In the midst of the Philippine central plains looms an anomaly that seemingly sprouted out of nowhere. Where one expects to see vast stretches of plain and green rice fields, Mt. Arayat stands tall. As one plies the Northern Luzon expressway, the prominence of this towering and freestanding structure is the object of many a climbers’ fascination and interest. I belong to that group of climbers who dream of scaling Mt. Arayat.
When TP Mountaineers (they also organized one of my most successful climbs in 2017, Mt. Daraitan), a group of “brothers” I met on the trails, organized a climb to Mt. Arayat, I was beyond stoked. Before I could change my mind, I jumped on the opportunity. So, on one fine summer day, I was on the way to ticking off one more mountain on my to-climb list.
The meeting time again was quite early. Unfortunately, the meeting place is at Cubao so I had to be earlier than normal. It was to my advantage that I personally knew the organizer, Manong Merzon. While waiting for the rest of our group, he introduced me to one of the other participants, a Korean. This is the first time that I am climbing with (a) foreign national(s).
The Korean guy (I forgot his name) married a Filipina and is very familiar with my home province; he occasionally goes there to plant vegetables, plus the climate there soothes him. I was also fascinated that he brought with him cooking implements. Guess what he intends to do at the summit? He will serve us Ssamyang spicy noodles! Oh man, I am so looking forward to our climb already even before we could start.
We departed for Pampanga at around 12 midnight and arrived at Barangay Ayala, Magalang, Pampanga at around 3 AM. There are numerous variations and combinations on how to climb Mt. Arayat – the TKO Quadro-Peak, the North to South Traverse, the backtrail and the reverse traverse. For our climb, we will be doing the traditional traverse, from the north peak to the south peak.
At around 3:30 AM, when the community was still wrapped up in deep darkness, we begun our ascent. I can barely make out our surrounding, but I joined the lead group. Yeah, I forgot to mention, aside from the Korean guy, two foreigners also joined our group, a Portuguese and an African national who both work for the Asian Development Bank.
The trek started pleasantly; we navigated established local trails. The climb was gradual and was rarely steep. We had to stop every now and then so that the rest of the group will catch up; we were a small group of around 14 individuals. The real challenge begun when we reached the base of the mountain. In spite of the darkness, I can easily make out the steep ascent. Through a year of climbing, I have learned not to be intimidated by such daunting sights. It is all a matter of perspective.
Scaling the rocky trail reminded me of Mt. Daraitan’s trail. The trails are pretty similar – the rocks, and the steep ascent, the only difference is that Mt. Arayat’s trail is longer. Tall pine trees cover the trail and can provide great cover when climbing during the day. There are numerous rock structures along the trail. Unfortunately, it was too dark for us to appreciate them. We did stop and rest on an area near one of these rock structures.
We climbed patiently, taking our time. Step by step, I know we are getting closer to the north peak. It was nearly 6 AM when we reached the tower near the north peak. It was covered by a fog and the breeze made me take a step back. Thankfully, at the summit, someone setup a bonfire; there we can warmed ourselves while waiting for the sunrise. We didn’t wait for long though for the sun to rise. We basked in its warmth. It was, of course, an opportunity to snap more pictures.
When everyone had their fill, we resumed our trek to the south summit, which as of that moment, was still hugged by the thick fog. We had to climb down a steep ridge before the trail took up a more pleasant shape again. The trail’s view has become more prominent – it was like a drier version of a mossy forest, with ferns growing aplenty. It was rockier than most mossy forests as well – I did jump from one rock to another.
At the middle of the ridge gong to the south peak, there was a roped section. We had to do some minor rappelling down to the other side of the rock in order for us to continue our trek. Before approaching the south peak, we encountered another challenge as the trail leading up to peak is very steep and the soil is very loose. On both instances, one must observe utmost caution to avoid injuries. All in all, it took us about an hour traversing the north to south peak.
From the south peak, the so-called Pinnacle Rock is very accessible. It is a small hill with a throne-like rock feature. It is connected from the south peak. This is also the sight of some of the viral pictures of Mt. Arayat. Going there could be treacherous, however, and is not for the faint of heart. The path going there is pretty similar to the path going up Mt. Maculot’s famed Rockies – steep descent, narrow path and another steep ascent.
Since we were all there already, all of us had our pictures taken before going back to the south peak area where our Korean climbing buddy was busy cooking our breakfast – Ssamyang. It is going to be a very spicy and hot morning. It was spicy, as expected, and everybody was craving for jelly ace afterwards to counter the spicy aftertaste. It was like a mini-feast and afterwards, we all took the time to rest and rejuvenate our manna before resuming with the descent.
We began our descent at around 9 AM. The trail down the south peak is marred with huge rocks. Some parts of the trail open to wonderful views of the central plains; there were big rocks that serve as view decks. That time, most of the rice paddies were planted so the view was quite green. We met several climbers while descending; we greeted them with wide smiles and courteous encouragements.
When the trail became flatter and more pleasant, we begun running down. Well, it was an “I” first before it became a “we” as our Portuguese and African companions started trudging down the trail as well. One of the things I have learned while climbing is that it is easier flowing with gravity’s pull rather than going against it; no it is not a race. The foreign guys were faster than me; their long limbs were their advantage. They were so worked up but they kept encouraging me whenever I stopped to catch my breath.
It was a little past 11 AM when we completed our climb-cum-trail run. The sun was already high up in the sky and the heat was stifling. To cool down, our group, once complete, proceeded to a local resort. It was a brief respite away from our quotidian existence; it was worth it because I breathed in nature and its beauty. It maybe physically taxing but it is fulfilling.
I already knew that Mt. Arayat is one of the most fabled mountains in the country. Amongst trekkers, whispers of eerie sensations while climbing is pretty common. However, I didn’t feel any of these sensations, even when I found myself alone most of the time. Out of curiosity, I researched on the lore surrounding the mountain.
Locals believe that Mt. Arayat is the home of Sinukuan, the Kapampangan sun god; and of Mariang Sinukuan, a goddess that rivals that of Laguna’s Mariang Makiling. Perhaps it was Sinukuan and Mariang Sinukuan who were giving off these eerie vibes to make their presence felt. I’ll leave that to everyone’s playful mind. Writing this piece reminded me of the trail’s unruly beauty, that maybe, a god and a goddess did walk up and down its path to ensure the ecosystem’s safety. Maybe, just maybe.