Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What changed what remained to be the same

A New Year’s climb to welcome 2007 in Mt. Manalmon

Completing the traditional New Year’s climb in the last two days before 2007, the question foremost in my mind begging for an answer was, climbing then and now, What changed, what remained to be the same?

Trekking ground was at TJ Gonzalez’ fort, Manalmon in San Miguel, Bulacan, 95 kms North from QC at 196 meters ASL. TJ was a climbing buddy before the turn of the century when we were then gang ho in discovering new trails and destinations. To our credit were the Makiling Sto. Tomas to Los Banos traverse in November 1999; reaching the summit of Daguldol in July 2001; the Tapulao mass climb in June 1999 among others. He has now relegated climbing at the background in favor of family life and business. TJ brought along with him Berto Mendoza, his climbing apprentice from Baluga, a Baliuag based mountaineering club.

Pursuing this annual climb were Jonnell Tan, a seasonal climber who participated in the 2002 Tirad Pass New Year’s climb and 2003 Tapulao sojourn and Marc Chua, his protégé. Both Jonnel and Marc had several camping equipment accumulating in their storage waiting for field testing.

While there were major developments in the climbing circuit since three Filipino climbers have stepped foot at the roof of the world Mt. Everest in 2006 where interests have now been set to alpine trekking, enthusiasts have increased in leaps and bounds and modern technical equipments have become accessible, what really have changed and what remained to be the same? Has anything changed since the Halcon climb of March 1999, TJ’s last major climb and the Manalmon of 2006 spanning a gap of 7 years?

Nature refreshes.
To start with, Manalmon was surprisingly exclusively for the 5 of us from the jump-off point to the riverside all the way to the bed of rock at the peak. The elements of nature were naturally in place with no sight of garbage. It was as if Manalmon has not been inhabited in the previous months by the increasing number of weekend trekkers. Although TJ and Berto cited that we were threading on new trails which change every time a typhoon, heavy rains fall in the neighboring provinces of Nueva Ecjia and especially Aurora.

Manalmon that date provided an awesome setting for year end activity. Like before, nature grants a refreshing recluse to make us forget the stress of the urban lifestyle. There is stillness at the riverside and exhilaration at the cliff.

Equipment is indispensable. So is equipment talk.
All of us were equipped with technical clothing, rated shelters and functional cooking utensils that would not fail us at the time of need. While we thought we have outgrown the talk on camping gears, the topic would always slip in between talks when we rated the Eureka Tent of Marc, the MSR stove of Jonnell and cost of owning such gears these days. The incessant hard blowing of the wind the whole night kept the owners asking, Will our tents hold? They did.

Socials start as you set up the kitchen.
Cooking remains to be the prologue of an interesting social interaction. Talks start with the utensil, source of ingredients, procedures. Added topic for us that night was the combined traditional cooking technique and the improvised ihaw-ihaw using grilled chicken wires and charcoal picked up along the way. That talk alone could have kept us up the whole night. The food output for the evening was another rich source of discussion.

Food is abundant.
The omelet had red bell pepper. The bottled spicy sardines from Dipolog met their match with freshly fried tilapia from Madlum River. Served after pork chops of San Idelfonso were the cold cuts of Finland. Fruit salad from Bukidnon with slices of fresh apple from China complemented the brandy from Spain con coated peanuts of Baliuag. Rice as always was served in its perfect state: no tutong, moist, steaming hot and just enough.

The past will haunt you.
These all set up a stage for candid socials whose other talk points were on people we climbed with in the past such as Larry H., Mitch S., Marlon, Val, Martin, Hermes, Jo R. etc. TJ elaborated on his life and death situations in Halcon and his first major climb with Larry and Mitch to Pulag via Tawangan. Like the socials before, it was extended but meaningful. Howling wind and a bright moon joined our company. Drinking was abruptly stopped not because of the shortage of supply but of the human limitation. The fulfillment of completing a climb is still there, regardless of whether it was a minor or major climb. Cardiacs always result in physical exhaustion or hingal particularly the 20 minute ascent from the river to the peak.

Each one has a role.
Roles each climber in a group play are inherently in place. There’s a cook, a source of water, a guide, a lead and a sweep, a driver, planner and financier. Berto, TJ and Jonnell cooked. Marc and Jonnell brought the hardware. TJ provided the venue. I organized the activity and am writing the story. Telling a story and documenting it make a valuable contribution, perhaps even more valuable than the actual climb itself.

There will be highlights.
The theme which eventually evolved that evening was the prospect getting the breaks for the big time. As we reach the level of competence, all of us are just waiting for the forces to align to pave the way for bountiful reaps. All of us are hopeful that these breaks show up for us 2007 whether in the field of business, in career, or in relationships. This lesson that showed up in the socials has made this rare gathering of 5 a rewarding climb.

