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The long hike up: Overcoming the Mount Pulag challenge

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It was barely 4:00 AM but I already felt like I was on the verge of an asthma attack as I take the final assault up the summit of Mount Pulag. Even if my legs and feet did not hurt, the path was still steep, the wind was freezing, the air was thin, and my thermal clothes were not enough to ward off the cold.

Swaying gently around me were dwarf bamboos. The ground was dusty and narrow but years of being used by hikers have made it less rocky and more accessible. It was still dark; the only source of light were the stars and my head flashlight. Everything was quiet except for the sound of my own ragged breathing.

As it turns out, climbing Mount Pulag is not as easy as others say. "What if I just give up?" I thought to myself several times. But no, I did not want to. I did not trek for an entire afternoon just to give up 30 minutes before I reach the finish line!

Thankfully, Kuya Rey, one of "Biyahe ni Drew's" cameramen, and Kuya Osep, one of our guides, stayed with me and gave me the much needed words of motivation. Their advice: "Konti na lang. Do not hurry and just enjoy the view."

On the way to Mount Pulag

Maybe it's because the place is relatively more accessible than other mountains. Maybe it's because of word-of-mouth. Whatever the reasons are, Mount Pulag has become one of the most popular choices for people who want to go up a mountain.

Mount Pulag's peak is 2,922 meters above sea level, making it the highest mountain in Luzon and the third highest mountain in the Philippines. Locals consider the place to be sacred and believe that the spirits of their ancestors reside in the mountain itself.

Meanwhile, tourists often call Mount Pulag "the playground of the gods" because of its breathtaking views and magnificent sceneries. These same views and sceneries have attracted both veteran climbers and beginners to brave the long and chilly trek to the mountain's summit.

Everyone who wants to climb Mount Pulag is required to attend a DENR orientation as this is where people learn about the history of the mountain. Since Mount Pulag is a sacred place for the locals and a protected tourist destination, rules were established to ensure that visitors will respect and take care of the area during their climb. We are not allowed to leave any garbage even if it is biodegradable. We are not allowed to make campfires. Shouting is a big no-no.

Once the orientation was over, we got our stuff from the van and transferred everything to the so-called "monster jeep" that would take us up the steep and rough road to the ranger station. This is the last place where electricity, food, and restrooms are readily available so it is advisable to make all the final preparations here. This is also where climbers could hire porters.

The climb

At around 2:00 PM, we finally started to climb Mount Pulag. People usually go up the mountain by taking the Ambangeg trail or the Akiki trail. The former is easier and usually takes three to four hours to finish. The latter is more difficult and could last for days. The BND team took the Ambangeg trail. While seasoned climbers and physically fit individuals would probably have no problems with it, those who are not used to moving around (Read: Me) would have to brace themselves for a challenging trek.

The Ambangeg trail has three campsites. It is easy to tell when you are about to reach the next camp because the terrain changes as you hike your way up. The path to the first camp is wide, stony, and dusty. Even so, the area is rich with all kinds of trees and flora. You also get a view of the cabbage and carrot plots planted by the residents below.

There were definitely more flowers and trees to see but I made the mistake of training my eyes solely on the road. First, because I was afraid of stumbling over stray rocks and second, because I forgot to bring shades or even a cap to protect my eyes from the sun. The thermals I wore underneath my shirt acted like a double-edged sword too. It worked as a wonderful cover against UV rays but it also made the heat more intense.

After reaching Camp 1, however, the surroundings got colder and darker, the ground got muddier, and mossy plants became more plenty. This part of the trail is also less steep compared to the other ones, making it one of my favorite parts of the whole trek.

Unfortunately, I was not in the condition to enjoy the mossy forest fully since I spent most of the time catching my breath. To make things worse, I brought too much stuff which turned out to be useless and only served to make the climb more difficult. On the brighter side, my hiking shoes and trekking pole prevented me from falling and having any scratches. Remember: Invest on a good pair of shoes! It will make your life easier.

Alas, we reached the second camp at least thirty minutes before the sunset. If I had been breathless from the climb, now I was breathless because of the view. Everything in sight was beautiful – the red clumps of trees, the golden grasslands, the purple color of the sky, the bright yellow sun disappearing behind a sea of clouds. It felt like we were in another world.

We were told that we were lucky because our trip was blessed with good weather. We also had the campsite all to ourselves, something other climbers do not experience especially because most people flock to the mountain during weekends.

The night was still young and if the wind was not as biting as it was, the evening would have been perfect for storytelling and stargazing. But if you want to reach the peak before sunrise, better sleep early!

Final assault

The sky was still littered with stars when we finally reached the summit of Mount Pulag. We spent the next thirty minutes shuddering beneath our thick jackets, gulping hot coffee, and wondering if the reward that will greet us would be worth it.

Slowly, small streaks of light began to mar the dark atmosphere, changing its color from black to purple and finally to a clear blue. It was a sight to behold – the bright sunlight illuminated the sea of clouds below us and turned the dull surroundings into a lovely green and gold. The accompanying heat brought by the sun was a welcome change.

Surrounded by dwarf bamboos peacefully swinging with the wind and faced with the majestic view of the sun peaking out of the clouds, I found it pretty easy to forget about the cold and my weariness. It is times like this when you simply admire what is in front of you and feel as if you are one with nature.

Indeed, it took all my strength and willpower to not give up during our climb up Mount Pulag. In retrospect, I really could have prepared for it better. Doing so might have made things easier and I might have enjoyed the view up and down the trail more.

Despite everything, conquering the mountain reminded me that it truly is possible for us to overcome anything as long as we put our minds and hearts (and bodies) to it, and that every struggle has a beautiful reward. Was the climb difficult? For inexperienced little me, it was. Was the dirt and sweat worth it? Absolutely.–BMS/Photos by Lara Gonzales

Read more about "Biyahe ni Drew's" Mount Pulag adventure:

Valentine's at Bokod, Benguet: Drew and Iya's 'Biyahe ni Drew' itinerary
INFOGRAPHIC: 5 things you need to know before climbing Mount Pulag
'Biyahe ni Drew' at Iya in Bokod, Benguet (Full episode February 13, 2015)