Day 0 – Saturday
As we become more and more inclined to climbing, we also feel like getting better and better at this traversing sport. Ok, so that sounded a little too bragging but let me steal the limelight and draw up the pride and adulation of summiting one of the toughest traverse in northern Mindanao; Mt. Kalatungan to Mt. Wiji. Looking back at Kitanglad-D2 traverse, Mt. Kalatungan, in its full multiplicity and elaboration, is a great trophy of climbing perseverance and deserves its very own shelf in my hiking library.
After a 2-hour trip from Iligan to CDO, we met with other 16 mountaineers coming from Cebu, Iligan and CDO, including our resident guide, Jumong. We left for Pangantucan at 2PM, boarded on an old sluggish jeepney that’s probably suffering from engine misfires. Originally, our trek would start at 7PM just in time to set camp at the mountain’s viewing deck but the seemingly dragging pace took 8 hours on what was supposedly a 4-5 hour travel. At the Pangantucan tourism office, we listed our names and signed a waiver of liability before riding a motorcycle to the jump off at Barangay Mendis. The long and rocky dirt road was quite a struggle but our driver showed his impressive driving skills and prevented us from tripping over the countless potholes en route. Past 10PM, we arrived at Barangay Mendis and checked in to their newly-built bunker house, furnished with double decks, table, chairs, bathroom and running water. Shortly afterwards, we were called on to witness the ritual performance of one of the tribal elders. This involves blood sacrifice of a chicken, a traditional practice upheld by the culture bearers of their religion and is not something that can be skipped if you want safe passage in the mountains. Manobos and Talaandigs are the most common lumads in this area, and the ritual, when I asked the group of locals behind us, was recited in Manobo. In the said ritual, each of us threw a coin wherein the blood dripped off signifying that we “pay the price” of whatever offense or disrespect (accidentally cutting twigs and branches, etc) we may inadvertently make.
Mount Kalatungan is a volcanic mountain with no known historical eruptions and classified by PHIVOLCS as a potentially active volcano. Located in the province of Bukidnon, it is now regarded as the fifth highest mountain in the country with an elevation of 2,880 meters above sea level. For the indigenous people, the mountains and the deep forest are more than just a place of greens and browns. It is a place bursting with life – the ultimate reason why the tribes here have fostered an intimate and protective relationship with the environment. They believe that the forest, aside from being their source of livelihood, is an abode of unseen spirits, their ancestors, and the kingdom of their deities.
Day 1 – Sunday
With very little sleep, everyone was up by 4AM and proceeded cooking breakfast and packed lunch. By 6AM, we gathered around for prayers and debriefing, and started trekking 15 minutes later. This was going to be a long day.
The thing I appreciated most about this whole trek are the directions and signs along the trail. It gives you an idea how close or far you are from every stop. First mark we passed by is a bamboo foot bridge over rapids that probably serves as main water source for the village below. We filled our bottles considering it’s the last water source for the next 8 hours. Since it’s an open area before reaching the view deck, the sun was brutally smiling at us and in my mind, I was working out the amount of water I should drink. Remember to sip, not gulp, to stay hydrated.
The viewing deck is such a refreshing rest area with a wide-angled view of the horizon and houses looking like tiny spots in the ground. It’s where the largest map of Kalatungan-Wiji traverse is displayed for every hiker’s perusal. A few more minutes and we were headed off to a more arduous journey. The trail is surprisingly too well-established that I had no difficulty following it – a feat for someone with a low spatial ability like me.
I was already gasping for air (blaming it to a sedentary lifestyle) so I decided to fall behind and absorb some wilderness wisdom. Despite the steep slopes, a second-timer told us that the real challenge lies in the hands of the back-breaking “Buko-Buko sa Anay” trail, an open ridge stretching along the realm of deep ravines and thick fog. Upon reaching the foot of “buko-buko”, I braced myself for a yet another taxing assault. It’s over 2 kilometers long towards the next camp (Sako Camp) composed of huge rocks and dense grasses. In this spot is the supposed viewing area of Muleta Falls but, like other hopeful climbers who risked to get a shot of this arcane waterfall, we left empty-handed. Had it rained that day, clouds would have dissipated and may have blessed us with clearing. To counter frustration, I found solace in the thought that the mountain gods are not yet ready to share their charming masterpiece.
