Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Mt. Halcon, Mindoro, 1994

Mt. Halcon in Mindoro island, is famous for its being far and various terrains that challenges those who want long walks, see really big trees, and those who want to experience and pass the "limatic boulevard". I think the summit of the mountain is the boundary between Oriental Mindoro and Occidental Mindoro provinces. The former faces Batangas province while the latter faces northern Palawan province. In between the two is a small island hosting beautiful coral reefs famous among divers, called Apo Reef.

The jump-off point to start the trek to Mt. Halcon is the municipality of Baco, Oriental Mindoro. From Manila, we took a bus to Batangas City; took the boat to Calapan, the provincial capital. Then we rented a jeepney to Baco, to a barangay largely inhabited by Mangyans, one of the known tribal minorities or indigenous people (IP) in the Philippines. Our group was composed of Gene Penas, Peachy Dumlao, Toto Gestuveo, Doming and myself. We were all working in the House of Representatives then, except Doming but his wife was working there. Gene acted as our team leader.

Day 1 was a loooonngg day. We left our houses 2am, caught the 3am bus at Pasay City, caught the 6am boat at Batangas City, had our breakfast at past 8am in Calapan. By the time we started the climb (after getting 2 Mangyan guides) at around 9.30am, we were already tired and sleepy. To worsen things, it was a cloudless morning and the sun was very unforgiving that day! The lower part of the climb was in an area that was cleared of trees by the settlers, the Mangyans themselves, and converted to subsistence agricultural crops. The lack of trees and their comforting shades exposed us to late morning hot sun. Toto was the first to slow down, stopping and resting more often and drinking more water. Our guides told us that we will walk 2 days up, and another 2 days down. Hence, we need to walk faster if want to rest and sleep earlier.

Our 2 Mangyan guides were really "sons of the earth" literally. Not scorning them, but they really smelled something from the earth, my nostril was really assaulted(!) Also, they never wore any shoes or slippers, they walked barefooted, and they walked much faster and with ease than us who were wearing thick hiking shoes. To mitigate the situation, I tried to walk at least 3 to 4 meters away from any of them, but the smell was there. Later on in the day, my nostril got used to the odor and I stopped complaining by myself.

After our early lunch break and brief noon-time sleep, everybody recovered and resumed the climb faster. By then, we were also walking in thick forest cover. We passed by a river and its water is so clean and so cold. We were tempted to put down our heavy backpacks and dip in its refreshing water for a few minutes. But losing momentum and courting sickness by dipping our sweating bodies in cold waters are risks that we can't afford, so we just filled our drinking water bottle, washed our faces, and resumed walking.

By mid-afternoon walk, we noticed that the "limatic", those small and thin worms that reside in the mountains and suck blood, were getting plentier. When hungry, they are as thin as broomstick (made of coconut leaves); after sucking blood, they expand to a little bit smaller than a cigarette butt! And there are thousands of them all around. The forest is a cool place; when there are people or animals passing by, them warm-blooded creatures, the limatic sense and notice this, they get ready to jump to the passing warm-blooded guys. So you see them sticking to your arms, or legs, or even your face, trying to stick their sticky and pointed mouth to your skin so they can suck blood. You remove them by physically pulling them out from your skin, or whisk them several drops of rubbing alcohol, they'd fall off voluntarily.

By late afternoon, we were near or already in the peak of the first mountain. Tired and hungry, we looked for a relatively flat and open space to pitch 3 tents (2 for us, 1 for our guides). We found a good place, beside a big and tall almaciga tree. This tree has various industrial uses, aside from wood and lumber production; one such industrial use, I heard, is extraction of resin and other raw materials for plastic. The circumference (measurement of a circle) of the almaciga tree near us was equivalent to around 2-3 people holding hands together in a circle!

After pitching our tents and unloading our things, changing shorts and shirts, removed our shoes and socks, it was only then that I realized the damaged caused by the limatic in my body: two of them were curled up between my fingers in my right foot, seemingly full, contented and sleeping! Their sudden thickness should correspond to the amount of blood they have sucked in my foot. Another limatic was more malicious: it stuck in my right butt and sucked from there, causing some blood to spill in my brief and short. They all never lasted a minute longer after I found them. I crushed them to pieces by smashing them between 2 stones; the remains I threw into a flaming stove we lighted in cooking our dinner.

Actually, almost all 5 of us were bitten by the limatic that day. Our Mangyan guides were laughing at us why we seemed to be so paranoid with those pesky little leech. And one thing I noticed: not one of our 2 guides complained to have been bitten by those leeches! Maybe because they got used to those pests that they can easily remove them from their skin, or maybe because they have thicker feet and sun-baked skin that the limatic don't find them too yummy to suck blood.

