Saturday, January 10, 2009

APO SANDAWA: Playground of the Gods

MY OPPORTUNITY CAME on April of 1994. I've prepared more than a year for this physically, mentally, emotionally, technically, materially and financially. The chance of climbing the country's highest apex, Mount Apo, who stood at 10,328 feet above sea level, have been on the forefront of my attention and, at the same time, at the back of my mind. It came at a better time then – Holy Week! Although, back then, I was just a Christian (a Roman Catholic) in name only and was never inclined to observe religious traditions and rituals and was more concerned with other trivial pursuits.

As I've said it before, my chance did came about. Members of the Cebu Mountaineering Society or CeMS composing of Dr. Abe Manlawe, Sir Joe Avellanosa(+), Daddy Frank Cabigon, Tony Cabigon, Atty. Al Jovellar, Claribel Abrahan, Bebut Estillore, Patrick Young, Ben Lao, Ann Vidal, Louie Tecson, Sir Rex Vecina, Lilibeth Initan, Rosebelle Daculan, Yvette Lasala and me, left on a Holy Wednesday evening, March 30, from Cebu Harbor to Cagayan de Oro City by boat.

Arriving on the morning after, Holy Thursday, of March 31 we took a bus for Kidapawan, North Cotabato by way of the Bukidnon-Davao highway. We arrived at near dusk at Kidapawan and Dr. Manlawe's brother, Lito, who worked as an engineer of the National Power Corporation (NPC), welcomed us at his house as guests where we ate dinner and slept.

On the early morning of April 1, Good Friday, we left Kidapawan for the trailhead at Agco and Engr. Manlawe drove us himself with his vehicle, of which all sixteen of us were crammed in whatever space and nook we could find. At 10:00 AM, we arrived at Agco and from there we took the upward trail for Mt. Apo.

About an hour-and-a-half later I reached the hot springs area along the trail and I saw plenty of people there. No, they were not the sort who climb mountains like we mountaineers do and look, they were ordinary people: men, women and children. They even brought some infants with them! They were not migrating either.

I asked them of their destination and one or two of them told me that they will spend Holy Week at Mt. Apo. I was shocked! Aside from the assortment of baggage they had, some of them were carrying 11-kilogram LPG tanks, stoves, cases of soda drinks and beer, cartons of hard liquor, big pots and pans, live hens, a dog and a pig, which they skinned nearby. And there were some cooking for it was almost noon. They were, I presumed, embarking on a high-altitude picnic.

The trail followed and crossed, on many points, the Marbel River. I tried, as much as possible, to have a pair of dry feet, socks and trail shoes. Believe me, it made me uneasy and disoriented walking on wet feet, unless it rained. I hopped and jumped to where my long legs would take me on the boulders and stones in between. I succeeded there.

I took my prepared lunch out and ate on the trail and many of these same kind of people that I met before at the hot springs, were already on the trail ahead of me and I noticed the plastic bottles, wrappers and bags, pieces of paper, empty glass bottles and opened cans and some discarded rubber flip-flops scattered all over the trail. It was a trail full of garbage enough to fill a small garbage truck and we were not yet at the campsite yet!

How could the organizers be so greedy and so callous as to allow these people to climb and disrespect a mountain that is sacred to some indigenous peoples living nearby? That question I later knew: there were none.

Proceeding on, I came to a place wherein all traffic on the trail became slow and came to a standstill as I crept forward. I observed from afar of people climbing up a vertical wall of a trail. It was about 15-18 feet high. There were ropes tied and anchored on the trees above and many of them were dependent on these ropes for ascent. I went up on another route without using those ropes and I overtook a lot of them on the trail and it was already 2:00 PM and, still, a lot of ground to cover to reach the campsite before dark.

The higher I ascend the trail of Mt. Apo the wilder the vegetation became and the temperature dropped. I passed by strange-looking orchids, flowers and tree species. Hornbills were scattered and flew about, as well, as different kinds of avian. Mt. Apo is the home of the great Philippine Eagle (Pithecophaga Jefferyi), the second largest eagle in the world and whose population is now dwindling and endangered towards extinction. Somehow, I never encountered one.

From a diptherocarp-populated and shrub-growing environment, the scene changed abruptly as I climbed further up the trail. Grasses as tall as a man were now common in a somewhat flat contour where the trail passed along. The trail parted into shorter grasses and a flat expanse of ground. Nearby, I could see tall trees; their branches splayed above like that scenery from an African safari. They were the century-old tinikaran trees that are endemic to this area. And looming behind them is the mountain itself. So clear and so graceful it stood from the vantage from where I stared upon.

