Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mt. Purgatory Traverse: Uncovering More of An Awesome Benguet

Somewhere in the northern Philippines lies a not so popular hiking destination that the Cordillera region can also boast of, apart from its famous and majestic Mt. Pulag. In one particular weekend in March of this year, I have allowed myself to discover this and more of Cordillera mountains. It's called Mt. Purgatory. 

Sounds scary, right? The name of this mountain seems to give an impression that it’s like you’ll be journeying to a place which could end you up with either a heaven or a hell.

When I also first heard about this, it sounded like a weird thing to me. But before making any false assumption, let me erase the spine-chilling impression in your mind. Otherwise, you will never unleash the beauty of this other side of Benguet. 

Yes, I’ve been to Benguet again! Although not widely known yet to many, this climb I guess is indeed one of the jewels of hiking tourism in the said province.

A hike in Purgatory had never been included in my bucket list. Interested I am, yet still I wasn’t that interested at first. Being fresh from Kibungan Circuit climb last February (which is also in Benguet), I was thinking then that Purgatory would be just like any other Benguet mountains that I used to see.   My climbing buddy opened the idea of climbing it. Later on, I got convinced. Primarily fueled by wanderlust and itchy feet for another hike, I was finally led to excitement and at the same time, curiosity. I asked myself, "Why not discover for myself why it was called Purgatory and why stop myself from discovering something new?" In the first place, it’s in Benguet. I have always loved Benguet mountains! I guess it was also timely to take advantage of the good season for having zero typhoon possibility coming to the northern Luzon. Oh yeah, ironically, it's summer but there was a typhoon in Mindanao during that time.

By the way, I used the phrase “something new” as Purgatory climb is still relatively new as of this writing.  Though it was reached already by few climbers in the past, according to our guide, they officially began promoting and opening it to the climbers in 2011 only.

All About the Traverse

Actually, the complete title of this climb event is Mt. Purgatory-Mangisi traverse. So let me clarify what I just mentioned previously, it's not just one mountain. In this climb, one will be reaching a series of mountains in Bokod town highlighting the major ones – Mt. Pack (2,290 MASL), Mt. Purgatory itself (2,080 MASL) and  Mt. Kom-kompol (2,329 MASL).  Apparently, this hike is a major one -- a  traverse which starts from Japas jump off point to Brgy. Ekip of the mentioned town.

These mountains lie between two majestic and popular mountains, Mt. Pulag to the west and Mt. Ugo to the east. Surrounded by these wonderful mountains, surely the mountains comprising Purgatory traverse hold a promise of wondrous and picturesque views too.

This is Monique, a good friend of mine, who walked at this trail for the first time as it was her first ever major climb.

So why Purgatory? I did some research before the actual climb and based on some write ups, the story goes like this: During the American occupation in the Philippines, an American who was assigned to the relay station in this mountain found himself suffering from too much cold temperature along with difficulty in ascending. During our actual climb, I asked the same question to the guide and he responded with the same story.

Based on the doctrine of the Catholic Church, purgatory is an in-between state after physical death wherein those bound to be in heaven must be purified first so as to achieve the required holiness. Perhaps the purification here is being associated to the difficulty and coldness that the mountains give.

The Traverse Proper

What we did was an overnight weekend climb. Leaving Manila Friday night and arriving in Baguio City the following day at dawn, we had arranged beforehand a chartered jeepney to transport us to Bokod. The transfer from Baguio City to Bokod is just like the normal scenario when having  a Pulag climb via Ambangeg trail. After three hours, we were already at the jump off point in Japas. It was where our guide and porters met us. Before we officially start, we were given an orientation about the traverse -- what to expect on the trail; how long will it take; do’s and don’ts and many more. Here’s the illustrative map of the entire traverse that they have shown us.  It was great to know that the mountain is being managed well in terms of accepting climb events. Proper arrangement of the guideship is really being done. This is administered by Association of Bokod Adventure Ecoguides (ABADEG). Not all mountains in the Philippines are like in this case wherein climbers are given briefings first incuding the reminder of the cliche rule of Leave No Trace (LNT).

The whole trek is more or less a total of  thirty kilometers. The first types of trail that we encountered are more of open and wide ones. Established it may be, but it’s generally an ascending trail. It was a typical assault that can be so tiresome. 

It was sad to know that during that particular weekend, forest fire was fresh and rampant, evidenced by the ashy pine forest.

I asked the guide about it. He said, it was because of the little fire that was started by some of the locals but wasn’t able to  be stopped for the reason that the fire has already scattered before any remedy. The smell of these ashes added inconvenience  to us.  It was a bit a "not-so-good something" to be inhaled as we struggle to ascend. I hope proper attention will be paid by the authorities to avoid extreme circumstance of this.

We passed by a school and some villages at Sitio Mangagkew. There was an on-going medical mission during that time and we witnessed how the locals there normally ascend mountains and literally walk lengthy trails just to reach the school. 

