Monday, September 08, 2008


I only felt solemn awe when we finally reached the summit of Mount Pinatubo. The sun had already sunk but its last rays were still emanating an eerie glow from behind the mountains, extremely faint but sufficient enough. It gave the whole place a misty but ghastly appearance, like a lurid dream you wouldn’t want to wake up from. The lake that had been formed inside the crater during its last eruption was hemmed in by rock mountains all around, creating a deep, irregularly shaped basin of still, pinkish gray waters. After drinking in the scene while the cold mountain air lashed at my cheeks, I hurriedly put out my camera and whored in front of it with Noelle, Eric, Glenna, and Allan before darkness finally sucked in the whole scenery into its underbelly.

I wasn’t so keen on joining them in this trip because I had just had my dental implant screwed into my skull. I was afraid that I might get so tired walking it would bleed, or worse, come off. However, after consulting with my implant dentist, I finally said yes at the last minute, causing Glenna to conclude that, in any trip, I always say I wouldn’t go but I push through on the eleventh hour. I’m glad I did. I have never camped yards away from the crater of an active volcano before. This was the first time.

It felt like we were hobbits on our way to Mordor to cast the ring into its fiery bowels. Around us was a vast expanse of rock and sand. Dust rose in billowing volumes. The sides of the mountain range seemed like they had been cleanly sliced off by some enormous knife, revealing the powdery filling within. In between these mountain ranges, we trekked through a wide desert-like path that, only a few years ago, was raging with lahar from the summit. I wondered if lahar could really be so powerful as to have this singular effect on something as huge as a mountain. I kept imagining chocolate encrusted marshmallows that had been cut in half, only, in this case, the chocolate was green and the marshmallow light gray.

Boulders as big as houses were strewn all around. A stream, which widened into a sprightly river and narrowed into a trickling brook at some parts, flowed along with us. A natural guide toward the crater, I suppose. Just follow the bouncing, gushing waters and you’ll get to the top. At some parts of the stream, we could see greenish brown deposits that were remnants of its volcanic origin, no doubt. It was a constant reminder that we were on our way to a volcano, not just any other mountain.

The way was fairly flat. We only climbed when we were quite near the crater; the path was a narrow strip of water-soaked boulders flanked by lush foliage. As Noelle said, it was a hike with “no assaults” at all. Despite Eric’s advice not to drink water during the climb (I forgot why exactly), I still gulped from my metal flask. I couldn’t help it. It energized me. Water was to me what lembas was to hobbits. Sorry for the constant allusion to Tolkien’s epic but that’s what I was reading at that time. Yeah, I know, it’s too late to jump into the Hobbit trilogy bandwagon.

There were still Aeta communities somewhere in the mountains for we bumped into some of them on the way. They had surveyed us with either boredom or curiosity. Here go the stupid tourists again with their cameras, they must’ve thought. There was a cave from whose aperture peered a family of Aetas. I’m not sure if they actually lived there or were just taking a respite from the beatings of the horrid sun. Allan later said that our guide pointed to a human skull half-covered by sand and said that it was an Aeta who had perished in lahar. The Aetas are short, dark-skinned indigenous people with strong white teeth and huge Afros. They were mountain dwellers and hunters until Mount Pinatubo erupted in the nineties, unleashing tons of lahar that ravaged mountains, houses, cattle, and people. They were said to have evacuated to some site which was under the care of the government. But like everything that is government-run, this settlement didn’t have anything that could sustain them so they had no choice but to go back to the mountain and start anew atop the bones of their kinsmen.

We paid for a military escort in full battle gear, something that was compulsory for all trekkers. This was obviously just a money-making scheme, according to our guide who was a native of the place. The military saw something they could possibly milk for some cash that’s why they demanded that they become part of it. I couldn’t understand what the heck they attempted to protect us from, not unless skeletons of wild animals that had resurrected from their sandy graves regularly prowled this area. Anyway, this gives you a rough idea what type of government we have in this part of the world. When the escort started getting friendly with us, chatting us up beside our tent and accepting offers of refreshments, I got really uneasy. I don’t trust men in uniform. That’s something you’ll learn if you live long enough in this country. Noelle, an erstwhile activist who had battled against riot police in many anti-government rallies, later commented that the soldier and his armalite also made her uncomfortable.