After dinner, we lighted a very small bonfire as we -- Toto, Gene, Doming, myself and our 2 guides -- were huddled in a circle and drinking a few glasses of gilbey's gin (Gene's favorite!), gave us warmth and light for the evening. Peachy was too tired and slept early. The chirping insects and some night birds were our "stereo" that night when we went to sleep.

Day 2, we woke up early, cooked and ate breakfast early, packed our things and resumed the trek by 7am. This time, we'll go down a bit of the first mountain, to climb the second mountain which is our destination -- Mt. Halcon. Around 9am, we met a group of about 5 men, also Mangyans but from a different group or tribe. They were thin but muscular, 3 were wearing G-strings while 2 were wearing shorts. We greeted them "magandang umaga po" (good morning), they never nodded nor smiled, just no reaction while standing still and allowing us to pass. Their hair were not as kinky as our Mangyan guides from Baco. And their faces were a bit oblong. Later when we were far, our Mangyan guides told us that such group is from a different tribe of Mangyans, they reside in the middle of the mountain, have a different language and they do not speak or understand Tagalog. I figured that perhaps explained why they never responded to us when we greeted them.

I can't remember now if it was before or after lunch when we finally reached the summit of Mt. Halcon. Another achievement of setting foot on Mindoro island's highest mountain and one of the farthest mountains to climb in the Philippines! At the top of this mountain, you see mostly mountain ranges nearby, small dots of human settlements in the plains below, and the vast sea further beyond. The cool and refreshing air, plus the sense of achievement of having reached this high and far mountain, easily erased the pains and hardships that we experienced over the last 2 days. We had fun chatting and exchanging jokes at the summit. Later in the day, we walked down a bit lower to pitch our tents again in a relatively flat and open area. The same thing we did the previous night: cook, dinner, drink a little bit; and ngooorrrkkkk-weeezzzz later.

Day 3, we wanted to be back in Calapan by evening of same day, so we resolved to start the walk early and walk faster. After breakfast, we were descending as if we had a patient to bring to a hospital that day. The climb back to the first mountain naturally slowed us down. After which, it was a walk-jog pace. It helped that we have lighter baggage now after we have consumed most of our drinks and food over the last 2 days.

Back to the "limatic boulevards". Those portions, I think in both the 2nd mountain (Mt. Halcon) and the 1st mountain, where limatic density is high. This time we tricked them by walking much faster. Just as they were preparing to jump to us from the leaves and branches of trees and small plants, the last of us (the "tail") has already whizzed past them. I remember in those "boulevards", for about 30-45 minutes, the longest rest stop we could take to drink water was around 5-15 seconds only!

I think we made it to Calapan in 1 day. We were able to catch the late afternoon boat trip to Batangas City. After a brief dinner in Batangas, we boarded the bus to Manila. We reached home late in the evening. The following day, we saw each other again in our respective offices in Congress. Our other mountaineering friends who failed to join us in that climb were literally "salivating" with awe and envy with the kind of stories and experience that we told them. Hehehe.

Mt. Guiting-guiting, 1995

Mt. Guiting-guiting is found in Sibuyan island, Romblon province. The province is composed of around 7 islands; the biggest of which is Tablas island, comprising of several municipalities and is the center of provincial commerce and marble quarrying; Romblon island is smaller but it's the seat of the provincial government and hence, provincial offices of national government agencies are found there. Sibuyan is a quite island, more forested and mountainous, and very little, if any, quarrying activities.

I have climbed Mt. Guiting-guiting sometime in the middle of 1995, with 2 other friends, Jules (our team leader in Mt. Pinatubo climbs a year earlier), and a Japanese scientist (I forgot his name, but Jules invited him) who was looking for a special kind of ginger ("luya") of about 4 feet tall or higher for his PhD dissertation in Japan. He heard that such kind of ginger can be found in Sibuyan island.

The mountain is famous for its difficulty in climbing. Several years ago before we climbed it, 4 members of UP Mountaineers fell on its rocky cliffs and died. It was a big news among mountaineers then since the casualty figure was high. For me, I was still "high" and inspired in climbing as many mountains and volcanoes I can, after our 2 climbs in Mt. Pinatubo, climbs in other high mountains (Mt. Apo in Davao-Cotabato, Mt. Halcon in Mindoro, Mt. Pulag in Benguet-Mt. Province, and so on). So, the challenge of climbing this dangerous mountain sent some adrenaline rush into my curious mind.

