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At Mt. Apo, you are 10,000 ft. closer to God

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Holy Week for us climbers of the Mt. Apo Climbers Association of Davao or MACADAC was a time for a three-day climb to the Philippines’ highest peak several years ago. Most, if not all, of us now are retired, not only from our nine-to-five jobs, but also from climbing itself. Some of us have now joined the soil of the earth six feet under the ground or turned into ashes, God bless them all.

MACADAC started in the mid-seventies by architect Ed Viacrusis, insurer Rey Sorongon, Boy Scout leader Tony Uy and a few others whose names escaped me at the moment, when the climbing of mountains wasn’t a fad yet in Davao.

Around 1980, I started climbing Mt. Apo with MACADAC and accepted as a member, climbing the highest peak at least twice or thrice a year: Holy Week Climb, Summer Climb, and New Year Climb. I can’t recall how many times I’ve climb Mt. Apo, all I know is that I’ve memorized all the trails going to the peak better than memorizing the roads at the subdivision where I live today.

My knees started to give way and the usual stamina left me during the Centennial Climb of the Mountaineering Association of the Philippines or MAP even before our big group of 300 climbers was waylaid sometime in 1989 by the communist New People’s Army (NPA) led by Kumander Benzar at Sibulan, Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur and captured as “prisoners of war” by the NPA.

If you recall, we were all released unharmed after three days under the barrel of the gun by NPA guerillas while camped at the village school grounds. The release took place after intense negotiations by former Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Tony Uy with the heads of the NPA political committee, based in a secret safehouse in Davao City.

This all went well, of course, except for the fact that the NPA kept the four foreigners who joined our climb, for “special interrogations” after they were suspected as foreign “spies” which were, of course, denied by those guys from Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Benzar, who had just recovered from a bout of chicken pox at that time, asked Ed and I to act as “alalays” (aides) and interpreters for the four foreigners, but I begged off because of my losing stamina and failing knees.

To make this long story short, we were all released by the NPA after three days, while the foreigners were released later after eleven days, their pictures with the NPA captors splashed all over the front pages of the New York Times, all smiling at the camera owned by one of the foreigners and used by the armed rebels as one of their propaganda coup.

If this NPA capture never took place, I would still be climbing Mt. Apo today, but this little interruption in our annual traditional climbing activities, sounded the death knell for many of us “first generation” climbers at MACADAC. Of course, the sons and daughters of MACADAC climbers carried the torch for us as the “second generation” climbers who love the sports of mountain climbing.

A typical climb for us starts with a two-month jogging and physical conditioning at the PTA grounds now known as People’s Park before the actual climb to Mt. Apo. Following our favorite trail at Makilala, North Cotabato, our trek starts off the highway going inland along rice fields and uphill on dirt road to New Israel, a small village of cult followers of the late Rev. Guivernas who believe this is the gateway to Heaven on this slope of Mt. Apo.

Greeting us whenever we arrive at this strange village are smiling women with long hair in long white dress, looking like angels from Heaven, as well as hundreds of excited monkeys jumping from tree to tree around this forested village, our first jump-off point to Mt. Apo. From here we would spent the night, making final preparations for the assault to the peak at early dawn.

Promptly at 4:00 am after a quick breakfast of rice and dried meat an hour earlier, our climbing group of about a dozen climbers of men and women would start making our way thru the dark winding trail with flashlights, a long uphill climb thru the thick dark forest to our next camp about six hours away. This camp called “Makalangit” or like-heaven looks almost like heaven, a clearing in the middle of a thick forest along Mt. Apo slope, halfway to the peak.
It’s a beautiful place especially early in the morning when thick fog envelops the whole place you almost expect St. Peter or God himself to come out of the clouds. Lest you think it’s a very pleasant climb for us, it’s a slow painful, tortuous climb carrying our 30 kilos of supplies (food, thick clothing, utensils, blankets, tent, etc.) in our backpacks, all the way to the 10,000 feet peak, the country’s highest.

On the third day, we would reach Mt. Zion at the base of the peak itself where we rest for an hour before continuing the slow climb to the top, passing thru thick talahib and cogon before reaching the rocky portion where all plants are dwarfed by the cold, high elevation over many centuries.
For us climbers, it’s like carrying the cross of Christ when climbing to Mt. Apo peak which resembles like Calvary if you just take a closer look. For pagans, agnostics, atheists and anti-Christ jerks out there, this sounds corny, to say the least, but one feels closer to God when climbing Mt. Apo after realizing that you’re 10,000 feet closer to God than everybody else during Holy Week.

To top it all, when you’re inside your tent, fast asleep on Saturday night on top of the peak itself -- after Christ was nailed to the cross the previous day -- you’ll be treated to a glorious day at dawn the following day Sunday, the day Christ resurrected from the dead.

As you open the day to a new day, you’ll see the golden sun rising above the horizon over the distant mountains below, still covered with fog and orange-tinted clouds, over Davao Gulf so far away below.

It’s the most beautiful sunrise you’ll ever see in your life, you’d shed tears of joy, not only because of its unrivalled beauty but because it reminds you that God is really alive and all around you no matter where you are….


by Aurelio A. Pena




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