Mount Pulag was my first test in independently navigating a place I've never been, in a country where I don't speak the language, and trying to walk up a large hill.
I started the journey to the top at 1:00am in Manila where I took a bus to Baguio. I slept as much as I could on the bus, but it was FREEZING cold. The air condition was on full blast with no way to turn it down or direct it somewhere other than right down on you. People all over the bus where trying creative ways to not freeze to death. I just tried to cuddle with the random guy next to me in the least creepy way possible. It was a problem.
We arrived in Baguio at 6:30am. I walked through town about a mile and a half to a different bus station. I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking for. I just knew it was on Slaughterhouse Road, so that was reassuring. I found a place with lots of buses and passenger vans so I figured I was in a good spot if not the right spot. I asked a friendly looking guy sitting next to a van how to get to Pulag, and he happily told me that this was my van. I was looking for a bus, but a van works just as well. Actually this same kind of thing happened in Peru. A passenger van is not a bad way to travel 1-3 hour distances as long as you have some room to wiggle your toes at least. It's cheap too. The 2 hour drive cost me about $2.50.
I was dropped of with one other person from the van in Ambangeg. We were in the mountains now. The drive was a narrow, winding road. We passed a couple small communities, followed a very wide and rocky riverbed, saw a huge dam and hydroelectric power station, and climbed up and down many huge green mountains. In Ambangeg I registered my trip, paid the park entrance fees, and watched an orientation video. I learned Pulag means bald in the native language, and there are little mice that hop around like kangaroos eating earthworms. From here it was six miles to the ranger station at the actual entrance to the park. The nice lady at the park office said I could get a ride on a motorbike. I asked if I could walk it. She said, "Some people walk it. Follow this road. Go up. If you go down, you are going the wrong way."
And she was right. Up it was. Six miles, three hours fifteen minutes, twenty something pound pack, two very tired legs of up. The path was a small paved road winding very steeply up the mountain. Granted I am not in the hiking shape I was a year ago, but I think this would have been a tough climb for any thru hiker. An elevation gain of about ---- in those six miles. I was hoping to get some good views along the way and I did. I also passed through a couple communities with school children who would see me and run away laughing or run up and excitedly say, "What is your name?" They would follow me for a little bit through town. They were super cute. I'm glad I walked those six miles, but I wouldn't do it again. And I wouldn't recommend it to anyone unless they really like walking uphill.
When I finally got to the ranger station they were waiting for me. They knew I was walking up and had a guide waiting on me to take me up to the camp. You have to hire a local guide to hike up to the camp and the summit at Mount Pulag. The local people farm vegetables on these mountains as their main source of income. Their farms are continually creeping ------ up the mountain, taking out forests along the way. The Environmental Department is trying to preserve the natural beauty of Mount Pulag. In order to do this they needed to provide the local people with a second source of income - guiding tourists up and down the mountain. The mountain isn't so difficult that you actually need a guide; a simple map would do the job. But they are doing their best to preserve the mountain, and you have to respect that.
We hiked up the three and a half miles to the campsite in no time. It was way easier than the previous six miles I had walked. It was much less steep, and we were on a proper trail so I felt at home. There were four other hikers here for the night. They were all from Manila and very friendly. Everyone was excited to be there. They quickly gave me a beer, and I gave them some M&M's - seems like hiking is pretty universal. The camp was on the edge of the tree line pretty far up the mountain, and we were on the tallest mountain around so we had a good view all around us. There were storm clouds and lightning in the distance, but who knows how far away they were because we could see for miles and miles. I went to bed at about 7:00pm just after watching a nice sunset partly to be ready for the 4:00am hike to the summit the next morning and partly because I was exhausted and hurting everywhere.
I didn't bring a tent with me on this trip. My shelter is a SOL ------. It's a small waterproof, wind proof bag that looks like what you would put a dead body in honestly - except it's bright orange. With my sleeping pad, sleeping bag liner, fleece blanket, and extra clothes for warmth in there with me, there is absolutely no room to move when it's all zipped up. Also it is just a drawstring closure over my head and the top doesn't close completely when everything is packed in. I was wondering how this would play out in the rain. It didn't rain so I will just have to test this out another time. I'll keep you posted.
4:00am came at the normal time that 4:00am comes. The two and a half mile hike to the summit took about an hour. It was chilly but not cold, and the moon was full and bright. Hiking through the grasslands with no trees to block the moonlight you didn't even need a headlamp. The moon set at 4:30am in the Philippines and headed west where you might have seen it. Sunlight was starting to brighten the eastern sky. There were large clouds out in the horizons but the valleys around us were clear. It looked like an ocean. The far off clouds painted an endless sea and the nearby mountains were waves crashing bigger and bigger as they got closer to you. It was a beautiful sight that I had to myself (and my guide) for about an hour before the rest of the group made it to the summit. Then there were high fives and pictures - universal hiking behavior again.
The hike back down was much better in the daylight. Not much beats walking two and a half miles on a grassy bald mountain top with clear skies and a cool mountain air. Not much.