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A Death on Mt. Halcon

As reported from Action Asia magazine

The young hiker stared into the mid-distance without seeing, then his eyes rolled back and the trail guide knew he was dead. This was his first mountain climb, and tragically, his last. He was the victim of a walking expedition of monumental misfortune.

On October 19 last year, 27 climbers from four different universities in the Philippines met at the base of their country’s third-tallest mountain and embarked on a trek that promised to be a bracing and uplifting outdoors experience.

Little did they know that what awaited them instead was a week of hardship and pain, as a fierce typhoon produced pelting rain, flash floods, winds that reportedly approached 150 kph. and mini landslides – a combination of elements that would turn their hike into an ordeal.

High above the clouds

To the Mangyans, the mountain people of Oriental Mindoro, the 2586m summit of Mount Halcon is known as “lagpas-ulap” – which means “high above the clouds”. The mystical peak, with its natural bonsai and pristine white rock formations towering over whirling clouds, is considered a holy place.

But for one young climber, the attempt to conquer the peak ended in death, while several others almost died of exposure.

When 27 climbers from San Beda College, the University of the Philippines from Los Banos, Divine Word College and the Manila-based Mountaineering & Exploration Society of Adamson University (MESAU) embarked on their adventure, they were cheerfully unaware that Typhoon Katring would veer south and hit the island of Mindoro, creating the severe weather conditions they would experience on the mountain.

After all, how were they to know that the national weather bureau’s prediction of “fair weather with scattered rain showers and thunderstorms” would develop into a full-scale typhoon? The students simply acknowledged the forecast and braced themselves for a damp expeditions.

This is the story as told by five members of the Adamson University group: 18-year-old Nino Raymund Larrosa, 22-year-old Reylina (Lennie) David, 18-year-old Marianne (Ianne) Gullemas, 22-year-old Ronald Parlan and Ellyn Joyce Salvador.

The original plan was to leave Manila on Wednesday, October 19 and be back in the capital on Sunday 23 – a four day trip that would give them enough spare time to fit in a side-trip to the beaches of Puerto Galera. Prior to their departure, the MESAU group sent a telegram to the Halcon Mountaineering Society (HALMS), informing the society of their plans to climb Mount Halcon. But HALMS never responded to their telegram. This was the first in a series of mishaps that ultimately led to the problems they were to encounter on the mountain.

None of the 13 students from MESAU had scaled Mount Halcon before, but all regarded themselves as accomplished hikers, having conquered mountains such as Mount Banahaw and Mount Pulag. According to the hikers’ own reports, their group was fully-equipped, well-trained and prepared. With them, they took windbreakers, gloves, bonnets, socks, mountain boots and jogging pants. Their clothes were wrapped in plastic to keep dry. They carried backpacks, mess kits and water canteens. They had sleeping bags, tents and waterproof bed rolls.

By all accounts, the MESAU students were aware that the weather at high altitude could deteriorate rapidly. But there remain a question marks over the level of preparation and experience of the other walkers.

The trekkers knew there was a typhoon in the vicinity, but the Philippines Weather Bureau said it was headed for extreme northern Luzon. Later, the young trekkers would be criticized by the Mountain Search and Rescue Team (MOSART) of the Philippines for being insufficiently educated on the dangers of mountain climates and for failing to recognize the early symptoms of hypothermia – which include extreme shivering, goose bumps, disorientation, diminished muscular coordination, incoherence, depression, mood swings and diminished mental ability. Even more importantly, the trekkers seemed ignorant of the advanced stages of hypothermia- when a victim loses all instincts of self-preservations and no longer feels the cold. On a mountain, when the condition has progressed this far, a trekker can only be saved by body-to-body heat transfer – the heat donor and victim undress and huddle together inside the same sleeping bag to allow the transfer of body heat. This important gap in their knowledge was to cost one walkers life.

A misguided start

Leaving Manila at dawn on Wednesday, October 19, the 13 MESAU climbers set off for the island of Mindoro. At the port city of Batangas they boarded a ferry which got them to Calapan, the capital of Oriental Mindoro, by noon. In Calapan they proceeded to look for their HALMS contact. He was not to be found and they were pointed in the direction of the Sialdang Mountaineering Club (SMC) – a group that specializes in hikes up Mount Halcon. Believing they had no choice, the Adamson party, like the other university groups, settled for an SMC guide.

