It will just be another routine clean up climb to the peak and Venado lake. That was what I thought on the morning of July 18, 2010 while packing my climbing gears for the Mt. Apo clean-up drive organized by the local government units of Kidapawan, Magpet and Makilala, and Mount Apo Foundation, Inc. I never had an inkling that this climb as a garbage collector could lead to deeper understanding, in bits and pieces, of inalienable truths and practical wisdom.
The trek along the familiar route from Site H of the Geothermal Production Field to Ma-ag, together with three young first-timers, gave me an opportunity to impart hard-earned lessons from the many climbs I made to this great mountain. “Start slow to give your body system time to adjust,” I told Deejay, Jongjong and Bodok, my three young MAFI-scholar companions. “And don’t be in a hurry. Maintain your own comfortable pace. You need to rest your legs if the muscle weakness sets in,.” With a clear voice reminiscent of my days as a college teacher, I reminded them, “When the leg muscles are refreshed, start walking again. Resting too long can sap out your energy to start again.” I noticed that my instructions were now bolder without any wavering doubts as compared to my class lectures before about economic and political theories which I only learned from the detached comforts of textbooks. My purpose was for them to realize that climbing the peak should never be a race. It should be a test of one’s inner strength to reach the destination. But seeing their loaded backpacks swaying heavily as they moved forward to the ascending trail in front of us, I told myself in silence, “This is easier said than done.”
Upon reaching the uphill trail surrounded with golden brown trunks of mature tinikaran trees planted years ago by PNOC-EDC (now commonly described as Lovers Lane by my climbing buddies after I named it jokingly due to its romantic appearance), something snapped painfully inside my right knee. It was the same knee-jerk I felt three weeks ago after biking with Fred, my biking buddy, which made me limping for the next four days every time I climbed the stairways of my office. I rested for fifty seconds and walked again towards the Ma-ag plains above us. With the pulsating pain in my right knee , I started to entertain the possibility that this could be my longest and hardest climb to the peak. I was right. It took me three hours to reach the Ma-ag bunk house, one hour late from my usual trekking time.
The climb from the EDC bunk house to the peak was no longer the “walk in the park” as it used to be. The soothing rustic sounds of creaking branches as fresh winds blew over the treetops were now regularly interrupted by the increasing jerks of pain in my right knee. The peak was visible now but seemed unreachable. With three young first-timers tailing nearby, I decided not to project the difficulty I felt. Weakness infects the morale of a group and lessens the drive to reach the objective. As I walked slowly along the newly-cleared fire line of the PNOC-EDC reforestation area that connects to the stiff slope leading to the peak, I realized that sometimes, one should suffer in silence to lift up others. Pain and sufferings, in whatever form, can also bring out the best in us. I pressed onward but this time with careful and calibrated steps. This could be the “veteran’s move” that Dario, my friend from DENR-Kidapawan used to blurt jokingly to describe with coated dignity our slackening pace during our many climbs before as garbage collectors in Mt. Apo.
The ascend to the to the majestic peak was slow and nerve-cracking. Upon reaching the spot that provided a good view of the Ma-ag area and Jordan Lake, I sat down on the ground to lessen the pain building up in my right leg. “Where did you plant the tinikaran seedlings last year, sir,” asked Jongjong, who started pulling down his heavy backpack for another rest. I pointed to him the northwest side of the slope where the site of the Ma-ag Tinikaran Project Phase I was located. Stick markers with black cellophanes on top were still standing when I glanced around the area. Last February, a team of high school students from Mt. Apo High School cleared the area with tall shrubs to give the tinikaran seedlings better chance of survival. The maintenance work was jointly financed by COTGEM, Singles for Christ of Kidapawan and MAFI. I recalled the dedication of the 194 volunteers who came to this area last April 2009 to plant 6,125 tinikaran seedlings. They came from all walks of life. Many were strangers to each other. But all of them, young and old, joined hands to bring back the green in this part of Ma-ag area. Many good things can really be achieved if only people come together for a common purpose. While staring at the growing tinikaran seedlings, it dawned upon me one statement long ago uttered by my father. ”Nothing will grow if nobody plants!” Tatay was right. He went on planting the rest of his active life. Not even a diabetic stroke could stop him from wishing to plant more. Simple truth like this blooms with meaning when we start living it fully with concrete action.
