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Mt. Palemlem AKA Pico de Loro exploration — through the eyes of a nature lover

A full documentation of the first Mt. Palemlem mountain climbing exploration which happened on January 14, 2006 (the day Lukas Magnus Juan Leano was conceived). Reprinted from Blauearth’s files, an entry to the Philippine Star Lifestyle Journalism 2006, Create Your Own Topic, and LEADMovement.wordpress.com.


A Foray In The Wild Unknown

The plucky 17 all set for the climbing venture

The plucky 17 all set for the climbing venture

Mount Pico de Loro towers above all the other mountains in the town of Adams, a little-known treasure of a place tucked away in northeastern Ilocos Norte. Like a sentinel watching over the charming, quaint and picturesque little town, the mountain, known to the townspeople as Mt. Palemlem, soars to 1,294 meters above sea level. This is well above the other mountains in Adams as Mounts Linao, Burburan and Pao which all form part of the northern end of the Cordillera Mountain Range.

The Laoag Eco-Adventure Development (LEAD) Movement Inc., after exploring and scaling Mt. Pao, a rainforest with an extremely difficult, hardly-used trail, traversed by rebels in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and, perhaps, some seasonal deer hunters, were naturally drawn to the loftier Mt. Palemlem. As we asked the community elders for details about getting to the peak of Palemlem, they scared us with legends of monkeys attacking and bees swarming those who dared disturb their habitat. According to the elders, not one from the outside territories has ever dared climb Mt. Palemlem. At first, we toyed with the idea of requesting the 505th PAF 5056th Search and Rescue Squadron chopper to drop us off at the summit then trek down to trail end. It would have been the end of us, being advocates of responsible adventurism, had we reached the peak on such a whim. There was virtually no challenge in getting to the top on a chopper. No sore muscles, no scratches, no dust nor mud on your feet, no sweat –no way. We just had to get to the top through the hard way. There was no stopping the adventurous spirit in each of the LEADers. Fellow-LEADer, Paul Acupan, an Adams resident, coordinated the climb with the newly-formed AMO (Adams Mountaineering Organization) in Adams while Reny Tan, the LEAD Movement’s exploration team leader, led a series of pre-climb meetings in Laoag with our perennial trekking buddies, EJ Farinas and his group. Anthony Agcaoili, Reny’s co-survivor of the 1996 Baguio-Sagada Mt. Bike Challenge, heard about the trek and hooked-up with us.

At 5:30, in the lovely morning of January 14, 2006, our four 4X4s took off at the Caltex station in Barit for Sitio Maligligay in Adams. Extreme eagerness was written on the faces of the 17 brave souls. I was the only rose among the thorns, namely: Reny, Paul, Anthony, EJ, Enrico Farinas, Arvin Alberto, Marco Flores, Allan Pagdilao, Kendrick Co, Ryan Castro, Darwin Manuel, Markee Valera, Larry Lagua, Lito Agustin, Norman Almazan and Celedonio Saturnino. After a group prayer, at exactly 9:00 am, the challenge was on. The stamina of both spirit and sinew of each one on the team was soon put to test.

Slow Progress

After a few yards of paved road, we turned left to cross the Maligligay Creek, the start of what we expected to be a long and agonizing ascent. My backpack seemed to be getting heavier with every step I took. I thought it must have been ill-packed. My BMC (Basic Mountaineering Course) taught me to evenly spread out the weight of the contents inside the pack, a technique that makes the load never bothersome, as if it was just a hump on the back; to carefully choose the size of the backpack to suit one’s figure; and to pack light. I might have packed too light that my water bottles slipped to the bottom causing my funny and unbalanced gait that I fell off a huge slippery stone into the stream. I waited to get the feel of my dangly load. When we got to the first 70 degree slope, my back pack dragged me down. I couldn’t climb. But I was firm on reaching the summit, so I decided to hand my backpack to one of the guides who did not mind carrying an additional pack. I was then ready to climb like a steeplejack. The trail was slippery as it was still early. I prayed hard for good weather all throughout the climb.

The author and Allan not seeming to mind the tough ascent

The author and Allan not seeming to mind the tough ascent

Inspired by Nature

The untouched beauty of the terrain distracted me from my feeling of near exhaustion. After hours of scaling varying degrees of inclination, it was a relief to see a view of the Pagudpud coastline through an ample space between the hills nearby, a sure sign that we have climbed far high. I wasn’t aware of how long we have been climbing as I refused to check my watch regularly. Knowing that you have been trekking for hours only adds to psychological exhaustion. We then took our first long rest — long enough for a quick snack while enjoying the picturesque view of Pasaleng Bay.

My AMO guide, Teresa, a talkative, frail looking woman, maybe in her late 20s, regaled me with stories of her childhood spent mostly in the highlands. She knew the local name of every plant and tree that grew on Palemlem. I had Botany 101 right in the woods.

Found only at the summit is a rare plant specie locals call pitselpitsel

Found only at the summit is a rare plant specie locals call pitselpitsel

Three hours on the trail and we could no longer hear EJ’s group in the lead. Reny found a wide shady portion at the trail for us to prepare and eat lunch. Upon reaching Adams, prior to the climb, I already ate half of my packed lunch. My full stomach added to my sluggishness early on the trail, so I planned to just snack on M&M’s until the peak. Teresa ate just a hardboiled egg and refused to have rice for lunch. She, too, seemed anxious to get to the summit for the first time. The two of us left the guys catnapping.

