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Mt. Ampacao Hike June 18, 2006

In Search of the Surviving Mossy Forest

Can I Come?
When Aklay mentioned he was doing a hike beyond Mt. Ampacao in search of the surviving mossy forest, I immediately raised my hand with a "can I come?" look. I wasn't taking a chance he might not ask me to come. He probably feels I'm an itch he can't get rid of anyway. He casually said, "I'll leave at 7am...wear long pants". Yes!

Demang Route
The hike started benignly along the narrow walks of Demang leading to the slope. It's the quickest and steepest way to Ampacao. Mt. Ampacao is the steepest and highest point within the immediate Sagada area. Smart's cell site is installed on top of it, which serves as its landmark. It's the same climb I took last year via Ambasing when I climbed Ampacao on my mountain bike.

Mossy Forest - Lost!
On the way to the summit, Aklay pointed out what's left of a once vibrant mossy forest - trees cut off to make way for a cabbage patch. My heart just sank. Like a coral reef, a mossy forest is a long-enduring masterpiece of nature that takes a few hundred (perhaps thousand) years in the making. It serves as a watershed that supports streams that eventually find its way to houses as drinking water, or irrigation for lower-land crops. Now it's gone. For what? P5,000 worth of cabbage?

The climb provided spectacular views of the neighboring villages along narrow trails that drop off on the slope. It wasn't scary though...there's ample margins. We reached the summit after 2 hours of hiking, and were greeted by its welcoming committee - cows. They check you out if you brought salt for them. The shepherds usually put a handful on their open palms, yell out, "aaaaasin" (salt), and the cows come and lick the salt off their palms. Too bad I didn't bring some.

We whiled away the time at the summit as Aklay pointed out routes on the horizon and where it led to - waterfalls, water sources, remote villages, bikeable ridges, etc. I was busy munching on his whole wheat bread and lime dark chocolate as I listened intently. He seems to know the landscape like the back of his hand.

Mossy Forest Trailhead
We continued our hike down the other side, in search of the surviving mossy forest. This is where the real fun starts. Even Aklay hasn't been there and was winging his way to find the trailhead. He found what seemed to be a trail. Maybe it was a trail years ago, but the forest has taken over.

A short glimpse of the forest interior gave away a world in complete contrast to what surrounds it. It seemed night and day. On one side was a sunny grassland and on the other side was a thick, overgrown and slippery forest rich with ferns, orchids and lots of moss hanging from the trees. The forest floor was wet with mostly dead leaves and rotting twigs that made for a good 'earth pad'.

The mossy forest was on a steep slope that went down into a stream we could hear...but not see. We slipped and slid as Aklay blazed our way with a machete. I couldn't complain. I was on my Salomon hiking boots while Aklay was barefoot!

Forest Marks
At times, the trail just disappears. Aklay would then look for 'marks' - branches cut off by a machete at a sharp angle - it points out the direction taken by whoever went there first. Experience has taught Aklay a lot of these 'tips' that he selflessly passed on to me.

Tarzan Kids
When it seemed impenetrable, lo and behold, 2 kids showed up offering to lead the way with their machetes. They navigated the way down with considerable ease, as they cut branches, overgrown shrubs and plants that got in the way. These 10-year olds were as skilled with their machetes as Aklay is as skilled with his spatula. They even offered me a drink from their cut-down bamboo shoot . Finally, we came upon the stream. We helped ourselves drinking mineral spring water that tasted as good as it was refreshing. As if to provide a show for us, the kids cut off more trees to clear the way for them to swing on the vines hanging from the forest canopy. They were like Tarzan! I couldn't believe it.

Follow the Stream
When it was time to move on, Aklay chose to follow the stream down to where it flowed to. I thought he was kidding. There was no trail whatsoever along the stream. That meant tip-toeing on top of protruding rocks, soaking our feet on the stream, and making the most of whatever we could step on, as we duct and swayed away the flora in front of us. That's exactly what we did with a few spills and slips along the way.

20-Ft Drop
As if that was not difficult enough, we came upon a 20-foot waterfall with no trail. We were left to navigate a near-vertical slippery slope to traverse into, with hardly anything to hold on to - a slip meant plunging down that 20-ft fall into the rocky base of the waterfall. If it was just me, I'd back off. The frenchman, as crazy as he is, went ahead anyway and got to the other side in one piece. There was no choice but to follow suit. At least, I knew it was already humanly possible. That was the scariest part of the entire hike for me. We both came out in one piece, but it took me a while to recover from the ordeal.

50-Ft Waterfall
Continuing our trek along the stream, we came upon a trail that took us off the stream flow. We followed the trail anyway - good choice. It turns out the stream turned into a magnificent 50-ft waterfall with absolutely no way of safely getting down to, except to rappel - ropes, harness and belaying device, a must. Amazingly, not even Aklay who has scouted nearly every trail within a 10-km radius knew of this waterfall. How to get back to that waterfall going upstream is another story - it may not even be accessible.

Homeward Bound
People usually connect a waterpipe from the water source to their plantation. Following the pipe was a guarantee of safe haven in case you get lost. We found such a pipe and followed it until we finally came upon a clearing that took us back to the base of the Smart tower. From there, we took the Ambasing route back to the Poblacion.

Ending Thoughts
Blazing our trail with a machete, slipping and sliding down a mossy forest, drinking from a bamboo shoot, kids swinging on a vine ála Tarzan, traversing on a slippery slope with a 20-ft drop, filling our bottles with spring-fed! I never thought a hike could be that exciting and scary. I got more scared on this hike than I did climbing Mt. Pulag! Once again, Aklay did not disappoint. He kicked up hiking one notch higher by displaying his supreme confidence and skill as he took on the trail with his inimitable style of derring-do. It pays to tag along this crazy frenchman. Merci boucoup, mon ami!

--- TheLoneRider

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