We wake up at midnight. I eat a quick meal of leftover fried bangus (milkfish) and rice. I brush my teeth, empty my bladder, wash my face, and apply sunblock. I wear my thermals, beanie, and another layer of clothing. I keep my winter jacket in my backpack.
A jeepney takes us to the start of Ambangeg, the “easiest” (easy for them to say!) trail up Pulag. There are two sweepers behind me—Eugene, our mountaineer guide, and Richard, Nikki’s athletic friend who’s climbing Pulag for the first time, too. They are in charge of making sure nobody gets left behind.
I realize it’s freezing and I should’ve worn my winter coat. As my group treks ahead of me, I open my backpack and scramble for my jacket. “Sorry, please wait for me!” I tell the sweepers. As I zip up my jacket, I panic.
“I can’t breathe,” I mumble. My throat feels narrow and my heart is thumping hard. I feel an anxiety attack coming. “I’m sorry,” I tell Eugene. “What’s happening? I can’t breathe!”
“It’s the altitude. Just relax and breathe slowly. You’ll get used to it,” he assures me. I feel embarrassed watching the rest of my group go by. I close my eyes, tell myself to hold it together, and breathe deeply. I don’t want to be the wimp, the cause of delay.
“Are you okay now?” Eugene asks.
“Yes,” I lie to him. We start trekking, and my breathing becomes better. I catch up to my group. It’s dark and we rely on our headlamps to see the path. It starts out wide and flat, so I think, “Oh, this should be easy.”
Wrong! The next half hour is filled with high and irregular trenches. I keep slipping on loose rocks. Thank God I borrowed a hiking pole from my friend Emilio. I trek carefully to avoid injury.
I tell myself, “What did I get myself into?” followed by, “I need to pee!” Our guide announces that camp #1 is near, and there is a toilet there. As expected, “toilet” is just a hole in the ground. I could smell it meters away. I empty my bladder, use baby wipes, and stash the trash in a plastic bag in my backpack.
I see some members of my group resting at camp #1. There are tents of people who have decided to sleep over. “Thank God we stayed at homestay,” we tell each other. “We wouldn’t have lasted in this freezing temperature.” I quickly unwrap a Snickers bar as the group starts walking.
Mind Over Matter
We pass through heavily sloped terrains. I am feeling so many things at the same time—hunger, thirst, and alternating cold and heat. When I get sweaty from strenuous steps, I take off my winter jacket and gloves. Then as the freezing temperature dries up my sweat, my back gets icy so I put on the jacket and gloves again. It’s a confusing tango of hot and cold.
A few friends pee by the bushes. The group is now divided into two—one goes ahead and I’m left with the second half. Richard plays music from his iPhone and he constantly helps me by pushing me up when I struggle to climb. I laugh and start calling him “my pusher.”
We arrive at camp #2, and everyone flops on the ground. I quickly chomp a Snickers bar and some trail mix. I gulp a little bit of water. I don’t want to drink too much and have to pee again.
“Let’s go in one minute,” our guide rushes us. “Why can’t we rest for five to 10 minutes?” our friend Anna asks. “Why does it always have to be 30 seconds or only one minute of rest?” I can feel the stress in her voice.
As we walk my lips start getting chapped, but my lip balm is in a plastic bag deep in my backpack. Stopping for a few minutes to dig for it will leave me at the back of the line again, so I ignore the windburn. In fact, I start ignoring a lot of sensations—pain in my feet and calves, pain in my shoulders from carrying my backpack, and the dropping temperature.
It’s been over two hours and we’re not even halfway there yet. Our guide keeps yelling, “30 minutes more!” and we stop believing him.
We finally get to a higher plane that no longer has trees, just patches of grass. It’s still dark but I’m starting to see the horizon. “Guys, look at the sky,” Nikki says. We stop to gaze at the stars. I salute the sky.
“We’re almost there,” Eugene says. “What are those dots of lights over there?” Greg asks. They look like stars in another mountain in another city.
