On Tuesday, we climbed the world’s biggest and tallest volcano named Mt. Pinatubo. Okay, maybe it isn’t the tallest or biggest volcano, but it surely is the tallest and biggest NAMED Mt. Pinatubo. And it is pretty big and pretty tall. We’ve checked and all other Mt. Pinatubos are smaller and shorter.
Steve’s prep school friend and first year college roommate, George, was living at Clark Air Force Base with his family in 1991 when Mt. Pinatubo blew its stack. If we remember correctly, something like 20-30 thousand servicemen and their families were evacuated on a single Sunday in June. The surrounding area was buried in ash for many miles. The particles circled the earth, dropping the surface temperature a couple of degrees for about two years. Talk about global cooling.
We were invited to go along with the MVP, the same group for which Steve guided on Corregidor at the end of January. We found out that MVP stands for Museum Volunteers Philippines, which is pretty cool. The vast majority of members are not Filipino, at least not the ones who were on either tour, and in addition to outings like these, they do volunteer work at a number of the area museums.
Linda, one of the organizers, picked us up near where we were staying with our friends Leslie and Brian in Makati. Twenty six adults climbed on board a nice 28 seat, air-conditioned bus, and just after 6:00 A.M. we were off. Traffic was already beginning to pick up in metro Manila, so we probably cut a good hour from the bus ride by leaving that early. Manila’s markets were already bustling, and there may have been a record number of busy Mr. Donuts, Dunkin Donuts, and Krispy Kreme shops lining the highway,
Mt. Pinatubo is northwest of Manila, and a good part of the trip is now freeway. We exited near the old Clark Air Force Base. We passed by the Capas National Shrine, the site of the infamous Camp O’Donnell where thousands of Filipino and American WWII soldiers died. A new military training facility further down the road is now named Camp O’Donnell.
After about three and a half hours, including one rest stop, we pulled into the little town of Santa Juliana. The town was devastated by the Mt. Pinatubo eruptions. Many of the residents are Aeta, aboriginals whose features are much more like many Africans, with very dark skin and curly hair. In many ways the area has never recovered, but like all Filipinos, the residents are industrious, inventive and extremely hardy.
We climbed aboard five 4X4’s, most of which had seen their better days, and began our trip to the place where we were to start our hiking trip up the mountain. Once we exited the town we were immediately in what looked like a dry river bed, flat and dusty. It seemed like we were driving on the moon, but on both sides were high cliffs. The terrain kept getting rougher, not that it was getting hilly – it remained basically flat – but there were more and more boulders, and we had several crossings through a small stream that wound through the valley. The sides of the hills reminded us of what you see when you are in the desert southwest of the United States. The ride was bumpy, dusty, and scenic.
After an hour we arrived at the drop-off point. The drivers remained with their vehicles while our five or six guides started with us on our journey up the mountain. The walk was at times very easy, along flat trails. However, many times we had to cross a stream which would wander from one side of the canyon to the other. Sometimes we could easily cross on stones, and at other times the guides held our hands while we either balanced on stones or waded through the water. Those of us with mesh-topped running shoes seemed to do well. Some wore hiking sandals, and other than exposed toes and loose ash under their feet, they did okay. Those with boots had problems when the water went over the tops and soaked their feet, because the water could not drain. One woman had the sole of her athletic shoe come off, forcing her to borrow flip-flops from one of the guides, who then walked bare-footed to the top. The woman was able to borrow a spare pair of shoes from a fellow hiker to wear for the downhill walk.
The weather started out very nice, with sunny skies and coolish temperatures. There was little shade except when you were near the sides of the cliffs, so Marcia resorted to an umbrella. As soon as Steve commented that the weather was perfect, it started to get cloudy. Before we reached the top it was raining off and on, but not enough to ruin the trip by any means. We have noticed that there almost always seem to be clouds over mountaintops around here, like Mt. Mariveles north of Corregidor, and over the mountains of Cavite to the south.