I stopped looking at my old Timex Explorer and disregarded the time as I neared the peak. My pace was shamefully slow that there was no reason to be relatively conscious of elapsed time in comparison with other co-climbers. As I inched closer to the rock boulder with an overlooking view of Venado Lake, the pain in my left knee throbbed like fire. I sat down again to rest, my eleventh since I left the EDC bunkhouse. Jongjong who was few steps behind stretched his tired legs and moved around in search for black berries growing wildly around the area.
The scenic view of the deer-shaped Venado lake temporarily calmed my tired muscles. I looked down and saw the colorful rays of the setting sun caressing the serene and magical Venado ground. For a fleeting moment, my eyes scanned the highest endorheic lake in the Philippines. As I watched the sun’s orange-like glow pierced the shadows of the century-old tinkaran trees on the lake’s shore, I wondered how many kilograms of garbage were again scattered behind this divine painting in front of me. If only this beautiful sight of Lake Venado can be put in words and chiseled permanently in rocks for all climbers to understand and touch, the shameful garbage around it will surely disappear. But sadly it cannot be, for as Shakespeare revealed in Love’s Labours Lost, beauty is bought by judgment of the eye. The arrival of Deejay and Bodok cut short my reflections. From the way they walked with more than 20 kilograms of equipment and supplies on their backs, the guys were dead tired of climbing Mt. Apo for the first time. A cold chill run through my back after a whining easterly wind whipped the grasses around us. The uncomfortable caress of the cold wind reminded me to check the temperature reading in my Timex Explorer. The digital gauge showed 17 degrees centigrade. “Let’s move now to the camping area at the peak and set up our tents before the temperature gets lower.” I told Jongjong, Deejay and Bodok, who, from the tired looks on their faces, were now eager to reach the peak and lie down like dead logs inside the tent.
I walked upward along the familiar trail linking Venado and the peak and I kept wishing that these three young guys behind me will keep coming back to this mountain and become committed advocates for its preservation and protection. As I circled around a sturdy stump of protruding roots, I felt the weariness of the 51 year-old body muscles. It made me realize that Mt. Apo now needs young advocates who can continue the rehabilitation and protection efforts and more committed leaders who can visualize its sustainable future for the benefit of all without compromising its delicate biodiversity and natural beauty. The three young MAFI scholars were nearing the huge rock that marked the entrance to the peak ground. I continued wishing in silence that these three MAFI scholars and other pure-hearted young people will someday stand with unbreakable idealism and walk this trail tirelessly and faithfully when the great spirit of this living mountain summons them for the silent job of a care-taker.
I woke up 5:30 the following day with constricted back muscles and cramped calves and thighs. The temperature was down to a discomforting 14 centigrade but bearable enough compared to last night’s chill. The thick morning fog was still hugging the valley-shaped ground when I stepped out of the old tent bought five years ago by the office. Droplets of fresh dews sparkled on the surface of the upper layer of my tent, a reminder of the sudden rainfall that poured early last night. Deejay and I have to squeeze inside the tent for a dry space when rainwater trickled down from the tiny holes along the seams of our old tent.
At 9 o’clock in the morning, the volunteers started collecting garbage littered around the peak ground. It was heart-warming to see LGU officials, professionals, students, military personnel, young volunteers and porters moving around, searching and picking up plastic bottles, tin cans, cellophanes, empty glass containers, sanitary napkins, biscuit wrappers, coffee sachets, pain reliever tablet holders, cigarette butts, dirty socks, discarded clothings, worn-out shoes and slippers, and other non-biodegradable materials left by climbers. After a quick and simple breakfast I joined the garbage collectors’ humbling task of cleaning the peak. I was thinking of the next climbers when I picked up a plastic twine surreptitiously inserted under a black berry plant. “How long would it take for these climbers to learn the significance of this place?” I asked myself emptily.
