My brain works pretty much like a primeval single-celled organism: in simplistic one-to-one stimulus-response reaction. For example, stimulus: food – response: eat; stimulus: bed – response: sleep. So when I went to Batanes and saw a mountain, what else was there to do?
Mount Iraya is Batanes’ highest peak at 1,009 meters above sea level. Its eruption centuries ago was responsible for the deposit of huge rocks that now cover the boulder beaches of Batan Island. At just one-third the height of Mount Apo, Iraya is easy enough for a day climb. It’s not advisable to camp overnight near the summit since the weather can change very rapidly. During heavy rains the hiking trail is also the pathway of the water that streams down the slope so unless you plan on making your descent on a water slide, better stick to a day climb. There’s a campsite at the foot of the mountain for those who want to stay for the night.
Kuya Romy, my trusty guide in Basco, had a cow to butcher in preparation for their barangay fiesta so I asked Ryan, my guide in Sabtang, if he knows someone who can come with me for a climb. He recommended his older brother Kuya Philip. Talk about keeping it in the family.
We started the climb at 6:30am. The first 15 minutes was an exhausting ascent of a fairly steep slope. My guide was under the impression that I was an experienced climber so his pace was pretty fast. While taking a much needed breather, I had to clarify that I’m really just an airhead who’s in the habit of taking on more than she can handle. To my relief, we went a bit more slowly after that.
Mt. Iraya has a thick vegetation cover so the sun was not a problem. What made things tricky was about half of the mountain is often covered with clouds so the ground is perpetually wet and muddy. This made our hike much less of walking and more of slipping and sliding.
After the initial ascent, much of the climb was not as steep but still tiring. I would often curse and groan while navigating through the slippery rocks. I didn’t want to send out negative vibes to Kuya Philip though who seemed to be a cheerful climber so I usually grumbled and spewed out expletives in Bisaya. This left him scratching his head and wondering what the crazy girl behind him was yelling about. It was a three-hour hike to the shoulder, a small clearing where climbers rest before the final assault to the summit. I didn’t want us to suffer in silence or have him endure my unintelligible rants for three hours so we started talking.
He told me stories of his past climbs with other tourists: a British guy who had to carry his Pinay girlfriend on their descent when she broke her ankle; a veteran Australian climber who was on queue to conquer Mt. Everest and just treated Iraya as a walk in the park; and a solo female traveler just like me who gave up and turned back halfway through the climb. I was crossing my fingers by then that I’d last much longer than she did. I told him about my hiking trips to Daraitan, Mabilog, Sembrano and Pico De Loro, a bunch of barely challenging peaks (by the standards of tough mountaineers) that he has never heard of. At least this explained why I could never keep up with his pace and barely hoist myself up on the more difficult parts of the trail.
After a five-minute rest on the shoulder, we started our ascent to the summit which was the most challenging part of the climb. The slope was very steep with an inclination of about 60-70 degrees; the ground was rocky, muddy and slippery; and the only thing you can hold on to are reeds and thorny grasses. Oh and we also encountered a poisonous snake on our way up, a yellow pit viper which is endemic to Batanes. Thankfully, it wasn’t on attack mode and Kuya Philip was able to nudge it out of the way.
The final assault was only about 45 minutes but it felt like I was on that grueling trail for hours. We final reached the summit (Hallelujah!) and was rewarded with a breath-taking view of…
So it wasn’t the most dramatic mountaintop scene ever but this was not a surprise. I’ve been told beforehand that I won’t really see anything but clouds on the peak of Iraya but I still insisted on climbing it anyway just because, (or as a very Pinoy way of putting it, wala lang). I didn’t get a view but who cares, I’m on the summit!
We took a short walk to see the crater and managed to catch a glimpse of it for about two seconds before it was covered again by clouds.
It was very cold on the summit or as the Ivatans would say, mahanebneb (thanks to Kuya Philip for my language tutorial of the day), in complete contrast with the weather below which was makuhat (hot). Yeah, I really just squeezed in that sentence so I could show off the Ivatan words I learned on the climb.
We had lunch on the summit and waited optimistically for the clouds to clear up but of course, that didn’t happen. After about an hour of staring at the grass and shivering in the cold, we started on our way down. The descent was supposed to be much easier but I somehow ended up falling flat on my face once and landing painfully on my ass twice. I still have the scars and bruises as souvenirs.
By mid-afternoon, we reached the base and were happily devouring ripe papaya that my guide nicked from a nearby tree. I went back to the hostel and it took four showers before I could scrub most of the dried mud off my legs.
Climbs are traditionally capped off with a mean drinking session but since we weren’t able to bring alcohol to Iraya, we had to get our fix somewhere else. Guess who’s having a barangay fiesta and has a stockpile of meat as pulutan.
We sampled Kuya Romy’s “first name,” a local delicacy of fresh kilawing baka served the day before the official fiesta. Festivals in Batanes apparently last for at least three days: the first name, the fiesta itself, and the day after, which is called the “balance.” People drop by anytime within those days so it’s an endless cycle of cooking, serving food and eating. There’s even a pinsan ng balance sometimes wherein people still come a few days after the fiesta.
The first name is the star of the feast. After the cow is butchered, its hairs are burned off which partially cooks the skin in the process. The skin, with a bit of meat, is then sliced into bite-sized pieces and dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chopped onions. With several rounds of Red Horse beer and/or cheap brandy, the inuman is a hit.
My arms and legs were crying out in agony whenever I moved but the beer and pulutan made everything better. I crashed into bed utterly exhausted but with a good buzz.
Plug: If you’d need a guide for Mt. Iraya (And you definitely will. There are snakes, remember.), you may contact Philip Cardona at 0918.3131.186. When I was there, he was just on leave from a job in Manila but he was already thinking of staying again for good in Batanes so you may still be able to get him.