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The mountains in my life

By VICKY VELOSO-BARRERA, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 01, 2023 5:00 am

I can best describe myself as an accidental mountaineer because it was not something I set out to do.

When I visited the island of Camiguin in the ’90s, two people in the group were interested in scaling Mt. Hibok-Hibok—my Japanese Canadian friend Lynn and my horticulturist Uncle Marcos. Me, thinking I was fit enough because of regular gym visits and hours on the StairMaster, eagerly joined the climb.

We had to leave before dawn in order to be back before the sun was too high. With a guide, it was a grueling three hours to the summit and the same heading down. There were walls of rock we had to scale, areas that were level and shaded with trees. There were slippery slopes with a lot of scree (the mountaineering term for loose rocks, gravel and sand). I had to learn quickly to plant my feet sideways to avoid sliding down.

The high I got at reaching the summit made the exertion worth it, and the rewarding view was that of Camiguin’s shape-shifting sandbar. But my quads ached terribly for days after that. Talk about being fit!

Sunrise over Pulag from the window of our Baguio apartment

Mountain climbing, you learn, is not an issue of strength but endurance. Scaling Mt. Pulag I passed many a muscular climber, pausing and out of breath.

But I’m getting ahead of my story.

Mountain climbing never crossed my mind again until decades later when my then 15-year-old daughter Hannah asked permission to climb Mt. Pulag, the third highest peak in the country.

Mt. Pulag. I’d just been reading an article where the actor Ruru Madrid talked about his Pulag experience while shooting the movie Above the Clouds.

He described the hardships: the cold, the rain (you need to cross the rain clouds) and the many bangin which cannot be seen in the dark, which is exactly when you need to be climbing to get to the peak by sunrise.

So I decided to come along, and soon after our trek began at 1 a.m. I began to wonder just what on earth I was thinking, pitting my 55-year-old self against 15-year-olds.

The climb is like taking stairs in the form of large rocks. It is 5 1/2 hours up and the same heading down. Occasionally someone ahead would yell, “Bangin!” and I would instinctively cling to the rock walls as I went on. The climbers behind me knew, from my position, that there were cliffs ahead.

We reached the first peak in time to witness that glorious sea of clouds.

At the summit of Mt. Pulag, finally!

But no way were we done. It seemed we needed to trek another kilometer peak to reach the ultimate summit!

Our guide had disappeared to stay with a member of the group, Mommy Lucy, who could not make it past Station 2. Without a guide, our group painstakingly scaled a series of smaller peaks without realizing that there was a flat trail below, and doing the extra peaks was only for the diehards!

But we did indeed reach the summit where the atmosphere among fellow “survivors” was that of jubilation, and strangers freely shared water and food.

I may no longer climb physical mountains but mountains of the personal sort are always cropping up in my life, as they do for all of us.

The next year we scaled the very beautiful Mt. Ulap, seemingly less difficult as the climb up is just three hours and the scenery makes you feel like you’re in Switzerland—pastoral, with cows, pines and flowers. But the near-vertical descent made even the teens in the group rate Pulag an easier climb.

That Pulag climb earned me the respect of my daughter’s classmates and it was also a turning point for another reason.

I was facing mountains of another sort right before climbing Pulag, and surviving 11 hours of extreme difficulty, cold, dark, and a perennial fear of those bangins gave me that sudden assurance that, by God’s grace I could face and survive any mountain in my life.

The last Benguet mountain we climbed was Mt. Yangbew which, after Pulag and Ulap, was a mere walk in the park with just 20 minutes to get to the summit. Up there it’s Marlboro Country with horses to ride or just take photos with.

I may no longer climb physical mountains but mountains of the personal sort are always cropping up in my life, as they do for all of us.

But I scale them the same way I scaled Pulag—with prayer, determination, endurance, hope and that ever crucial faith that at some point the summit will be reached, and after that the remaining trek will very thankfully be the way back down.