Later, the climbers were to recall that the SMC leaders seemed more concerned about briefing the groups on the topic of leeches – of which there were so many on the trail – rather than the hazards of the climb. There was only a cursory mention of the trek being a difficult one and the climbers started their ascent with precious little idea of how much food, lighter fluid or cooking gas to take. As it happened, they took far too little.

With their SMC leader, the MESAU group rode a jeepney ride for one hour to Barrio Lantuyan, a small Mangyan settlement area. Here they met the climbers from the other schools for the first time.

Before they knew it, the 27 university climbers had been assimilated into one large party of walkers under the guidance of the SMC leaders. There were no complaints. “The more the merrier”, was the general sentiment.

Everyone was up bright and early the following day and the 13-hour-sortie to the base camp at Aplaya (1828m) was achieved without a hitch. Admittedly, though, some of the students found it a little colder than they had anticipated; those without gloves snuggled into their sleeping bags that night with their hands encased in socks.

Mounting the attack

Before heading up the mountain on Friday morning, everyone was in agreement that the more experienced trekkers should spread themselves out among the novice climbers. The lead man, also known as the navigator, was Dominique Ocampo, SMC president, who was tackling Mount Halcon for the 13th time. SCM guides filled the posts of middle man and sweeper. A middle man looks after the middle of the group and the sweeper patrols the back of the group to make sure no one slips behind. If this rule had been adhered to, all the students might have made it back down the mountain.

The planned early start was delayed by a torrential one-hour downpour, but any thoughts that the trek was in jeopardy were allayed by one of the SMC guides. “The rain is a blessing for our climb,” he assured the students.

A normal climb of Mount Halcon from Aplaya is a full day’s fast-paced trek, with no more than a 30 minute lunch break. It is a difficult trek, on single-track trails which are usually wet and slippery. Still, the assault is more of a walk than a climb – apart from one vertical section near the summit where a short climb up a rope ladder is required.

At 7am, the rain eased and the 30-strong group waded 20 across the Dulaang River, which marks the start of the summit climb.

Single-minded madness

Back in Manila, Typhoon Katring was starting to cause a stir and by noon the city was bracing itself for the full impact of what promised to be a highly destructive typhoon. In hindsight, Ianne said lamely, “Indeed the weather was getting bad. But we were in a rainforest and rain should be normal. The winds were not so noticeable, as we were sheltered by the tress.

She expanded: “The non-stop wind and rain began at about 1:30pm. We were still on the trail to Mount Halcon’s summit. The forest trail was very narrow and there was no place to pitch a tent. At some places, the trail was inclined at 70 to 80 degrees. At 4:30pm (after nine hours of trekking), I was starting to feel chilled. We ccouldn’t stop as we would get even colder. At this point, we were nearer the summit that the river. Our SMC guide said it was better to get to the summit than to go back to the river.”

When asked later why the group didn’t simply pitch tent in the forest where they were relatively protected from the elements, she explained the tree covering was so dense, the tree trunks so massive and the trail so wide, a half-way camp was totally unfeasible. In the minds of the walkers, the summit loomed ahead as an inviting, open expanse of flat terrain where they could huddle in their tents and hide from the elements. Quite simply, they felt they had to reach the top.

In the driving rain, the group of 30 walkers had now dissipated into a ragged line of haphazard trampers stretched over hundred of metres. There was no order, and to some of the trekkers it was becoming clearer that they would have been far better off undertaking such an expedition in small groups.

Split decisions

The rear group, of which Lennie and Ianne were members, chanced upon a small open space and decided to set up a camp. In retrospect, this was, perhaps, a life-saving decision for the stragglers. But few thoughts were spared for the others ahead, who could have been waiting for help.

“Our group came to a clearing in the forest, a ridge about 5m in radius,” explained Ianne. “The clearing was so small, we could only pitch one tent. There were 11 of us inside the tent. Here, we changed into dry clothes and spent the night in the tent. Of course the lead group did not know we had decided to stay behind.”

The lead and middle groups, now indistinguishable, continued on towards the summit. But four of them – one woman and three men – were rapidly loosing stamina and heat, so the group made a snap decision to stop and wait in the forest for the typhoon to blow over. They found a tiny clear space and huddled under the shelter of an umbrella, sleeping bags and their unpitched tent. The woman, Rachel (not her real name) was feverish – she was shivering and had a high temperature.

Their companions – now down to 15 in number – carried on a short way through the unbroken forest before coming to a ledge that could only be reached with a 3m long rope ladder which hadd been left at the spot by previous climbers. From the top of the ladder it was another 30 minutes trek to the final ridge to the summit. Known as the “Knife’s Edge” – this narrow strip of ground in one metre across, with a vertical drop on one side and a sharply angled drop on the other.

