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My First Mountain - Mayon Volcano

Sometimes, its nice to read historical events in order to better understand a destination. This is my own historical event, when I climbed my first ever mountain more than 15 years ago. Since then, Mayon Volcano has erupted a couple of times and its features have changed. You will read about the Knife's Edge which has now disappeared; and the peak then may not be the apex of today. If you love trekking, continue reading and compare adventures of mountaineering then and today.


So, Mayon Volcano. That one with the nearest perfect cone and rising at more than 8,000 feet was going to be my first taste of mountaineering. I nearly begged off but Ping (God Bless his soul) assured me that I could do it. Well, he told me that, so maybe I could really do it!

Going to Legaspi City in Albay Province was sort of a breeze. If not for the frequent stops, I would have slept like a baby during those 12 hours of travel from Manila.

In Legaspi City I had a quick breakfast and proceeded to the DOT office. There I watched the mountaineers start coming in. Many of them were students based in Legaspi City and they all had with them those prominent backpacks filled to the brim. They all had three days’ worth of clothing. They had sleeping bags and tents neatly packed in. They also had numerous liters of water, stove and food! Lots of them! The only thing I had in my backpack was my sleeping bag and my tent which were lousily packed. My food? I had one loaf bread, cheese, one can each of corned beef and sardines and one liter of water. The last item was my most precious possession – my instamatic camera.

I was watching them guys and one by one they started noticing me. I was wearing brand new trekking shoes! Almost all of them were wearing old shoes. Many were not even fit for hiking .

At that point I became very conscious. Had they realized that there was a neophyte in their midst? I kept hearing comments on my shoes and that it will be destroyed by the mountain. Sayang daw. I just hoped that they were just envious of my brand new shoes. If they would only mind their own business and just laugh inside and ponder at my future for the next three days.

Everybody belonged to a group or a mountaineering club. Me? I was a guest of the DOT regional office. It was too late when I realized that we were all guests of the DOT. Each group should be self-contained. They must have enough tents, water and food for the entire trip. Luckily, I met four other guys who were like me. Two (Buboy and his friend) were students based in Legaspi City, one (Elmer) was a local and unemployed guy; and the last was Tony Banks from New Zealand. I guess it was one of those laws – “lost souls stick together”. We saw each other and immediately clicked. I found a group! I realized later that having your own group or a buddy is crucial in mountaineering. First, you are never lonely, and second is that there is a support group that can elevate your confidence. And many times, a buddy separates the thin line between giving up and pushing on and making your conquest.

The Hike

I thought I was already prepared. The hike started quite far from the base of the volcano. We walked over a gully and it took us about two hours before I felt a change in the slope of the trail. Aside from the gully, the trail crossed through tall cogon grasses and open spaces. The sun was nearing its maximum intensity and I felt like melting in the middle of the trail. It was Day 1 and we were not even near Camp 1. I had four leg cramps, two on each leg. I wanted to quit. But I was already in the middle of nowhere. It was a good thing that Buboy was always there and waited for me during cramp attacks. I kept saying, ‘I can do it, I can’t quit, God help me, and aguuy!. By lunchtime we finally reached Camp 1. There I saw more than 100 guys who joined the activity. Some were having lunch and a few were already on their way to Camp 2. My water was almost gone and I still have two and a half days to go. Then sounding like a voice from heaven, somebody said that there was a water source nearby. Buboy and I immediately raced there. And as we were going, somebody shouted, ‘bring a straw!’ A what?!

A straw!… The water source was only about 100 meters from Camp 1. It was neither a river nor a spring. It was solidified lava where indentions were formed and became water traps. “It rained the previous night so it’s a fresh supply of water’, somebody said. The traps were not big and most of them can only hold about a cup of water. A straw was really a necessity. I had a bottle to fill so I jumped from one trap to another filling the bottle using its cap. Anyway, I had a water-purifying tablet with me. It is also better that way than picking up a pebble later on and putting it in my mouth like a candy to induce salivation (A.K.A. emergency water).

The trail between Camp1 and Camp 2 was unimaginable. I thought that Mayon was forested. Instead, we walked over a frozen lava flow. And the steep incline was constant. I looked forward and everything was going up. I looked back and everything was going down. There was no flat land (or lava). I kept reminding myself that I cannot afford to make a slip. I would continuously roll down hundreds of meters and stop maybe at Camp 1. It was a good thing that the lava trail was dry and my brand new trekking shoes held good.

