Manila Bay sunset, 3 Dec 2010

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lost in Maculot

Mt. Maculot is the first mountain that I have climbed. I really love adventures so when my Tita Myra asked me and my brother Mikko to hike it, I was so thrilled.  
I thought hiking a mountain is like climbing stairs, but how naive of me. It took us 3 hours to climb up to the camp site via the easy trail. My aunt said it was the 'easy' trail, I thought I would die.
When we reached the top, it was breathtaking. I promised myself to be back here because my aunt didn't let us to go to the Rockies and I don't have enough pictures.
So then, after seven years, I return.
As I've always wondered what the 'difficult' trail was, I have decided to do a traverse with my boyfriend Edwin. It was his first mountain climb.
I was kind of half-prepared for this trek.  I really planned to climb Mt. Maculot before 2010 ends and christen my tent and other camping equipment. Unfortunately, no one wants to accompany me so I was unsure that I can really pull through. Edwin confirmed that he would want to join me only on December 28,  then we hiked it December 30. We had a day to prepare and finalize everything. Since I'm the one 'experienced' in climbing mountains, I did almost all the preparations.
I have based my itinerary the blog of Sir Gid, (thank you sir!), but knowing that I'm a slow climber, it would take me longer to assault the mountain.
The first hour of the climb was so easy. I thought how come did my aunt said this was the difficult trail? There were cemented steps and though it is quite steep, I made a mistake of underestimating the trail.
When we arrived at the Grotto, I was satisfied with the view. After a few minutes of picture taking, we got a better view of what lays ahead, a foggy summit and darkness. I put my headlamp on.
The trail towards the summit was somewhat hidden due to almost 5 feet high cogon grasses. Then, I realized that was the end of the friendly Grotto trail. After a few minutes, the forested trail greeted us. It was steep. So now I realize why the other side was the easy part. Born with weak lungs, I stop almost every other minute. Luckily, Edwin was used to this kind of terrain. He grew up in the Sierra Madres, in the town of Norzagaray. So it was just like a tour on their backyard- only hours longer. He is also a son of a farmer, so carrying a 40L pack was not too much of an effort. I could have gone back down if I was carrying the pack.
After a few meters of interlude, we faced the wall. So this is the Rope 1. I was quite relieved that we weren't lost, that we're still on the trail. I remembered reading about it, but it hadn't registered to me quite enough. I wanted to quit, return to base then go to the easy trail. But then, I can't imagine myself descending to the steep part that we have been through. I therefore conclude, no one is sane enough to go down the Grotto trail when it's drizzling and dark.
Then it was another steep forested trail. The sun has left us this time. Edwin have no headlamp, but luckily, improvised a way to attach the led flashlight to the bag to light him and would still be able use both hands to cling on  roots and trunks. I thought this should be the Rope 2 part, but there was no rope and it was very steep. For a moment, I feared we were lost, but then after a few minutes, we saw the second rope.
How many more ropes and steep climbs? Now I almost cried. Constantly whispering prayers and thanking God in every step, I know I have no choice but to go up. I was surprised to find the strength to finish Rope 2. My arms are not that strong either. I know that one wrong move and I will seriously be injured or worse, dead.
Another steep trail. It might have been constantly raining a few days earlier because it was extremely muddy. Then, a loose rock that Edwin had stepped upon fell on my left foot. It was painful. I forgot my povidone-iodine (Betadine) so I have to endure alcohol and covered the wound with Band-Aid. I have to buy trekking shoes before I climb another mountain. It was not painful enough to paralyze me, but I have to ignore the pain, mind over matter, we must find a campsite before we become too tired.
When will it ever end? We should have camped by this time. The wind was becoming more violent. The fog was too thick, we could only see 5 meters ahead of us. I have a spare battery for my headlamp, but I was not quite sure how long the led light would last.
After 3 hours, Edwin asked for how many hours more before the summit. Then I realized that we were there already. I was quite complacent, I have already been here before, though that was seven years ago. I have quite a good sense of direction, though I also depend on two stars, the sun and the Polaris. But this time, it's different. The fog engulfs us, I can't see anything beyond our light beams. The sky is not clear, I can't figure the constellations. The wind growls loudly, I can't hear the distant noises from the town below. All I know is that we have to pass another steep and muddy trail with thorny vegetations and 'Maculot bamboos' (I refer them as such because they are not the typical tall straight bamboos, they grew as if they were roots of some plant, parallel to the slope, and very helpful handrails on the slippery path) on the edge of the trail.
We could have camped at the summit, as I'm getting hungry already, but the wind warned us not to. We decided to push further to the campsite. I remembered it was only 1 hour away. After a quarter of an hour of almost level ground, there was a fork. The trouble is, I can't remember anything about a fork from the summit. I can't find any sign on which is the right way. There was only a log blocking the wider trail. The narrow trail was not promising. I was hesitant to go over the log but it looks like just a broken, fallen tree. Telling myself to camp at the next available campsite, we pushed.
Edwin led the way since before we hit the first rope. He has stronger legs to test the stability of the soil. I'm not at my best wits too, the exhaustion and pain were starting to overwhelm me.
And so, we went straight ahead. Passing two feasible campsites, I tried to push myself more to the official campsite, hoping to find some company, assuring myself that we weren't lost. The trail was so steep. Garbage was all over. A sack, spoon, candy wrappers, bottle caps were on the trail, somewhat assuring me that someone had treaded this trail, and this is somewhat established. It might have just been another way down the mountain. If it would lead down straight to the base, I would have been disappointed for not seeing the campsite and try the Rockies. But I was worried, it was so steep that I doubt it is often used to climb up. I remember literally sliding my way down from the summit to the campsite, with a few Maculot bamboos present in some of the slides, but this trail seems to have too many and too long slides. 
