The year 2006 will remain an important milestone in Philippine mountaineering history. That year, the battle cry of the First Philippine Mount Everest Expedition "Kaya ng Pinoy!" reverberated across the country when Leo Oracion set foot on the roof of the world saying "Kung kaya ng Pinoy umakyat ng Mt Everest, kaya ng Pinoy magbago"! Indeed one faction of the Philippine society changed. With that feat and the social media, more and more Pinoys have become inclined with the outdoors. The only difference is that it's much easier now! With just one click, one can already be a part of Wave 76 of a Mt Pulag eco tour! I remember a time when climb itineraries were still hunted printouts. That was also the time when mountaineering clubs were scrambling for the few remaining meteorological terms like hamog, unos, ulap and bagyo which had not yet been used by other groups to name their club. These days, those clubs are starting to find competition in the growing number of tour operators catering to backpacking and climbing. And that's the rule of the game now! You only need to be a member of a Facebook group and wait for a PTP Admin post and you are one step away from your first legit climb! No more training climbs, no more BMC; just your non-refundable reservation deposit!
Don't get me wrong! These tours are not altogether bad. They give people a different perspective on beauty and an opportunity to appreciate nature and test personal limits. However, this overwhelming surge of mountain tourists in cooperation with the DOT's goal to maximize income via accessibility and convenience has somehow obliterated mountaineering from the scene, at least in the Greater Manila Area. What used to be a test of balance and scrambling skills has been replaced by the safety of banisters along the concreted footpaths that afford a selfie worthy of the hashtag abovetheclouds. What used to be a test of strength and self-sufficiency has now been rivaled by a 500-peso-per-day porter fee just so the gang can feast on some sumptuous sinigang on a mountaintop without a water spout...and at the same time have room for a boom box just so some pe€pe€ shorts can grind to the beat of Twerk It Like Miley, oblivious of the locals' value for the peace and sanctity of their ancestral domain. But why would the local tourism officers care when money keeps pouring in? The environmental fee, on top of the registration, and other alibis to collect money are the only things that concern them. When you choose to take the trail without banisters and not go through the tourism protocol get ready for a barrage of "ang tigas naman ng ulo" or "napakairesponsable naman" and of course the ever resounding admonition to every adventure--"Safety First". Congratulations if the tourism office doesn't ban you from the place for not paying the P160 entrance fee!
This dogma has pervaded the whole travel industry. The problem is that this is a widely misunderstood concept. And its misunderstood version has already encroached upon the realm of adventurism. I completely agree that tour operators should strictly implement Safety First. But it always leaves me perplexed when this is being shoved down the throats of adventure seekers. As Regie Pablo recounts, each of the members in his climbing party already entertained the thought that one or some of them would die in their Mt Everest expedition--two actually died. Were they violating the Safety First rule when they decided to climb Mt Everest despite the knowledge that there is a fat chance that they could die? What does Safety First really mean? Because if it means avoiding risks then we are all guilty of the violation. Every activity has its attendant risk. You step outside and you run the risk of getting hit by a truck. You talk with a closed-minded guy, you could be risking the lives of your loved ones. And in case you haven't heard, someone died just playing Clash of Clans. In the field of mountain climbing, an experienced trekker with good gear, climbing Mt Tagpaya in a storm may be safer than a mountourneer climbing Mt Maculot with a pair of running shoes and in a pair of skinny jeans on a sunny day. But for convenience, the department of tourism has just taken out of consideration the vagueness and relative nature of the Safety First principle and just adopted its purist form. They have simplistically equated Safety First with, guess what, getting a guide--a tour guide trained to tell the story of each monument in the course of the journey. And of course, since the department of tourism is a big sales department, they are expected to take every opportunity to discuss possible future sale such as a newly discovered waterfall or the oldest house in the village. The department of tourism is somehow gearing them more to be indigenous versions of Carlos Celdran than dependable stalwarts of safety. These guides probably don't know the role of electrolytes or the traction of shoes in the activity the climbers are engaging in. They probably don't know how to read whether a climber is really coping or just struggling but about to faint. No wonder some climbers were given the go signal by the authorities in the middle of a storm signal number 1 all because they availed of the services of 'authorized' guides. And this is the candid interpretation of the department of tourism for the Safety First policy--a blatant pretext for generating income. They have used the incidence of fatalities in the mountains to draw up a resolution requiring all, and I mean including Romi Garduce, to get a guide when climbing Mt Maculot! But the truth is, it is just a plain statistical axiom: the more climbers, and I mean much more than when a certain Prana died in Mt Halcon, the more chances for casualty. It has nothing to do with climbers becoming irresponsible.
