I was born in the mountains – in Baguio, a highland city cradled within the towering peaks and pinnacles of the Cordillera. The Cordillera (officially the Cordillera Central, or sometimes, the Cordilleras) is a chain of mountains running on a north-south line along the northwestern coast of the island of Luzon. It is the largest and loftiest mountain range in the Philippines, encompassing some of the tallest summits anywhere in the country. Among these are the three highest peaks in Luzon: Pulag (2,922 meters or 9,587 feet above sea level), which is also the Philippines’ third highest mountain; Tabayoc (2,842 meters or 9,324 feet above sea level), the Philippines’ seventh highest; and Timbak (2,717 meters or 8,914 feet above sea level), the Philippines’ ninth highest.
In Baguio, however, high hills dominate much of the landscape. The towering mountains are found further afield, in the surrounding upland towns of Benguet province. In the parts of the city where I grew up, mountains are a rare scene. And being neither adventurous nor outdoorsy while young, for I was bereft of opportunities to travel outside of Baguio then, the sight of mountains are thus foreign to me.
The truth is, I have never climbed a mountain in my entire life, save for Mount Inari in Kyoto during a two week trip to Japan in the autumn of 2018. It was an easy climb, a literal walk along serpentine stairs of many thousand steps that wound their way to the very summit of the 233 meter- (764 feet-) tall mountain. It was a brief yet fulfilling hike, but it left me wanting more.
Here in the Philippines, however, I have never climbed a peak nor scaled a pinnacle. I have been to Mount Cabuyao some five years ago with my family, but by no means could I count that as a proper hiking – much less mountaineering – experience.
As the years passed the longing for adventure grew in me. Whenever we would travel in and out of Baguio, passing through the Marcos Highway, Kennon Road, or Naguillan Road, we would be feted with the majesty of the Cordilleras in full display. I would behold verdant mountains with forested slopes, sometimes shrouded in mist and cloud; craggy peaks with sheer, stony walls and rugged, rocky faces; and in the distance, the faint outlines of lofty, blue ridges and ranges.
And every time I saw mountains, I knew they called out to me, dared me, mocked me. I grew increasingly restless. My burgeoning desire to climb, to conquer mountains reached feverish heights. But I bided my time, trusting in the future that the moment would come.
But the years wore on and I grew older. I was now 25 and I haven’t even climbed a mountain in my home country. I decided I could wait no longer. It was time.
Thrilled to finally start my foray into mountaineering, I began searching for mountains located not too far from Baguio, and are manageable for beginners like me. Mount Santo Tomas and Mount Cabuyao of Tuba, which are situated southwest of the city, came to mind almost immediately. But those peaks have been closed to mountaineers and tourists due to an ongoing reforestation program. I decided to look north instead, to La Trinidad.
The Municipality of La Trinidad, the capital of Benguet, is a town sprawled on a valley north of Baguio, hemmed in by a wall of hills and mountains. Renowned foremost for its strawberry fields, vegetable farms, and flower gardens, La Trinidad is also swiftly becoming a popular hiking destination owing to its two premier mountains – Mount Kalugong and Mount Yangbew.
Kalugong and Yangbew rise above the central barangays (villages) of the valley town, standing almost next to each other. Kalugong, the smaller of the two, has an elevation of 1,472 meters (4,829 feet) above sea level. Its summit affords a scenic view of the valley of La Trinidad, as well as the nearby hills of Baguio and the surrounding mountains of the Cordillera range. At its summit is Mount Kalugong Cultural Village, a privately-owned park encompassing pine woods, picnic grounds, and a scattered mass of impressive limestone formations. A particular array of these limestone rocks is shaped akin to a hat, thus the mountain’s name kalugong, the Ilocano term for “hat”.
I have heard of Kalugong several times before, and have noted its accessibility to novices like me. I decided Kalugong will be my first proper mountaineering conquest.
The Ride to La Trinidad
I woke up on a dark January dawn. After a small breakfast, a cup of coffee, and a shower, I was out in the cold by 5 A.M. I had taken lengths to pack my things the night before, so as to expedite my departure. I had read that the sunrise in Mount Kalugong is absolutely stunning, and I wanted to see that for myself. According to the weather forecast, the sun will rise over La Trinidad by 6:27 A.M., so I had to set out early to race the sun to the summit.
