Note: When I was looking for articles about things to expect about the climb, I didn’t see any blogs about how beginners took to the trail. So, here I am writing this blog post, a complete novice, with no experience. Hopefully, this would help you with your climb!
Sometime last November, a friend of mine asked me if I was up for a hike that she was interested in. I said yes. I was up for anything, since I had nothing much to do. So, without further ado, we booked our trip to Mt. Pulag (Dec 12-13) for Php 4,100 with Trail Adventours. The package included all traveling fees, arrangements, a homestay, since the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) banned camping in the reserve until further notice, some meals, DENR permit, and local guides.
As the date came closer, I had a feeling of dread that I just kept pushing aside. I reassured myself by researching about Mt. Pulag and found out that it is 3/9 in the difficulty scale (from the Pinoy Mountaineer blog). Phew, I thought. No worries, I thought. As a person who does not hike at all, I began to question my decision to go along. But, I had already paid, so I thought, why the hell not?
At the pre-climb meeting, we were briefed about the trip. They had given us precise instructions on what to bring for the trip as well as for the trail. The pre-climb was very informative, although with all the talk about heart attacks and death, I started to feel anxious. Although I thought about conditioning myself for the climb, I always managed to put off until tomorrow. All was well until I realised that I had no tomorrows left to spare and that I was royally screwed.
At 9:00PM on December 11, the group, composed of 27 people, met up at the Victory Liner Terminal along Pasay-EDSA, where we took the 10:00PM bus to Baguio. Our bus was the unlucky one because it kept stalling, and eventually, it ran out of battery in the middle of the highway with almost no lights on. We were stuck in Tarlac for 2 hours more or less before a fresh bus from Manila came to pick us up.
Arriving in Baguio at around 7AM , we quickly loaded into the monster jeepneys. Basically, the jeepneys look like they’re on steroids and I think this is because the roads to Benguet are mostly uphill. From Baguio we went to have breakfast (I forgot where), then we proceeded to the DENR to log our names. Those of our group who had forgotten to bring medical clearance were taken to the hospital and were examined there. (Do not forget to bring the medical clearance because there might be long waiting lines in the hospital, and will delay a lot of things in the tour!)
The pre-climb at the DENR was funny. The lady who oriented us certainly knew how to handle a crowd. There were several groups of climbers of around 30 people each. Apparently, what I was seeing was not the peak season amount. We were told to respect the trail and to never leave any garbage behind. We were also told of what was to be expected, about the different areas along the trail. There is what they call the mossy forest and the grasslands. These two contrast with each other in color and diversity of flora. Look out for the Dwarf Bamboos and the Edelweiss.
The lady also informed us of the death on the mountain. She stressed that it was going to be cold and that it was going to be tiring. And, through some joke or other, she managed to dispel the tenseness of the room.
After the DENR orientation and log-in, we had lunch then took the jeepneys to our homestay. Our group of friends were composed of 6 people, and it so happened that they had a room for 6, so we had a nice cozy room to ourselves. The sheets were fresh and fragrant. The entire area was beautiful and cold. I had to pay Php40 for a hot bath. The homestay also sold various snacks and drinks (they had Milo, Bear Brand and coffee for Php 10 or thereabouts).
As the sun started to set, the fog also started to roll in and cool the atmosphere. At dinner my friends took out the mallows that they toted along and we had some makeshift s’mores over the fireplace. They also had wood from pine trees and they were very fragrant when we tossed them into the fire. ( S’more tip: Do not roast mallows on top of pine wood! They will have a funky taste.) The evening was delightful, and the company was excellent. We were told to have an early night and to rest well for the trek.
Our guides advised us to sleep in the clothes we would wear for the trek. I wore a Uniqlo heat tech long-sleeved undershirt beneath a casual shirt. Then on top of that, I had Uniqlo’s ultra light down jacket. And on top of my down jacket, I wore my Mizuno thermal windbreaker as my first line of defence against the cold. I bought gloves at the sari-sari store near the DENR. And for my bottom half, I had on my compression leggings under my Mizuno pants. I wore 2 pairs of socks. A thin one first and then covered by a thicker pair.
I went to sleep with this and woke up just a bit cold. There are no heaters in the room so I made sure to bundle up before sleeping. We had a small breakfast consisting of instant noodles with soup at a little past 12:00 midnight, to build up our energy and warm our stomachs.
Upon arrival at the Ranger Station (10 mins away by jeepney from our homestay), our guides from Manila separated us into 3 groups, this way, they always had us in check. We also had 3 local guides in the guise of little old ladies with wind-burnt cheeks. I chatted one of them up and she told me that she’s been up and down the mountain countless times. It’s hard to stay unimpressed by them.
The climb up to the summit was an estimated 5 hours and a half through the Ambangeng Trail. This trail is the easiest one. But do not be fooled. It is the easiest one, simply because all the other trails were extremely taxing. It is easy because there were only 2 or 3 steep paths that left me panting. The rest of the trails were relatively flat. It was the length of the trail that was daunting to me. There is one steep incline right before Camp 1. The somewhere between Camps 1 and 2 there is another one.
It did take us around 5 hours and a half to get to our assigned summit (Summit 2). The climb up was made in complete darkness. It helped because I wasn’t able to see the steep drops beside me. And honestly, I think we made good time because we were motivated by the sunrise. We had to be there before the sunrise, otherwise, what’s the use? Which would then explain our extremely slow descent. It took us a little over 6 and a half hours to get down. We had no determination. We were tired, hungry, and even more tired. Needless to say, was a slow march down the mountain. We eventually took a habal-habal (motorcycle) down someways and it saved us around 30 minutes of our sweat and blood. We paid 100php per head. It was expensive but extremely gratifying.
