There was a time when I spent endless days in the mountains, alone in the jungle enveloped by clouds and with only the wind for company at night. My favorite climb back then was a seven thousand foot mountain called Banahaw, in the Quezon Province of the Philippines. The mountain is not a particularly difficult climb, nor is it even technical. Although, I discovered that the dynamics of the climb changed significantly if done solo and in the off season. There is no real off-season in the Philippines though, I just decided to designate the rainy months of June through August as my own personal off-season because then there would be little chance of meeting anyone on the trail. The constant typhoons kept climbers from scaling its jungle-covered slopes during those brief few months. I was at the peak of my interest in climbing then, and I always found my way to the summit of Mount Banahaw on weekends to build strength for the tougher Mount Halcon climb. An annual “adventure pilgrimage” that I always scheduled in time with the Philippine archipelago taking a religious break to celebrate Holy Week traditions during the summer.
Honestly though, it was more of an act of devotion to the kind of adventure that I wanted to attain. I used to have a deep admiration for tough loner adventure-types, the ones that I read about in creased and dog-eared copies of climbing magazines I bought in bulk from discount stores. There were the Slovenians who seemed to revel in difficult situations, and then there were the Russian climbers who trained in the Tien Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan in the dead of winter. I pored over black and white pictures of climbers roped to a mountain face, knocking back canisters of vodka and smoking cigarettes while fixing gear on an overhanging wall. All of which, they did in the middle of a powerful blizzard. For me, they were the epitome of what an adventurer was supposed to be, nonchalant and steady. Even today, I prefer to look up to the outsider characters of adventure like the late Tomaz Humar and the constantly militant Steve House. Unfortunately for me though, there are no alpine peaks in the Philippines where I could emulate what I admired, and signing up for the group climbs at the university didn’t seem to fit the bill, and so I invented a challenge for myself to climb solo and mostly at night. I also had an unhealthy obsession with climbing as fast as I could, trying to set a “personal best” every time I climbed. I think the fastest I did was in Mount Banahaw as well, topping out on a night-time solo climb at three hours with a full pack. A direct result of getting riled up from reading too many stories about the audacious climbs of Steve House and the late great Alex Lowe. I, however, ended up with nothing more than an incredible headache at the summit that kept me awake the entire night, sipping endless cups of coffee and dealing with what felt like a clamp tightening around my head.
In hindsight, I was probably foolish and a little bit too affected by what I read in glossy climbing magazines. I had my head in the clouds, both figuratively and literally as I found myself regularly making my way up to the summit of Mount Banahaw in the dark – and in the midst of blinding white-outs. Climbing during the typhoon season also meant that most of the time, the wind was incredibly powerful every time I reached an area beyond the trees at the last hundred meters before the summit campsite. There were times that I literally had to crawl on all fours to avoid getting blown off the summit by the screaming wind. The summit of Mount Banahaw is a beautiful and an eerie place when you camp there by yourself, and not just alone in your tent, but alone on the entire mountain. Often, the entire camp would be enveloped by clouds just after sunset and I would do all my cooking and cleaning-up inside the tent. My dinner would consist mainly of rice and some cooked food that I would buy at the village at the foot of the mountain. A regular on my menu would be “Bopis”, a Filipino viand made from, what I suspect, is the innards of some unfortunate animal, chopped-up and sautéed in oil. It’s very tasty eaten with day-old rice re-heated in a pan with some garlic. The trick in cooking inside your tent in the Philippines is to not spill any of the food. If you do, chances are, you will wake up in the middle of the night with an army of ants trying to carry your body away to their underground lair for consumption.