From home, I walked towards the Pine City Doctors’ Hospital, which lies past the flyover on Magsaysay Avenue (which is linked to the Halsema Highway) where all jeepneys, and all vehicles for that matter, heading to La Trinidad pass by. There I intend to secure my ride to Mount Kalugong.
I walked briskly in the cold dawn air, which I was certain was around 11 degrees Celsius (51.8 degrees Fahrenheit), to warm up my limbs. The sky was still dark, and only a few vehicles were out on the road.
I reached the hospital a few minutes later. I stopped before its gated entrance, alongside the road, and made sure to stand just beneath a streetlamp, letting its orange light illuminate me completely so I would not be mistaken for a robber or a holdupper. Patiently I stood waiting for a jeepney approaching from the flyover.
I had inquired the day before about transportation to Mount Kalugong, and I was advised by a jeepney barker to ride a jeepney bound for Tomay (this is because, as I learned afterwards, jeepneys of the Baguio-Tomay line pass by Barangay Cruz, where the trailhead to Kalugong lies). I was specifically told not to ride a jeepney bound for Buyagan.
At this early hour, only a few vehicles, and still fewer jeepneys, were traveling along the road. In the darkness of dawn, with streetlamps very few and far between, I could barely read the signs painted on the jeepneys’ sides which indicated the route they were plying. I strained my eyes peering into the gloom, to no avail. In desperation, I decided to simply hail every passing jeepney and trust to luck that I would get the right one.
The first jeepney I hailed was Buyagan-bound, but I only found that out when it had already stopped in front of me. Instead, even though I already knew the answer, I still asked the driver if he would pass by Kalugong. He replied, kindly, that he would not, and that I would have to ride a Tomay jeepney instead. I thanked him and watched as he sped away.
The second jeepney was also headed to Buyagan. Again, I posed the same question to the driver and got the same answer, also in a kindly manner. I thanked the driver and he drove off.
Finally, the third jeepney I hailed proved to be the right one. It was of the Baguio-Tomay line. I guess the third time really is the charm. Even as the jeepney came to a halt in front of me, I noticed that it was empty save for the driver. I climbed aboard and moved right up behind the driver.
“Manong, idjay ak Mount Kalugong. Manu ti pliti? (Older brother, I am headed to Mount Kalugong. How much is the fare?)” I asked.
I already knew the answer, of course, having read about it from a travel blog. I only wanted to make sure. My Ilocano was rusty, but I was determined to speak it instead of Tagalog. Ilocano is the lingua franca in Baguio City and is also one of the more common languages in Cordillera.
“12,” he replied.
I handed him twelve pesos in coins, which I had already prepared beforehand, and moved back to the farthest end of the seat, close to the jeepney entrance.
Now the jeepney rumbled to life, speeding north along the largely empty highway in the dim light of dawn. From the open jeepney entrance, I watched as we swept past shops and stores with closed doors and shut windows, streetlights with orange glows, and vehicles parked on the wayside. Behind these loomed dark and massive shapes I knew were hills and slopes dotted with numerous houses.
Cold wind rushed against my face, and borne along it was the sweet, strong, and intoxicating scent of gasoline. I thought it smelled of adventure.
We left Baguio and entered La Trinidad. Every now and then the jeepney would stop to pick up passengers. On any other day the jeepney would be filled to capacity. But at this early hour, there were only a few people up and about; only five other passengers joined me inside the jeepney. There was also no traffic. This particular section of the Halsema Highway that linked Baguio to La Trinidad is usually crowded. But not at this hour.
As we moved through the commercial and business district of La Trinidad, I watched the town stir to life. There were more lights here, more noises, more people. Some were opening their shops and unloading cargos from trucks, delivery vans, and other vehicles. Others were standing along the road, waiting for public transportation to take them to work, or school, or to some errand that need doing at this early hour.
I have been to La Trinidad a few times before, and the farthest I have ever reached in these central parts of the town was the Strawberry Farm. But Mount Kalugong lies further. We rolled past the La Trinidad Municipal Hall, and, after a few minutes, we passed the road that led to the Strawberry Farm. From here on out everything was new to me. Slowly the jeepney emptied as the other passengers, having reached their destinations, alighted. Eventually, only three of us were left – me, the driver, and one other young man.
Now the jeepney reached a fork on the highway. It took the path that led to the right, passing over a concrete bridge spanning across the Balili River (I later learned that the road to the left was already Buyagan Road, but the road to the right was still the Halsema Highway – formerly the Baguio-Bontoc National Road – which led to the northern towns of Benguet and the Cordilleran provinces that lie beyond).
