A fish out of water

A popular ribbing for mountain climbing/trekking newbies (like me) goes something like this: … ‘wag kang mag-alala; di naman puro lakad lang eh — may gapang din! (… don’t worry; trekking is not just all walking — expect to do some crawling, too!).

I’m not one who’s keen about long walks, especially when it involves carrying a pack that’s almost half my body weight. I do not have the patience for it either. However, at the start of this year, I found myself joining a group tour bound for Sagada in the Mountain Province. I had no prior knowledge of exactly what activities awaited me there — all I knew was that we have caves and waterfalls to marvel at and explore. Boy, I was in for a surprise of my life upon learning that to reach the waterfall — Pongas Falls, Sagada’s latest tourist offering — we have to trek more than an hour! Trekking through an unfamiliar terrain always fills me with trepidation.

Unlike many of the sports I do, mountaineering or mountain trekking/climbing is different. There is always that element of fear — fear from falling, I guess… but I’ve done more stupidly dangerous stunts like bungee jumping, cliff diving, and skin diving at up to 20ft with only a polybottle on hand. I am not sure if the fear factor in climbing mountains stems from the inherent element of danger in the discipline, or from the uncertainty of how I would integrate as a part of a group. I’m not very good with group dynamics, you see — throw me in any team sport and I’d be clueless what to do. In SCUBA diving — my sports of choice — it is just me and my dive buddy. At any rate, fear can also be a good thing, as it reminds me just how fragile I am when faced with the natural elements. It can also be a bad thing when it gets paralyzing. Imagined or real, overcoming the fear breaks you out of your mold.

Pongas Falls in Sagada, Mt Province.


After the almost three hours (we were told it will take just an hour or so, but nobody factored in the rain; so yeah, it took us about three hours to reach Pongas Falls) of trekking along the riverine terrain — complete with slippery boulders, knee-deep crossings and muddy flats — we finally reached our destination. To capture the sight with mere words will be an injustice to the magnificence that Pongas Falls offered. Cascading about 30ft high, the three-pillared waterfalls is indeed a sight to behold! After the ordeal, I began to understand why some people are willing to go through great lengths of walking, oft times risking life and limbs, just to commune with nature’s handiwork. I now count myself as among them.

You see, with bungee jumping or zip lining, you look forward to the adrenaline rush, the exhilaration; and with SCUBA diving, the gratification is instantaneous — once you’re in the water, you are already transported to a different realm, the Darth Vader-ish sound of your breathing is both calming and other-worldly… but mountain climbing? Given the load on my back that I have to take a few hundred meters higher, on terrain that could be unforgiving — my knees protesting and the specter of failure hanging above my head like the sword of Damocles — I come to terms with my ego, and to a larger extent, my vulnerability. The struggle is not only with my body — it is both an exercise in humility and introspection. The charm or chutzpah I employ to get things my way are worthless currencies on the treacherous mountain trails — these lofty natural structures either accept or reject me in their own terms, unconditionally. I learned to suck it in.

Of course, there were lessons learned in my initial foray into mountain climbing/trekking. Somehow, a climb is not without its usual miscues, or boo-boos, if you may — most of them, mine. Here are a few, which I found crucial considerations for my next mountain ‘assault’:

  • Water proofing — I am a fish, period. When it rained during the Pongas Falls trek, I was more than elated… an hour or so later, I wanted to kick myself in the head. With insufficient water proofing, some of my stuff got wet, including my spare clothes… go figure! What to get? A reliable backpack cover and some plastic zip bags, or garbage bags will do.
  • Borderline fuel — … for the body. Seasoned mountaineers call it trail food. You’ll never know how long the treks are going to be, so better stack up on food that are high-calorie.
  • Mind your alcohol — No matter how great the urge to indulge in your poison of choice for whatever reason, have your alcohol level checked. I slept through the night socials… ergo, missed the best bonding time one could ever experience. I should remind myself about this EVERY effin’ time: night socials is an integral part of a climb — take part in it!
  •  Be sure you are in tiptop shape — Yeah, yeah… round is a shape, I kept telling myself… but in the mountains, you cannot roll with that. I got my rude awakening while scaling boulders after boulders in the riverine trek to Pongas Falls. Never again.

So how did mountain climbing/trekking compare to SCUBA diving? As a rule of thumb in diving, the slightest miscalculation gets magnified underwater — so, never take chances. I discovered that to be true also with mountain climbing/trekking. Moreover, I also found out that mountain climbing and trekking is a wee bit similar to my love of diving in some ways – and different in others. Consider these points….

Both SCUBA diving and mountain climbing/trekking:

1. Need burdensome, sometimes heavy, gear

As a diver, I am accustomed to carrying clunky equipment, aside from putting on ‘oppressive’ kits. One thing divers will find similar is that you also need a ton of gear to go on a mountain trek — boots, trousers, technical wear (cold- or warm-weather gear), and a decent headwear and shades are good to have. Consider donning padded pants, too; they were my life-saver, or actually, my ass-saver.

With diving, the part most divers hate is getting the clunky kit on and getting in the boat. You may be clumsy, heavy and weighed down in the surface, but underneath, it becomes much easier. It is somewhat the same with mountain climbing and trekking, especially when the initial part of the climb already entails a steep terrain. Allegedly, the easy part of mountain climbing and trekking is when you start moving down a slope. Obviously, it takes some time to master.

