Pinoy Trails Contributor Jes Aranzaso shares their quest in Finding the Penguin at Mount Sicapoo in Ilocos.
The Summit and the Penguin Rock (1230H)
We did not find the Penguin. The Penguin found us. And when it did, we were joyful and jubilant at the same time weary and sleepy. Cold winds were blowing and the clouds were playing with us. For a moment there would be clearing, and in an instant it would be gone. Why did not I bring my light jacket? Wow, this Penguin Rock formation is really huge! I saw online photos of mountaineers standing atop this rock, but I was not keen on climbing it.
I did not even bother to know how it was possible, or if there was a need for rope. I was content on looking at it, admiring it, and embracing the feeling of fulfillment finally reaching the Summit of Mount Sicapoo (2,354+ MASL), considered as the roof of Ilocos and the highest among the Solsona Mountain Range’s nine peaks or the so-called Mt. Sicapoo Traverse via Mts. Timarid-Simagaysay a.k.a. the Rosary Trail.
Mount Sicapoo was a 9/9 Kind of Climb
We could not disregard the cold, but Edjie and I could not ignore as well the beautiful view that was upon us. We could not help but smile, both on the outside and from the inside. At last, after trekking more than 10 hours along unforgiving trails, though without lack of charm and splendor, we safely got to this mountain top. That was one satisfying and challenging hike, and we were only half-way through it (going down is mandatory)! After all, the mountain is rated 9/9, to which I fully agree.
This was Edjie’s first 9/9 climb and so far, so good. We paused and took pictures, as were our companions, and they were already on their jackets, at noon time. We had our lunch at the Matalidong (2,100 MASL) ridge where we regrouped before the final summit assault. Not too long, and everyone silently agreed and decided to take a nap—siesta time!
The Whys on this crazy adventure.
Why on earth did we choose to day hike this mountain? We were not without warning. We all understood and expected that it would be incredibly difficult, and not to mention hazardous, but the potential risks were all accepted by each one of us. Were we looking for something to brag about? We were not. Did we want to boost our pride and ego? We did not.
Personally, I joined the event for two reasons: (1) Mt. Sicapoo was on my 2017 to climb list; and (2) for my trail training mileage—the distance and the elevation gain—needed for an upcoming (and my first) 100-kilometer trail ultra race. The assumption, of course, was that I was ready for it. One does not join a hike, especially a major climb, unprepared, if one wants to minimize the probability of untoward incidents. It is a lesson you do not like to learn the hard way. However, no matter how equipped you thought you are there will always be new experiences for you to learn from. And I think that is great.
The Summit to Saulay Junction (1330-1600H)
At around KM 35, at the peak of Mt. Simagaysay (1,341 MASL), at about 9:30pm, after most of us had a 30-minute power nap, our longest during the entire hike, my GPS watch ran on low battery and stopped functioning as intended except showing the actual time. I realized we were already hiking for 19 hours and 30 minutes since 2am that day and yet there were still more than 10 kilometers of trails remaining for us to complete the traverse.
It was that very moment that I faced one of the most difficult, not to mention tricky, choices I had to make in hiking: what to do with my last 100mL water. Would it be best to conserve it for the miles ahead? Or would it be negligible then thus best drink it now to quench my thirst? Either way, I was already slightly dehydrated since 1:30pm at the summit when I drank the last few drops of my 3L water which I brought from the jump-off.
One good thing though, I left a 1L bottle of water at the Saulay (1,286 MASL) junction for the descent. So I had no choice but to trek from the Sicapoo summit to the Saulay junction without re-hydrating from 1:30pm to 4pm. That took me some exceptional pacing strategies, as going too fast would entail sweating excessively while taking it too slow would mean longer time on the trails without drinking. Since the only goal that time was to reach the Saulay junction, I was less worried. I knew I would be safe and that it would take longer time for me to be dehydrated enough and feel the headache.
