The prominent mountaineer Ed Viesturs labels this “phenomenon” as summit fever. It’s when a sense of getting to the summit grips a mountaineer and the risks are overlooked in favour of this objective. He has seen plenty of these among fellow climbers. Mistakes, he calls them. Sometimes, they prove costly. It is highly contagious and all-too-common. Even the most experienced climber can fall prey to this condition.
That was exactly what I thought when we were at Mt. Beaufort. Three hours into trekking and finally being able to rest at a clearing, the decision weighed in heavily. We had already missed our target time to get to the summit. At 2:45 pm, we were actually almost two hours behind schedule, slowed down by the difficulty of the unfamiliar terrain which left most of us unprepared. I knew I was. The moment I started the trek, I could feel my body respond in a different way. For one, I was sleep-deprived, with only two hours of sleep that morning. Don’t ask me why, but I made that terrible mistake of not getting enough rest prior to the climb. Second, I was on a 10-day fast which started about 6 days ago. Fruits and vegetables. They are good for the body, for cleansing. But they simply will not give me the proper strength I need in this arduous trek. Third, I missed breakfast, which is simply due to not having enough time that morning before our departure.
And then there was the weather. It was still okay around the time we got to the clearing. But rain was looming over us, the sky turning darker by the hour. It also started getting cold. Our organizer and guide failed to inform us particularly of the fact that the better gear to put on are long sleeves to protect us both from the weather and the thorny bushes that comprise about 70% of the trail. In fact, I was deciding that very morning whether I should wear my Columbia black omni-dri long sleeves but on the presumption that this was a “minor” day hike, and because I knew Palawan in general tend to be hotter than most areas, I went for a short-sleeved climbing shirt. I did wear my convertible trek pants and that was probably the one decision I felt very thankful for because the trail was just unforgivable.
There’s very little information you’d find online about Mt. Beaufort. That was a clear indication that this mountain is as much remote to local climbers as it is to climbers outside Palawan. There is also some confusion about its actual scope. Locals in Brgy. Irawan, Puerto Princesa, refer to the mountain “by their backyard” as Mt. Beaufort but Mt. Beaufort covers a much larger area. Technically, many other mountains belong to what is called the Mt. Beaufort Ultramafics geological region, or a series of ultramafic outcrops. If you’re going to ask me what that is, I don’t know myself.
And quite frankly, our trek to Mt. Beaufort started on this same note. There was very little information given to us about the trail, the weather, the actual trekking hours to the summit and back. Jasper, who had invited me to this day trek, did say that it was a minor climb, that it can be done in one day, and that by 3:00 pm, we should have already gone down the summit and to the jump off point. When one casually mentions “day hike”, I readily assume the likes of Batulao, Pico de loro, Maculot, or even Cristobal. What I didn’t know was that the reason no information could be gathered from either our organizer or the web is because the trail does not exist yet. We only found out that morning that we were doing an exploratory climb.
At 6:45 am, my companion Kuya Joshua and I left Puerto Princesa and arrived at exactly 7 at the Irawan High school. The jump off point is a few meters from the Irawan high school. It’s a gradual ascent, entering the forest. There are visible trails and trail markers (hacked trees) prepared by the guides ahead of us, but 3/4ths of the climb was a slow exploration. Mostly, the trail resembled the Paniquian trail of Mt. Tarak, but with even more vegetation and more remote. No, actually, really remote, as we were the first group to ever blaze through this trail.
By the time we had gathered together at the clearing, and as everyone sat down having our late lunch, the question hung in the air: should we still proceed to the summit? I asked them that because I already had a good idea of the difficulty of the trail. Second, we were outside the schedule. Third, and most importantly, we had to get back safely and in all likelihood, calculating the time we arrived at the clearing, the approximate time to the summit and back, a summit climb means doing a night trek. But the consensus seemed to be, “sayang naman, andito na tayo.” (We’re already here, why not go on?) Even the guides said it can be done but it was only a matter of how long.
And we did get to the summit, 45 minutes later. The funny thing was, there wasn’t even a sight to behold because of the fog that covered the entire view. It started raining, it was very cold and we decided to just spend 30 minutes up the summit to recharge and head back down. Even the summit resembled that of Mt. Tarak. The wind, the chill, the rocky ascent were all too familiar for me. And signal was strong, too. I could even still call our secretary from the summit and instruct our drivers who were both traveling to and from El Nido.
