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On the Mt. Ugo Biking Controversy

Mountain Biking Mt. Ugo

Leaving Sitio Lusod

Apparently, our ride on Mt. Ugo and the accident suffered by members of our group caused a controversy in the mountain biking community. Dennis Lee, or cowpatchman as he is known in the biking forums, has been particularly vocal in his criticism of what happened on Ugo. As is often in social media, initial posts generate more heat than light, more anger than discernment. But after a few exchanges between me and Dennis, some of the real issues have been fleshed out.

Because I consider these issues to be important, I opted to treat this exchange as another article so that it doesn’t get buried as just another comment in my previous post on Ugo. So here is Dennis’ recent reply to my earlier comment, as well as my reply to his reply.

From Dennis Garett Lee aka Cowpatchman:

I’m not going to question the credentials of your guide Ohmar as a mountaineer but I do have a few points to get across. I understand that such a trip requires careful preparation and your team did. You have mentioned, it’s the closest thing to Everest for mountain bikers here and it is. As with Everest, there is a time and season to climb it for safety’s sake and for maximum enjoyment. Even the most prepared won’t stand a chance on Everest if they climbed in the off season, if ever, they’d be extremely lucky, like winning the lottery twice over with the same number combination.

Firstly, the time that your group rode Mt. Ugo wasn’t the right season because of the rainy season (which your team has experienced) and the ever changing weather of that mountain and its environ. Even during the right riding season, Mt. Ugo is still temperamental and has huge mood swings. That’s why the time you were there, the locals were at ease, knowing not much activity occurs on the mountain at this time of the year and that’s why even trail running events are not held during these months.
If ever we do ride in the off season, which we rarely do, we never ever take first timers with us because we know the risks. We have been riding and guiding there for years and I can proudly say my team knows it like the back of our hand. When we guide would be riders, we just don’t let them join, we make sure they have the experience, the skill and strength. Often times we let them ride our local trails here in Baguio and Benguet just to see and assess if they have it. Sadly, not everyone makes it and we’ve had our fair share of smiles turning upside down. That formula has been working for us and it was to the benefit of all riders who biked with us. The riders enjoyed immensely because we didn’t have to wait for someone walking a section, because he can’t ride it or someone who was dead tired and can’t continue.
The worse accidents so far were just a few scrapes and bruises and we hope it stays that way and nothing worse than that. If our veteran friends tag some of their riding buddies that we don’t know, we put the responsibility and the burden on them to screen and vouch for them but still do a test ride with them if we have to.
I quote you in part 2 of the blog: “So here’s tip 1 from Dennis Lee: If you’re biking Mt. Ugo, dapat kasing galing kayo ni Cowpatchman.” I partly agree on that statement but I want to add, they even have to be better than me. Please don’t take that as arrogance, take that as a pointer that would make riding Ugo as safe and enjoyable as possible. Accidents are inevitable but we want it to be minimized as much as possible and I have stated the reasons in the above lines already.
We have guided pros, riders better than us and even foreigners who are seasoned riders of Whistler and the Alps. We have learned a lot from them in terms of skills, tips and even advice on how best to guide riders. One of them even said the best compliment of Mt. Ugo and he sums it up in this short statement: “F*ck Whistler.” They even agreed with us that this trail system isn’t just for anyone to ride. Guess what, they’ll be back this year for their 3rd time on Ugo at the RIGHT time to ride it. Did the guide give much thought on the season to organize this tour?

Secondly, in guiding riders all these years, we never ever charged a centavo for our services, save only for the fees we pay at Kayapa and Tinongdan and the transportation we hire. For us, riding with friends and enjoying it is payment enough. Believe me, we already have seen the huge potential of Mt. Ugo as a riding destination but we never took advantage of it. I hope others won’t as well just to line their pockets with crisp bills. Why haven’t we taken advantage of it? Because we know that the community and local government is not yet ready at some level to tackle the logistics of extraction and evacuation of downed riders as you have experienced on that sad day. We also know, that when we open it up, there will be a myriad of riders of all shapes and sizes, who might have the money but not the attitude and skill that Mt. Ugo will require to let them ride it and this will spell disaster for the community and the riders themselves for obvious reasons. Did your guide consider this?

