Hiking Mt. Ulap with Heads up in the Clouds
Travel dates: February 15 – 16, 2018
The year has just started, with a deafening bang. The February air was crisp, my workload has been piling up so I had no intentions of taking a break, Not until my cousin suggested of going up north and to hiking Mt. Ulap.
Other than Baguio City
Mt. Ulap is located in Benguet, so far, my favorite because of the climate. The eco-trail opened in 2015, a recent feat to introduce another peak of the Cordilleras. Mountaineering is not supposed to be easy, but in Benguet, if not easier, it was more comfortable to trek because of the cool climate. See, my last hike was in Cebu which is the Osmeña Peak, which was last year in September. My five-minute workouts and self-yoga sessions were not consistent, so this 3-day plan was a bit harder to do especially for my body. Past experiences were enough for me to feel terrified of the beating I will take on the climb. I pushed through anyway.
Hiking Mt. Ulap was made possible as we joined a travel group called HappyFeet Adventures. That Friday was a public holiday so we have prepared for the worst element: crowds. Departure was in the late night of Thursday and we arrived at Bgy. Sta. Fe in Itogon, the jump-off point, at around 4AM. After registration, we paid our fees, got ready with our gears, and briefly met with our small group and found that many of them were first timers, including my sister and a friend. Finally, we met our tour guides, and one of them was Ate Helen.
So here are the metrics of Mt. Ulap: the summit is 1,846 MASL tall, with a difficulty of 3/9, and trail class of 1-3. This could be taken as a minor hike, but do be a bit daunted and be ready. A hike in Mt. Ulap should not be underestimated. Actually, do not underestimate any mountain ever.
The mountain has 3 camps and landmarks, completing the traverse of Mt. Ulap, which is popularly known as the Mt. Ulap Eco-trail and has a distance of 9km. The starting point is the trail in Tomtombek, where you will find the map and notice the three landmarks to trek on: Camp 1 is Ambanao Paoay, Camp 2 is where the Gungal Rock is, the prominent feature of the trail, and Camp 3 is the peak of Mt. Ulap itself. After passing through these camps, Pong-Ol Burial cave is next but we skipped that part since as I asked later on during the trek to one of the guides and said that it was too far from the exit point, which is Bgy. Sta. Fe.
It was late when we started, around six in the morning, when the sun was began to rise. We pocketed our headlights while walking the cemented road from the school which was the registration area. Our group did a couple of stretches as lead by our travel agent, and proceeded to walk into the woods. The sun was peeking out, and we had witnessed its rise when we arrived in the marker of the trail where the map is, which was along the trail of Tomtombek.
The golden hour is always a magical moment for me. Everything’s bathed in gold. The light, the spectrum it showed, and the colors present on the canvass which is the Earth always made me reflect about the core of my being, albeit vaguely. It always made me aware, from the tips of my toes to the strands of my hair, of how we were made of tiny atoms and how the earth arise from a tiny dust, still with so many secrets waiting to be unlocked, still with many worlds beyond that are not in a hurry to be discovered. I’d always feel small, in a good way. It is a reminder to always be kind, in a world with so much cruelty. I don’t know when I started thinking that way, but I knew I was always outdoors amidst the nature when I always stumble on those thoughts.
We also found some stores from where the map was placed, the starting point of the trail. There was also a photo booth area, with a guide of what it can be seen beyond the horizon. According to that guide, from where we are standing from, we could see Baguio City and the Ambuclao Dam.
The traverse is also called Ampucao – Sta. Fe Ridge, and true to its name, the narrow paths were indeed fearsome, but exhilarating. I carefully trod the path while taking in the view of pine trees in nearby hills. A reminder though, multitasking while mountain climbing is kind of dangerous. I personally suggest that when you want to take in the view, stop for a while, or else you might misstep, and worst things could happen. I had certain experiences about danger many times before and I might share it in the future, but for now, let’s leave it at that.
It took us around two hours to arrive at the first camp and peak, the grassland of Ambanao-Paoay, where we took a more than a five-minute break. We feasted on a colleague’s snacks and enjoyed the view of the grassland. It was such a nice day. There were too many mountain tops on view that you would want to run around while listening to the raging wind. The chill bites through my skin to my bones, but I still noticed how warm it felt as we just finished the assaults, so I removed my jacket. Later after the climb, I realized it was not a good idea after all, forgetting that I didn’t slather on a sunblock lotion before climbing and never wore the jacket again, hence, my skin was sunburned.
