Mount Apo: Touching the skies at Mount Apo

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Out of the many mountains I’ve been able to run, I must say that my best experience hands down was at Mount Apo, the grandfather of all Philippine summits. Of course the best has to be the highest of all peaks in the country. Declared a national park by President Manuel L. Quezon in 1936, it can be reached via several trails including the Kapatagan Trail with the jump off at Digos City, Davao del Sur and the Ko-ong Trail with the jump off at Kidapawan City, Cotabato Province.

For my Mount Apo run, I decided to do an out and back route at the shorter but relentlessly steep Ko-ong Trail. Many thought that covering the highly technical terrain in a day was not possible. Few actually told to my face that the best I could do was reach Lake Venado before fatigue and time constraints would force me back down. Only one local guide was willing to take on the insanity of going up and down Mount Apo in a day. Despite the odds, I was willing to take my chances. I was bent on skyrunning the noble summit.

Skyrunning—running on altitudes 2000 meters above sea level (MASL) or more—began as a sport in Europe. It was introduced in the country by the Philippine Skyrunning Association (PSA), the only group in the Philippines recognized by the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF).

Summon enough courage and, like me, you will find that Mount Apo is a wonderful skyrunning playground. It stands proud at 2956+ meters above sea level with technical terrains varying from several river crossings to virgin forests, from marshlands and grasslands to volcanic boulders and steppes.

With Jason, the only guide who accepted my Mount Apo skyrun challenge, we embarked on a quest unbeknownst even to the locals. We started around 3AM, with only a blanket of stars that offered refuge from the quiet dark. Jason took the lead with a solid power trek pace. He would occasionally glance at me to make sure I was able to keep up. The route began on a downhill terrain that led us to Marbel River. In my opinion, crossing the temperamental Marbel River was more frightening than facing the vicious assaults of Ko-ong Trail. The river was swollen due to the steady downpour a few days before. There was a point when the water level reached my thighs and loose rocks would sometimes give under my feet. And we had to do it not once but several times. But Jason was there every step of the way, helping me secure my footing not only across the river but also through the twists and turns of the trail. At that time, I found comfort in the dark, glad not see the danger of crossing the rapids. After a little over an hour, Jason declared the end of our passage across Marbel River and the beginning of the steep and relentless Ko-ong Trail.

The continuous uphill was a treat for me. I found myself in my element but I was no match for Jason who was quick as a pixie, always light on his feet. There were times when he had to stop and wait for me. Despite the growing gap between us, he made sure that I could still see him so I that I did not get lost. Our first compression stop was at the break of dawn. While we each sat on a slightly protruding rock, we ate our trail food in companionable silence. We enjoyed the jungle scene unfolding before us as the sunlight streamed through the lush overhead cover. But we could not stay long so we were soon on our feet and resumed attacking the assaults with unwavering commitment. On our third hour, we found ourselves in swamplands signaling our arrival at Lake Venado.

I was relieved to finally see the serene Lake Venado, the highest lake in the country. The lake was exceptionally large like Marbel River also due to the recent rainfalls. We trudged through ankle high marsh before a quick stop to take pictures beside the lake. Jason was surprised that it took us only four hours since we left Lake Agko. It was only 7 a.m. We were two hours ahead of schedule. I finally broke into a big smile when I realized that we had plenty of time to complete our Mount Apo skyrun.

From Lake Venado, the way to the summit was clear allowing us a glimpse of our goal. Revived at the knowledge of how near we were, we pushed through the last leg of the trail passing through open grasslands, overcoming the difficulty of thinning air and freezing cold winds. And like before, Jason was ahead of me, nimbly moving up open trail. Admittedly, I was already exhausted and found it hard to summon the energy to follow Jason’s pace. But I fought against the aches and pains of my body and willed myself to keep moving. Halfway the steppe, we met a group of Davao-based mountaineers who climbed via the Kapatagan trail and were on their way down to exit via Kidapawan City. They were shocked to find out about our oneday itinerary. After well-wishes, we each went on our way.

Again, it was a struggle to put one foot in front of the other but I hardly had any choice. It was either stop and rest or be frozen by the chilly winds. I was surprised when Jason suddenly gave me some of the wild berries he found along the trail. He assured me it was safe to eat. The berries were a delightful combination of tangy and sweet—a good source of energy at a time we needed it. Jason gave me more berries and we both munched on them as we slowly continued our ascent until finally we reached the summit of Mount Apo.

At the summit, we were greeted by a group of Manila-based mountaineers who were on their way back to their camp at Lake Venado. They cheered us on our endeavor before leaving us to have the Mount Apo summit all to ourselves. At that point, I was in a daze. It was Jason’s urging to take pictures that finally made me acknowledge the success of our adventure. Against all odds, we reached the summit in six hours. Our perseverance, courage and dedication paid off. And Mount Apo rewarded us greatly.

Although foggy at first, the surroundings eventually cleared, allowing us to marvel at the sceneries: the several peaks, the crater glistening with rain water and the boulders where we saw the solfataras or a crack in the earth’s crust that emits sulfurous gases. At the rooftop of the Philippines I was amazed by the views reaching the surrounding towns of Davao del Sur and North Cotabato. I was overwhelmed with happiness that I felt the need to share it to family and friends. Luckily there was a mobile phone signal so I was able to send a mass text message to give a unique morning greeting.

