Mt. Ugo is not exactly the highest peak in that ass-kicking mountain region called the Cordillera– that would be Pulag. For experienced hikers, it’s a relatively moderate climb. Nowadays, it is even used as the venue for some of the country’s most prestigious trail running events.
But for mountain bikers, Mt. Ugo is the closest thing to Everest, or El Capitan in the Philippines. Bikers who have ridden its trails swear that Ugo’s gnarl factor is off the charts. If there was an hors categorie in mountain biking, Ugo was supposed to be it.
So when a friend from Valleybikes asked me if I wanted to join an exploration bike trip to Mt. Ugo, I said: Oh… Hell…. Yeah!!! There was no way on Middle Earth that I was going to miss the chance to be part of this sacred Fellowship and its grand quest.
I tried to prepare for Mt. Ugo. But circumstances beyond anyone’s control swept away any thought of physically preparing for this major bike and hike sufferfest. I knew I was out of shape, but like I said, there was no way I was going to miss this. I was also feeling the onset of sickness and was trying to counteract it by substance-abusing Strepsils, Berocca, and Biogesic.
There were 8 of us in the group: Ohmar was an experienced mountain guide and tour operator who was the brains behind this undertaking, Joseph was the guy behind Valleybikes who recruited me into the fray. Gino, Bong, JM, Mike and Jonathan completed the motley crew of bikers who barely had a clue of what was expecting us on Mt. Ugo.
All of the guys were using full suspension trail bikes. I felt odd being the only one on a hardtail. But I had used this steel hardtail before on the Mt. Isarog enduro and the Cordillera Challenge 6 so I knew it was a pretty capable bike.
The short stem and wide 730mm bars gave it a measure of control over the rough stuff, while beefy 2.4 inch Trail King tires on wide 35mm Blunt rims gave it plenty of traction and damping. The addition of a dropper post also meant that it was going to handle well on moderately technical downhills.
Still, the lack of squish on the rear meant that when it came to the truly gnarly stuff, I would have to pick my lines carefully. Just to be on the safe side, I opted to use Spyder Sigma 2 full face helmet.
We left Manila at around 12 midnight and arrived in Baguio at 5am the next day. After loading our bikes onto a rented jeepney, we left for Kayapa, Nueva Vizcaya at around 6. We were packed like sardines into the jeepney with our camping equipment and bikes.
We barely had any sleep. Still, along the way, we couldn’t help but wake up every now and then to admire the scenery unfolding before us courtesy of the mountain roads of the Cordillera. I told myself that someday I will return to this area on my Royal Enfield and ride the hell out of it. But for now, it was all mountain biking.
Or so I thought.
We arrived at Brgy. Pangawan, Kayapa, Nueva Vizcaya at around 10:30. After unpacking our stuff and checking our bikes, I took a look at the mountain and had a premonition that it was going to involve more hiking than biking. Thankfully, we had porters for the food and camping equipment.
Our itinerary called for a one-day assault on the peak from Brgy, Pangawan, Kayapa Nueva Vizcaya, and a one-day downhill bike ride to Brgy. Tinongdan, Itogon, Benguet. If we didn’t have porters, it would have been a three-day trek.
The paved double track from the elementary school soon gave way to dirt singletrack. Not long after, singletrack gave way to zero-track in a thick thick forest.
At one point I was wondering if we had taken a wrong turn because there was no way that this could be a biking trail. It was technical even for hikers. We had to crawl under fallen logs, tear through thickets of vines, and drag our bikes for most of the way. The little leeches called limatik didn’t help either. Almost everyone got a bloody souvenir courtesy of those damned limatik.
But after that we emerged onto a clearing where there was a dirt road leading to Sitio Domolpos. The rest of the way seemed bikeable.
It started to rain a bit while we were on our way to Domolpos. Thick fog blanketed the trail and hinted at a much stronger rain coming soon. Curiously, we found a stall selling freshly brewed coffee, beer and snacks at a waiting shed along the way. I can’t tell you enough how thankful everyone felt after having a warm cup of true Cordillera coffee while the temperature kept dropping.
Unfortunately, the weather gods weren’t done with us yet. Before we could even feel the effects of the caffeine fix, the mother of all thunderstorms struck. Out of nowhere, freezing wind and rain started whipping us like a scene from Frozen minus the cheesy soundtrack.
Since it was almost 5pm already and the light was dying down, we decided to make a run for sitio Domolpos before the weather got even crazier and we were left groping in the dark fog for directions. We weren’t going to gun for the Ugo campsite anymore, since it might take us another three hours to get there and we were all tired and hungry.
The downhill to Domolpos was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. It wasn’t a very long descent but it was enough to kick up the adrenaline and recharge us after a whole day of uphell hike-a-biking. Despite the muddy rain-soaked trail, we flew through the dirt road.
But just as we were starting to savor the flow of the downhill, we ended at the shortcut foot trail to the sitio. At first we thought it was bikeable. But after a few spills, we thought better than tempting fate. I was glad that I put on a fullface helmet on that trail. A nasty spill sent me face-first into the dirt and broke the visor. I probably would have had a bloody nose and a fat lip if it weren’t for the chin guard and visor.
Instead of pitching tents, we just set up our sleeping bags and packs in one of the rooms of the Domolpos school. It was already dark by then and we were just wet, freezing and dead tired.
After a quick dinner, it was snorefest concerto. We could only hope that the weather would be better the next day.