Climbing Mt. Pulag, the second highest mountain in the Philippines, was one of those bucket list moments for me. Edric and I decided to join the Valentine’s Day Pulag climb organized by the Rock Ministry of our church. It was an unconventional way to celebrate our commitment to one another but the experience proved to be one of the best ways to revisit our relationship and glean valuable life lessons. It was one of the most difficult, self-inflicted challenges we surmounted together!
Day one involved a climb to Camp 2 from Ranger Station — an easy two and a half hours. We pitched our tents by mid-afternoon and didn’t mind the drizzle. At this point the cold felt bearable. By 5 PM, however, the weather conditions deteriorated significantly and everyone in our group of about seventy-two climbers retreated to our tents to seek refuge.
My vision of the evening had star gazing, fellowship, singing, and outdoor cooking in its picture. This fantasy was impossible as no one dared to venture outside of their tents to hang out when the rain and wind continued. Moving around the campsite would mean getting clothes and shoes soaked and muddied. Only those foraging for food from neighbors and those who desperately needed to relieve themselves attempted to. (Some actually resorted to Ziploc bags to contain their “organic matter.”)
Had it not been for the calm composure and confidence of our team leader and friend, Jessie Tan, who is an experienced mountaineer and owner of the local brand, Conquer, we would have skipped dinner entirely. He ably got two burners going under the vestibule of one of the bigger tents. Edric and I, along with our friends, gathered in that same tent to eat off whatever resembled a plate or bowl. Amazingly, we feasted on adobo, salpicao, rice, and steak, courtesy of my brother, Paul, and sinigang, prepared by my brother-in-law, Joel. (It almost felt wrong to have that much food when we were supposed to be roughing it.)
When the rain did not relent, everyone’s bigger fear was the biting cold. I didn’t quite understand what my mountaineering father-in-law meant when he briefed Edric and I about the possibility of hypothermia on Pulag. Well, I very well got what he meant that night.
Although we prepared the right gear, we didn’t anticipate how frigid and uncomfortable the rain would turn the event into. The extreme drop in temperature, windchill, and precipitation which persisted into the early hours of the morning made us doubtful about reaching the summit when we awoke at 4 am the next day.
Throughout the night I tossed and turned, unable to get any quality sleep. It didn’t help that Edric wore a pink panther shawl around his neck which had big paws on it that kept slapping my face each time he turned his body (see photo above). Moisture also entered the floor of our tent. Had it not been for the inflatable padding my father-in-law lent Edric and me, we would have been sleeping on a layer of icy water.
Throughout the night the wind battered our tent but thankfully it returned to its form after each onslaught. Our group of eleven which included my brother, his two sons, my sister and her husband, four friends from our discipleship group plus Edric and I had it better than others who pitched on higher ground which made them even more vulnerable to the wind and cold. We found a spot surrounded by miniature bamboo that created a natural barrier around us. Some people whose tents were more exposed to the elements had to evacuate and transfer into sturdier, Conquer ones. (That’s a plug for my friend!)
By 6 PM, hope of sunlight emerged as some color returned to our surroundings. But the sky remained cloudy and it’s grayness concealed what should have been a beautiful display of the sun rising. Campers awoke to a nervous energy as the group discussed whether to attempt the ascent or wait it out some more. At first the guides were unwilling to take us up but after some persuasion they agreed to do so. Not everyone decided to abandon the shelter of their tents but there were a good number of us who were intent on making it to the summit.
Edric and I were part of the first group. With our hands stinging from the painful cold and our bodies bundled up in several layers so that only a portion of our faces was exposed, we proceeded to trek upwards behind our guide. At certain moments, our balance was compromised by the force of the chilly wind as it beat heavily against us. But we pressed on. The walking produced body heat that warmed us to our extremities.
Three-fourths of the way our guide decided to wait for the rest of our team. Edric and I couldn’t hazard stopping for fear that our body temperatures would drop, so we kept going till the shadowy form of the last peak presented itself among the clouds. Adrenaline kicked in and we bounded up (well, Edric certainly did), and the feeling of reaching the summit was extraordinary! God used the wind to push the clouds along so that we actually had more visibility of the scenery below than we expected to have. We had to anticipate the timing of each clearing of the sky as these moments passed within seconds. The Lord also added the bonus of a rainbow.
What life lessons did I pick up during this climb?
Lesson # 1: Listen to your husband. On the day before our climb to Mt. Pulag Edric and I had an argument about whether a porter should carry my bag. He thought I shouldn’t rely on a porter while I insisted on having one. My plan was to wear a waist pack and turn over all my other belongings to the porter whom I hoped would trail along right behind me in case I needed to access my windbreaker or fleece. “This is good livelihood for them”, I reasoned with Edric, but he turned toward me with an annoyed look on his face and blurted something like, “You are being a baby!”
Of course this triggered a defensive reaction on my part and I pridefully argued that I birthed five kids without anesthesia and I am the type of person who is low maintenance and the farthest thing from fussy. So that’s how our packing experience began.
We went back and forth for a while until we finally apologized to one another, and I also gave in because I knew that disobeying him would lead to my demise. Stuffing my essentials into my back pack, I psyched myself to bear the burden of it.
