Conquering Pico de Loro: My first climb

pico (41)It was Chinese New Year and a holiday when my buddies finally convinced me to join them for a climb. If you knew me, you would know that I don’t have the best cardio in the world (far from it, really). I worry that I might hold up the rest of the group because I’m slow, or maybe I might injure myself in the attempt. After much negotiation, in which they pretty much catered to my every request (not to complicated climb, not too expensive etc., etc.), we finally settled on Mt. Pico de Loro in Ternate, Cavite as the destination of my first day hike (They’ve been there before, they just accommodated me. Yes, I have great friends).

Eventually, our small group of three expanded to 16. We were joined by my officemate Rene’s group of friends, and we were very lucky that they were an awesome bunch. We rented a jeep for P4,000 and met up at Dasmariñas before 5 am. We reached our destination at around 7 am and logged in at the DENR mini office at the base of the mountain and paid a minimal fee of P20 per head for the use of DENR facilties like the toilet and huts. There are times that the DENR personnel lecture hikers on the rules when visiting Pico de Loro.

Pico de Loro, also known as the Parrot’s Peak, is a popular destination for newbie climbers, although at 664 meters above sea level, it is one of highest peaks in Calabarzon, because it is actually part of the Mt. Palay Palay- Mataas na Gulod Protected Landscape. Because of the rich biodiversity in the area, it is essential for hikers and mountaineers to observe the rules when traversing the mountain. Its pretty simple, really — pick up after oneself and don’t destroy anything on the way up or down. Sadly, some of the hikers have vandalized some of the trees by scratching and writing on them, as well as the rocks. True, conquering mountains is a pretty memorable achievement but not at the expense of marring the beauty of Nature with markings.

Reaching the base camp took us roughly an hour, and we registered anew in a different log book. We paid another P20, this time to help with the maintenance of the site. However, the base camp does not come close to covering the first leg of the journey. It is merely an introduction to the challenges ahead for those who want to reach the top and tick off an item on their bucket lists. At the base camp, hikers can fill up their bottles and canteens with cool water sourced from a nearby spring. There are also two cubicles for showering/ answering the call of nature. There are no more of these amenities on the way up so this is a last chance for those who want to visit the loo or wash up. For dog lovers, there are some dogs who thrive on the attention of the hikers and they’re very friendly. Some even accompany their new friends to the top and serve as guides.

Following the base camp, the trail gets a bit more challenging as the path gets pretty uneven so its advisable not to use thick pants like jeans because it impedes movement. I was wearing jeans thinking they provide better protection from the shrubbery but alas, I miscalculated and paid the price for my folly. It is better to wear trekking pants which are lighter and gives wearers more room for movement, something that is essential in negotiating the bigger steps required for uneven surfaces. A trekking pole comes in handy for the assault parts of the trail. One thing I learned from my journey was that hikers call ascending paths assault. Assault is just about right because I felt like my muscles were being assaulted on the way up. So for beginners, training for at least a week before the climb is important or else, your muscles will be screaming halfway to the top. When I wasn’t focusing on catching my breath, I took the time to appreciate my surroundings and the serenity of the area. After all, its not everyday that one can commune with nature and out in some much needed exercise that is not readily available during the workday.

Hikers seemed to have agreed that the holiday was a good day to climb because we passed over a hundred of trekkers on our way up. Some were smarter and camped overnight the day before so they were already on the way down when everyone else (including us) were going up. I am not exaggerating when I gave the number estimate. When we reached the camp site some three hours (and a lot of perspiration) later, there seemed to be a convention of sorts as tents peppered the site to the point where late arrivals would have no place to pitch their own portable abodes.It was nuts, but I was glad because I felt the general sense of inclusion that mountaineers and hikers have in their community. No wonder there are a lot of people who enjoy the outdoors so much.

After the campsite, we headed out to the summit which was roughly 15-20 minutes of pure assault. It was more difficult to climb because soil was not too stable and there were a lot of rocks along the way. After a short breather, we had to hold on to cogons (wild grass) gradually make our way to the top. Everyone seemed to be really friendly and really happy to see each other. Strangers greeting each other when they pass by and a lot of them actively helping us out, literally reaching out their hands for us to cling to when the terrain seemed too tough, especially on the way to the summit. Not only were we coached and encouraged on climbing techniques by fellow hikers but four to five guys almost had to pull me up and pass me around before I reached the top. Same thing on the way down. They were probably more tired from the effort than I but that did not discourage me from extending their help to other members of our group.

