AFTER my first trek almost 20 years ago to Mount Pulag where our team of first-time climbers to the peak lost its way going back, I told to myself I should climb it again because the bald peak got me hooked. And I did (and will still do) almost every year after that, and usually every February when the temperature there is at its coolest.
Where else in the Philippines can you walk above the clouds, experience temperatures that sometimes go below zero and have a chance to watch the sun at it rises dramatically from an endless vista of towering peaks?
And I have seen how climbing Mount Pulag has changed through the years. In my first climb, we had to start trekking at the junction of Ambangeg. It required a long and arduous ascend that needed a break at an overnight camp at Palancha’s school ground before making the final assault to the summit the next day.
Nowadays, climbing Mount Pulag does not require many preparations. With the Ambangeg-Babadak road now almost fully concreted, what we used to climb for two days can now be reached by driving in two hours. There are also many climb organizers for Mount Pulag. All you need to do is pay and go.
But for those who wish to climb the mountain all by themselves, below are some practical tips for scaling Luzon’s highest peak.
1. Book the schedule well in advance. Park Superintendent Emerita Alba’s number is 639196315402. Text her the requested schedule and the number of people coming with you. Wait for her reply by text if the request is accepted. There is now a limit to the number of climbers, or a maximum of 150, who can go to the summit to watch the spectacular sunrise.
2. Climbers are advised to still do some physical preparation. The trek to the summit from Babadak is less than 10 kilometers, and is moderately easy except for the final assault to the peak because conditions at high altitude are quite different. So do some running or brisk walking several weeks before the climb. It is also advised to do some carbo-loading a few days before going there.
3. Do not attempt to go there solo. It is not only expensive, but also dangerous. If it is your first time, it is best to hook up with a mountaineering group. By joining the climb with them, you will get advise on climbing the peak and your expenses will be reduced as the cost of the climb is usually divided among the number of participants.
4. Climbers are required to be adequately equipped when scaling Mount Pulag. Three layers of clothing are advisable: base layer (long-sleeved shirt and cycling pants); insulating layer (fleece or sweat shirt); and outer shell (wind-breaker with hood) plus emergency raincoat. Trekking pants, trekking shoes, warm socks, bonnets, gloves, trekking poles, sleeping bags and headlamps with batteries are the basic necessities for scaling Mount Pulag. Of course, you need to place them all in a water-proof backpack.
How to get there
Getting to Mount Pulag is now quite easy. There are many buses from Manila to Baguio City, the gateway to Mount Pulag. Bus fare is around P500 a person. It is practical to take the buses leaving Manila between 10:00 pm to 12:00 midnight to arrive in Baguio City before 6 am the next day.
There are many options to reach Mount Pulag from Baguio City (via Ambangeg). For those on a budget, take the A Liner Bus going to Kabayan. Bus fare is P120 person. The bus passes by the Visitor’s Center in Ambangeg and from there, you can either trek all the way to Babadak Ranger Station or rent a habal-habal for P150 one-way. For group of at least eight, it is more practical to rent a jeepney from Baguio. The contact person for jeepney services is Gina Epe at 639198169234. The going rate for jeepney service is between P8,000 to P9,000. The jeepney picks up the climbers from the bus station in Baguio City, takes them all the way to the Babadak Station and takes them back to the bus station the next day.
Those with vehicles can drive all the way to the Ranger Station in Babadak. With a much better road conditions, even vehicles not designed for off-roading with high ground clearance can go all the way to Babadak.
The Visitor Center is open from 8:00 am. All climbers are required to attend the briefing conducted by the park superintendent.
Climbers are required to pay P225 each for registration and green fees. Guide fee is P500 for a maximum of five persons plus P100 for each additional climber. Porter fee is P300 one way for a maximum weight of 15 kilos, plus P20 per additional kilo. The guides and porters belong to the Kankaney and Kalanguya tribes and they also help find suitable camping sites, fetch water and pitch tents. A P30 cultural fee is collected in Babadak.
What to do, what to see
There are three established campsites around Mount Pulag. Camp 1 is located at the mossy forest and takes about an hour to reach, Camp 2 is at the grassland and can be reached longer, and Camp 3 is located right below the summit and can be reached after three hours. The largest and the most popular of the three is Camp 2 that can accommodate over a hundred tents.
First-time climbers usually experience a mild headache as they start the trek. This is a normal reaction of the body as it adjusts to the sudden increase in altitude. The elevation in Babadak is already over 2,300 meters or less than 700 meters from Mount Pulag’s summit of 2,922 meters. The start of the climb passes by wide trails before it enters the montane forest. From there, it’s a gradual ascend of about half an hour until it reaches the moderately steep part leading to the entrance of the mossy forest. As soon as one enters the mossy forest, the trek becomes easy for about an hour until it exits to the grassland where Camp 2 is located.
Upon arrival in Camp 2, it’s tent-pitching time for a little rest before cooking for dinner and some more rest later. If the weather is clear, one can opt to go directly to the summit and watch the sunset, or wake up the next day to join the long procession of climbers going to the summit to watch the sun rise.
The guides usually come back to the campsite at 3:00 am to wake up climbers who wish to see the sunrise at the summit. By 3:00 am, it’s time to start trekking single file in the dark guided by flashlights or headlamps. By 5:00 am and reaching the summit, position yourself to the east and pray total darkness will fade to give way to a spectacular explosion of colors.
And the sun always rises without fail above the sea of clouds. Even if it’s rainy or cloudy, the sun will always find ways to illuminate the whole horizon. And this is the main reason why people come and keep coming back to see among the most stunning sights in the Philippines.
Where to stay, where to eat
In Mount Pulag, you simply sleep inside your tent, eat whatever food you can cook (I mostly survive on cup noodles and biscuits) under the windy weather and just enjoy the experience of being above the clouds.