Going anywhere in South Cotabato, you cannot un-see the highest peak in the province that is Mt. Matutum. Climbing the mountain has been on the bucket list of many. While others have repeatedly climbed the mountain, few have promised never to go back.
Mt. Matutum (2, 286 masl) is my first major climb. Like most of the population, I am not a fan of climbing, and after climbing Mt. Matutum I fully understood why many have preferred spending their weekends at home, in the beach, in an island, and somewhere else but the mountains. I will be very subjective regarding this experience and a newbie like me with so many words to say will not be silenced, even when some of those words can be tad unlikeable.
An English proverb once said that there are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream. The choking part is commonly omitted but you get the idea. I feel like the proverb shouldn’t have ended on that though. It should have been emphasized that the easiest way is the best way.
Similarly, climbing Mt. Matutum should not be too far. With the same goal which is the peak the easiest way should have been the best way. So what were we doing with the Keumang trail? I may never know the answer. Wait, I fully know the answer.
An organizer named it Mt. Matutum Revenge Climb after their grudges from their previous climb via the same trail. Mt. Matutum never did us wrong, nevertheless, we willingly participated in their revenge.
Barangay Keumang, by which the trail got its name, is an hour ride from the center of Polomolok. We rode by the one-hour-late jeepney to the barangay. One of the perks of having an organized activity is that everything has been set – from the securement of permits to the arrangement of the rides and the facilitation of registrations.
The jeepney ride to barangay Keumang allowed us to pass through several pineapple plantations. Polomolok is very much renowned for its pineapple crops so it is not a huge surprise if the outskirts of the municipality are largely planted with pineapples.
We were not surprised either by the very bumpy roads in the plantation. We actually enjoyed them. Hectares of pineapples proudly wore their crown. Large stone markers ornamented the intersections of the roads to indicate area consequently providing directions. Occasionally, large trucks overtook us leaving behind a cloud of dust and made us cough then cover, not in that particular order.
To Phase I
The trail was divided into Phase I, Phase II and the Peak. The organizer had also set the specific timing to reach each division thus ensuring that we would reach the peak before the dark.
Going to the campsite of Phase I was an open trail. The group started the trek at 0900AM with the sun already up and striking. Passing by several resident houses busy in their Sunday morning activities, we greeted and smiled to people also on their merry way. We also passed by vegetable gardens planted with tomatoes, Baguio beans, and radishes thriving in the nutrients of the healthy soil.
We trekked hurriedly by the open trail scampering towards shade whenever we saw one. Then, we walked through archways of towering ferns and cogon scratching our bare skin bruised by these horrible shrubs. The lead pack had it to leave breadcrumbs by tying visible ribbons to mark the trail.
We were hungry and tired before we reached Phase I. The group then decided to take a lunch and we were informed that we could possibly reach the peak after dark if we did not pick up our pace.
A small parcel of land planted with coffee clued the entry on the foot of the mountain. By then, we left the horse-trodden trail behind us but never quite reaching Phase I. With much to our relief though, trees provided shade to the trail and the wind became cooler. After several minutes of continued walking, we reached Phase I, with the insect sounds announcing our arrival.
To Phase II
Having already taken our lunch, we rested for a few minutes before resuming the trek. By then, some members of the group went ahead towards Phase II.
Going to Phase II was hours of stepping up on gradually ascending trail. The 6-foot stick I picked up on the start of the trail proved to be a reliable support for balance.
We stepped on the rocks-laden trail to advance. The seemingly unending ascend towards Phase II was further made difficult by the weight of our backpacks pulling us down. Climbing uneven staircases for hours was what the journey appeared.
Huge towering trees covered in mosses and ferns dwarfed our weary endeavors. Occasionally the wind swept, bringing us the tinge of cold awaiting us up ahead. Several times, the trail was blocked by fallen trees, some new while some were withering, that we had to go over or under.
From above us, way beyond the trees, the clouds began to gather. I was silently praying not to rain because it was the last thing we needed. The wind became cooler sending chills through our bodies and drying our sweat instantly. With every step, I felt like my backpack became heavier. I had to adjust my bag strap quite often to equally balance the weight.
Drizzles came. They were like showers of fogs which felt like nothing at first but gave you the scares nonetheless. Suddenly I became aware that I was stepping on roots and rocks. Mulches of dead leaves and barks accumulated providing hollow stepping ground. Oftentimes, the stick I used as cane buried deep in these mulches. The showers stopped. Then as the trees became much thicker, we reached the Phase II campsite.
To the Peak
The Phase II campsite was deep within the forest already and 2 hours from the peak. A couple from the group decided to settle for an emergency camp in the area. The persons who had climbed before also advised leaving the walking sticks because according to them you wouldn’t need them anymore for you will need both hands to climb.
I hid my walking stick on a tree, covered it with moss and reminded myself to retrieve it on the way down. We were then ready to resume our trek, with our high spirits to reach the peak despite the aches and pains our bodies had been into. Before we took one more step though, the rain poured.
Hurriedly, we put on our raincoats securing our tired bodies and backpacks from the merciless rain. Determined that we could endure a couple of hours left towards Mt. Matutum’s peak, we started climbing despite the rain.