At times it felt like we were reenacting the scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when the actors are trekking through the valley on their way to opening the ark. Later, as we got higher and the pathway up the mountain became much narrower and more lush, it felt like we were walking to the “Temple of Doom.” There was very little evidence of animal life other than the many tadpoles in the stream, a few songbirds in the distance, and the very rare kite or eagle overhead.
Finally, after about three hours, we reached the summit of the hike, though we were still thousands of feet below the highest peaks around us. There was the lake of Mt. Pinatubo. The crater is so big that we were unable to capture it all in one snapshot. The water was a deep blue-green, possibly indicating a high copper content. Many of us decided this was the place to eat our packed lunches, as it was now about 1 P.M. A number of hikers brought their bathing suits along and swam in the lake, which required descending about 175 irregular and tall steps. Changing rooms consisted of someone holding up a towel, or the “do it yourself” method with a sarong.
Back up the steps, and then back down the mountain, the same way we came. We found out later that there is another way to the peak, which requires a longer 4X4 ride but only a 30-40 minute hike each way. For those in shape we certainly recommend the longer hike, but it’s good that there is a shorter way, since this is not for everyone. The hike down was actually mentally tougher, since descending is always scarier in situations like this. If you fall going up you can usually catch yourself pretty easily. Falling on the downhill can be much worse.
We decided to leave the top before rest of the group, so we could go slowly and take pictures. For a while we had our own personal tour guide, and then another couple caught up to us. Our guide, Gatan [gah-TAHN], or Tan, made sure that we made it safely over every treacherous rock and stream crossing. We would recommend him: his English is passable and he was very attentive and always smiling. We teased him about how wet he got helping us, and then we all laughed when Marcia got just as wet.
The boulders at the stream crossings were slippery, and Marcia lost her footing once, but our guide caught her so she only ended up with thigh-high wet pants. (Kept the cell phone in her front pocket dry!) Steve slipped once and almost sprained an ankle. No one in the group had any serious injuries. The stream had actually risen by the time we were on the way down, so some spots where we’d crossed with dry feet in the morning were one to three inches under water. By the time we reached the bottom we’d had wet feet for about six hours, so it felt good to change into dry socks once our shoes were relatively dry. Since these are the shoes we often wear for Corregidor jungle hikes, they are cleaner now than when we left home.
The reverse trip out on the 4X4’s was interesting in that we saw a number of people who apparently live in the desolate-looking valley. Some were driving carabao (water buffalo) carts. One little girl had a piglet on a leash. It’s hard to imagine where they actually lived. We were only able to spot a few homes on the lower slopes at the edges of the valley, but these were miles away from some of the locals we saw.
While we were returning to town, we noticed that many of the cliffs look like sandstone or limestone, but are in actuality packed ash which is very soft. You could walk up to what looked like a solid rock formation and scratch it with your fingertip. Many times along the way there were piles of ash at the base of the cliffs. These same cliffs often had huge crevices down the sides. We have no doubt that you could cause entire sections of cliff to fall down, which might be suicidal. It was quite obvious that these cliffs were less than 20 years old. They rose at least 200 feet, sometimes on both sides of the valley, and extended many miles back toward town before the last signs of the ash were gone. It was also obvious that the majority of lahar (ash mixed with rainwater) must have flowed in the very valley we were using to get to and from the drop off and pick up point.
The bus trip home only took about three hours, including a short pit stop. The driver left the lights on and most people stayed awake and talked the whole way home. We had three young Japanese women by us, and they kept up a constant chatter in their native tongue. We are getting used to hearing people talk in languages we don’t understand, but we are starting to at least recognize enough Tagalog words to have a clue as to what the locals are saying.
The traffic in metro Manila was already mild by the time we got there at about 8:30. The donut shops were still open. The entire trip from departure to arrival was 15 hours, a long but wonderful day.
Many more photos of the trip can be viewed at: http://picasaweb.google.com/steveandmarciaontherock/20090210MtPinatubo#