Mt Pulag is the 3rd highest mountain in the Philippines, and the highest mountain in the island of Luzon. It belongs to the Cordillera range, the mountain range that surrounds the city of Baguio in northern Luzon. There are 3 different routes of ascent, of which we chose to use the Ambangeg approach, the easiest of the 3. The ascent and descent takes approximately 2 days and 1 night, but can be done within a day. Total round trip distance is about 14-16km and the elevation change is roughly 400m from start to summit.
Having arrived on an overnight bus from Manila, we left Baguio city at 8am on a jeepney (the Filipino version of a 4×4 bus) for the 4 hour journey through the mountains to our start point. Along the way, we stopped by a roadside cafe for breakfast and also at Ambuklao lake, a man-made reservoir created by the construction of the Ambuklao dam. All through the morning, we were blessed with excellent weather, creating numerous photo opportunities as our jeepney wound its way through the narrow mountain roads. At the entrance of Mt Pulag National Park, we attended a short briefing conducted by the rangers on the unique and fragile ecosystem, as well as the cultural significance of the mountain to the locals. After that, we had lunch at another local eatery, where our guides also packe dinner for the trek.We finally reached the village of Ambangeg at 2pm, weary of the uncomfortable jeepney seats but eager to get on the trail. At the village, we left our excess baggage and hired some porters and local guides to help us with our tents. The weather however, had seemingly taken a turn for the worse with menacing grey clouds now the mainstay, in sharp contrast to the azure blue skies we enjoyed in the morning. Nevertheless, we were assured by our guides that a thunderstorm was highly unlikely, and to expect at most a light drizzle.
We began our trek through the vegetable gardens of the the locals, treated to the sight of numerous rows of lettuce and rice, clinging to steep hillsides by virtue of terraces. The chilly temperatures made for an enjoyable amble along the trail, many of us luxuriating in the cool air that was a welcome difference from the humid heat of Singapore. The first 2km of the trail was relatively flat, allowing us to enjoy the vistas that awaited us at every turn. The low clouds made for an interesting sight, as the misty conditions lent a mysterious air to the surrounding hillsides. This first portion of the trail culminated in a steep 15 minute ascent, and a rest point at camp 1. The ascent left many of us panting and dripping with perspiration despite the cool temperatures, but we were glad to hear from our guide that this would mark the steepest ascent of the entire trail. After a short 10 minute break, re-charged by our supplies of chocolate and energy bars, we pushed on to complete the remainder of the trail.
The 2nd portion was in completely different terrain, where previously we had views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, we were not restricted to the nearest vegetation. We had entered the mossy oak forest, an alpine ecosystem unique to this area because of the special conditions required, high altitudes and precipitation. This made for a rather tedious and boring part of the hike, all chatter among the participants dying out with many focusing on just the next step along the trail. After about an hour, we were glad to break through the treeline, having arrived at our campsite for the night. Situated on a grassy plain about 200m below the summit, camp 2 marked the altitude at which the treeline ended. Facilities were minimal, an outhouse for campers and a small hut for shelter in case of inclement weather. Dusk had already began to set in, even though it was only 5pm. With the light fading quickly, the guides hastened to set up the tents as these would provide the only shelter we would have against the relentless winds. Having chosen a weekday to climb, the campsite was deserted except for our group and another pair. Before long, flashlights were our only source of illumination as the sun slipped below the horizon, thick banks of clouds obscuring the moonlight.
Dinner was served under a make-shift shelter constructed of canvas groundsheets strung between poles driven into the ground. To our pleasant surprise, instead of the dry food many of us were expecting, a hearty meal of hot rice, chicken, vegetables and soup was served. The sensation of warm food entering our expectant bellies was definitely one to savour and reminisce. The remainder of the night was spent huddled under the shelter, listening to each others’ experiences and learning more about the local culture and practices from our guides. 9pm, our appointed resting time was soon upon us, this early timing was required due to our summit attempt, slated to start at 4am. Before we headed into our tents for the night however, we were blessed with one of nature’s wonders, the clouds giving way to the sight of a star spangled sky, the milky way splashed across the pitch black canvas of the heavens.
We awoke to bone chilling cold, longing to the return to the warmth and comfort of our sleeping bags, until we remembered our purpose of the expedition, to ascend and witness the sunrise from the summit of Mt Pulag. Reluctantly we clambered out of our tents and trudged off into the night, following the beacon of our guide’s lamp. The going was slow, our progress hampered by a light drizzle that reduced some parts of the trail to mud. The cold and unrelenting winds did nothing to boost our spirits as we walked silently, gazing at the distant peaks of which one was our final destination. After an hour and a half, black sky began to morph into the faintest tinges of orange, sunrise was almost upon us! Spurred on by this realisation, we picked up our pace and were soon standing before the final obstacle, a short but steep ascent up a near vertical muddy slope. Climb this we did, and standing atop Mt Pulag, we could only stop and stare.
A sea of clouds stretched into the distance, punctuated only by an occasional peak, seemingly set aflame by a fiery orange sphere. This was the view we all had in our dreams, yet even our dreams had understated the beauty of it all. A warm orange glow coloured the rolling grasslands below us, gently waving in the breeze. We stayed at the summit for a good half an hour, taking photographs, sipping hot drinks or just simply admiring the grand vista before us. Rejuvenated and recharged, we left the summit in high spirits, having experienced the magic the locals had spoken of their sacred mountain. The descent was in some sense, more enjoyable. We could actually see our surroundings that were previously hidden by darkness and no longer had to concentrate on not tripping over. The clouds had started to descend, shrouding us in a slight mist as we walked.
Upon reaching our campsite, we were again treated to a hearty meal of sausages and eggs for breakfast. After resting while the guides packed the tents, we were soon on our way back down to the village of Ambangeg. Proceeding downhill made for much easier going, gravity was on our side this time and our packs were significantly lighter after consuming most of the food and water we had carried uphill. Needing only a short break at camp 1, we were soon past the steepest portion of the trail and entering the villages. Clear blue skies greeted us this time, creating idyllic photo opportunities for the avid enthusiast. Verdant green rice paddies painstakingly cut into the hillsides lay baking under the sun as puffy clouds swept across the skies, farmers could be seen toiling to prepare the next crop for harvest. Such a landscape was unknown to us urbanites and we were grateful for the short but meaningful opportunity to have a glimpse into the life of the villagers. We rested our aching bodies at a small hut, several of us nursing minor injuries but nevertheless still exuberant at completing the trek. After a timely stop at the same eatery for lunch and a short period of washing up, we boarded the jeepney, ready to brave the long, uncomfortable ride back Baguio city.