A friend in Congress, Donna Morgado, briefly toured us in the municipality of Magdiwang(?). She also introduced us to a famous guide there, nicknamed "Bulod", I think. Bulod was one of the few strong climbers and guides who retrieved the bodies of the fallen and dead UP mountaineers in deep and pointed rocks of Mt. Guiting-guiting. Bulod assured us that since the weather looks fine and sunny, we may need no ropes when we assult the mountain; nonetheless, he brought us a 50-meter rope in case the weather would turn sour.

Day 1, we climbed up the so-called "Mayo's peak". This took us around 6 hours, I don't remember. We camped for the night. This is the first of 2 summits that we have to climb; the second summit will be Mt. Guiting-guiting's peak. Mayo's peak seen from the lower plains, is like the long and big teeth of a giant hand-saw. The jagged terrains cover Guiting guiting's peak and hence, gives a false sense of ease in attempting to climb the mountain.

Day 2, we have to leave our heavy back packs. We will climb Mt. Guiting-guiting with only drinking water, trail food and a camera to make our climb easier and faster, then come back at Mayo's peak in the afternoon, before sunset. The first few hours of trek was not so difficult. Comes now the flat walls of huge rocks, we have to walk on its ledge of only around 2 feet wide, sometimes narrowing to only 1 foot, and you have no protruding parts of the rock to cling on! Bulod said it's this part of the mountain where the 4 UP mountaineers unfortunately fell to their death.

By then, I was getting nervous and afraid. I felt that my balls have gone up my neck, wondering if I'd ever join this climb if I realize it's this dangerous! Just one false step and it's "goodbye world!" You wouldn't even hope that you'll survive and be a veggie for the rest of your life if you fall on those cliffs and pointed rocks below! But then, I said to myself, If I have climbed a dangerous volcano like Mt. Pinatubo where no one else have traversed except my buddies, I should be able to go up and down this mountain! Bulod assured us the tracks are dry and non-slippery, so he didn't have to tie the ropes for us to cling on. With enough encouragement, we passed that dangerous part of the mountain.

We reached Mt. Guiting-guiting's summit after 4 or 5 hours. Its vegetation up there is composed mainly of small, "bonzai'ed" trees and flowers. There are plenty of pitcher plants, those plants that collect water from the clouds and dews, deposit them in a pitcher-looking stem. The rocky, very little top-soil crust of the mountain's summit does not allow big trees to survive since there are not enough minerals on the rocks; besides, the strong winds in the top makes sure that tall trees are felled. Thus, only small and short vegetations will survive and thrive in this kind of environment.

Our trek back to Mayo's peak was faster and I was less nervous. Having achieved our goal -- to reach the summit safely -- I felt like a-floating a bit while walking down. We camped again for the 2nd night at Mayo's peak.

Day 3, go down to the plains with our back packs and probably catch a boat leaving for Manila by noontime. So Jules and I were practically jumping and running like kangarous on our way down the mountain. By 12 noon, we were in Magdiwang and hurriedly run to the pier area and we were able to catch the departing boat for Manila.

Watching Mayo's peak from a distance in the boat, and nursing some scratches in my bruised legs, I was thinking that I'm lucky again, once more, for having seen and reached another dangerous mountain. Yeebbaaa!!!

Friday, March 10, 2006

The DOT in Mt. Pinatubo

Before one can climb Mt. Pinatubo via Capas, Tarlac, one must pass by the Department of Tourism (DOT)-Region 3 office in Brgy. Sta. Juliana, Capas. This is about 22 kms. from the highway and from the Capas municipal hall; about a kilometer of this 22 kms. route is not paved and dusty.

At the DOT Sta. Juliana station, there are a number of rules:
1) Register and pay entrance fee of P50/head.
2) You must get a guide -- even if you've been to the volcano a few times and you know the route already. There should be 1 guide per 10 people; guide fee is P500 per day. All guides are Aetas.
3) Get 4x4 jeep (wrangler type); regular ones can carry up to 5 passengers; longer ones can carry up to 8 people. Jeep rates are P2,500, back and forth.

My observations during our climb last February this year are as follows:

a) The DOT practically has zero service for the P50 it collects from each climber, and there are climbers everyday; could reach dozens of climbers on weekends. No signs for direction, no new viewing deck. There is an old viewing deck that was built about 5 years ago, the wooden stairs are already rotten and damaged. There's a waiting shed near the viewing deck that was constructed around the same time as the deck.

b) The DOT also collects P200 per jeepney trip, we were told by the driver of the jeep that we took. Since drivers and/or operators simply pass on the DOT fee to the passengers, so it's us climbers who again paid for DOT jeepney fee. We were 5 in a jeep, that's P40 each. P50 entrance fee + P40 jeepney fee = P90/head that went to the DOT, for almost zero services given!