This treacherous ridge also fooled us many times over by letting us think that we’re almost close to its peak but by the time we reach the top, another similar layer of uphill rocks and soil stunned us. This went on several times so I came to call the subsequent trail as “hashtag paasa” because it gives you hope and then withdraws it. Hah!
We took our lunch in Buko-buko, still trying to wait out the clouds, but the freezing cold could not be ignored so we went ahead and continued our assault. There are designated rest areas which I find practical and convenient. I’m not the one to enjoy a lengthy rest as it adds up to the biting cold so a couple of minutes break was enough to get us back on our feet and resume trek. The breeze is cooler as we were nearing the summit. Finally at Sako Camp, we took a brief rest and asked why it’s named as such. One of the guides told us that when some Americans went to this mountain to develop it, they found a number of sako (sack) stacked in what is now an emergency camp for hikers. And though there’s no longer visible sights of sacks here, the name stuck and still in use today.
Next point is the Junction, about 700 meters from Sako Camp, and the last stop before reaching the summit. Here’s when the cold gets bleaker you can see the vapors come out of your mouth – you’re literally smoking cold. This is the first water source since leaving the foot bridge 7 hours ago and I could tell you, the minuscule, stagnant surface water was like discovering an oasis in the midst of a desert. We hurriedly filled up our water bottles and prepared for summit assault. It was a grueling ascent even at only 500 meters distance from the peak. Finally, at 3:30 PM, I’ve set foot in the summit of Mt. Kalatungan. And though this mountain was in a habit of depriving us of visibility, we were glad to have reached this far-safe and uninjured.
Because there were a lot of participants in this climb, we were somehow divided into 3 groups: lead pack are the guides, porters and a couple of trail runners; middle pack are the three of us and the others trailing behind called themselves the super pack. On our way down from the summit, we bumped into the super packs but we decided to go ahead and chase the sunset to where we would stay the night – Bamboo camp. Descent approximately took an hour; it was no easy task jumping through the mud and intricate network of roots. By the time the dark spread, we have already pitched our tents and were conveniently situated near a spring water source. After eating dinner, we crashed into slumber, for tomorrow we would toil again.
Day 2 – Monday
The plan was to get up at 3:30AM in time to savor the sunrise at Mt. Wiji, but some of our fellow climbers were still asleep as they arrived late last night. We had a light breakfast because the actual meal would take place at the peak. At 6AM, we left bamboo camp and the assault saga continued.
Mt. Wiji, also known among the locals as Mt. Lumpanag, is an adjacent peak to Mt. Kalatungan and has been commonly used as a traverse path among mountaineers. When fire and smoke wafted out of its peak, it resembled a bald rock face, thus the locals came to call it Mt. Makaupao (upao means bald in visayan). Discovered by a Japanese explorer, Mt. Wiji’s elevation stands at 2,819 MASL which explains the frigid temperature at the top. Unlike Kalatungan, Wiji’s trail near the summit is made up of open grasslands similar to Mt. Pulag. After breakfast, we finally descended around 9AM, stopping by a caldera-like cliff and went on a photo spree.
The trail is moderate you can actually run through it. And for the first time, I briskly hiked but mostly ran downhill, thanks to a group of young and vigorous gentlemen that I happened to tag along. I stumbled and fell at least half a dozen times and if my knees and ligaments could talk, I would have been castigated for staging such a reckless stunt. Less than half an hour before reaching the exit point at Sitio Mahayahay, we passed by the “buko-buko sa anay” ridge which clearly, as the local name suggests, is shaped like the nape of a hog. At 12PM – exactly 3 hours later – we have exited the mountain and took a rest at a nearby shack. From Sitio Mahayahay to Barangay Mendis required about 40 minutes hike along a patch of wild sunflowers and feather grasses. Halfway through the landscape trail, we snatched a view of Dinaraunan lake and finally, we’re back at the Mendis jumpoff.
This could be, by far, my shortest descent since I started climbing and I was exhilarated by the fact that I’ve done something I thought would never be possible. It’s one of those random moments of self-discovery that renews your sense of purpose and meaning.