SHE arrived. She positioned her backpack beside her. It was almost as tall as her and perhaps as heavy. This would be our second climb together, and somehow, I expected her bag would be as interesting as the one she brought to Kan-Irag.
About 30 meters from the jump-off, her nostrils flared from exhaustion. We all panted, but her huffs were more audible. Always, the start is the most arduous.
“Pwede mag-weight distribution ta? (Can we have a weight distribution?),” I suggested.
There were six of us: two of us were women, three men, and one young capable guide.
Obliged and gentlemanly, the guys made room for her canned goods and cook set, while I got her 1.5-liter water bottle and slippers. Her bag still looked massive and heavy, but she did not complain, unlike some girls I have scaled with. It was her burden. It was her choice. She must endure it.
After a short break at Lake Yagumyom, we pushed onward with the trail becoming more rewarding.
By “rewarding” I mean challenging. It made us focus on the trail itself. Between Yagumyom and Nailig—another lake where we would bunk for the night—were centuries-old trees with exposed roots sculpted by time and erosion. Moss clung to branches like jealous, possessive lovers.
Walking across a path of tree roots hanging by a cliff rocked our nerves. Jeanette hesitated with her steps. We all did. But in her case, she was walking with a heavier weight. Her decisions had to be thought about twice, while I mostly lived by calculated recklessness and abandonment—carelessly stepping on a weak root and hastily jumping to another one before it betrayed me.
A taxing route like this hones the sinews and neurons. When the body feels like the ground is about to betray, it automatically grasps the branch nearby or jumps to a safer place. Or the body instinctively finds a way to make the fall gentle. Or the brain processes events to make the slip less embarrassing. In my years of scaling mountains—in which I can still be considered naive and a novice, compared to my seasoned climber friends—I have learned that the brain and the body work closely and are conscious of each other. Or perhaps the body has a mind of its own that governs, protects itself when in danger. Instinct. It has saved me more than once.
Footings are moments of awkwardness running aplenty on the trail, especially for a trail foreign to us, like this one. Jeanette was rather confused about how to position her feet on a forking branch hindering our way. The men coached her as to where and how to place her feet. She followed them. But it was still awkward, and she momentarily looked like a puppet under the mercy of an amateur puppeteer. She just laughed it out when she finally surpassed the ordeal.
It needs no introduction, the workings of a man’s versus a woman’s limbs differ from each other. What works for men does not necessarily work for women.
I come from my own experience. Most of my climbing buddies are men. On the trail, I find my own ways on a narrow path—awkwardness and all. Perhaps this is the reason I choose my trekking companions—I tend to climb with those who are most accommodating of my stubbornness, of my incessantness of visible distance, of my claim to personal space in a group climb.
We reached the camp at Nailig before total darkness befell this hollow. Jeanette called her kids after she pitched our tent, while I prepared everyone’s dinner.
“Asa naman mo ron? Naa na mo sa imong Lola? (Where are you now? Are you at your Lola’s already?),” she asked her eldest daughter. She has two girls and a boy.
“Lisod ang trail, ’nak. Tugnaw kaayo diri. Pero nindot kaayo ang lake, ’nak, (The trail is difficult. And it is rather cold here. But the lake is very beautiful),” she confided. She was smiling throughout the conversation.
Inside the uncomfortableness of the tent, we shared some comforting stories. How she singularly raised her kids after her marriage reached the peak of its triumph and there was nowhere else to go but downhill. How she stayed strong like a mountain for them and for herself.
Between sleeping and tossing, we woke up to too much brightness inside the tent. We must have fallen asleep already when the moon reported for duty. Jeanette and I entered the forest line to answer the call of nature with the moon transposed the place into a terrain of light and shadow.
My sciatic back throbbed in pain, reacting to the biting cold. In the morning, I came out of the tent fully geared for the polar temperature.
“Ing-ani gyod ang temperature kon init ang panahon. Kon nag-uwan pa to, warm ang campsite, (The temperature is always like this when it is hot. If it rains, the campsite becomes warm),” informed our guide.
Everything was still, including the lake. Not a single ripple. Our reality was mirrored upside down on the surface. It felt surreal. Fog romanced the lake’s surface.
It glided and rose heavenward before a new swirl cryptically teased the lake’s skin.
And not long after that, it surrendered to its fate: gliding upward and disappearing the moment the sun started licking the water’s stillness with its rays. Such an unworldly scene.
As the group’s cook—a role I never saw myself filling—I prepared most of Jeanette’s canned goods for breakfast, while she packed her things inside her bag. It still made me curious---her bag. Aside from her staples that could last for five days (whereas the climb would last only three), what was inside it?
The way to our last campsite was mostly downhill, and Jeanette hated it. Some climbers I know detest downtrekking as well. It saps the legs’ strength and strains the calves.
With the load strapped on the back, gravity pulls harder. Upscaling entertains the beauty of heights, downscaling the perils of gravity.
Jeanette was in the middle of the group while I was the sweeper, cavorting at the smallest finds like seeing rattan for the first time.
Ready for anything
We dropped by at the sulfuric river, a living apocalypse of yesteryear. Despite their death, the trees ironically stood erect, proud, rooted, their trunks sleek and taut, their roots sculptural. If an apocalypse had beauty, this would be it.
Reaching Nagabe, we flattened the grass and pitched our tents once again and shared the place with the new recruits and seasoned climbers of Cuernos de Negros—the most established mountaineering society in Dumaguete city—named after Mt. Talinis.
We needed straw to extend the tent for our dirty kitchen. Jeanette had it. We needed something that would prevent our clothes from flying. Jeanette had clothespins. Simple things that perhaps only a mother or a woman could understand.
“Ayaw ko ingna, naa kay makeup kit diha? (Don’t tell me, you brought a makeup kit?),” I kidded.
“O, naa, (Yes, I did),” she answered, without a trace of embarrassment or remorse.
Perhaps she was aware of the gravity of the sin of dead weight. But it was her burden. It was her choice. She endured it throughout the climb.
Back at Nailig—we left our bags, already packed, at the campsite and trekked to the summit. Without the backpack’s load, Jeanette was faster and had confidence in her footing on the steep slope to the peak.
At nine, we summited the Horns of Negros.
I could not trace any exhaustion on Jeanette’s face. She stood on the trunk of a centuries-old tree and had her picture taken—trusting this time-tested beauty to bear her weight sans her backpack, but along with the weight of her burdens, worries, and all.
* Jona Branzuela Bering—a freelance writer and photographer from Cebu, Philippines—travels solo most of the time. She travels to write and live.
When in the city, she gardens and becomes a slave to four cats. She is a plant thief and reader by midnight. She blogs at backpackingwithabook.com. One may email her at email@example.com.