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A Mission to Conquer: The Mt. Pulag Escapade
by Evita Ongchangco

To conquer something means to overcome, to vanquish, and to win. More often than not, what you conquer in a journey is more than the distance travelled and what you have seen. Wherever you go, you carry a lot of things with you – your dreams, your hopes, your doubts, and maybe most of all, your fears. It is always important to understand that in everything you do, what you need to conquer is yourself.

When my brother and I got wind of an invitation to go to Mt. Pulag, we knew that it was an opportunity that would be a crime to pass up. Contacting Abel Baldemor, we were oriented of what to expect in Pulag, and in turn, what to pack. It was a fairly short list, but each item on the list was very important. The list composed of: enough clothes for three days, a very thick jacket, preferably thermal, head light, disposable raincoat, easy to consume food, a sleeping bag, a sturdy tent, several sturdy plastic bags, and all our extra batteries because there was no electricity in the area.

The main goal of Baguio Photographers Club (BPC) was to take photographs of the medical mission and the children of Babadak, the village at the foot of Mt. Pulag. We discovered later on that there were only eight of us who confirmed in the photography team, only four of whom were BPC members and the other half were applicants. My brother and I were part of the applicants, along with Jayvee Moltio and Edwin Verin. The BPC members with us were Kuya Abel, Mark Caballar, Arnel Vergara, and Olga Villanueva. Having settled who brought what and who stayed with whom, we were left with one day to pack before the trip.

On the morning of March 27, I found myself shivering a bit in the cold as we waited for the others to arrive. Despite the fog, excitement was thick in the air, and I could tell that nobody really got much sleep the night before. We were going to climb the highest peak in Luzon, and that was a very good reason to have a sleepless night.

The medical mission

Sir Ces Garcia, also a BPC member, greeted us with a warm good morning and thanked us for being able to make it to the trip. He gave us a rundown of the medical mission. He was part of the Boys High Alumni of 1973 who coordinated with the Baguio General Hospital and Medical Center to make this mission to Babadak possible. They visit the community at least twice a year for medical missions, but this time, it was also to have the ground breaking ceremony for the clinic that they were going to build there. After the orientation, he also mentioned that we were lucky because it would be a full moon by the time we hike up to the summit. He also suggested that we should try riding on the roof of the jeep once we passed Bokod, to avoid the dust that will surely billow inside the vehicle. He said it would be quite a view and also a fun experience. I have never tried riding top load before, so when we got a flat tire after passing Bokod, we took the opportunity to go up the Mt. Pulag climber and held on for our dear lives. As we bounced along the bumpy road up to Babadak, we kept asking ourselves how on earth Sir Ces managed to convince us that riding top load was “a fun experience.” Well, it was fun, in its own, thrilling way.

BPC’s mission

We reached Babadak at past 10 a.m. and immediately started taking pictures despite shaking arms and aching butts. Our aim was to take pictures of the kids there and give them a printout of their pictures before we would hike for the summit. It was a goal inspired by the Black Pencil Project, a project started by Mon Corpus and other photographers. It was started as a project of giving black pencils to children in far-flung areas here in the Cordillera region. They thought of making printouts of pictures they have taken of the children and gave it to their parents. The parents were overwhelmed with joy at having a copy of their children’s photographs, and it’s that same joy that Kuya Abel wanted to give to the families in Babadak. With this in mind, we all took an active part in taking great pictures to accomplish our own mission for the community.

The community

As the morning rolled in, we were welcomed by the community at the end of their church service and the medical mission started after lunch. Since we were already working with the kids, we also kept them busy while taking more pictures of them. We were shoving each other on who would take the teacher role and I finally gave in so we could get the children organized. With the help of some of the choir members, we got the younger ones to color pages of coloring books for the rest of the afternoon and gave rewards of candies and toothbrushes. It was a comfortable experience working with the children and their parents. They were mild-mannered, warm, and welcoming. They assisted us when they would see us having a difficult time telling the kids what we wanted them to do. As I looked over the children’s works and handed out prizes, the rest of the club proceeded to take more pictures.

While they colored, I talked to Cynthia, one of the choir members, and asked her what some basic words meant. Their dialect seemed to be a mix of Ibaloi, Ilocano, Kankana-ey, and Pangasinense so it was somewhat difficult to comprehend for me, but she said that almost everyone there understood and could speak Ilocano. Cynthia asked me if it was my first time in Pulag, and I said yes. She said that Dr. Rommel Palaganas always brought a different group whenever they came to Babadak for their bi-annual medical mission. Their community was thankful to him and his group, and all of their efforts in helping them.

Unwinding

By late afternoon, the medical mission ended for the day and we all moved to unpack our things. There were too many of us to stay in one place, so BPC stayed at the Mt. Pulag Primary School where we unrolled our sleeping bags close to each other for warmth. Dinner was still being cooked by the dentist, Dr. Rosa Fruto, so we passed the time by picking out pictures using Kuya Ed’s laptop. It was agreed that we would choose our own top 10 because there wasn’t enough photo paper. At the same time, Sir Ces, Dr. Palaganas, Dr. Nino Capili, and Dr. Rheza Manangan started a game in the kitchen that was lit by a tall gas lamp. They said those who will not be able to tell a good Erap joke will not eat dinner. Those who did not laugh at the jokes would not get dinner also. In the end, only the four of us delivered Erap jokes until dinner was served. On hindsight, it wasan easier job to laugh than to deliver a good joke, Erap joke or not. Along with the medical volunteers, namely Kat Bangaoet, Rona Palaganas, Nana Ymson, and Gio Amon, in that faintly lit evening, the night felt brighter with great food, great company, and even greater laughter.

