|Finally, a view of Mt Apo from Lake Venado|
Finally, the third leg of my Big Three has been completed. A few years back, I dreamed of traversing the three highest mountains of each island group in the country—Apo (Mindanao), Pulag (Luzon) and Kanlaon (Visayas)—within a day! In 2011 I ‘dayhiked’ Mt Pulag using the Akiki-Ambangeg route. I repeated the same journey in the same year with my trail running buddies Kevin and Buyco. Early this year, I traversed Mt Kanlaon with a triathlete friend Xerxis Tan via the Mapot-Guintubdan route. We finished the journey in around seven hours. Finally last month, Kevin again and I were able to secure a special permit to traverse Mt Apo via the the Mandaragan-Culan route.
It was my third time in Mt Apo and I was finally able to access it using the popular Kidapawan route, which is believed to be up for paving. I used the Kapatagan and Sibulan routes in my previous climbs. I would have to say, the Mandaragan (Kidapawan) trail is the best route to Mt Apo. The granddaddy of Philippine mountains is surrounded by some locals who would try to squeeze as much amount as they could out of your pocket. You won’t have to deal with this hassle if you take the Kidapawan route as it is well maintained and regulated by the Kidapawan City Tourism Council. There is hardly any house or local resident along the way compared to the Digos side of Mt Apo. Also, they have trained guides and porters who will choose a route, itinerary and pace commensurate with your capacity and climb specifications.
I arrived in Davao from Cebu around 8 am. I had to kill time at SM Lanang while waiting for Kevin who would be arriving from Manila around 12nn. After lunch we headed for the home of my friend where we left our baggage then we headed for Ecoland Bus Terminal bringing only our hydration packs. The bus ride from Davao City to Kidapawan City took around five hours but the tourism officer who had to cancel a meeting for us was still at his office patiently waiting. When all the necessary documentation was done, his assistant was more than kind to guide us around town to recommend a restaurant and get a habal-habal. And it was drizzling. It was a little less than an hour of smooth habal-habal ride before we finally got to Agko Mountain Resort. Much to our surprise, the natural hot spring pools in the resort were still crowded at that hour of night. Our guide who couldn't be contacted during the day happened to live right next to the resort. He dropped in around ten for a quick briefing before we had our respite for the exhausting day spent on air and land trips.
|start trek @0600hrs the hot spring pools are crowded again|
The morning was really cold but we managed to sneak out of our blankets and get ready for the trek. It was Kevin’s first time in Mt Apo so he was noticeably filled with excitement. As a matter of fact, there was excitement on his face throughout the journey. I, on the other hand, couldn’t stop worrying about trivial matters. It was a pleasantly cloudy day and the sun only came out every time there was a beautiful vista to be photographed. We had some clearing at the Marble River, Lake Venado and at the summit.
|Kevin: mesmerized by the beauty and serenity of Lake Venado|
During our ascent the guide’s three handsome dogs were trailing behind us. The guide had to continually drive them away with small stones. They would retreat but after about ten minutes they would appear again about a hundred meters behind us. They only got separated from us when they couldn’t find a way across Lake Venado. They kept barking very loudly as we hurried in our ascent to the summit, leaving them on the other side of the lake. At least that’s what we thought. At the summit, while our guide was having lunch and while Kevin and I were busy taking pictures, one of the dogs emerged amid the blueberry bushes! The guide’s frustration now turned to anger. I don’t know what he did but he was able to get rid of the dogs. The dogs wouldn’t have been a very big problem if we hadn’t had to descend on the other side of the mountain. It would be difficult to convey three dogs from Digos City back to Kidapawan.
|the dogs stranded on the other side of the lake|
Finally when we were ready to go down, I conditioned myself mentally and physically for a swift downhill run! But by some freak of fate, while I was skipping, a stiff branch got caught up in the Velcro lock of my trekking pants. That sudden halt gave me the most painful cramp I ever had! And it was barely two minutes after we started our descent. So much for a swift downhill run! Then it was the start of the intermittent showers. I had to use an improvised trekking pole throughout the descent. At the boulders, Kevin requested for some shots. Then in jest I remarked that the dogs were back. It was just a joke until we heard what sounded like a bark in the mist! The guide, in all his anger and frustration, went into the mist carrying a stick. A few moments later we heard a faint whimper and the guide was back. The dogs never came back afterwards. Then the rain got stronger. To many trekkers, rain is a problem. But for me, it is a blessing when trekking or running. I used to always pray for clear weather, but now that I don’t have to deal with the hassle of stowing moist tents and keeping dry while camping, I prefer to be cooled down by the rain when I’m running or trekking. Running in the sun will exhaust you easily and will deplete your hydration supply quickly. In the rain, you will hardly feel any thirst or any need to take a break. You just gotta make sure that your pack or your important stuff is waterproofed. It was an enjoyable trek for Kevin in the extra-terrestrially beautiful boulders section of Mt Apo. Too bad the sulphur vents were not very active that time. He could have seen more how different Mt Apo is than many of the mountains in the country!
