When I invited a few people to go on a day hike of Mt. Tapulao in Zambales, the general reaction was “Are you sure we can do this?” to which I answered “Why not?” I could think of a million reasons we can’t but I was stubborn enough to do it anyway.
A climb of Mt. Tapulao is usually done on a two-day itinerary, and for good reason. The mountain stands at 2,037 meters above sea level and it’s a freakin’ 36-kilometer hike from jump-off to summit and back. You’d be walking on an open trail covered with loose rocks that are viciously unforgiving on one’s feet and knees. The easy part is there are no steep ascents and challenging assaults since the terrain is mostly rolling; it’s the long, seemingly endless walk that will test your patience and probably drive you mad at some point.
I’ve heard of several mountaineers who have done a successful Tapulao day hike though. Their itineraries seemed reasonable enough even for a mountaineer wannabe like me so I decided to give it a try. Good thing I have friends who are crazy enough to go along with my bright ideas.
We traveled to Zambales on a Friday, which meant heavy traffic and hoards of people bolting out of Metro Manila. The guys got to the Victory Liner terminal in Caloocan at 8pm (I, on the other hand, was horribly late) and there were no more tickets for the 9:30pm trip. We managed to squeeze in as chance passengers but there were only three available seats left. Jet and Fred had to sit on the aisle for a good part of the trip. (And the three of us will be forever grateful for their self-sacrifice.) Piece of advice: buy your tickets in advance especially if you’re travelling on a weekend.
We got to the jump-off in Dampay Salaza at 4am and inadvertently woke everyone up in the barangay hall so we could register for the climb. The barangay now requires hiring a guide in climbing Tapulao after a few incidents in the past months of hikers getting lost. The people we found sleeping there turned out to be local guides who were expecting climbers for the weekend.
We started the trek 40 minutes later than scheduled so we had to have a faster pace to make up for lost time. Jet and I don’t usually like night treks but we didn’t mind walking in the dark this time. The rocky trail started off with an easy slope and was wide enough for a truck to pass through. Tapulao used to be a mining site so the trail is actually a rough road once used for transporting chromite ore.
Walking on loose rocks was bearable at first. Then it became mildly annoying and eventually progressed to dreadfully infuriating. By the third hour of still seeing rocks, we were cursing the damned trail and swearing we’d never go back.
Our irritation eased a little when we reached higher elevations and started seeing great views. As the vegetation changed from shrubs and bushes to pine trees, the scenery also transformed from humdrum to breathtaking. We reconsidered our previous statement about never going back to Tapulao and realized this mountain may be worth the torturous walk after all.
We were all stunned by the amazing views that for a while there, we forgot about keeping up the pacing. Everyone got busy with taking pictures, posing for pictures, and looking for the best spot to pose for pictures.
The trail also got a little more tolerable because of the beautiful pine trees around us. The sun was high up by this time though and the heat was becoming unbearable. Fortunately, I had the brilliant idea of bringing an umbrella so I could pretend this was a walk in the park on a really hot day.
Fun fact: Chromium is used as an additive to steel to prevent corrosion and rust. This is how “stainless steel” is produced. This fun fact was brought to us by Ed who has a PhD in materials engineering so we take his words as gospel truth.
Our guide was particularly doubtful of my capacity to do the climb simply because I happen to be a female. Brandishing an umbrella with a flowery design also probably didn’t help with my image. He kept on saying the guys should go easy on the pace so I could keep up (never mind that Leejay was actually slower than me) and offered several times to carry my backpack (never mind that it only weighed less than half of what I usually lug around on a three-day climb or a two-week solo backpacking trip). He said female climbers often find the trek too arduous and a lot of them give up halfway through.
To their credit, Jet and Fred were quick to come to my defense. “Kakainin nyo po ‘yang sinabi nyo mamaya. Parang kabayo maglakad ‘yang si Tin, (You’ll eat your words later. Tin happens to walk like a horse.)” Jet declared. Uh, thanks. I guess. (But seriously, these guys often have more faith in me than I do in myself and I love them for it. Aww… cheesy!)