The night before, I had consulted Google Maps for directions to Mount Kalugong. It recommended I take a minor road that branched off from Halsema Highway before it (the highway) reached the bridge over the Balili. This minor road went through the grounds of the Benguet State University, and eventually led to Mount Kalugong. But we were long past that road now.
I began to wonder if the driver had perhaps forgotten about me or my destination. Normally, passengers aboard jeepneys, once they reach their destinations, would simply call out “para” to the driver so he can stop the jeepney, allowing the passengers to alight. But now that we were past the route that Google Maps indicated, I was no longer sure when and where to say “para”.
I grew nervous. Worriedly, I reached for my phone in my pocket to check my location on Google Maps. But at that very moment, the driver brought the jeepney to a halt.
“Itoyen ti Kalugong (This is already Kalugong),” he said.
Surprise and relief washed over me at the same time. I looked out of the window and saw we had stopped in front of a minor road that diverged from the highway and climbed on a very steep slope, winding its way through rows of concrete houses.
“Sumrek ak ita? (I’ll enter through that?)” I asked tentatively, pointing to the uphill road. It looked dangerously steep.
“Wen, wen (Yes, yes),” he replied.
“Sumangat kata (Climb up there),” the one other passenger volunteered helpfully.
“Sige, salamat manong, ah. Salamat, ading (All right, thank you, older brother. Thank you, younger brother),” I called out to the driver and the one last passenger as I disembarked. The jeepney drove off into the darkness.
Journey in the Dark
I stood looking at the steep road that wound uphill until it was lost from view, wondering if this really was the right path. I had read something about an uphill road passing through a residential area that eventually led to the summit. But I wasn’t sure if this was it.
So the route to Mount Kalugong that Google Maps recommended I take was wrong (I later learned that such route is indeed no longer viable). This, apparently, was the trailhead to the summit.
Doubt gnawed my mind for a moment. But almost immediately I dispelled it. I trusted the jeepney driver. After all, the jeepney and taxi drivers of the Cordilleras are renowned for their honesty. Besides, I knew that the jeepney driver had far more knowledge of these parts than me or even Google Maps. Comforted at last with such thoughts, I strode forward and began the ascent uphill.
It was a very steep road. I reckoned it was inclined, more or less, on a 25 degree angle. I could be wrong, of course. But steep roads such as this are ubiquitous in the rugged and mountainous provinces of the Cordillera. And being a Cordilleran, I am quite used to walking on steep slopes.
Clusters of concrete houses, some of which were several stories high, rose on either side of the road, interspersed with vacant lots overgrown with vegetation. Most of the houses stood dark and silent, but some were already lit, and from within these came the sounds of early morning activities.
With only a handful of lampposts to light the way, much of the road lay in darkness. I had to switch on my phone’s flashlight for illumination. In the glow of the bright, white light, I could see my breath steaming through the frigid air as I labored uphill.
I passed many dogs along the way. Most of them were friendly, wagging their tails jovially as they drew near to sniff at my legs and fingers. Others were content to watch me pass by. But there were some that trailed me at a distance, staying just outside the reach of my phone’s light, their luminous eyes like orange pinpricks in the darkness. However, they did eventually give up and turn back once they were convinced that I wasn’t there to cause any mischief, like going after their bones and buried treasures.
I’m not afraid of dogs. I’m very fond of animals actually, especially of dogs. I was more concerned with snakes. A very irrational thought, of course, as I was certain I had an infinitesimal probability of chancing upon snakes along the way. While I’m not suffering from ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), I must admit that, at times, I worry about encountering those reptiles.
Fortunately (or as expected), I did not stumble onto any snakes along the way – no long, slithering body stretched across the road; no straight, rod-like form reared up and ready to strike; and most especially, no massive, gaping maw about to devour me whole. I really need to stop watching snake videos on YouTube.
I carried on through the uphill road. It was a very narrow road, wide enough for only one vehicle to pass through. Indeed, on two occasions, I had to retreat to the roadside, among the dense grass and bushes, to give way to an oncoming vehicle. Apart from my flashlight, I also kept my phone’s screen brightness level as high as possible, so as not to risk being accidentally run down. Besides, I didn’t want to look like a robber out to steal from houses or innocent passersby.