After an hour of going around the different summits and a longer rest stop, we decided to head back down. This time I was a lot faster with my steps guided by the confidence of knowing the now familiar trails plus my heart soaring with joy due to the amazing experience at Mount Apo. Even seeing the raging river in broad daylight did not slow me down. But what made us pause every now and then was so we can take pictures along Ko-ong Trail as our reminder of our unique adventure.

It was definitely physically demanding but I had with me a capable and supportive guide who was equally eager about doing the adventure with me. We ran, power trekked, hauled ourselves up and down and enjoyed every minute of our experience. We covered about 25-kilometers in 12-hours. I felt honored to do the life-changing journey at Mount Apo. There, at the highest point in the land, I was able to touch the skies.

Arranging a Mount Apo Skyrun

Coordinate with Ging Pame, Kidapawan City Tourism Officer (mobile number 0926-8540116), to secure permit to climb Mount Apo. You are expected to attend a climb briefing at the Tourism Office prior to the skyrun. Registration fee is P500/person for locals and P650/person for foreign climbers. The Tourism Office will give you a climber’s ID as proof that you are registered. Take note that the only trail open for climbers via Kidapawan City is Ko-ong Trail. Do not attempt to pass through the shorter Mainit Trail. The Mainit Trail has been closed due to landslide incidents along the trail. After completion of the skyrun, go back to the Tourism Office to receive your Certificate of Climb. The Tourism Office is located at the Kidapawan City Hall compound.

For your guide and lodging requirements, contact Niknik of Agko Mahomanoy Mountain Resort (mobile no. 0916-5226306). Ask if Jason (also known as Wowie) is available on your preferred date. (Trivia: Wowie has done the Mount Apo skyrun twice and both with me.) Porters and/or guides may be hired for P250- 300/day for regular climbs that usually take 3-days. For a oneday Mount Apo skyrun, I suggest giving, at the very least, what is equivalent to two days of the guide fee. Prior to skyrun, clarify whether the guide shall bring his own food provisions. If this is the case then the guide fee increases by about P100/guide.

Rooms at Agko Mahomanoy Mountain Resort start at P500 and the rate increases depending on number of persons per room. Advance booking is advised because the resort has limited number of rooms/cottages. It can be full especially during weekends. There is no hot water in the rooms but you may enjoy a nice dip at the nearby Mainit hot springs after the skyrun. It can get very cold at Lake Agko especially at night so bring warm clothes. Also, the resort does not have a restaurant so it is advisable to bring packed dinner, breakfast and post-run meal. There is a store that sells hotdog sandwiches, cup noodles, biscuits, coffee, chocolate drink, as well as toiletries.

Mount Apo skyrun recommended itinerary

3 a.m. S tart Run. Jump off Lake Agko Resort. 7 a.m. Arrive Lake Venado 9 a.m. Summit. Breakfast. Photo Ops. 10 a.m. Start Descent 11 a.m. Arrive Lake Venado 3 p.m. Arrive Lake Agko Resort. Freshen up. 4:30 p.m. Departure for Kidapawan City

Things to bring during the skyrun

Hydration Pack At least two liters of water/energy drink Trail food/energy gels Headlamp or flashlight First aid kit and other personal medicines Tissue Camera

Recommended gear

Clothes that are light, thermal, breathable, elastic and comfortable that protect you while allowing mobility. For footwear, trail running shoes that are light, has good traction and waterproof are preferred. Rain jacket, gloves and head wear are also recommended.

How to get to Mount Apo (Kidapawan City)

Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific and other local airlines have multiple flights from Manila to Davao City.

I would suggest you take the early morning flights to allow you ample travel time from Davao City to Kidapawan City. It is also best to buy food and other supplies at Davao City malls to have more variety. Make sure to leave Davao City after lunch so you will arrive at Kidapawan City within the Tourism office hours (8 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday to Fridays) and attend the required climb briefing.

To reach Kidapawan City, you may take the bus with the terminal located at Ecoland Terminal. Another option is to take a commuter van with the terminal located at Gaisano Grand Mall, Toril or at SM City North Davao. As of October 2011, fare for either bus or van is P150/person. Upon arrival at Kidapawan City, try to look for a motorbike-for-hire or locally known as habal-habal which can be found plying all over the city. Ask the driver to take you to Lake Agko Resort. Agree on fare before leaving. Fare may range from P200-300/motorbike depending on number of passengers and baggage. You may also ask the driver to pick you up on an agreed time to take you back to the city proper. And a side note, before the start of the motorbike ride, make sure to hold on tight to the driver because the way to Lake Agko passes through dirt roads snaking its way up the foot of Mount Apo guaranteeing a bumpy and for some, fun road trip experience.

Safety Concerns

There have been concerns about the peace and order situation in Mindanao. Personally I’ve been traveling in and out in this region for the past decade and have found that it is generally peaceful. Rebellion issues are usually in isolated, hard-to-reach areas and the local government unit (LGU) issue travel advisories if it is not advisable to go there. For this case, make sure you coordinate with the Kidapawan Tourism Office so they can advise you not only about peace and order issues but also on the accessibility of trails, especially during rainy season.

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