Refueling with Burgers
Upon reaching Saulay junction, Edjie and I rested and ate the burgers we bought from a local burger shop last night. Both of us bought three pieces, allocated for the three major meals of the day during the trek. Since it was only 4pm, it was an early dinner, anyways, we still had some trail foods in our packs. We lay down on the grass and tried to take a nap while waiting for them.
We were thankful that the rain already stopped albeit we were still surrounded by fog or low clouds which meant a downpour might still happen anytime. I was lost in my sleep for a while and found them complete when I woke up. It was a great feeling, I was ready to go and climb the remaining mountains ahead. After everyone had rest and refueled, the group finally decided to push through at 5:30pm. Before looking forward to the trails leading to the last two mountains, we quickly looked back to the other side of the junction where we came from that morning.
The Jump-off to Saulay Junction (0200-0800H)
Our trek started at 2am that summer day. With our headlamps on, and after stretching and brief prayer, we entered the trails with excitement and enthusiasm. Barely 20 minutes passed and we were already crossing the first river, which made our shoes wet that early, except for those who were patient enough to remove them. But with a lot of river crossings still coming our way, it was futile for me to do it.
Countless times, we crossed the same body of water, I think, in different parts of the trail. They call it the “Gasgas River” if I heard it correctly. Luckily, the waters were shallow as it was summer and the deepest part we experienced was about knee-deep. What made some of the portions difficult was trying to balance your feet and swiftly move forward on the tiny edges of the smooth rocks they call trail or fall and swim in the deep parts of the river. We all had to be careful as we were tackling these sections in the dark. Or maybe that was a good thing.
Approaching the Solsona Mountain Range
By the last river, we were advised to refill empty bottles with water and to eat our breakfast for the assaults to come. While waiting for everyone to finish eating, I took a nap. Then we were off to go. At last, after the seemingly endless river crossings, the assault part started. The dawn was already breaking. The beauty of the Solsona Mountain Range was upon us. How could you complain about the steep ascents when you were busy admiring the views around you, 360 degrees, and you knew the sun would be up in no time? I could not count how many times I shouted “Wow!” whenever the angle of the surrounding views changed as I continued to move up.
Edjie and I were power hiking the uphill parts and bomb running the relatively flat portions of the trail. Our lead guide could not hide his smile seeing us enjoying, especially when I said to him, “Kuya, ang ganda naman ng lugar nyo! Dito pa lang, sulit na sulit na agad ang pagdayo namin sa Ilocos!”
Mount Sicapoo is for the Fearless
Due to the mountain’s natural level of difficulty, location and distance, in addition to the hazards of crossing the rivers and walking on the knife-edge trails during adverse weather or the rainy season, and not to mention the cost, Mt. Sicapoo does not normally attract large crowd of hikers. Maybe because of this, the trails remained clean, neat and relaxing to look at. Apart from us hikers, there was nothing to gaze but earth colors. There was nothing to breathe in but fresh air. There was nothing to hear but the healing sounds of nature. There was no noise, no traffic, and no pollution, but rather only peace, harmony and magnificence. There was nothing to worry about, it seemed. It was indeed a wonderful feeling of being one with nature.
The Marvelous Gaze of Sunrise
Sunrise came marvelously, so we decided to take five, or fifteen to watch it. We sat on the grass under a pine tree after passing a knife-edge section which looked spectacular. We took some photos as we would not be passing through these trails (up to the Saulay junction) again during the descent. We had to capture its beauty although the pictures might not be able to give justice to it. We just had to try, or risk forgetting. The first peak was Balbalitok (1,010 MASL), which we would only see once just like the eighth and ninth peaks.
When everybody had rest, we proceeded and entered the trail descending to the woodland and the forest. It was a welcome to the group as the shade of trees shielded us from the heat of the sun. Then came more pine trees along the trail, so we tirelessly continued pursuing the ascent, taking five when we felt it was needed, munching trail foods along the way, and chatting about a hodgepodge of things including what to eat post-climb before leaving Ilocos.
