Mt. Pulag, 9609 ft., highpoint of Luzon Island
Second-highest mountain in the Philippines.
The story of a climb on November 23, 2006
by Richard L. Carey
We departed Angeles Tuesday, November 21st, in the Ford Escape with Erick driving and John and I as passengers. After a quick stop at Starbucks in Tarlac, a large town, we cross rice fields eastward to another major road heading north. We pass through some busy small towns with amusing names - Digdig, Bambang, Bayombong and Bagabag. It's good we have Erick driving since we often have to ask people directions in Tagalog. The highways aren't marked well and there are no route numbers.
Late in the day we begin climbing up winding roads in Ifugao Province and reach the hill town of Banaue. The town is perched on steep slopes with shops and homes clinging to the edge of the road and a huge canyon behind. Banaue seems a lot poorer and resembles villages in Nepal or Bhutan. We stop and inspect one hotel and select another called the Green View with a restaurant and view over the canyon behind and roaring river well below. Some of the famous rice terraces are visible from our room, which is very spartan with four beds and bathroom off a porch with no hot water. We check the only Internet Cafe nearby and they say the lines are down and to check back later.
The next day we drive about 4KM north for views of the rice terraces which are reported to be 2000 years old and built by hand over that time span. The early morning sun highlights one long ridge with countless stair-stepped small benches for growing rice. At one viewpoint with a plaque noting the terraces have a U.S. Civil Engineering Achievement Award I buy a really good eight-inch high carved wood eagle for 130 Pesos($2.60). John asked if I bargained for it and I said no. With such a low price I didn't feel the need to.
After some discussions with Filipinos at the hotel and tourist office we decide to go back south and cross over west to get to Mt. Pulag. One road we had considered locals say doesn't exist, so we head west from Bambang. After some fair dirt road we encounter a good road coming from Aritao and we feel we have it made. The road is all newly constructed of concrete with guard blocks and drainage channels. But at the small town of Kayapa our fortunes turn for the worse and construction is still underway on this portion of the highway. There are dusty and muddy sections that challenge the clearance of the Escape. Four-wheel drive gets us through some long mucky sections. This is obviously a huge project and will take years to complete in this mountainous terrain.
Near the tiny hamlet of Bokod we find that we need to turn off the main road and head to Ambangeg. There is a Mt. Pulag National Park sign and after more narrow roads we reach the town and Park Headquarters. The staff are helpful and we learn that we can stay upstairs in simple rooms for P150($3.00). There are no hotels here and no restaurants either, but we get a simple meal across the street at a shop. As we eat, school children are hiking up the road heading home and they stare and giggle as they spot John and me. It seems that tourists are pretty rare up here. The register book shows that the mountain is climbed by big groups of Filipinos mostly on weekends and only one Australian in October and two Czech people last spring. I don't see any people from America in over a year's entries.
We get away at 6:00AM next morning driving up the road to the Ranger Station that is another 10 KM up the mountain. The weather is clear and ideal for our climb and we can see all across the pine-forested Cordillera. The first 1.7 KM is paved and then it gets increasingly nasty with deep ruts and mud. The Escape doesn't have enough clearance and Erick tries to ride the edges, but this is tough on such a narrow road. After 6.6 KM at about 7075 ft. Erick says we have a flat on the left front. We take out all our gear from the back and grab the jacks and spare tire, but where is the lug wrench? We seem to have everything else but this critical item. Erick hikes up the road to small houses while John and I look harder for the wrench. John then calls Boy back in Angeles on his cell phone and he says the wrench is there under the plastic cover that goes over the spare. Yes, there it is nestled in a slot on the underside. Erick comes back with some borrowed wrenches, but the real one does the job.
We drive only a short way up and park, not wanting to trust our luck without a spare. A farmer says to pull off by his field and he will watch the car. It's about an hour up to the Ranger Station at 8090 ft. This must be the highest road in the Philippines. No one is at the small building so we continue up the road, which soon narrows down to a trail. Erick asks at a house and gets a guide named Ben who will go with us up the mountain. Ben tells us to go on a lower trail at a junction and I feel sure we would have made the wrong choice so it is good to have him along.
Farmers have strung plastic irrigation pipe all around and are growing cabbage and carrots at this elevation, which is too high for rice. We climb up a steeper narrow trail to a shelter at Teltelpok Pass at 8465 ft. Here we can see Mt. Pulag to the north with its grass-covered upper slopes. We stay mostly level for a long distance curving north to a signed junction. John says his feet are hurting and heads back. It is only a short distance till we break clear of the forest onto the Pulag grasslands with calf-high grasses and dwarf bamboo. It takes another hour to reach the top. Fortunately it is a small flat area not spoiled by signs or radio gear. There is a repeater on a lower summit a mile away. Views are fine, but clouds soon drift upon us at noontime. I got a few pictures while it was still clear.
After lunch we head down at a quick pace. We see just a couple of local people on the trail that is well defined and not muddy. After four hours we reach the car and a snoozing John. Our guide Ben and a farmer want to go with us and we reluctantly take them, but have everyone get out and walk at the bad spots so Erick can get over them without dragging bottom. We learn that it is possible to hire a four-wheel drive Jeepney for about P3000($60.00) to get up the 10KM poor road. This would be the way to go and John thinks he may come back and do the mountain this way rather than damage his car.
It is a long ride down to the construction zone in the dark and Ben helps us negotiate unmarked junctions all the way to Baguio where we check into a hotel. Ben says good bye and we pay him P500($10.00) for his services.
Impressions: Mt.Pulag is a pleasant day hike on good trails and is much different from Mt.Apo, which was more jungle-like, muddy and required three days. Very few foreigners do this, but lots of Filipinos do it on weekends so it would be wise to get there on a weekday. One can take public transportation from Angeles to Baguio and then up to the mountain on Jeepneys. Renting a car and self-driving is possible, but it is a real challenge finding your way and traffic is heavy in any sizable towns. There is a rental place in Angeles that has nice Toyota 4-Runners with good tires and with one of those you could drive the bad road all the way.