How to Climb Mount Apo

Nonfiction by | October 19, 2014

Climb when you are fifteen or so. Harbor an affinity for heights: at eleven you must have already seen the whole of Bangkok from the 88th floor of Baiyoke Sky Hotel, as well as gone parasailing at Subic, noting how the sea looks like a massive blue tarpaulin from a height of 800 feet.

Know the basics of mountain trekking: never step on slippery ground, always watch your step; on the way down, lean back and allow your feet to fall on stones as surely as a bird lands on its own shadow. But know also what it is to fear heights. Call to mind the day you first climbed Mount Agad-Agad (your hometown’s tallest mountain), aged nine, when, going up the mountain, the sheer effort wrung your lungs empty and your vision swam in a haze of blue afterimages. On the descent you could only cling to earth and crawl down gingerly. Bear these in mind always, for they will arm you for the great climb. Never forget that what you will be dealing with is the highest mountain in the Philippines (think 9,692 feet above sea level).

Weeks before the climb, prepare. Run up and down the roads of Buhanginan Hill, doing your best to keep pace with your father. Relish the dull pains that accompany physical effort—they make you feel like some sort of war hero after all, and at this point in your life you are obsessed with medieval war movies. Learn to love sweat. Have delusions of Olympic glory at the thought of exerting yourself. Also do some research on Mount Apo and discover that it is a volcano that isn’t exactly dormant, even though it has hardly erupted in recent memory. Entertain the possibility of dying in an eruption.

Towards the end of April, drive to Kidapawan with your father and his friends R and K. See Mount Apo look faded and sage-like in the distance. Check in at a hotel for the night. Take in the hotel room, its soft yellow light and polished walls, and most importantly the white floor; terrain-wise, this is the last taste of security you will get in the next three days. Start being grateful for everything that has happened in your life.

Drive to Mount Apo’s geothermal plant the morning after. From the relative urbanity of Kidapawan, observe the gradual slide to the primeval: the asphalt road disappears into a trail of limestone, buildings shrink into little shacks, and before you know it you are at the broad, stony expanse of the assembly area, surrounded by large rocks wrapped in moss and giant ferns. Take in the rotten-eggy scent of sulfur rising from the mouth of the volcano. Take in too the prehistoric air and half-expect to see dinosaurs. Experience a kind of oneness with nature. Be slightly disconcerted when cars enter the field, cleaving modernity into an otherwise ancient space.

Remain oblivious to the fact that you are here because for a tree-planting activity and that your father and his friends are doing documentation. Instead believe that everything is just a happy coincidence; watch the soldiers pour in from all sides and be amused by the motionless chicken one of them dangles from beside his ArmaLite. Feel infinitely small beside the rocks that tower over you. Despite the fierce sunlight that floods the place, the air will be almost icy. See this as a good sign.

Begin your climb with an excitement tinctured with anxiety. Leaving behind the comforts of the limestone plain, plunge into the sloping rainforest of Mount Apo. It is dark; through the thick canopy of leaves light falls only in slivers. You are joined by around two hundred other climbers, but mostly you will stick with R, your father’s friend who is a native of Davao. He is obviously at home in this mountain (it is his sixth climb, he relates) and he takes long strides with the confidence of a T-rex. Leave your father and K behind. Laugh when R shares a Mount Apo joke: “In the first twenty minutes, the men will be separated from the boys—because the men will be left behind. Thirty minutes later only the porters will remain.” Realize that this is true: far ahead the porters trudge on untiringly, each of them lugging at least three big bags. Be amazed when you see that they are mostly boys your age. Struggle to keep up with R, who advises you not to sit down when catching your breath (something to do with blood circulation, but you are too tired to remember this). An hour into the climb the foliage will thin slightly; you will find yourself near the edge of cliffs; from this height the trees look like tiny green umbrellas. Feel a flutter of fear, but walk on. Reassure yourself that you will not die on this climb.

Do not die on this climb. It will rain, the soil will get slippery after a while, and the risk of slipping, of tumbling downhill, will stalk you like an assassin, but the constant song of birds and cicadas will offer a cushioning effect. Walk on. Eat the packed lunch you prepared the night before. Lose track of the hours, lose track of yourself. Stare in wonder at the trees that grow increasingly smaller the higher you climb up the mountain. Remark to yourself that they look as if a great mallet had struck their tops, causing them to lose several feet of their original heights. Look back constantly at the trail you have followed; mist will wrap the world below, leaving you with no choice but to go higher up.