I was thinking about the mouthwatering Ilocos empanada, the tasty longganisa, crunchy chichacorn, and the sinful bagnet! I was also craving for halo-halo and ice-cold buko juice at that time while eating delicious banana chips from Mindoro which I bought after my Halcon climb three weeks past. Thankfully, it was a good match with my Gatorade. Next thing I knew, we were already at the Saulay junction. We sat again under the trees, put down our daypacks and rested while waiting for them.
A Scenic View of the Trails
I couldn’t help myself but admire the surrounding view. Mt. Timarid was very prominent with its steep slopes, there was a one-tree hill near us, and the layers and layers of mountains were upon us still hiding the Mt. Sicapoo Summit. How many times should I say it was beautiful? I was forgetting that I was tired; all I knew was that I was extremely lucky to be witnessing all these. It was tempting to simply lie down there and let my eyes feast on nature until I fall asleep. If I could then I would. But they arrived and we discussed the plan. Since we would be trekking back there, we decided to leave some of our things (mostly trail foods and water) which we would only need for the last two mountains of the traverse trail. Consider it as reserves.
Saulay Junction to the Sicapoo Summit (0830-1230H)
In no time, we were trekking again, and this time extra care was warranted as we were passing rolling knife edges with loose and slippery rocks. One misstep on the wrong direction and you would certainly fall. Even I was afraid. We were slow and careful on these parts until we saw pine trees again and after a brief uphill, we reached Bubuos (1,410 MASL). It was pine forest until the downhill to the woodland, then another knife-edge, then pine forest again up to Balbalite (1,585 MASL), then another knife-edge, then long trail of pine forest leading to Pakpako (1,620 MASL). This was where we decided to rest and regroup one more time.
Time to Regroup for the Mount Sicapoo Assault
From there, we could already see the Mt. Sicapoo Summit, still far away, albeit we were closer than we were earlier, we rationalized. We were told that most of the hikers who attempted to summit Mt. Sicapoo but could not because of physical exhaustion or unfavorable weather made their decisions there at Pakpako. We took a quick nap there before we pushed through. That was it, the point of no return. We entered the last woodland leading to the mossy forest.
It was a long rolling trail with more uphill and there I started to ask Edjie, “Malayo pa kaya bro?” He would respond with “Oo nga e, ang haba na, tapos wala pa rin.” We were at the point we could not run anymore because it became all assault. “Malapit na siguro ‘to, naka- 21km na tayo e!” A few more uphill trek and we reached a flat area where the Summit and the Penguin Rock were visible. Since it is already 12nn, we rested there and ate our lunch at the Matalidong ridge. After 10 minutes, we decided to push through and finally reached the Summit (and the Penguin) at 12:30pm. Yay! Photo-ops!
Saulay Junction to the Jump-off (1730-0012H)
Fast forward to 5:30pm when we left Saulay junction and traversed the trails to Mt. Timarid. It was getting cold and dark but we just continued to walk fast, sort of slow jog pace. We decided to trek all together for safety, ultimately to prevent anybody from getting lost in the dark. We were all tired but we needed to carry on. We wanted to. No matter how steep that assault to Mt. Timarid (1,527 MASL) was.
Sleep was both a friend and an enemy. We took naps in every “take five” we had which meant they were actually longer than five minutes. We ate every trail food left to avoid “bonking” and to hell with water discipline, it was indeed a challenge. “Puso” was our battlecry at that time, and we would not falter until we were back at the jump-off.
13 Brave Souls
The group was composed of 13 determined individuals: Ayang (the organizer), Bar, Ben, Edjie, Edward, Erwin, Jeff, Jes, Jordan, Julius, Mary Ann, Noel, and Rhea. The level of strength and bravery needed just to decide to do this hike was on the high-end, and I commend everyone in the group for showing just that. Each of us might have experienced different struggles, from almost nothing to little to overwhelming, but nobody surrendered.