At last! The view from the summit was nothing short of magnificent. A 360 view of mountains, seas and clouds surrounding Pico de Loro contributed to the sense of accomplishment I felt after the four hour climb. But it seemed like there was another challenge awaiting adventure seekers. Pico de Loro had not one but two summits, the second one being the Peak, a giant slab of stone that was next to a steep ravine. Those who dared to reach the top really had to dig in deep to rely only on their skill and single rope dangling from the top. I didn’t attempt to conquer the second peak because I was a beginner and a bit on the clumsy side. Besides, I promised my folks that I will go back home alive so I contented myself watching as half of our group ventured towards the next challenge and took pictures of their success instead.

Despite the exhaustion, my first climb was a great experience. One that I would surely be repeating soon. Challenging, true. But rewarding nonetheless. The sense of accomplishment and the opportunity to appreciate nature. Making friends and being embraced into a community of these great natured outdoorsmen? Priceless.

Scaling the Great Wall: Operation Beijing

great wallThe Great Wall of China is one of the world’s most majestic architectural masterpieces in the world — a site that is part of every traveler’s bucket list — mine included. A structure that was built in 221 BC both to unite all the territories under China and protect the country from invaders, the Great Wall was built by farmers, soldiers and regular folk with their blood, sweat and tears and became the only structure in the world that could be visible from the moon. A marvelous feat that was recognized by the UNESCO, which dubbed the structure as a World Heritage Site in 1987. Recently, it was formally recognized by the New7Wonders Foundation in Zurich as one of the new wonders of the world.

READY SET GO. A steep climb awaits me.

READY SET GO. A steep climb awaits me.

While the history behind the wall is indeed fascinating, what really excited me about the Great Wall was the challenge it presented. While I knew that I was not in the right shape to scale the wall up to the top (the wall spans 21,196 km or 13,171 miles according to Wikipedia), I wanted to see how far I can climb and witness for myself the view that I have only admired on postcards and refrigerator magnets from China’s capital.

akyat

TRY AND TRY. My mom gingerly gauges her capability to scale the steps of the Great Wall. She opted to sit it out after the first station because of her vertigo.

1st station

FIRST TOWER. Several towers are situated as markers of climbers’ progress on the wall. The first one is close to the base and fairly easy to climb but it gets tougher.

Because we were staying in the Changping district for our three day stay in Beijing, we were taken by our guide to the Juyongguan side of the wall, which was nearest to the area. In some sides of the wall (Mutianyu and Badaling), cable service is available to bring tourists to and from the top of the wall for a fee (45-65 yuan). In the Mutianyu side, slideways are also an option on the way down. Juyongguan does not have similar amenities so even from afar, we could see a lot of people huffing and puffing their way up and down the uneven steps of the wall. Scaling the wall takes quite an effort, even for the seasoned hiker. Because the wall was not built by men trained in construction, the stone steps were not only uneven but very steep. The climb is not recommended for those with weak cardio or those suffering from vertigo because even if the climb up is manageable for some, the descent would be challenging. I have heard some foreigners exclaim that the way down is even harder than going up.

P1020073

OVERLOOKING. As travelers climb higher, the better the view of the Juyongguan Pass (background) becomes. This, in itself is reward enough.

I was not mistaken. It was really challenging to go up because some of stone steps have eroded while some were visibly well worn by the amount of people trodding up and down on a daily basis. Because we travelled during the winter season before the snow fell, the steps were not slippery. The cold weather actually helped me not to feel too tired. There were occasions though, that I had to catch my breath and take a short rest. It would be wise to bring a bottle of water during the climb as it is important to hydrate for any physical exercise of this magnitude. Pacing oneself is also important because it is a long climb and it is important to listen to what one’s body is saying. Climbers have to understand their own limitations as it is hard to call for help from the top because the stairs are not very wide, especially given the volume of people on the wall. My advice? So, take periodic rests and enjoy the scenery. The higher you get, the better the view of the Juyongguan Pass you will get, as well as the view of the other parts of the wall snaking along in a seemingly endless fashion.

P1020080

A BIT MORE PUSH. My pal Albert pushes himself to complete the climb to the third tower.

