Ang Katigulangan (The Elders)
The organization was originally called Ilonggo Mountaineering Club during the 1970s which was formed by Victor Pison and his cousins. They were later joined by Alfredo Tayo, Jr., Antonio Sangrador, and Edgardo Pison. Upon its formalization, the group changed its name to Iloilo Mountaineering Club (IMC). As a recognized organization, the club became one of the pioneers of mountain explorations and outdoor adventures in the Philippines. It has built its commendable reputation by establishing numerous trails such as the traverse of Mount Guiting-guiting in Sibuyan Island and Mount Payongan in Maasin, Iloilo; the Mount Apo Digos Traverse in Kidapawan, Davao, and the recently celebrated traverse of Madia-as, Nangtud, and Baloy in Central Panay.
The founding members were able to conquer the three major peaks starting with the summit of Mt. Madia-as in 1973, followed by the conquest of mounts Nangtud and Baloy in the 1980s. The idea of connecting the three major peaks of the Central Panay Mountain Range was first conceived after the 2002 exploratory traverse which targeted to connect Baloy and Nangtud. The exploration covered the municipality of Calinog, Iloilo, around the ridges of Libacao, Aklan, and an exit at Barangay Lombuyan, Barbaza, Antique. It was a challenging, 8-day trek which opened the probabilities for other multi-day climbs on the ranges of the island.
In 2013, another expedition was carried out to traverse the ranges leading to Mount Nangtud, which led to the establishment of the Barbaza – Libacao Trail. The climbing team navigated their way through the rough and steep ridges of the mountains – a common, but exhausting task when trying to cross the ravines of Panay.
Among other earlier efforts were the exploits of Mt. Baloy Lambunao – Valderama traverse in 1991, the Flores – Alojipan traverse of Madia–as in 1998, and the Tibiao – Barbaza trail of Mount Nangtud in 2004.
Having a decent amount of data and topographic tracks at its disposal, IMC was able to carefully draw the connecting lines and was able to come up with realistic plans on how to go about connecting the three major peaks.
One step at a time
The Trilogy project went full-scale during the summer of 2015 when IMC organized a two-team expedition. One team created a connecting trail with an entry at Madia-as in Culasi, while the other began their ascent in Barbaza, with the ranges of Nangtud as their area of assignment. Both teams had their own strategic missions.
The expedition was able to create the first ever connection between Mount Madia-as and Mount Nangtud covering 68.1 kilometers in the combined 18 man-days on the mountains by two separate climbing teams.
On March 22, 2016, a year after the connection was established, a three-man team completed the Madia-as – Nangtud Traverse in one go. They were able to shorten the traverse to 7 days when they exited Barbaza on March 28, 2016.
After the reported success, a few local outdoor enthusiasts as well as other groups from outside of Panay started to embark on their own expeditions following the established IMC Trail.
Adventure will lose its essence without the possibility of failure.
To capitalize on the success of the most recent expeditions, IMC decided to go all out and eyed another hard line, the Nangtud – Baloy traverse route.
Five club members, still utilizing the same strategy, formed two teams to set forth and connect the missing links of the Nangtud-Baloy trail. One of the teams coming from the Calinog side of Mount Baloy decided to end their exploration earlier than expected due to the heavy rainstorms brought by typhoon Crising. They fell a few kilometers short from the target meet up point (Mt. Pulak – pulakan which leads to an exit in Libacao, Aklan).
Given the luck of a better weather on the other side of the ridge, the other team soldiered on, passing through the thick forests of Nangtud, and eventually making it to Mount Pulak-pulakan, the route of the target traverse trail.
These expeditions were able to provide great contribution to the final linking of the traverse.
The Final Piece
The dense ridges of Baloy proved to be the most elusive due to the impenetrable forest covers and unpredictable weather. With the track covered by the previous expeditions, the club sent another expedition team to finish the Baloy – Pulak-pulakan connection. It was during the afternoon of May 28, 2017 that the final piece of the puzzle was completed.
With the connections completed, the lines drawn, and the trails laid out, there was still one more task to accomplish — to take the bold trek and finish the three major peaks in a single push. The first ever attempt to traverse the long route from Madia – as to Baloy.
The Hard Start
October 19, 2017. Everyone was uneasy. The extensive preparation, given the minimal margin of error, bred tremendous pressure to all the teams involved. It was aggravated by the continuing barrage of rain caused by typhoon Paolo. Forecasts suggested that the courses of the rivers and tributaries within Capiz, Antique, and Aklan were likely to be affected. The Trilogy expedition teams were all eyes on the weather updates. On the evening of October 20, 2017, the group decided to wait for the rainstorm to dissipate and stayed in the town of Culasi for another day before going to the jump-off point in barangay Flores.
Early morning of October 22, after a quick run through of the logistics, the Trilogy main team headed out, officially starting the expedition.