As we settled in for the night, the guys of our team decided to borrow the jeepney’s battery so they could print out the pictures we took that day. They used an amplifier to convert the 12 volts of electricity into 220v so that the laptop and printer could be used, and for some of us to be able to charge our camera batteries. Kuya Neil explained that the amplifier helped convert the electricity from the battery, but it could only do so much. And sure enough, after a great amount of pictures, Kuya Abel’s printer protested and stopped working for the night. It was agreed that we continue printing in the morning. Despite the extra blankets that our hosts lent us, the night’s biting cold was too much to let us sleep. By 4 a.m., most of us were up. We lit our little butane burner and heated water on a rice cooker pot. Kuya Abel and Kuya Neil continued with the printing while the rest of us explored the nearby area for potentially good panorama angles, and enjoyed the warmth of the early morning sun. The air was cold, and hints of burning saleng wafted in the air as some houses nearby began their morning. Life was truly simple there.

Ground breaking

We were taking another round of pictures with the kids when Sir Ces waived at us, signaling that we should be taking pictures from where he was. I think we were having too much fun with the kids that we didn’t realize that the ceremony was about to begin. The ground breaking was done beside the Lutheran Chapel and a short history of the medical mission in the area was read, along with the plans for the place. A short prayer was offered, and the wreath of flowers in the middle was cut as a symbol of the beginning of the ground breaking. Several chickens were also offered as part of the ceremony. As the ceremony was underway, we took pictures of the event and of the children who were there. We then gathered the children after the ceremony to hand them their pictures and have our own pictures taken with them. After this, we had our lunch and packed our things to set off for the summit.

Mt. Pulag

We were escorted by our hired jeep up to the ranger station, got our porters then started our climb via the easy trail. As we walked on, the scenery began with farmlands which soon gave way to huge patches of burned earth. It would seem that there had been a lot of forest fires recently and this caused the earlier decision to close Mt. Pulag to hikers. There was also a call to retrain tour guides and porters upon its closure, but if the mountain was to be closed in one of its peak seasons, a huge part of the community would lose their income. Also, since it would be more difficult to monitor illegal activity in the mountain without tourists around, it was deemed necessary to keep the national park open. Climbing further, the scenery gave way to thicker foliage and undergrowth. The gravel at our feet turned into a path of soil and tree roots. I could feel the dense fog stick to my skin and felt that I needed to catch my breath more often as we climbed higher. Along the way, we met two kids with their dog, and a man with his pig. As we were told, we greeted them good morning, even if it was in the afternoon. There had been a bird that flew past us, but it was too quick for us to determine if it was a Koch’s pitta, one of the rare birds in the area.

There were no trees at the campsite, just wide grassland, which was mostly dominated by dwarf bamboos. We pitched camp as soon as we got to the camp site and slept early due to the thick fog and the biting cold. The fog was so thick, that if we did not have our bonnets and hoods, our heads would have been dripping wet within minutes. It was another rough night of attempting to sleep while the wind whistled outside our tents. Some even feared that their tents would be flown. Despite all this, the moon shone through the clouds, and this somehow gave us hope that we would be blessed with a good view of the sunrise at the summit. I couldn’t sleep anymore at around 3 a.m. so I packed my gear then helped Kuya Mark light up our little butane burner. It took three of us to block the wind before we got a decent fire started to heat some warm water to help us from shivering too much. When they told us to start hiking, I decided to fold up my pants to avoid them getting too wet from the tall grasses along the path. It turned out to be a good idea, because I would have ended up getting too cold to even move.

As we climbed higher, we saw one lone pine tree a fair distance from the trail. The moon was setting and we all stopped for a while to take a shot of the scene. None of us could reach for our cameras at that moment, but sometimes, there are just some things that are only meant for one’s eyes.

We started our climb at 4 a.m. and we reached the summit at past 5 a.m., just in time to see the moon set, and enough time to find a good place to take pictures of the sunrise. I remember how we exclaimed our own excitement at the sight of the sun slowly rising behind the sea of clouds. Truly, it was a magnificent view. No words could describe it, not even our photographs did justice to the sun bathing the land with light, and the clouds that seemed to cascade down the mountain like waterfalls.

Every journey has its end, and yet each end is its own beginning. As we basked in the grandeur of the sunrise before us, we knew that we had accomplished what we had set out to do. Despite the dust, cold, sleepless nights, and tired limbs, it was worth it. There was no replacing the simplicity, the joy of the children, the warmth of their company, and the bonds we have made. The rising sun marked the end of our journey, and yet it was the sign of the beginning of a new one. As we made our way back to the city, I knew that it was a memory that we would carry with us for a long time. Who knows, one day, we’ll be back.
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