After more than ten minutes of trudging up the steep slope, the road finally evened out. To my left, a massive radio tower soared above a row of houses. But I had walked no further than ten meters along the level ground when I stopped. The road ahead was barred by a gate anchored to a guardhouse. It was closed.
The Long Wait
Slowly I approached the gate and stopped a few meters from it. I didn’t want to shine my phone’s flashlight directly on the gate. Instead, I strained my eyes peering into the gloom, trying to discern what lay ahead. All I could see were the silhouettes of trees and several vehicles parked along the concrete road.
I had read about the steep uphill road to Mount Kalugong from travel blogs. But not one mentioned anything about a gate. I wondered if the gate was recently built. Or maybe I was on the wrong path all along. But upon checking Google Maps, I was able to confirm that I was, indeed, on the right track. The road that lay beyond the gate was marked on the map as Kalugong Road, and it led to the summit, to Mount Kalugong Cultural Village.
Then I remembered reading that Mount Kalugong Cultural Village opens at 6 A.M. Perhaps the gate and the road would only be accessible then. If so, I simply need to wait. I checked the time. It was only 5:30 A.M. Overhead, innumerable stars still twinkled faintly, but on the edge of the horizon, the skies glowed in pink and orange hues.
I sat down on a low concrete wall that bounded the road on one side, just beside a large mound of cement. With my flashlight still turned on, I whiled away the time playing Wordscapes on my phone. It was colder here. The air stung my nostrils, and though I was clad in thick jogger pants and a hooded denim jacket, I still shivered slightly.
Once more, dogs approached me. Most simply glanced at me and then moved on. But one daring canine actually came close to attacking me! I had accidentally turned off my flashlight when I heard a rustling in the bushes behind me. I tapped my phone flashlight back on and directed it at the bushes, just in time to find a dog about to leap upon me! Against the sudden onslaught of the bright light, however, it stayed its attack and retreated into the shadows. I was on my feet now, on guard, watching as the dog circled me, growling, keeping well beyond the reach of my flashlight. I closely followed its glowing orange eyes, which, after a while, disappeared into the darkness and never returned. Feeling relieved, I sat down.
Finally, after fifteen minutes of waiting, I heard noises from within the gate – an engine started and a person coughed. Soon after, the headlights of an old Tamaraw FX lit up. Someone swung the gate open, and the Toyota utility vehicle came rumbling out. It passed very close to me and descended downhill. The gate was left wide open.
I checked the time. It was only 5:45 A.M. I felt certain I was already allowed to go in. But I decided to wait until six o’clock, just to be safe. I continued working through a few more Wordscapes levels.
When ten more minutes passed, I heard loud voices drifting from the road I had come up from. And sure enough, over the crest of the slope came a family of five. They were attired in jogger clothes and were talking casually about Kalugong. I hailed one of them – a young man – and asked if it was okay to enter the gate. Probably, he said.
They went through the gate. I hesitated. After a while, I followed.
Mount Kalugong Cultural Village
Beyond the gate, the road widened enough to allow two vehicles to pass through at the same time. It still wound uphill, but its ascent was hardly noticeable, save for its last few dozen meters or so, when it climbed sharply on a relatively steep slope. Beyond that slope, the concrete road ended abruptly and a dirt track took over. Several construction vehicles were parked along the road, beside mounds of sand and gravel and rows of cement tubes.
I ambled on, taking care to keep my distance from the family that walked ahead. Just before the road reached the steep incline, I looked to my right. There in the distance lay sprawled several villages of La Trinidad, nestled snuggly within the valley, with many twinkling lights. I sought to capture this lovely scenery with my phone camera, but the light was still too dim. After a couple of rather blurry shots, I resumed walking.
The concrete road ended, and now I found myself plodding on a dirt path scored with tire tracks. The path seemed to be of mud. It was dry, fortunately, and felt firm enough beneath my running shoes.
The dirt path wound onwards. To my left rose a slope; to my right the ground fell sharply away. Either side were clad with thick vegetation and many tall pine trees. Crickets chirped loudly in the undergrowth. Overhead, small birds flitting among the branches were starting their morning melodies.
I followed the dirt path until it brought me to the entrance of Mount Kalugong Cultural Village – an open gate in the middle of a fence wrought of wood and rusty chain link wire. Fastened on the fence were signs bearing a range of messages – the entrance fee rates, the rules and regulations to be observed, and even pithy quotes and sayings, among others. Here the path forked; one led to the right, the other to the left. A short distance from the gate, along the right path, stood a small shed. It was lit, and I heard voices coming from within.