The real tragedy of this climb happened 30 minutes after we had gone down the summit. The rain was torrential, making the already difficult trail much more dangerous. Just imagine: there was no established trail up the summit. It was hack here, hack there, go over this tree or under that. The mossy forest was just messy all over. Thorny bushes injured almost everyone, and if the ascent had been very difficult for us, just imagine going down this steep route when everything you can possibly hold on to was unstable. And that’s when I fell 10 feet down. My left hand was clinging on to a bamboo shoot when my foot slipped. The initial reaction was to let my hands catch the floor. And it happened all too quickly. I had been protecting my right shoulder because 7 months prior, I dislocated it in the mountains of Kibungan. When I fell, I just remembered intense pain emanating from my right shoulder/right arm. Slumped, I just began crying in pain until Faye, the nurse who climbed with us, helped stabilize my right arm. I touched it with my left hand to see if it indeed got dislocated, and it was unmistakeable. It seemed to have shifted to the right portion near the clavicle and I could just tell it was misplaced. About five minutes after the fall, and with tears constantly running down my face, I tried to move my shoulder and then, as in what happened in Kibungan 7 months back, my shoulder naturally popped back in. There was relief on my part but mostly there was frustration and disappointment. I had been rehabilitating this shoulder, doing therapy and conditioning exercises to strengthen it, and in less than a year, I got into another accident. It felt terrible, to know that I’m back to square one. Worse, I now become a liability to the group. Everyone’s pace would slow down because I had to be assisted down this terrible trail. Jasper did his best to assist me, and I was very thankful he was around. When I needed to step on his foot, and when I needed to slide down this trail, he was the main support. It was 4:00 pm when the accident happened. And the clock went ticking. Around 8:30pm, we were still on the trail, and by 9:30, approximately 14 hours of trek, we had arrived at the jump off, tired, exhausted, and injury-ridden in one form or another.
Why did we proceed to the summit when we had obviously missed our cut off time? I’ve been climbing for a long time now, and I’ve gone through less favourable conditions. Somehow though, this particular climb reeks of every possible what-not-to-do in a climb. Objectively speaking, I am positive a big chunk of why was due to summit fever especially because we had first timers in the group. In fairness to them, they were a good company. Young ones whose excitment for adventure I share. But for most of them, this was their first climb, and they had no real introduction to basic mountaineering. It was just like me many, many years ago. I was thirsty for adventure and so I climbed as much as I could. But I learned things painfully along the way. Big bags are better left behind and smaller packs that fit your frame do you better service in the mountains. Always keep yourself hydrated. Never forget your headlamps. Things like these. And without completely pointing fingers at them, the failure of this trek can also be attributed to the organizer. There should have been a pre-climb, a briefing on what to expect in the mountain. Instead, because experienced, local mountaineers were leading us up, we put full trust to their knowledge and expertise. Complacency can be dangerous.
Do I think I would have avoided injury if we did not climb the summit? I can’t say. I also had my lack of preparation to lay blame on and it must also be noted that the accident happened down the summit. It could have still happened, I wouldn’t know. But many things also contributed to it. Weather condition. Time. Preparation. If we had decided earlier on to not go up because of these reasons, nobody would have blamed us for turning back. Turning back sometimes proves to be the better decision, and when I look back on this incident, I think it was the only decision that makes complete sense.
All these aside, Mt. Beaufort humbled me. It was here that I truly realized why I prefer mission climbs more than leisure ones. Basically, because I hold on to the core principle of our group: it’s never about the peak. It’s about the people. I much prefer climbing up a mountain when I know I’m there to visit a tribe or a people group than when I know I’m just there to see what everything else looks like from the top. And if there was a lesson so painfully learned from Mt. Beaufort, it was that when I go my own way (and decide, hey, I wanna climb for nothing!), I could really end up injured. I also realized the value of climbing with a group of people that I trust. Sir Ace tells it this way: If you were in a life and death situation up in the mountain, would you want to be with these people? It made me appreciate my group back in Manila so much more. I trust them with my life. All our experiences in the mountains these 5 years of being together have not only strengthened our fellowship; we’ve become one family willing to risk lives for each other.