Mine was the last 8km, wherein every hill looked the same and the descent felt never-ending. Since I was out of water, I was almost shouting loudly while complaining, “Tuuuuubeeeeeg!!!!!” I think I said it at least seven times. I was with Ben, Jeff, Edjie and the lead guide and we were all out of water. We were hoping to be able to ask for water from a house when we reached the One Degree Plateau but our guide insisted instead to look for a water source from a nearby river.
15 Minutes to The Road
It was exactly 12mn, which meant we were trekking for 22 hours by then. We were drained and wanted to be done with it. It was taking long so we asked, “Kuya, gaano pa kalayo yung kalsada?” “15 minutes po,” and without hesitation we said, “Tara na Kuya, 15 minutes na lang pala e, hindi mo sinabi agad. Takbuhin na natin!” Off we ran as fast as we could and finally, after 12 minutes, we reached the road. I immediately called our driver to fetch us there. He arrived with cold drinks and like a child we drank and drank until satisfied, and saved the rest for our companions.
Absolutely Worth it!
Am I glad I did it? Yes. Will I do it again? I don’t know. Do I recommend it? Maybe. Was it really difficult? No. Of course, definitely yes! Read again. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Beyond doubt, dayhiking Mt. Sicapoo is kind of “diehiking.” It was one hell (heaven) of a climb! But it will make you grin from ear to ear once done.
Mt. Sicapoo Traverse Dayhike via Timarid-Simagaysay (Rosary Trail) | April 30, 2017| 2,354+ MASL |
- Major climb, Difficulty 9/9, Trail class 2-5
- Approx. Distance: ≈48 KM | Trek Duration: 22 hours 12 minutes | Approx. Elevation Gain: ≈3600 meters
Nine Peaks of the Solsona Mountain Range:
- Balbalitok (1,010 MASL)
- Saulay (1,286 MASL)
- Bubuos (1,410 MASL)
- Balbalite (1,585 MASL)
- Pakpako (1,620 MASL)
- Matalidong (2,100 MASL)
- Sicapoo (2,354 MASL)
- Timarid (1,527 MASL)
- Simagaysay (1,341 MASL)
April 29, 2017, Saturday
- 6:30am Meet-up at Jollibee Centris Station; Breakfast
- 9am-11pm Quezon City to Solsona, Ilocos, Norte (with stopover for lunch and dinner)
- 11pm onwards Final preparations at Kuya Elmer’s house
April 30, 2017, Sunday
- 2am Start Trek
- 2am-12:30pm Jump-off point to Mt. Sicapoo Summit/Penguin Rock passing by the: Gasgas River; Markang Bato; Balbalitok; Saulay (Junction); Bubuos; Balbalite; Pakpako; Matalidong ridge; and Mossy Forest
- 1:30pm-4pm Back at Saulay (Junction) from Mt. Sicapoo Summit; Rest
- 5:30pm-9:30pm Saulay (Junction) to Mts. Timarid and Simagaysay; Rest
- 10pm-12mn Mt. Simagaysay to One Degree Plateau
May 1, 2017, Monday
- 12mn-12:12am One Degree Plateau to Solsona Dam/Bridge; Rest/rehydrate
- 1am onwards Back at Kuya Elmer’s house; Late dinner; Wash-up; Lights out
- 2am-7am Rest; Prepare for departure
- 9am Depart Solsona for Vigan; Late breakfast/snacks along the way (Currimao, Ilocos Norte)
- 2pm-5pm Sidetrip at Calle Crisologo, Vigan; Late post-climb lunch/socials at Trelli’s; Empanada at the Plaza
- 5pm Depart Vigan for Quezon City
- 10:30pm Late Dinner at Jollibee Urdaneta, Pangasinan
May 2, 2017, Sunday
- 2:30am Arrival at McDonald’s Panay/MRT Quezon Avenue Station
- Ayang, Bar, Ben, Edjie, Edward, Erwin, Jeff, Jes, Jordan, Julius, Mary Ann, Noel, Rhea