After two hours of descent, I know we were lost. We should have been at the campsite, or at least, I can see lights from the lake. But there were only trees. Edwin and I agreed to definitely camp at the next feasible campsite. As we moved further down, there was another log, and that made clear to me that we were lost. As I maneuvered through the log, I got a cut near my right eyebrow. Edwin still pushed a little forward, he thought it was just another trail down. After about 10 minutes, he stopped and told me that we should get back. He said he couldn't see anything anymore. He feared that it was a cliff because he can only see clouds ahead of him, no dark bodies that could have been trees or a wall. He can't trace a trail either, as in he cannot see the ground anymore, all was lost in the fog.
We could have just been on a water trail. But what about the trash along the way? Were those just washed from the summit or somewhere along the supposed trail? Where did we go wrong? Was it two hours ago, from that log? But the trail was wide. Did we just miss a fork somewhere?
I felt a heavy load lay upon me. If anything bad happens to us, it is my fault. How can I explain this to his family and mine? My parents did not know I'm in the mountain this time. The tricycle driver did not drop us at the town hall to register, even though I asked to. Only a dog saw us at the jump off. It is the holidays, people were either busy inside their houses or just not there. Plus it was raining when we were at the jump off, fat chance that people would hang out along the streets. I wish I have gotten the contact number of the tricycle driver at least. Worse, my cellphone's battery died. I forgot to charge it. Good thing Edwin has two phones.
Under five minutes of retracing our steps,  we found our campsite. I didn't imagine camping there the first time we passed it, because it was quite small. I estimated that it was just the size of our tent which was fairly accurate. It looked like God arranged that to be our campsite. It was a good one though. Thick trees surround it. We just prayed that there won't be erosion or a flash flood. I've checked the weather forecast, it said it would not rain and there were no storms or low pressure area that was reported, especially in the Batangas area. I know that it was only the clouds that soaked us.
Around past 9 o'clock, we camped. I love my Apexus Halcon tent system. We were warm inside though not completely dry but because we set up the tent body with some delays, the ground sheet accumulated water from the condensation already. But the water was only minimal; it was easily resolved by the big plastic that insulates my bag and the earth pad. The water dripping from the leaves of the trees were all caught by the fly, but I still plan to buy rain cover.
The tent was spacious, I have no regrets that it was a bit heavier than the tadpole style, but it was more spacious. Everything can be inside plus you can move around.
After we set the tent, it's really nice to be clean and dry. I'd buy trek pants before trek shoes. My leggings were so muddy I don't think I can still use it for the morrow. Time to clean the wounds, too. Edwin has not got a scratch. I got two wounds plus a hurting foot. Luckily, I brought antibiotics too. It didn't occur to me to bring one. It just slipped my first aid kit. It saved me from infection.
A good thing that there was an oversupply of the food and water. We can survive another night. It was a nice spaghetti camp dinner. We had not eaten much though, we were too tired. We can hear the wind howling wildly, thanks to our natural windbreakers and sleeping bag, we were warm and comfortable.
Around midnight, we were asleep already. I often sleep with the lights out, but this time, I left the led light on. The following day, around 5 am, I heard a noise outside our tent. I thought it was a monkey, I remember seeing a monkey in this mountain before. I don't have the courage to look outside though. It would be too much of a bother, besides, I don't want to wake Edwin up, he needs rest more than I do.
Then another wave of worry filled me. How can I possibly ascend the muddier trail that we have to retrace? And took us 2 hours to descend here, how long would it take me to go up?  If Edwin would be too tired or gets injured, how can we get out of the mountain?
I watched Edwin on his sleep. He seems peaceful. I know I should be too. God is with us, I should know better. I prayed for sunlight. It was already 7 am when the sky went bright. Edwin did not have a good mood as he woke up. He said he was just still sleepy. He cooked for breakfast and lunch while I start to pack things up.
He planned to leave me while he scouts the downward trail first to see if there was a way down. If there was none, he would retrace our steps first then try to find the right trail before coming back for me. I didn't agree. I was determined to be with him all along and that we should just retrace our steps back to the summit, hoping that we would get a clearing to see where we would be going. We agreed to ask for rescue when noon comes and we still haven't found the way to the campsite yet. We set off at around 9 am. 
We realized that we have camped not on a trail. There was no trail, but there were a bottle and a sack near the spot. Somebody had been lost here, too!
As I have expected, it was a very difficult uphill climb.  There are a number of times were Edwin have to leave the pack and pull me up. During this hour, I had a second loose stone from Edwin's steps crash on the same spot on my left foot where I had a previous injury.
Then, I saw what I thought was a blue tent, but it was a hut. It was empty. Then we saw a cave. I would have been thrilled to look inside the cave, but another side trip is not inviting. The only thing positive about this is that people really go here, we can describe where we are. It could have been more comfortable to set the tent inside the hut, but we didn't see it because of the fog, besides where's the thrill in that?
It puzzles us that the garbage we saw where within eyesight range when we could have sworn it were minutes away from each other while we were descending. We both agreed that it took us less time to ascend than to descend, considering that I have to pause so often to catch my breath and find a way to climb the steep muddy path. When we were going down that trail, we were just sliding our way, that's a hell lot faster than the 6 wheel drive that I have been doing upwards.
Then we saw the log and it was not the same as we remember it. It was smaller and in a different place. We thought that someone wanted us to camp where we have camped. The other two feasible campsites don't have enough windbreakers that could have stand the strong winds that we heard last night. We hadn't felt the wind much in our campsite though we can hear the leaves of the trees swirling above.
We were again surprised to see that the fork and the summit where nearer to each other than how we remember last night. It is again within eyesight and definitely under 5 minutes of walk. We reached the summit again before 11, less than two hours upward but more than 2 hours downward. Weird, especially for me because I can always descend faster. Now we can see where to go. Just like when I was in Pulag, I have preferred the sun over the clouds.
Before taking the left route at the fork, which was clearly wider and more established, I tied a knot on some vegetation to indicate that where we came from is the wrong way. I hope someone would put a sign there, that straight ahead is the cave and to the left is the campsite.

