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Letter from a Mountaineer

By: Rod Santos (Guest Correspondent)
Date: 31-Jul-2005

Dear fellow Filipinos who happen to be mountaineers,

I have loved green places and clean waters since I was a kid. Doubtless, like you, I have fond memories of summers spent swimming in swift flowing rivers and waking up to quiet sunrises in a barrio somewhere, far from the noise of the city.

My father’s father had this place in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro. It is a big place. Within the property alone, one can hike all day up a big hill, descend to the ricefields, and swim or boat the big river. My father spent very happy days up in those mountains when he was young. There he learned how to gather tuba and hunt wild boar and monkeys and find places where duhat and wild guavas abound.

On top of the hill, after one has caught his breathe hiking up its steep trails, one can look back and again try and catch one’s breathe at the sheer beauty of the surrounding countryside blending into a huge blue ocean.

The place still belongs to the family. And I bring it along with me everywhere I go.

I know you all have similar memories. Even if you grew up in a big city and never got to see a mountain till you had enough money to go out on your own and go look.

What prompts a very small percentage of the human race to abandon the comfortable familiarity of one’s surroundings to go to a strange and dangerous place that offers nothing but hardship and struggle? What is the lure of wild and empty places for the likes of us?

Are we like Moses in the Bible who went up the mountain alone, for what purpose? To maybe meet God? I don’t know but when I am in the forest or a deserted island, I feel so alone and lonely and vulnerable. And I come face to face with my limits. One wrong step and I wrench an ankle. If I am alone, then I am in a bad situation indeed. Up in the mountains, have you ever looked in your water bottle and found, sloshing emptily around it, a meager cup of water to tide you over for the next five or so very steep kilometers?

Then what washes over you? A feeling of dread? Fear even? Or, looking deeper, a sense of strength and utter reliance on the One who made you?

The mountains strip us of the armor of civilization that we wear all the time down in the lowlands. Then we come face to face with the essence of who we really are. Not many people can face themselves so nakedly. Thus the very small number of adventurers and mountaineers and long distance hikers and trans ocean swimmers. Out there, we look back and find nothing to lean on but our inner strengths. Out there, we are confronted by our inner demons that cannot be silenced by TV and noise and malls, simply because there are no such distractions out there.

This, to me, is the essence of why we climb mountains.

My full name is Rodolfo Santos from Bocaue, Bulacan. Call me Rod. Back in the Philippines, I was not a member of any mountaineering club. I just dragged with me whoever I can coerce into coming along.

I’m in America right now. Been here more than a year pa lang. Before I left, I had this little group of people who went along with me whenever I wanted to go to the wild places nearby. Most of them are members of a Catholic charismatic community in Bulacan and Manila. They are quite young. The oldest are in their early twenties. For my group in Manila, mountaineering also meant making a retreat. Malakas ng konti ang religious flavor ng mga biyahe namin. And we enjoyed these trips immensely. Now I miss that.

Dito ngayon ako sa Tate. Kasali ngayon sa karera ng daga dito. But behind my apartment, a few miles away, looms the huge Saddleback Mountains belonging to the Cleveland National Forest system. I am in the area called South Orange County where almost no oranges grow. Seems wherever I go, there will be mountains.

And here, I am a lonely mountaineer.

And this is the bird’s eye view of the mountain (and the place where I live which is called Rancho Santa Margarita).

In my first picture (on the side), I was actually doing a little jogging in a park attached to this wilderness area. It is to the extreme bottom left of this map and goes beyond its border. The park is full of trees but has picnic tables and toilets with hot and cold water and other civilized stuff.

Still, it is a challenging place to run in. And you know what? I saw this sign attached on a fence inside this ‘civilized’ park:

Here’s another nice view of the park that leads to the wilderness area:

Finally, a view of the mountain itself (popularly called Saddleback, kasi mukhang saddle. Actually, Saddleback is two mountains called Santiago and Modjeska.

More pictures to come. Baka too big na ang letter na ito e. Bye for now.