This is how you will enter the playground of the gods: with sleep in your eyes and dread rising in your gut at the prospect of a four-hour hike, a freezing campsite, and an early wake-up call.
At least that’s what was going on in my mind just before the hike up Mount Pulag.
This wasn’t my first time to climb Luzon’s highest peak (standing at 2,922 meters above sea level it is the 3rd highest in the Philippines). I had last visited in December 2013, and while the company had been fun, the trip itself had left me disappointed and a little bit traumatized. It had rained all throughout our trek to both camp sites. I had gone to sleep with wet hair and awoke in the middle of the night shivering and close to tears because I was afraid that I was going through hypothermia. Luckily I had a towel to dry it before it caused any real damage.
In the morning, our guides had canceled the ascent because of the thick fog that surrounded us; they knew that we wouldn’t see anything at the top. On the hike down, the sun suddenly came out and shone cheerfully, as if to mock us for the failed attempt to see the sea of clouds.
Another Attempt at Pulag
Not all fall in favor with the gods. In my second time at the DENR station, we were told during the briefing that the native tribes of the Cordilleras believed that their gods lived in Pulag. Knowing this, the locals who lived around the area revered the mountain, its trails, and its rolling landscape. They expected this same level of respect from the visitors who frequented the sacred grounds.
“It is true – when people are noisy up there, it usually rains!” said the DENR officer. “So if you want to see the sea of clouds, keep your noise at a minimum. Be respectful.”
What Pulag looked like on my last trip in 2013
I thought back to my last trip and wondered if my companions and I had unwittingly incurred the wrath of the gods, whether by some slight increase in the decibel of our voices or perhaps a dropped tissue along the road. But mountaineer friends who regularly climbed Pulag also said that the sea of clouds was a matter of luck. Sometimes, even during peak season (January to February), the mountain would deny its pilgrims the view for which it is famous for. Instead of waves of clouds, it shrouded itself in thick fog and rain.
We were unlucky that December – maybe that’s all there was to it.
The second time around, I found myself on a sunnier hike with Peak Pursuits, an adventure outfitter under Primer Philippines, a major distributor of outdoor products and apparel like Columbia Sportswear, Mountain Hardwear, Roxy, etc. There were nine of us in the group, including two UP Mountaineers, Jay and Ram-mon, who led us up via the easiest route, the Ambangeg trail. A local guide named Kuya Terry also accompanied us as we trekked from the Badabak Ranger station to the campsite.
Because it was a weekday, we were allowed to set up our tents in Camp II. Over the years, the Mt. Pulag National Park had been subjected to stress from the unabated influx of trekkers. Because of this, DENR was forced to impose stricter rules to protect and preserve the mountain’s landscape and natural resources. Visitors are no longer allowed to stay overnight in the campsites during the weekends, and hike organizers are expected to keep their respective groups at a maximum of 20 people. (Additionally, participating trekkers are now required to submit a medical certificate prior to their climb.)
Revisiting the Campsite
Upon arriving at Camp 2, the Mountain Hardwear tents had already been set up, thanks to Kuya Jay who had gone ahead of the group. We settled in quickly to escape from the cold. As we snuggled into our insulated sleeping bags (also by Mountain Hardwear!) for a short nap, rain pattered against the ground and the roofs of our tents. We awoke later on for merienda – hot champorado and coffee – prepared too by Kuya Jay.
Welcome to my messy (but cozy) tent! The sleeping bag by Mountain Hardwear was a real lifesaver.
Later that night, we feasted on bowls of steaming pork sinigang and rice cooked by our resident chef. For those who were still hungry, there was also a pot containing pesto pasta. The rain had stopped by then and our guides took that as a sign that we would have a good sunrise. “If it rains the day before but goes away by night, that means tomorrow will be clear,” said Kuya Ram-mon. We were all in a good mood by then, having had our rest and food; one of our companions even brought out marshmallows and chocolates which we melted using a blowtorch.
We gabbed on gaily as the stars appeared one by one above us – soon, there was a multitude of them twinkling in the clear night sky.
Peak Pursuits took care of everything – from the tents to the sleeping bags to the delicious food!
After gazing at the overwhelming display of lights, we retired to our tents at around 8:30PM. The air had already grown colder and it pierced through the layers of clothing, touching us with its icy fingers. I sighed with relief as I slipped into my sleeping bag and placed a thick blanket over my legs. The last time I had done this, I was grossly unprepared and I had barely gotten any sleep because of the cold. Learning from that experience, I brought more warm clothing, doubling (even tripling) everything from my socks to my bonnet. While I still experienced chills, I was at least able to get some sleep before the call time.