Facing Fears, Testing Limits, and Seeing Beauty at Kibungan Mountains – Part 1

TEXT AND PHOTOS BY EUDEN VALDEZ

(First of Three Parts)

Rainy Assault at Almasi

IMAGINE assaulting a steep trail with small steps carved from a mountain’s solid surface while being exposed to the forces of nature—behind you is the open mountain range covered in white. You realize you’re actually inside the clouds or the fog, whichever, for it is raining and every now and then, the wind blows sharp, cold stings. Below, you see the endless and tiresome steps you just took but not the bottom.

Now imagine arriving at the top of such the arduous ascent only to be faced with a new peak, beyond it, a silhouette of yet another peak. It feels and seems like there is no end to this assault.

​This was the infamous Almasi trail of Kibungan’s mountain range of high summits, deep gorges, thick forests and countless waterfalls.

For its very steepness and length, the trail isn’t part of Kibungan’s commercial circuit for hikers. Despite this, it was the access we took to reach Sitio Lanipew in Barangay Tacadang, the site of RAK Ph Mountaineers’ next potential solar project and outreach.

As part of our volunteer work, our group finished an 11-hour hike with a low pressure area that shrouded Northern Luzon during the long weekend of August 24 to 26. ​

Limatik all the way to Lanipew
The moment we arrived at Baguio City, we were already welcomed by cold showers, so it was not a surprise that Kibungan, which was three hours away from Benguet’s capital, would be raining as well. The only time we were dry was the first two hours of already steep and slippery trails prior to Almasi Trail.

But it wasn’t just the rain and cold that we had to overcome on the first day—and the next two days—of our community ocular. We were to spend the next six hours of descent in different types of trails.

At first, there were rolling hills covered in low-lying shrubs and short trees. Every now and then, there were small crossings in the middle of the mountains, either makeshift hanging bridges, already rusty yet still sturdy, or footbridges made of logs. We were lucky enough if the logs were flat but often, these were covered in moss.

And because it was raining throughout the day, Kibungan was wet inside out, most especially because of its waterfalls, which all came to life. Sometimes, we would see them from afar, and then all of a sudden, we would cross them along the trail. 

These waterfalls flowed past trails, down to where it reached rivulets, which then connected to rivers at the bottom of gorges. For the most part, our footwear were soaked not just because of the rain but also because of the water crossings.
 
Still, the rain wouldn’t let up and it got dark sooner than expected. By this time, we were already starting to experience the increasing presence of limatik, or the mountain leech. Ruthless bloodsuckers unmindful of our exhaustion. They mostly lingered in the mountain floor but sensing our body heat in the cold, they were surely able to crawl up our legs, our bodies and our faces. For some of us too tired to care anymore, limatik feast was a given.
 
But it got worse. By the time we went out of the forest, we came to the plains that served pastures for highland cows, the natural food of limatik. It was pitch black already and the only source of light were our headlamps. Here, where we thought the trail finally became easier, we were proven wrong. We were to face swarms of limatik. In each step, over 10 of these mountain leeches crawled closer or tried to get in contact with our footwear and pants.
 
At this point, we were at our limits, but adrenaline sure kicked in. We were moving faster even with our heavy packs—weighted down by the rain—always conscious of the limatik trying to crawl upon us.
 
From afar, we could see flashing lights from the community, our destination. They were expecting us after all and it was a relief to be acknowledged. But we were still far from arrival. Our naked eyes could make out that the light came from another mountain. 

​Thankfully, our agony with the limatik came to an end but not with the wet and slippery trail. We needed to balance on dikes of rice terraces, and literally scramble down boulders lest we slip. Where to, we could never say.
 
Since the beginning to this point, we could only trust our steps and ourselves. Be extra careful and mindful, and more importantly, trust our teammates that we have each other’s backs.  
 
In the last hour, we were finally seeing and hearing signs of civilization, one or two huts here and there, dogs barking nearby—but everything inside the forest still. I remembered asking if we were sure that Sitio Lanipew was there.
 
And there it was. Houses huddled and after passing some, we came at the lawn of the daycare center we were targeting to visit. It was also where we would spend the night. It was past 10 in the evening and the rain had finally stopped.
 
We managed to take dinner at 11 p.m. and sleep by 12 a.m. In the morning, it was bright and sunny and we were able to see the drawing in the blackboard. “Welcome visitors!” it read among a drawing of the Almasi Trail, the four peaks we climbed accurately illustrated.
 
While the hardships of the previous day were still fresh on our minds and felt on our bodies, we felt recharged with accomplishing our purpose. We were able to get the needed information about Sitio Lanipew that will propel our solar project to the next step. 

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