I would not call myself a hiker, a mountaineer and such, but I have been cherishing every mountain I’ve stood on top of for the past year. Unlikely, it is, when ridges and the elevation were the farthest things from my mind looking back to a year ago.
Allow me to impart three quick stories and a few photographs of the first three mountains I had traveled to. I came down from the peaks each time somewhat of a different person; I found that exploring nature has a funny way of making you explore yourself as well.
I. Mt. Gulugod-Baboy
Mt. Gulugod-Baboy was my gateway mountain. I remember the experience very clearly. A client at work was overhauling their online presence and my marketing agency was in charge of producing new material for them. They, being a health brand, agreed to my officemates’ pitch of shooting on a mountain; I on the other hand was a little skeptical as I rarely hold photoshoots outdoors. One look at their respective Instagram feeds and you’d already understand how it seemed natural for them to pull out the perfect mountain’s name just like that on the spot, out of the blue, to suit our purposes (and it ‘twas indeed the perfect mountain to suit our purposes).
When we finally arrived at the mountain a few days later, I scouted for locations for each of our intended photographs. I walked up to the summit, an immensely easy walk up to the top. Not even 5 minutes were taken up, not a single drop of sweat escaped me. The view was glorious. To one side you’d see a body of water that stretches already to the Visayan area and right across it is the city you’ve absconded from, except it was tiny, far and not bothersome. And if you look just right like I did, you’ll see the lovely dance of the tall grass. I’ve seen tall grass slowly and gracefully dance in the gentle breeze in Japanese anime and other media before but I felt no man-made attempt to recreate the scene could actually completely capture what the Big Guy in the Sky intended it to look like. They swayed in step with the wind seemingly without a care in the world. I turned to my friend, with all the lovely photos he takes in mind and said, “I think I now understand why you do what you do.”
And that was that; I was hooked with seeing more sights like that.
II. Mt. Batulao
Fresh from the exhilaration I felt from an afternoon’s worth of shooting on Gulugod-Baboy, I eagerly said yes to a friend’s invite to climb Mt. Batulao. I figured since I climbed one already, I can knock another out as well. I was wrong. This mountain was a whole different ball game from my first try. 10 peaks that felt like forever before you were able to go home. Assaults are segments of a hike where you battle against gravity as you move forward and upward at the same time. Gravity and I were never the best of friends. I also brought a bag full of extra liters of water just in case any of my friends would run out and need to rehydrate. This, plus my big build, proved to be a huge disadvantage that I was about to find out the hard way. While everything started out okay, I noticed that my right leg was starting to tighten by the assault of peak 3. I never really had time to rest. I would fall behind from my group and would always have to play catch up. This gave them extra time to recoup themselves while I, not wanting to be a hindrance to the experience of others, just had a few minutes to rest my leg and got back at it when my friends wanted to get going once more.
By the time we hit the middle of the course, my entire right leg cramped up thus forcing me to put all my weight on my left. Eventually that leg cramped up too. No amount of the sports drinks I brought or the salt I had consumed saved them, for they were rendered useless and not at all moving before we reached the final peak. I still remember the immense struggle I had when I had to rappel up a practically 90-degree inclined mountain face with both legs out of commission. I still do not know how I mustered whatever was in me that day to get to the last peak but when I got to the tenth one, I really dropped down like a log and rolled to the side of the trail and took on my trail guide’s offer of being brought back down by a horse if I could just make it past that last summit. Whatever I had left in me, I mustered until there was truly none left. The horse came and I rode it with mixed emotions. I felt defeated by the mountain, it had truly bested me and my ultimate effort… but at the same time I was happy. I didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t able to finish the trail on my own two feet (horse joke intended) but I knew it was something to strive for.
This was a wake up call of sorts, I signed up for a gym membership near my office and worked on my legs. It was hard to tell myself not to go home after a tiring day of work but it had to be done. Never again did I want to feel the fear of not knowing if I could make it down a mountain. I wasn’t giving up this new hobby so to speak and I had to get stronger for that to happen. A few months later, my toughest challenge so far appeared itself in the form of Mt. Ulap.
III. Mt. Ulap
With my expectations and limitations tempered and properly set, I ventured to join workmates, friends and strangers up an organized climb to Benguet. Mt. Ulap was described to me as having a wide array of landscapes. I’d have coniferous trees surrounding me one minute then tall grass and rocks would have my feet at their mercy the next. It was beautiful, the scenery took my breath away just as much as the less dense oxygen levels in the higher altitude did. People were very uplifting along the trail when I started to slow down and get tired. You do not know just how meaningful encouraging words are until you reach a point where you’d suggest for people to just leave you because you’re slowing everyone down. The assaults were crazy and the Sun was unforgiving during my almost 10-kilometer exodus but with the help of the very same guy who brought me to Gulugod Baboy in the first place, I finally reached our campsite on top of the mountain. My legs, though tired, were a far cry from the destroyed state in Batulao. The endless leg days were working, at least I think they were. I was just so happy I didn’t quit along the way. What greeted me were vast and beautiful, rolling slopes and pointy peaks. The sunlight hit the entire place just right for some reason. Oh, and the stars. They were gorgeous. That night, I saw the Milky Way bright and beautiful in a pitch black night, unencumbered from the baggage of the light pollution from the city. All of it was worth it.
As I’m writing this, I’m still a little sore as I just came from a twin climb where I went up both Mt. Maynoba and Mt. Cayabu in Rizal but I couldn’t feel any better. My takeaway is one that may sound cliché, but maybe the reason some clichés stick around is because there’s more than an ounce of truth to them. When I found myself in a limiting situation, I accepted that there at that time was the point where I could no longer do anything anymore. I had discovered my limiting constraint exists… and that’s okay. But just like being on a trail, life in general is all about moving forward. It’s about knowing your weaknesses and working on them gradually but consistently so they do not hinder you from reaching your end goal. I learned a lot about patience in my quest to see and photograph a different kind of beautiful that lies beyond our metropolis. It takes time to get from point A to Point B. It’s also about stopping every now and then for a breather and to appreciate the wonderful things around you despite you trying to gasp for air. You’re already there anyway so why not take full advantage and soak up everything?
Beyond anything else, I know that while I am currently not the person who is going to get to the top of the mountain fast and first, I am the one who will reach the summit eventually because I didn’t give up and kept going.
The mountains won’t change for you but they can change you.