At Grassland Summit, close to 3,000 feet above the rugged terrains of Northern Luzon, the first positive development of the evening comes in a thick French accent. “Dinner is ready!” calls Mister Tee, our group’s organizer for this climb.
Being called for dinner late in the evening – past seven, to be exact – would normally send me to my feet excitedly, but after six hours of riding a jeepney through ridiculously bumpy roads, four hours of walking in the rain and through muddy trails (even slipping once), and enduring an 8-degree Celsius evening in my shorts (my pants have been covered with mud), my enthusiasm instantly dissolves into a lethargic passivity. Inside my tent, I stare at the fog that has engulfed the campsite, shivering and cowering under my blanket every time the wind blows and aggravates the cold air.
But the arduous journey has taken its toll on my stamina and there’s yet an evening and a full day ahead so I open a couple cans of corned tuna and place them between two slices of whole wheat bread, wolfing the sandwich down in minutes before lying down to sleep. I check my phone, which freezes for a few moments before dying out, a victim of the near-freezing temperature. I use a dry shirt to wrap my camera’s battery and I tuck it in the shirt I’m wearing to keep the cold from also draining it out. Up here where there are no electrical outlets, resourcefulness is essential in maximizing power – whether of your gadgets or of your body.
Outside, Mr. Tee continues announcing the dinner, unmindful of the cold, dark night. His friendly demeanor and rather small frame belie the fact that, first, he is French, and second, he conducts regular assaults to various Philippine peaks. He has lived in the country for six years now and is married to a fellow employee at Tripinas, a local adventure tour specialist that conducts trips to a couple of destinations in the Philippines. I first met Mr. Tee (whose real name is a real work to spell, let alone memorize) last year, when we joined Tripinas in our Mt. Pinatubo trek. This particular trip takes us to Mt. Pulag, the highest point in Luzon (third-highest in the Philippines) and the centerpiece of the Pulag National Park in Benguet province. Going to the summit is possible through a number of trails – this one involves walking through the highly popular Grassland Trail.
The importance of Mt. Pulag to residents of Northern Luzon is hard to overstate. Not only does it host a very rich biodiversity, it’s also sacred ground for the number of tribes that live within the vicinity. For this reason, climbers are reminded to take into consideration the spiritual welfare of these tribes when climbing the mountain. That, and to preserve the ecological balance of the whole park, is why the whole area is under painstaking management by the government, headed by Emerita Albas. The jolly yet stern park superintendent gives fun orientations on would-be climbers at the head regional office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).This month, DENR has reduced the number of allowable trekkers on weekend to minimize the impact on the mountain. “Of course it’s not a popular decision with tour operators, but we have to think of the environment,” Albas says.
Her statements rings with even more passion especially when you consider that an environmental worker for the government in these parts is quite underpaid, with some receiving their salaries up to two months late. “In a way, the money you pay for the trek alleviates the frustrations around here,” Albas says at the orientation. “So please, don’t add to the staff’s woes. Do your share in preserving our beautiful resources.”
I wake to the sound of rains pummeling hard on the tent and feeling cold water slowly creeping into my shirt. I quickly rise and in the darkness I touch the cold tent floor. My worst fear has happened – my tent is no match to the incessant downpour and the waters are slowly finding their way inside. My only refuge from the onslaught of elements has been breached. I feel trapped, cursing inside. Outside I hear fellow trekkers complaining of their flooded tents. We are all trapped in this hell. Instead of raging fires, we’re tormented by cold rains.
Like instinct, I quickly grab some trash bags from my bag and place them on the tent floor. I wrap my camera with more clothes and place it inside the bag, which I then place on one of the trash bags. Because of my compromised tent floor, I try to sleep sitting down, but I can’t. I gingerly lie own, careful not to move the trash bags out of their positions. I manage to doze off for a few minutes, but the unbearable cold and the sound of rain battering on my tent, threatening to send it crashing down, keep waking me up every now and then.
The cycle of falling asleep and waking up continues until I finally hear no sound except for a few happy conversations from outside my tent. “The stars are beautiful!” I hear one trekker say. “The rain clouds are gone!” A smile finds its way to my face. It’s like seeing the proverbial rainbow after the storm.
“Jay?” Sheryl calls from her tent.
“Yes?” I call back.
“Are you awake?”
“Heck I am.”