I walked towards the shed and stepped inside. Within sat a female caretaker and the family that had gone before me. I greeted the caretaker, asked how much the entrance fee is (though I already knew), and handed out the 100 peso-bill I had prepared beforehand. The caretaker told us that the left path led directly to the picnic grounds, while the right one climbed to the southern part of the summit where we can find Kape-an – a coffeeshop – and Mount Kalugong’s famed rock formations. She cautioned us to be careful while venturing among the limestone outcrops. As I was registering my name on the logbook, the family filed out and left. I thanked the caretaker and followed shortly after.
From the shed, the right path – largely earthen but interspersed with strips of broken concrete and rough stones – ran along a grassy and generally even terrain. On either side were trees and bushes. I followed this path until it reached a massive rocky cliff. From here, a curved flight of stairs with steps made of rubber tires filled with concrete climbed up and through a cleft on the cliff. Vegetation grew among the gaps between the steps and from the crevices on the cliff.
I made my way up the stairs, wended through a brief maze of large limestone rocks, and finally reached the summit of Mount Kalugong.
The Southern Part of the Summit
I emerged on the southern part of the summit. Before me spread an open and rugged landscape. It was riddled with limestone outcrops of various shapes and sizes. Some of the rocks lay half-buried in the ground. Others were massed together in large and wide formations. Green grasses grew in patches and tussocks about the rocks, alongside clumps of bushes and shrubs. Wild flowers bloomed here and there. A few trees with short and spindly trunks splayed their thin yet leafy branches low and wide. But a large part of the ground was covered with a thick matting of dead and dried grasses and fallen pine needles that have accumulated for many years.
As I picked my way through the limestone outcrops, I passed a building to my right, perched close to the edge of the summit. Its roof was painted green; its walls were brown and grey. It was Kape-an, the coffeeshop. I was planning to buy a cup of brewed coffee and watch the sunrise from the coffeeshop, but it was still closed.
I reached the southern edge of the summit, which was bordered by a sprawling mass of limestone outcrops. Many of these grey rocks were massive indeed. A few remarkable ones thrust towards the sky in towering and tapering figures. Wild sunflowers or tithonias, locally known as marapait, grew from the cracks and crannies among the rocks, along with other shrubs and bushes.
From this vantage point, I was feted with a most scenic view of the green vale of La Trinidad. Below me, vehicles, which looked no larger than tiny ants from this distance, raced through grey roads that weaved and winded between rows and blocks of brightly colored buildings, groves of pine trees, and wide tracts of farms, paddy fields, and plantations. Hills dotted with a myriad of houses and buildings walled the valley. Beyond that line of hills rose the lofty peaks of Mount Santo Tomas and the smaller Mount Cabuyao.
Patches of very faint, white mist still clung to the valley, but these were slowly lifting. It was past 6 A.M. now, and the sun had already risen from the east. Its very first golden rays lit the summits of Santo Tomas and Cabuyao. The skies were a fresco of pastel colors – light blue, faint yellow, soft orange, and just a tinge of pink.
Never before have I seen La Trinidad look so beautiful, so peaceful, so idyllic. I carefully clambered over the rocks to take pictures, then spent a good while exploring this side of the summit.
The family that I followed here were taking pictures close to where I was. I wanted to take some pictures of myself, too, but I was alone, and I only have a phone camera. Not wanting to settle for cheap and corny selfies, I decided to simply ask them to take pictures of me.
I drew close to where the family was having their photo shoot. They had chosen to pose on top of a particularly massive and impressive rock that vaguely resembled a carven stone gargoyle surveying the scenery below. I watched and waited patiently, and in the meanwhile took pictures of the spectacular townscape beneath. When they were done, I approached one of them – a middle-aged lady.
“Auntie, mabalin nga agpa-picture kinyayo? (Auntie, can you take pictures of me?)” I asked.
“Wen (Yes),” she agreed kindly.
“Ay, salamat, Auntie, ah (Ay, thank you, Auntie),” I said excitedly as I handed her my phone.
I unslung my backpack, placed it on a nearby rock, and clambered over the limestone outcrops to the immense, gargoyle-like rock. I have no experience with rock-climbing, so scrabbling among the rough, rugged, and grey formations proved rather difficult. I proceeded slowly and cautiously, not wanting to accidentally slip and slide into the dark crevices between the rocks, or stumble and fall to my death in the valley below.
