Hugging the Boulders: Mt. Apo via Boulder Face

I bowed down once more before the grand Mt. Apo, the grandfather of Philippine mountains.

The last time I was here was last November for my first solo meditation climb, guided only by a young local. This time I was with a group of Asian foreigners and a big gang of guides and porters all of whom I have never met before except for one.
The Objective!
Clint, a friend since college and now a bank executive in Singapore, had this craving to take the most challenging trail to the Philippine’s highest summit. So he asked for my help to organize a climb with his Singaporean colleague, Choon Poh, a seasoned international marathoner. 

With the DBS Asia Dragons and the guides
Their team mates from DBS Asia Dragon Boat team later heard of their plans so they hitched in for a different kind of adventure they can’t find in the concrete jungles of Singapore.
I was ready for the comeback while the rest of the group was off to experience what they did not expect to become their best outdoor trip ever.

Ready for the rough ride
We traversed the Digos trail via boulder face where volcanic vents and giant sulfuric rocks do not only make the route strangely scenic but also dangerous and more challenging. To toughen up the climb we exited via the Mandarangan trail in Kidapawan, North Cotabato.
To give a scaling of how far we had to trek to complete the climb, I told the team that we were to cross two provinces (Davao del Sur to North Cotabato) and two regions (Region 11, Davao Area to Region 12, Central Mindanao Area) after reaching the 2,954 meters pinnacle.
They were like: “Wooooohhh! Really?” Their expressions were both of amazement and worry.
The small multi-cab that ferried the 12 of us 
The group trek started at Camp Sabros, an upland outdoor-themed resort in Sitio Barras, Barangay Kapatagan, Digos City, Davao del Sur which boasts of its zip line ride considered as the second longest in the Philippines, good services and amenities and a landscape of pine trees back dropped by the grand mountain. I’ve read of good blog posts about this adventure camp and resort but experienced the total opposite while I was there to meet the seven Dragons and the three guides from Sta. Cruz tourism office.  Clint and his colleagues would tell of the same experience, but this is not the place for that story (I will post a different blog about this). 
Sporadic heavy rains turned our tour into a muddy exploration.
For me and my brother Homer, our adventure started even before we reached the meeting venue.
It was 30 minutes past midnight we were still trudging the way up the muddy road to Camp Sabros. 
“It’s all in the mind,” I told Homer encouraging him to push further and not be weakened by our early rough experience. Before getting there we traveled 4 hours by bus, negotiated for 1.5 hour for a motorcycle ride from Digos to Kapatagan, and traveled via the very rough uphill road to Camp Sabros while being battered by rain for another hour.

Boulders. Brothers.
We came for adventure and we got what we wanted.
Morning glory on the second day! After meeting the Dragons in a breakfast meeting we headed down to Sitio Barras to register at the Mt. Apo Mountaineering Trekkers Information Center.
The boulder-face adventure began with a multi-cab ride where the 12 of us had to fit into the back of the mini-carrier to Sitio Mainit proper. We arranged for four porters with the help of our guides before taking the one-hour daring skylab (habal-habal / single motorcycle) ride to the Mainit jump off point.
Then the death ride began! I should say that that was the scariest skylab ride of my life. I’m used to riding in it but not while sitting on the gas tank with one hand holding my bulky camera bag and the other tightly gripped on the bike's steering handle. I was with Singaporean Ryan Bok and Vietnamese Ryan Le. The former do not speak much English which made me wonder if he was actually scared or just plain relaxed during the one hour uphill ride – I did not hear his voice except for his “yeahs” every time I asked if they were alright.
90 degrees. True!
Trek started at around 11 AM and after an hour of trekking through carrots and cabbage farms we arrived at Sitio Paradise where we had our quick lunch. After marching through mossy forests we reached Camp Goody-goody at around 3PM, the cut off time in allowing climbers to proceed to the next camp or the boulders area for safety reasons. Unpredictable Weather and tedious terrains had to be considered.
The weather continued to taunt us and tested our patience. At around 9 PM my brother and I had to evacuate our tent. Our tent was not able to withstand the rain.
We survived the first night! Then we proceeded to the highlight of the climb – the boulders!
a lifeless patch
Third day: early breakfast, no bath, same muddy apparels and shoes – we’re good to go!
Two hours after leaving the forest the whitish landscape of boulders welcomed us. The instruction climbers must not forget is to watch each one’s step. Boulders as big as mini buses may be loose and could fall. Some boulders could be razor-sharp. We trekked the ascending boulder face for two hours.
This area is the venue for the annual International Mt. Apo Boulder Face Challenge organized by Department of Tourism - Region 12 and the local government of Sta Cruz.                         
We had to miss the 87 degrees boulders to save time. We entered a steep brushland before reaching the summit! The heat of the sun, the bruises and punishing slopes were all forgotten when everybody reached the Philippines’ highest point.

