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.

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