Eventually, I reached the gargoyle-like rock, which I immediately scaled. There I stood, with my glasses removed, trying not to look as awkward as I felt, while the lady took pictures of me. She was very enthusiastic, directing me to stand here and there, and to pose this way and that.
During and after the photo shoot, I chatted with her for a bit. I learned that her name was Janice, and that she was a fellow Cordilleran. I thanked her profusely and told her I was an aspiring travel writer. I told her that, with her permission, I would like to credit her in my blog. She consented.
As she handed me my phone back, I was delighted when I saw the pictures she took. I thought they looked beautiful. I thanked her one last time and took my leave.
I moved away from the edge and towards another sprawling cluster of limestone rocks a short distance away. I saw a dirt path marked with a sign that read To picnic area and decided to follow it. But after only a few meters, the path suddenly ended before a wall of jumbled rocks.
Confused, I tried searching for the rest of the path, looking for a gap among the rocks, or a stair, or some other clue as to where the path must have gone. I found nothing. The rest of the path seems to have disappeared. I gave up the search, settling instead on the conclusion that the path must have been buried by a recent rockslide, or something like that.
Feeling slightly disappointed, I climbed a tall rock nearby and gingerly perched myself on its top. I unslung my backpack, drank a few sips of water, and sat watching the sun climb behind a looming mountain. With its round and flattish crown, and the fact that it lay to the southeast, I knew immediately that the mountain was none other than Yangbew.
I remembered that I wanted to photograph the sunrise, so I tried taking pictures of the sun even as it climbed behind Yangbew. But the glare was too much for my phone camera. All I managed were a few dim and dark pictures. Instead, I photographed the surrounding area, which were now illuminated with a golden light.
Atop my high perch, I basked in the warmth of the sun, letting its heat banish the last traces of cold from my body. There I sat daydreaming for a while as I sunned myself like an overlarge reptile, feeling at peace with myself and the world around me.
The Picnic Grounds
I was startled from my reverie by loud shouts. I peered through the gaps between the limestone outcrops and trees – which grew thickly about me – and saw a trio of tourists noisily making their way through the wall of rocks where the path I followed earlier ended. They must have come from the other side, from the picnic area!
I finally figured out the mystery of the vanishing path! It wasn’t really missing, after all, nor buried by a rockslide. It simply was like that. I only need to clamber over and through the rocks to get to the picnic area. Of course, I could also return to the entrance of Mount Kalugong Cultural Village, to the forked path, and simply take the left route that led directly to the picnic grounds. But there would be no adventure in that.
The family I had met earlier also appeared, and one by one, they, too, crossed the rocky barrier. Feeling foolish, I packed my things and dismounted from my lofty perch, preparing to cross to the other side. But before that, I made one last sweep of this side of the summit, making sure that I had left no single spot unphotographed. It took me more than fifteen minutes to do just that. Afterwards, I returned to the wall of rocks and commenced my bid to get to the picnic area.
Once more, my lack of rock-climbing experience showed. I had to hold on to the trunks and branches of nearby trees to keep myself from falling and getting trapped in the deep, dark, and narrow spaces between the outcrops, or slipping and smashing my face on the rough and stony surfaces. My hands and fingers grew sore as I sought for purchase among the rocks, while my legs were strained from repeated stretching and squatting. I kept my phone hidden in my pocket, safe and secure. It was new and I didn’t want it falling inside a narrow crevice where I could no longer retrieve it.
It was a very slow grind. But what I lacked in skill and experience I made up for in determination. Eventually, I managed to overcome the gauntlet of rocks. I climbed down the last limestone boulder and descended on a narrow path that winded downhill.
Following the downhill path, I emerged on the threshold of a rolling terrain clad with patches of grass and a thick carpet of pine needles, and canopied by ranks of pine trees. A few limestone rocks adorned with ferns dotted the landscape here and there.
Swings fashioned from tires hung from the branches of trees, while picnic chairs and tables hewn from pine logs were arrayed on the ground. Erected on certain spots were rental cabins made out of wood and galvanized iron sheets. A restaurant which looked similar in design to Kape-an stood on one side, beside a paved road that led downhill – it was the left path that forked from the entrance.
So this is the picnic area. I thought it looked beautiful. The green of leaves, ferns, and grasses; the gold of the sunlight; the blue of the sky; and the brown of the earth and the tree trunks, all combined to produce a peaceful and rustic charm. And save for the sighing of the wind and the singing of birds, it was quiet here. There were only a few people around. I saw one of the caretakers busying himself on carpentry work.
