Saturday, November 15, 2014

A “RETURN OF THE COMEBACK” STORY

SEA TRAVEL TO NORTHERN Mindanao and Southern Leyte are cancelled tonight – March 21, 2014 – due to an oncoming tropical depression entering the Philippine Area of Responsibility.  However, my trip to Baybay, Leyte is not cancelled, so I gladly run my Sandugo Khumbu 40L backpack on the rubber conveyor of the x-ray machine before I entered the terminal of the Port of Cebu.


With me are my buddies from the Camp Red Bushcraft and Survival Guild – Aljew Frasco and Christopher Maru; and old hands from the Cebu Mountaineering Society – Boy Olmedo and Boy Toledo.  We are on a Jungle Environment Hike and Expedition so we could find and create a new route to Mount Pangasugan after some trails had been washed away by Super Typhoon Yolanda last November.


All of us had been to the jungles of Mt. Pangasugan, at one time or another, and had considered this peak as something that had gotten away.  Boy O and me came here with a large party of climbers in 1992 on a different route; Boy T with his club on that same route in 1994; and Aljew and Christopher on a video documentary project here in 2008.  We all failed.  But, this time, we hope, we will bring home the bacon.  Call it the “return of the comeback”. 

Although I had climbed a few minor peaks before I visited Mt. Pangasugan, I consider this mountain very special for me.  For one, it had marked the beginning of my passion for the outdoors and the environment.  Also, it had given me that rare privilege to witness a Philippine eagle in the wild at close range.  In short, Mt. Pangasugan is my benchmark when talking about terrain difficulty and richness of flora and fauna.

Without much funfare, the MV Sacred Star set sail at 21:00 in wet climatic conditions for the Port of Baybay.  We arrive in rainy weather the following day (March 22) at 04:00 and we proceed directly to our host, which is at Cienda.  After a light breakfast and procuring food provisions of two days, we walk to a tree nursery farm of the Leyte Reforestation Project where we register our names and our purpose and getting briefed of the area that we are hiking into.

We are introduced to our guides: Procopio and Ruben.  Ruben is a small fellow approaching 50.  Procopio is the older of the two at 60 years.  He still practices the old way of chewing a concoction of lime, tobacco, betel leaf, cinnamon and a palm nut.  Me and Aljew try this, out of curiosity, but we were warned that this will make you light-headed.  Indeed, it had, but it is as if I had just brushed my teeth after I had gurgled out the ogre-looking liquid.  


We start our journey at 08:20 under a light shower.  Aljew, Christopher and I carried openly our knives by our side like our guides do.  We traverse over rice fields and then engage our first river crossing of the Tubod River.  Current is strong but water is clear enough to see the stones underneath.  I have a heavy load – about 28 kilos.  Once I tripped over a stone and fell, that load becomes close to 40 kilos!  I paid dearly to carry extra with my carelessness.  

I may have to find wooden staffs to aid me, Boy O and Boy T in our river trek.  Ruben the guide, produce two mature bamboo staffs while I picked up a wooden stick for myself along the way.  Aljew and Christopher are both still flexible in their balance, being much younger than us and do not need it.  The sticks would later make a difference on us old citizens, except for Ruben and Procopio, who both are in their natural elements.

Tubod River is wild and brisk marked by uneven levels and different obstacles, which needs to be overcome.  The rocks and boulders are fine with hiking shoes, even with rubber Spartans (local brand of rubber flip flops), but appearance of surfaces can sometimes be deceiving but it is not a hindrance, as it had been for many times in the past, for both Procopio and Ruben, who both walked barefooted. 

All the while, it rained; from light to moderate, back to light to moderate and so on.  My senses peaked another notch.  My observation skills becomes sharp noting regularly for any deviations of water color and ripples of the current.  My eyes scan everything even to the extent of observing the awkward footing of those who are ahead of me.  My skin is constantly feeling wind velocity and rain intensity.  My ears catching every sound.      


As we tackle the river upstream, the riverbanks are now closer and it becomes a gorge.  It is much wilder here, the river more noisy.  Tributaries come from all sides.  Typhoon Yolanda had created a lot of damage on the landscape; uprooting trees and causing landslides; and routing new water channels when the original ones are filled with debris or blocked with huge boulders.

These conditions are a threat to our activity and the longer we stay on the river by the hour the higher the risk.  We reach a huge rock overhang and we decide to rest here from the onslaught of constant rain and from a shivering wind that came upstream. We decide to eat our noontime meal here but, in these conditions, a hot meal is best.  I understand that both Boy O and Boy T brought packed meals but that is not enough.  What about the guides?  

I still do not know yet how far we will walk or how many obstacles we will clamber up and how long we will keep our body heat to resist nature’s pounding.  For the greater interest of this group, being the expedition leader and safety officer, I decide we eat our meal hot and, that means, cooking it in an open fire in spite of this inclement weather.  I would rather sacrifice time for that.  

