Thursday, December 08, 2005

Climbing the Mayon Volcano -- Part I

In July of 1985 I climbed the Mayon Volcano almost a year after climbing Japan’s Mount Fuji. I was sightseeing throughout the Philippines and my first stop was Legaspi, the capital of the southern province of Albay on the island of Luzon. My wife and I had made the mistake of taking a bus from Manila, a ride of 13 hours counting the time it took to fix two flat tires. We were in a daze from the long bus ride; just the same I could not help but to be instantly captivated by the awesome spectacle of the Mayon volcano, as it seemed to overhang the city like a massive inverted ice-cream cone.

After checking into a hotel and resisting the urge to take a nap, I visited the Legaspi tourist office where we learned about all the local sites. Hesitant at first, at last I got up the nerve to ask about the possibility of climbing the volcano. The girl was quite nonchalant and said she could send a local guide to meet me at my hotel if I wanted. I asked about the cost and was delighted to hear it was just $50. I was hooked; I had to do it. The next evening, after a long day of seeing the sights of the Legaspi area, I met my guide in the hotel lobby. I gave him extra money for our food, which was not included in the $50 guide fee, and we were all set to climb the following day.

Bright and early the next morning my guide arrived along with another fellow, who I supposed was a guide in training, and off we went. We caught a cab to the outskirts of Legaspi, and then took a “jeepney” for the last few miles to where our trek on foot began. From the main road we passed through a gate into the husk of a decaying golf course, long abandoned, probably due to an eruption. We hiked across what used to be the course’s fairways and putting greens, now sad in their dilapidated state, while Mayon glowered down at us from on high. I was truly intimidated by the mountain’s presence, especially knowing that unlike Fuji this volcano was quite active. The wispy white plume coming from within Mayon’s fumarole almost 2500 meters up reminded me of this.

Mayon is about half the size of Japan’s Mount Fuji, but it doesn’t seem like it when you climb it. Although huge in size next to the smaller Mayon, Fuji is docile and harmless by comparison. And while Fuji should take no more than 12 hours to scale roundtrip, idiots like me take a full day plus most of a second to climb and return from the summit of the wilder and mostly pathless Mount Mayon.

We ambled through the last of the old golf course and entered the lush green ramps of the mountain’s base. After more than an hour of walking towards Mayon from the main road, I was thrilled as I realized that I was starting to climb the actual mountain. No one was brave or foolish enough to live on the lower slopes of the volcano, but I observed from the trail that plenty of people were taking advantage of its fertile soils to cultivate a variety of fruits and vegetables.

At lunchtime we stopped at a rest area consisting of a stone-and-mortar cooking pit, a wooden table and a simple open-sided hut useful in keeping the sun and rain at bay. My two guides had picked a jackfruit and some bananas growing along the path, which they prepared and feasted upon while I ate canned meat, bananas and crackers washed down with lots of water. I was awfully hot and thirsty from hiking all morning in the tropical heat. We rested at that tranquil spot while gazing down at Legaspi City and out across its lovely palm-lined coast at the myriad ships in a sapphire sea. The view was stunning no matter which way you chose to look. In fact, except when clouds blotted out the view I never tired of gazing at the landscape during the entirety of the climb.

My Guides Were Awesome

We continued our ascent and I marveled at the strength and endurance of my young guides. I carried only my light daypack, while each of them was loaded down by big heavy backpacks, while also taking turns hand-carrying a large plastic jerry can full of drinking water that must have weighed at least 20 pounds full. They wore some of the rattiest looking tennis shoes I have ever seen on a pair of feet; in fact, the primary guide’s left sole flapped with every step, until he tied it still with a spare shoelace. I held my own with them in the climbing department, but I wasn’t half as burdened as they. The guide made me feel only a little better about myself when he told me he had led some Filipino marines to the top a few weeks before, and he said I climbed better than they did. While I never asked to stop for a rest, he said the marines continually had to take breaks. These two scruffy fellows didn’t look like much, but they were in incredible physical shape.

The trail became less apparent, and disappeared totally as we ascended to where fruit and palm trees refused to grow. Farmers didn’t have cause to go higher than their crops, so the trail petered out from non-use. As we got above the tropical tree line I felt refreshed by the cooler high altitude air. The chillier environment caused the vegetation to be markedly different from anything below. The plants up there seemed exotic, almost prehistoric looking. A nice surprise was the prevalence of blueberries; the steep slopes were covered with bushes heavy with them. The blueberries were as big as marbles, and without breaking stride I picked two full handfuls at a time, gobbling them down as fast as I could strip them off the bushes. The dark blue fruitlettes were plump with superbly sweet pulpy juice and I ate until I was stuffed. Our hands and mouths were stained as blue as the berries and we laughed at each other as we seemed to be wearing bizarre dark-blue lipstick.