The group became further fragmented. The SMC leaders forged ahead in order to pitch tents in anticipation of the arrival of their companions. They reached their destination at 5:30pm. It was foggy and they were exhausted, but they knew that to rest now, before pitching the tents, would leave them even more vulnerable to hypothermia. They found what they regarded as a suitable camping spot and wasted no time securing two tents to the water-logged terrain.

Buffeted by the winds, the following climbers had o negotiate the “Knife’s Edge” ridge on all fours – as a wrong step would send them tumbling over the edge.

From the “Knife’s Edge” it was a further 15 minutes to the summit.

Nino, Ronald and his girlfriend Ellyn reached the summit campsite together. Chilled, feverish and worried about his friends, especially the girls, Nino started to cry. Meanwhile, the fast-fading light added to the difficulty of pitching their tent in the wind and rain. To add to the group’s discomfort, puddles of water soon started to collect inside their flimsy shelter, making them wetter and wetter as the night wore on.

A chilling discovery

Meanwhile, Alan (not his real name), one of the climbers fro the middle group, left the makeshift shelter at the base of the rope ladder in the forest to venture to the summit in search of help.

To his horror, just before the “Knife’s Edge”, he passed four climbers, originally from the lead group, who were feebly sitting or lying under the pelting rain. One, wearing just a sleeveless t-shirt and trekking pants, seemed to be sleeping. Alan could see that these four, with their air of listlessness and defeat, needed urgent help.

It was around 6:30pm when Ronald and Nino heard a desperate voice from beyond their tent crying, “Rescue! Rescue!” Alan staggered into the camp and yelled, “There are four climbers on the trail before “Knife’s Edge”. They’re not moving! They have to be rescued.”

Responding to his calls, Ronald aand SMC guide Ian Tecson scrambled out of their drier clothes and peeled on their soaked walking gear. Ronald, in his haste, forgot to put on his boots and only became aware of their absence when he stepped outside and felt ice-cold earth beneath his feet. Unable to bear the cold, he fell back, into the tent.

Ian returned after 30 minutes with catastrophic news. “Bad trip, man,” he told his companions. “One climber is already dead.” Ian said he had tried to revive Lazaro by wrapping him in plastic, but to no avail: “He was just staring and then his eyes rolled and he died.”

Neptali Lazaro, 25, from the San Beda group, was left on the trail, his eyes and mouth still open, his fist clenched, one leg straight and the other bent. Dead. This was his first climb and he had been way out of his depth. He had succumed to extreme cold, exhaustion, dehydration and hunger. He was just short of the summit when he died.

Ronald forced himself out into the rain to help Ian and other volunteers coax the remaining three “spaced-out” survivors to the relative safety of the summit. Ronald recalled overtaking Neptali earlier in the afternoon, between the ledge and “Knife’s Edge”. He later reported, “He was resting. We asked him if he was alright. He didn’t answer and sort of snubbed us and just stared into the distance. I didn’t know Neptali was already suffering from hypothermia. Being blank and non-responsive, they say, is a sign of hypothermia.

He also recalled the state of the trekkers he helped rescue: “It was no joke getting the three to move,” he said. “We had to assist them and this was in absolute darkness with the rain really pouring and the wind blowing hard.” Nino added, “The guys were delirious. One gus was saying, ‘I’m free. I can fly!’ Another guy was talking to himself.”

A night of prayer

Resuming the tale, Ronald describe the miserable night on the summit. “We huddled in the tent, hugging each other to retain our body warmth. When we got tired from this position, we shifted and positioned our backs against each other,” he said. “How we prayed that night. We had a rosary and though we did not know exactly what Mysteries of the rosary to pray, we just prayed all three.

“We couldn’t cook anything because our lighter fluid had run out. We couldn’t even start a fire. We had to eat our soup noodles straight from the pack. We just sprinkled the seasonings on the noodles and ate them raw.”

Even worse, water was leaking into the tents so the floot was drenched. “Our sleeping mats would float, when we took our weight off them,” Nino said. Ellyn elaborated: “We had no dry clothes left. To survive, we wore plastic trash bags against our body and put our wet clothes over the bags. I was raining so hard outside, we had to pee in plastic bags and cans inside the tent.”