Brush alternated with soft slippery soil. Our trail was getting more demanding. We crawled under fallen trees. Teresa’s specific instructions helped me handle the difficult slopes with confidence. At a certain point, our trail which rested on a ridge with a vertical drop has become so narrow that only one climber could pass at a time. In some instances, I thought that nature jokes too, just like when I needed either handholds or footholds only patches of thorny plants or loosely embedded tree roots were available (definitely better than having none at all).

Like a trail into a lost world

Like a trail into a lost world

I knew we were almost at the top after we passed by a space on the bushy ridge to our left. It gave us a magnificent view of Adams at the middle of what looked like a green carpet covering the land as far as we could see. I could not get enough of it, I gazed in awe at the skyline as the freshest cool air breezed through me. Arvin, Marco, Lito and Larry were able to catch up and proceeded to trek ahead of us. Meanwhile, I heard Reny’s voice from below. I had to wait for him because he was carrying my camera – I did not want to miss the chance of having my arrival at the peak undocumented.

A view into the pristine mountains of Adams with the poblacion at the center

A view into the pristine mountains of Adams with the poblacion at the center

Towards the Sky

As we ascended, the slants were getting steeper and the forest was getting thicker. At one point, the space between the trees on both sides of the trail was narrower than our bodies we had to pass through sideways. Anticipation started to build up upon hearing faint voices from above. My cell phone rang and it was our lead man Paul on the other end checking if I was okay. I learned that the bunch before us were now at the peak. The faint voices became recognizable as we hurdled more intimidating slopes.

The final uphill push to the top was the most thrilling portion of the trek. My reward at the summit was waiting. My arrival at the peak was greeted with cheers from the guys who looked like proud champions in the Olympics. As I basked in my own triumph, all the drama was rudely interrupted by a welcoming limatik (mountain leech). The dreadful blood-sucker was squirming on my left arm while I was freaking out. Paul came to my rescue with a squirt of alcohol from a tiny spray bottle.

Setting camp at the summit’s Camp Gazebo
Setting camp at the summit’s Camp Gazebo

After the last guy on the trail arrived, we set camp. The summit looked pristine and untouched with no telltale signs of previous inhabitants or visitors. It looked small for all of us that the guys agreed to clear out the underbrush between the age-old trees. As soon as my tent was pitched, I took a rest until I fell asleep. When I woke up, it was getting dark that I had to postpone claiming my reward at the summit’s edge.

Under the full moon, amidst the wilderness, we swapped accounts of our uphill trials over a dinner of freshly cooked rice and Ilocos longganisa. All of us, chilling and dog-tired, retired into the warmth of our tents.

Teresa staring at the spectacular Ilocos skyline

Teresa staring at the spectacular Ilocos skyline

Like a Kaleidescope

Recharged for another tough day ahead, we headed towards the scrubby edge where a fine vista awaited us. From there, one could have a full view of all the splendor of Ilocos Norte between the emerald vastitude of the Cordillera mountains and the turquoise waters of the South China Sea. One could also clearly see the 15 tall and mighty windmills of Bangui, the long and sinuous Bolu River and the Kalayan group of islands (through binoculars). The glorious display was just too much to take in that I could hardly contain the inexplicable surge of emotion within me, but I, still, could not find my purpose beyond merely exploring Mt. Palemlem.

A view from the top, the Ilocos Norte coastline

A view from the top -- the Ilocos Norte coastline

After a hearty breakfast of warm mountain rice and red eggs with samatis and lasona, we prepared to leave the summit campsite, which we named Camp Gazebo. We found the nomenclature to be apt because the tree trunks looked like posts with the lush leaves serving as the top cover, like a real gazebo.

Keeping One’s Eye on the Ball

Going down the same paths we covered throughout the uphill slog the day before was an easier task, but required just as much focus plus a combination of quick wits and good reflexes. With barely a rest in between drops, I made it to Maligligay Creek in just half the time of my summit ascent.

After I buried the old man’s tale of the monkeys and the bees of Palemlem at the end of the trail, I rested and stared at the water. It was exhilarating! I saw a familiar image – it was me. Only then did I realize that the ultimate reward one gets for exploring a land as old as time is the chance to have discovered one’s own self as well. Treading the paths within an unfamiliar territory is like beating life’s adversities – one never knows what comes next. Nothing defeats the power of sheer determination, I am convinced. The countless steps each of us made to conquer Mt. Palemlem started with that single, toughest step – taking its challenge. Indeed, all glory comes from daring to begin.

Now that I am back in the urban jungles facing life’s different challenges, I can always easily draw out strength and inspiration from our Mt. Palemlem foray which has been imprinted on my mind for ever.

The LEAD Movement conquers the Mt. Palemlem summit

The LEAD Movement explores the Mt. Palemlem summit

Photos by Blauearth, Allan Pagdilao, EJ Farinas and Paul Acupan

Click to view the first tv media documentation of  a Mt. Palemlem Climb. Taken and shown by ProbeTV’s Gameplan headed by Ms. Wowie Meloto.