Along the trail, I occasionally encountered Manila-based mountaineering groups like the Ayala Mountaineers led by Alex Abaygar. His companions were mostly ladies and they all carried heavy backpacks. I watched them negotiate the trail and I sometimes imitated their steps.

About halfway through to Camp 2 the temperature changed. From tropical heat, it became refreshingly cool with occasional wisps of very cold wind. But my burden did not lighten. As I continuously sagged, my legs and load became heavier. It was during this time of difficulty that the human species can invent something just to survive. That time I learned that a mantra can help you stay focused and remove your attention from the pain and difficulty of the activity. My mantra was actually a song that was famous at that time. It was a rap made by Andrew E with these lines:

‘Guess what you know last night
Yo! It was the best!
I met na pretty Girl na taga IS….’

Man, I must have sung that song in my head for about 500 times.

On with the trail.

Although it seemed like an avenue from afar, the lava trail was really a jumble of huge rocks and rough surfaces. Some really difficult ones were the walls that seemed to have ‘no entry’ signs painted all over them. They were not insurmountable, though. There was always a way through those walls. Small ledges can be used as holds or steps as one negotiates the wall. But if you consider that those ledges are no more than six inches thick and that if you fall, you go straight down to about 30 feet before making a continuous roll of about 1,000 meters, then you must find a way to contain your fear.

Yes. Fear is your constant companion. And sometimes, that fear can overwhelm you and that there is a mountaineering term for it – your balls race towards your throat.

I also learned a lot along the trail. Ping showed me that the very thin vegetation in Mayon Volcano can actually nourish me. There were small, black berries the size of peas and wild strawberries along the trail. Yum! Actually, its yum if you picked the right fruit. There are other fruits that are similar to the edible berries and miniature strawberries only they don’t taste near any delicious nor edible entrĂ©e.

Camp 2 was where we settled for the night. It was an elevated area bisected by the lava flow. Colorful tents popped up on the inclined earth and those with mountaineering stoves started cooking their own dinner. The five of us prepared our tent. Yes, my tent that can comfortably hold two persons. There were five of us. Of course, there was a solution in this kind of predicament. Four of us slept inside (sideways only), one would sit outside. Every two or three hours, one of us inside came out and replace the one outside. Neat, no? Dinnertime, we had two cans of sardines, one can of pork and beans and a loaf of bread. Camp 2 was also the place where we got news. At this point, I found out that about a third of the climbers went back (must be neophytes!) and numerous others were thinking twice whether to continue the following day or head back. I also saw heart-breaking scenes. There was a lady who was so weak that her legs seemed like vegetables. The moment she attempted to stand, her legs collapsed. She was crying. The leaders made a decision. She was to be portered back the next morning. What? Portered. A local will carry her on his back and go down to Camp 1 where medical help was available. I suddenly felt pity for the local porter. She must have weighted at least 100 pounds. Can he really carry her down through dangerous trails? The Leaders assured me that he can. He can definitely do it.

Halfway through dinner, I had the creeping fear that I was again running out of water. Again, the heavens answered my concern. Ping suddenly appeared and gave me a liter of water. I felt like a guest then!

Just as we were about to call it a night, George Cordovilla, one of the leaders and the president of MAENOC, a local mountaineering club, stopped by our campsite. He had numerous fresh bruises and contusions. A little asking and we were in for a great story. He was walking at Camp 2 and he suddenly slipped. Remember the incline and the continuous roll? It happened to him. The slip caused George to roll down to numerous meters, Had it not been for his presence of mind and his mountaineering experience, he could have had a mangled body or a splattered brain. To save his precious head as he rolled down, he looked at where gravity would bring him. As he was about to land face first, he pushed his head upwards, if he would land on his back, he lurched his head and made sure that it did not hit solid ground; if there was a rock he deftly used his hands to push his body from the rock. As he finished his story, I thought that he was great. Then I became worried. If that happened to me I guess I would be singing heavenly songs and playing a harp by now.

Sleep time came and I realized another thing about mountains. Up tha’ar on those mountains are freezing temperatures. I had a sleeping bag but I guess that was not enough. My body shook a little bit the whole night. Tony, the New Zealander was quite worried. I got through it but I could not believe that hypothermia can mean a great deal in warm countries like the Philippines.

