Mt. Tapulao stands as Zambales’s highest mountain at 2,037+ MASL. Before climbing it a couple of weeks ago, it was somewhat an elusive peak for me. It seemed like every time I tried to climb it in the past, another plan or circumstance would end up getting in the way. I remember getting invited to climb it in 2011 just a few days after saying yes to a Banahaw climb on the same dates. Then earlier last year, we planned to have our Mt. Apo training climb there but then the infamous habagat hit so most of my climb mates were dealing with the aftermath of the disaster at that time (yes, this was the time na may isda na sa labas ng bahay nina Madz), so when Tin invited me, I said surely…if my budget allowed it (this is, of course, a constant and perpetual consideration).
But then she told me that we would be dayhiking it. That’s when I started getting apprehensive. You see, every mountaineer that I’ve met in the past would attest to the fact that climbing Mt. Tapulao was a major test of patience. They said that it would take you 10 to 11 hours just to get to the bunkers and that you would be traversing monotonously rocky roads. Always the same stories. So when I found out that Tin was planning to hike it in one day, I seriously feared that we might not be able to cut it.
I mean, I have a pretty decent pace. Or at least, people tell me that I do. A relatively faster pace than most. I’m not overly competitive about the whole thing though and I’m not interested in setting and breaking records since I’m not currently training to compete at the Olympics anyhow. I just do my own thing, the motivations for climbing mountains my own. But still, I felt like you had to have a relatively quick pace to be able to pull off a Tapulao dayhike. Even though I had reservations about it, in the end, I still decided to push through with it since I did sign up for a week-long Mt. Mantalingajan hike on February after all. If this isn’t good training for that, then I don’t know what is.
I invited Lee Jay along (who texted me a one-word “OK” when I told him…) and together with Fred, Ed and Tin, we headed off to Iba on a Friday night (November 16) so that we could start early on our hike the next day. As per our itinerary, we should have been already trekking come 4 o’clock in the morning. Since Zambales was 5 hours away from Manila, we decided to take a chance trip at 9:30 PM so that we would arrive on time. We forgot to take into account that it was a Friday and that bus trips would be packed so Fred and I ended up standing until enough people got off at Olonggapo. For all mountaineers who plan on doing the same thing, it doesn’t hurt to reserve your tickets beforehand, I think Victory Liner accommodates those.
We decided to get off at Iba station although you could alight directly at the highway corner before entering Dampay Salaza (where the jumpoff was). We found out that there was a tricycle terminal placed there and that drivers still queue during hours as early as 3 AM. The fare from there, according to some blogs, costs about Php 250 per trip. But if you’re coming all the way from Iba, the trip would cost 400 per tricycle. If you do the math, I think you would save about 10-15 pesos per pax if you decide to alight directly at the corner terminal (since the bus fare will have to be adjusted as well) but it may be a better idea to get off at Iba instead since at least you’d have the chance to have a quick bite to eat at the carinderias near the station – which we did. After treating ourselves to some rice porridge, we hired two tricycles to take us to the jumpoff proper at Brgy. Dampay Salaza.
The trike trip was long, about 50 minutes or so. The first part had us traversing the Zambales hi-way while the latter half had us plying through rough roads. I initially planned to catch up on rest on the way but that proved impossible since our bums ended up taking a beating because of the rock-ridden paths. Anyway, at about 4 o clock, we finally arrived at the barangay hall.
There were a couple of people sleeping outside the hall and initially, we thought they were homeless. But apparently, they were the guides that were assigned by the local government. Officially, the hall was not opened yet although it was clear that mountaineers arriving during hours as early as we did was somewhat expected. They had to wake the guy in charge of registrations up and despite the ungodly hour, he was actually quite accommodating. We were informed that we had to hire a guide (a development brought about by a recent string of mountaineers getting lost) and were assigned Kuya Pasyo (Bonifacio). Although we would have preferred it to be otherwise, we were still expecting it since we found out beforehand that it was mandatory. We were also told to excuse Kuya Pasyo if he has trouble communicating much in Tagalog since he was originally from Samar. Which, of course, proved no problem at all for us since Tin, Fred and Ed were all Bisaya and I, myself, lived in Samar for a while. We actually all burst into different Bisaya/Waray tirades that I doubt the guy handling the registration understood but I guess he took it to mean that it won’t be any problem. So with Kuya Pasyo leading us, we finally started our trek at 4:40 AM, 40 minutes behind our target IT.