I passed the hour wandering around, photographing the trees, tables, tire-swings, and just about anything I laid my eyes on. As I moved across the picnic grounds, I spotted an earthen path that led away to the north, and then another to the east.
The Northern Part of the Summit
I was convinced that if I were to get the full Mount Kalugong experience, I needed to find out where those paths led. I resolved to explore the northern path first. This was a dirt path that climbed up a slope. Along its sides marched ranks of thick grass and rows of pine trees, and all over its surface lay a brown carpet of pine needles. To its right ran a flight of rough stone steps that led to a large cabin tent standing on a flattened area halfway up the slope. I could hear people stirring inside the cabin tent.
I strode to the stone steps and began climbing. Before I reached the cabin tent, however, I crossed to the dirt path and continued upwards until I crested the slope. I knew I was now on the northern part of the summit of Mount Kalugong. The path before me was nearly obscured by grass, which spread in a very dense layer beneath the pine trees.
I kept walking until I came close to the very edge of the summit, where the ground fell sharply away. A gap among the vegetation yawned wide, revealing a scenic outlook of the northern barangays of La Trinidad. Buildings, roads, farms, and trees were laid out before and beneath me, and in the distance, a wall of ridges and ranges soared, blue beneath the clear sky. I lingered here for a while, taking in the stunning view before me.
Eventually, I withdrew from the edge and began exploring the surrounding pine woods. Once I felt certain that I had seen everything there was to see, I returned to the dirt path and descended the slope. My next task was to check out the path that led to the east. But before that, I seated myself on a tire-swing and spent twenty minutes or so swinging back and forth, as high as I could. I had my headphones on, listening to songs I’ve been listening to since highschool.
The Trail to Mount Yangbew
It was now 8:15 A.M. when I finally got up from the swing and made for the path that led away to the east. It was a wide dirt track of reddish-brown earth, lined on either side by tall and thick undergrowth and many pines, and covered here and there by patches of pine needles. Clinging to the side of a slope, it headed east for a while before curving sharply to the northeast.
I followed the path until it bent northeast and continued for two dozen meters or so. From there, it made another sharp turn, this time to the southeast. It left the vicinity of Mount Kalugong and continued through a series of small mounds or hillocks. The path seemed to strike a direct route towards Mount Yangbew, which loomed large in the distance.
I had read from travel blogs that there is a trail that links Kalugong and Yangbew, which would pass along the Tayawan View Deck. This must be it. I continued along the trail, determined to follow it as far as I can (I learned later that this trail leads to the Tawang Barangay Hall. Mount Kalugong is located in Barangay Cruz, while Yangbew is in Barangay Tawang. From the Tawang Barangay Hall, one can walk towards Yangbew. So this trail is still a trail to Yangbew, just not a direct one).
The wide earthen trail seemed only recently made, dug by an excavator, payloader, or a bulldozer, no doubt. It passed through a series of mounds or hillocks that rose from high ground, alternating between an uphill climb and a downhill descent. Grass and bushes grew in thick, continuous ranks along either side of the path, punctuated only by a handful of pine saplings and arrays of limestone rocks thrusting towards the sky in eye-catching formations.
To my right, I espied shacks and sheds made of wood and galvanized iron sheets standing amidst the vegetation. However, I saw no signs of their inhabitants. In fact, I was the only person on the trail. It felt strangely peaceful and a bit unsettling at the same time. The only sounds were the whispers of the wind and the loud chirps and chatters of birds in the undergrowth, which stopped whenever I drew near.
The faint and feathery wisps of cirrus clouds that floated in the blue sky could do little against the fiery heat of the sun. Fully aware of its unfettered might, the sun beat down on me mercilessly as I trudged along the path. Sweat gathered on my brows and on the back of my neck even as I made my way up and down each mound. But the mountain breeze, seeing my plight, sent fitful whiffs and wafts of cool air to my succor.
I advanced slowly and cautiously, especially during every downhill descent, for the earth I trod on was easily erodible, and each slope was fairly steep. My footsteps loosened the soil and sent clumps of dirt and small stones rolling down. On several occasions, my running shoes slipped and slid on the loose earth, nearly causing me to fall downhill. Thankfully, I was able to keep my balance each time.