Me thinks the DOT is sort of a parasite that just capitalizes on the beauty of Mt. Pinatubo's crater lake. The DOT did not create that lake, does not provide road signs to climbers once the trek begins, does not clear some pathways of tall cogons, wild grasses and vines. Neither does the DOT create new structures for the viewing pleasure of the paying hikers. The money collected (in our case, we paid around P90 each, directly and indirectly), without receipt, probably just goes to paying the allowances of DOT and LGU bigwigs and salaries of extra and unnecessary employees.

Also, requiring climbers to get a guide even if some of the climbers already know the route is making the trip more expensive and more unaffordable to some people. Sure some Aeta villagers are the direct beneficiaries of this policy since they are the only accredited guides. But some poor people who also want to see Pinatubo's natural beauty and don't have enough cash for the various expenses (entrance fee, guide fee, jeep fee with DOT P 200 share) will be deprived of this experience because of the multiple fees required by the DOT.

Hence, DOT may be promoting eco-tourism of Mt. Pinatubo, but it is also acting like a parasite that just collects multiple fees with no corresponding services to the paying public.

Some reform suggestions for the DOT:

1) Stop collecting P50 entrance fee if it does not intend to introduce any new developments. It can continue collecting the P50 entrance fee so long as will also provide useful services like route signs and directions, so that for people who do not have enough cash to pay for a guide, they will not get lost.

2) Remove or reduce the agency share in 4x4 jeep rental; encourage competition among jeep operators to help bring down the rental cost, to make the volcano more accessible to more people.

3) Encourage multiple services and segmented rates among guides. For instance, some guides who can speak basic and elementary foreign languages (for American, European, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, other foreigners) can charge various rates. A single, flat rate does not encourage innovation. Why would a guide bother to learn some Korean or Japanese conversational sentences if the rate for guides is flat and the same?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Mt. Pinatubo, 1994 and 2006

The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo (central luzon, Philippines) in 1991 was considered the "most violent volcanic eruption of the 20th century". In the 19th century, the most violent was the eruption of Mt. Krakatoa in Indonesia, where the whole island-volcano was gone and wiped off the face of the earth (that's what I've read).

I have climbed Mt. Pinatubo for the 1st time in September 1994. There were 4 of us in the group -- Jules, Gene Penas, Calmar Palma, and myself. There was a big group composed of 16 climbers (about a third of whom were foreigners) and 17 Aeta porters, sponsored by the Dept. of Tourism (DOT)-Region 3, who would climb the volcano, dubbed as the "first human landing in Mt. Pinatubo by foot". The 4 of us wanted to be there in the crater summit one day before this big group would arrive! So we started our climb a day before this group.

It was a terrible, horrible climb as there was no pathways then. We were using contour maps and a compass to help us locate our goal and our paths to get there, use ropes to get down to cliffs of loose soil and sand, use bolos in hacking some tall cogons and grasses, to no avail. We retreated after day 1, and decided to wait for the bigger group and go along with them. We were self-sufficient in food, water, cooking equipment, ropes, and training, so were not a "burden" to the group; on the other hand, we helped some climbers get on with rope handling in dangerous parts of the climb. After 2 more days of hiking and rope rappelling (?), we reached the crater summit! It was a gratifying experience to see the crater and the lake formation; my 3 days of daily climbs have paid off!

Planning the route for the DOT-sponsored climb was easy because other government agencies were involved, especially the Philippine Air Force (PAF) which probably provided aerial pictures of possible routes. Also, the PAF also provided daily monitoring of the group climb by sending at least one chopper every day, giving suggestions to the group leaders on the ground possible routes. On the 3rd day of the climb actually, the group lacked food and water, so one PAF Huey chopper dropped dozens of boxes of canned food and mineral water to the group.

I don't remember if we stayed for the night near the crater or we went down a few hours later that same day. What I remember was that after reaching a barangay of Angeles City near the volcano, we were met by around 10 4x4 jeeps, members of the Angeles 4-wheel drive club, we were brought to a hotel in the city where the DOT sponsored a big welcome party to the group, with us included in the fiesta.