Now, I have been more than clear about how much I hated night trekking but since I was feeling a bit apprehensive about actually even pulling off a Tapulao dayhike, I had no choice. And though we could not see much of the trail, it was clear that the stories were not exaggerating. We were dealing with wide paths and lots and lots of rocks. The sun rose on us about an hour onto the trail, which gave us our first view of the Tapulao summit in the distance. But trail-wise though, it seemed like there was no end to the monotony of the rocky paths. It looked like when God created the universe, Mt. Tapulao became a jerk who hogged all the rocks and boulders so that his slopes could be strewn with them.
We reached the first water source at about 6:30 AM so we stopped to take our breakfast there. I still had plenty of water left (barely consumed actually) so I did not feel the need to refill just yet. We stayed there for a bit – chomping down a half loaf of bread and the fried luncheon meat that I packed – before we continued our trek. As per our IT, we were supposed to reach the first water source at 7 AM, after 3 hours of trekking. Since we reached in it two hours, we took it as a good sign that perhaps we could pull this off in a reasonable time after all.
Trekking to the 2nd water source took another half hour, only this time, the sun was already bearing down on us, which tired us quicker. We also stopped for a while there to replenish our water bottles and chatted a bit about the now defunct mining operations in Mt. Tapulao with Kuya Pasyo. He told us that he worked as a miner when the mines were still active and did so until it was prohibited about 6 years ago. Oh, Tin and Ed were also trying to teach me the foundations of Filipino governance at this point. 😀 After getting enough rest, we once again resumed trekking the ever rocky and boring trail of Mt. Tapulao. I must admit that by this time, most of us were already getting fed up with the absurdly rocky condition of the trail. Or at least, Tin, Fred and I were. Nothing seemed to dampen Ed’s inhumanely resistance and pace…and Jay doesn’t really complain about anything at all really…
Our attitudes quickly changed once we hit the 4-hour mark of our trek. The Tapulao summit came into full view and the trail opened up to reveal breath-taking landscapes of nearby mountain ranges. Kuya Pasyo called that point ‘Little Tapulao’. Pine trees were also lining up the path in the manner of Mt. Ugo or even Pulag’s Akiki trail. While we were almost incredulous a little while ago, we now felt as though mountaineers highly underrated Mt. Tapulao. Views like that actually made the long monotonous trek worth it. From there, we adopted a more relaxed pace and definitely allotted more time taking photos of the landscape, the trees, the rocks and us, naturally.
Although the sun was still bearing down on us, from there on, there was a colder bite to the wind which was a definite improvement. It actually made the relatively long steep assault to ‘Porta Mayor’ bearable. Porta Mayor was the point where all of the mined chromite were dumped after the mining operations were shut down. When I asked Kuya Pasyo why it was called as such, he told me that back when he was a miner, that area was the only spot that they could get a celphone reception. Yeah…I don’t know if Kuya Pasyo was high or something so I just accepted his bizarre rationale and moved on.
Porta Mayor was indeed littered with mounds of chromite ores, as it turned out. According to Ed, chromium is mixed with steel in order to prevent rust. It is a main component on ‘stainless steel’ items. Since I know next to nothing about metallurgy, I took his word for it. The presence of the ores also sparked a discussion of the current mining industry in the country especially in Mindanao, where Tin, Fred, and Ed were all too-well acquainted with. And since I knew next to nothing about that as well, I likewise took their insights for it. One thing for sure though, I was not expecting that challenging dayhike to be as educational as it was. 😀
After Porta Mayor, it was a relatively benign trek along pine-ridden trails all the way to the bunk houses. You could also see the distinctive peaks from the trail including the five peaks of Mt. Cinco Picos and its neighbour Mt. Balingkilat. I climbed Cinco Picos in 2011 and I’m hoping I get the chance to scale Balingkilat sometime this year. 🙂
Me: Kitang kita Cinco Picos oh.
Ed: San? Yung curvature?
Me: Ha? Anong chorva chorva?
