In any adventure, the intended results are never assured. This is one of the things I’ve learned in so many epic bike rides, trail runs, climbs, and travels. When you think you think you got everything planned and figured out, a moment’s inattention can have nature throwing you a sucker punch and leaving you dazed, confused and wondering what went wrong.
We knew that mountain biking Mt. Ugo was never going to be an easy task. But we calculated the risks versus our own abilities and made as much preparation as we could. Still, this was mountain biking: a sport where risk can never fully be taken out of the equation, an activity where taking risks is part of the satisfaction.
Day 2 of our mountain bike trip to Mt. Ugo started at around 8 in the morning. The ground was still wet and sloshy from the night’s rain, and we needed to check our gear first before embarking on the trek up the summit. I was feeling much much better after the night’s rest.
After saying our goodbyes and thank yous to the people of Domolpos who hosted us, we got on our bikes and started on the trail. We could see the cloud-covered summit of Mt. Ugo from the school. If we were just hiking, I have little doubt that the trek would probably have taken only around two hours. But since we were carrying bikes, we knew it was going to take us much longer.
Trek to the Summit
The trek from Domolpos to the summit proved even more challenging than the previous day’s hike-a-bike. The terrain was steeper and the several sections of path were narrower, with cliffs on the side that were several stories deep. Again, the clouds on the horizon didn’t bode well. Unlike the previous day when it was all sunshine in the morning, it was all clouds and light misty rain on Day 2.
Instead of taking us 3 hours, the trek to the summit took us almost four hours. Our guide Primo said that on a clear day, you could see all the way to Pangasinan. But that day, we couldn’t see past a hundred meters because of the thick cloud. At least cel signal was up. Some of the guys used the downtime to send messages to their families and friends.
I uploaded a few photos. Coming from a generation where you had to lineup to use a payphone and getting a PLDT landline took ages, I am still amazed at how technology has shrunk the world.
We had lunch and got ready for the way down. We were tired from another gruelling hike, but we were all also in very high spirits because it was going to be mostly downhill from summit. After all the excruciating uphill rides and hike-a-bikes, we could finally get some reward.
At least that was the case in the first few minutes. After a while the terrain became too steep for riding safely and we all had to carefully hike down with our bikes in tow. As anyone with mountaineering experience knows, it is oftentimes more difficult to go down than to go up.
But some sections of the trail were rideable. And when you could ride them, it was just pure magic. Riding the narrow trails which hugged the cliffs made me feel like Nik Wallenda walking the rope over the Grand Canyon or the late great Dean Potter in one of his slackline classics.
When you ride a beautiful but challenging terrain, you enter a certain zone of clarity while executing your lines. You get wrapped up in a state of Zen where all the noises of existence fade away into the background and it’s just you and the moment, you and your choices, you and the ecstasy of being proved correct in each turn.
But like I said at the start of this story, in any real adventure, success is never certain.
Bong, one of our riders made a simple miscalculation of putting his foot down on a tricky trail, which caused him to lose his balance. Before he knew it, he was falling down a very steep ravine.
No one actually saw it happen, one of the other riders just heard a scream. We quickly regrouped and started looking for Bong. Fortunately, he could still talk. We tried to zero in on his voice but because of the tall grass and the tricky terrain, it took us about 20 minutes to find him
I and one of the guides found him in a gully almost 50 feet down the side of the trail. He was bloodied in the face. I took some betadine from my first aid kit and had our female guide put some on his wound. I took off my rainjacket and draped it over him as light misty rain was coming down.
One of the worst things that could happen in a fall like that was getting a spinal fracture. I asked him if he could feel his legs. He could. I asked him if he could move his legs. He could. This meant that at least, the worst didn’t happen: his back was OK and there was no paralysis. Still he was in a lot of pain.
Like any mountain biker who fell down a cliff, one of the first things he said was: Bro, kumusta bike ko? That lightened up the mood a bit. Such is the attitude of a real biker.
