The Back-breaking Mt. Iraya Climb

I arrived at Batanes on a Saturday and I intended to travel by boat to Itbayat the day after, return to Basco on Monday and climb Mt. Iraya on Tuesday.  I had to rearrange my plans however when I learned that no boats travel to Itbayat on Sundays.  And so I opted to do my climb on that day instead.

I got the idea for climbing Mt. Iraya from my online friend Tin (who I incidentally met for the first time a few days ago.)  I initially didn’t even entertain the idea of climbing this mountain because of its reputation of being difficult to climb and the presence of endemic snakes on the trail.  However, I read about Tin’s own climb and she didn’t seem to be more experienced than I was in terms of mountain climbing (and didn’t seem built for it, looking at her pictures.)

My guide, Romy Daroca.

And so I made arrangements with my intended guide for Itbayat, Romy Daroca, who also did guide work for Mt. Iraya.  Believing that my long distance walk the previous day qualified as a warm-up of sorts, I set mys sights on conquering the summit.  The plan was to start the ascent at 6 am.  However, it had been raining the previous night and so Romy called me up early in the morning to suggest that we set off at 7am instead just to give time for the paths to dry up a bit so that we won’t trek on very muddy trails.

We reached the jump-off point at the end of the airport runway at around 7:30 am and had to shoo away a carabao that was blocking the starting point of the path leading to a concrete bridge.  The bridge was over a deep gorge hidden by the vegetation.  It seems that the gorge was once a lava path in the days when Mt. Iraya was more of a volcano than a mountain.  (It’s still classified as “active” by the PHIVOLCS.)

The first indication that I was getting to be in over my head was the steep parts very early in the trail.  It’s a good thing that it wasn’t that muddy despite the rain the night before.  It also helped that there was rarely any loose soil in the trail.  You either stepped on tree roots, grass, rocks and a lot more tree roots.  Still, it was something I was unfortunately ill-prepared for and I fell into the temptation of taking too frequent breaks under the pretext of taking pictures.

Early part of the trail.

With every step, the vegetation just kept getting thicker and soon after, Romy had to chop off vines and branches blocking the path with his bolo.  He didn’t chop off too much though because there were parts of the trail that were already more or less cleared – probably due to the fact that days before, Richie and Chef already went this way.

With his trained eye, Romy was able to spot interesting things like vines of wild strawberry (unfortunately, strawberries weren’t in season) and some uniquely-colored snails.  I was still of two minds whether I wanted to see the endemic Batanes Pit Viper, because on one hand, it has a nice golden color that would certainly be nice to take photos of.  On the other hand, they’re poisonous, and hence scary.

The vegetation just kept getting thicker.

We kept on expecting to penetrate the cloud level when we sensed that we were already so high up the mountain, but apparently the skies cleared up and so we had the benefit of greater visibility even at the higher parts.  According to Romy, oftentimes the trail would get so thick with fog that 2 people separated by a mere 3 meters would not be able to see each other at all.  Without the fog though, we still had to contend with the jungle and it reached a point where in addition to being a lot thicker, it also became mossy.  There was no longer any discernible trail and if Romy suddenly disappeared right then and there, I would probably roam the jungle for days looking for an exit until I drop dead.

View of the summit from the "shoulder".

We reached a point in the trail called the “shoulder” – a bare spot surrounded by tall grasses and where one can view the summit (i.e. the head) on a clear day.  Fortunately, the clouds indeed cleared that day and the summit and even the trail leading was very much exposed.  Even Romy claims that it was the first time that he saw the summit very clearly from the shoulder.  The picture looks deceiving though, because what looks like a smooth, grass-covered gentle slope is actually covered by 7 foot-high grasses, reeds, thorny bushes and stunted trees.  In addition, the path to the summit assault from the shoulder level is continuously steep.

My hiking stick was useless in this very steep slope, where it would be much better to use one’s hands and knees to gain a stable foothold as one goes up.  In the earlier parts of the trail, I avoided holding on to branches and vines because I didn’t want to scratch myself or get cut or punctured by thorny bushes.  But in a steep slope, holding on to them is a necessity.  Simply speaking, if you don’t hold on to them, you slip and possibly fall and injure yourself.

View of the islands of Batan and Sabtang from the final stages of the summit assault.

By trial and error, I learned to discern which are safe to grab and which aren’t.  For example, I learned that stunted trees are the best things to grab because they are sturdy and their roots run deep.  I could hang on to 1 branch with almost my full body weight and it won’t get uprooted.  As for tall grasses, I made sure to grab at least 5 stalks in one hand before pulling in order for my weight to be distributed.  A number of times I pulled only 3 and I could feel the grass either breaking off or getting uprooted.  Pulling only 1 stalk and hanging on to it is almost suicidal.  With thorny bushes, once you get pricked, you easily learn to avoid it by sight.

Anyway, it took me a long time to undertake this summit assault as this was my first time to climb something this steep and which had near-vertical parts.  I tried hard not to keep pestering Romy on how much longer it would take to reach the summit, but I did anyway.  Soon, it became apparent that because of our my slow progress, the summit would again be covered with clouds by the time we reach it.