And you know what? I did not regret going on this climb at all. (Okay to be honest, as I was going down the mountain, I regretted it a tiny bit, but that was exhaustion speaking.) I felt like I proved something to myself. Maybe I realised that sheer determination could push me far enough to walk the peak of Pulag. I felt euphoric when I reached the top. It was either euphoria or crazy-tiredness. Either way, I lay down on the ground, and relaxed for a good ten minutes before deigning to move! And the view! Is nothing short of amazing.
How I survived, tips:
1. Clothing is very important! Especially the gloves, the wind gets extremely biting when you get to the grasslands and on top of the mountains. Your hands will hurt if they’re not covered. Gloves will also protect you from splinters! and FYI, it gets very warm in the mossy forest (I was sweating), since the trees tend to block the wind, the wind doesn’t pass through at all. So you might want to balance it out, and not go all out winter galore. Remember: when walking, heat is generated, so you won’t want to have a lot of layers to remove when the sun rises.
2. Bring food and the right amount of water! Our tour guides advised us to bring 2 litres of water. Since I was trying to make my climb easier, I only took 1 litre with me. Which was stupid, because now that I thought about it, 1 litre was for going up the mountain and the other for going down. It was a good thing one of our guides always brought extra water with him! For the food, my group brought out the sweets. We had Choo-choo, Choco-Mucho, Yema and many more. What we should have brought along was trail mix especially with the nuts!!!!! Of course, there is no problem with bringing the sweets, in fact in our pre-climb the guide recommended bringing sweet stuff because it was a perfect to provide extra calories and energy. One guide, Kuya Jay, brought along trail mix and it was all I could do to restrain myself from devouring it! Another good tip I learned from Kuya Jay was to unwrap all the candies, biscuits, crackers etc and put them in a ziplock bag. This way, it is impossible to leave candy wrappers on the trail (and easier to share with other hikers)! Also, please pick up all the wrappers you may see. It doesn’t matter if they’re not yours because they’re surely destructive to the mountain range.
3. If you’re exhausted, just keep one foot in front of the other. This really worked for me. Going down, I was tired and so, I just focused on my feet and the ground that was 2-3 feet in front of me. There’s something very disheartening about looking up and then seeing a long way to go, or another steep incline that I had to climb. It also helps to keep a good pace that doesn’t leave you panting. A good enough pace to be able to hold a conversation. My friend and I were at the tail end of our group and we just kept on talking to keep the exhaustion at bay.
4. Bring just the right amount of stuff to the trip. I had 2 extra shirts and a pair of joggers besides the clothes I wore for the climb. I also brought along my Aquazorb towel (they have this thin bath towel now, which easily fit into my backpack,) a battery pack, snacks, medical certificate, slippers, toiletries, medicine and a flashlight. I also brought a smaller backpack for the climb itself. The medicine included, antihistamines, paracetamol, Tiger balm (which is a sort of heated rub, and Salonpas patches.
5. Inside my climb backpack: 1 litre of water (you need to bring 2), snacks, a battery pack, phone and, a flashlight. That’s it! After the sun rose, I had to shed some layers, so it was nice to be able to put 2 jackets and my flashlight into my backpack. It’s a very basic Jansport back pack. I’ve had it forever. It weighs next to nothing, too. It was also easy to fold into my bigger Osprey back pack so that was a huge plus. Oh and before I forget, bring a bit of money for the food awaiting at the Ranger Station! Or the habal-habal ride if you’re dying like I was.
6. Good weather. This is pretty self explanatory. Even in our pre-climb, our guide kept going on about the importance of good weather. Trailadventours puts our safety first. So they told us that if it rained and if the wind was strong, they would halt the climb, even if we’ve pass Camp 2. Luckily, our trip was sunny and bright. We even saw the famed “sea of clouds.”
How I could have fared better: EXERCISE! I think just a week or two of prior preparation could have softened the blow a bit.
Awkward moment: I’ll not beat around the bush, it was the bathroom situation that was difficult. Especially for girls. Camps 1 and 2 have makeshift potties. Meaning, they have a whole on the ground that you just go to. They have sheds for privacy. The tricky part is when we were up the mountains. We had to go in pairs. One person was to hold a tarpaulin, which was the group’s banner, (I’m laughing as I remember) aloft to block everyone’s view from the second person’s business. It did not help that the grass was as tall as my knee. It also did not help that there were 2 mountains (Mt. Pulag and Summit 2) with people on them. Mooning the whole Nueva Vizcaya? Now that was an adventure.
Customer Satisfaction with our tour group: 4/5. The guides from Manila came with us on the climb. (So there were 6 guides in total, 3 from Manila and 3 local guides.) There was a person assigned at the head of the group, then the middle and then finally, the sweeper. Meaning, he was the very last person in the group, no matter what. I felt safe. The guides carried extra food and water on the climb for which I was very grateful. We even visited the Ambuklao Dam and a Jang Jang hanging bridge. However ,they rearranged the schedule because of some participants that were not able to bring a medical certificate. So we visited the sites after the climb, which meant that we were too tired to enjoy them properly.
Overall feeling: It’s been 4 months since the climb, so I feel pretty good about it. Do I want to climb it again? Maybe in a year or two and with proper preparation. Was it a wonderful experience? Y-E-S.
Final words: It is a lovely mountain, big and gloriously majestic. I realise that there are so many people who want to go to Mt. Pulag, to experience the same thing we did. I just hope that future and returning hikers take very good care of the mountain and the surrounding sites. These are the type of places we should hold dear for the next generation to enjoy.