Text and images by JENNY LYNNE CUA
UP IN THE CLOUDS
The first mountain I hiked was Mt. Ulap, located in Itogon, Benguet. It’s considered to be a beginner-friendly mountain. Known for its picture-perfect trail, it has several peaks including Ambanao Paoay, Gungal Rock, and Mt. Ulap summit, each with breathtaking views. My friends and I took a while to reach one of the peaks but not because the trail was tough. It was easy even for first-timers like us. Because of the wonderful views along the mountain ridges, we took our time to appreciate nature’s beauty.
We started the hike at around 6:45 a.m. and we reached the second peak, Gungal, around 10 a.m. There, our group had lunch, each of us waiting for our turn for a photo shoot by the Gungal Rock formation, one of the highlights of the Mt. Ulap Eco Trail. Believe me, it’s an experience of a lifetime. The rock formation is pretty steep and it took me a while to decide whether or not I should have a photo beside it. But I did.
Moving on, we reached Mt. Ulap summit around 2 p.m. A little later, we started to hike back down. On our way back, we took a different path, one that was steeper than the trail we followed going up. So I experienced my first slide down a trail, I fell and landed on my butt. Still, it was quite a fun experience. Other than seeing the beautiful landscape of Mt. Ulap, we also enjoyed the cozy weather there, which I think helped lessen our exhaustion.
I was not able to hike again until last February. And out of the many mountains in Luzon, my friends and I ended up choosing Mt. Pulag, located in Bokod, Benguet. It is said to be “the playground of the gods” because of the sea of clouds that can be seen from the summit. We joined a group tour for two days, one night for a Mt. Pulag hike via Ambangeg Trail, which was also known as the “celebrity trail” or “artista trail.” Unfortunately, we ran out of home-stay places to pass the night in due to the number of people who were also hiking that same day. So we had to rent a tent instead.
Before the meet-up day, since Mt. Pulag is said to be a major hike, conditioning is a must. We prepared for it by jogging, doing step-ups and squats. A requirement from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is a fit-to-climb medical certificate from a physician. We also had to attend an orientation by the DENR. Before we proceeded to the DENR station for the orientation, we had to drop by a clinic nearby and undergo a physical check-up.
Locals told us that there’s a saying about how the sea of clouds would be thicker and more visible if people would minimize noise and hike quietly. After the orientation, our group rode a huge four-by-four jeepney toward the ranger station near the first campsite where we set up our own tents and had some rest. But before we slept, we tried showering at night—in the cold weather and with freezing water, which left us, well, frozen. As the night went by, the temperature dropped even lower. I was not able to monitor it because there was no signal for mobile phones, but we were told that the temperature dropped to one degree Celsius, more or less. It was our first time camping in a cold place, so the clothes we brought with us were not enough to keep ourselves warm. We ended up sleeping like curled hedgehogs.
Hiking was never on my bucket list until last year when I had the chance to try it. Before I even considered hiking, I was just like any other person who has never gone up a mountain. I was worried about whether I could really survive a hike peacefully, without giving up. So here goes.
We had to wake up early on day two because the DENR scheduled our group as the first to hike, which started at one in the morning. Every 30 minutes, another group begins its climb. Mt. Pulag has three landmarks: The pine forest, the mossy forest, and the grassland, an area covered with dwarf bamboos.
Being conditioned is really important during a hike up a mountain like Mt. Pulag. The higher it goes, the thinner the breathable air, so you tend to go out of breath. Luckily, the Ambangeg Trail was not that steep. It was more like walking on a flat but slightly inclined surface, similar with Mt. Ulap. The cold kept us in company.
We reached the summit at around 5 a.m. and we waited for the sun to rise. To keep ourselves warm, we were told to sit in between the dwarf bamboos to avoid the strong blowing cold wind. As the sun was slowly rising, we started to see the famous sea of clouds. Greeted by such a great view, I could definitely say at that moment that it was worth the hike.
After seeing the beautiful sunrise, we took some more photos and then started to descend from the summit. We went down the same trail we took going up but this time we could see where we were passing. We didn’t see the trail earlier because we went up at the wee hours of the morning while it was still dark. This time, we truly appreciated the view of the mountain ridges, with Mt. Pulag’s grassland making us feel like we were in New Zealand.
Honestly, Mt. Pulag hike via Ambangeg Trail is suitable for first-timers who are in good condition, but it also works as a spontaneous beginner’s hike—a good introduction that can get you addicted to hiking. It certainly did that for me, even though it was my second hike.
I reached home the next morning at around 3 a.m., slept for two hours, then prepared to go to work. At first I thought I would be drowsy during working hours but, guess what, I felt more energized and relaxed. But I think I suffered from what I call “hiking hangover”—I was craving for another hike. I had that feeling for almost two weeks, until I decided to go for the twin hike at Montalban, now known as Rodriguez, Rizal, to climb Mt. Pamitinan and Mt. Hapunang Banoi.
Unlike Mt. Ulap and Mt. Pulag, Mt. Pamitinan and Mt. Hapunang Banoi both have rocky and steep trails. Our group started hiking Mt. Pamitinan at around 4 a.m. and after 30 minutes from walking and climbing, I nearly gave up. The assault left me breathless and I had to take a break every few minutes. It was a much harder climb than Mt. Pulag. We reached the summit at around 5:30 a.m. and waited for the sunrise. While waiting, our tour guide-slash-photographer took quite a number of great photos, like a pro.
The rocky and pointy surface of the trail gave us a hard time. In some parts, we had to crawl all the way up or sit on some of the rocks and extend our legs on our way down. We went back to the camping site and rested for a while before we started climbing the other mountain, Mt. Hapunang Banoi, which was said to be rockier than Mt. Pamitinan. We reached the summit of Mt. Hapunang Banoi at around 9 a.m. and again took lots of photos for memory’s sake.
I admit that this twin hike, all in one day, was where I realized that hiking could be this hard. I was almost always breathless, thanks to the heat of the sun and the steepness of the trail. Regardless of the difficulty, it was still an unforgettable and enjoyable experience. We descended down from the campsite and approached the hanging bridge at around 11 p.m. It was the most energy-draining seven hours I’ve ever had in my life. But it was also a fulfilling experience.
Hiking gives me a calm and relaxing feeling. Despite being tiring and dangerous, that feeling of reaching the summit always proves that the worth the sacrifice and experience are worth it. I can’t wait to hike more mountains in the near future.