From this point of the trail, all we could ever see were the mossy forest before us. Fogs were starting to settle down, sometimes enveloping us. The rain only intensified the cold that became thoroughly punishing. Determined to keep moving to disregard the cold, I, most of the times, found myself quite ahead of our clique, although we were the clique who were very much behind from the group.
Drenched by the rain, we could only cling to the slippery roots of the trees. Looking up, all I could make out were trees intertwining that I could not make out a trail. The ribbons seemed to have disappeared. The trees became so cold that when I clung to them for support my hands sometimes froze.
The rain poured heavily. Thunder came crashing as the wind continued its pounding. Labyrinthine trees became very much alive that sometimes I did not know if I was on the right trail. With much of a relief and a source of laugh nonetheless, I saw phallic symbols carved to some of the protruding roots I held on. Without thinking twice, I knew that they were more than confirmation that I was on the right trail.
The rain suddenly stopped but the wind continued gushing. The raincoat spared my body from the cold but my hands were freezing. Whenever I stepped on deep mulches, water and mulch were drenching my shoes with cold water electrifying my feet. Revenge is best served cold, so they say. Mother Nature took it literally.
Still coming up towards the deep forest, I kept trudging, now unminding of the heavy backpack, towards uncertainty. I clung to the only hope that up there somewhere was the peak of Mt. Matutum. I constantly looked back to my other companion, they were a few meters away, also exhausted and spent but going.
After several minutes of continued climbing by winding roots of trees, I came across a group from our pack who set up an emergency camp because some of their companions cannot bear the cold anymore. They also informed me that the peak was just minutes away and that I needed to keep moving. I had never felt so inspired by the whole journey.
True enough, I reached the peak after a couple of minutes. With the wind strongly sweeping the welcome, I waited for my other companions as they individually emerged from the mossy forest we had all cursed silently.
Wasting no time and against the beating of the cold wind, we set up our tents hastily. Inside our tents, shivering spoke volumes – and so was hunger. After changing into multiple layers of dry clothes, we prepared our dinner, treating ourselves to the most delicious meal we could afford. We needed it; we deserved it.
I never slept that night. The wind continued pounding the tent. The cold was penetrating in all directions. There was no solace in the wrath of nature but the thought that hopefully by morning, the sun would shine its brightest.
The sun did! I have never felt I needed the sunlight more than that morning. I believed we all did.
The peak was inexcusably bland. Thankfully to some trees, you can perch yourself to gain some elevation and take advantage of the vantage point you have endured to achieve.
The peak has two markers. One is etched with the history of how Mt. Matutum became a tourist destination; the other is etched with the municipalities by which the mountain sits: Tupi, Polomolok, and Malungon.
While preparing for breakfast we talked about how brutal the night was. Apparently, we all did not get a decent sleep. We all had ached muscles and drained spirits. The nightcap just did not happen because we were conserving water and therefore no chaser.
It is a known given that in any climb the descent is easier. Had it not rained the day before, the descent to Phase II would have been much easier. Instead, we grappled into slippery roots and trees.
The mosses covering the trees retained the moistures from the rain and the fogs. The undergrowth became much visible and green. Also visible were the orchids and ferns growing on the bark of the trees. Stepping on mulches became treacherous as they became softer. Dried leaves were also slippery and wet.
My shoes became heavier of the mud sticking to the soles. I had to scrape them off repeatedly to feel my shoes lighten. Mulches covered my shoes and stuck to my socks; it was a total mess. In numerous instances, I had to crouch to steady my feet on the steep downhill. There then, close to the ground, I spotted the ribbons they left as breadcrumbs for the trail. It was difficult to spot while climbing because I was mostly looking up.
We reached Phase II after about an hour. It was really fast. The first thing I did was retrieve my precious stick from hiding. We have been apart for too long. Without further ado, we resumed the descent having built up the momentum.
The rocky trail to Phase I had proven to be trickier. Rocks were wet from the rain and thus very slippery. Clutching the stick firmly and using it to support my descent had been a good idea. With the stick at hand, it wasn’t as bad and as difficult.
Despite the shaking limbs and throbbing hands, we managed to not falter until the very end. The chirping of the insects indicated that we were nearing Phase I. Feeling the hunger, we dropped our worn-out bodies at Phase I and devoured our rations. The rest of the group rested for a little while then continued walking.
Phase I to the starting point was a little forest and more open trail. With the high noon and sunny skies, trekking under the heat was rather challenging. We were feeling the temperature and exhaustion as we again trudged through the vegetable gardens. With the silence but our heavy breathing, I put on some music from the loudspeaker of the cell phone. We kept walking and walking on the familiar road but now taking our time and not pushing our bodies any further. There was no pressure to reach the starting point because we knew that was the only destination to reach.
Stopping occasionally for a water break, we talked about just anything to break the ice. We assessed on which part of our bodies ached and then excitedly commence walking knowing fully well we were minutes from finishing. Knowing that we were very near, I went ahead missing one more water break. Then passing through the familiar river with the makeshift bamboo bridge which we have carefully balanced on, I knew that it was just a turn from our starting point. As I finally reached where the rest of the group was resting, I could hear Britney singing “Oops… I Did It Again”.