View facing the east from the summit.

Eventually, we did reach the summit.  And because the expected cloud cover did return (and that there was absolutely no bare spot at the top) the view was not as dramatic.  We found a spot that had short-enough vegetation and sat there to rest and eat.  I’m thankful that Romy actually had the foresight to pack lunch for both of us.  I completely underestimated this mountain and because of this, I only brought with me 2 chocolate bars and 2 packs of cookies and a total of 1 liter of water.

Our lunch: rice, hard boiled eggs and leftover beef steak.

It was hard to stand up again after sitting down.  It was as if my body just wanted to collapse on the ground and stay there forever.  But did stand up to take more pictures of the surroundings and was pleased to discover that the view to the west was mostly clear.  So I snapped some pictures before the clouds hid the view.

View facing the west: the Naidi Rolling Hills.

And after that, I did this for most of the next hour:

It was a bit disappointing to discover that the temperature wasn’t significantly lower at the top, as compared to the lower levels.  Even the wind only blew once in a while, unlike the summits of most mountains this tall.  It was however not entirely uncomfortable and I made the most out of my rest time.

At around 1:30 pm, I decided it was time to descend.  In a way, the descent was a lot more difficult because the steepness necessitated being extra careful lest I suffer a major fall.  Fortunately, I didn’t suffer any of that.  Unfortunately, I had quite a lot of minor falls.  While these did not hurt much, they were extremely frustrating and caused me to curse a lot all the way to the foot of the mountain.  It got so bad that at one point in the steep descent leading from the summit, I just intentionally slid down without caring at all whether my backside got muddied.

As the descent wore on, i noticed that my steps got a lot smaller.  I was not sure if it was over-cautiousness or the fact that I barely had the strength left to do regular-sized steps.  It was a great puzzle for me to observe that Romy, who was carrying a heavier bag than I did and whose old shoes had soles that had almost worn out already, was hiking/descending like it was the easiest thing in the world.  I on the other hand, had a lighter load and wore shoes that had good traction, but I was falling all over the place!

Most impressive jungle scenery I've ever seen.

I can honestly say that this is one mountain climbing trip where the descent is harder than the ascent.  At no point did I ever think of quitting during the way up, but the way down was so hard I took a lot more frequent breaks.  To Romy’s credit, he didn’t really try to rush me or anything.  He even told me to rest longer.  For my part, I really wanted to quit but the fear of being stranded in the jungle at night was enough to motivate me to keep putting one foot ahead of the other.

Sometimes, you just got to stop and smell the flowers. (Some sort of orchid.)

I got concerned when I discerned that the daylight was acquiring a golden hue, meaning sunset was nearing.  But I was helpless.  No force in the world could help me lengthen my steps or go faster.  I was mentally exhausted and I didn’t even care anymore if I stepped on a snake or got allergy from some branch or vine that I hold and scratch myself with.  I stopped taking out my camera to take pictures of things because at that point, nothing really interested me anymore.  To make things worse, we ran out of drinking water and so I was parched on the last 1/3 of the descent.

Now here’s the thing, Romy thought all along that I’m an experienced climber and so he didn’t think we’d actually take until sunset to get down the mountain.  Because of this, he didn’t see the need to bring a flashlight.  Feelings of concern turned should have turned to panic when the shade turned to dark, but I guess I was too tired.  At this point we were at the base of the mountain and there were already coconut trees.  To quench our my thirst Romy must have opened three coconuts along the way for me to drink.  (And we also picked unripe pomelos inside a privately fenced-off land.  (Thereby committing a crime of hunger.)

The last 5 minutes of the descent, was already in early evening.  Without a flashlight, Romy had to use the light of his cellphone to see our way through the remaining stretch of the trail.  Finally, we were back to the jump-off point.  The simple act of riding the motorcycle hurt my legs.  I told Romy to take me back to Ivatan Lodge and pick me up again in an hour.  With my hunger, I preferred to dine pig out that night at the famous Vatang Grill and Restaurant in faraway Ivana, and I intended to treat Romy for all the extra effort he made to help me get down the mountain.

Day 2 done.  I don’t think I’ll climb another mountain for a year after what I’ve gone through this day.

= = = = = = = = = =
This entry is part of the Batanes II series dated September 10-14, 2011:

1. Return to Batanes (a prologue)
2. Hiking in Northern Batan
3. Preview: Mt. Iraya
4. The Back-breaking Mt. Iraya Climb
5. Mahatao’s Lighthouses: Setting the Facts Straight
6. Stuck in Batan: New Sites & Sentimental Favorites
7. In search of Batanes’ prehispanic past
8. The 2-lie system of SEAir’s Manila-Basco flights (a warning)
9. Everyone’s kinder in Batanes (even the tourists.)

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8 thoughts on “The Back-breaking Mt. Iraya Climb

  1. Pingback: Stuck in Batan: New Sites & Sentimental Favorites | Liquid Druid's blog

  2. Pingback: Everyone’s kinder in Batanes (even the tourists). | Liquid Druid's blog

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