At night, the wind would blow even harder and my tent would shudder violently from every angle, it would even sometimes flatten when the pegs that held it to the ground would get blown out. I would then have to put on two jackets and my shoes to go out and anchor it down again with rocks. This would go on all night, I also used to bring a cumbersome compact disc player with me, back when it was still the pinnacle of musical mobility. I would put on my headphones to drown out the sound of the storm outside my tent with the philosophical ramblings of the Stone Temple Pilots and the Gin Blossoms. It would be morning by the time I wake up and my CD player would be out of batteries. Most days, the sun would only come out for a few minutes in the morning before the clouds return with a vengeance. If I’m really unlucky, cold rain would pour down relentlessly while I broke down my tent and packed by bag. I would be drenched, cold, and secretly effervescent with happiness. The walk down the mountain is almost always easier, except on days when trees fall across sections of the trail and I would have to crawl my way across or under them with a large bag on my back. I discovered that the best way was to crawl ahead and pull my bag behind me, as one would when crawling through a tight passage in a cave. It’s slow going, but it almost always works fine. It was in one of these situations with a fallen tree that I met a man whose name is “Palad”, or “palm (of a hand)” in English. I didn’t notice him at first because he was covered in leaves and he wore clothes that seemed to blend very well with the vegetation. I almost doubled over in surprise when he suddenly said hello to me. I passed him on the trail without noticing that he was even there until he was mere inches away from me. At first, I was afraid that he was one of those communist insurgents that used to be as common place on the mountain as the wild berries that littered the trails. I had encountered them before, waving red flags in the jungle and singing revolutionary songs, but they pretty much left me alone the entire time I was climbing. I was only worried that maybe they wanted to take it to the next level and try to befriend me, which, to say the least, would have been a thoroughly complicated situation.
According to Palad, he was a “plant collector” who collected all sorts of herbs, plants, and magical items from the forest for the many mystics who live in communes at the foot of Mount Banahaw. Whenever he climbs up to the mountain, he doesn’t eat anything and his only source of nutrition is a jug of chocolate drink that hangs from his neck with a twist of vine. He says that this was necessary to ensure that his body was “pure” while he did his work. I didn’t know what he meant by it and I never did find out, but we became friends through the years, or “neighbors” as he put it. We never really spoke to each other though, we just said hello whenever we bumped into each other in the forest. Sometimes, we’d share stories and cups of “Swiss Miss” on the summit whenever he passed that way. Those were memorable times, climbing in the off-season was an almost spiritual thing. The only bad thing about it were the constant landslides and lightning strikes. Seeing a bolt of lightning reduce an entire tree into ash and pieces of glowing embers, in the midst of a white-out, is an incredibly strange experience – a “once in a lifetime” occurrence that not many people will probably get the chance to see. It is both a ghostly and electrifying scene, literally. I don’t know if the stump is still there but I watched the remainder of that tree burn to the ground. It was just above what is known as the “Kapatagan” campsite, about an hour from the summit.
My route down the mountain always took me past the hut of an old woman that locals knew as “Nana Cela”. I used to leave all my extra food and emergency supplies with her on my way down from the summit, including a good measure of Vick’s Vaporub that she said she used in healing people who came to her looking for mystical cures to all kinds of bodily ills – from warts to broken hearts, I imagine. She lived alone on the mountain and I’m not certain if anybody else knew her story, or if she even told the same story to everyone she shared it. According to her, she had found her way to Banahaw by accident during the troubled days of the last world war. She had walked all the way from Escolta in Manila where she worked as a cook. Her family had died in the aftermath of an artillery barrage coming from invading forces anchored in Manila Bay. Inconsolable from the tragedy, she walked until she somehow found her way to the forest at the foot of Mount Banahaw. Where, according to her, she had lived since then. She used to keep an old beat-up notebook where she wrote my name in a crudely drawn triangle shape surrounded by Latin words and phrases that she called the “Tres Pikas”, or “the three corners”. She said that the mountain told her that I would always be safe on Mount Banahaw, that the mountain would never let anything bad happen to me there. The skeptical would scoff at the pronouncements of an old woman who lives alone in the forest, but her old notebook and her conversations with the trees was what gave her purpose. It was her gig, so to speak, as we all have our own gigs in life. She’s no longer there the last time I checked. I dropped by her hut one day, on one of my last climbs on Mount Banahaw before the locals closed it off to the public for the last ten years, and discovered that Nana Cela had disappeared. Her small house in the middle of the forest, along with the chapel that she was building with tree branches and sheets of plastic, had slowly been reclaimed by the forest. All part of the story of a cloud-covered mountain and of strange and wonderful people from the far and secret corners of Mount Banahaw.
Geostride is an adventure and travel website of Myles Delfin featuring adventure destinations around the Philippines and beyond for camping, climbing, mountaineering, mountain biking, recreational and competitive cycling, or just places you can go when you just want to hop from one island to another.
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About The Author
Myles Delfin is an adventure writer and photographer whose work has appeared in major adventure and travel magazines in the Philippines. In addition to over twenty years of experience climbing most of the major mountains of the Philippines, he also has competitive experience in multi-day adventure racing as well as endurance cross-country mountain biking. These days, he is also busy producing adventure and expedition videos.