Since we already know the path to the crater summit, Jules, our team leader, planned an even bigger goal: a traverse expedition across the volcano! We will climb via Angeles, Pampanga; go down the crater, cross the lake by rubber boats, and walk down via Botolon, Zambales. We estimated it would take us 5 days in all to do the task (2 days up, 1 day cross the lake, 2 days down). Jules gathered 6 other guys -- his ex-gf Coco, Raymund Azanza, Gene Penas, Uly Veloso, Rap Rios, Noel Mercado, and myself. The training was tedious, like rappelling on 2 joined 50 meters-ropes since we estimated we might go down on up to 70 meters long flat wall of loose rocks and sand.

Jules approached some corporate sponsors; 3 have responded. Fuji Films gave us 60 rolls of films (40 for print copies, 20 for slide shows) and promised to develop all the films. Purefoods gave us 11 boxes of canned goods; while Panasonic lent us 2 of their video cams.

We started the climb December 27, 1994, hoping to be at Botolan town, Zambales on the 31st afternoon, we can still catch a bus to Manila and celebrate the New Year with our families on that evening. We reached the crater summit after 2 days, on schedule. But it took us 1 day just going down the crater via rappelling. Another day to cross the lake to Zambales side via inflatable rubber boat and inflated tire interiors joined together by bamboo pieces and small ropes. So we reached the other side after 4 days, it was already December 30.

We didn't know how long it would take us to walk down, but we hoped we'll make it in only 1 day. We were dead wrong! After 10 hours of walking (well, we've been walking 10 to 11 hours per day on this journey), we realized the way down is still long, so we camped in the middle of the dessert-like environment full of lahar deposits all around us. That was December 31! In the evening, we hoped to hear firecrackers exploding somewhere; at least that would give us an idea that we're near "civilization". Again, dead wrong! Not a single sound of firecrackers! That means that we were still too far from the nearest barangay of the nearest municipality of Zambales!

The 2 days walk in Zambales was another horrible experience as the sand-water mixture of a wide river that we walked down blistered our feet almost beyond recognition! There were plenty of small holes and scratches all over our feet, all 7 of us!

On the afternoon of January 1, 1995, after 6 days of walking and seeing no other people except our buddies, we saw other people, Aeta villagers! We shouted with joy because we knew that we were near the town proper. Ooppss, we reached the farthest barangay of Botolan (ie, the 1st barangay that we saw from the volcano) by 7pm! By then it was dark, so we rented a jeepney that will take us to Botolan town proper, so we can get a bus that will take us at least to Olongapo City. We reached Olongapo almost 10pm, tired and hungry, we decided to look for a place to stay that night. Gene approached a relative of his wife in that city, and they gave us warm dinner and warm beds to rest our tired bodies and blistered feet.

We arrived in Manila January 2, or 7 days after we have left the city!
It was the longest, most tiring climbed I've ever done in my life. But it was worth it!

After Fuji developed the films, some to huge sizes for display, Jules approached some malls if they were interested to host our photo exhibits. By March and April 1995, our photos of our traverse expedition were showing in the center lobbies of SM Megamall (Ortigas), Glorietta Mall (Makati), House of Representatives (Quezon City), Holy Angels University (Angeles, Pampanga), John Hay (Baguio City), among others.

Eleven years later, some friends (ex-officemates of my wife, Ella) from De La Salle University (DLSU) Manila, Francis Santos especially, invited me to join them in climbing Mt. Pinatubo, this time via Capas, Tarlac. And we would ride 4x4 jeepneys that will take us from the last barangay of Capas, Brgy. Sta. Juliana, to that part of the mountain-volcano that the vehicles can no longer tackle. The climb was set February 25-26, Sat-Sunday, and there will be 19 of us in the group.

Our bus in Pasay City left past 2 am, we reached the Capas junction after 2 hours, or past 4am. A long jeepney that could take more than 20 passengers was waiting for us, courtesy of a friend who also arranged four 4x4 wrangler jeepneys in Sta. Juliana that will take us near the volcano. The 4x4 ride was more than an hour, over wild terrain of lahar deposits, winding creeks and big rocks. The climb to the crater of the volcano took us 2 1/2 hours. The lack of sleep, heavy backpacks and walk in late morning sun wore many of us.

The crater lake still looked awesome as it was 11 years ago when I first saw it. This time, the lake is wider and deeper. In our 1994 climb, the lake was narrower and the water was warm, maybe 40+ celsius hot; many parts of the volcano's beach were still spewing hot smoke. There was a group of protruding black rocks (sort of new build up of rocks that never materialized into full eruption) in the middle of the lake; now those protruding rocks are gone, perhaps covered by the now deeper lake.

We swam for an hour in the lake in the afternoon. It was a refreshing swim, though the water became colder as the sun retreats further to set for the night.