Because It’s There

Proud conquerors of Mt. Sembrano pose with Laguna de Bay in the background…and the mountain-climbing dog in foreground (top).

Summers in the 1980s were in part spent in my mother’s home province Pakil, Laguna.
The last week of our stay was often Holy Week. Good Friday meant visiting the traditional stations of the cross. Except Pakil had its own tradition with the stations of the cross.
Towering over Pakil is Mt. Ping-as. Every year, devotees ascended the mountain towards a centuries-old cross. There was actually a paved road passing through the different stations of the cross leading to the mountain top.
But as summer kids were known to do, we made our own path. We were not even concerned about going through the stations. We just wanted to get ahead of people and get to the cross, treating the cross as a finish line marker. From the bottom, at Laguna de Bay level, we could already see the cross.
The fastest path, it turned out, was not even an unpaved road. We went through unmarked trails, a small banana farm, and a whole bunch of coconut trees.
Before you think we were wild kids, one of the kids in our group actually lived on the mountain. We always passed their bahay kubo on the way up. Yes, even a real bahay kubo was a novelty for a 9-year-old from the city.
What’s more, for snacks and refreshment, a couple of the kids in our group knew how to climb a coconut tree, pick the right coconut and break it on a stone. All without needing a climbing belt and bolo.
Who were these country-folk ninjas that we luckily ended up with? For them, it was probably just another day at this scenic countryside they call their backyard.
Reaching the top of the mountain wasn’t even the highlight of the trip. It was the sliding-down-the-mountain that was exhilarating. By the time we reached the cross, rain showers were already muddying the dusty trails we passed on the way up.
As people were done with their trek and heading back down, it became increasingly difficult to balance while walking down a slippery inclined trail. We would slip and fall often enough. There was no fighting gravity. The trail was smooth enough that we treated the trail as the world’s longest slip-and-slide.
A skip, jump and a jeepney ride away from Pakil passing through the Pakil-Pangil-Mabitac Road, sharing the same Sierra Madre mountain range, was Mt. Sembrano in Pililia, Rizal. Now grown up, I see Pakil in my rear view mirror as I drove with my wife Meah and kids to climb Mt. Sembrano.
As always with the kids: “Why are we going to Mt. Sembrano?”
Us: “Because it’s there.”
The kids of summer are now my own kids.
Mountain climbing in itself is grueling. Multiply that stress 10 times over these days because … with kids.
What kind of parents were we to bring two kids up a mountain where even a grown man was reduced to cursing and vowing to the heavens never to do this again?
We attended a pre-climb orientation at Kaisa Para Sa Kaunlaran and saw on a PowerPoint presentation images of the path we were to hike.
The Red Cross volunteer who was going to be our guide mentioned some numbers like 700-something-meter elevation and 45-degree angle climb, and then mentioned that if we were already able to trek up the Flat Rocks of Mt. Makiling (which we did in 2016), then we could do Mt. Sembrano.
I think that last part was the only thing that sunk into Meah’s mind and mine.
Being actually there was an entirely different matter. Nothing prepares anyone for climbing a mountain with ease. That 45-degree climb didn’t sound daunting nor look difficult on the PowerPoint slide.
In real life, it took every bit of concentration not to trip and fall. With the kids in tow, my heart threatened to burst from my chest.
The path going up was just the width of a large adult. In many areas, climbers needed to step on uneven rocks. Sometimes, the path narrowed to the width of one foot because in the way was a giant rock jutting from the mountainside.
On the other side of the path was a ravine filled with tree saplings that would pierce and hurt more than the fall itself.
With every slip, I prayed the slip stops on its own. It did. As parents, we could only show them so much and lead them to the safest path.
We had to calculate our own capacity and divide it by half to estimate what the kids could and could not do. We still had to hold their hands and pull them over giant boulders. Nothing compares to the pride of watching the girls slice through an obstacle that they figured out themselves.