After 20 minutes, I was familiar with the trail. There were even more garbage. Edwin was thankful that we hadn't tried to reach the campsite at dark, as the steep slopes on both edge of the trail were dangerous. In addition, the 6 foot cogon grass that covers the trail is not healthy when combined with the fog and darkness. We reached the campsite at around past noon. It was glad to see a real tent. As we were eating our lunch at the table of the supposedly store, we saw a couple from the Rockies.
I have planned to assault the Rockies back in the city, but then, I know it can wait for me. I've had enough of a side trip already. We ate our lunch and tidied up then we asked the couple on where was the trail downwards. I can't remember it well because while I when I took that route seven years ago, I have concentrated all my energy in taking a rest after finding that we are on a leveled ground already.
As it has always been, the mountain loves me when I am leaving it. Going down was never a problem for me. This time, it was Edwin calling for rests. I asked him that I carry the pack, he refused.
After an hour or so, we reached the dried up river. I didn't quite remember it. I find it sad that the river was gone. There could have been a waterfall, too. On the second thought, had there been a river and part of the trail is to cross it near the waterfall, I would just appreciate its current state, you know, take things as it is.
At the jump off point, there was a fork, though the route to the right (from the perspective of those who were just about to climb the mountain) has a marker stating that it was the route established by the Air Force. I plan to take that path when I return Mt. Maculot. Yes, I will return and assault the Rockies.
After a nice shower and the nice neighborhood at the base of the mountain, before 4 pm, we were aboard a bus bound to Cubao. Edwin was hungry but I haven't got enough money to buy food then take a bus. We thought of taking a jeep to Lipa first, withdraw from an ATM, then eat sumptuously then board the bus; then a bus came. I still had some cookies and spare change to buy burgers for the two of us. We still have water.  It helped that it was quite cloudy, as we don't have to hydrate much. The travel back to Cubao was uneventful, we we're asleep. We got off at Main Avenue, after an hour or so, I was at the office and taking calls.
While waiting for the bus, I have silently reckoned what happened up there- all the emotions and thoughts that came. There was a point when I thought of giving up mountaineering- selling my good-as-new camping equipment and just stay on the safe side. But then, could I really do that? The lessons that I've learned in that climb are priceless. I have learned not only a lot about mountaineering, but also other life lessons. It has also strengthened my relationship with Edwin. As he had commented, it was something that we can tell our grandchildren. 

At the Grotto- if I only knew what lies ahead.

I tried to capture the how I looked-like while knowing that I was lost in the mountains.
Fog is still thick by 9 am.
Finally seeing the shoulder campsite, the Rockies and the Taal Lake.