When I landed in Palawan on a Wednesday afternoon, I had no idea that a mountain called Thumb Peak (1,296 meters above sea level) exists. The only mountain I’ve heard about in the province is Mt. Mantalingajan, the holy grail I wasn’t meant to reach on this trip.
Later that evening, Sir Mayo, my local contact in Puerto Princesa, invited me to a birthday party of his friend. There I met Japong, a chatty mountaineer who could pass for the archetypal boy-next-door with his easy smile, reckless schoolboy laugh and impulsive, let’s-do-something-crazy-so-we’ll-have-something-to-laugh-about attitude. Upon learning I had so much free time in Palawan, he started rattling on about all the things I should do: kayaking, island hopping, climbing this and that mountain.
Then he blurted “Let’s climb Thumb Peak on Monday!” as if he was just inviting me to catch spiders in the backyard. I wasn’t sure if he was serious or if it was a spur-of-the-moment idea he’d forget on his next shot of Tanduay.
Come Monday afternoon, I was in his car with William, another local mountaineer, and we were on our way to Iwahig Penal Colony, the jump-off of the Thumb Peak climb. I guess this is really happening, I thought. I had a vague idea of the terrain; all I knew was there would be river crossings and lots of limatik (leeches).
We started the trek at 2:30pm. From the Balsahan River picnic area, it was a two-hour hike of mostly flat terrain and about 10 river crossings before reaching the campsite. The water only reached up to the knee at its deepest so crossing the river was manageable. Being the clumsy wimp that I am though, I still slipped a couple of times and got myself and my backpack wet. Kuya Bert, our guide, said it would be impossible to cross the river during heavy rains due to the high water level and raging current.
The campsite was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. It’s known to local mountaineers as the cave but it turned out to be a small space underneath a giant rock beside the river. There was no need for tents, just a couple of groundsheets and sleeping bags.
Camping by the river was a treat. There was easy access to a water source and at night, hordes of fireflies were lighting up on the rocks, nearby trees and even on the ceiling right above our heads. It was like a scene straight out of a Disney movie. Of course, fireflies weren’t our only neighbors. There were lots of limatik which had no qualms latching on to our hands, legs and whatever inch of skin they could find. There were also big brown cockroaches that randomly dive into our sleeping bags, and a smattering of bugs, beetles and other neighborhood members of Class Insecta.
Dinner was another treat, thanks to Japong’s legendary cooking skills. We feasted on seafood kare-kare and swapped stories until the last drop of Tanduay was gulped down.
We started the summit ascent the next day at 7am. If the trek to the campsite was an easy breezy walk in the park, the climb to the summit was a three-hour, constant uphill hike. The slopes were fairly steep but still heavily forested.
Towards the final leg of the climb, we had to work our way through huge mossy rocks, much like the summit assault of Dulang-Dulang in Bukidnon although the Thumb Peak trail was shorter and less difficult. The flora was also similar to that of D2: moss-covered trees, wild orchids and pitcher plants.
The summit of Thumb Peak was very different from most mountains I’ve been to. There was practically no flat surface; just huge rocks, thick shrubs and dwarf trees. We were blessed with a clearing so we got to see the flatlands of Puerto Princesa and the neighboring mountain ranges. Another amazing thing about this summit view: you’d see both the eastern and western coasts of Palawan.
We stayed at the summit for an hour and were treated to a spectacular sight of two hawks doing exhibition flights right above us. They would soar up high and then do a rapid freefall dive. It was like watching those fighter jet air shows except the hawks did it better.
Before going back down to the campsite, we did the customary summit group photo and got this:
I placed the camera on a rock, set the 10-second timer, ran to where they were posing and fell right into a messy tangle of shrubs. Just look at that gleeful smile on Japong’s face that reeks of schadenfreude.
On the second attempt, I was more successful in getting myself included in the frame.
We saw some more interesting stuff on the way down such as other varieties of pitcher plants, blue and yellow wild mushrooms (which I wasn’t able to take pictures of) and a couple of creepy crawlies.
Aside from the thick forest cover and rich flora and fauna, what’s impressive about Thumb Peak is the total absence of trash. I did not see a single piece of garbage, not even a candy wrapper, during the entire trek. It is by far the most pristine mountain I’ve ever climbed. Kudos to the local mountaineers and guides for doing a fantastic job of protecting it.
Even the trails are narrow and not very defined because the clearing of vegetation was kept to a minimum. Local mountaineers also have a good practice of bringing only hammocks and flysheets instead of tents so trees and vegetation won’t have to be cut down to make room for a campsite. If only other mountains, some of which are even declared protected areas on paper, could be as well-preserved as this.
Here’s our itinerary for the Thumb Peak climb. It can obviously be done as a day hike but then you’d miss out on camping by the river and watching fireflies at night.
1230 ETD Puerto Princesa city center
1330 ETA Iwahig Penal Colony, final prep
1430 Start trek at Balsahan River picnic area
1630 ETA “Cave” campsite by the river
0700 Start trek to summit
1000 ETA summit
1100 Start descent
1300 ETA campsite, lunch
1400 Start trek back to jump-off (Take a break and swim in the river. I promise you the water feels so good.)
1630 ETA Balsahan River picnic area
Much thanks to Japong, William and Kuya Bert for a great time on Thumb Peak. This also happened to be my birthday climb and it was amazing.