Ascents partners with descents.
Climbs always end with each of us rushing back to our respective obligations. TJ has to go back to his family and man the bigasan store. Berto has an auto supply store to attend to. Marc is catching a New Year’s Eve dinner; Jonnell to return back to his own self.

Ending the climb and the year, we were grateful that we planned at a short notice and completed a climb which is a rarity these days. Committing to a weekend adventure is more difficult these days unlike the bohemian days before. Like in the past New Year’s climb, we expelled in the open air the negatives that have accumulated for the past 12 months and breathed in the fresh positive air to prepare us for the big breaks we are looking forward to in 2007.

Nature may change its course. Equipment can advance, skill degenerate and body deteriorate. With the human spirit still alive, it is easy to reminisce the glory days with this shortly planned easy climb as if nothing has really changed.

As we return back to Metro Manila to welcome the incoming year, it was validated that the key element to an elating experience is simply fine company in a natural setting. When our outlook towards each other as captured in this climb has not changed, that is enough assurance us that we will have a fruitful year ahead of us. Happy New 2007!

3 January 2007

Completing Mount Halcon
This can very well describe the pain of climbing. It dramatizes the popular quote that “Climbing is the art of suffering.” There are dangers in every step. No wonder it is a killer mountain. The thought of dying in this difficult mountain lingers in the mind of every mountaineer creating a stigma that needed freeing and liberating. It is perhaps this liberation that led JoRam, Mitch, Marlon, TJ and Chito to scale Mount Halcon this 10-14 March 1999 via Lantuyang, Baco.

Mount Halcon did not humble 5 climbers. Mount Aplaya, the prologue to Mount Halcon did. We didn’t expect it to come so soon. But we lacked rest the night before the trek, humidity was high, it was hot, ascent was steep, assault for a regular climber was overextended and all carried heavy loads.

This humbling was seen in TJ, our most prepared climber when both his thighs suffered muscle cramps at the same time during a rest stop at the kubo about 4 hours after the start of trek. He felt fear when he with Mitch and Marlon got lost going down Dulangan River. They ended up in the Dulangan Rocks instead. TJ also suffered a terrible fall very early morning on the 3rd day at the Dulangan River. Rocks of all sizes and shapes hit all parts of his back and butt.

JoRam, a rower and a cyclist showed signs of hypothermia at Camp Aplaya when he experienced chill in the evening and consequently missed his dinner.

Chito’s early fatigue strain who afterwards couldn’t distinguish heat strokes from hypothermia and would moan each stop. Now it can also be told that in scrambling the wall from the summit to Dulangan River, Chito with his backpack was suspended midway in the route as rocks stepped on were falling. Miraculously, some divine force transported him at the safe end of the ledge.

Exchange of lines heard within the first 4 hours of trek-“It’s enough for me to reach Camp Aplaya for this expedition. Never mind the summit.” Chito claimed he said it first, TJ contested.

Marlon is the most transparent climber. Marlon shouts for TJ each time that he senses he is lost. No flashlight at the last stretch to the Summit Ridge campsite while getting dark, he was constantly shouting for TJ. On the ascending trail from the last water source going up the wall, he was pacing Chito and JoRam, the sweeper resting every now and then. No, our youngest climber was not pacing we found out. He too was fighting exhaustion.

Mitch was not spared. He slipped at the ridge on the way down from the summit just like Guiting-Guiting once again. He suffered the most blood loss from the sucking limatics.

The team had a strong drive. Mitch, JoRam and Chito originally intended to climb Halcon February 1998. But the Sumagaya crash happened sending most of the participants to the crash site. This year, the scheduled climb in Valentine ’99 generated a lot of interest but for one reason or another, could not be mounted. Other drawbacks were the weather, mid-term exams and climbing permits. When the date was set, we learned that HALMs wouldn’t issue permits. TJ was the most persistent to make the climb happen. Saddened by the HALMs directive to restrict Halcon Climb before and after the annual climb, he asked the EL to check on possibilities each day. Resourceful that he is, Chito found Joel in the Y2K seminar in PICC and was granted a concession.

While it was a slow start, somewhat, the team was determined to proceed and complete the expedition. The greatest joy each day was to reach the established campsite. 9, 7, 5, 3. Joy was reached 2 hours earlier each day. On the 1st day at 9 PM we were at Camp Aplaya, 7 PM at the Summit Ridge on the 2nd day, 5 PM at Dulangan River on the 3rd day and 3 PM at Lantuyang, Baco on the last day. Wake up time was getting earlier too each day. 1st day was at 7 AM, 2nd day at 5 AM and 3rd day at 4:30 AM.

