As the sky turned from black to gray to a combination of yellow and pink until the sun emerged, the silhouette of the Siera Madre Mountain range became more pronounced. It was a Saturday, February 20, 2016.
From the highway was a small sign with an arrow pointing to Barangay Daraitan, Tanay, Rizal where the road was mostly unpaved. It took about an hour for our van to reach the barangay hall which allows only 300 climbers on top of the mountain.
Erg listed all our names in the barangay registry: Erg, Tah, Lloyd, JP, Melvin, Karlo, Marielle, Darlene, Angelica, and Jeffry.
We convened for an orientation with our 22-year old guide, Darry. Darry said Daraitan came from dara for white rock and itan for aeta who used to inhabit the place. We decided to use the longer trail to stay away from most climbers who had gone ahead using the shorter trail.
We trekked fast and we did not want to be hampered by traffic on the trail. We would have the longer trail by ourselves, Darry claimed. But 30 minutes after we started, we reached a group of mostly women climbers. Not far ahead of them was another group of mostly women climbers. We overtook these two groups but we found a tall stone protruding from the side of the trail overlooking the river and the ground below. By the time we finished picture taking, the groups we overtook had gone ahead of us.
Picture taking done, we continued walking. After a short while, we arrived on a clearing. Until this part of the trail, we were covered by the mountain from the sun. But now, the sun was shining down on us. I felt the rays pinching my skin.
From the clearing, we entered the forest to a 45-degree hike. The trail was littered with sharp white rocks along the way. I stepped over a skinned rattan, and also saw some small ones like those in Mt. Hinulugan. There were also small bamboo grass.
We had to go around and climb a boulder to the summit.
On the summit were tips of protruding boulders. This is where perfect buwis-buhay pictures were taken. Fifty or so people were on the summit when we arrived. We waited for our turn to pose for photographs on the highest group of boulders.
Darry, our guide, suggested we start by the boulders just below the highest group of rocks where the group before us were having their pictures. But we enjoyed taking pictures on this side of the mountain that we decided not to pose for photographs anywhere else.
We arrived on the summit at about 10 am. We started at 7:30 am.
Alone with your thoughts, hearing nothing but your heartbeat and your steps and the occasional chirping of birds, you begin to feel the breath of the trees: that cool feeling when you are under them. Or, in the clearing, you notice the changing color of the sky.
When you’re too tired from climbing a mountain peak, you look for something beautiful to justify your suffering. And you will find nothing but the changing color of the sky on sunrise and sunset. Or if you’re lucky, you’ll find it in the face of a loved one who decided to scale the mountaintop with you and share the joy of looking at the sky, or the view, or each other’s smile that hides the pain deep within the muscles.
By 11:30 am we were descending the muddy and slippery trail to Tinipak River.
Just like when we ascended, there were stairs, made of branches nailed or tied together by vines, on portions of the trail too steep and dangerous for climbers.
Tah slipped and almost broke her ankle. But because we were cruel, we were more concerned with the energy drink that flew away when she fell. She sat awhile, massaged her left foot and was on her way down again. She claimed she was weak.
We knew we were near. We could hear the rushing water from the river below. The final descent was beside a balete tree to the side of the river.
A short walk more and we passed by a gushing water from inside the stone. Darry said it was drinkable as it originated from the stone. Erg took a container and filled it halfway. I took a sip when we were already under the tree outside the hut that served lunch.
The hut ran out of rice. But most of us had packed our lunch and a Angelica and Jeffry packed more rice than they could consume.
I packed two tomatoes, one salted egg, and a cup of rice I bought from a fast food chain in Cubao while waiting one and a half hours for some of our group mates to arrive. Finally, I get to use the cutlery set I bought last year. The knife cut the tomatoes effortlessly. The spoon and fork and the knife folded in half and fit inside my mess kit which I realized was too heavy as it is made of steel.
We had our lunch under a balete tree. Our table were the lumbers that were nailed around the tree. We sat on a wooden bench surrounding the table.
Darry said we had to wear shoes when we enter the cave. The stones are sharp and may wound our feet. I assured him my heels are thick. He assured me that we could avoid getting wet. I relented and wore my shoes to the cave.
The final descent to the river were two flights of stairs made of tree trunks tied or nailed together beside the boulder. We crossed the river through another wooden bridge connecting one boulder from one side of the river to the next.
We waited for our turn to enter the cave under another huge balete tree by the mouth of the cave. We left our bag, descended the mouth of the cave, and tiptoed on its slippery stalagmites polished by foot traffic. At the end of the cave we swam in a pool of cool water.
