Conquering the Mt Pulag Trek and the Elusive Sea of Clouds

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The Mt Pulag trek was high on the to do list, but was one of those things that kept getting pushed back. So i had to take the opportunity over the extended Christmas break to get up there into those mountains and get it done. While the trek itself is not the biggest physical test you will face, it is definitely a test of how much you can accomplish on no sleep. These two day tours offer very little time for any shut eye.

We did the trip with Trail Adventours. They were fantastic! Our tour guide Jackie was a champion and a very down to earth chick that just loved the mountains. She looked after us well.

The anti sleep marathon starts early with the overnight bus to Baguio. The windy roads do not allow for much comfort on the bus as you shift around in your seat at every turn. Then the 3am arrival and long jeepney ride doesn’t offer any more comfort. The tour takes you to three sites along the way, when all everyone wants to do is sleep. So it is a long day.

As we got higher and higher into the mountains the faces around me sank more and more. I found great amusement in watching the row of ten girls in front of me, all with eyes closed and holding on to the hand rail above their head, bounce side to side in unison at every bump. It almost looked like a puppet show. Or maybe my brain was playing tricks on me.

The only part of the day that really sucked was the stop at a hospital so everyone could get a medical check prior to receiving their climbing permit. A step that would be better arranged pre-tour. This took a couple of hours and was a trying time just sitting around in the heat.

The arrival to the homestead was welcomed by all. The chance to sleep was near! First a good wash was in order. You could pay a few pesos to get a heated bucket of water. Only two buckets could be warmed at a time and there was a long wait. I thought i would man up and go for the cold water, and boy that mountain water was cold!!! Refreshing and invigorating at the same time but you really had to grit your teeth to pour it over yourself.

Something i will never understand about provincial toilets is that they never have a toilet seat on them. I am not sure why this piece of wonderful technology has not made it out this far. Who wants to try and take a shit while hovering in mid air burning those quad muscles? I was tipped off to the technique of placing one arm on the back wall to take some of the weight. The added challenge was trying to not make too much of a scene while doing this as quickly as possible so i would not draw the attention of the crowd of girls just outside waiting for their warm water bucket. Definitely one of the more awkward shits of my life.

Now that i had taken care of business it was time to sleep!! By the time this was done it was getting towards 7pm. While exhausted, how on earth was I to get to sleep at 7pm? So i lay there and relaxed, and eventually drifted off some time after 8. The alarm going off at midnight was a rude shock!

I was excited to get started on the trek and was a little apprehensive about the challenge ahead. I had no idea how i would handle it, and my lazy ass hadn’t really done much research into this. But we were fairly fit and feeling confident. After the obligatory group photo at the start of the climb we were off.

We were in a group of about 25 people, but ten minutes into the trek we found ourselves with just us, the guide and two other trekkers from Hong Kong. The group was way behind! After stopping at camp one, and then camp two we found ourselves there by 2.30am. Perhaps this climb was going to be easier than i thought.

So we basically had nothing to do for two hours. It was pretty cold once you stopped moving and we all huddled around a campfire to keep warm. The we could do nothing else but wait. All i could think was that i should have slept for another two hours and let the group go. We would have caught up with them for sure!

As the group trickled into camp, and those in the campsite started to emerge form their cocoons we all prepared to move out. By this time there was a thick haze in the air and what seemed like a light drizzle. But you couldn’t really tell. A this point I was starting to worry about how terribly underprepared we were for these conditions. I had packed my thermals i had from my last snowboarding trip, but i had actually packed these in anticipation of a freezing bus ride, not a freezing mountain. I was so grateful that i had these with me!

As we set off the pace of the group was again slow and we eventually worked our way to the front, and moving ahead until we hit group after group making their way up the mountain. Many walking slower than someone window shopping in a mall. Even with the slow pace we still made it to the peak about 45 minutes before sun rise… again my mind thought of the wasted sleep opportunity. This was quickly overcome with thoughts that i may freeze to death up here! The wind was not like anything I imagined, and it was colder than anything i would have ever expected in the Philippines – duh! We were 3,000m up in the air! Obviously i didn’t think this through properly.

We huddled under a bush to block the relentless wind and waited for the sun rise. This was the moment that all of this was for, we wait and hoped that we would be greeted with the sea of clouds. I was so excited, but freezing my ass off!

As the tour group again trickled in the sky started to brighten. We got closer and closer to the time of sunrise…. and then it passed. The sky wasn’t going to get much lighter. We were in a sea of haze, not above the sea of clouds. So while this was disappointing we were still happy to have made it. We cracked open our can of celebratory San Mig Light, cheersed, and enjoyed the coldest of cold ones.

As we reached the point of unbearable cold, good old Jackie turned up with a big pot of hot 3 in 1 coffee. It was the most amazing thing ever to feel that warmth at that moment. This got us in great spirits to start the descent.

There was a number of different tracks in the grass that had been flattened. So we picked a path, sat on our ass, and pushed our way down the hill like we were on a bobsled. It was either that or slip and slide our way down anyway. Then we started on the muddy trail back down.

The way down was good for comedy value with regular slipping and sliding, and the odd fall. As we descended the conditions became slightly more bearable and we even got a bit of sunshine. By this time we were soaking wet. Our flimsy ponchos had held out long enough to get us through, but everything we had was wet and damp by this time. So we trudged our way down.

By the time we hit the road the knees were starting to ache. It didn’t occur to me that the group of guys hanging out by the side of the road with a bunch of motorbikes were there as the local taxi service. I would have happily paid for a ride the rest of the way. From that point on every step was becoming painful with the tendon running alongside my knee burning. So this was the slowest part of the trip. By this time we were alone and had no idea if we were going the right way to the homestead. We stopped to ask someone who was working in the fields if he knew where it was. He looked up, and the ran off in the other direction. Not sure why – we thought we were being friendly. It was a funny moment though.

We eventually made it back to the homestead, because we were there earlier than the others we had first dibs on the warm water buckets. Before that i was headed back to that dreaded toilet to get in before the girls arrived to huddle around again. One thing i had not thought of is how the legs would hold up in this hover position after eight hours of walking. By the time i realised what i was in for it was too late! I was past the point of no return. The legs were burning, shaking, i had to dig deep to hold my nerve and not collapse. It was a true test of character and resilience! If i can conquer the mountain surely i can conquer this… I am proud to say i made it without incident.

This was one of the most satisfying showers of my life. And it was done out of a bucket.

Time to sleep!

After catching a couple of hours i enjoyed sitting outside just taking in the mountain views. It is such a peaceful part of the country and i was loving the colder weather (now that i was dry). As everyone made it back we traded stories of the night that was and again more photos with the Adventures crew. Now we just have the long jeepney ride back to civilisation and we are headed home!

We did this trip at the end of a couple of weeks of travel with my brother who had visited me for the first time in the Philippines. After spending most of our time on various islands and beaches this was a very different experience and definitely felt like more of an adventure. But i guess that comes with doing anything for the first time. So i was happy that we got to share a first time experience rather than me just showing him around to all my favourite places.

The best tip i can give anyone looking to do this, go in summer time. Less chance of rain, and a better chance of seeing the illusive sea of clouds. I still hope to experience this one day and will come back better prepared, and hopefully well rested!

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