Sure there was whining. When is there no whining? The incessant car-ride “Are we there yet?” questions apparently apply to mountains as well. It’s just one of those parental facts of life.
Not in the picture: the gruelling trek up. There were not a lot of pictures going up. No one takes pictures when navigating rocks and horse dung and boulders and ravines.
I was thankful there was enough distance between us and the summit, and that we met no one going down. Or else, on mountain paths so narrow only one-way foot traffic was possible, who was going to back off?
There were bumps and bruises, insect bites and grass cuts. What we had a lot of pictures of were the halfway points and rest areas, the mini waterfalls and the burlap-sack covered jackfruit still on the trees. Whenever it was possible to rest, we admired the view and appreciated the fresh air: breathing in contentment, purging city fumes that have lodged in our lungs.
At the halfway point, there was fresh buko. The area was called Manggahan (mango plantation) but most of the trees were jackfruit. Go figure. A few meters ahead the 45-degree climb loomed – a massive wall of ground and mostly dry grass.
We already rested at the halfway point. But the mere sight of the 45-degree climb with barely any shade was enough for half the climbing party to decide to stay in place. There was the mini waterfall to explore just down the grove anyway.
Sorry kids. Both your parents want to see the summit. We’re not asking if you want to join. We’re telling you, you’ve climbed this far, we can make it to the top together.
Yet at the back of my mind, over and over, I was thinking “This is crazy.”
Every grunt the kids made turned another of my hair white and enlarged the lump in my throat. But we’re committed to this.
The final meters were the most disturbing. There were not enough rocks to hold on to so we could keep moving up the steep slope.
We had to scramble on all fours through the grass to look for a more “stable” bunch to grab hold of, and to get a relatively stable foothold. Sometimes we went ahead of the kids to show a manageable path; sometimes we let the kids go ahead of us so we could catch them if they slid.
All the hard work paid off big time. The breathtaking view of Laguna de Bay (which we have always correctly pronounced as “de Bai”) was amazing. High-fives all around.
The sky was clear enough to see the wind farm on one side of the mountain range and the skyscrapers of Makati and Ortigas on the other side.
We were the proudest parents of two kids who just conquered this climb.
Of course, Shobe was ecstatic to find the mountain-climbing dog already there. She had heard about the dog from the pre-climb orientation, and while she kept looking for it during the climb, we never saw it. It had gotten way ahead of us with our group leaders, and was waiting at the mountaintop for food everyone gives it.
A number of group pictures and selfies later, plus lunch for the girls, we were ready to rejoin the group who stayed at the halfway point.
Then the kids needed to pee. Problem was, neither wanted to use the foul outhouse or any grassy patch. In an act of desperation, we gave word that we would start off and Shobe and I sprinted our way down. Way ahead. Imagine brisk walking towards a bathroom in a mall. This was brisk walking down a mountain.
At one point, my daughter’s pessimism showed itself. Her question changed from “Are we there yet?” to “Are we lost?” / “We’re lost, aren’t we?”
It was only the two of us this time. I reassured her that we were following the beaten path. We were just going back the same trail we took on going up.
I also added that she should think positive but I wasn’t positive that she would understand what positive meant. Listening to so much doubt, at some point I was having the same doubts myself and second guessing forks in the road.
What if the trail we were following was used by the people who lived there visiting their neighbors? It turned out the forks merged onto the same main path.
On the way down, we stopped by a cluster of houses to catch our breath.
Local kids came over, introduced themselves and asked for candy.
Whatever happened to “don’t take candies from strangers?”
These kids were probably so used to seeing hikers go by. They probably laughed at all these city folks going up the mountain when they knew from experience there’s nothing up there.
It was a gruelling but eye-opening day. We tested our limits and our kids’ limits and our limits as parents to these kids – when to hold back, when to let go, when to trust them once they give you that look that says “I’ve got this.”
One day, we’ll find out what the kids’ limits are. Today was not that day.