But that didn’t spoil the fun of course. Eventually, the guy went off to a tent which his ilk pitched, leaving us in peace as we serenely listened to soothing guitar music from Noelle’s ipod plugged to a tiny speaker. Tone it down, Glenna said, we might disturb the tent beside us. We did and the music became even more enchanting, a soft undercurrent eddying in and out of our hushed conversation. The air was chilly and the stars burned vigorously. Other groups had already set up camp near us. The darkness was just broken by flashlights and battery powered lamps glowing from within the tents. Eric, as usual, was in charge of cooking our food. With a black, tie-dyed sarong (a large rectangular piece of cloth) draped around me, I silently enjoyed the place. I never said this to any of my companions at that time lest I sound like some new age mystic, but I really felt at peace with myself and with nature at that moment. And to think that we were on the edge of a crater that could erupt any minute.

The next morning dawned hesitatingly. Sunlight brushed against the mountain tops at first and slowly crept down to the lake. Despite that, the water didn’t shimmer. It still appeared misty to me like watercolor washes in an impressionist painting. We went down the lake to wash our feet. The water was still icy. There were tiny bubbles in some parts which suggested that there were creatures in its depths, or vents, or, damn, was it starting to boil? For something that’s boiling, this was pretty cold. The other campers soon went down by the bank too. One foreigner took his shirt off and plunged into the lake. I wanted to do that but the water was so damn cold. And besides, we had been warned not to stay in the water for more than twenty minutes, otherwise its sulfur content or whatever substance it has, will burn our skin. Although at that time, I sort of didn’t care anymore what the elements could do to my skin. The dust and the sand had already wreaked enough havoc on our pores as our sturdy four-wheeler braved the roughness of the terrain during the first half of our trip the day before. It’s free face powder, Glenna commented.

The truck crossed shallow rivers and trenches, and braved sharp rocks, leaving a trail of disturbed lahar deposits swirling in its wake. The ride was an adventure in itself. There were times when I felt that the vehicle would topple over and send us rolling on the sand. But it never did. The tires were huge and strong, the driver experienced and determined. For a time, the drive seemed endless. We could see nothing but grayness and some greenery up on the cliffs. After about two hours (believe me, it felt more than that) we finally stopped at the foot a moss covered boulder where we met our other companions, the other group that was set to conquer the volcano’s summit, too. They were pretty organized. They formed a circle for a short briefing, to which I listened, and followed it by a prayer, about which I didn’t give a hoot.

They were fairly slow because it was a large group and some of them couldn’t walk fast so we decided to overtake them and walk ahead, thereby making us the very first group to reach the summit that day. It was exhilarating to arrive there without seeing tents that could mar the view. All I felt was awe. Solemn awe. Standing face to face with an enormous opening into the depths of the earth is not something I get to do every day, much less admire something that has caused so much anguish, pain, death, and suffering to hundreds of people. As the horizon slowly dimmed, the crater took on a somber, misty appearance, showing its most ghastly face at the last dying rays of the sun.

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At 5:53 AM, Blogger R-yo said...

ei! you're back?! nice reading you again. it's months that you've remained "swollen". at least now you've found a "crater", he he.

I'd really love to climb Mt. Pinatubo. I hope I'd get the chance soon.

At 7:06 AM, Blogger Abaniko said...

A lot of people are raving about Mt. Pinatubo. And I agree it's a beautiful place. Once, I saw an aerial view of its crater lake on TV and thought it's a place somewhere in Europe only to hear it's actually Mt. Pinatubo. We were planning to go there a couple of months ago but a typhoon hindered us from proceeding. We hope to climb it in October.

And I'm glad you're back. I thought you've abandoned the blogosphere for good. Now, I have to link you again. :)

At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow. one year interval between posts! :)

i did mount pinatubo once, but skipped the camping part. I do remember getting my feet badly scuffed because of the constant walking, the sand and the water traps we had to cross.

At 3:06 AM, Blogger slim whale said...

r-yo--i'm sure you'll enjoy the experience

abaniko -- yup. it's really worth the long trek. i hope i can regularly blog now

muddynights -- but it all disappears once you see the crater, right? at least that's how i felt.

At 9:28 AM, Blogger rmacapobre said...

> The military saw something they could possibly milk for some cash that’s why they demanded that they become part of it.

i thought that's why we were paying taxes .. safety is the jurisdiction of the local government (either the local government is in on it or ignorant about on it)?

welcome back!

At 7:28 PM, Blogger slim whale said...

rmacapobre -- the local govt knows about it. and they just let it happen. for one, the hike project is being promoted by the national govt. they only hired locals to be tour guides. but even so, it think paying for these stupid soldiers is too much.

At 7:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you talk about this awesome volcano as if it's the most awesome thing ever, like you haven't been gone for a year, like volcanoes are even worthy of this slobbering praise. and that's okay but was it really that pretty?


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