Third, I’m no mountaineer but to best experience a locality and its environment, it is but proper and right to contact folks who have been immersed in that place even though you’ve been there a lot of times. Just because you know every corner of a trail system and you’ve been guiding trekkers and hikers there, it doesn’t automatically qualify you to guide bikers or riders when you yourself haven’t tried riding it. I understand, according to your blog, that Bong rode it before, I think that he knew the risks involved and it’s just unfortunate that he was one of the casualties, I hope he’s faring better now. Maybe a little research and some asking around could have resulted in a far better experience for you and your group. When we go to a certain trail in a different location, whether to ride or run it, we ask permission and also ask them to guide us if possible so as not be lost and also for us to be guided on how to handle the locals in terms of communicating with them; which brings me to my last point:
I’m glad that you have experienced different cultures in and out of our country and it has undoubtedly given you a rich experience, but as you already know, we’re all different when it comes to beliefs and practices. Here, when we trek or run these trails and much more bike it, we believe that there are some spirits that live in these mountains and most of us practice the belief of offering something for the spirits before we tackle it, maybe this practice has made all of our rides safe. This is strongly rooted in our psyche, that if we pass through we need to ask for guidance and goodwill to let us pass safely. The people you have encountered both before and after the unfortunate incident are typically shy and reserved, it will take a little prodding to make them speak up and much more to make them reveal their feelings. You were in good hands when they came to the rescue as detailed in your blog because they mean well and are very helpful and hospitable, but I’m sure it came with the frustration of not having the proper equipment and the like to make it more comfortable for the injured. We’re happy though that your group as mentioned by JM Bueno, will go back and make up for it. I applaud that because that’s the right step to take and I’m sure the community will greatly appreciate it especially the folks who were involved in the rescue and retrieval.
I hope you understand now where the frustration and anger is coming from, especially on the thought that someone has already died in those trail systems. You’re right again that it’s only the folks who live in those communities are the ones who will ultimately decide on what they want to do with their environment, but one thing is for sure, they don’t want it to be riddled by incidents that would disrupt their daily lives if only you were there at the right time or season and a little extra asking around, understanding and research would have been done. I sincerely hope all the injured ones are in a better disposition now.

By the way here in the cordillera, we’re not stakeholders when we step into the lands of our own people, we become custodians and guardians of it, looking after the land like it was our own…and that’s deeply ingrained in our culture as a people.

And here is my reply to Dennis Lee:

Thank you again for taking time to respond. I apologize for not being able to reply sooner, as I was scrimping on very expensive wifi credits last week in another country and didn’t have the money or time to rent a PC and check all the emails and notifications I’ve been getting.

Your points are well noted. Apparently, it’s easier to get valid points across when people aren’t hurling invectives at each other, making unwarranted assumptions about the other, or venting out anger and frustration onto social media where these can be amplified and corrupted by debased and lip-licking trolls who can’t be bothered to dig deeper for facts, and are all too eager to inflict their limited vocabulary on others while patting themselves on the back for being so brave and witty.

I agree with you that Ugo is gem for the mountain biking community. I also agree with you that utmost respect for the communities of Ugo is a must for anyone—hiker, trail runner, mountain biker—who wants to visit this mountain.

I have the highest respect for the peoples of the Cordillera. As a student activist back in UP, I participated in the celebration of Cordillera Day. There I learned more about the struggles of the Cordillera peoples, learned more about Macliing Dulag, and became aware of the how indigenous peoples differ from others on their worldview about land, as well as the concept of ancestral domain.

I also spent a week in Balbalasang, Balbalan in Kalinga while working for an environmental organization that’s seeking to protect Balbalasang National Park’s biodiversity. Admittedly, these experiences do not make me an expert on the Cordillera, but they’ve made me sensitive and aware of their beliefs. Maybe it has also given me more than an inkling of the culture, history and environment of this unique region.

I agree with you that maybe our group should have done more to understand the local customs, especially with regards with indigenous beliefs. This would have been a much more culturally enriching experience that goes beyond the momentary highs of mountain biking.

However, I also beg to disagree on a few points.

While I laud you and members of your group for seeking to protect Mt. Ugo and the local communities by taking on the role of unofficial gatekeepers for mountain bikers seeking to enter Ugo, I don’t think “unofficial” will cut it for very long.

