Considering that we are living in an archipelago nation known for its beaches and dive spots, our beach-to-trail ratio appears to be a bit off. We have gone on several day hikes. On the other hand, it took S four months to make it to the ocean, and the only sand D has seen in nearly two months in the Philippines is the beach volleyball court in Manila Bay, where his ultimate frisbee team practices.
S sought to change this dynamic, thinking that we would take advantage of the extended Columbus Day weekend to spend some quality time at the beach. However, the Philippines’ Ultimate Frisbee Mixed Nationals were that weekend, and playing in the tournament was a priority for D.
S took the kids to the beach while D spent the weekend playing disc, but she didn’t give up on the idea of a Columbus Day outing. Serving overseas, we have come to appreciate American holidays much more than we valued them in the States. Having a day off when the rest of the country reports to the office – and when the kids still have to go to school – feels like a double holiday.
Choosing from several appealing alternatives, S settled on Mt. Pamitinan – a 1,500-foot limestone peak in the mountainous province of Rizal, just east of Metro Manila. After battling the Monday morning rush hour traffic for two hours, we arrived at the Montalban tourism office. The roads were jam-packed, but that was a small price to pay for having the mountains nearly all to ourselves. In seven hours on the trail, we only passed a small handful of other hiking groups. For most of the day, we were completely alone.
Pamitinan is one of three peaks towering over the landscape near the scenic Wawa dam, with nearby Binacayan and Hapunang Banoi rounding out the so-called Montalban Trilogy. S knew that there were several good hiking options in the area, but the tourist blogs she had read failed to mention that the Trilogy is a popular local hiking challenge. The man at the tourism office was surprised that we would drive all the way from Manila to climb just one of the three peaks, but as D was coming off a two-day, seven-game tournament, we thought it prudent to set a modest target.
The blogs did mention that bringing a pair of hiking gloves would be a good idea, and though we managed perfectly fine with our bare hands, this was a solid recommendation. The trio of Montalban peaks features a lot of scrambling over spiky limestone rocks and boulders. It almost felt as if we were traversing the spine of a sleeping dragon, its scaly hide primed to tear the skin off our fingers.
Compared to Montalban, our previous hikes in Taal and Pinatubo felt like strolls in the park. After passing alongside some dwellings and through a banana plantation at the foothills of Pamitinan, the trail ascended steeply through a bamboo forest, the path chipped out of the clayey soil. We hiked slowly at the outset, with D stopping frequently to take pictures and stretch his sore legs.
After a little less than an hour, we reached a junction with a small bamboo hut from which an old man sold refreshments. It took us another 30-40 minutes to reach the summit, which offered great panoramic views across to Binacayan and – surprisingly – a shady spot for lunch.
Binacayan is Pamitinan’s mirror image – a nearly identical peak that is just two meters shorter, located on the opposite shore of the Marikina River, which we had crossed at the start of our hike. It seemed foolish to drive for several hours and then end our hike before noon. D’s legs felt fine after the ascent, so we asked our guide to extend our adventure to Binacayan.
The guide suggested that if we wanted to climb another peak, we should do Hapunang Banoi instead. The wisdom of this suggestion became evident as soon as we had descended to the refreshment hut, which, sits at the juncture of the two peaks. It took another 30-40 minutes of moderately arduous climbing to bag our second peak of the day. Hapunang Banoi was not even on our radar when we set out for Montalban, and it proved to be our favorite of the three peaks. At 517 meters above sea level, it is 300 feet taller than the other two mountains, and a little bit tougher to climb.
Having ascended two of the three peaks, and with plenty of daylight left, we decided to finish the Trilogy – not because we expected the scenery or views to be drastically different on Binacayan, but rather because D likes the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing a challenge. Returning to finish the Trilogy another day would have required battling more traffic, so summiting all three peaks in one day felt like a moral victory.
Taken individually, none of the three mountains are more than moderately difficult, but strung together the Trilogy proved challenging – not least of all because a lot of the hiking was on exposed terrain under an unforgiving sun. We ran out of water not once, but twice. About ten minutes from the summit of Binacayan, D felt his legs starting to cramp, the cumulative toll from the weekend finally pushing his body to the limit. Pressing on probably was not the smartest decision, but quitting so close to the top was not an option D seriously considered.
The very first hike we did together – right before we started dating – was the Peak Bagger’s Delight trail in Acadia National Park, which strings together four short summits into an enjoyable loop hike. That was just over a decade ago, and made for a pleasant memory as we stretched our legs atop Binacayan, taking in the views of the Sierra Madre mountains and preparing for the laborious descent to our car.