Mt. Apo, 9691 ft., highpoint of the Philippines
(A challenging jungle trek.)

10-13 Nov 2006 - by Richard Carey

On Friday, November 10th, we flew from Cebu to Davao on a short one hour flight. Davao airport is attractive and modern and we soon got a taxi into the city, the largest on Mindanao Island. We went to the Grand Ming Sing Hotel and had a very good buffet lunch (only $4.00) while we decided if we wanted to stay there. We called the tourist office in Santa Cruz about the permit for Mt. Apo. They said it was possible to get one, but I had better get down there soon to make arrangements. So after some bargaining with taxis I headed off. John and Gemma were going to stay and sightsee until I returned Monday evening.

Heading south on the coastal highway I reached city hall in Santa Cruz in an hour and a half. The trip was 600 Pesos ($12.00). I was directed to an office nearby and the staff person, Julius Paner, had me fill out a detailed form to get the permit, which cost 300 Pesos ($6). Mt. Apo is in a large National Park and a permit is required to enter and hiring a guide is mandatory. It was rather short notice since I wanted to start the next day, but Julius said he would try to find a guide.

He stressed it was a steep, hard climb and by his demeanor I sensed he wasn't sure I could handle it. I said I had done hundreds of peaks in 25+ years and had done Fan Si Pan in Vietnam, which I thought would be similar. That seemed to help so with paperwork done another fellow, Bryant Logrono, went with me in a tricycle cab to a nearby house where I got a room for P350($7.00). Santa Cruz is a small town and I didn't see any hotels so I was glad to have a decent place to stay.

Bryant and I walked to a bustling market area and we bought food for the trip. At his suggestion I got 5 KG rice, canned sardines, canned corn beef, noodles, coffee, tea, dried bananas, yogurt drink and some raisins and bread. I had with me a few Clif bars in reserve. The food cost P621($12.42). Later I had dinner at Bernadette's Cafe right next to the house I was in. Bernadette's had a club in the back with live music at 9:00PM.

Julius came by at 6:00PM and said he had found a guide who would come at 6:00AM. I would get a ride to the mountain and would have to pay 400 Pesos to fuel up the truck. Sounded good to me... everything was coming together very well. I went to bed early, or tried to, but the music at Bernadette's went on until midnight. Earplugs helped a little. Maybe those noise-canceling headphones would help; will have to look into those since this situation seems to occur more than I would like.

My guide Ruel Nuevo arrived a little after six and we headed south with a driver in a government truck. We stopped at a Shell station and he wanted P500($10) and I didn't complain about the increase. Across from the station we left the main highway and headed up on a single-lane back road. There were no signs indicating this is the way up the mountain. It was an hour drive on a bumpy road that was about 50% paved to Kapatagan. At this small village Ruel asked if I had a lighter and I didn't so we bought two at a shop for P36(72 cents). He also bought two bottles of denatured alcohol for his stove.

We drove on and nearly didn't get up a steep, rocky section. The truck wasn't four-wheel drive and the driver had to back down and try again several times. Soon we reached the end of the drivable road next to houses at 3760 ft. We started hiking along the ragged road avoiding huge muddy sections pock marked due to horses' hooves. After an hour and a half we reach Colun and took a break. Ruel asked around about a porter. I took some photos of small kids who delight at seeing their image in the little screen. Every village has lots of small children, and I see why the population of the Philippines is expected to double to 180 million by 2034.

We don't have a porter, but continue on walking past corn fields and small wood shacks. Ruel stops a fellow on the trail and he is willing to carry the pack that weighs about 45 pounds. After the porter, called Dong, goes over to his house I suppose to tell his wife he will be gone for three days, we move on. Our last village is Garuk at 4590 ft. and then the trail heads into the dense jungle. A guide is definitely needed as there are no signs and the trail wanders past fields and sometimes right through someone's front yard to the edge of the forest.

By noon we have climbed to 5850 ft. and stop for lunch, some of that rice and canned sardines. Then later we reach Camp 1 at 6880 ft., a designated spot with a very small stream. Ruel cooks some rice here and we get a light rain shower that doesn't last long. At 3:40 we reach Camp 2 after some really steep trail that is nearly vertical and I place my feet in small cutouts in the soil and hang onto roots. I see why our route will be a loop so that we don't have to descend this part which would be treacherous if it were raining. Amazingly Ruel hikes in sandals like Tevas and Dong has only cheap thongs. I look at the gear I have and see that they don't have a hat, sunglasses, sun cream, bandanna, socks, gloves, compass, map, flashlight, camera or GPS unit.

There is no water at Camp 2 and we stay the night there at 7470 ft. My cell phone doesn't work but Ruel's does and we send a text message to John. Turns out he and Gemma found Davao boring and flew home early. I am glad I found this out so I won't be expecting to see them when I return to Davao.