As was practiced and done by Camp Red in every outdoor activity, Aljew, Christopher and me proceed to forage dry firewood (which is now rare) and produce fire (which is now difficult) then cook rice in two pots hanged on a tripod.  Boy T help with the cooking of a mixed vegetable soup on his camp stove.  Meanwhile, Ruben and Procopio are shivering as they watch our activities.  When lunch is ready, all shared evenly the hot food. 

After the meal, we proceed on to more difficult terrain.  That infamous typhoon obliterated of what used to be a continuous trail going to the Chapel, the LRP Bunk House, the waterfall and to the ridge at Marabon that lead to the summit of Pangasugan.  For that, we are now confined to more river crossings, more daunting obstacles and more risks to flashfloods, landslides and rockfalls.  My dependable Rohan hiking pants opened up on the crotch during a scramble for a foothold.


Facing us is a small cliff.  It marked the joining of two rivers.  The rightmost is the Tubod River while the leftmost is a smaller but turbulent stream.  We follow the rightmost one.  Above this headland is a gang of Philippine macaques (Local name: amo, unggoy) swinging wildly among branches, probably attracted by our cooking.  On my first trip here in the Leyte Cordilleras, I did not see a single monkey but today they are many. 

We proceed on into some of the most dangerous obstacles that Yolanda had left for humans to overcome but we are persistent until we reach the site were there used to be a chapel.  What remained of are four roofless posts.  But behind the ruin is a hidden chamber that house a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary which was not washed by floods.  Ruben says people from San Vicente come here to celebrate Holy Mass to honor her every September 15th.  Amazing!

Procopio announced to us that the bunk house would not be that far, just a little more than an hour of walk – by their standards.  We slip past a cave-like opening among rocks and go into another part of the river where the water is calm but it is almost a dead end save for an opening ten feet above us.  Procopio propped a hardwood log and hacked steps into it so all would climb up the notch.  It is difficult as rubber do not grasp well on wet wood and then balancing your way up with a heavy load on your back.

I weigh about 102 kilos plus an almost 40 kilos of load on my back.  It just amazes many people why I still climb mountains and go on in extended hazardous trips at my age and bulk when most of my peers would rather slouch on their sofas and watch DVD movies.  When I think the obstacles are just too much for me as time goes by, I would just remove my backpack and pass it on to those above of me.  I do this several times because it is better that way but putting it back needs Herculean strength.

I walk up the log with my backpack on because I know it does not break in the middle.  When I climbed up the notch, another much more formidable obstruction faced us.  This is in the form of an old river pass that Yolanda filled with all sorts of debris 20 feet high!  That meant we have to overcome slippery wood that do not work on rubber and where the chances of some debris giving in to weight is high.


Procopio devised another system of poles to act as a bridge from one part of the debris to another higher part.  This would had been madness were it not for the 35-foot utility rope I brought for this hike.  Once the rope had been tied on to the steadiest of logs, one by one, in slow but deliberate progress, we overcome this greatest of obstacles.  Above us are Philippine hornbills (Local: kalaw) flying from tree to tree while a yellow horned toad (Local: baki) waits for prey as it perch on a stone. 

I heard the cry of a boar (Local: baboy ihalas) from about a hundred meters before I see its sign.  The boar burrowed on roots by the riverside and did not notice us until we are so near.  We came downwind and the rain hid our man smell.  The boar must have heard us talking and ran as fast as it could and then belch out a warning whine.  If I were hunting that day, it would had been a good and glorious chase.  Then rain started to fall heavy and we just forded the last of the river crossings.

It is 16:45 when we reach the LRP Bunk House.  It is a wooden structure constructed through funds coming from the German aid agency.  The storm might now be approaching landfall somewhere in Mindanao considering that the weather becomes so grim and discouraging.  We from Camp Red immediately start a fire and started cooking the rice and make ourselves comfortable.  Procopio and Ruben, who both were shivering from cold and exhaustion, gladly welcomed the heat.

We are all exhausted and approaching mild hypothermia but the promise of eating another real hot meal dissipate away the worries and fears, especially to our two guides.  I start slicing the pork meat and the vegetables with my Victorinox SAK Trailmaster.  Boy T volunteered to cook the pork adobo and the mung bean soup.  The hot meals are our saving grace and soon the morale of the men are back despite the leaks on the roof.

We celebrate our success and our good fortune today by drinking local brandy.  We carried the contents of the two bottles here just for this occasion.  We decide not to push through with the hike to the summit tomorrow because of this uncooperative weather.  We were not supposed to be here, in the first place, because of that.  I have arrived at a conclusion, after witnessing close hand, that the topsoil of Leyte are not that stable and are prone to landslides.  We chose to cut our journey to the summit also because of this.