But the impact it has on the mountaineering community transcends monetary issues. It is even more fatal than mountaineering accidents themselves. The Safety First principle has suppressed the fervor in every potential adventurer in the country. This seemingly all-encompassing travel dictum is probably the reason why I no longer hear of another UP Saklang Mountaineers summiting Alto Peak with just a physical topographic map, a compass and the technical know-how; no more AMSI and IMC racing to summit Mts Baloy, Madja-as and Nangtud first; no more CNMS exploring the enchanted Mt Talinis. Safety First has become the determining requirement for travel. And if the mountaineering community doesn't take action, securing a permit for an exploratory climb might soon become as tough as keeping your Balikbayan box safe from the BOC. And eventually everyone might just learn to accept the conspiracy that mountourneering is the actual meaning of Philippine mountaineeering.
This is not a call to disregard safety in our expeditions or to discredit our helpful guides. This is a call to truly understand the relative nature of Safety First. And most importantly this is to encourage everyone not to allow Safety First to create a stigma for adventurism. And once you've fully understood the scope of Safety First, use this knowledge in conjunction with your BMC in order to become responsible mountaineers.
BUT WHAT IS MOUNTAINEERING?
I am not a mountaineer yet. I am a trekker. Perhaps mountaineering is just like reading this article. You see nothing visually attractive in it and you somehow know that it is an ordeal to read it 'till the end.But you decide to read it anyway because maybe you think you'll get something out of this. I guess that is the hallmark of mountaineering. It is HARD and RISKY but it is a rare opportunity to LEARN and GROW as a person. Beauty is just a bonus!
The Filipino mountaineers I knew when I started climbing just looked to the horizon. When they saw an imposing elevated ground they'd decide to climb whether or not there is an established trail. They had no idea whether it was beautiful up there. They knew it was gonna be TOUGH and RISKY that's why they had to utilize the knowledge and skills they got from BMC and from personal experience. Safety First for them meant "Let's do something to mitigate the risk". It didn't mean "Abort mission". They'd face the challenge in anticipation of the rewarding feeling after having learned how much they could bear and how far they could go, and very often, the bonus of the beauty of nature and camaraderie in the companionship. And because their expeditions were tough, they naturally developed a very good sense of humor to relieve their physical and psychological pain. They're definitely not the ones who'd comb the Internet for pictures of sea of clouds and good campsites and say "Ui girl akyat tayo dito o. 3.5k lang daw di na kailangan magdala ng tent"! Beauty has become a necessary ingredient in climbing. And because mountourneering is easy and fun and necessarily beautiful, the mountourneers have naturally developed a good sense of self-importance and bragging rights!
This is not a call to erase the mountourneers from the face of the planet. Let them be. Theirs is a totally different culture--an evolved tourist culture.
This is a call to revive Philippine mountaineering. When the Philippine flag was first seen on top of Mt Everest, more and more Pinoys turned to climbing: in fact, too many now as to leave the Ambangeg Trail fully-booked in all weekends until March 2016. This big number has homogenized mountaineers among tourists. Many potential mountaineers have been swallowed in the immense sea of mountourism. The invaluable lessons they've learned from their BMC are put to waste.
And while other sports have evolved and progressed, mountaineering has taken a backseat and allowed the inadequacy and the incapacity of the mountourneers in cooperation with the Department of Tourism to dictate the standards for mountaineering. Trailrunners have recently completed the 444-km Cordillera Great Traverse. The Philippine Skyrunning Association has already taken the secretary general's seat in the International Skyrunning Federation and has produced podium finishers in the Asian Circuit. And quite recently, three Filipino skyrunners finished the prestigious Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). On my part as a trekker, I have just completed my Benguet Thirteen--an uninterrupted 350-km trekking route passing through all the thirteen municipalities of Benguet. It is sad that mountaineers, the inspiration of many trailrunners and trekkers, seem to be hibernating or just dead.
Authentic Philippine mountaineering can probably only be found today in the Visayas, especially in Iloilo and Antique, and Mindanao. This is a very crucial point in Philippine mountaineering history. The overwhelming noise of the mountourneers in Metro Manila may eventually swallow the few remaining mountaineers in the south. If mountaineering is not clearly delineated from tourism sooner than the department of tourism could draw up limiting and restrictive policies, it might be too late.