I exited the cave barefoot. I was about to wear my socks and shoes on the foot of the stairs we descended to the river when I was reminded by Erg that we were still swimming. Swimming again. This time not in darkness but with the full view of the sun on the river.
We left our bags by the boulder and joined our fellow hikers dip the waters of Tinipak River. We crossed the pool to the other side where the towering boulder beckoned us. Upstream, Erg dived to cross the river to the other side, climbed the boulders, stood on top of a story-high boulder, and jumped feet first on the water.
It should be easy. So I also crossed the river to the other side, climbed the boulders and stood on top of the story-high stone. But I could not jump. I was so scared to jump. Lloyd was behind me. Followed by Tah. Three times, I stood on top of the stone. But the distance of the water below was too intimidating for me to jump. I retreated to the side. But Lloyd and Tah encouraged me.
So, I again stood on top of the stone but again, the depth of the water below was too intimidating. I retreated again. Tah said we had no more time as more people were arriving to jump. This time Carlo was behind us. Tah decided she could no longer wait for me. So, she jumped. Followed by Lloyd. Followed by Carlo. Now I was alone and the people below were all looking at me, waiting for me to jump. Tah shouted from below that if I jump she’d accept my FB friend request. To boost my confidence, Erg also reminded me that I already had a micro insurance enough for cremation expenses. I stood up on the stone but was too scared to jump. I did this three times. But then I knew I had to jump or I would never forgive myself for being such a coward. Finally, I jumped. And the crowd below cheered.
The video below shows exactly my reactions before I finally jumped into the river.
How does it feel to finally jump? Someone asked. I felt like I had to do it again.
I crossed the river again, climbed the same boulders, stood on the same rock and once again jumped. This is how fears are conquered, I wept deep within. When will my fears go away?
I wanted to do it three times. So, I again crossed the river. But this time, the current carried me away. I tried to hold on to the side of the boulder but my fingers didn’t have anything to hold on to. I grabbed a guide’s shorts and I pulled him into the water. I was carried to the middle of the pool where we jumped. I was too tired to swim but was too unwilling to drown. I paddled and paddled. I remembered the trick that made me survive Pilar’s sea and Mindanao’s falls. But I was really very tired. Any moment from now, I knew I would drown. I was shouting at my friends at the other end. But they did not mind me because they were busy shouting instructions to Marielle who was trying to cross the same water with the current that brought me to where I was now. I gave up paddling and was sinking. Thankfully, my feet touched the ground. I jumped, swam the final stretch towards a new life.
I laid behind Erg and Darlene on the stone. I told Erg I almost drowned. I should not fight the current, he said. I was silent. Then he glanced at me and noted my lips had turned violet. I should dip myself in the water he suggested to relieve myself from hypothermia. I did not think so. I was very tired.
We were now cheering for Marielle who was on top of the rock and who also wanted to jump. But like me, she was also too intimidated to jump. We left the river to fetch our things. We could no longer see Marielle on the stone as it was covered by a boulder. After I changed to dry shorts and shirt, Marielle, Tah, and Lloyd arrived. Marielle was able to jump. That afternoon, at least two people faced their fears.
The following morning, I took a shower, my first after the river swim. The near-death experience must have been traumatic. When I closed my eyes as the water fell on my face, I still could picture myself in the middle of the water paddling myself to safety.
We left Barangay Daraitan at 6:30 pm. An hour or so after, we were met with a gory site: a motorcycle was pinned under a trailer truck somewhere in Teresa or Antipolo, Rizal. We could only hope that the driver was not pinned down with the motorcycle under the truck.
Was he/she dead? Could he/she be my substitute? Steve Jobs said, no matter how ready we are to die, when that moment comes, no one wants to die. Even those who want to go to heaven don’t want to die. This was my thought in the river. I did not want to die. I still have lots of mountains to climb and dreams to fulfill. But, the night before I climbed Daraitan and swam Tinipak, I was ready. So ready, in fact, that I left instructions to our paralegal what documents to retrieve from our office and where to bring them in case I did not return.
But, as I discovered from the teachings of the water, when you think you’re ready, you are not.
The van dropped us off at 9:30 pm. This was our first practice climb to Mt. Apo.
Van rent: P4,500/10 = P450
Use of bridge: P50/10 = P5
Environmental fee: P20 each
Cottage (where we ate lunch ) fee: P20/10 = P2
Parking fee: P50/10 = P5
Guide fee: P500/10 = P50
Merienda/early dinner: P50
Total individual expenses: P582