Feel relieved when you come across waterfalls—here they are your closest ties to home (your hometown is called the City of Majestic Waterfalls). Feel an even greater relief when you reach base camp. Wait for your father for a few hours and set up your tents. Explore the camp. It is a grassy, bumpy clearing a-bloom with flowers that resemble little fireballs. There are hardly any trees. The peak is visible from the far end; it seems to erupt from rows of red-berried bushes. Wait for the sun to set (at the other side, so you cannot watch it), the cold to creep into your pores. Put on a sweater, a jacket, a bonnet, gloves, and a second layer of socks. Make stew in a small kaldero heated by a cooking fire. Go to sleep in your tent, feeling the rough rocks under the canvas. End the day shivering.

Begin the next day shivering. You wake up at five in the morning since the hike up the peak takes over four hours, and you want to be there before noon. The sun isn’t up yet, so the sky is a pale, soothing blue and the peak a silhouette. The journey up the peak, funnily enough, will begin with a long walk down a path lined with flowering bushes. The oxygen supply will be considerably thinner; you will run out of breath much faster from here on. The road will curve upward after a while. Feel confident, feel safe. The field is unspeakably wide, there can be no risk of falling. Do not worry.

Worry when the field does thin. Whereas the climb to the camp was mostly a long walk up a steep road, the last stretch—towards the peak—does not offer the same sense of security. As with the day before, leave your father and K behind. At times the road will tilt at almost a right angle, and more often than not you will be smack on the edge of a cliff. This will require you to make use of a fifth appendage: your behind. Be extremely cautious, mind your every step. Gape in awe when the whole of Mindanao sprawls seaward below you amidst swirling clouds. Feel like you have been walking forever and be slightly disheartened when the peak looms above you, never seeming any nearer. Find some happiness in the wild berries that grow everywhere. Some of them will resemble holly berries, and some will look like pea-sized mangosteens. They will be sweet, but they will occasionally leave a numb feeling on your tongue. Continue your climb, hold on to plants (some of them will be somewhat crystalline despite their greenness. They will have spines at the edges—steer clear of these). Start being jittery when you reach a point where there is no soil, only rocks framed by shrubs. This is where, as people say, shit gets real. This part is literally all cliff. R will tell you of a boyhood experience: on his first climb, the mist here got so thick he couldn’t see anything. When it disappeared he found himself holding on to a piece of rock, beyond which was—nothing. Only air, and the world miles under it. At this point remember your home, remember your mother and your sister and your purebred pit bull and your two pet turtles. Wonder if you will ever see them again.

Take a big gulp, and walk on. Steel your resolve—you are almost there. The peak is only meters away, but the path to it is the narrowest yet. Walk. There can be no room for mistakes; one wrong move and you will plummet into the boulders and the branches. The cold air cuts into your heart. Make your way through the stones, watch your hands reach through space for something to hold. Cherish the smooth surface of rock. Love the ground pressing against your feet. Push yourself up by one step, and another, and another. Try to decide whether your limbs are trembling out of fear or excitement. Feel infinite yet frail; you are about to either conquer the highest mountain in the country or simply die. Bear forward until there is only one more step.

Set foot on the peak of Mount Apo in your APO Hiking Society t-shirt. Have your picture taken: sit on a rock, looking all poised and triumphant, the rest of the green mountain rolling behind you. Convince yourself that this is clever. Text your sister (there is a signal here, miraculously) to log in to your Plurk account and post: “at the peak of Mount Apo! \m/” For around half an hour, wait for your father to catch up with you. When he comes, stand on the peak again, beside him this time, and ask R to take your picture. There you are, father and son, two dark figures against the white sky, 9,692 feet above sea level. Remember how the mountain looked from Kidapawan: sage-like, faded, far. Now it is the city that is lost in the distance; you are standing atop the clouds with your father.

On the way down, marvel at what you have just achieved. You hardly remember anything about the descent except that it is far faster than the climb, and that your knees hurt more than they ever have. You slip a few times too. When you get home the next day, climbing the stairs will feel strange; it will be almost as if you have forgotten what regularity is. You will itch for the wild ragged ground of mountains, for the freedom afforded by space, by the wilderness. You will feel oddly claustrophobic here even though your house is wide enough for echoes. You will long for the smell of sulfur. And when you sleep, the cushion of your bed will feel all too soft, so unlike the rocks you slept on, covered by a thin layer of canvas.

2 thoughts on “How to Climb Mount Apo”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.