Hikers and trail runners have already discovered how great Mt. Ugo is. Mountain bikers are slowly waking up to the possibilities of Ugo, and judging from the number of queries I’ve gotten about how to organize a biking trip on Mt. Ugo, bikers will soon come there in droves.

Mt. Ugo’s local communities can choose to either completely ban biking on the mountain (which would be a tragedy for the entire mountain biking community) or they can choose to manage the flow of bikers flocking to the mountain.

I am no expert when it comes to sustainable tourism, but while working at Haribon, I’ve also seen that national parks have set up blueprints on how activities like hiking and camping can be regulated. This would ensure that these outdoor activities’ impact on the environment can be reduced while also making sure that local communities benefit most from tourism.

In short, the communities themselves should be aided in becoming the official gatekeepers for mountain bikers seeking to enter Mt. Ugo.

While I also agree with you that a high fitness and skill level is required for biking Ugo, I don’t think you should use you and your group’s level as a yardstick for mountain biking on Mt. Ugo.

It’s true that some of the sections of Ugo trail could count as “double black diamond” in the IMBA rating system, and only the very skilled can bomb down those tracks. However, other bikers can also opt to carry their bikes down the sections that are beyond their riding ability.

Not all mountain bikers are in it for the adrenalin rush, others may find satisfaction in simply soaking in the spectacular scenery of Ugo and riding its more accessible sections.If and when Ugo officially opens its gates to mountain bikers, perhaps signs can be installed on the most technical downhill  sections to warn less skilled riders.

But again, this issue about the skill level required of mountain bikers on Ugo should be left for the local communities themselves to determine.

Finally, about the members of the local community who helped us: we will always be in their debt. Without them, there would have been an even worse tragedy on Mt. Ugo. I wish we could each thank them personally for going out of their way to help us then.

While we were in their care, we felt their sincere concern for our fallen brothers. We saw their selfless sacrifice in getting our injured friends down the mountain and into Baguio for professional medical help. Despite their limited resources, they never faltered.

And this is also why some members of our group felt vexed after reading your social media posts. You weren’t there when it happened. You weren’t there among those who helped. But you took it upon yourself to get angry for people from whom we didn’t feel any rancor at all.

When we go back to Ugo, we will humbly accept criticism and censure and even curses from the locals who sheltered us and helped us on the mountain. It’s a different matter taking it from someone who is not from there.

In any case, I share your concern about the possibility that locals may consider a ban on mountain biking in the area. I hope your fears don’t turn out to be true. I know how hard it can be to overturn a ban once it’s been enacted.

Also, when I said that mountain bikers are stakeholders on Mt. Ugo, I never meant to belittle the bond between the Cordillera peoples and their homeland by reducing them to stakeholders. I only meant that mountain bikers have a stake in how Ugo is managed: that Ugo remain open to mountain biking.

I am not aware if a comprehensive plan for managing tourism and outdoor activities is already in effect on Mt. Ugo, but if there’s none yet I hope one can be developed that will address concerns such as access, safety, cultural sensitivity and environmental protection.

Sorry for the long reply, but your detailed and well-written comment deserved as much.

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  • Dennis Garret Lee

    November 1, 2016 at 11:50 am

    This is good. Now both sides have been heard, there are things to be learned and pondered upon not only by me and Art but by everyone and I hope it’ll be a bridge to help us understand our people in this very diverse country.

  • Now this is an intelligent discussion worthy of praise. Good and valid points from both sides. Cheers to you gentlemen!

  • I have had the pleasure and privilege to hike up Mt Ugo on more one ocassion and have always drooled at the idea of bringing my bike there on a hiking trip one day. I am not one adrenaline junkie nor do I have the skills to ride the more technical parts of the trail, so I have envisioned for myself which parts I will be riding and those that I will be walking my rig down. I hope this dream comes into fruition soon, lest a ban is considered on said activity and is subsequently enforced.

    This comment bears no prejudice on a previous blog article nor any social media backlash that ensued as i wasn’t aware of neither before coming upon this one. PEACE YO!

    • Mukhang bikepacking ang trip mo bro. You should join the bikepacking philippines fb group 🙂 ang tindi ng mga nararating nila. I was particularly impressed dun sa grupo na tinagos yung infanta, quezon to baler aurora via coastal sierra madre trails.