A week ago, I left Iligan with uncertainties of what possible things might happen during our 5-day exploration to Mt. Piapayungan locally known as Mt. Piagayungan at Butig, Lanao del Sur. The five days was extended to seven. Faith was tested. Food was maximized. Endurance was pushed to the limit. But despite of it all, the seven days was made memorable. We were made stronger by difficulties. Liven by comrades’ optimism. And hope for each day’s new challenge for survival, alertness, positivity and to reach the sole purpose of the entire journey.
The exploration team, #TeamPayong as we call ourselves, is composed of 13 determined individuals, 8 from IIT Mountaineers, 3 freelancers, 1 from PAPA and 1 from Luzon. The preparation started about a year ago and was finalized for the last 2 months with, of course, proper coordination to certain groups and individual. This time, pulling a few strings is important as the safety of the group is the top priority. As our team head, Prof. Manny Cabido said, it is a GO unless advice to turn back and never to underestimate the mountain. Having second thoughts has no space in this activity as we were aiming to explore and not to walk in the park. With this, we were trained to do practice climb and jog for endurance.
The jump off was made in Butig, Lanao del Sur but it is also possible in the town of Wao. The livelihood of this sleepy town is farming and rice as their major product. The town is also prosperous with Tilapia fresh from Lake Lanao. The short stay at the town is enough for me to tell how lucky residents of Butig in terms of landscape, water source and its mountains, with Piapayungan range at one side and Lake Lanao at the other and in between are rolling rice paddies that seems endless. Early morning, when sun rays start screeching through the cold dusk, layers of ranges can take your breath away. But don’t you know that going through the roads to Butig and other town can be challenging? That is if you are not acquainted with drag racing. It’s pretty normal they say. Next time when I get to visit a new town, I will surely search for accident rate in the area so I can prepare myself and to avoid too much caffeine to keep my normal heart beat. That day, we saw 2 cars fell at the side of the road. It looks like the two cars collided before they fell at the side of the gutter.
Mt. Piapayungan was named after the endemic “payong” (umbrella in English) like trees growing harmoniously in the forest. We encountered several “Payong” trees at the forest line. According to the guide, long before, the trees were much more plenty than today. The reason why such decreased in population is still a big question. On the contrary, the guide told us that the real name of the mountain is Mt. Piagayungan in honor of the bride that was hidden in the mountain. Piagayungan came from a Maranao term piagayunan which means agreement. Once the two Maranao families arranged the betrothal of their son and daughter, the bride should be hidden prior to the wedding. If I would be the bride, I won’t allow anyone to hide me in the leech and poison ivy infested forest. But I was not and Im living in the new era so the reason why they made such thing is non debatable. In contrary, after the sightings of deer, eagle, flying viper, monkeys, I would reconsider the situation. But if I were given with a good place to stay, a nice view when I wake up, comfortable hut, a laptop and a wifi. Why not?!
The Dress Code
Prior to the event, girls were instructed to wear scarf or any head wear to cover the head. It is imperative to cover the skin or at least to show least flesh as possible as Muslim are very conservative. A very dedicated Muslim only show their eyes and I find them very beautiful. How can someone describe a person through their eyes?
The Town of Butig and Its Culture
From the outskirts of the town of Butig especially in the city where civilization and dominant Christian population, Muslim territories are subjected to yellow line where only authorized personnel are allowed to enter. The silent agreement between Muslim and Christian to not cross each other’s boundaries are happening since the Spanish time. For 333 years, Spanish regime couldn’t enter the Muslim territories because, they are simply strong willed, brave and firm in their point. Hence, the Bangsamoro and ARMM are established.
We arrived in the town of Butig during our Day 0, last Wednesday, April 16, 2014. We have no idea what to expect when we arrived except that we should not talk if we were asked, not to show some skin nor strand of hair, not to show eye contact and avoid men as Muslim has a sense of categorizing themselves by gender. However, we were welcome by the Commander himself, Bapa Hadji Ibrahim of MILF. We were guided to his humble home and gave their only room for us girls while men stay in the sala cum dining. Back home, we joked not to get to close to the men as they might get attracted and force us to stay.