The mountain by the way is a home to many tribal groups.

As you may see, SUVs can ascend the mountain up to this village because of the wide established trails. Even the motorcycles can pass by the slightly wide mountain roads.

It was both extremely sunny and windy during that fateful Saturday. I was unaware of the complete information about the weather. What I only knew was there was a storm hitting the southern Philippines and  I have this theory that in one way or another, the northern part of the country was affected.

Past Mangakew in which we have already walked by more than three kilometers, we took our lunch break and stayed for an hour at a nearby empty hut where water source is available. Resting for a longer time was not that good as the cold wind was sometimes not bearable. It was the wind that made the day cold even in the presence of the sun. 

In our continuous trek, we found  one shelter or waiting shed after each and every few kilometers that we walked. It was a trail of combined assault and steady trekking.

After pushing more, the trails were becoming foggy and I saw the transition from the open and  pine-forested trail that we’ve been to the next level of mountain vegetation. True enough, we saw the signage going to Mt. Purgatory and shoot! We finally entered the mossy forest!

We then walked a tolerable yet still breath catching assault. It was all mossy forest. If compared to the other mountains I’ve been, this one I think cannot be labeled as a very rich one but still it’s a simple forest with trees coated by moss themselves that are basically enough to be called mossy. In the womb of the wilderness, I couldn’t still help but wonder on all that I saw.

We finally reached the first leg of the traverse: Mt. Pack or Mt. Banshila. 

The trails being covered and foggy seemed to be so gloomy. It continued to be so until Mt. Purgatory. The trail from Pack to Purgatory is fairly easy. I guess because the former is higher than the latter. Nonetheless it still took us less than two hours to reach the highest point of Mt. Purgatory. 

As we  continue,  I have observed that we were walking on a ridge, though not that visible since everything side by side is all forest. It was a very lengthy walk from Mt. Purgatory to the next target which was the elementary school of Bakian where we can stay for a night. Most overnight climbs are normally done by staying in that school and hikers do not mind bringing tents anymore. However, in our case, we originally planned to set camp in Sitio Tangbaw to get the most out of this climb and enjoy the view upon rising the next morning. But due to the coldness of the wind and the fact that we were behind our itinerary already,  I think it was a wise decision to stay in that school  We arrived there at 6:30P.M.

We were perfectly sheltered and safe enough in that school. With convenience, we prepared our dinner and after some socials, there, lights out!

I believe all of us did not have a continuous, deep sleep as it was terribly cold. The wind was drastically moaning and creating disturbing sounds through the roof of the school building. We were really thankful though that we got a good shed. How much more if we decided to settle on the campsite barely with our tents? We could have been chilling to death that night.

We faced the next morning with grayish white surroundings and it was still terribly cold.

As the morning progresses, the fog was gradually wiped out by the rising sun. 

When we started our trek for that day, it was already clear yet the sound of the wind was still there. We reached the Tangbaw village after less than thirty minutes, we left our things at the house of one of our guides and proceeded to the last leg of this traverse --- the ascent to Mt. Kom-kompol.

Five of us decided to stay and wait while the rest, including me, continued. 

We kept going and reached the campsite where we supposed to stay in the previous night. The sun was totally up and the sky was clear that a good view of Baguio, Pulag, and Timbak can be seen there.  

Our guide seemed to make us hesitant as the mountain that we would be heading at was foggy. He said that there could be no view up there. But we insisted to continue as we were after reaching the summit anyway.

Lo and behold, after trekking both under sunny trails and assault type mossy forest, we were given a good clearing at the view deck of Mt. Kom-kompol.

What was more amazing was when Mt. Pulag cleared up and its astounding unique grassland was shown to us from afar. It was so beautiful.

The guide also told us the possibility of traversing from Purgatory to Mt. Pulag. Buddy Dennis was interested about doing that. The guide told that so far, no climbers has done that except for the locals/hunters. We went back to Tangbaw tired but fullfilled and with a good smile. We stayed for more than an hour there for an early lunch. Afterwards, we moved and took on the rolling, descending pine forested trail similar to Mt. Ugo. 

But wait, the abundant pine trees here were differently amazing. There were so many of them appearing golden, organized and stretching high.

As we continued to descend, we had  struggles this time: steep terrains challenging our knees the hard way, coupled with too much sun exposure as most of the trails are open.

After such kilometric descent, we reached the end point marking the completion of the traverse. We were picked up by the van (as the chartered jeepneys were no longer available). We were comfortably relieved. The van picked us up that even let us crossed a river. However, we still dropped by at the hanging bridge over Agno river to take some pictures.

It was an epic traverse that perhaps let us experienced the foretaste of the real purgatory. Though the entire traverse can be really considered as major climb and somewhat tough, it is still a must-climb and a must-discover one for everyone. For me, it has always been a fun hike to feast on the beauty of Benguet province.

*Credits to Qitter Abiog for some of the photos

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