When Mt. Pulag enters the conversation, people immediately associate it to a “Sea of Clouds.” Well, not for me (or at least not yet). The thing is, I’ve been to Mt. Pulag twice but have not seen that infamous “sea.” A friend of mine had no luck three times! And, I am quite sure that several other people have not had the best of days more than thrice. Please, do not feel sorry for us, because if you have not been to Mt. Pulag, we should feel sorry for you.
Before we proceed, I would like you to know that I am not an expert mountaineer nor do I have a lot of mountain climbing experience. So, do not take this as expert advice, because I don’t want anyone ending up in a ditch. I am just sharing my own experience in the hope of giving you inspiration to pursue the things you may have always planned to do, but failed to even take the first step. Also, this is a way for me to give back to the wonderful creation we’ve been blessed with – The Philippines. So, join me as we take a short hike to the highest peak in Luzon.
Towering at 2,922 meters (9,587 feet) above sea level, Mt. Pulag is Luzon’s highest peak, and the Philippine’s third. This alone made me antsy days before my first climb, aside from the fact that it is usually included in many Filipinos and foreigners’ to-do list – mountaineer or not.
The peak of this majestic mountain meets the borders of three provinces: Benguet, Ifugao and Nueva Viscaya. It is one of the premier national parks in the country and home to 528 documented plant species, including the endemic Dwarf Bamboo, and 33 bird species. If you are lucky, you will also get to meet the Philippine Deer, Long-Haired Fruit Bat and the Giant Bushy-Tailed Cloud Rat (locally called “Bowet”), which I believe are not really that sociable, as none of us got the privilege to see a hoof, a wing nor a tail (maybe next time!).
To reach the summit, there are four major trails to take you there – three from Benguet: Ambangeg Trail (easiest), Tawangan Trail (second longest), and Akiki (most difficult/challenging); and one from Nueva Viscaya: Ambaguio (longest). Our team took the Ambangeg Trail, as most of us were newbies.
I heard a lot of Mt Pulag’s beauty – the fauna and flaura, the people, the grasslands, and yes the majestic “Sea of Clouds” – so when a friend of mine invited me, it took me half a second to say “Let’s go!” And, it also took me another half a second to realize I did not have the proper gear (as I said, I am not a mountaineer). Luckily, my friend, who is a walking gear shop, lent me a backpack and a sleeping bag, and told me not to worry about the tent, because he was bringing in two (or three?). A real pro this guy, so he had things a beginner friend like me could borrow. Also, he was the organizer of our team of 15.
Everything was planned and readied, then the day came. Of course, I was so excited for at last one of my desires would be scrapped off my to-see-list. The fun all started when we took a hired jeepney to the Mt. Pulag National Park Protected Area Office of the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) to have us registered, pay some fees (which is for the maintenance of the park and a portion for the people), and undergo a short orientation of the DOs and DON’Ts in the park. We even got to “top load” along the way. Be advised, however, that this is not safe and that an accident was reported to have cost a man’s life a few weeks after our trip which prompted local officials to prohibit “top loading.”
From the DENR office, we headed to the Ranger Station where the hike would start. It was also where we hired a guide, as it was mandatory. When everything was set, we stretched some muscles and started to walk via the Ambangeg Trail. Being one who spent almost 25 years in the mountains and surrounded with green and nothing but green, I found the trail quite easy. It is actually something I would recommended for a novice climber. The only challenge you will face during the hike is not the trail itself but your baggage – food, water, extra clothes, utensils, tenting gears and other essentials. However, if you know how to pack light (which is something I have yet to learn) then you will not even find it a problem.
Our destination for the first day’s hike was Camp 2 where tents were set up for the night. What I enjoyed most about the hike was the beautiful landscapes that surrounded us, and for most parts, the trail is shaded with trees which offered us cool and clean air to breathe. Luckily, the weather that day was great considering that rain predominates the whole year, and showers are almost always expected. As we made our way through the seemingly endless trail of mossy forest, one question echoed more than a hundred times, “How much farther is it?” and the answer would always be, “Almost there.” Then, we would burst into laughter and amuse ourselves on how sweaty and haggard we all looked. At an average speed, including a lunch break at Camp 1, plentiful rest periods in between and picture taking sessions (of course), it took us about three hours to reach Camp 2.
When we arrived, the first thing we did was to find a suitable place to anchor our tents, especially that the weather was turning cold and rain was just around the corner. Then, while the others were resting, I found myself exploring the area (typical me). The place was just magnificent! And I was thrilled just by thinking of what the summit had to offer. I took a few pictures then went back to camp.
The skies grew even darker, and as expected, there was a downpour all afternoon until late that night. And in between, two of my friends were cursing inside our tent because we were almost drenched, and it was quite difficult to catch some Z’s.
When the rain stopped, you could hear other campers protesting. Everybody was just soaked, except for a few in our group. So, some of us decided to come out of our tents and enjoy the night under the beautiful stars. It was freezing cold, but we managed to keep ourselves warm by drinking hot coffee! Yup, remember that walking-gear-store friend of mine? He did boil water for us. In fact, for almost all other adjacent campers. First, we hear from a neighbor tent say, “Do you have extra hot water please?” and the next things was, we were collecting water from others and boiling it so that they could keep themselves warm as well. I was not dry and cozy that night; I was tired and cold, and only managed to catch an hour’s sleep, but that experience is something I treasure.
At around 3AM, we were up and preparing for our summit ascend. Then after 30 minutes, we were all lined up on the trail, ready with our flashlights and headlamps. Careful with our every step, we reached the summit by 5AM just in time to watch the sun rise. The weather was great; the sun played several colors of red, yellow and orange, but there was one thing missing, the Sea of Clouds! The horizon was not completely covered, so I guess we could call it the“Lake of Clouds,” instead. “Where is it?” – I knew was the question in most of the climbers’ minds. But me? I honestly did not feel any disappointment or frustration. I was lost in the moment and was relishing every second of the experience. I was so grateful for such wonderful creation and that I got the chance to witness it.
And as the sun was rising, the amazing grasslands were also being slowly revealed to us. Then I noticed one thing and thought to myself, “Wow. One wrong step and it would be my last.” Apparently, losing your balance in certain areas of the trail could lead you down to who knows where, but I shrugged that thought off. Then before we knew it, it was time to head back to camp. I didn’t want to leave, but boy was the sun burning hot! So, as we made our way down, I was still taking more pictures with my camera and my memory. I guess, we all were.
Although the Sea of Clouds is a huge plus for the experience, I honestly believe that Mt. Pulag offers a lot more than just a view of a cloud-filled horizon. There are no words that can capture its magnificence. It’s something you need to experience to understand. And with that, I leave you with this maxim that every traveler should bear in mind, “Take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints; kill nothing but time.” But let me add, “Buy nothing but souvenirs (haha), and keep nothing but memories.”