The Dangers

Now that there was no more trail to follow, I was amazed at how varied the possibilities of upward travel became. The mountain at this mid-level was convoluted with dead-end gorges and craggy cliff faces all covered with deadly loose rock and scrabble. I realized that if I would have tried to climb Mayon by myself that either I would never have found my way to the top, or more likely, I would have died from a nasty fall. It was only later that I learned one or two climbers die every year trying to climb Mayon, although I think I still would have climbed it even had I known that fact. The hazards were constant and I anxiously watched everything my guides did and I strove to copy their every step and move. At one point we had to leap across a fairly wide chasm; when my turn came I slipped and fell to my stomach on the other side. I tried not to panic as I struggled to worm forward far enough to get to my feet, but I couldn’t get hold of anything with which to pull. I felt panicky thinking about the 20 or 30 feet I was about to fall if I couldn’t pull myself up, but I was too proud to call for help from the guides who were unaware of my dilemma. Slowly, I inched forward until, thankfully, I got one knee under me. That was just the first time I felt my life was in danger on that trek and it wasn’t the last.

The day wore into late afternoon and I wondered how in the world we would be able to find a flat spot expansive enough to pitch a tent for that night’s camp. The incline was extremely steep by this time and I could not imagine where we would sleep without rolling back down the mountain as we slumbered. But late in the afternoon the mystery was solved when we arrived at our campsite and a welcome sight it was. We entered a gorge about 25 feet wide with loose rock walls towering some 20 or so feet directly above us. The gorge was actually a primary runoff, and in fact a small trickle of water ran past the man-made shelf that was to be our camp.

The guides soon had our tent pitched on the flat spot, and using some dead limbs they had carried since below the tree line they started a fire for a quick meal. By this time it was getting damp and again they amazed me by using a well-dried piece of rubber carved from the sole of an old flip-flop to act as a fire-starter. With one match the rubber blazed hot and remained lit for at least 10 minutes, long enough to cause the damp kindling to smolder and then flare up into a full-blown fire. As an old boy scout, I was thoroughly impressed with this effective fire-starting method.

The dampness turned into a light rain and then became a steady downpour. The best place to be was in the tent, so we got in and tried to make ourselves comfortable; I didn’t have much hope of that considering we were like three sardines in a can. Hours passed and there was no letup from the rain, quite the opposite, it came down even harder. To top it off, lightening and thunder began to add to the disconcerting roar of the newly formed river that now roared by just inches from the tent. My guides never stirred from their slumber, but there was no sleep in me as rocks and boulders, loosened and washed free by the driving rain, began to fall from the cliffs soaring above us. Every few minutes I heard another rock thump to the ground and sometimes roll away. They sounded like they were landing just outside the tent and still the guides slept on as I imagined a rock smashing down on us.

Somehow I fell asleep despite the racket, and the next thing I knew I was waking up to the sound of my two snoring chums. A glance at my watch revealed it was almost 6 a.m. and I waited impatiently in my sleeping bag for my companions to also awaken so we could get on our way to the summit. I decided to get up hoping my stirring would wake them up, and finally they did. They weren’t as keen as me to get moving, but I insisted that we should start for the top. The boys packed up our equipment and stashed most of the heavy stuff including their packs; after all, there was no use carrying all that stuff to the top. In an intermittent drizzle we set off toward the sky.

Push To The Top

The drizzle occasionally turned into light rain and at times it stopped completely, but the one constant was the clouds—we were socked in and could see nothing further than 2000 feet or so. Now, during our infrequent rest stops we had nothing to look at down below or above, because we just couldn’t see a thing for the clouds. An hour from the start of our second day of climbing a new irritant joined our list of woes—wind! It howled into us as if an angry god was trying to blow us back down the mountain. The higher we went the harder it blew. My inner ears began to ache from it and it’s constant shrieking caused me to hear nothing besides my own breathing, and soon it became a force that almost took my life once again.

Less than 3 hours into our 2nd day it became so steep that much of our climbing involved using our hands as if we were going up a ladder. This was nothing like Fuji where we had a smooth switchback trail that never caused us to have to walk straight towards the peak. Going up Mayon we never zigzagged; we almost always marched in a direct line toward the top and it required continuous effort and concentration. I became so absorbed on each ascendant step that I felt like I was in a trance and in effect—I was! I came out of this stupor when I dimly heard strange high-pitched whoops over the sound of the shrieking wind. My head snapped around, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw where I was. I threw myself straight forward into the side of Mayon.

Part II


Lots in Costa Rica said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I think I will leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Thanks. It's nice having an interested reader to keep me company. I think, counting you, that makes five or six of us!

Roy Lachica said...

Thanks for sharing. I used your blog post as one of my sources to plan my trip there. You can read all about my trip at

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hey Roy, I read your climb story and find it interesting how different our two experiences are. Only 28, I was in amazing shape back then. I did that climb completely off the cuff wearing only a pair of old running shoes. Sounds like all vestiges of the old golf course are gone now; understandable now that 26 yrs have passed. The weather definitely cooperated on your climb; the rain, the clouds and the wind made my experience climbing to the summit and back to the camp site quite hell like. Good job man!