The whole town has no electricity let alone a decent phone signal. But the house of Bapa has battery used by some jeepney to power 1 – 2 light bulb. The house was very basic but clean and homey. Feels like I was in my grandparents’ home when I was a kid. When we arrived that day, I wasn’t able to look around as per guideline of being a woman. They said, the residents of the town are all related to each other. Because of the threat of being an MILF territory, the town doesn’t enjoy the privilege of having a decent power to think Iligan, where the main source of electricity in whole Mindanao is just a few hours away. On contrary, because of the under-development of the place, the whole area smells like a very authentic small countryside. No concrete roads. No lamp posts. No signs of development. And no annoying noises created by modern equipment and appliances from homes.
That night, we were gathered on the floor. The family welcomed us together with the other relatives who will be joining our trek. We were briefed and blessed by the family Imam. Guidelines and routes are well studied and discussed. In a few hours, the tension was lessen. We didn’t feel like a robot anymore. We were thankful for their hospitality.
Day 1. We left the house and rode the armac going to the jump off area, right after Camp Palestine. The camp was the training ground for MILF newbie. True enough, in every area where MILF camp is present, there exist a military camp but without a single man walking outside the perimeter. This time, it was right before we entered the town proper of Butig. We didn’t have the chance to stop by so I couldn’t verify if there’s any person sleeping in the quarters. With the agreement of Bangsamoro that was finally agreed between ARMM and the government, the terror will be lessened and more opportunity will come in the future in the said areas. However, due to conflict between government and the ARMM officials some decades ago, the scars that were embedded in the hearts of every Filipino will remain. But the promise of a better beginning will hopefully starts to grow. Besides we are still united as one, aren’t we?
The family and relatives bid us goodbye and the Imam, who was with us through the whole exploration, gave a small prayer. As we started to move, we couldn’t help but to stare the vastness of the rice field, the vastness of mountain ranges and its flora and fauna. Due to the territorial conflict, mountaineers were not able to explore in this side of Mindanao. If there were any, it was made discreetly, but the Piapayungan range and the Piapayungan summit was an exception. Bapa told us that there were many who attempted but were not successful. How lucky can we get?
As we started to trek, different varieties of leeches are noticeable. It all came in different sizes, shape, color and style. The higher the elevation, the smaller and thinner the leeches are. We trekked in groups. Navigators came with the lead pack, women are in the middle while the guys are at the back. We have escorts in front as well as in the last. Bapa Ibrahim always make sure everyone is intact by going to and fro of the pack. Our main guide has spent more than 10 days in the peak of Mt. Piagayungan. He’s a relative of Bapa Ibrahim.
The forest is abundant with flora and fauna. All were so virgin: no trails except hunter’s trail, no signs of exploitation, talahib grasses at the ridges going to the peak are twice the size of human body, bodies of water are abundant, as well as leeches and nettle. We covered ourselves with headwear/hat, long sleeved trek polo or under garment such as rash guard then trek pants plus leggings underneath. Wild berries are scattered and so with mossy trees. There were sightings of deer, eagle, monkeys, viper and wild pig. Manure, tracks and their sleep holes where everywhere and so with different varieties of birds like owls and glow in the dark mushrooms that looks like a pair of eyes following each of our footsteps. If it was in a different situation, I would prefer to stop and savour the moment of a damp air while listening the sound of crickets and other sound producing insects at night under the dancing fireflies above us, ignoring the jumpy leeches that crawl every 5 seconds in your shoes, jackets, hands and necks. But how can I afford to choose if I was already given such opportunity to witness what nature in this mountain holds?