Throughout the night, the wind howled and the rain poured. At about 6am, the wind eventually snapped a pole supporting the tent shared by Ronald, Ellyn and Nino, so the three of them crawled into one of the two remaining tents. Although it was only designed to accommodate two persons, it was now sheltering five cold, wet and frightened climbers. The climbers pressed together in two tents, then resumed chanting their prayers, with Ronald’s tent leading and the other answering. Their prayers were unexpectedly answered at 10am on Saturday, when a fragile sun squeezed out from between the clouds and lit the tents.

Forest shelter

In the sheltered forest where the sweeper group had set up camp, the winds had been less powerful during the night, and the group of stragglers were unaware of the events that had occured on the mountain.

But in the morning, they made a gruesome discovery. “We did not know about the ordeal the guys at the summit were experiencing,” remembers Ianne. “We were nice and dry. We even cooked some popcorn in our tent. After spending Friday night at the clearing, we decided to leave our camp and see how our friends in the lead group were doing. The wind was not so strong as before but the morning fog was thick.”

The came across the group of three, including Rachel, who was sick. They had stayed in their makeshift shelter in the forest after Alan had gone for help. “They were alright,” Ianne recalled. “Then we got to the rope ladder and to the trail leading to the “Knife’s Edge”. That’s when we saw Neptali’s body. In our group was one of Neptali’s two nephews, who saw the body and immediately broke down. He begged the climbers not to tell the other nephew, who was in the group that was at the summit.

As the weather continue to improve gradually, those at the summit prepared for their descent. When they heard the sweeper group approaching, one of the summit climbers went down and asked them not to mention the death to Neptali’s second nephew, who was already very worried about his missing uncle.

Of course, there was plenty of bickering and recrimination between the leaders as the groups reunited at the summit. The rear group sweeper, MESAU’s vice-president, cursed the middle and lead group leaders for abandoning Neptali on the trail. The rear group leader claimed he knew they would not make it to the summit before dark, and so had decided instead to set up camp in the forest clearing. Anyway, he figured, the middle group leader was on hand to keep an eye on his walkers. But this guide had gone ahead with the lead group leader to pitch the tents at the summit. So no one was there to sweep up the stragglers.

While this was going on, some of the climbers, including Ronald, went back for the body. “We wrapped Neptali’s body in a sleeping bag and put it behind the bushes where we hoped his newphew wouldn’t see it. We knew it would throw him into a panic and did not want to have to worry about one more climber.”

By noon, the 29 climbers began a slow and slippery descent of Mount Halcon, sticking to the format of a lead group, middle group and sweeper group. But by 4:30pm the rain had resumed – a constant battering downpour, stronger than ever. The lead and middle group encountered the same problem they had the day before – finding a clearing in the dense forest in which to make camp. Eventually they came across an area of flat terrain left over from a mini-landslide, and here they pitched five tents.

Flash flood

For a couple of the hikers, worse was still to come. Alan and Rachel – who was flu-stricken – were “buddy climbing”. They stumbled down the mountain 50m behind their companions, but their progress was unexpectedly blocked by a flash flood. Alan waded into the torrent but lost his backpack. Nonetheless, he made it to the opposite bank and reached the landslide camp a short time later, where he raised the alarm. Not waiting for his helpers to catch up, Alan hurriedly returned to Rachel across the rapidly rising flood.

Five trekkers were cajoled into leaving the safety and relative warmth of their tents to assist with the rescue. But by the time they reached the flash flood, it had swelled even further. They realized it would be foolish to attempt to cross. Alan and Rachel were therefore left to spend the night with only a couple of plastic bin liners for shelter.

By the following morning, the rain had subsided to a drizzle and the lead group returned to the two stranded climbers and helped them back to the landslide camp. Exhaustion, two nights exposed to the frigid conditions and her own sickness eventually caught up with Rachel, who fainted as she was being led to the camp. But at least all of the 29 walkers were together again.

Teamwork at last

The other girls in the camp dressed Rachel in any dry items of clothing they could lay their hands on. They took turns to keep her warm and give her food. They were painfully aware that the sick girl would not be able to make it down the mountain by herself. Her knees were swollen, and they suspected tendon damage.

But food was running low and while the MESAU group were still carrying some raw peanuts and raw dried fish, there was certainly not enough to share between all of them. Rationing of food had already started the day before on the summit.

At 10am two healthy walkers, Lyndon Martillano and Ian Tecson, volunteered to continue their descent of Mount Halcon in order to raise the alarm. At the same time this pair were making their descent, fresh group of hikers – unaware of the drama of the preceding two days – were already setting out on their own climbs.