We reached the bunk houses at exactly 10:40 AM and congratulated ourselves for reaching it in 6 hours. Kuya Pasyo said that we were able to maintain a pretty solid pace despite having a woman with us. And this was after all the assurances that we gave that Madam (that’s how he addressed Tin) was more than capable of holding her own. 😀
We took our time with our lunch break at the bunkers. We actually stayed there for more than an hour. We ate lunch (tuna paella with fried chicken and mixed veggies care of Madam), and basically conserved our energy for the remaining summit assault. Good thing that the bunker offered plenty of shade against the scorching sun. One thing bugged me though…the ridiculous amount of graffiti on the bunk houses. I don’t get what part of the bunk houses gave mountaineers the idea to deface structures that were freely lent to them as shelter to protect them from cold nights. Really people? They literally wrote on every space that they can find. Some of them were as recent as the past weeks before our climb! A little respect next time, urrrgh.
So anyway, we decided to start our summit assault at noon so we headed up to the steep trail directly in front of the bunkhouses. This opened up to another campsite which served as the entry point to the forest line en route to the summit. By this point, we’ve become more and more enamored with Tapulao’s beauty and less and less annoyed with its rocky features. We were planning on when we would go back and maybe camping at that site instead of the bunkers – much like excited little kids really.
The trail to the summit was a stark departure from the road-like path to the bunkers. It was now characterized by mossy outgrowths and entangled roots. Oh and soil! The lack of boulders was really a welcomed change by that point. It took us an hour to reach the summit and if we thought that Tapulao was underrated before, then the summit views only cemented that perception.
The summit of Mt. Tapulao was like a lush garden blooming with bursts of red and green all over the place. We were literally yelling at each other to check this place out or to check that area out. We were running around like little kids on a sugar high. It actually felt a little like Mary’s secret garden or something. We certainly took our time there, taking every picture imaginable including, of course, a picture of the world tree that marks the mountain’s summit.
We spent half an hour at the summit before heading back down. Since it took us a total of 7 hours to reach the summit, we didn’t want to take the risk of night catching up to us on the way down. So at 1:40 in the afternoon, we said goodbye to the awesome summit of Mt. Tapulao.
Coming from the summit, we bypassed the bunker and chose to come out to an earlier part of the trail instead. After that, it was pretty much a steady descent all the way back to the second water source which we reached at about 3:15 PM. We came across a group of mountaineers taking a rest there, one of whom Madam was acquainted with (well, sort of). Or not at all actually but that’s another story altogether. 🙂
Anyway, after we passed by the water source, the annoyance that we pushed away to the back of our minds earlier came roaring back as we were forced to endure two and a half more hours of continuously stepping on rocks and boulders. Lee Jay was basically just dragging his leg by that point while Fred, Tin and I were in our own little worlds, trying our damnedest to put one foot after the other and hoping against hope that the next bend will be the last. Ed just whirled past us but he’s always like that anyway.
So, just as the light was fading, we finally reached the jumpoff, more than a little tired but elated as well on pulling off one epic dayhike. It took 7 hours to reach the peak, 4 hours to come back down, left our bodies looking and feeling a little worse for wear but oddly enough, I’d sign up to do it once again! 😀
21:40 – Depart Caloocan (monument) bound for Iba
02:40 – Arrive at Iba/Quick breakfast
03:00 – Depart Iba for Dampay Salaza via trike
04:00 – Arrive at Jumpoff/Register/Secure guides
04:40 – Start trek proper
06:30 – 1st water source/breakfast
07:00 – Resume trek
07:45 – 2nd water source
08:45 – Little Tapulao
09:50 – Porta Mayor
10:40 – Bunkers/Lunch break
12:10 – Summit Assault
13:10 – Arrive at peak
13:40 – Start descent
15:20 – 2nd water source/rest
16:30 – 1st water source
17:40 – Back at jumpoff
18:20 – Depart for Iba
19:20 – Arrive at Iba/ Dinner (Mang Inasal!)
21:30 – Depart for Manila
Manila to Iba (one way): Php 342
Iba to jumpoff (one way): Php 400 per trike
Guide fee: Php 500 (for dayhikes…700 for overnight groups)
Registration: Php 20 per pax.