Camp 4 was the most scenic of all. While we started our trek bush whacking on the 4th day til the sun down, while everybody was tired taking turns of clearing the path, we couldn’t help but to stay speechless in the beauty of what the ridge has offered. In the left was the other ridge to the summit. It has a plateau below and a little lake. There was Mt. Latukan standing pretty strong and tall against the ridges that looks exactly like those in Mt. Guiting guiting. While the hues of sunset started to disperse, the sea of clouds is very proud that seems like they were too happy we get this close – congratulating us. In the right was the vast land of some municipalities and towns of Lanao del Sur with endless farmlands and rice paddies. Far right was Lake Lanao. All of them contributed to what landscape should be like. The sunset completed the whole package.
The following day was the day. We were left with water enough to drink not to cook meals. We ascended early morning without anything in our stomach but the hopes of reaching the summit already made us full. Its already there. Its there and can be seen from the camp. True enough, we reach the forest line exactly 3-4 hrs after the endless bush whacking the tall grass. At around 11 AM, the forest line welcomed us. Its totally different from other forest. It looks like those in Snow White where the dwarfs hid their home. Can you imagine that after all the hardships, a gem is waiting for everybody at the top? The forest to the peak is full of mossy trees. Deer’s leftover and footprints are scattered and so with wild pig. The environment is cold but not too wet or muddy. The guide joked that if we were to hide in this forest, would we agree? Hell yes! But with wifi of course, comfortable hut and my love of my life. Honeymoon style!
Euphoria at the Summit
I left with others at the foot of the forest taking pictures while others ran to the peak. I haven’t thought about getting there first. Oh well! At exactly 12:48 PM, others reached the summit while I, on the other hand, arrived few minutes later. It’s a slight of inclination you know. The peak, was covered with mossy giant trees. It’s about a few meters wide that can hold maybe 20-40 persons but there was no view. From the foot to the top, all were covered with different kind of trees: from red sap trees to white, from small to giant, thin and thick but all covered with moss. There’s no water source here too.
As I reached the summit, all were hugging, laughing, and jumping to tears. Everyone, including them guides and I saw Bapa filled his eyes with tears wanting to fall down. But we kept our sanity by hugging each other – congratulating everyone. Bapa was speechless with our happiness. I suppose, he hasn’t seen so much joy with only this simple pleasure: anyone couldn’t be that happy, let alone to the strangers whose fantasies are only running to the forests, mountains and nature. This time, he was talking to the radio to his comrades at the camp. He let us shout to joy so those people on the other line can hear us. I can’t imagine that laughter can be deafening. It seems like I was teleported to the other side of the earth. Everyone is in a slow motion. The guys on the phone speak and laugh as well. Bapa could almost burst into laughter, tears, and gratitude as we kept saying our endless thank you. He was mesmerized.
We left the peak with a light heart and a sense of accomplishment even though it took us 5 days to reach the summit and there’s a shortage of food and water. We made it back to camp 4 at around 2:30 PM then back to camp 3 by sun down. We laughed, we kissed, we hugged, we cried all because of what happen that day. All were energized despite exhaustion was all over our faces.
On the 6th day, the team aimed to at least reach the foot of Mt. Piagayungan. We started the trek from 7 AM to 1 AM continuously giving us blisters and more leech bites. We slept out in the trail, lied together with leeches with only a tarp as a cover against the scattered raindrops. We encountered hunters and were shared with their baon. We ascended, descended. We climbed through the slopes tactically with only our bare hands and feet that was originally guided with ropes. We river crossed and almost washed away with the strong current that if Bapa didn’t hold onto the rope and Alex on the other side, I wouldn’t be able to get out there alive. We only ate Piaya and corned beef leftovers for dinner without trail foods left from 7 PM onwards. We didn’t have enough rice for the group so we decided to make a porridge out of it that morning. With only 2 scoops each, we imagined that was the Holy Grail that were brought down to us to give us energy for the whole day.
We met with the lead pack that were walking for hours at the foot of the mountain looking lost in the woods even with the younger guides with them. They said that they were already walking for 2 hrs passing the same way a couple more times. Bapa, who was with us girls and Alex, were happy to see them as there was a misunderstanding about our real intention as to the visit of their place. There was a rumor that we gave Bapa a 5 million Pesos to protect the spy – Us. Few more minutes before midnight, everyone was tired, weary and hungry. We don’t have food and water. We cant pitch tents because of the issue. We should keep walking til we reach the entrance of the mountain. From that spot, we heard the engine of the truck that supposed to fetch us. The remaining team, on the other hand was 2-3 hours behind. They weren’t able to river cross I suppose. By that time, the current got stronger and it will be difficult to get through.