The two volunteers from the stranded group met a group of climbers who were on their way up. Hearing what had happened, five of the ascending climbers agreed to continue the climb to aid the stranded university groups. The remaining fresh climbers helped the other two walkers back down the mountain. Most importantly, they had radios with them, and so were able to immediately alert the outside world.

The five fresh climbers made it to the landslide camp at around 9am the next day. By this time they were in radio contact with rescuers at the foot of the mountain. At 10:30am, they accompanied an exhausted group of climbers on the final descent from the landslide camp, leaving behind Rachel and five others. At 1pm, they reached the Dulangan River where another group of rescuers were waiting to take them back to Aplaya, the base camp that had accommodated them on the first night of their trek. On the way to Aplaya, they also met a group of HALMS rescuers carrying food and medicine and accompanied by Mangyan porters.

At Aplaya base camp, the party sent smoke signals and waved colorful shirts and backpacks in an attempt to attract the helicopters they could hear but not see. No helicopter could penetrate the dense, low cloud and the trekkers resigned themselves to spending another night on the mountain.

Two additional Philippine Air Force helicopters were ordered to join the two already involved the search, and soon after dawn the following morning, the survivors were awoken by the sound of rotors. This time their smoke signals were seen, but the pilots, loathe to be caught out by thickening cloud, landed just long enough to pick up the females and weaker climbers. Eight of the students were flown to the Oriental Mindoro Provincial Hospital. The rest walked back to Barrio Lantuyan, their bags carried by Mangyans, arriving at 12:30pm.

Choppers to the rescue

Meanwhile, coordination between the other two helicopters and a ground rescue team overcame multiple difficulties to rescue the six remaining trekkers from the landslide campite. Pilots identified a landing spot about one hour’s walk from where the survivors had been spotted and headed there to wait. Rachel was in a lot of pain and would not eat. She certainly could not walk. With great difficulty, she was carried by stretcher for four hours to the waiting aircraft, with ground rescuers hacking at obstacles along the ultra-narrow path as they went.

Finally reunited at Barrio Lantuyan, the 29 survivors were fed and wrapped in dry clothes before riding back to Calapan, where the party attended a thanksgiving church service and called their families. On Oct. 26, Ian Tecson accompanied a five-man helicopter team to the summit to recover Neptali’s still-intact body from the bushes beside the trail.

Post-mortem

No one can argue that the group of students who set out to conquer Mount Halcon during Typhoon Katring had more than their share of bad luck. But at least a portion of the responsibility for this tragic mis-adventure must go to the hikers themselves. Their plans were vague, their equipment inadequate, and their awareness of the potential dangers of hypothermia appeared non-existent.

Although Mount Halcon is not a “difficult” peak to climb, the lesson is clear: on any trip to mountain areas, a healthy respect for the elements is important.

3 comments to A Death on Mt. Halcon

  • Matthew Bernardo

    Even the most prepared climber has to be able to recognize the fact that when the weather starts turning bad, the climb has to be scrubbed. I was with two friends on a hike up Mt. Makiling on May 11, 2006 that would have proved to be fatal if I hadn’t decided to strike the camp and head back down the mountain. Even a short 7.9km hike like Makiling is extremely hazardous in bad weather conditions, and the quick decision to abandon the summit and head back while TY Caloy was moving in on us saved us from becoming popsicles. All in all, the fatigue from hiking the total of nearly 15km (going up the weather was fine, going down is was raining and freezing cold) with only two 30minute food breaks the whole time(total time elapsed from start to return was from 11am on May 11 to 2:30am of May 12) proved to be horrendous. The data from climbs like these should be shared and used to educate other trekkers on the dangers of climbing in bad weather. Even very strong, knowledgeable, and fully equipped climbers as we were started to fall below the physical and mental conditioning ‘curve’ in those terrible conditions. By recognizing these hazards, fatal mistakes can be avoided.
    Always remember my dear fellow trekkers, one death on the trail is one too many. Let us teach others what we know and also enforce safety measures to prevent any recurrences like this tragedy on Mt. Halcon.

  • ERWIN

    Every climber must have two reasons in mind before he/she climbs any mountain. One is for leisure and the other is to learn to cope with suffering. If a climber expects his climb to be a “walk-in-a-park” one, he is certainly up for a big disappointment which may probably lead to a disastrous climb. One must be prepared to cope with the ever changing conditions of a mountain, no matter how minor the climb is.

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