The three of us sleep in one tent, which isn't quite long enough for me. I cannot stretch out full length and have to sleep curled up on my side. It's a long night and it rains lightly early in the night and then is clear the next day. I have some bread for breakfast. The guide prefers to stop about two hours later and have a bigger breakfast.

Above Camp 2 the trail enters a dry streambed and narrows down to a barren canyon. We have left the jungle behind. I get a whiff of sulfur and there is a vent above on the side of the canyon spewing out steam and sulfur fumes with a roar like a vacuum cleaner. I take some photos and we scramble around the vent and the rocks feel warm for some distance. Then we have a lot of scrambling over big talus to Camp 3 at 9050 ft. From here there are no trees above and it isn't far to a ridgeline.

While having a snack we see some people above and Ruel says they have come up an easier route from Kidapawan on the western side. I hadn't planned to take a harder route, but we have done most of the tougher sections and anyway you don't see the sulfur vent on the other route. Another twenty minutes of steep but good footing and we reach a small lake on the summit plateau. The highest peak is in view and we have to take a loop around to the west to get to it. We do a minor peak at 9720 ft. and then reach a basin below several peaks and spot eight Filipino climbers camped nearby.

Some groups camp here at 9580 ft. and there are some pleasant grassy areas with shelter behind boulders. The weather is good, mostly clear with some blowing clouds, but clear often enough to get good photos. When the sun is out it's hot and a light shirt is enough. Ruel and Dong cook some more rice then we climb over one summit and then down and up to the final highpoint. I measure 9770 to 9780 ft., which is a bit higher than the 9691 ft. in most guidebooks. The summit we went over looks almost as high so Ruel agrees to go back and on top I measure 9770 ft. there. He says the other peak is the one he has known as the highest.

We start down the north side and it is a long trek down a slippery trail through waist-high grass. The soil is damp clay, packed hard and it is easy to slip. Dong gets way ahead. I don't see how he does it in thongs, I am doing the best I can and we reach an old hut after descending 2100 ft. in 1 1/2 hours. The hut is east of Lake Venado, a large lake at about 7600 ft. I spread out my ground cloth inside and Ruel pitches his tent on the porch. This works out well since it is flat and I have enough sleeping room. There is light rain again in the early evening.

Next day we get off early at 6:05 AM and head down through thick jungle for hours. It is not as tough as the trail going up, but still has lots of mud and roots. My pants up to my knees are black with mud. At one spot we take a break by a famous monster tree that is six feet in diameter. Finally we see some banana trees and signs of life. The trail goes up a slope right into someone's backyard. We have come down 3500 ft. in under five hours, which Ruel thinks is fast. We take a break by a hut. The family is very poor and Ruel gets out some leftover noodles and cans of sardines and gives it to them.

There is a short, heavy rain shower and we stop under the roof of another hut waiting out the storm. Then we reach Colun again and sort out excess food that we give to Dong. We bought way too much rice and Dong leaves this with other food at the town and we hike on down. At our starting point we don't have a vehicle and Ruel wants to rent a motorcycle to get us down. I don't like this and say it's dangerous. He and the bike owner think this is funny, but he says it's OK and we walk on down several miles to Kapatagan taking a motor tricycle the last half-mile, arriving about 2:00PM. Ruel say the porter gets 300 Pesos a day and wants 750. I think the last day is a full day and pay Dong 1000 Pesos($20.00) which he seems happy about.

I wonder how we are going to get back to Santa Cruz. The vehicle that brought us up isn't available on a weekday. The road is too rough for Jeepneys, but there is a van waiting in the village. We find out that it will go down to Digo City at about 5:00PM. It normally goes when full with 18 passengers at P70 each($1.40). We ask if it would go to Santa Cruz and after some bargaining the driver says they will take Ruel and me there for 1100 Pesos. Ruel thinks this is high and I wonder what the other Filipinoes who have been gabbing in Tagalog think about a rich foreigner coming and commandeering the van for a big fee. We would have to wait several hours to get to Digo city and this is south of where I want to go. I decide 1100 Pesos ($22.00) isn't excessive and agree to it if he will leave right away. So we take off and using a short cut we get to Santa Cruz in an hour where I pick up my stored duffel.

I change some clothes and Ruel goes with me on a regular bus to Davao for only P80($1.60)for both of us. At the hotel we agree that he should get 500 Pesos a day or 1500 and I give him 2000($40.00) since he says he spent some money on buses getting to Santa Cruz to start the trip. He seems quite happy with this and we say goodbye. I get his address to send him some photos.

Impressions: If you haven't done a jungle peak this is a good one I would rate a bit harder than Fan Si Pan. Three days is about the minimum. One could go up the trail we went down for an easier ascent. Also, I don't know anything about the route on the western side that is supposed to be less difficult. More variety of food would be better. Potatoes, carrots and other vegetables are available and it would be nice to have a soup made of them to break the monotony of rice. If there are two hikers it would be best to bring your own tent. A light sleeping bag rated to freezing is adequate.

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