Where The Gods Play

July 18, 2016

“I can’t do this anymore,” the voice ran in my head tens, maybe hundreds of times. The dawn was cold and harsh, and the pain on my hip and spine from carrying a 16-kilogram child was close to where I’ve been during the final minutes of rearing her into the world.

Missy, Jim, and one-year old Skye, along with Derrick and Rey, were gone. We had been slowing them down, so we asked them to go ahead so they can catch Mt. Pulag’s famous sunrise. 

From where we were in the mossy forest, hundred-year old trees seemed to swallow everything in their deep, dark bellies – the moon’s faint light, warmth, human will. Not even our headlamps shone enough for us to see clearer through eight kilometers of mud on the Ambangeg, or Babadak, Trail.

With company, we had diversions. They were our lifeline, the mess that we are, fixing our oversized bag and faulty toddler carrier that drooped endlessly. Just us, we had fears: fears of falling into a ravine that we cannot see, fears of not making it to the top after traveling nine dizzying hours across the Cordillera mountains.

We had the highest of hopes that early morning of March. The day before, sunlight slivered through thick fog during late noon, though bleak and short-lived, after weeks of torrential rains and close-to-zero-degrees temperature. Constellations aligned that night. The stars appeared in rosaries, bears, and lions after a long celestial drought in Babadak. 

On a mountain that’s believed to be the playground of the gods, the Ibaloi locals believed that these were signs that the gods were preparing to send us off to a beautiful and sunny trek.

We left our homestay 10 minutes north of the Ranger Station at 2:20 am. The first hour saw us brisk and brimming with hope as we walked on a straight and gentle path that, we imagined, may be boring in daylight.

Jigs carried Lia on his back for nearly an hour until she suddenly woke up crying in a borrowed Tula. For 15 minutes, she walked silently, her winter boots burrowing and slipping in mud. Amused trekkers fleeted in throngs, cheering Lia and telling her she's lucky to be in Pulag at three years old.

She pursued till sleepiness got to her. Her wails pierced the night. We asked her if she wanted to just go back, but she wanted to continue - only if I was the one carrying her all the way through.

So, I carried her. I carried her till we reached Camp 1, where we huddled with other hikers in a small shed, under the moon and the stars. I carried her through throngs of people squeezing themselves in a narrow, mushy, and endless abyss called mossy forest. I carried her until the throngs we left in Camp 1 overtook us and we were the only ones left in the dark, bearing the sound of our breaths amid the strange noises of insects and wind

Every two minutes, I slumped on tree barks and moss-covered stones - beanie soaked in sweat, watching white mist escape from my mouth into thin air. The cold seeped through the layers of polyester, wool, and fleece. Even in the comforts of our tightly shut, fanless homestay room, balmy air swathed every nerve and bone.

It was already 4:30 am and our guide, Ate Eva, said we’re not even halfway through. The pain on my hip, once manageable, turned monstrous and searing. It teared every filament of will.

I wanted and conceived this dream before I even birthed my daughter into the world.  I wanted it after. I wanted to bring her here. I have wanted.

In the mountains, one learns where want can take you and how far. There, in Mt. Pulag’s wet, endless, and dark deciduous forest, the line where want and do not want blurred. It kept blurring with pain and my want to not experience pain anymore. I wished Lia said yes when we asked her if she wanted to go back.

We trekked hills no less than five kilometers every week for a month in preparation for Mt. Pulag. I went on monthly climbs with Lia. The Ambangeg Trail is easy. But nothing prepared me enough for the brunt of climbing a high-altitude, low-oxygen mountain against five hours of wintry air and the infinite pain of carrying a heavy toddler in pitch-black darkness.

Doubts stirred in my head until a brown butterfly flew above ground and stuck on my coat for half an hour. Follow where the light leads, it said. So I did, even if getting there was unbearable. 

Because I wanted this. For myself. For my daughter.

Step, step, step, sit. Step, step, step, sit.

Nearly four hours in and halfway through the mossy forest, soft tinges of tangerine began to appear above us. Day started to creep in, and the night gave way.

“We are almost there”, Ate Eva said. There meant the grassland at Camp 2, which was  around 30 minutes away from our final destination at Peak 5. We weren't going to the summit itself; we couldn't make it in time anyway. The blanket of trees receded until there was none but fringes. From a distance, a green sign read: Camp 2 Grassland Summit.

I ran feverishly toward that sign. I ran and laughed and became teary with joy as I combed my fingers through the last strands of leaves in the forest.

At the grassland were endless clutches of mountains lined with dwarf bamboos and eerie trees, all bathing in the golden rays of the sun.  I sat on a naked patch of earth and placed Lia, still asleep, on my lap. “We are in Mt. Pulag, Lia. Nandito na tayo, anak." I whispered.

We are here and we are sharing a dream. The tears, like the happiness of that dream coming to life, were uncontrollable.

6:40 am, my watch reads. We were 20 minutes late for Pulag’s larger-than-life sunrise and we were the last of approximately 500 people that day to make it to Mt. Pulag’s peak. Yet none of it mattered. The sobering reality was, however the sun turned, we were, both spirit and body, in Mt. Pulag. Our feet, our souls, within arm’s reach of the heavens.

We approached the final ascent to Peak 5 were Missy, Jim, little Skye, and the others cheered us on. Our steps, no longer heavy and doubt-ridden. On the peak, we made hot coffee and ate instant noodles while watching the sea of clouds float above the Cordilleran mountains. We peeled off the sweat and moist-soaked layers of clothes when the sun began to feel warm.

Lia mused blithely at trees and people - who beamed with pride and happiness for her and Skye, that day's youngest trekkers - as she trod all eight kilometers back.

Against the light and shadows of the morning, we experienced the mountain in a way we didn’t during the night. Clutching my daughter's tiny fingers, the glow of daylight felt like redemption. We received more than what we asked for. Others make it to Mt. Pulag several times and never witnessed a sea of clouds, or even a good weather. It is a fickle mountain and like the gods that guard it, it has a mind of its own.

Being in Mt. Pulag is not something that can be explained in words. It is magical to say the least – the scent of trees, the clouds rising above peaks, the violet and blood red flowers, the strings of moss hanging from century-old barks, the soaring pines fringing on ravines. For some, that magic stems from the high of numbers, of reaching Luzon’s loftiest peak. 

But for others like me, the magic was simply being up there: close to where the sun gives birth to its first rays, where dreams come to life, a place where the gods play. 

Final destination: Peak 5, one of Mt. Pulag's many peaks. 
This peak is prominent for its antenna tower.

We couldn't have made it without these amazing bunch of super hikers. 

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