We proceeded trailing for our next stop. We passed through a landmark with stacked stones, pine trees I never knew would grew at the height that they were, and wildflowers on every path. At this point we have covered 4 or 5 kilometers out of 9, and it started taking a toll on us all. It was a natural state, especially when most of us are first-time mountain climbers, were from work the night before, and presently were lacking sleep. Worst, some of my colleagues are getting cranky, and I tried not be affected. My rule is always to keep emotions on check during travels, especially with friends. Worst fights usually originate on places we are new to. I just listened and made certain measures during the hike, mostly gave encouragement on why hiking Mt. Ulap is worth it. I understood fatigue and crumbling self-confidence during hikes, but whatever the pace, the weather, or hunger, I always said that we are going to reach the summit. Besides, I personally think going down from the top is the most difficult task, not climbing one.
Gungal Rock is the feature of this traverse. That was evident as we waited maybe for an hour just for a photo sesh. In the end, we skipped the part, and just stared at how it is a reminiscent of the rock in The Lion King animated movie where Simba was presented to the kingdom. Yes, that rock. The photo opportunity system used a number scheme, which was like falling in line on a bank or a government office in Manila. Our group was assigned with a number, at least 30 counts away from the group who were already taking photos. A rule also imposed by the local tourism board was to only stay at the rock for ten seconds, so the line would not take too long. But since it was a long weekend, the line stayed long. We were also hungry and it was already nearing noon, and since we were still about four kilometers away from the canteens and stores, we continued trekking.
Finally, after some grueling hours, we arrived at the summit. Before that, we had multiple stops than ever, drinks started to deplete since there are no water sources along the traverse. Two liters of water were not enough however. Noon ticked while we were on the path so we rested under shaded pine trees and took out our lunch which is Adobo, the safest Filipino food to bring as packed lunch. It was a nice dine out, with the amazing views of the mountains. We rested after eating, tried to alleviate our aching muscles by lying down the off-beaten slopes. Before continuing our walk, we packed up and cleaned our place. Always remember the LNT or “leave no trace” principle, anywhere, even in the lowlands and especially in the city. It goes a long way.
The summit was not what I expected. I knew, from the name itself, that Mt. Ulap would be full of clouds, a sea of it. I just never thought that I would be so blessed to witness it at that moment. Little did I know, that I am not just going to witness the sea of clouds, but I’ll be among them.
Ascending the summit was a dramatic sight. Envision being tired of too many upward slopes, shaking from thirst and muscle strain, hoping that the soil would not be too loose as I already slipped a lot. Then the breeze chilled my face as I slowly ascend, and I was mesmerized. I imagine I had a big grin on my face. This trip was not planned after all, and the giddiness I felt that time was much more meaningful. The rush of the clouds was scary as it could take you away. It was eerie, yet pretty.
Reflections along the way
Hiking Mt. Ulap reminds me of life itself. If I could climb the mountains and successfully reach the summit, then I could get through the same way with life. I never even thought of taking so many pictures. All I know was, I was there, breathing, finally witnessing how the clouds rolled through those hills. If the sea was unforgiving, the breeze was as much. The sound of the wind wheezing pass through my ears was unforgettable and I tucked it all in my mind’s eye.
What I also love about hiking Mt. Ulap is that even if there were many climbers, it was not too crowded. Reasons could be the local government unit had regulated the influx of travelers properly or maybe the ridge was vast enough to hold many tourists.
Still, I worry about the state of the Philippine mountains. Recent news broke about Mt. Pulag’s fire in the grassland. Days after our hike, Mt. Ulap has also caught fire, a smaller one but still was able to damage most of the grassland.
Other problems affecting the mountains were unnecessary trails which should not be made since it is bad for the mountain as this could shift the vegetation of the plants. Loud speakers or chatters could trigger erosions to some parts of the mountain. I still hope though that people would know and understand about all of this and be more responsible as we continue to talk about preserving the environment while being outdoors.
A herd of cows were present at the summit, near camping and/or glamping parties. Noticing this, I was hopeful that I could do an overnight stay in Mt. Ulap, and witness the visibility of the Milky Way in the area. I wondered if it was also possible to hike from Sta. Fe, camp at the summit, then descend back to Sta. Fe, instead of traversing to Tomtombek, since it was half the nine-kilometer trek. I am looking forward for a chance to camp in Mt. Ulap.
Around thirty minutes after, we descended from the summit and found some sari-sari stores. Some colleagues ate their lunch, some took naps, and most chugged a bottle of soda. We also bought our souvenirs and refilled our water bottles, fresh from a natural water source.
After our long rest, the real challenge begun.
