Traversing the Swine’s Spine
It was a Friday night, it had just rained, and I still had fever. Disregarding a still queasy feeling when I got off the bed, I hurriedly assembled the things I would need to pack for my trip. My mother looked on while I stuffed my large backpack with Ziplocked articles of clothing, first aid kit, some food, and 4.5 liters of water. I was getting ready for my first training climb with the UP Mountaineers (UPM).
What are you going to do in the mountain? my mother asked. Admire the view, I replied, too busy to elaborate. She just shook her head, obviously perplexed. What folly, she must have thought, to climb a sloping terrain for hours with a huge backpack, just to look at more mountains? Nevertheless, a great mother she was, she took my assurance of good health at face value and gave me her blessings.
D-day started well enough. I slept over at my friend’s house-who was also an applicant in the same organization-and we woke up at 4 a.m., ate, made last-minute changes in our packing, and then went to the Tritran station in Kamuning. The bus we boarded was bound for Batangas, and in an hour and a half, we arrived in Bauan. From there, our team leader rented a jeepney to San Teodoro, and in less than an hour, we were at the jump-off point at the base of Mt. Gulugod Baboy.
However, for some of us, Gulugod could very well have been Mt. Pulag, the highest point in Luzon. It was our first time to carry such a heavy load, and the straps of our backpack, inexpertly put, cut through the shoulders. Thirty minutes into the trek, we stopped, and it was all I could do to stop myself from collapsing to the ground like a log. One of my fellow applicants was exhausted to the point of fainting, and the others relieved her of some of her load. The few minutes’ rest did a great deal of refreshing us, but the whistle to load up came too soon; I felt that I had not even had time to draw my breath. But load I did, and did not need our team leader’s instruction to start walking. I was, after all, the pacer, the identified slowest member of the bunch.
Then something happened to my right knee, and I almost cried out loud with the pain. It burned with every step I took, and I could not even bend it without feeling like I was going to faint. I tried to keep it as straight as possible-a virtual impossibility when one is climbing a mountain!-and bit my lips to keep myself from crying.
I told our team leader, but did not make a big deal out of it. I remember being in constant terror of him, for every now and then, he would bark, “This is your training climb! Bilis-bilisan nyo naman! (Make it fast!)” I endured, but I moved at my own pace, ignoring the encouragement (and some jibes) for more speed. I plodded on, looking neither left nor right, appreciating nothing of the view that my heartier fellow applicants appreciated and loudly commented on. I was completely focused on the ground in front of me, on the pain that I felt every time I took a step, on the thought that we were less than halfway towards the peak and that there would still be hours ahead that I still had to bear with.
I felt the pain in its entirety, wallowing in it, keeping in mind what a friend told me once: she is glad of pain, because through it, she knows that she can still feel, that she is alive. There is really nothing like mountain climbing to feel fully alive, and yet at the same time, to honestly wish you were dead. In fairness, our team leader tried to encourage me when he was not cursing the rest of us, telling me that if I could hold on for a few minutes longer, I would be drinking ice cold Coca-Cola soon. I ignored him, having decided that apathy is better than bonking him on the head. How could he be so cruel? A chilled softdrink would definitely lift my spirits, but considering that we were kilometers away from the town, how could he expect us to have that in the middle of nowhere?
I was very much pleasantly surprised, then, when I realized that he was right, as I saw the cluster of sari-sari stores that marked Sitio Panay in Barangay San Teodoro. My steps considerably quickened, and although the pain was still there, the image of a super-cold Royal Tru-Orange (a drink I only took whenever I was ill) was foremost in my mind and made me blind to anything but the thought of gulping it. I was almost running during the last few meters’ trek to the store, where we had our lunch.
Some five hours after we started the trek, I could not believe what was before us. They called the approach to the summit an assault, and for me, it was literally one-an assault to my senses, that is. The peak was hundreds of meters up, and sloping for more than 45 degrees! There was no trail—there were only grasses and clumps of cow and horse dung that we had to navigate. There were no shrubs from which we could hold on to; it was just straight up and up.
It was torture. I kept thinking, what if I fell down? Would I roll downward all the way to the beach? I grew alarmed when I realized that the thought was becoming more and more tempting with each step I took. With renewed effort, I thought of the peak, of the accomplishment it would mean, of the feeling of achievement I would get. Thus, one grueling step after another, I reached the summit, where the members heartily congratulated me and the other applicants. I dropped to the ground and took a few minutes to get my breath. When I recovered, I took stock of my surroundings.