What worked for us were the organized schedule, meal planning, tested equipment, technical garments, relaxed/not that slow pacing which kept the pack within 5-10 minutes gap, a lean group. Cooking system was systematic-3 straight meals per pair done in 2 cooking to serve dinner, breakfast and packed lunch. Logistically helpful was the guidance of HALMS (Joel Aldea) with an assurance of back up if necessary and their advanced handling of our permit requirements. Invitation to park our stuff in their Base Camp and sleep if needed was most welcome.

Through HALMS and the Barangay Captain, we were provided with a guide, who has attachment to Mount Halcon. Our team was the 3rd he expertly guided to the peak. Nestor was compassionate and understood our limitations as climbers. He was truthful in telling us the trekking time to our next destination. While initially delayed, we caught up with the itinerary, thanks to the arithmetical simplification of JoRam and Nestor. The formula was simply, “if we reach this point, we will only be X hours away to the summit.” That kept the spirit alive.
Our strongest motivation to complete was the weather. Nature gifted us with the ideal weather condition. No rain during the trek, cold weather at the campsite, clear skies at the summit. Coldest recorded temp was 9°C. Human element was a minor obstacle to overcome.

Each of us sensed that we were not just 6 at the mountain. Somehow there was a bantay that would look over us. The fireflies flashed light to lead us to the trail at night. An open space signaled us to bring out flashlights from our packs. Water source sprouted when we were getting thirsty. Chito was saved from falling. TJ didn’t break his back. Mitch’s fall was just a slip although from a high altitude. Chito’s slip at the river didn’t break his ankle. We were not rained out. We caught up with the itinerary. The view from the summit was awesome. TJ, Mitch and Marlon found the trail back. We found TJ and Nestor at Camp Aplaya. Weather was fine in all the campsites. Views from our campsite were without comparison. The imposing mountain was exclusively ours. Reaching the tombstone set-up for Neptali close to the peak, we said our tribute of thanks.

Completing Mount Halcon, the most dreaded Philippine Mountain, we realized that no one could be fully prepared for the climb. One just needed to be ready. It took an alignment of elements to be granted the gift of stepping in the 2,586-meter summit. Climber’s physical condition that can endure long, cardiac assaults, presence of mind, right equipment, correct food, willpower, a team that’s one, open and friendly with each other, an able and compassionate guide and most importantly a permitting spiritual force.

We thought we were physically fit. Our climbing credentials proudly said: Tawangan-Pulag Traverse December ’98, Sto. Tomas-Los Baños Makiling Traverse February ’99, Banahaw ’98, Guiting-Guiting April ’98. That wasn’t enough.

We completed Mount Halcon because our intentions were pure-simply to appreciate nature and ourselves. As said in the prayers of JoRam on our 2nd day, May we be allowed to see the beauty of Mount Halcon and to learn about ourselves. On our last day, TJ said thanks for God’s protection that brought him, Mitch and Marlon back to the right track before dark, for preventing Chito’s fall from the scrambling at the wall. Whatever graces even small, we accept and appreciate.

Climbs make us proud. Some mountains show us the grandeur of creation. Mount Halcon takes away that pride and humbles us with our limitation. Only with this acceptance of limitation can lift one up to the summit. To me, that was key to our completion. We had to suffer to go on.

As we started our sea travel to Calapan, the Star Cat Ferry on video flashed a prayer for us-that there’s a lot to be thankful for in a day. One of them is to be A-live. When we returned back to Batangas International Port after the climb, and heard the same prayer, I understood fully well what it meant for me and for our expedition team. It was a most powerful blessing Mount Halcon granted us.

It showed beautifully in the perfect pictures taken by Mitch. Even TJ’s yaya agreed making Marlon apply for employment so TJ’s commands can be justifiably legit.

15 March 1999 Chito B. Razon

Hello, all.

I must say Chito's article indeed brings back to mind the tortuous moments of our trek-the horrendous heat on the way to Mt. Aplaya, passing through the rocky landslide-prone slopes, and losing the right trail (or simply, getting lost). No doubt the physical aspect of the climb is daunting enough that so many people dreaded climbing Mt. Halcon. The psychological aspect is as daunting. The climb is truly a body and mind thing. It has to be both because Mt. Halcon will mercilessly tax the body and mind. Definitely, one can't do without the other. Doing without the other spells certain defeat. Such a demand on both body and mind highlights the importance of the holistic conditioning which the ancient Greek philosophers have put forth thousands of years ago. It is just not enough to be in top physical shape. The mind has to be ready too. Mt. Halcon is a testament to this ideal. As such, the Halcon climb is about discovering the totality of our being. For those who made it all the way, I say, "PER ADUA AD ASTRA." (Latin for "Through adversity to the stars.")

In retrospect,

JOJO Ramos


  1. guile1:40 PM

    here's hoping the new year will be better than the last..