I reached Venado by noon. The piercing pain in my right knee returned during the grueling trek to the lake. A wooden pole I picked along the trail eased up the painful impact on my right knee as I climbed down from the peak. I lied down quickly upon reaching Venado. While waiting for the other clean-up volunteers to arrive, a flash of concern struck me. Will this knee-pain continue tomorrow when the long perilous walk back home starts? Can I make it to Agco without being carried? I knew that climbing down the stiff trails with sharp roots crisscrossed along the way was much harder than climbing up. Leg muscles will be strained more due to a reverse pressure to control the gravity pull. Can my injured knee withstand the long and steady pressure tomorrow? If only Edgar, my trusted project manager for Mt. Apo rehabilitation and protection project, was with me in this climb, l could have worried less. As I rolled my body to the left and pulled up my right knee to ease the pain, a soft afternoon wind blew and hovered and caressed the young shoots of grasses growing around the lake. The cool wind continued blowing leaving tiny waves of ripples on the placid Venado waters. The wonderful effect of the passing wind reminded me of Albert Einstein who once said, “look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.” I stopped thinking of what will happen in tomorrow’s trek and closed my eyes when the sun’s glare penetrated the canopy of the tinikaran trees nearby. Que sera, sera. Tomorrow, whatever will be, will be.
The garbage collection at Venado ended earlier than I expected. Comparatively, there was less garbage this time than in previous years. The pre-climb orientations conducted on various entry points and the increasing environmental concern of LGU officials were contributing factors for this good trend. It may take more time to shed ugly habits of climbers, but the decreasing garbage was inspiring sign that climbers and LGUs around Mt. Apo Natural Park were working towards the preservation of this important climbers’ converging area. A continuing awareness of the importance of these areas to the lives and the future of the communities below must be constantly maintained. How I wish all government officials and political leaders, who perorated about environment protection would find time to see this place, and by the spirit of the God who created this natural blessing, be converted from the emptiness of form towards the awakening challenge of substance.
While collecting trash with other clean-up volunteers on the western portion of the waterways that linked the Venado lake to the drainage exit, I was drawn once again to the significance of Mt. Apo in an unexpected simplicity that normally escapes the attention of many. A volunteer beside me asked, “ Where is the exit of the water in this canal, sir?” A rookie climber might conclude hastily that excess waters from the lake and from ordinary rainfalls will flow towards the southwestern area of the Venado ground and drops naturally on the cliff, the seemingly logical natural escape route of excess waters from the 10.2 – hectare Venado ground since its eastern, northern and southern perimeters are bounded by higher grounds. I answered him, “The water in this natural canal here flows back to that underground hole near the lake.” And I pointed to him the location of the waterhole about 90 meters away from where we were standing. With a quintessential look of an elementary student trying hard to advance a conclusion, he said, ”So all the garbage here will flow back to that water hole and drains to the bottom of the earth and then exits to our rivers and water springs down below.” I answered plainly, “Yes, that’s it.” Before I could add more points about natural filtration process, he lamented, “Our foolishness will really go home to our body, sir.” I mussed over his statement while walking back to my tent. The line was blunt and lacked rhythm. But by all standards, it was the best conclusive statement and unequivocal warning to all climbers who refused to see the effect of their garbage in this part of Mt. Apo.
The sky was clear when the sun eclipsed the western horizon at around five thirty. The lingering light from the sky formed a hazy tone of glow on the sprawling ground of Venado. Along the sunken waterways, I saw green patches of grasses growing, a good sign of the returning rainy season after a four-month dry spell. With more rains expected to come in the remaining months of the year, this sacred ground hopefully will be engulfed again with lovely soft cushion-like grasses, as nature, on its grandiose wonder, heal itself from the previous unguarded intrusion of human activities. But how far can nature endure this constant disruption of its regenerative power to sustain the delicate cycle of life that connects us all? Have we already reached the irreversible tipping point because of our callous apathy and prolonged neglect? While in contemplation, I remembered my first walk thirty two years ago on the green and pristine ground of Venado which was then carpeted naturally with thick layers of mossy-like soft grasses. I recalled the moment when I knelt down and embraced the paradise-like view of Venado after a hard climb that started from Mainit station beside the crystal-clear waters of Marbol river. The tired but excited looks on the faces of my companions and pals, Alex Dingson, Richard Miguel, Moises Sernal and Cris Sampiton were now a blur, but the feeling was still there as we gleefully roamed around the lake with careless freedom and audacity that our youthful innocence can provide. The fading light of dusk gave way to the incoming darkness as I closed the flap of my tent for a short rest before dinner. The second day of garbage collection in Mt. Apo have ended but I can hear the restless sounds of forest creatures as they begin their nocturnal adventure in the mysterious jungle of survival. Day and night, the thread of life that sustained us never stops.