|the misty boulders section|
The pain in my hamstrings started to ease and the rain let up as we entered the rain forest after the boulders part. It was a pleasure for me to retrace the steps I made there in 2010. I was delighted to anticipate every next spot in our downhill run. Finally when we were at our final descent to Sitio Culan, the rain got stronger again. And that was just perfect! It saved us from the questions and greetings of the local residents there. I know better what those remarks mean. But I prepared answers, just in case. I was thinking that if somebody were to charge us an exit fee, I’d just tell them to wait for our fictitious expedition leader who was well behind us taking care of his injured girlfriend. I’d say that they got the money and there were about twelve more of the party behind. Kevin and I were just tasked to secure habal-habal rides for the group. Thankfully we didn’t have to use this lie because the house of the president of the porters’ association in Culan was closed! This is the first house along the trail on your descent. You won’t miss it!
But I still had to deal with this anxiety as there were still more houses to pass by before the habal-habal terminal. Everyone knew what to say (and to expect) when they see strangers in the area. But a second option to the white lie is the ‘Blitzkrieg’ descent: just exchange a smile for a question and hurry down. Our guide got stranded for a bit, though, at the basketball court where he was interviewed by the local guys who were taking shelter in one of the small stores! It was the same spot where we got held up for a while in our climb in 2010. This basketball court seems to be the sitio square. Everyone gathers there come rain or come shine! In 2010, our guide had to buy those bystanders a gallon of tuba and socialize with them before we were granted smooth passage. Then at the last house we were charged a compulsory P200 porter’s fee even if we didn’t avail of their service. Our guide this time was apparently good at diplomacy so we were able to dodge this collection. After the basketball court, there were three more hurdles to clear—the Culan habal-habal terminal, the Kapatagan transport terminal and the military outpost in Kapatagan.
|@3pm with our guide at the habal-habal terminal in Sitio Culan|
I was worried that at the habal-habal terminal there would still be crooks who will try to milk us for exit fees. Luckily I still remembered the name of the habal-habal driver who took us to San Agustin from Culan in 2010. I just had to drop his name and he happened to be the driver next in line. I could no longer recognize his face. Anyway, because of familiarity, the negotiation was brief. But he couldn’t guarantee that the local drivers at the Kapatagan transport terminal would allow us to bypass them. When we passed by, we just averted the piercing gazes of the local drivers there and we got through. Finally, when we reached the military outpost along the road, there was nobody outside. I had been told by my guide before that the personnel manning this outpost would stop and search homeward bound climbers for proper documentation, without which the individuals would be charged exit fees on behalf of the tourism office of Digos City. Only when we got past the military outpost uninterrupted did all my anxiety disappear! I was like ‘Woohoo! Perfect Trip!’
Then for the first time in my life at the bus terminal in Digos City, I washed my body in a public toilet! It was not squeaky clean but it was well-kept by the janitor. And after washing up, I felt like I hadn’t just climbed! That was all that mattered! We got back to Davao City at around 7pm. We got a room at Sampaguita Tourist Inn then we remembered: We had not had lunch! It was time to celebrate!
How was that possible?
Mt Apo is almost impossible to climb in a day. It can only be conveniently done by a minimalist approach (i.e. climb with just your hydration packs). And you should train yourself to get by without the typical lunch of rice and meaty dishes. But minimalism isn’t easily achieved when you’re flying from another island. You really need to include at least two sets of change of clothes. Besides your trail running or trekking shoes, you also need slippers or sandals. I don’t know how you’re gonna fit them all in your hydration pack. But it really pays to have a friend in the vicinity. Other than just our hydration equipment, we brought along other stuff which we just left at my friend’s house in Davao City. Hydration pack and good friends! That’s all you need. The rest is just spirit and training.
People behind the scenes
The journey wouldn’t have been possible if not for the help of some friends. First I’d like to express my gratitude to my friend Jules Picato from the Philippine Skyrunning Association who herself had earlier completed her own version of the Big Three. She showed us four times that it was possible to run Mt Apo. If you’re still not inspired something’s wrong with you.
Second, I cannot thank Ms Gillan Lonzaga and the rest of the Kidapawan City Tourism Council enough for their hospitality and kindness. Ms Lonzaga is in charge of trekkers climbing Mt Apo via Kidapawan trails. I did not personally meet her as she had to leave for Manila during our climb. But she kept in touch with us before, during and after the journey, making sure that the expedition would go without a hitch!
Lastly, another friend that I never personally met is a guy who goes by the Facebook name Maximus Tercerus. We are Facebook buddies. Kevin and I left our baggage at their home in Davao City. During our visit, he was not in town but he introduced us to his mom through text. His mom was unbelievably accommodating. She reminds me of my mother who is also alone in my hometown for the better part of each year. We wanted to spend more time at their home but we had to catch our flights. And this I gotta say, Facebook could be really helpful sometimes. It breaks barriers for fellowship.