Well, I am so glad that I listened to Edric instead of forcing his hand to give in to my glamping version of climbing. When we got to the Ranger Station, most of the porters didn’t show up. They must have assumed that the weather forecast would dissuade climbers from coming to Mt. Pulag. So I wouldn’t have had the luxury of paying a porter to carry my bag had I banked on one to do so. Edric gave me a knowing look and I acknowledged with a, “Yes, you were right,” which he always appreciates hearing from me.
Furthermore, since the weather changed quickly over the course of our ascent, having my jackets and beanie readily available to was a big blessing.
Lesson # 2: Learn from others who actually know what they are talking about. People dish out all kinds of advice (about anything) assuming that Google gives them credentials to do so. Yes, I even do this sometimes. But there’s nothing like learning from people who have actually experienced things like parenting, marriage, financial stress or success, endured trials and surmounted them, and in this case, climbed real mountains. After talking to at least three people who knew what Mt. Pulag was really like, I internalized their advice and panic-bought what I didn’t have in my closet and couldn’t borrow.
Under-preparing for this experience would have been disastrous for us. However, Edric and I got the things that mattered most during this climb which saved us from hypothermia. 1. Waterproof shoes 2. Hiking socks t prevent blisters 3. A waterproof and windproof jacket. 4. Fleece layer 4. Thermal layer 5. Protection for the face, head, and ears. 6. An insulating pad for the floor of the tent to elevate our sleeping bags and cushion our spines 8. A sturdy but light-weight tent.
Lesson # 3: Trust God. Everyone was praying that the sky would clear so the climb would be more pleasant. I know many of us were disappointed that it kept raining through the night and that the cold was near insufferable for us tropical folks. However, we also continued to believe that God would make a way for us to get to the summit and see the wonders of his creation from the peak. And we did! He let us catch a glimpse of his glory and faithfulness as the wind which had been so dreadful actually exposed the blue sky above, the mountains and valleys below, and the sea of clouds that Mt. Pulag is famous for.
Another amazing miracle was that our large group got permission to pitch all our tents at Camp 2. Previously, we were informed that the group had to split in two because of its size. About forty would stay at Camp 2 and the rest would start their climb from Ranger Station at 1 am and proceed directly to the summit. Given that the weather was horrible, the second group would have suffered a great deal or given up. There is no way they would have completed their ascent. However, God granted us favor and the group was allowed to stay together so that no one was out climbing when the weather was at its worst.
Lesson # 4: Success is rarely achieved alone. Having Edric by my side and friends and family members who were a source of encouragement, humor, and wisdom during the experience made me realize that we all need support and company as we journey through life. Furthermore, the right relationships matter. Our Mt. Pulag team was determined to finish well. In life you want to be with those who are intentional and purposeful about their choices and goals.
Being with Edric in the tent, suffering together in the cold also gave me courage and peace. As long as we were together I wasn’t worried. I knew he would take care of me. We would finish this feat together, as a team.
Lesson # 5: Perseverance through trial results in strength of character. There were moments when I battled thoughts like, What am I doing in this miserable cold? This is a life-threatening situation! Why did I agree to do this?!
Yet the struggle to survive proved beneficial for my character growth. I needed the affliction to muscle me up emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually.
“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope…” Romans 5:3-4
First, it made me thankful. Being able to clean the grime from underneath my nails after I got home, enjoy a hot shower, and sleep under a comforter in a room with four walls and a ceiling felt like heaven!
The hardship also increased my threshold for pain which is so important in this age of instant gratification. I detested bearing the cold (which reached -3 degrees) but the ordeal made me realize that God gives strength to press on, keep going, and stay positive.
Life is not all valley, all hill, all plateau, all dessert or all mountain. There will be times when it feels easy and other times when the challenge is extreme. Yet in view of eternity, everything is momentary. And very often the points when it seem impossible to win only means that the victory is surprisingly close.
For followers of Christ, the greatest victories are to overcome sin and death. Both of these Jesus Christ did for us on the cross and when He rose again from the dead. Therefore we can persevere through all trials and all difficult seasons of our lives because of the hope that He gives. Our circumstances may not always change for the better but our destiny is secure.
“O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:55-57
“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison…” 2 Corinthians 4:16-17
Lesson # 6: Set your mind on home. Towards the end of our climb, as Edric and I descended the mountain, we talked about the highlights of our experience. I shared that mine was knowing that we were finally headed home. The mountain peak was awesome, the event was unforgettable, but it was the thought of home that excited me most. This mindfulness of home kept me energized the entire way down. Edric and I rushed back to the Ranger Station in an hour and a half even if it was supposed to take three hours!
As followers of Christ, the assurance of going home to him as we enter our twilight years or deal with the reality of sickness and hardship should supersede whatever fear or pain overwhelms us. I was excited about the thought of our earthly home but how much more joyous it will be when we enter our heavenly one. Whatever our struggles, disappointments, or triumphs may be, the best is yet to come.
“Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord- for we walk by faith, not by sight- we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” 2 Corinthians 5:6-8
Would I climb Mt. Pulag again? Maybe not at the same time of the year! But I have no regrets. I came down from that mountain marveling at the handiwork of God and his faithfulness, a renewed respect for mountaineers, a deeper appreciation for Edric and our marriage, a special memory to cherish with family and friends, wisdom and grit from the character-building journey, a sense of gratitude for the blessings of food, clothing, and shelter, and a yearning for my heavenly home.