Into the Crater

  I just got home about an hour ago from one of the most enjoyable and exhilirating climbs I’ve ever had.  The trail was awesome, the trek leisurely, and the company cool.  This was a climb I am not likely to forget soon.  So what if I had to be at the  even Victory Liner bus station in Cubao at 4:30 am without any sleep at all.  Pinatubo has always been tops in my list of peaks to climb this year and there it was beckoning to me courtesy of the 12 Kasabit Climb of the raucously fun Sabit Mountaineers.

Other than the Sta. Juliana entry via Capas, Tarlac, other points are Porac and of course the Delta Trail.  Trekking Pinatubo, it is difficult to see it as a mountain.  After all, mountains are supposed to be covered with flora, even if it’s only cogon, and its trails composed of soil or loose-rock, or a combination of both.  At the very least, you walk on green.  But Pinatubo is no ordinary mountain.  To the Aytas who have made it home for centuries, it is the abode of Apo Mallari, their most revered deity.  To everyone else, it’s just another volcano you’ve heard about in elementary geography class or at a Nat Sci 1 class.  As if asserting its presence, Pinatubo finally blew its top after  when it erupted after 600 years of quiet ferment.  Spewing ash that blanketed Luzon, sending torrents of lahar and pyroclastic flows that forever changed Central Luzon topography, wreaking havoc on the delicate atmosphere, Pinatubo showed the world that it was not to be ignored.

Out of that devastation emerged a unique and beautifully desolate landscape we were about to experience. 

Bed of Lahar 

Heading to the jump-off point on board a 4×4 with DadiX and Six-Pack plus sisters Pong and May of the Sabit Mountaineers, I hope for good weather.  Pinatubo’s exposed trail was notorious for its taxing heat that exhausts even the most intrepid hiker.  We rumble across the river bed as wide as EDSA and criss-crossed with tiny rivers and littered with stones and boulders.  Towering peaks of hardened lahar inscribed with narrow water trails looking like ancient petroglyphs hemm the canyon-like passageway.  They are beautiful and magnificent.  But when the rains come hard and strong, they are deadly crashing towers of mud. It starts to rain hard enough for me to bring out my plastic poncho and cover my side of the 4×4 to keep the water from coming in.  We arrive at the jump-off point about an hour from where we took off at the baranggay.  It’s only a little past 11 and we are hungry.  Packed lunch is pasta with basil and mushrooms, dumplings, and shrimp rolls.  A light rain is still falling when we begin our trek.   With the sum partly hidden by clouds, it is cool and pleasant.  God had answered my prayers.

 I had  hoped to try my Hi-Tec shoes which I bought last December but had never used for trekking.  But since there were numerous river-crossings, I stay with my weathered Sandugo outdoor sandals.  It was  a good choice as I could cross the rivers, treading on the shallo water and enjoying its coolness walk rather than trying to hop from one stone to another.  Often times, I leave the sandy path and trail the river.  The bubbling water and the smooth pebbles jostling at my feet feel good. 

The pace is  leisurely punctuated with numerous stops.  Normally, I would keep going and going till I reach the campsite.  But as a guest together with DadiX and Six-Pack, I had to be courteous enough to keep pace with the rest of the group.   I didn’t mind as I was hiking with a really nice and friendly bunch of mountaineers.  And of course, the scenery is just to gorgeous to ignore.  It is an errie landscape of sand, ash, lahar, water, and stones and boulders.  Think of a long rocky beach carved out of jagged cliffs of sand that seem to wind endlessly.  Better yet, imagine “Lord of the Rings” or “Space Oddysey 2010”.  With no clear path except to follow the passage carved-out of the mountain by the rampaging waters, we each take to our own trails.   Never have I felt so physically small.  It was simply overwhelming. 

From the moon-like landscape, we take the river that leads us to a shaded trail.  It is cool and leafy almost forest-like.  We reach the water source and replenish our bottles.  From there,  it is an easy 10-minute walk along the river up  a short flight of cemented steps.  We pass by two cubicles (at least I know where to **$%) then on to the campsite where a spectacular view of the green lake at the crater greet us.   I’ve seen the crater in pictures and tv shows but nothing quite prepares you for the breathtaking view, especially since you see nothing but stones, rocks, and rumbling water and sand all throughout the trek.  It is so peaceful and tranquil with jagged peaks surrounding it.  You half expect the Loch Ness monster to make its appearance. 

 The camp area is quite cramp and the flat spaces are quickly taken.  We choose a spot near the view deck.   I’m hungry and I eat my Tofu and Crabstick sandwhiches.  My number # 1 rule of thumb:  Make sure you have something filling and ready-to-eat when you get to camp. 