If you find getting dressed for work each morning as a chore, try gearing up for a climb (or a dive) — which, once you’re on the trail, you forget about — mainly because the mountains…

2. Offer breath-taking sceneries

I must admit, underwater scenery is not always picture-perfect in the classic sense, but you can always find something to appreciate in a reef garden, a wreck, a wall or a cave. Mountain climbing and trekking will take you to some of the most beautiful mountains and some of the most spectacular sunsets. Like diving, you also feel ‘at one with nature’ because you are in the middle of it all — the topology, the flora and fauna, and even the local people. The view is especially magnificent from above, especially if you get the viz, which is dictated by the clouds (most times), rather than water clarity, of course.

3. Have easy and hard dives/climbs

I have been in some relatively hairy dive situations and technically difficult dives, mostly due to weather conditions and mainly, due to ocean current. There are easy dive sites for beginners, usually shallow and calm. The harder ones for the more experienced are usually deep and interestingly, where more exciting sea creatures abound.

Climbs are rated according to: difficulty level, classification (major or minor climb) and trail class. PinoyMountaineer.com recommends the classification of Philippine mountains according to difficulty level, represented by a numeric scale of 1 to 9. Of course, there are certain limitations to this rating system; thus, another grading method is employed on top of the difficulty level classification — the PULAG system, which adds one (1) to the numeric value of a difficulty level of a trek, based on the following conditions:

Precipitation, which can increase trek time by as much as 50%

Unestablished trail or flooded trails that require water crossings

Low temperature (about 35 C), which increases the risk of hypothermia among trekkers

Animals or wildlife that may interfere with the trek

Gusts of wind that may reach more than 50kph

Below is the internationally recognized scale when nominating a trail class:

1 — Mostly walking or easy strolls

2 — Hiking along a path or rugged terrain

3 — Scrambling using hands for balance

4 — Climbing easy cliffs but with enough drop off; here beginners should be tethered for safety

5 — Using free hands as climbing method

6 — Very difficult and need to use artificial method

4. Are expensive

Diving is not cheap; neither is mountain climbing and trekking. Equipment and gears alone will set you back a few thousand pesos; add to that the ‘travel expenses’ that may be necessary to get to the jump-off point. Dear, oh dear!

5. Take practice to make perfect

I remember my tyro days as a diver, not being able to correctly attach my regulator to my oxygen tank. Almost 100 hours of bottom time later, it has become an unconscious effort. I still have many trails to burn before I can consider myself an accomplished mountain trekker/climber. It’s okay. I’m not in a hurry.

How are they different?

1. You don’t need a qualification to climb/trek mountains.

Mountain climbing and trekking is not technical… and while it is recommended that you take basic mountaineering course (BMC) first, it is not a requirement. You can, theoretically, just pack a bag and head off to the nearest mountain trail. Diving, on the other hand, is inherently more technical and requires study, qualification and signoff before you can hire equipment and get in the water. Probably because of the next point:

2. It is more difficult to kill yourself mountain climbing and trekking.

Every diver knows you can theoretically kill yourself in very shallow water, and you need to be more aware of your body and the effects and causes of decompression sickness. On the other hand, the worst you can get from a 10-feet drop on a mountain slope is some broken bones and a nice bruise on your fat ass — of course; you have to be really stupid to allow yourself to fall off a cliff.

Don’t make any mistake though — mountain climbing and trekking can also be dangerous. I have seen news clips about mountaineers getting lost in the mountains and freezing to death or getting carried away by rushing river currents during water crossings.

3. You can drink (not just water) while trekking!

Definitely the best dissimilarity by far! While it is not advisable to drink and climb, the best thing about a mountain climbing and trekking activity is being able to stop at lunchtime and have a sneaky beer. Most divers know that drinking and diving is surely a big No-No. Mountain climbers/trekkers — 1; SCUBA divers — 0!

4. It hurts… a lot!

There is absolutely no instance in my almost 70 dives to date where I remember saying: Ouch, that hurts. Diving for me is a relaxing, chilled, and not physically challenging activity. The most painful thing I have experienced with diving so far was during that ‘eventful’ dive in El Nido a couple of weeks ago, where I broke my trusted underwater camera. It was more a bruised ego, than anything else.

Consequently, when climbing/trekking mountains, be ready to ache everywhere — thighs, arms, back, abdominals, hands (from picking yourself up after every slip), not to mention dislocated shoulders and sprained ankles. Heck, even wearing the wrong shoes can leave you with ‘murdered’ toenails at the end of the day!

… and yes, I almost passed out from exhaustion. I’ve never done that diving.

So, how did mountain climbing and trekking fared against SCUBA diving?

Well, obviously as a diver I am inclined to say that diving rocks — simply because it REALLY does! But after experiencing Sagada, Mt. Batulao, Mt Pinatubo, Mt Gulugod Baboy and Anawangin — exchanging jokes and stories with strangers (who later on became friends) during night socials while partaking in shots after shots of gin, rum, brandy, scotch whiskey and other alcoholic concoctions imaginable, and sharing stodgy food made interesting by the conversations that went with it — I am convinced that when not diving, I’ll definitely go mountain climbing/trekking. I loved the scenery, the adrenaline, the company and the excitement — despite nursing sore limbs weeks later.

All things considered, I will always see myself as a diver first, albeit, I am falling more and more in love with mountain climbing and trekking. In the final analysis, I think I may have to brace myself from being considerably financially worse off as a result… well, knock on wood.


About Seeing with Brahmin eyes
My sense of humor can be keen, sarcastic, silly or corny -- sometimes all at once. I enjoy meeting new people with no preconceived ideas about what or what is not possible. You get much more out of life by being open minded and willing. I'm an easy going, good-natured person who loves life and loves people. I'm both optimistic and realistic and pretty objective when it comes to assessing situations, events, etc. In general I am a very positive person and you'll usually find we with a smile on my face.

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