Mt. Damas surely offered us an array of barely-polished, almost virginal jewels of nature. And because they were virginal, they were hard to find.
Our Chinese New Year started from Quezon City, as we rode a bus going to Alaminos, Pangasinan around 4am. The bus was SCTEX-bound, and it gave us this early morning motivation at around 6am.
We arrived at Camiling, Tarlac around 8am and had our breakfast at a local gotohan. The bus fare was two hundred sixty pesos. Then we had an hour’s ride in a tricycle going to Brgy. Papaac where the foot of Mt. Damas rested. The tricycle driver charged us two hundred fifty pesos.
The base camp fee was twenty. And there we met Kuya Marvin, our ever-reliable mountain guide and his dog, Gin.
The first hour of the hike was spent touring Brgy. Papaac where we saw the jewels of rural life: the residents, the fields, goats, carabaos, cows, hay stacks, a chapel, a modern house (which is kinda off-themed) and a nice view of the mountain we are about to soar.
The second hour brought us jewels of the forest: all sorts of standing and fallen trees, flowers, rivers, and a torture chamber, or I mean, a sorting tool for hay.
Then at about past eleven in the morning, we came to the priced gem that saved us from the heat of the sun.
Here at the Jewel in the Palace of Damas, we had lunch with Jang Geum.
But Jang Geum’s smile seemed mystifying. It was as if she was telling us, “Enjoy yourselves now. The forces of nature are up ahead.”
A short hike after lunch led us to the third hour of the trek: jewel-hopping, or I mean, river-hopping.
And we were literally hopping.
The river is flowing with crystal clear water, even potable so one can clearly see the bottom of the river. In some parts, the water was just ankle-high. In some areas, maybe waist-high. But there were sections where the bottom was just dark and even Kuya Marvin could not tell us how deep it was. So the best way to surpass the river was through the rocks.
As the water level varied, the rocks were created accordingly. There were boulders and sand. There were rocks close to each other. There were those that needed some leap of faith. And there were those unstable rocks. Actually, you had a choice whether to fall to the water or to another rock. Go all wet or scratch your knee? Mt. Damas valued your freedom of choice. Jewels really were not easy to find.
But honestly, this was the part I liked the best. I liked how the chilly water touched my feet as I was stubborn enough to still walk in the water. I was wearing sandals anyway, unlike my friends who wore shoes. So I said I would just savor the moment. And I was thankful I was given the time to appreciate the trip this early, because our next stop was this.
Are you ready to rappel? According to Dictionary.com, rappel is the “method of moving down a steep incline… by means of a double rope secured above and placed around the body, usually under the left thigh and over the right shoulder… .” Luckily, our tour guide brought some rope for us to hold on to. But I simply could not find any rope wrapped around my body! And this was my first time! I was calling non-stop to the Lord. Maybe I was also able to call all the spirits from the Jewels in the Damas to help me.
It was a test of grip. Loving the rope, to make it cling to you as well, and loving the rocks, to not let you slip you all the way down, was the deal. And after a very slow but sure descent, I was with my friends again. And I was able to finish the first rappeling wall. Uhuh. You read it right. This was only the first of the three rappeling sites.
But Damas was not that cruel. After every grip test was a jewel reward, a mini-falls serving us nature-chilled water. And this rappelling lasted for almost two hours.
But the challenges of Mt. Damas were not over yet.
After a few minutes of rest, we saw Kuya Marvin tying his rope again on a tree somewhere up. Uh-oh. Another rappel? That was what I also thought.
The rope led us to an area where taking photos was very unlikely because all you would want to do was to concentrate on the climb.
Mt. Damas had its customized definition of steep. The rappel might have been steep but at least they had a creased surface, allowing grip for the soles of your shoes. But a steep mountain edge with nothing but soil was not easy. And at your left and right, you can see the river below. I was literally crawling. There were barely any stones that were rooted firmly to the ground that you could grasp and rest your whole weight onto. And the trail was almost vertical. At some parts there were the pepper trees and bamboo plants that can reach a helping hand to you. Good thing I had my gloves to protect my hand from the sharp bamboo leaves. And thanks to them for holding the soil firmly, but some particles were just stubborn enough to get your shoes sliding.
Two hours passed by. It was already 4:30 in the afternoon, but we still were not at the summit. Kuya Marvin said it might take us another hour of steep-walking.
We took a little rest and off we went. And we were welcomed by these tall sharp grasses we call talahib. And I was thankful again for my arm warmers, gloves and pants. Though my feet already had a bunch of scratches since I was wearing sandals.
And then there was this story of the 50-year old marathon-winner who broke his leg during this ascend. I knew we were near the summit.
And after an hour, Damas finally gave in and showed us its most treasured jewel in its palace.
We camped and ate adobo. And Damas gave us another reward, a night sky full of stars. It was a guessing game of which constellation was which and whether we were looking at the North star or Venus. Tim even said he saw a red moving star. Then the word UFO came up. I said that we might already need to go to sleep before the UFO talk became a ghost story. And besides, we need to get up early to prepare for breakfast to be able to leave camp around seven in the morning.
And that was one good sleep. We were all tired.
We were not able to witness a great sunrise though because of the clouds, but we were nonetheless ready for the second half of the trip, the descent.
We did steep-walking again, which for me was more difficult than when we were going up. Sliding might had been the best way down but I chose to sit down while sliding. And leaning forward was also prohibited if you wouldn’t want to roll head first. My friends already got ahead of me. But I did not care. I was the slowly-but-surely type. I would prefer to go slow than dead.
And after two hours, I was happy to be reunited with my friends at the river. For this day, we would have a little detour from the itinerary the other day.
We were going to Ubod Falls! But this was not Ubod yet. It was a smaller falls that was yet to give us the steepest rappelling wall Mt. Damas had to offer. Maybe Ubod was such a treasure that it needed a guardian to test the determination of those who wanted to see it.
Since this was a higher one, our rope was not enough for the whole wall so there was a part where we need to go sideways, without any support.
My greatest problem about this wall was that the creases on the rocks where you were suppose to put your foot onto were just widely separated from each other! My short arms and legs just could not reach for them! Maybe rock-climbing was really meant for people taller than five feet. But I won’t turn my back on this.
A few more rock and wood-climbing and we came to yet another Jewel in the Damas.
The Ubod Falls became our natural refrigerator. The water was so clear and chilly too! And this was best served with hot rice, salted eggs, tomatoes and pechay. And that was the most refreshing lunch we had.
But the challenges were not yet over. On our way back, we need to pass through the guardian falls again. Then go up the three rappeling walls, again, which was harder for me this time around because first, I could not lift my whole body up! Secondly, it seemed that the rock creases made a conspiracy against me. They planned to move farther away from each other after seeing that I can pass through them the other day! Thirdly, the conspiracy attracted more forest elements that when we came to the rappelling sites again, I could not remember the trail anymore! This was my sense of direction for you!
After nine exhausting hours, we reached the foot of the mountain. And finally, our smiling ego blurted out, “We survived Mt. Damas!”
And so, am I going to climb again after this? Sure, why not? 🙂