Going on further, I finally reached the campsite – Lake Venado, at 7,500 feet above sea level! It was already 4:30 PM and less daylight to set up a tent and to prepare supper at the same time. Strong gusts of cold air greeted me and I shivered as the temperature dropped below 10 degrees centigrade. Everyone ran and hid from the cold wind. Tents were hastily assembled and erected but it took them a while as the strong gusts of wind played on them and sometimes carried away the synthetic sheets for some distance.

You don't fight the cold but you have to live with it. Treat the wind as your brother.” I remembered an American Indian saying. I acclimatized myself with the cold by taking off my shirt and washed my arms and upper body on the lake's frigid water and let the cold winds take a shot at me half naked.

I noticed and deduced that Lake Venado's water must have receded during the hot summer days, as what used to be a whole body of water, it now have been parted into two as the much shallow lake bed in the middle became dry land. Or so it seemed. I kept myself naked above the waist up for about a half-hour and put on a dry shirt after that, whereby, the sting from the cold wind didn't affect me that much than before.

By now gray overcast skies herald the coming of a heavy downpour as wisps of rain water, slightly lighter than a drizzle, stung the skin when pushed almost horizontally by those strong gusts of wind. Some tried to make fire in the open but to no avail.

Darkness came and more people where still coming, each of their voices adding to the ones already here earlier. I estimated around 400-500 people were on the Venado camp that evening. Still, more were coming. Shouts were heard from all directions as these extraordinary mass of people converging on a forested and protected part of Mindanao behaved as if they were celebrating a feast. Taunts were thrown by a group against another group and vice versa and everyone joined the bedlam. Even us CeMS were not spared of their childish and unethical behavior.

Suddenly, without warning, the bulging thunder clouds burst wide in a deafening intensity and great volumes of rain fell as if to jolt us of our senses for making fun here. Lightning flashed overhead and never had I seen these to be so near. After an hour or so of downpour it stopped. Silence. Then the taunting and the dares started all over again like a pond full of toads and frogs croaking at the same time to find a mate.

I slept inside the tent of Dennis together with Bebut and I slept comfortably oblivious of those noises and by the curses of people having trouble sleeping brought about by the slight rise of ground water released from that torrential rain.

Morning came and it was a Black Saturday, April 2. Fog enveloped Lake Venado. And from gaps between fogs I saw tents standing on grounds where the night before it was an empty space. Many people were still coming during my sleep, I reckoned. I noticed a small brook appeared overnight to connect the two parted lakes of Venado closer to each other, caused by the rains last night as the bigger lake overflew a bit and filled the lesser lake with its excess water.

After taking a full breakfast, we started for the peak at 9 AM. I left my backpack inside the tent and I only carried a waist pack filled with drinking water, camera and wafers. After two hours I reached a rocky promontory just below 200 meters from the peak of Mt. Apo and relished the view overlooking Mount Venado and Lake Venado and the enlarging tent town that sprouted around and between them.

People from below were now advancing up the trail and I deduced that they're going to gaze at this rare and a once-in-a-lifetime sight afforded by Mt. Apo, but, I was wrong. I was dismayed and disturbed for they were not after those. They were there to uproot the bonsai variety of tinikaran trees that grew stunted at the shoulders of Mt. Apo to bring it home either to be transplanted in a pot, as a souvenir or for its medicinal value! I stared contemptuously at them and could only shake my head. I proceeded on to the crown.

Finally, at last, I stood on the highest point of dry ground of my entire life. The king of all Philippine peaks. Wow! The view from above where only eagles dare is tremendously breathtaking! It afforded a clear, uninterrupted and panoramic view of almost the whole stretch of Mindanao in a 360-degree circle.

On the north, the distant mountain ranges of Kalatunggan and Kitanglad were visible in blue hues as well as the snaky outline of the Agusan River that cut its way from Davao del Norte to Agusan Bay. On the east, were the urban outlines of Davao City, the greenish Samal Island City, Davao Bay and the Davao Peninsula. On the south, were the distant Sarangani Bay and the Celebes Sea. And on the west, I could clearly see the growing municipality of Kidapawan, of Gen. Santos City and of Mount Matutum, standing guardian-like on the foreground.

After having my fill of that rare view for about a half-hour I went to the smoking crater nearby. Volcanic rocks abound the rims of this dormant volcano and I saw plumes of sulfur from within. It was a beautiful sight such as only a daring mountaineer could afford.

I went back downhill and I saw the most unsavory sight I've ever seen. These mad throng of mindless people made a mockery of the environment by indiscriminately cutting off saplings, branches and even young trunks of these rare trees for the sake of adorning the places where their tents are pitched. Then there's the problem with the garbage. It seemed as if these people hated everything nature could offer and just threw away anything and scatter them all around and left them as if it were nothing at all!