Tired, hungry, and hurting, I nevertheless stood captivated by the vista that was before me. This then, I thought, is the essence of mountain climbing. After hours of long, hard climb, one gets to be with nature at its very best.
My friend, lying down with her pack still unloaded, suddenly exclaimed, “Ang ganda-ganda dito! Kapantay na natin ang mga ibon!” There was laughter, and lighthearted banter that she has lost her wits-after all, Gulugod is relatively low (around 500 meters above sea level). But I agreed with her. There was indeed a sense of being close to heaven. Perhaps, some of it was relief, that at last, we had reached our goal and could get some rest. However, I believed that the sense of serenity we felt came with the scenery, that up there, no care and no worry could ever have the power to disturb us.
Unfortunately, we did not even stay for an hour. We had to set up camp, and for that, we had to go down to the clearing a few meters below the summit. So after a short lecture on camp management, up we loaded our packs again, and slowly went down. I had thought of rolling my pack and myself downwards, but the members said I could seriously damage my backpack and the vegetation, so I did not.
As we set up camp, the fog slowly rolled in. It was magnificent! Reminiscent of horror stories of old England, the fog made the city and the mountains disappear, then one by one, enveloped our tents and ourselves, to the point that we could no longer see beyond ten feet. It was cold, and there was some drizzle, but we would not have wished it otherwise. I wore a jacket and raingear over my thick t-shirt, so I could not believe it when I saw some UPM members strut around in their swimming trunks. Despite my layers of clothing, I was still shivering with the cold, and they claimed to be hot! (You call this cold? Wait till you climb Kilimanjaro!). Then, the fog lifted, and the sight was no less glorious.
As the deep blue sky grew darker, we started to see the city lights, lights that signified human civilization, which, at that moment was as far away from us as possible. I was moved by the thought that we, as mountaineers, enjoyed something that night that the city-dwellers did not, with their television and refrigerator and suffocating traffic fumes. In the mountains, the air was fresh and the view magnificent. Certainly, when one is on top of the world, one feels that one has the best.
The next morning, I woke up bleary-eyed at 5 o’clock, cold and wet in the tent that got drenched during the night. My partner and I were assigned to cook breakfast, so we set at it, cooking the rice, frying dozens of eggs, heating the leftover beef stew. They said that the colors of the sunrise were spectacular, and in fact, I had a brief glimpse of the sun struggling to show itself through orange-tinted clouds, but I admit that I was not and never had been a morning person. I concentrated on the fried eggs.
I was not afraid of dying; what horrified me was the thought that if I fell, I would never be able to climb another mountain again. A few hours later, we finally reached the beach (cottage rental: P200/day). The water was cold and very refreshing, and as I paddled near the shore, I pondered on my experiences of the previous hours.
When I get back to Manila, would I be able to say with full honesty and confidence that I would go back to the mountains and climb again? Repeat the experience of having numbing pain in my knees, freezing in the cold, sleeping in a wet tent, and lugging what felt like hundreds of pounds on my back? Of waking up early and starting the grueling trek down, without even having taken a bath? Or would I be grateful to be back in my small apartment, glad that I was home, dry and comfortable and reading a good book, and not in the middle of nowhere wishing I were home?
I did not even think twice about it. I decided that yes, definitely I would be back, knee pains or not. I would rather be in the mountains wishing I were home than be at home wishing I were in the mountains. The knees would heal, the scratches and bite wounds would close, but the memory of feeling on top of the world, being close to heaven, is something priceless, something that I could treasure when the time comes that I would no longer be physically able to do so. I could not wait to go back to Manila to start training for our next climb.
I was thinking of my second mountain, hundreds of meters higher than the first one, three times much more difficult to climb. But I could imagine that at the summit of that mountain, beauty will again fill my senses, filling me with gratitude and awe that I lived to witness such magnificence that only a hardy few would ever have the chance to appreciate. Only the thought of that view from the mountain peak is keeping me going.
A shorter version of this was published in the Travel Section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
©Ma. Aleah Taboclaon
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Aleah Taboclaon is a freelance writer and editor. She likes running (completed one marathon, training for the next!), diving (PADI open water diver), and traveling with her Kindle. Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. You can also email her; she would love to hear from you!