Still dazed from the cold and lack of sleep, I position my headlamp, carry my camera inside its bag and drag myself to the rest of my group. It’s 3:30 am. The trek to the summit in time for the sunrise is starting. My pants still covered in mud, I decide to wear only three layers of shorts and slippers. I figure the worst has passed. A few minutes into the trek my right foot gets stuck in a mud. I step out only to see my slipper break and step into another mud. I manage to fix it but my hands get covered in mud, too, and I finally realize that I have to walk barefoot to catch up with the group. But it’s pitch black and there’s no way of knowing what I might step on. I’m not even sure the group knows I’ve fallen way, way behind with the number of trekkers treading the same path with only our headlamps illuminating the vast area.
F***, I manage to screw it again, I curse myself, stuck on a muddy trail, feeling trapped once more. I am close to giving up and just staying put to wait for the sun to come up so at least I can see the path on my way back to the campsite. Just then, a young woman comes behind me. “Are you part of Tripinas, sir?” she asks. “Yes, but I’ve fallen way behind,” I sheepishly tell her. “My footwear has surrendered to the harshness of the mountain and I can’t go on.”
The woman gives my slippers a concerned look, then turns to her ID. She’s also a local guide for Tripinas, I realize. She removes the string from her ID and uses it to provide a makeshift strap. “Try it,” she says.
The strings works out fine but because of the mud, my slippers have become so slippery that I figure I might as well walk barefoot. Conseuqently I can only manage to move on a snail’s pace. Other groups that started trekking a bit later are slowly overtaking us. The woman never leaves me though, and offering to hold my camera bag, she instructs me on where to step while shining her light on my path.
“There’s a rock there, step on it … You can walk barefoot here. It’s Bermuda grass, it won’t injure your feet … Here … There.”
“I’m really sorry for slowing you down,” I tell her.
“Nonsense! It’s nothing,” she barks back. “Be careful of that grass, it’s sharp!”
Partly to break the ice and create a distraction for all the hassles this trek has brought on the both of us, I introduce myself. “I’m Jay,” I tell her. “What’s your name?”
“Sefira,” she says.
“Nice name. What does it mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“So you work for Tripinas, too, huh,” I say.
“Yes, I’m the guide for the third group,” she says.
“Yeah, I saw your ID,” I say.
“What group are you with?” she asks.
A dark orange strip has formed in the horizon when Sefira and I reach the halfway point of the trek. Last night’s rain was unusual, she says. During the Philippine dry season, rains don’t come until the early afternoon, and even then, they don’t last for more than a few hours. So the downpour that evening was kind of a novelty and was very much unexpected. I ask her why are there no efforts to make the trails a bit less muddy, like placing rocks or Bermuda grass on the path. “There are no funds,” she sighs. “Actually the trails were much better before but with time and the uncontrolled number of trekkers this place has seen, they pretty much deteriorated.” Her frustrations remind me of the underpaid workers Albas said.
Moments later Sefira motions for me to follow her to a trail that branches off from the one we’re taking. “Here, we’ll take this trail,” Sefira nods to the path.
“Where does that go?” I ask.
“To Summit 3,” she says. “Come.”
For some reason, I follow her immediately, perhaps because of her innocent voice and, perhaps, because at this point, she’s the only help I have. She does explain the situation, though. It turns out that the halfway part of the trek to Summit 2, where Tripinas trekkers are organized to go for the sunrise, is the most muddy one. The path to Summit 3, on the other hand, isn’t. So while it will take a bit of a climb, Sefira figures my battered and mud-covered feet will handle the path to Summit 3 better. “We’ll just climb that part, go down the other side and return to the path to Summit 2,” she says.
Time passes by as I manage to find a steady pace. The surroundings are a bit brighter now, but the sun has yet to peek out of the horizon. Buoyed by the approaching sunrise, I pick up my pace towards the summit. We finally reach Summit 2 just in time for me to witness the first of the sun’s rays shine on my face. I expect to see forming by now the sea of clouds, which are the highlight of any trip to Pulag. But today the clouds are too thin to form their trademark blanket look. Yet I don’t feel frustrated.
Sefira returns my camera while I sit down near a slope to witness the light show nature is conducting. “You must be proud of yourself,” she says. “You’re probably the first person to reach the summit of Pulag barefoot.”
Note: According to Tripinas owner Ann Pablo, the name Sefira means “west wind.” Thanks for the information, ma’am!