By now the base camp population swelled to almost a thousand Neanderthals! We decided to coordinate with other mountaineering groups and concerned individuals present and volunteered for the proper disposal of garbage. We picked any garbage that we found and placed them in big black garbage bags to be carried downhill. We buried what we cannot carry especially when we ran out of garbage bags.

By mid-afternoon the temperature dropped again as that of the day before and the climate returned to a condition like that of yesterday's. The human frogs croaked and groaned again in a much higher crescendo as the campsite occupants doubled in number. One even had the gall to release a lighted firecracker into the air! Then the water from the skies fell in an intensity much greater than that of last night's and it never stopped until dawn.

Many tents were hastily uprooted and transferred as campers seek higher grounds as the lower areas were inundated with runoff from the lake as it began to overflow from the seams. Lots of people went sleepless that night as they and their things and clothings got wet. Served some of them right as nature fought back to give a lesson or two against our uncalled for intrusion and destruction of green living things.

8:00 AM of Easter Sunday, April 3, after a filling breakfast, we folded our tents, packed our things and said goodbye to the great mountain. We took the same trail, this time we went downhill. By 2:00 PM, Engr Manlawe arrived as planned and transported as back to Kidapawan for a quick supper then he brought us to Digos, Davao del Sur and arrived thereat at around 8:30 PM.

We thanked and said goodbye to him as he returned back for Kidapawan. We stayed the night as guests at the house of Claribel's family. Early Monday morning of April 4 we took a bus for Davao City and arrived at 7:30 AM. We ate breakfast at the bus terminal and left Davao City also by bus for Nasipit, Agusan del Norte at 9:00 AM. We arrived at the port of Nasipit at 6:00 PM, two hours before departure time. At 8:00 PM, we left Nasipit Port by boat for Cebu.

April 5, Tuesday, we arrived at Cebu Harbor in the early hours of morning and, behind us, on the horizon from the east, it seemed to me, that the heavy clouds that I encountered at Mount Apo, kept on following us. It was rather strange as it was in the middle of summer and a typhoon is progressing towards Cebu. It was a signal number three! Later it rained the whole day and night creating the highest level of flood waters Cebu had experienced ever.

I barely got home, yet that great flood created a sea out of a river and I thought the steel Bailey bridge beside my home would be swept away as logs and debris kept hitting it repeatedly and I felt the shudder and the thump each time it got hit. It was a long week that started from a long journey to the peak of my imagination: Mount Apo. I should be exhausted but I did not. I waited the oncoming morning with renewed enthusiasm and strength and quite confident that the morrow would add me another year of blessings as that day happened to be my birthday.


THE FOLLOWING YEAR and the years after that, Mount Apo was closed to these same activities that target the Holy Week and other like events so as to regenerate itself from the damage it incurred from that tumultuous encounter where I was one of the shameless crowd who camped on that forgettable series of dates. I was greatly traumatized from that Holy Week climb and I felt the burden of guilt by being just a passive witness, doing nothing.

After that, I began to walk the trails on my own.

Mt. Apo was re-opened to the public four years ago. It took me 14 years to write about that dark experience that I have encountered on the green fields of Venado and on the steep trails of Apo Sandawa. Never again will I be a willing or passive participant in an event1 where a mass of people camp on a mountain.

Document done in OpenOffice 2.1

1MFPI Congress Climbs and Mid-Year Climbs. Anniversary Climbs.


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Vanjohnn said...

great post sir, and lucky for you you were able to see the pithecophaga jefferyi, and according an article from Animal Scene Magazine, it is officially the largest eagle in the world.

Vanjohnn said...

waahhh. such a dark moment for nature.. :( I too am a nature lover, especially since our house is located near the forests itself.

FreEzEBoX said...

wow.. it's worth reading your mt. apo adventure sir.. hopefully someday i'll conquer mt. apo too.

PinoyApache said...

you could not conquer nature only yourself. best of wishes to your future mt. apo climb. thanks for leaving footprints...


PinoyApache said... Says -

In the Article you say:

"How could the organizers be so greedy and so callous as to allow these people to climb and disrespect a mountain that is sacred to some indigenous peoples living nearby? That question I later knew: there were none. "

That is a terrifying thought...

then you say:

"Lots of people went sleepless that night as they and their things and clothings got wet. Served some of them right as nature fought back to give a lesson or two against our uncalled for intrusion and destruction of green living things."

Some day our mother will shake them off... They can only disdain that which is holy for so long. I don't understand them, even the animals know better, even in their worst state, they honor their mother.

Climb brother, Climb...

Touch the sky

Our Mother knows and she will cover her own.