Mt. Apo, Philippines

On most clear mornings when I wake up in my bedroom on the 2nd floor of my family's home in Digos, I see outside my window the looming apparition of Mt. Apo, the Philippines' highest mountain. I feel an immediate connection, having climbed its peak twice, back in 1992 and 1993. I've always wanted to return but has been unable so far.

The Holy Week is the time of the year when the various trails to Mt. Apo gets very busy. Now that the Holy Week is fast approaching, I feel the itch once more, especially as I begin to hear plans from acquaintances about assaulting Mt. Apo's summit, all 2,954 meters of it. I got invites too from some mountaineering clubs. Unfortunately again, my time in Davao is too short to include a foray into what is officially known as the Mt. Apo National Park.

On a public bus from Kidapawan a few days ago, I met two guides who were with a pair of Poles and Germans after having just hiked down the mountain. They thought I also came down from Mt. Apo what with the way I look: I was wearing Sierra Designs polyester shirt, cargo shorts and The North Face sandals while carrying my Kelty backpack - oh how I wish that was true! But what dawned upon me with that chance encounter was the fact that, despite travel advisories from Western countries, foreigners do still come to southern Mindanao. To a remote destination at that!

My first climb during the Holy Week of 1992 was a spur of the moment decision. I was completely unprepared when my mother, of all people, informed me that a group was ready to depart early the next morning. I've always dreamed of climbing this huge mountain that's visible from where I live and so I grabbed the opportunity right away. Not having done any prior physical preparation, not even brisk walking in the park, I excitedly embarked on what was to become my initiation into the joys of hiking.

There were about ten of us that took a jeepney ride from Kidapawan and the excitement was palpable as we began the journey on foot at Lake Agko, a small settlement that is now part of that big eyesore known as the Philippine National Geothermal Plant. At the time, the Philippine National Oil Corporation (PNOC) was in the process of clearing access roads, which obviously was tantamount to a rape of the national park. It was such a pain to hear bulldozers groaning like vultures in what supposedly was a quiet sylvan setting. The PNOC was awarded 701 hectares of pristine forested lands all in the name of development!

After negotiating the treacherous Marbel river, we all endured a punishing 6-hour ascent towards the popular campsite of Lake Venado, some 2,000 meters above sea level. The hike was made all the more difficult by a sudden downpour, so unforgettable as it showed how clearly unprepared I was: all my clothes in my pack got wet as I never bothered to put them in plastic bags. Though I was dampened literally, my spirit was not. I did manage to stagger into the wide expanse of Lake Venado just before dusk and manage to reunite with my group for a well-deserved rest.

The next morning, we resumed the hike for the last leg of the summit assault. It took three hours of four-wheel drive, which means grasping at slimy roots while securing our foothold on muddy trails. I really thought then that if one has to do a Penitencia, then this climb is surely one to fit the bill, right in the middle of the Holy Week. We reached the summit before noon, pitched our tents, cooked a hurried lunch of noodles and sardines and took the time to savor the views - well, views mostly of clouds playing peek-a-boo with what I thought was a view of my hometown down below and views of other areas in southern Mindanao. Finally, I made it to the top of the Philippines!

We stayed overnight at the summit and I was thankful we slept shoulder to shoulder as the temperature up there dropped down to arctic levels at night. The next morning, we found ourselves confronted with another task: as one famous climber has said, getting to the top is optional, going down is mandatory. Indeed, the descent was another hurdle that tested our knees dearly. For some, it was more difficult going down the mountain than climbing it. Thankfully, we made it safely back in Lake Agko after a whole day of descent. And what better way of soothing our aching muscles after all that walking than by taking a dip in the warm, sulfuric water of a hotspring nearby.

A trek to Mt. Apo is truly an experience that will open one's eyes to the fragility of nature. The incursion of PNOC for example just illustrates the thin line between man's need for more energy and the need to protect our natural resources. But what makes Mt. Apo even more vulnerable are the irresponsible climbers and trekkers themselves. Every year, hordes of people - proclaiming themselves "lovers of nature" as their reason for climbing Mt. Apo - actually inflict more harm than love for the mountain: parts of the trail were littered with non-biodegradable trash and the boulders on the peak were vandalized with graffiti. The human traffic during the Holy Week trek also caused soil erosion on exposed areas of the mountain.

I'm aware that some trails were closed for at least two years in the past in order for it to rehabilitate. But the local tourism agencies in the provinces of North Cotabato and Davao del Sur can do more than that. During my Inca Trail trek to Macchu Picchu last October 2006, the Peruvian government actually imposed a strict quota of 500 trekkers - porters and guides included - on a single day. Permits had to be applied for in advance and these, along with our passports, were scrutinized by wardens before we were allowed on the trail. This quota system was enforced as a way of controlling the crowd and the resulting effects of human traffic on the trail to Macchu Picchu (the UNESCO had threatened to strip Macchu Picchu of its World Heritage title had the Peruvian government done nothing).

Mt. Apo National Park, like all the national parks scattered all over the archipelago, deserves more protection and care. I wish we could enjoy Mt. Apo the way it was first climbed in 1880 in an expedition led by Don Joaquin Rajal. It must have been truly wild and more beautiful then. But as we know now, our own greed has changed the picture forever.

All is not lost however. Let's still do our share in protecting and caring for it. To those who will climb Mt. Apo, this Holy Week or at anytime of the year, please do your part. There are still others who will want to see and enjoy in the future what we see and enjoy right now.

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