Unlike most of my mountaineering stories, this one has no beautiful photos*, no glowing tales about breathtaking vistas and enchanting sceneries, no neat happy ending about how it was a challenging yet ultimately rewarding experience. I’ll say it straight: this climb was a bitch.
I’ve been excited about climbing Mt. Bulusan since last year. This active volcano in the province of Sorsogon last erupted in 2011 and was only re-opened for climbing in June 2012. The last time I climbed an active volcano, I went through hell but it was worth it. Mt. Kanlaon was amazing, never mind that the weather was horrendous and I got very sick during the climb.
Well, here’s the deal. The first time you go through something like that, you’d be bouncing all over the place brandishing that overused Nietzsche quote about that which does not kill us makes us stronger. When you endure the same thing again a month later, you’d seriously consider taking a break from this madness and think about crocheting as an alternative hobby. At least I did.
Bulusan doesn’t have the most difficult trail. Much of it is actually rolling terrain in a beautiful rainforest. The most challenging part would probably be the uphill trek along cogon grasses and thorny wild berries on the way to the summit. As most hikers know however, nasty weather has a way of turning even the easiest of trails into a mosh pit of misery. As most sane people also know, going on a climb when you have a fever and an upset stomach makes you a masochistic idiot. Guess who won that distinction.
A few days before the climb, I was in a panic trying to shake off the low-grade fever and joint pains I incurred from the rainy Pico De Loro-Batulao day hike. I started feeling better on the day we were about to leave for Sorsogon and was fairly confident that I could make it. When we got to the jump-off though, there was bedlam in my tummy as dysmenorrhea and some form of acid reflux hit.
I’m a proud feminist but honestly, this was one of those times I really hate being a woman. Getting your period while on a climb sucks and no ultrathin pad with wings is going to make it better, no matter what that perky Modess commercial says. I don’t know how those veteran female mountaineers do it. I still haven’t figured out how to make life a little less miserable when you’re on a mountain with hours of trekking ahead of you, stomach cramps are kicking in like crazy and anti-pain medications are proving to be useless.
The climb was supposed to start with a scenic kayak ride across Bulusan Lake, the jump-off of the climb. It started to rain though and we were tired from the 13-hour bus ride so the idea of paddling in a middle of a downpour wasn’t too attractive. We just boarded a couple of motorboats that took us to the trailhead.
Among the mountains I’ve climbed so far, Mt. Bulusan has one of the most well-organized park management. The mountain is a declared protected area under the NIPAS law. AGAP Bulusan, a local non-government organization, runs the preservation and ecotourism project in the area with grants and assistance from the UN Development Program and the municipal government. Bulusan Lake was developed into a park with kayaking amenities, a visitors’ center and a canteen although there’s still no electricity. We thought we might be able to squeeze in some last-minute charging of cameras and phones but no dice.
Mountaineers are required to secure a climb permit in advance, undergo orientation upon arrival, and participate in a tree-planting activity during the climb. The number of climbers is limited to 20 per day so it’s best to secure your climb schedule early. The park management offers a great bonus though: the permit is valid for a year so you may climb again without paying the P350 registration fee. This is an awesome deal particularly if your first climb was a bust and you’d like to redeem yourself.
I, for one, would like a shot at self-redemption. A few minutes into the trek on a flat forested trail, my knees started to feel like jelly and I could no longer keep up with the group’s fairly moderate pace. Dante, who was my life support system when I nearly broke down during our Kanlaon climb, took my heavy backpack and carried it the rest of the way. He somehow always ends up with the misfortune of dealing with all the hassle whenever I get sick on a climb. I’m amazed he still hasn’t taken out a restraining order against my wimpy ass. (But seriously, he is one of the kindest and most helpful mountaineers I know and I’m always grateful he’s around.)
The light drizzle at the start of the climb turned into a full-on downpour. By the time we got to the ranger station after an hour of hiking, we were drenched and shivering. We rested in the hut and proceeded with the tree-planting activity despite the rain and strong winds. The tree-planting didn’t take a lot of effort though. Kuya Nilo, our guide, already dug the holes and all we had to do was place a seedling in, cover the base with a little soil, and smile for the camera. It felt a little like those gimmicky ceremonies that politicians do for photo-ops but what the hell. I was in no condition then to ponder the socio-cultural authenticity of planting a tree.
From the ranger station, it took another two hours to reach Lake Aguingay, the designated campsite. The trail going there is still forested and there are some limatik (leeches) along the way but their population and aggressiveness are negligible compared with those in Mt. Makiling. The bigger nuisance was the steady rain that turned the narrow trail into a stream. We were practically wading in muddy waters in some parts. Dante even got into an accident when he stepped on loose soil, fell off the ridge and slammed into a boulder. He sustained bruises on his left arm and stomach. He may really have to start thinking about that restraining order. A certain wimp whose backpack he always ends up carrying may also be jinxing him.
It was still raining when we got to Lake Aguingay. Good thing the campsite has a hut complete with tables, sinks and a make-shift mezzanine the serves as the sleeping quarter of the guides. There is also a nearby water source and the park management staff repeatedly assured us that it’s clean and safe for drinking. We pitched our tents, had an early dinner, and tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags by 7pm.
My day started with stomach cramps and ended with vomiting. I went to sleep feeling like crap and kicking myself for going ahead with the climb despite my lousy physical condition. We still had to do the summit assault the next day and, judging by the relentless rain and lashing winds throughout the night, it wouldn’t be a cozy hike.
*There are three reasons for the lack of photos on this post: I was busy being sick that I didn’t bother to take a lot of pictures; it was raining the whole time so I couldn’t take my camera out; and I can’t post the few group photos I do have to protect the identities of people who played hooky at work to join this climb.