Friday, June 24, 2016

Mt Ulap Eco Trail in Itogon, Benguet: A Sublime Walk in the Clouds

Sublime sunrise on Abanao Paoay
We're barely a fourth of the way in our 9 kilometer trek to Mount Ulap and already found ourselves in a sea of fog.  Abanao Paoay (elevation: 1788 meters/5866 feet above sea level), which means vast grassland, is the grassy clearing about an hour and a half hike from Barangay Ampucao and on this Saturday morning, we started early at 3am so we can catch the sunrise on this first vantage point of the Mt Ulap Eco Trail.  After a 1 kilometer walk on concrete (a warm-up Alex quipped), it's a 45-minute assault (as described by my buddy, Ironwulf).  We were hoping for a glorious sunrise but nature has other plans.  That's what weather-weather means.  Instead of begrudging the heavens for this, we just made up our minds and enjoyed the view.

Our guide Alex was very patient (I'm not a strong hiker, more of a walker in the Bill Bryson kind of way).  He's also a very animated and knowledgeable guide.  I tend to ask a lot of questions the more difficult I find a hike.  On Abanao Paoay, he pointed out the Philex mining town (boy was it big) to the south, Mt. Sto. Tomas and traces of Mt. Ugu in the distance, plus some other features of the lay of the land.  To the north, the Philippine Military Academy looked like one huge white estate sitting on a hill.  It was fascinating to see the fog banks rolling in and out of the mountain side, draping the scenery one minute and revealing the view on the next.
Beautiful rocky ridge and mountains view bathed in early morning light
In lieu of being miserable due to lack of sleep (two hours top) and questionable fitness level, we had fun trying to identify the vegetation along the trail as well as looking for mushrooms.  We just came from Bontoc the previous day and with the recent rains, felt confident we would be able to find some here as well.   From Abanao Paoay, we reached the iconic Gungal Rock (elevation: 1814 meters/5951 feet above sea level) after another hour and a half where a group of hikers were already posing precariously for pictures and selfies.  With my state of imbalance and sleepiness, I wouldn't be cajoled in walking up to the angled rock and get into the group picture.  Heck, there's that pentagram carved into the rock where people would position themselves not knowing that whoever put it there may have used it for some sinister purpose (IMHO altars for idol worship in high places are in the Holy Bible for a good reason).  Alex told us that try as the locals might, they weren't able to erase the pentagram.  Creepy to say the least.

The rest of the trail would alternately rise and fall like undulating grasslands that reminded me of Viang in Batanes, only steeper, broken only by fantastic rock formations and boulders along a ridge that looked like they were hurled here by a volcanic eruption.  Fascinating.   There were also ridges that fall steeply on both sides that can induce a bout of vertigo.  At times, I would just put one foot in front of the other and ignore the slopes to the sides lest I give in to rolling sidewards.  Has there been casualties on this newly-opened trail we asked Alex.   I was interested in his reply as the most benign-looking trails can hurt those who've come unprepared for surprises.  I should know, my old mountaineering group had one in the long but relatively "easy" Pinatubo Delta 5 trek way, way back.  Alex was candid enough to say that yes, there'd been a few people hurt on the trail, mostly a product of people showing off (one guy hanged on a pine branch over a ravine that broke; the fall broke his ribs and landed him in a hospital).  There were also people, young as they may be, who've realized early on  that the trail can test their limits and turn back even before completing one-third of the traverse.
Always cloudy summit views on Mount Ulap
On the way to the Mount Ulap summit (elevation: 1846 meters/6056 feet above sea level) about seven hours after we started, we chanced upon Mang Trotsky and his charming dogs Blackie and Puppy.  He was sweeping the grass of cow poop, venturing out from his sari-sari store several hills away.  I sat down on the grassy summit to eat patupat and hand-fed his dogs the remainder of my peanut butter cookies stash   My buddy, Ferdz, did his yoga headstands against the backdrop of mountains covered with clouds -- the view so breathtaking as to inspire such feats perhaps.   No wonder the engineer who surveyed the mountain in 1939 named Lagman decided to name it Mount Ulap for it is indeed a walk in the clouds.

We had coffee and banana-cue at Mang Trotsky's store before walking a bit more and finding a clearing with more food stalls along with souvenir stands.  I was tired and famished so we ordered a burger and soda each.  Descending from this point, we found log stairs on the steep trail headed for Santa Fe.  While I am not a strong hiker, I can stand ascents more than descents, especially like this one which can be really jarring to aging knees.  We wondered about the hikers we met who started from the other direction - from Santa Fe to Ampucao - for we find this reverse route more tiring and challenging (grabeng assault agad umpisa pa lang).  It would be more than eight hours after we started when we exited in Santa Fe passing through three hanging bridges over a dry river bed and private houses adorned with plants and colorful flowers.  We waited for a jeepney headed back to Ampucao (full so we hanged on the estribo for the 20 minute ride).    
Mang Trotsky's dog, Blackie

Tired and hungry (again you might say), we headed back to Baguio via another jeepney full of thoughts of foggy trails, shrouded pines and a hike up in the clouds.  An enjoyable and most scenic traverse.  One of the most well-organized eco-trails I've been to, in fact.  That the trip was bookended by meeting friendly dogs was a good omen.  Funny that Gideon of Pinoy Mountaineer site rate it 3/10 in difficulty.  Maybe it's my age and my somewhat frail knees but the trail is harder than the 9 kilometer distance may imply.  It maybe a walk in the clouds but certainly not a walk in the park.  But then again, what a very scenic walk it was.

Guide fee: P400 (group up to seven pax); guides are assigned to a group according to their queue though you can request for a particular guide if you so prefer
Registration fee: P100 per pax payable at the Brgy. Ampucao hall (very organized listing with separate lists according to place of residence; you'd also find a listing of emergency responders here)
Camping is allowed on Abanao Paoay and areas near the summit; guide fee for overnight camping is double the rate (P800)
Hydration & Food: Lots of open trail so if you're starting late, better bring lots of water with you.  There are sari-sari stores/food stalls near the summit of Mt. Ulap towards the side of Santa Fe.  But if you're coming from Brgy. Ampucao, better bring trail food.
• Getting there: To get to Brgy. Ampucao via commute, catch the 6am jeep at Lakandula street in Baguio (P31 one way); via taxi, about P500 for the 45 minute ride; via private vehicle: take Loakan Road to Balatoc 
Contact: Brgy. Ampucao municipal hall at 0921.7292726
A trek that commenced and concluded with canine friends


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