn't present, the verdant blue mountain silhouettes stood out against the orange glow of the sun rise. It made for perfect contrasting colors and it even lit the grass up as if the ground was afire with the first light of morning.

What ensued was an hour of watching the beauty of nature unfold before our eyes as we sat on the damp grass on the mountain's summit. We soon became restless though and what ensued was a slew of perfect photo opportunities for those of us among the group. I can't count the number of Facebook profile pictures generated from our trip up the mountain LOL.

Note: For those of you into photography, you might want to capture the beauty of the sea of clouds with a ND Filter in order to have that "ethereal" look so often seen in the pictures of Pulag.You must also have a sturdy tripod. Make sure your tripods legs can extend and retract easily since there is scarcely any level ground at the summit.  

This is the Backpacker's United group that went up Pulag that day. 

Don't forget to grab a picture with the sign on top of the summit!
After we had our fill of group pictures and portraits, it was time to head down to camp for breakfast. The trek back down roughly took another hour but it was easier because we could see where we were going.

After a hearty breakfast of cornbeef hash, scrambled eggs and rice (not pictured here because my sole mission was to devour it), we proceeded to pack up and prepare for the two hour hike down to the Ranger's Station. We took about an hour to pack up, try to dry everything out and have one last group picture at the campsite before bidding goodbye to our host mountain.

The trip back down was rather uneventful, but I think it was mostly because we were a bit tired from all the new experiences we shared. What transpired after this picture was basically...

  1. Two hour hike back down to the Ranger's Station.
  2. Short rest then the 45 minute hike back to the Monster Jeep drop off point.
  3. 1 hour Monster Jeep ride back to Jang Jang Eatery
  4. Lunch at Jang Jang and then the chance to shower. (Took 2 hours)
  5. 2 hour Monster Jeep ride back to Baguio. (Arrived in Baguio at 5:30 PM)
  6. Dinner in Baguio and departure via Victory Liner Bus at 10:00 PM
  7. Arrival in Manila at 4:00 AM on Monday morning, May 19. 
Climbing Mt. Pulag opened my eyes to the world of mountain climbing and it was an extremely helpful introduction as to what this hobby is all about. I know that if I want to be able to do a 'real' hike, I will have to learn how to cook for a group, pitch a tent by myself and expect the unexpected when it comes to the will of Mother Nature. 

I wouldn't mind climbing another mountain. What piques my interest more is that Deo, our administrator, told me that his favorite mountain is Mt. Kanlaon here in my home province of Negros Occidental. Why not... after all, it is THE only active volcano in my back yard that killed a bunch of campers when it erupted suddenly in the 1980's Lol.

Well, 'til the next mountain. Backpacker's..... United! 

Mt. Pulag Climb Itinerary:

Here was the itinerary that the group based the climb on:

Day 0 (May 16 - Fri)
1900 Assembly at Victory Liner Cubao
2100 ETD Manila for Baguio

Day 1 (May 17 - Sat)
0400 ETA Baguio City.
0700 ETD Bokod, Benguet. Breakfast
0900 ETA DENR Visitors' Center. Registration / Orientation
1030 ETD DENR for Ranger Station
1130 ETA Ranger Station. Lunch.
1200 Start trek
1330 ETA Camp 1
1430 ETA Campsite
1500 Explore camp. Summit Sunset.
1800 Dinner. Socials
2100 Lights out

Day 2 (May 18 - Sun)
0400 Wake up call
0500 Summit arrival. Sunrise
0700 Start descent from summit
0800 Back at Saddle Camp. Breakfast
0900 Break camp. Start descent to Ranger Station
1130 ETA Ranger Station
1230 ETA Jang-jang. Lunch. Wash up
1800 ETA Baguio City. Dinner along Session Rd.
2100 ETD Manila

Mt. Pulag Climb Cost:

Since Backpacker's United administered this climb, they took care of most of everything. 

We ended up paying a total of Php 3,500.00 for the entire climb.

This amount was inclusive of:
  • Transpo
  • Camping & Cooking equipment
  • Food (climb proper)
  • Environmental Fees, Park, Porter, and Guide Fees
  • Official Mt. Pulag Climbing Certificate
  • Backpackers United T-shirt!
Deo just required us to deposit a non-refundable amount of Php 1,000.00 as down payment a few weeks prior to the climb proper.

Backpacker's United Contact Details:

Owner's Name: Deo Marco Calumba
Contact Details: 09239599094

Note: If you want to schedule your own private climb with friends just like we did, you must form a group of around 15 people minimum. 

Must-Haves When Climbing Mt. Pulag:

Here's a checklist of the essential things you'll need when climbing Mt. Pulag:

Extra water, 2 ltrs
Extra clothing (like a sweater and rain jacket)
Flashlight, extra batteries, headlamp
lighter, matches

First aid kit
Sun protection (sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm, hat)

Main Items
Sleeping bag (blanket), Sleeping pad (cushion)

Clothing Items
Hiking shoes, rubber shoes
Slippers, Socks
Waterproof clothing bag
Small blanket and pillow
Pants (non-cotton)
Jacket (Fleece) with windbreaker
Shirts (long-sleeve and short-sleeve)
Extra shirts for layering

Other items:
Sunscreen / Lip sunscreen
Insect Repellant
Soap, Shampoo
Toothbrush, Toothpaste
Toilet paper in plastic
Plastic bags (grocery bags, garbage bags)
Tupperware (for eating purposes)
Wide-mouth water bottles (for trail water)
Cup or mug, Tissue
Camp Chair / Sleeping Pad
Camera, Tripod Trail Food (chocolates, nuts with raisins, etc)
Alcohol (gin)
Face mask

***Well, that's that! Hope this blog post helped you guys out! 

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