BOKOD, BENGUET— I sat motionless at the back of a black van that transported us from Baguio to this Cordillera community, where the rosy cheeks of its children are a sight to behold. The pine grove that sprawled in red hills reminds me of the palm trees back home. Both are symbols that scream the warmth of a welcome, albeit muted.

But the pine groves here are no match to its clouds. Home to Mt. Pulag, the so-called “Playground of the Gods,” Bokod has become a pilgrimage site for the chasers of light and the fanatics of the sea of clouds. Funny how this idea pushed me to book a flight to Clark months ago, not knowing exactly where to go. My disappointment in Sagada’s sea of clouds back in November perhaps motivated me to try Pulag. The mountain towers proudly with its reputation as the highest peak of Luzon and the third in the country at 2,926 meters above sea level, tailing behind its colleagues in the south: Apo and Dulang-Dulang.

The playful kids at the Ranger Station

To say that the clouds make Pulag a wonder will be an understatement. There’s more to its fluffiness, I discovered. Considered sacred by the Ibaloi tribe of Benguet, Mt. Pulag is believed to be the springboard toward a journey to the Great Beyond. Locals believe that their deceased loved ones congregate in the rolling hills of Pulag, fanning its belief of the sanctity of this mountain that is bordered by the provinces of Benguet, Ifugao and Nueva Vizcaya. With its elevation, Pulag is truly the closest they can get to heaven.

Arriving at the grassland that distinguishes the Pulag landscape, I thought of the tribe’s dead. Peaceful and serene, Pulag hosts an endless foliage of dwarf bamboo that is scattered in its rolling hills leading to the summit. A sky blanketed with stars made us feel like nomads in search of a refuge from the chilling wind. After a while, I waxed poetic: what if the stars are the souls of the dead Ibaloi?

It helped that the moon offered a radiant illumination during our trek that started at one in the morning, making the four-hour, seven-kilometer trek bearable for the light-chasers, and by extension, those who wish to play above the clouds. Except in the eerie mossy forest, the moon’s light outlined a cinematic silhouette of the mountain as we negotiated the established path walks by the mountainside.

Mt. Pulag at daytime
The hills are alive in Pulag

The trek was a walk in the park, except that the wind’s gust coming from different directions chills you to the bones. Considering the sanctity of the place, we walked in peace, with words of encouragement from colleagues only whispered from time to time.

“Mabilis tayo,” our local guide Frima told us. On weekends, setting up of tents is not allowed at Camp 2. That leaves us with the only option of trekking our way up from the Ranger Station with headlamps and flashlights in tow. We were told the trek would take four hours, passing by the pine grove, the mossy forest, and the grassland. Frima, with her signature reserved smile, was exuberant when she told us we were the first group to arrive at the summit.

Our happiness was short-lived.  The sub-zero wind chilled us at the top. We are still two hours before the sun greets the eastern sky. I did not regret donning four-layered clothing that time. Before the start of the trek, I contemplated to reduce it to two. Imagine the disaster if indolence prevailed.

Wait we did. While it was excruciating, it was not perfectly bad. Sitting at the base of a dwarf bamboo which we used as a shield against the chilling wind, one is reduced to a tiny organism who marvels at the wonders of the earth. Slowly by slowly, mountaineers ascended to the summit, their excitement muffled by the wind. We sat there in awe of the clouds below us, and how the moon and the stars perfectly aligned to give us a moment of stillness while waiting for the dawn of a new day. The dwelling place of the gods, and the souls of the dead, is a piece of heaven on earth, I thought. It was magic. Most of the time, nature puts the greatest show on earth.

Looking at the hordes of mountaineers — some young, some old — I thought how crazy human beings can get in punishing themselves with the arduous task of scaling a mountain. Only those who are infatuated by the idea of spending some purpose-driven journey to the mountains can give the reasonable answers. In retrospection, it’s the sense of fulfillment that trumps all the pain, all the hardships, all the breakdown moments while conquering a mountain.

As the crimson sky slowly peeked in the Pulag horizon, revealing through the rays of the sun the gathered clouds below us, I said a little prayer in the playground of the gods. In the so-called dwelling of the dead souls, what a wonderful time to be alive.

Hanapin ang Saysay sa Mt. Pulag