We decided to take a break. We sat on our bums. We changed our wet clothes. We gave first aid to our blistered feet. Alex was sprained. Mine was swelling almost revealing the insides of my feet plus leech bites. I told them if we were to walk for another two hours, Im afraid I couldn’t do it. How can I choose between my walking impairment and our safety? Unfair! Bapa lead the way to find the right path. It was near to impossible that we could successfully get out of the forest in the middle of the night let alone the threat that was running at that very hour. Instead, we fall asleep sitting and half lying side by side to at least keep our comrades warm. The crawling of leeches in my back, feet, hands, and neck are ignored. Seems like every movement is treated as a part of the body. In the middle of my first aid and my friends’ snoozing, I heard a hunter’s signal. I know it was them. Our guide used to do it. While I silently fiddling my feet under the rain ply, I turned off my head lamp, listening to the movements outside. Everyone was napping except me. They talked. I didn’t understand. I heard the footsteps moving past me fading into the darkness. Then one of the guide woke someone and offered some food. RICE!!! The hunters offered their remaining baon. They know were out of it but nobody cared to move. Swollen feet and hungry stomach, which would you first tend? I silently curl myself while hanging my rotten feet finally drifting to the silence of the people around.
4 AM, we woke up to the noises from above. Bapa was waking everyone so by 6 AM we can reach the community below. We gathered ourselves in a few minutes. We started to move. I started forcing myself. Alex remained with Bapa. They were calling assistance to fetch them and I desperately wanted to join in but I didn’t. So I picked my trusty wooden pole to be my third feet. My pace was divided to half and so was May Anne. Seems like our group suffered more blisters due to the strong current while river crossing. Sand and little rocks are in the inside of the shoes right beneath the weary and wet feet.
Few minutes after, more armed men were coming. Each were offering to carry our bags and water. They brought us rice and chicken curry. Bapa ordered them for us. We found out that they were Bapa’s subordinates and relatives. They talked. We found out that the issue that night was solved. It was all a misunderstanding. Bapa stand for us. My salute to you Bapa!
While the sun rays screeching through the leaves, finally welcoming us home. Home to Bapa’s place. There goes the rice field again surrounded by layers and layers of mountains. It reminds me of Vietnam’s Hoa Binh. At the foot of the mountain everyone was waiting, those who made it first and the concerned townsfolk. The locals offered us coffee. And those who made it first were offered with breakfast. We sat on the ground while the locals gathered around us. Sir Manny’s company are still on their way. They said, some men were sent with food. The overall scenario was totally overwhelming. It was a real eerie feeling that despite being new to the town, we were a welcomed visitors. Everyone was smiling. Curious but happy we made it back to their town, safe. They too were praying for our safe harbour. Prayers were offered. Thank yous were exchanged. And debt of gratitude will forever remain for this journey will not only make a mark in the history of Mountaineering but in our own lives as well.
For the last time, before we left the humble house of Bapa, everyone were gathered in the floor. Each were given an opportunity to give their thanks, experiences and a small talk regarding the whole exploration. Everyone was touched. We know that words are not enough to describe how we felt, how we’re grateful and how everyone saw everything. We promised to come back and everyone was welcome to join us for the victory party. They, too, were excited about it.
Today, my body is swollen. Feet are splattered with blisters. Skin toes are fighting. Legs are itched with Leech bites. Wrist with Poison Ivy’s sting. Forehead with scratches from the bush whacking. But my spirit is now awaken by positivity of family and friends, congratulations by comrades and salutes by Mountaineers. It was a short lived 7 days exploration to Mt. Piapayungan (Mt. Piagayungan) but the longest among 7 journeys I faced in the past years.
Photos care of Prof. Elmer Gooc and Me