Day 2
We were greeted by a slight, warm sunlight. Buboy was already up and about and gave me some of his warm coffee. I did not care how he got hold of that coffee but its taste certainly woke up my whole system. It was going to be an assault of the peak and the only things that we had to bring were food and water. Everything else was left at the campsite. To help all of us find the right trail, small flags were set up. It was very important to follow the flags to avoid wandering off and going to a deadly crevasse. A cut-off time was established. If by 11:00 AM and you were not at the peak, you have to go back to Camp 2. Timing was very critical. Everybody had to be back to Camp 2 by nightfall. Night trekking in Mayon was like making you life hang by a thread.

On the way to the assault of the peak, the trail changed. We did not step on frozen lava anymore but on loose scree or rocks with varied sizes. This time, the level of care was multiplied. We could not just walk; we had to crawl and held on to rocks very carefully. Any mistake of dislodging a rock or even a pebble could mean one thing – a rock fall. This is the scene – if a climber carelessly steps on a rock and it dislodges, the rock rolls down, at it rolls down, it dislodges other rocks. Lucky if the event stops after a few meters. Sometimes though, fist-sized rocks would eventually dislodge another rock the size of a car. In Mayon, if a rock fall happens, somebody would shout’ “Rock!” and everybody looks up. Unfortunately, everybody is in precarious situation. He cannot go left nor right fast enough, there are no trees to use as shields, he can’t even run lest he creates another rock fall event. What he can do is to watch where the rocks are heading. If they are small enough, he’ll just use his arms to shield his head. But if the rocks are big, he would just duck, swing his body, jump over the biggest rock, or pray to God that he live through the event.

It was also here that I learned the three-point system. Of the two hands and feet, three of them must be secured first before one finds a place to hold or step on. It was effective. In fact, it might have saved a lot of lives in the loose rocks section. Try to imagine this: you’re trying to move upward; you have one of your hands and both feet firmly planted. You hold on to a rock to move upward. Suddenly, the rock is dislodged! What will you do? You can’t throw it down – it will cause a rock fall. The only thing left to do is to return the rock to its former position and (thank God you did not fall) try to find another hold.

A crucial point came for many of us – the Knife’s Edge. When I came to this point, there were already numerous people sitting just right before the Knife’s Edge. I asked around. Elmer, one of my group mates, answered that they have had enough. What?!! We were only about 300 meters to the Peak! I saw those who passed through this point and they looked like colorful ants making their way to conquest. I looked at the Knife’s Edge and saw that the trail was only about a meter wide. A rope was conveniently tied to add to our confidence. But the sheer drop simply drained whatever was left of the courage of many of the guys. On both sides were seemingly vertical drops of thousands of feet. I looked down and I almost lost it. I too, wanted to back out. It was a good thing that Tony’s eyes and mine met. They actually talked! He gave me a nod and right there and then I knew I will reach the Peak of Mayon!

Okay, so my balls raced up my throat again. In fact, they raced up a lot of times. Those colorful ‘ants’ with me included were creeping along a narrow ledge. At one time, I thought that if I died there, it would be much faster for me to reach Heaven since I was already 8,000 feet above flat grounds. The last frightening moment of the climb was when we had to pull up ourselves over a ledge. The only hold I found was a piece of frozen lava no more than an inch thick. I held on to it, closed my eyes and prayed that angels would heave me up. What do you know? The next time I opened my eyes I was only about 50 meters from the crater over an easy path.

Victory at last! We reached the crater, snapped some photos and smelled the sweet scent of sulfuric air (actually, it smelled like rotten eggs).

The descent was less than eventful but full of high spirits. We reached camp 2 at about 4:00 P.M. and decided to stay there for the night. The more experienced ones went down all the way to Camp 1. Since there were fewer tents already, we decided to transfer our tent to a better place, at the other side of the gully. Nighttime came and some very tired hikers were still coming in by trickles. It was the same story as the first night. We were crammed, I shuddered and Tony was worried. At one time, we heard a loud noise of huge rocks rolling. We listened. No shouts came. No one was hit. We then slept soundly. Morning came and the topic of the day was about the rock fall the previous night. Somebody said he saw the rocks and they fortunately hit a place where nobody was camped. He then pointed at the exact spot where the rocks rolled over. Tony, Elmer, Buboy and I looked at each other. That was our campsite.