Mt. Halcon: Seeing the Forest through the Trees

The scariest climbs often make for the best stories. In one of the most formidable climbing route in the country, here I am again, narrating my penchant for muscle ache and busted knees, all in the name of satiating an insatiable thirst for nature. I had no idea of the existence of Mt. Halcon until one day I received an event invite. I was kind of hesitant at first because of the distance and airfare but hell yeah, what could go wrong?

Fast forward 2017. Somewhere in February, my husband broke the news of his deployment to Singapore. He would probably stay there for at least a quarter therefore not be able to accompany us. I have never climbed a mountain without him and to say that it’s not going to be the same would be a gross understatement. I was thrown into a fit of indecision as to whether pursue the climb or just let it pass and reschedule later in life. Sans physical conditioning and training, I wasn’t really up for climbing. But as the days went, I thought about the opportunity, the tickets and reservation fees that would surely be unrecouped so I guess you know what happened next.

Left in the “care” and “supervision” (pun intended) of my good ol’ friend Ronald, we flew to Manila on a Wednesday and boarded a Jam bus bound for Batangas Port. We then rode a fastcraft to Mindoro, one of the largest islands off the coast of Luzon and northeast of Palawan. In Calapan city, we took a quick lunch and bought supplies for our trek. Calapan serves as the capital and center of commerce and industry of the province of Oriental Mindoro. After lunch, we headed to the municipal tourism office of Baco to secure climbing permits. Here we met the jovial and exuberant mayor, Reynaldo Marco who cheerfully shared his love for nature. This mayor is remarkably down to earth and “reachable” among his constituents. No wonder a lot of trekkers and tourists alike come to visit his town. And we are one of those.

It was nearly dark when we arrived at the entrance point in Barangay Lantuyan. We set up our tents in the school perimeter and slept early in preparation for tomorrow’s real fight. The next day at 4:45 AM, we started our uphill battle where I quickly gasped for air while mentally chastising myself for my laziness to even lift a finger and exercise. It was only 15 minutes since our trek began and this was supposed to be a 3D/2N affair. Would I be able to keep up with this hardcore mountaineers? Could I be a pain in the butt and cause delay to everyone? My muscles wouldn’t obey my brain anymore. I felt like I was trapped in a stranger’s body. A body that’s apparently impervious to my pleading command to just get on with the trek. I only had bread and butter before leaving the camp and I could certainly feel my stomach twitching in hunger. Right at the first sight of water source, we took our breakfast around 7AM and dug our faces in heaps of rice and tuna. These plain canned goods have a way of turning into savory meals when you’re up in the mountains.

While it’s true that Philippine mountains share an array of topographical characteristics, every climb is unique which brings with it a brand new story to tell. Mt. Halcon is a treasure not only among the people of Baco but the pride of Mindoro as well. Its thick vegetation contains various flora and fauna and home to the indigenous Mangyans. Unlike other mountains I’ve been to, this has a never-ending ascend among a dense thorny undergrowth. It’s enclosed by Dulangan River, a high energy river system that serves as a lifeline to hundreds of locals who live along its course and depend on it for their daily needs. On many parts of the surface are rocks of different colors and compositions. I personally liked the smooth and pallid marbles but as much as I would like to keep one as token, it would only add to my rising burden.

Around 1PM, on our way down to Aplaya campsite, I stumbled upon a rather irregular terrain and twisted my right ankle. The pain was so real I almost cried in agony. I could vividly remember how helpless I felt, wallowing in self-pity and doubting the possibility of summiting the mountain. The last time I climbed in Luzon was Mt. Pulag, where incidentally, I fell victim to an episode of leg cramps in which our guide had to carry my bag for me, an allusive insult only mountaineers would understand. As Riddick said, “There are bad days, and then there are legendary bad days. This was shaping up to be one of those”. Like a disaster just waiting to unfold. Fortunately, our team had nurses who were willing to lend a helping hand in times of trouble and to them I’m truly grateful.

Arriving quite early at Aplaya campsite, the team decided to resume trek and cross Dulangan River. The descending trail was easier and in 30 minutes or so, we have reached the famous waters of Mt. Halcon. It’s also a campsite but we resolved to move forward and avoid any potential high-tide fiasco. The sun slowly set when we reached Balugbog Baboy, an upward sloping emergency camp that resembled like a nape of a hog. We pitched our tents and managed to cook despite the shivering cold. A few months ago, I would have curled into my sleeping bag and dozed off the chill but acclimatization is one useful trick I learned from the masters of mountaineering.

In the morning, everyone was up and getting ready to attack. Our original itinerary specified to camp in Aplaya where we would leave our bags and head to the summit. However, certain circumstances have changed and majority of the team agreed to camp and spend the night at the peak. Wary of my sprained ankle, Ronald and I stuck to our plan and went ahead of everyone, with our organizer’s consent of course. It took us nearly five hours to reach the summit, with nothing but a bottle of water and some snacks. If this was already hard enough to climb with barely any baggage at all, what more if we were in full-gear mode. It would have been harder than it actually was. Clearly, we made the right decision.

At the summit…oh how can I begin to describe the summit? This is where all the fun and good stuff start. It’s one of the three particularly brutal and unforgiving “knife edge” summit in the country, others being Mt. Guiting-Guiting in Romblon and Mt. Mantalingajan in Palawan. I know one life was claimed by this mountain and I stood over his tombstone, staring at the blurred name with wonders of impressive courage or sheer ignorance. Courageous because it was his first time (and unfortunately his last) to scale a mountain and ignorant for even doing so in the first place. For starters, one doesn’t just climb Mt. Halcon without proper training and experience. Show respect to the mountain and its elements otherwise it would demand restitution for crude behavior.

It was scorching hot but it gave us a breathtaking view of the blue sky horizon and a phenomenal sea of clouds. Cumulus clouds that drifted with unnatural slowness, edges glowing and as white marble against the cerulean sky. It makes all the pain and effort seem worthwhile. I have climbed many summits before but suddenly I felt a mixed sense of achievement in that diving cliff where I stood. I was humbled yet proud, looking ghastly yet gratified and just plain awesome. I could stay there for another hour but the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays prickled my skin like cactus spines. So off we went back trailing and consumed our packed lunch in one of the peak’s clustered bushes.

Our way down was quite smoother knowing we have accomplished what we came for. The next day, we started to descend from Balugbog Baboy to Aplaya Campsite. Past Dulangan River is a series of spiral ascent that, again, tested our faith and endurance. When we reached Aplaya, the familiar tracks we tread a couple of days ago welcomed us with eerie silence. There were three of us in this literally long and winding journey: our guide led the way who I could hardly see; followed by Ronald who managed to stay a few meters visible because my geography sucks; and me tailing behind, contemplating retirement from this back-breaking feat, always glancing at my watch, and thinking how much longer I should endure before I get a taste of Jollibee chicken or Chowking pancit when we reach civilization.

We could say that we were almost near the exit as we encountered countless group of hikers on their way up. I looked at them and felt a sigh of relief knowing that I made it through all the difficulties. They all had the same question, “Are we near the campsite yet?” to which I reluctantly answered “Yes, you’re almost there” as a common courtesy. But the truth is, they were far from reality and wouldn’t make it anywhere near Aplaya before dusk. Around 2-3 in the afternoon, we arrived at Lantuyan village. My knees were so darn busted I struggled to take one more step. A series of warm congratulations from the folks we ran into filled my heart with pride and satisfaction.

And why not? It’s a bad-ass climb after all.

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