CALL it “Lucky 13” but Barok considers it unlucky, at least as far as the annual Manunggal climb ritual is concerned. His first trek to the site where President Ramon Magsaysay’s plane crashed in 1957 was in 1997. He did it yearly after that, but not this year. A relative died abroad and he was tasked to get the ashes in Manila this weekend.

This year’s “Paghandum ni Magsaysay” has been set for tomorrow and Sunday. Barangay Magsaysay and Balamban town officials already commemorated the former president’s death last March 17, the actual date of the crash. March 20-21 will therefore be spent for the trek, camp-out, adventure race and other activities at the camp site.

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Barok, who is bent on marrying in May, tried to fit his schedule for the climb. What he did was look for a parish whose pre-Cana sessions wouldn’t conflict with the climb schedule. But the family tragedy broke his resolve not to break his string of successive Manunggal climb presence.

I did my first climb when I was still with the Freeman. Since I transferred to Sun.Star in late 1997, either that year was 1997 or the year previous, 1996. The climb then was handled by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB), thus the stress on tree planting.

I did that first climb eight years after my seven years of living in the countryside of Cebu and Bohol ended abruptly. I thus had the air of a “veteran” when I clambered up the dump truck parked in Plaza Independencia and which then dumped us in Barangay Adlawon. I wore slippers and carried a cheap back pack and a small, though colorful tent.

The trek was the focal point of the activity, and you realize that in the directional signs and banners and the DENR folk’s welcoming smile. You needed to register and get, on the way home, a certification that you survived Manunggal. This became the practice even after organizers transferred the trek’s starting point to the nearer Barangay Tabunan.

The first climb, I wasn’t with any group. I walked barefoot until the pain forced me to admit the callous in my soles had long vanished. I also discovered later that the leg muscles that once made my trek through the city’s rough terrain bearable were also gone. Nearing the peak, I rested for every four steps I made. Only my will to survive remained.

I still have a photo of that trek, with my tent lonely beside the bust of Magsaysay. In subsequent climbs, that tent would already be with those of the Climbing Enthusiasts and Backpackers Unlimited (CEBU), which also introduced us (some Sun.Star people had joined me in the ritual by then) to the Osmeña Peak and the trek to Kawasan Falls.

When the Balamban Government took over the yearly climb’s sponsoring chores, it introduced other activities even us it improved the condition of the road linking the transcentral highway to the Manunggal camp site. But some groups prefer to start in Tabunan and climb up the peak, like in the old days. They still relish the challenge.

Challenge and camaraderie. Those are what prod us to devote our spare time for this annual ritual. I have made friends there with people who share my love for the mountains. I am sure I will be bumping into them again in Manunggal tomorrow.

And I will be with my son, Khan-khan. He’s too young to feel the “love” but his insistence of going back to Manunggal after joining me in last year’s climb is an encouraging sign.

(khanwens@yahoo.com/ my blog: cebuano.wordpress.com)