 It is  past 4 pm and we spend most of the daylight taking pictures and taking the steep concrete steps down the crater for what else, more pictures.  There are boats for rent and the guides say they’ll charge us Php 50.00/person/hour which is a good price. But we opt to stay on land.

 Quiet

Because of its high sulfur content, the water is green.  All is quiet as only Kelly and I descend to the crater.  It is easy to get lost in solitude.  Except for the screech of a black-colored bird, perhaps a crow, the  only sound is the soft lapping of the water on the lake shore.  The sun is out again and the water looks inviting.  I remind myself that it is a crater and a few steps can mean plunging down to the abyss.  Six-pack and Mavie arrive and we take picture upon picture of ourselves.  What else do you climb for but to get great photo ops!  The rest stay at camp so we have the lake all to ourselves.

DadiX has cooked dinner by the time we get back up.  We have Chicken  and Mushrooms in  Basil Tomato Sauce and  hotdogs.  Dessert of course is Cognac Jelly.  Since there’s still some daylight left, we trekk back to the water source to refill our bottles and to bathe.  We wash away the grime with the cool cool mountain water.  We use one of the pots as tabo.  After recent climbs on waterless mountains, it feels so refreshing to bathe after a half day’s trek.  We climb back up and plop on our tents feeling like newly-bathed babies.  It is barely 7 pm but sleep beckons. 

 Magic Show and Free Slippers

About a couple of  hours later, we wake-up for socials at a small shed nearby.  Six-pack is so sleepy he stays behind while DadiX and I fulfil our social obligations.  There’s a raffle and we give our climb badges to Jay.  Someone gets a neck wallet and another a utenstil set, which I actually wanted.  Surprise! Surprise! My name gets called and I win a pair of Conquer slippers I can claim at their Pioneer store.  Cool! I never won a raffle before!  Entertainment comes courtesy of some magic tricks performed by one of the members.  I even get to participate in a card trick which was awesome.  My favorite was the one with the piso coin.  I’m really sleepy so I go back to my tent.

I wake-up around 5:30 the next morning and rush to the cr.  Yes, toilet-freaks, there are two cubicles with a toilet bowl at the campsite.  Problem is, unless the guides have refilled the water containers, you’d have to bring your own water for flushing.  Unless of course, you wanna show-off what your digestive track has done to yesterday’s meal.  As I enter the  empty cubicle, the next one slams open and a girl comes rushing out shouting, “Hindi ako humihinga!” 

Breakfast is dried alumahan , tomato omellette, and garlic rice.  Sarap!  One of the advantages of having DadiX on your meal group is he’s always willing and ready to do the cooking.  There are swarms of flies and cockroaches, the first time I’ve ever experienced having them on top of a mountain. Well, I guess, where there are humans, there are pests.  DadiX, Six-pack and I go descend to the lake for one final set of shots.  I have to admit, gay guys are probably the most avid photogs in the world.  Who else would spend hours shooting each other clambering up rocks, posing as if Pinatubo were about to erupt again.   We break camp and start our long trek back to the jump-off.

 Wild River Run

The pace is much quicker with less stops.  We meet other climbers on a day hike.  The sun stays mostly hidden and dark clouds brew overhead.  About 15 minutes away from the jump-off, it starts to rain heavily.  In spite of the poncho, I am totally soaked and cold.  We finally reach the short climb up the elevated pathway to the stairs leading to the jump-off.  The rain has turned into a really heavy downpour now.  There are only 3 4x4s waiting as the other 2 have already left with the others.  We quickly get in.  So begins the ride of our lives.

The almost barren landscape we trekked the previous day is now a rampaging landscape of rolling mud and lahar.  I must admit as the rain poured on and on, excitement was slowly being replaced by apprehension.  Looking-up at the mounds of lahar that bordered us on both sides, I could see water trickling down its face sending down sand.  Images of a catastrophic flood of mud and lahar and me struggling in the middle of it flashed on my mind. Would I save my camera or my cellphone, I thought.  It’s a rough and tumble drive.  The driver and guide say that if the rain doesn’t stop, soon everything will be covered with water.  I am amazed at the driver’s grit and dexterity at maneuvering the vehicle and knowing where to pass as I couldn’t see any pathway.  The rain tapers down as we near the baranggay.  We arrive wet and relieved.

We wash-up and have lunch.  Not really finding the food at the next door carinderia palatable, we opt to cook Ma-ling and make a tomato and red-egg salad.  After lunch, we take the jeep back to Sta. Juliana. The rain has completely stopped and we arrive at the town center about an hour later.   After snacks at McDo, we hie off to the road side and try to flag down the passing buses.  After about an hour and a thousand buses, a Dagupan bus finally let’s us in, albeit standing.

I arrive home very late already. This climb is going to be on my top 10 list for a very long time.

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