The rain came early the following day. It poured heavily for more than one hour with strong winds that crashed down the nearby tent of Jongjong and Bodok. We huddled close to each other, four of us, inside my small tent as we waited helplessly for the rain to stop. Outside, I heard muffled sounds of frustrations as another tent collapsed. After a quick breakfast inside the tent which was hastily prepared by my neophyte companions, my personal concern yesterday of the impending long trek down to Agco returned with added urgency. The pain still lingered in my right knee and the prospect of trekking down under this torrential rain added more gloom. I have not used this trail from Venado lake to Mandarangan for the past five years and the memory of the agony of previous climbs was disheartening. I decided to start the trek down at 9’clock, rain or shine. Even with abnormal slow pace, maybe I can reach Mandarangan road after four hours . The estimate, I know, was very doubtful with the present condition of my right knee.
I slipped out of the tent. The wind surge brought instantaneous splatter of cold rain on my face as I walked around to give instructions to Karl and Ging-ging, LGU clean-up coordinators of Magpet and Kidapawan, that we must move out early before the weather gets worst. I noticed that the rain had soaked my pants quickly and droplets trickled down and entered the upper part of my waterproof hiking shoes. The wet socks in my feet convinced me of the fallacy of waterproof shoes advertisements. No shoe manufacturer company can guarantee dryness in a rain like this.
It took me six hours and a half to negotiate the stiff trail from Venado to Mandarangan road. The last time I used this trail, I made it in three hours. This was my longest and most painful trek in Mt. Apo. But it also led to some comforting discoveries of new places and routes created by the Kidapawan tourism office after the Mainit station was closed for safety reasons. The Ko-ong rest station was beautiful revelation of the magical charm of wild flowers and the spell-bounding sounds of mountain streams. The surprising plain of Kawayanon area was an enchantment with thick forest trees standing proudly like guardians of a long-lost civilization. The 15-minute easy walk on Kawayanon plains gave temporary relief to my tired muscles but when I descended to the winding trail of Marbol river, I was already limping in pain. The sight of the river, however, gave momentary distraction from the agony of every step.
I always wondered with reverence the journey of rivers from the source to its end. Years back I visited one headwater in Baroring and I stood with awe when I saw the trickles of pure mountain water flowing slowly to secret crevices and underground waters ways. By divine guidance and in unison with other fountainheads, these headwaters flowed down marvelously to form one mighty river like Marbol. Rivers are really shadows of perfect purpose-driven creation. From the droplets of its many origins, it faithfully unfolds and cascades constantly to the ocean and by the supreme law of nature, obediently ascends to the sky to bring the promise of a life-giving rain at the heart of its origin.
I kept telling Jongjong, who was my devoted close-in buddy since we left Venado lake, that the Mandarangan road was just few turns away. It was not true because there was no sign yet of the familiar foot bridge that marked the last uphill climb leading to Mandarangan road. But white lies like that can boost the spirit of expectancy to move on with the last ounce of energy left to a tired hiker. When we reached the narrow tiny trail beside a stiff cliff overlooking the wild and powerful currents of Marbol river, Jongjong stopped asking if we were near the end of our trek. I was no longer sure if my white lies served the purpose.
When I saw the whitish hot steam oozing from the floors of Mandarangan area, I walked slowly to gather the last energy left in my injured right knee. After struggling for more painful steps along the remaining foot trail, the Mandarangan road appeared and I sighed with relief.
At the end of each climb to this great mountain, my outlook of life always changed with the pureness of simplicity. Each arduous trek was always a humbling realization of the futility of pride, greed and arrogance, the fountainhead of all that can destroy good human intentions.
As I slumped of exhaustion on the roadside, my thoughts suddenly raced to the simple things that I wanted for now, the familiar softness of my ordinary bed and the creased pages of the unfinished book beside my reading lamp. I stared back at the shadowy mountain trail that disappeared under the thick foliage of forest trees and suddenly the lyrics of Joshua Kadison’s song Beautiful In My Eyes struck with haunting significance. “The world will turn and the seasons will change . . .and all the lessons we will learn . . will be beautiful and strange.”