The brandy gave us warmth for the most part and a chance to open up worthy conversations.  I showed my thinning black bonnet which I first brought here in 1992.  It had coaxed up interest when I start the tale of how it had also been with me at Mount Apo, at Mount Dulangdulang, at Camp Damazo and on every worthy peak.  Procopio is a wonderful fellow to be with around a campfire with his good knowledge of woodlore and churns out local names of plants and animals, both familiar and the unheard.  Lights out at midnight. 

I wake up to a distant boom of a falling object.  The ground slightly shook.  Strong gusts of wind carry spray into the insides of the bunk house.  Rain is still heavy.  It is 02:00 of March 23.  Too early to make noise and I sleep back but wake up shivering at 04:30 as the first light of dawn showed on the window.  In a couple of hours we will be packing our things back in our bags.  The rain had not abated ever since.  On the river below is a huge tree.  It was not there yesterday!

After drinking coffee, we prepare the food ingredients for our early lunch.  It seems that the weather had slackened a bit and we have to take advantage of this by leaving at noon.  I help Boy T in the preparation and cooking of escabeche (dried fish cooked in tomatoes) and eggplant strips fried with egg.  Everyone take their fill knowing that these might be their last meal.

We leave the bunk house at 12:00 but we turn back when the Tubod River is unaccommodating.  It is now brown hiding visibility below; it is now ten inches higher; and the current too strong to fend off.  Procopio do not want to entail risks crossing the river at these conditions and everyone agreed.  When all had returned to their places inside the bunk house, I decide to look for firewood.  I use both my AJF Gahum heavy-duty knife and my tomahawk to chop and split firewood. 

For a whole day, the men are in a gloomy state.  Talks of rescue is the main topic and Boy T becomes worried about our diminishing food supply.  I am really not worried about all these.  This is just a temporary inconvenience that only affect our schedule.  For us at Camp Red, survival is our game and we had prepared for situations like this unlike Boy O and Boy T who are more oriented in packaged activities that their club usually undertake.  Although both had attended a bushcraft camp under my tutelage, both did not practice, in their own free time, what they learned.  Lacking that, you lose self-confidence.


I do not worry about food.  There is food for the taking in these dense jungle if you know where to source it.  I have an advantage because of Procopio and Ruben and they could complement my knowledge anytime so the rest could eat.  I have foreseen this delay and I could live with it.  Without everyone knowing, I have two packs of pork and beans and a kilo of deep-fried pork secretly stashed in my backpack.

Rain fall hard again and seem endless and it added to the misery of the men.  I jot down the conditions for this day in my small notebook.  It is getting cold again.  By early evening, the men devoured the leftover food from our lunch.  I open a pack of pork and beans to the fray to perk up the mood.  The last of our procured coffee is gone and everyone settled back to their sleeping spaces.         

At around 22:00, something huge fell nearby our camp.  Constant rain for three days had caused soil to melt and I worry the high ground above where we stayed might slip also.  The bunk house is silent and cold, a far cry from the other night.  We sleep early but I toss and turn on the floor.  It is cold.  Winds seep in the cracks while rain water splatter everywhere.

On the morning of the third day, March 24, our collective effort produce a mixed coffee-and-chocolate drink and a loaf of bread and these becomes our breakfast.  It is a good start.  Surprisingly, the rain had stopped.  The shrill whistle of a Philippine squirrel (Local: kansik) can be heard clearly.  Across us, the hillside is scoured by last night’s landslide.  We cook the last of our rice and intend to eat it somewhere downstream at noon. 

The river is now clear and it subside down to almost the level the first time we trekked it.  We hurdled the first of the several river crossings back to where we came two days ago.  The difficult obstacles, if taken from upstream are easy.  You either have to slide on your butt down the rock or create a route on the steep hillside.  For several occasions, we rather hack away dense jungle than take risk stepping on unseen rocks or logs.  It might be slow progress but it is safer.


Finally, we reach the rock overhang and we decide to eat our meal here.  I retrieve my deep-fried pork and everyone devour it with much enjoyment.  After that, we continue on and reach the tree nursery farm at 15:30.  Immediately, we open cellphones and receive a lot of worried messages from Cebu.  I replied mine that we are all alright and safe.  Well, unknown to us, a search and rescue party would have been organized if we remain unheard of at 15:00 today.

We just crossed 28 times the Tubod River and overcame 25 obstacles on the first day and repeated these today.  We are tired, hungry and cold but we deserve cold beer which immediately appear.  After changing to dry clothes, we leave Cienda for the port area to secure boat tickets and to eat a good supper.  I bring six Philippine ginseng plants and cinnamon barks which Procopio foraged for me.

As the motorcycle I am on cruise the Pan-Philippine Highway, I see from a distance, Mt. Pangasugan, dark and foreboding.  On the foreground are six egrets flying in a V formation.  Three more joined in mid-flight.  I have learned long ago that there is more to a mountain than just bagging peaks.  I have always considered this mountain as a friend and it showed me its power and its gentleness.  

We leave Baybay at 20:00 for Cebu on board MV Rosalia.


Document done in LibreOffice 3.3 Writer

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