“Oh, those are climbers already at the peak of Pulag,” Eugene says. “That’s where we’re heading.”
Just when you think you’re almost there, you spot the peak that seems like a city away. My nose flares and I feel like throwing my hiking pole towards the sky. I hear frustrated sighs from my group.
“It only looks far, but we’re almost there,” Eugene says. We walk along, going up and down through mounds and hills that seem to go on forever. “Naiiyak na ako (I wanna cry),” I hear a girl say. I can’t blame her. At camp #1, a lady was breaking down. She said she didn’t realize how cold, unhappy, and hard camping would be. She wanted to go home. I wonder if she made it through the night.
“We’re almost there,” someone says as we hike uphill. My legs are getting numb from the pain and cold, but seeing the top of the hill pushes me forward. “Mind over matter,” I say as I give it one major leap, and I’m finally there.
“Yes!” I whisper to myself. Then my heart drops. Turns out we are on top of one of many hills that lead to the peak of Mt. Pulag.
“Ayoko na (I don’t want to do this anymore)!” someone mutters. She flops on the ground and jokes, “Just leave me here.” The others follow suit. I sit and take a break, too.
“C’mon girls, you can do it,” Tim tells us. It’s been over three hours. I take another bite of Snickers. My body feels weary, while my mind is determined to conquer. I push myself up with my pole and catch up with the group.
My back and shoulders are aching like hell. My friend’s porter sees me struggling and asks if she can help. After hours of proving to my ego that I can carry my own bag, I finally give in and hire a porter.
Close to Heaven
After over four hours, we finally reach the peak, with temperatures between 5-7 °C. There are two main spots: the more popular peak #1 and a slightly lower peak #2. Both give the same views of the sunset and sea of clouds. The first half of my group heads to peak #1. The rest of us settle for the grassy area beside peak #2.
Shades of yellow begin appearing over the horizon. No wonder Eugene has been pushing us to move fast. He didn’t want us to miss the sunrise. I flop down on a patch of dry grass. Nikki, Bea, and the other girls climb to a higher, steeper surface. “Kate, come join us here!” Nikki shouts. “I’m too tired to move,” I shout back. We watch as the sun rises, slowly warming our faces.
I finally find my lip balm to soothe my chapped lips and wind-burned face. I wrap my neck with a scarf. We take photos. “So, was the hike worth it?” one of the guys asks out loud. I look at the sea of clouds and cannot believe what I’m seeing. My answer is yes.
I hear someone say, “I didn’t expect it to be this hard. I’m ticking this off my bucket list, but will probably never come back again.”
We lie on the grass. “What happened to the jumping shot we planned?” I hear a voice ask. We all laugh, and then fall asleep together under the sun.
After 45 minutes, Eugene announces that he is making coffee. I walk over to see a portable pot with a gas heater. He mixes instant coffee into the boiling water. He scoops the coffee with a bowl and hands it to me. The taste of sweet, milky caffeine and the warmth settling into my tummy is heavenly. Coffee has never tasted so good.
But now I have to pee.
The Long Road Home
I hold it for another hour until we return to camp #2. The view is more spectacular in the daytime, but the descent, more difficult. You’d think it would be faster, but it takes us longer to hike down. The temperature’s getting warmer, so I peel off my jacket and a layer of clothing.
I bond with my new friends Sam, Anna, and Tim. We talk about life as we descend. When the paths get tough, we joke around. “We work out every day, but nothing prepared us for this,” Anna shares. Tim asks me if I’ll ever come back to Mt. Pulag. “Yes, but not soon,” I answer. Nikki, who injured her knee, is now limping. I’m more than relieved to join her now slow pace.
Five hours after leaving the peak, we finally exit Ambangeg trail. We reward ourselves with street food sold by the natives of Kabayan, Benguet. On the long road back to Baguio, we proudly post photos on Instagram and Facebook, with captions that try to sum up our journey.
Tim posts on his Facebook, “I conquered Mt. Pulag today. The truth is it conquered me.”