My friend Albert and I only made it as far as the third station and it took us about 30-45 minutes to get up and down but we took a short cut for our descent. Around this area, we found a small shop called The Great Wall Store (duh) that sells a variety of stuff, from coffee, hot chocolate, juice, souvenirs, as well as medals and metal plates that can be engraved with tourists’ names as proof of climbing the Wall. They sell for 30 yuan in the store and I should have gotten one, but I thought it was a bit pricey. Turns out, they sell the same stuff at the bottom for a higher price. So I suggest that given the opportunity, buy one as a keepsake of your great accomplishment.

Outside the store, there was a pathway and a sign that says mountain pass. We asked the salesperson if this path led to the base of the wall and she said yes. Seeing how difficult it was to climb down, we decided to follow the trail instead and had a much easier time getting down. It took us mere minutes to meet up with my mom and the tour guide who were waiting at the base.

For those who opt to stay behind at the base, a variety of activities can occupy one’s time.  Coffee shops, restaurants and souvenir shops abound but don’t get too carried away and always try to haggle for a lower price. The salespeople are not very fluent but can understand and speak English — plus they’re used to tourists so it is easier to transact with them than in some areas. Just remember to bargain and you’ll surely get the best price for your purchases along with some choice freebies. There are also booths that offer souvenir photos in traditional Chinese costumes, talismans and good luck charms that will make for excellent mementos of your travel to the Great Wall.

A SELFIE WELL DESERVED. I hardly take selfies but after this tough climb, I thought I should document the occasion.

A SELFIE WELL DESERVED. I hardly take selfies but after this tough climb, I thought I should document the occasion.

All in all, my Great Wall adventure was immensely satisfying and unforgettable but I couldn’t help but wonder if I had more time how much father I could go. Perhaps, I might go back to Beijing one day and give the Wall another go. For this structure, each effort really has just reward because aside from a great sense of accomplishment, the view from the top is simply magnificent. Besides, there is just something about the wall that speaks to the part of me that is Chinese and makes me proud of my ancestors who built these walls.

The Benefits of Walking

While I was commuting to work this morning, stuck in traffic, I was regretting my decision not to alight at Gate 3 of our university to take a 15 minute walk to my office rather than spend the same time mulling about stuff while I inhaled smoke and listened to the noise of the marketplace en route to my place of work.

See, I used to work in the city but decided when the opportunity presented itself that I could take on a job somewhere closer to home. So now, instead of  spending two hours on the bus to go to work everyday, I have cut back the commute to roughly 20 minutes,  30 minutes if the jeepney decides to wait around to get more passengers along the way. Actually, one of the reasons I decided to switch to the academe (my former alma mater) is because of the wide campus that allows me to get up and take a walk in the park (believe me, my school is like a theme park) in case I feel like it. Bottom line, unlike regular offices, there is an option to stretch one’s legs and really get out, rather than stay within a cubicle in front of a computer for an entire eight hours.

To make the long story short, I’ve found a passion for walking while I’ve been here. I’ve never been sporty by nature but I do appreciate the opportunity to exercise, albeit not too strenuously. Here are some of benefits to walking that I could name from the top of my head:

a. Walking is good cardio. Walking provides a great cardio workout and may even provide the same benefits as running provided you walk  a bit faster than your normal pace (which isn’t hard to do) in order to get your blood pumping. There are studies that prove this but I’m no expert so I’ll just stick to the basics.

b. Walking helps you lose weight. I must admit that in the year or so since I’ve worked in the academe and started walking, I’ve managed to lose a bit of weight (roughly 10 lbs) that I’ve put on while overeating in the office (which was entirely my fault because I didn’t know my limits).

c. Walking gives you time to think. Time spent walking gives me the opportunity to think about things with a clearer head, because of the more open environment that gives me a sense of freedom.  Ideas flow more freely and the 15 minutes or so spent walking in the early morning or on the way home in the afternoon are considered refreshing moments to focus on things without any pressure.

d. Walking gives you time to chat with your friends. Walking is a very fun passtime and its even better if you spend it with a walking buddy. You cover more ground faster and you really don’t notice the effort you exert walking because you’re too busy having fun, talking. I’m not sure is talking is considered a form of exercise but if so, then you’re doing two exercises at once. :)

e. Walking gives you time to relax and regroup. After spending hours in front of a monitor, it is a welcome break to see scenes other than the four walls of the office or your cubicle. Walking is a perfect excuse to take a few minutes to relax and appreciate the outdoors.

I’m sure there are a lot more ways in which walking is beneficial. But instead of me telling you what they are, why not step out of your office and take a five minute brisk walk around the corner? It will do wonders for you, I’m sure.