13.6 degrees centigrade according to my watch barometer. We were inside our tent. I could imagine how cold it was outside our tent hearing the unrelenting howl of the wind. It is 2:30 am and we’re at the Camp 2 of Mt Pulag, the highest mountain of Luzon and considered as the third highest in the country. I braced for the chill as I zipped open the tent door. A draft came in as I peeked outside. The sky was clear with stars jubilantly sparkling. The waning moon illuminated the landscape. “We have a clearing!” I gleefully thought. Thank god the weather was on our side and after almost 14 years, I’ll be back at the summit of Mt Pulag.
Climbing Mt Pulag
If there’s one mountain in the country that I would highly recommend to enthusiast climbers, Mt Pulag would be on top of my list. During my heydays of mountain climbing, Mt Pulag was most climber’s dream of doing. Who wouldn’t be attracted to this mountain? At 2,922 meters above sea level, the trail transitions from the cool pine forest, to the eerily beautiful mossy forest and finally, the vast undulating landscape of the grasslands leading to the summit. The latter felt like walking in a dream. The grassland is also one of the coldest spot in the country where temperatures can reach up to sub-zero temperatures. On rare occasions, frost can be found on the ground.
Mt Pulag is expansive. It extends to three provinces – Benguet, Ifugao and Nueva Vizcaya. There are also a number of trails varying in difficulty. The easiest is the Ambangeg Trail and then the multi-day trek at Akiki Trail with a camp at the Eddet River. The Tawangan Trail may also be accessed from Ifugao and passes through a few scenic lakes. Ambaguio Trail is the longest and steepest of the trail. Among the trails, I had been to Ambangeg and Akiki Trails.
Peak Pursuits PH Difference
My recent climb to Mt Pulag was handled by Peak Pursuits PH, an adventure outfit associated with Primer Group of Companies a major distributor of outdoor products and apparel. For this expedition, Mountain Hardwear and Columbia Sportswear, both already established brands in the outdoor industry, were heavily utilized. Aside from organizing and taking care of the transportation, fees, logistics, camp meals and porters, Peak Pursuits PH also brought Mountain Hardwear tents and sleeping bags to use in our camps. Seasoned UP Mountaineers, Jay and Ram-mon were our climb leads to make sure everything was in order. It sure made climbing less of a hassle as we only need to bring our personal essentials like extra clothes, trail snacks and accessories and just climb. A far cry on my first two climbs were we shared the load of our provisions to lessen the weight on our backs
Road to Mt Pulag
From the pre-climb a day before, Ram-mon explained clearly what to expect from the climb – from the trail conditions, to the weather and itinerary. He also informed us what was necessary to bring. After arriving in Baguio, a heavy duty jeep was already arranged to take us to the DENR Office at Ambangeg. We made a stop at Pinkan Jo where we had our breakfast and buy packed lunch. Our group was the only ones there and I admired the morning unfold along the Ambuklao River. The mountain view backdrop and the river while having a cup of warm brewed coffee was a great way to start the day.
Our spunky group opted to ride top-load the jeep and enjoy the winding road through Ambuklao. The rough dirt road I remember 14 years ago is long gone. It was paved all the way which made it easy to stay on top while enjoying the view of low-lying clouds hovering by the mountains and rays of light breaking through the mountain gradients while the river snakes through the valley. Our thrill was cut short as we had to go back inside the jeep when we reached the bridge a few hundred meters past the view of Ambuklao Dam. From here, we tried to catch a few more zzzzs until we reached the DENR station.
The DENR station was still closed when we arrived. Two other groups were already waiting. Office opened promptly at 8am. Here, we settled the park fees, viewed the mandatory film showing and attended the required orientation. Another hour and a half ride, we were already at the Badabak Ranger station, the jump-off for the climb.
More than a Decade After
At least a decade is enough to see how climbing Mt Pulag has changed. In this generation where travel is easily accessible to everyone, more people have climbed the mountain. It even came to a point that mass climbs of more than 500 people a day heavily damaged the trail. It lead to temporary closure to let the mountain breath and recover from the influx of tourist climbers. As of this writing, people are not allowed to camp during weekends from Friday to Sunday. This eventually led to people staying near the Badabak Ranger Station. Camping grounds and homestays popped up to take advantage of the climbers looking for a place to stay before their early morning assault at 1am the next day.
Another change is the Medical Certificate required for a climb. After a couple of recent unfortunate incidents of climbers dying on the trail due to carelessness and underestimating the mountain, the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) as well as the Mt Pulag National Park management required medical certificates for climbers to make sure they are fit enough to climb. While this drew mixed reactions in the climbing community, I had to agree to this, to make sure casual climbers know what they are going into.
Retracing the Familiar Ambangeg Trail
I could no longer recognize the Badabak Ranger Station from when I last climbed November 2013. We traversed from Akiki to Ambangeg then. Now the road here is paved, the station moved a few meters, houses, eateries, homestays and souvenir shops line the road. We secured our porters here. I was dumbfounded how our 5-foot men and women porters could easily carry a 20kg load on their back and breeze through the trail far ahead of us. Really puts a shame to us urban dwellers already whining on how heavy our minuscule packs are.
I was surprised to see agricultural lands have slowly encroached the national park. Vegetable fields now dissolve along the mountains and ugly water cables litter the views on the early part of the trek. The trek became a lot more interesting when we reached the mossy forest. I noticed some park signs now like “no picking of vegetation”. An hour into the hike, after a steep ascent is a rest stop where we had our lunch. This was Camp 1.
Going back on this trail is like a trip back in memory lane. Mountain climbing was my first love and I remember my friends back then who partook the journey with me. People may come and go but this forest still remains the same. It is still the familiar forest who stood watch to every climber coming and going through its trail. I saw some familiar trees I consider landmarks. Some trail changes were added stone steps on parts I remember that can get muddy when wet. Unlike before, I took time to enjoy the trail, examining the ferns, the fascinating bend and twist of the trees and a close look at the otherworldly details of the mosses living on the branches.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.