Descending the mountains is what I always hate. It is what gives me the muscle pain for days, and my knees always creak like hinges that were not oiled. Gravity is tricky, being light-footed is a must. At that time, I had a backpack which was heavy and I was not able to repack my bag to match it with the activity of descending the slopes, a lesson I have learned painfully.
I was causing traffic in the trek, and my colleagues were half a kilometer away from me, to the point that the other guide, the sweeper, was the only one who accompanied me. Even my sister was ahead of me, a first-timer, and that frustrates me more. I have been a potato couch for so long. I still pushed through because, well, what choice do I have?
Completing the traverse
At 4PM, I arrived at the 9km mark. 500 meters more, and I finally arrived at Sta. Fe. Bathing was usually a struggle in these parts due to icy-cold water, but there were homes who offer hot water with an additional fee. Still a struggle since our whole body was aching, and my arms burned from the sun.
After packing up, we then proceeded going to Baguio City to buy vegetables and souvenirs and was able to eat dinner before braving the zigzag roads going back to the lowlands.
“Mahirap ba?” I get that a lot. I am vocal with where I’ve been and what I do, but I am still not confident with mountain hiking. It is how a mountain should be. It would not just be physically devastating, but patience would also be tested. If braving the Manila traffic was manageable, how much more the fresh air of the forest? I definitely encourage you to go on hiking Mt. Ulap.
Years ago, I just wondered if I could climb the mountains that I saw while I was in a ride going to Baguio City. I never thought I could make it happen.
Let me share Peter Matthiessen’s quote in The Snow Leopard as parting words about the mountains and is always a helpful reminder for me:
“The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.”
My ANTHEinerary in Mt. Ulap
Our itinerary in Mt. Ulap that was based in our travel group.
|February 15, 2018||9:00 PM||Meet-up at Greenfield district, Shaw Boulevard|
|11:30 PM||Departed going to Itogon, Benguet|
|February 16, 2018||4:00 AM||Arrived at the jump-off point, Brgy. Ampucao|
|5:00 AM||Secured guides, registered, paid fees and huddled up for small meeting|
|6:00 AM||start trek|
|8:30 AM||arrived at Ambanao Paoay|
|9:30 AM||arrived at Gungal Rock|
|12:00 NN||arrived at the summit|
|4:00 PM||end of trek|
|6:00 PM||departed Itogon going to Baguio City|
Budget for Mt. Ulap (2018)
The following is my allotted budget for Mt. Ulap. All listed was an approximation, except for the tour package courtesy of HappyFeet Adventures, which is the promo price.
|Activity / Materials||Amount|
|Tour package care (inclusive of van and registration fees)||899php|
|Snacks and drinks||100php|
|CR for bathing with hot water||25php|
|TOTAL ESTIMATED EXPENSES||1,224php|
Things to bring to day hike Mt. Ulap
I have listed the things I usually bring during day hikes.
- your own bottle of water at least 1 liter of it
- gloves (a must have in cold conditions and when rock-climbing is expected)
- head light (since the usual start of hike is before sunrise, and very useful in overnight hikes or camping)
- trail foods (usually nuts and jelly ace) and packed lunch (not too little and not too much since it could make your back pack heavier than you can handle)
- sunblock (Please don’t forget to put on sunblock beforehand. I suffered the consequences of sunburn. Do not ever downsize the enormity of having sunburn. Not just because IT IS painful, but because it could lead to other skin diseases)
- jacket (especially for cold conditions, long sleeves or arm sleeves if you just need protection from the sun
- a change of clothes
- hiking shoes or sandals (a simple rubber shoes would suffice, just make sure you it has enough grip on your soles and not too tight on your feet, since it could be very painful and might damaged your toes during hikes)
- slippers for after climbing, to let your feet breathe after a tiring day
- a hiking pole or two (this is a must for me though since others might personally think it is hellish to climb the mountain, but for me, it is going down the slope which is unforgivable for my knees)
- a cap or a head scarf to always protect your skin from the sun
- a belt bag so that during hikes your valuables would be here, and your phone is within your reach whenever you need to photograph (not to visit the social media sites, look around you!)
- sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun glares
Some Hiking Terms I Learned Along the Way
I travel because I like learning new things. Immersion is always a great teacher. Here, I partake some terms I learned while I was climbing several mountains.
Take Five – rest for five minutes
Assault – demanding, sharp ascents during hikes
Traverse – to hike through, from point A to point B, instead of coming from point A going to the summit then going back to point A.
Ridge – narrow hilltops or paths
MASL – meters above sea level