I found the sexism irritating at first and the raging feminist in me wanted to give him a piece of my mind. I know I don’t have the fastest pace or the strongest stamina. You can judge me all you want for being a wimp, I’m fine with that, but don’t you dare patronize me for being a woman.
He was a sweet old man though who just happened to grow up in a strongly patriarchal generation. I value my convictions but I didn’t have the heart to stay angry at someone who only had sincere intentions of making my life a little easier. Never mind that those intentions unwittingly stemmed from a flawed ideological standpoint.
I politely declined his offer to carry my pack and assured him that I can keep up with the required pace for the day hike. I was the one who made the itinerary after all so of course, I made sure I’m capable of sticking to it. I’m more than willing to accept and ask for help whenever I need it (believe me, I’d be the first to hand over my load to other people if my backpack is too heavy) but I’m also used to doing things my way when I know I can.
*end of feminist polemic (for now)*
After six hours of trekking, we reached the bunker, a row of spartan rooms made of galvanized iron sheets where mountaineers can spend the night. Because of the high elevation, it gets very cold in the evening so it’s better to sleep in a sturdy shelter than a flimsy tent.
We were ahead of our itinerary by a good 50 minutes. We took our time with lunch and got some rest.
We started with the summit assault at noon and reached the peak after about an hour. The forested terrain was a refreshing change from the scorching trail we’ve been dealing with all morning. The best part was there were no loose rocks on the ground (hallelujah!) and it was nice to be walking on soft soil again.
We thought the scenic views on the open trail were impressive enough but the summit absolutely blew us away. It was like a landscaped garden up there: colorful shrubs lining the horizon, a lone tree jutting out like a beautiful centerpiece, and a stunning panorama of mountain ranges.
We were running around like sugar-fueled kids in an amusement park, completely forgetting the rocky trail we were cursing earlier and eagerly promising we’d come back to this mountain. We hadn’t even finished the climb yet and we were already making plans for the next one. Let’s do a traverse next time! Forget the bunker. Let’s camp out here! This is where I want to wake up in the morning! This is awesome!
We were in high spirits as we started the descent, which quickly dissipated when we got back to the rocky trail. Going down took three hours less than the ascent but it was just as, if not even more, frustrating. It felt like we were trapped in a twilight zone of a trail that never ends. Every turn looked like the previous one and the elevation didn’t seem to change no matter how far we’ve gone.
Ed, being the trail monster that he is, took off with the guide and we didn’t see him again until we got to the jump-off. Jet, Fred and I steadily made our way down, pushing ourselves with whatever internal motivation we could muster while suspecting that our feet were probably bleeding (they were not but it sure felt like our toes were being stabbed with knives). Leejay had been nursing his leg since the ascent and was already dragging his feet with every step. Everyone was a trooper though and we made it back to the barangay hall before 6pm. We were exhausted, hungry, cringing in agony with every movement and in utter disbelief that we actually made it.
The stats: 36 kilometers, 7 hours up, 4 hours down, and a litany of expletives our mothers wouldn’t be happy about. It was our first epic day hike and one we won’t likely forget anytime soon. Thank you guys for doing this with me! I don’t know why you say yes to my harebrained plans that often pose a serious threat to life and limb but I’m glad you do. Until our next epic climb!
2215 ETD Manila
0230 ETA Iba bus terminal, Zambales
0300 ETD Iba terminal to Brgy. Dampay Salaza
0400 ETA Dampay Salaza barangay hall
0440 Start trek
0640 First water source, rest
0700 Resume trek
0750 Second water source
1040 ETA bunker, lunch, rest
1210 Summit assault
1310 ETA summit
1340 Start descent
1530 Second water source
1610 First water source
1740 ETA barangay hall
1830 ETD Dampay Salaza to Iba
1930 ETA Iba, dinner
2110 ETD Iba
Expenses (as of November 2012):
Victory Liner bus (Caloocan to Iba terminal) – P342
Tricycle (Iba to Dampay Salaza) – P400 per trip
Registration – P20
Guide fee – P500