We decided that the trek should start slow and steady, a good warm – up considering the distance that still needs to be covered. The trail started after crossing a hanging bridge, going to the local farmlands. We gradually gained elevation as we passed through the rolling hills. Due to the early start, we were able to avoid being directly hit by the morning sun when we were at the dreaded “Tinangisan” trail. Tinangisan, came from the local Kinaray-a dialect word “tangis”, which means cry. It is one part of the trail that has left a lot of climbers on the brink of tears, or on the verge of giving up on the climb. This is where they would usually get drained from the direct hit of the sunlight and an overwhelming uphill climb.
Peak 1 of 3: The Trilogy main team at the peak of Mount Madia-as, 2113 masl.
Since we had the advantage of time, we were able to reach the Bantang river camp at around 11:00am. The area is the usual first day camp when climbing Madia-as. As we crossed the river, the trail started to change from a moderate to a steeper ascend. We, then, took a quick break for lunch in an area past Libog falls.
When we resumed the trek, we noticed a minor detour. “Labaja”, a protruding boulder on the ridge along the trail was bypassed. Apparently, the locals decided to cut through the bushes around it to avoid delay caused by setting up a handline, or worse, the possibility of climbers falling off the cliff. It was reasonable, considering the increasing number of climbers visiting the mountain.
We were able to reach Camp 3 at around 4:00 in the afternoon. The camp is less than a kilometer away from the peak. The sky was clear and the wind was not as strong. It was a good day.
The morning of October 23 was our second day on the trail. It was a good 30-minute trek through a mossy forest before we got to the trail junction where the traverse route begins. Another 15 minutes and I was standing on an open area with a panoramic view. I took a few snaps as the others head towards the adjacent peak. The Madia-as “false peak”, as it was commonly known, is a prominent outcrop after you get past the tree line. It is where the locals usually bring climbers for a 360-degree view of the surrounding highlands. Just a few more minutes across is the “true” peak, which is covered by thick bushes, and a couple of meters higher. We were lucky enough to have mobile coverage. We made a few calls to inform the ground team that one of the three peaks is in the bag.
A few minutes later, we went back to where the trail junction to the Madia-as – Nangtud connection is located. The thought that we were only about to do the “real” work slowly sinks in.
The Madia-as – Nangtud Crossing
The team took a quick assessment and reviewed our route plan for the day. Though the previous expeditions provided us with the details of the trail, we were uncertain if we could reach the target camp as planned. There were a few things that we needed to consider – the heavy packs of supplies we carry that can surely slow us down, and the more challenging trek through the slippery trail due to the rain showers that day.
It was challenging not to overshoot on some crossings and not fall off the cliffs on dead – ends. At this point, the trail started to become narrower. Tree branches and vines covered most of the passages. Only a handful of expeditions have done it since it was established. It took us almost eight hours to finish the 7 km trek to the next camp.
We arrived at camp Umiglit at around 5:00 in the afternoon. We settled under a rock shelter (a cave of some sort) along the riverbank. Unless under unavoidable circumstances, this shouldn’t be done as sudden rain could increase the probability of flooding. We scouted the area for a camp where we could have a higher margin of safety, but to no avail. The group was left with no other choice but to take the risk and stay put.
After another day of navigating through the unforgiving terrain, we were able to reach the infamous “Kurukabayo” ridge. Straddling while simultaneously humping the narrow passage was not the most dignified strategy to cross it. It’s, at least, the safest way through the knife – edged formation. It was hilarious. The real highlight though was the downclimb after all the amusing scrambling that we did. A few meters later, we found ourselves on a steep cliff. It was a vertical face and any wrong move will send you down to almost a hundred-foot fall. Instead of a rocky feature, it had some sort of compacted soil, with barely any foot or handhold to grab on to.
Our third to fifth days were generally more of an endurance test. It took time for our bodies to adjust to the discomfort and the pain we were experiencing every day of the trek. At one point, we did not have any source of water and we ended up carrying a couple of liters more which added up to the already heavy load that we were carrying. Besides the physical torture, we had to struggle with the army of leeches on the trail, which was impossible to avoid. We slept under our emergency shelters and it made the process of sleeping through the night rather interesting. Waking up and collecting all the courage to continue walking every morning was another issue. Though nobody openly talked about it, I was certain that each of us was on a constant reality check if we could finish the whole traverse.
By day 6, our bodies were already on the brink of giving up. Our knees and backs were sore from carrying our packs which was even made difficult considering the long days of going under and falling over stuff on the trail. Our arms and hands were covered with cuts from the thorns and the sharp “ragiwriw” leaves. Our feet started to feel and look weird due to the onset of trench foot and blisters. At about 12 noon, we finally had a glimpse of Mount Nangtud. The thought of meeting the first support team somehow gave us a moral boost to keep on walking. However, we could not deny the fact that everyone was already exhausted, and a bit put off with the thought that we still needed to trek at least five more hours to reach the next camp.
At 4:30 in the afternoon, we arrived at the summit of Nangtud. It was raining. Too tired and cold to celebrate, we took a few pictures and decided to continue to EBJ camp where the first support team was stationed. The trek to the camp was still challenging even with the established trail. A few minutes before 6:00PM, the last man arrived at EBJ camp.