The crest of every mound and hillock offered a good view of the eastern side of the summit of Mount Kalugong. Each time I climbed to the top of a mound, I would stop, turn towards Kalugong, and take pictures. While doing this, I spotted a remarkable array of limestone rocks that looked uncannily like a hat, particularly a fedora or even a boater hat. It stood on the leftmost edge of Kalugong’s summit. Was this the very rock formation that gave the mountain its name? I felt sure it was. I wasn’t aware of its existence until now. I tried to photograph it, but it lay much too far for my phone camera. Every time I zoomed my camera, the shots turned out to be of low resolution.
The Tayawan View Deck
I continued along the path until it brought me to a fork. One path branched to the right; the other to the left. I wasn’t sure what path to take. But it didn’t matter. I didn’t feel like going to Yangbew for now anyway. I felt that this wasn’t the right time. I wanted to allot a special and separate day to hike Yangbew. It certainly deserved a trip of its own.
I was wondering where the Tayawan View Deck was, for I did not pass by it along the way. I turned around, intending to return whence I came, when lo and behold! I saw the view deck in the distance, perched on a high ground overlooking the northern and eastern parts of La Trinidad Valley. I had missed it because it lay a short distance from the dirt path, accessible only by a concrete road almost hidden by the tall vegetation.
I didn’t immediately make for the view deck. Instead, since I was on a lofty elevation, a bit higher than the view deck’s, I went close to the edge of where I stood. Beneath me, the northern and northeastern barangays of La Trinidad spread far and wide. Once more, my eyes were drawn towards the encircling wall of mountains in the distance. The nearer mountains, with their forested slopes, were verdant. But the farther summits were all shades of blue.
I stood staring at this line of mountains, wondering when I can finally tread through those slopes and climb those peaks. Lost in my thoughts, I started singing, faintly at first, then louder:
“Far over the Misty Mountains cold,
To dungeons deep and caverns old,
We must away, ere break of day…”
It was but the beginning of the song of the Dwarves from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and I sang it in the manner it was sung in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation. I could not help myself, for in such moment, feted with a sight of mountains, I felt both like Bilbo raring for an adventure and the Dwarves yearning to reclaim their long-lost homeland. On any other day I would not have started singing like a fool, but I didn’t care now. I was all alone. In the valley beneath me, the world moved on. But up here, I had a world of my own.
I sang while the mountain wind blew mightily, sending the grasses and bushes around me rustling loudly. I sang while the sun shone overhead and the slight, white clouds swept by. Then I drew away from the edge and returned to the trail, retracing my steps until I reached the concrete footpath that led to the view deck.
The Tayawan View Deck is built akin to the waiting sheds that are ubiquitous in the Philippines. It is an open structure, with a concrete roof held aloft by four concrete posts. Between these posts are concrete benches. The view deck stood on a concrete platform, and is bounded by a concrete fence on its northern and eastern sides. Its floor is covered with reddish brown tiles that seemed to be made out of clay. At the top of its roof is a water tank, for what purpose I don’t know.
The view deck is painted in shades of pink and teal. Unfortunately, as I drew closer, I noticed that nearly every inch of the shed is scratched, scrawled, and scribbled with graffiti, most of which were messages left by tourists wanting to let other tourists know that they were indeed here. The benches, too, were smeared with dirt and mud.
Despite the graffiti, the view deck still looked beautiful in its own way, though I was certain it would have looked more beautiful if it was kept clean and unstained. I wanted to sit and rest here, but the soiled and grimy benches looked utterly uninviting.
Instead, I simply stood or walked around, exploring the small expanse of the view deck and staring at the townscape sprawled in the valley below me. I took pictures of Mount Kalugong and the surrounding scenery. And because I was alone, I played songs from my phone in full volume, and sang along. I didn’t care. There was no one here to see how foolish I looked. Foolish but happy.
It was nearly 9 A.M. when I decided to return to Mount Kalugong and then back home to Baguio. I emptied my water bottle and left the view deck. Even as I trod the trail back to Kalugong, a beautiful feeling welled up within me. It was a feeling of happiness, of fulfillment, of accomplishment. I finally had a proper mountaineering experience here in the Philippines, at last!
But now I wanted to conquer more mountains. As I drew near the picnic grounds of Mount Kalugong, I wondered where I should head to next. But just as I started running a list of the names of mountains in my mind, my eyes strayed to the southeast. There loomed Yangbew, tall and distinct against the blue sky. Suddenly, the choice was made clear to me. I knew what mountain to conquer next.