Meanwhile, Ohmar and the others rode ahead to call for help. Joseph, and JM and I stayed behind to care for our fallen friend.
Just when we thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, it started to rain–not the light misty kind of rain which we had been experiencing all morning, but real rain that drenches.
We needed to get our friend out of that gully and onto a much higher ground because if the rain got any stronger, the gully might flood. JM, who is trained in emergency response with the UST mountaineers had us rig a makeshift stretcher from long pieces of wood and our jackets and shirts. We were able to move our friend to higher ground, but now the three of us were exposed to the elements. The rain didn’t let up.
Bong was a veteran of several epic rides in the Cordillera. He had actually ridden on Ugo before. He was also with me during our ride on Bobok-Bisal, and has even done the Sagada-Tirad Pass traverse on a bike. In Metro Manila’s MTB circles, he’s known as strong and skillful biker, and a familiar face in some of the bigger more prestigious races. This accident wasn’t supposed to happen to him. He was never reckless. But like I said, in mountain biking you are always taking your chances.
After a few hours, help finally arrived. Three locals from sitio Lusod came, but they also brought with them some bad news. Another biker from our group had an accident and broke his foot.
Since it was already starting to get dark and we were getting more and more drenched in the rain, JM and I decided to head on down to sitio Lusod ahead of the rescue team while Bong was getting hoisted onto another makeshift stretcher. We no longer bothered with riding our bikes because the light was fading and the trail was too slick and muddy.
An hour or so later, the sun had completely set and it was pitch black in the forest. We had to rely on just the beams from our flashlights. In the dark, it was easy to get lost amid the forking trails of Ugo. JM’s mountaineering experience came in handy as we read footprints and tire tracks in the mud to figure out where to go. Sometimes the tracks seemed washed out by the rain. But thankfully we always made the correct turn.
We met another local who helped us navigate a tricky part of the trail. He was from Lusod and he was part of the rescue team. He said Lusod was just a few kilometers away. While a few kilometers of walking in Metro Manila is no big deal, Cordillera kilometers are different. We understood that it was still a long way to shelter.
En route to Lusod, the rescue team caught up with us. I was just amazed with these mountain men. It was incredible how fast they made the trek while carrying our fallen friend in a makeshift gurney.
Hungry, tired and cold, we finally made it Lusod where the other members of our group were waiting for us.
We also found the other member of our group who had an accident. He was another unlikely victim of a mishap. Jonathan is a downhill biker who has done his tour of duty not just in the Cordillera, but down Mt. Halcon itself. When it came to technical descents, he was probably the most skilled among us. While riding, something got into his eye. He bailed on his bike but landed in an awkward position. We would learn later that it was a serious and painful fracture.
Rescue and Extraction
We will forever be grateful to Mang Gregorio, Aling Lourdes and the Lusod community who took care of our injured brothers while we waited for medical help from the Barangay Hall down in Tinongdan.
I accompanied the rescue team who brought one of our fallen friends down to Tinongdan that night. This was an equally arduous trek. While it had stopped raining, the trail was still very wet and slippery. Some parts of the trail were completely washed out.
I thought it was incredible how most of the members of the extraction team were walking down the trail barefoot. They never slipped despite carrying my friend, who probably weighs 160 lbs or around 70 kilos on a stretcher. Their stamina and balance while descending the technical terrain in the middle of the night were just amazing.
It was almost 5am when we finally reached the road. But there were added complications to the rescue. The strong rains from the previous day caused landslides along the road. Still, the rescuers of Tinongdan never faltered. These men have my highest respect. I wish I could have shared a beer or a round of Empy Lite with these guys under better circumstances. But tired and sleep-deprived as I was, I couldn’t even share a joke with them.
An ambulance finally brought us to a hospital in Baguio where Bong got patched up and checked. He was still fortunate for not sustaining any life-threatening injury. Jonathan arrived at the hospital a few hours later.
It was a definitely a trip for the books–something each one of us would not easily forget.
To be continued in Part 3: Lessons Learned and Tips for the Would-be Ugo Bikers