October 28th. We woke up to the sound of people chattering at our makeshift kitchen. They started preparing breakfast while most of us were still snoozing. A hot pot of coffee sits on the portable stove, just in time to shake the morning chill off. After the group finished eating, the support team started to break camp. By 10:00am, they were ready for jump-off and people started exchanging well-wishes and words of encouragement.Everyone was emotional. We were past the first phase.
The once lively camp now became silent. The main team decided to take a day off to tend to our blistered feet and sore bodies. We were again with the company of each other in the next four days or so.
We were joined by the locals from Barbaza. They were the same men who joined IMC during the Madia-as – Nangtud exploration. This new set of local guides went with us during the 4-day traverse to Mount Pulak-pulakan where the second support team, carrying fresh supplies and securing another set of guides, was scheduled to meet us.
We started the trek under fair weather conditions, but it did not last long. It started to rain when we were having lunch along the trail. We reached our last water source at around 1:30PM. “Turugban kang usa” as the previous expedition team called it, is a water puddle, which according to the locals, is most likely where the endemic Panay spotted deer would visit to drink water and do the occasional wash. The water was murky. Our iron tablets and water filters came in handy.
We arrived at our next camp at around 3:30PM. It rained the whole night due to another tropical depression. At least, we were able to turn the odds to our advantage. With the continuous rain, we were able to replenish our depleted water supply.
The fun part was when leeches started crawling inside our makeshift shelter. The area was infested by these slimy creatures. I woke up in the middle of the night with one of them crawling on my face. In the morning, we were shaken from our dreamy state when somebody alarmingly asked to remove a leech, which, in ways we couldn’t figure out, made it inside his eye.
It’s been 9 days since we started the expedition. Our tired bodies were almost ready to give up. Our knees were hammered due to days of walking and bumping onto roots and other stuff. Our feet would fall through crevasses when dead branches broke. Our shins were full of bruises. Our feet were wet the whole time and the blisters got even worse. Our hands and arms riddled by cuts from thorns and sharp leaves along the trail. Breaking camp and packing became more and more difficult. Our spirits were low. This was the time when we were all in silent introspection of our intentions. This was the time when we started asking ourselves the most basic, yet the hardest of questions — WHY?
On Both Ends
On our 10th day, we were able to descend Pulak-pulakan and navigate our way to the second monitoring point where we will be meeting the next support team. We were able to cut through the forest on the ridge, bypassing the target meet – up point. The new trail saved us half a day of trek.
At 11:30am, we decided to camp. We were met with stories from the support team. We learned that the rains are caused by the current typhoon. One of their most interesting stories was when one of the supply bags survived a 50 foot drop down a waterfall (which explains why some of our canned goods had dents). And finally, the delay due to a reroute. The second support team was not able to secure a consent for passage in one of the areas owned by a local clan. Given the circumstance, the support team had to find another route to avoid the area.
We admired their resolve. This was one of those instances where we were reminded that this was not just about our individual goals, but a collective undertaking. People have gone beyond themselves to make this happen. This gave us a sense of renewed vigor. We declared between ourselves that we will get the job done. We were almost there anyway.
The Final Push
It’s always the final push that is the hardest. The last leg was a mix of excitement and exhaustion – a dangerous combination. This is the part where accidents usually happen because of carelessness. We would always remind each other to take it easy and slow down. We need to get to Baloy in one piece.
This time, we were joined by the guides from Calinog. The entire four days were uphill climbs through the dreaded ragiwriw forest. Our trekking times were shorter, and we camped earlier. Aside from the funny jokes and hilarious mountain tales, and stories of tribal conflicts and bandits were the common topics during the night.
November 4, 2017, our 14th day on the trail. We were almost at Baloy Iki when we started hearing calls from the ridge below us. The Baloy support team was on their assault to the meet – up point. An hour later, both teams joyfully greeted each other on the trail. Laughter and cheerful celebrations echoed in the middle of the forest.
After the group has settled in the camp, we decided to push for the summit assault around 3:00 PM. The peak was only 30 minutes away from camp, so we thought we’d make the most out of the daylight left. We passed by a mossy forest. The trail had this enchanting atmosphere.
There was a sigh of relief when we reached the summit. It took time for everything to finally sink in. After the seemingly unending suffering, the physical and mental torture, the extensive days of bushwhacking, the cold sleepless nights, and the heavy uncomfortable mornings; We got through it all in one piece, and as one team. We have done it.
The last peak to conclude the epic traverse – conquered. Three years in the making, at least 50 people, and countless days of perseverance and dedication. We have fulfilled THE DREAM. This one goes to the men and women of the Iloilo Mountaineering Club. This goes to our hardworking guides and porters. This goes to the people who were there before us, who were with us along the way, and to all those who will take the same path even after we are long gone. This goes to the outdoor communities of Panay and the everyone who kept the movement alive. This is to more epic adventures, unquenchable laughter, and more years of joyful suffering.
On the afternoon of November 6, 2017, the team arrived at Barangay Supanga in Calinog, Iloilo, which officially marks the end of the 16 – day traverse.