At the summit!
Overlooking Lake Venado
 To avoid trekking in the dark we had to hurry down to Lake Venado, the mysterious lake that constantly changes its shape, where we had to camp for the night.
Ryan Le injured his left ankle
Clint's magic string and Pei Chin's T-boots 
Pei Chin, a Malaysian mother of two and a seasoned climber, got her Timberland boots broken – the  whole sole was removed.  Ryan Le twisted his ankles. Jeanneatte, the bubbliest in the group, perhaps lost her patience and did not talk much while descending. Maricar, a Filipina and on her second try of Mt. Apo, tried to maintain her composure despite having cried like a baby on the second day after microscopic thorns got into her palms. Ryan Bok seemed to not exist; I didn’t hear him say a word.  Choon Poh, the walking energy bar, was heads up and alert of his team mates. My brother was munching his raw carrots as he enjoyed being an audience to all that was happening. Clint was busy observing all his team mates’ reactions. He loved what was going on.
Down to the "fairy tale" land
The true trail food - carrots!
First aid was given to those who needed it. I knew they were all just fine. So, I continued to enjoy hearing, seeing, smelling the moment on that small patch of the universe.
Amid the greens and the...muds!
By the time we reached Lake Venado, the group turned silent…amazed by how the fogs blanketed the lake and gradually cleared up to reveal the unique landscape for everybody to wonder.  

Amid the blanket of fogs
Camping just below the tallest summit
It was like a scene in a fantasy movie: the silhouette of trees behind the fogs, the weird shape of the lake, the chilling cold, the back drop of the summit, the eerie noise of the wind and the blurred salmon sun in the west.
At the heart of Lake Venado 

Way Out of the "fairy tale" land
The following day we completed the six hours exit to Lake Agco in Kidapawan City. We ended the trip in warm spirits in the hot spring pools of the Agco resorts. Everybody dipped in to soothe their tired muscles.
But the amazement seemed not to have faded until the moment we bid good bye to each other.[]


Itineraries for the same or modified trail via Digos or Sta Cruz can be arranged through the Sta Cruz Tourism Office. You can contact Julius Paner for arrangements and more information here.

The team would like to thank the following for helping us organize this climb:

Tourism office of Sta Cruz through Tourism Staff Sir JuliusPaner
Tourism Office of Kidapawan City through Tourism Officer Ms.Marie Fe Geronga – Pame
Provincial Tourism Office of North Cotabato through Tourism Officer Mr. Joey Recimilla


  1. I envy your Venado pics sir. And it seems that you had Mt. Apo to yourselves during your climb as wel. We climbed it during the Holy Week which is an entirely different experience I must say.

    1. i prefer small groups or solo climbs too, sir. my first apo experience was different too. imagine all 825 participants in the same climb, in just one trail (bansalan). that was the time na closed ang other trails. But this one's different. sige lang, wala man nagahalin ang bukid. we can always go back for an experience we wish to have.
      thanks for visiting the page, sir. cheers!

  2. Replies
    1. thanks, sir Julius. Kudos to your team. You're doing a great job. cheers!

  3. Hi Sir. Good morning. I'm the same person who commented about going on a solo climb for Apo. I'm climbing soon and not solo. I've invited some company. We're now 5 all in all. Sir, I would like to ask if where exactly does the registration happens? Is it in Digos City Tourism office or we can head straight to Sito Baras, Kapatagan? I'm quite confused because when I contacted Digos City Tourism, they told me that I could process the documents ahead by sending them the documents and the payment. I was thinking that it would be better if we will not pass by Digos City Tourism anymore and go directly to Kapatagan to save more time. Do you have any advise sir? thanks so much.

    1. Hi, ms loveme. You can contact sir julius paner,the one mentioned in this blog, for reg via the local govt of sta. cruz. Just click the link for his contact details. They can arrange things for you. With what u have in mind, via sibulan-kapatagan, sta cruz is the best way. You don't need to pass by digos except for the bus terminal where you will stop for another ride to sta cruz.
      Please let me know if there's more i can do to help. Good luck.

    2. Hi Sir! Thanks for your response. I had contacted him sir but unfortunately, Sibulan-Kidapawan trail is not convenient with my company. If I was not mistaken on my understanding Sir Julius' IT would be 4 days 3 nights, and this cannot work out for us all we have a beginner with us and I believe we would be slower, so we decided to go by Kapatagan-Kidapawan trail instead w/ Sitio Mainit as jumpoff. Sir, do you have a contact # for Sitio Baras,Kapatagan, Digos City may I ask for their contact # sir? thanks much! Sorry for making so much buzz in your blog.

    3. Hi ms loveme, i still believe the advises of sir julius and the local government of Digos (as you mentioned) are the best to take. They know best the place and how to go about with the climb.
      When we took the kapatagan-kidapawan trail we were accompanied by sir julius' team.
      With your team's concerns, Try to research about the Kidapawan-kidapawan trail.

  4. Inspiring blog to go back to Mt. Apo. There's so much to see!!!!....and yes! that gas tank habal habal ride = extreme!!!

  5. i had fun time reading your blog. nice photos too. I Just enjoyed Mt Apo last feb 9-12 2018. i envy your photos . i failed to take pictures during the trekking because it's ridiculously empty. By the we took Sta Cruz-Tinikaran-Koong-kidapawan trail. How about you? :)

    1. thanks, Jeanthyne! All my Apo treks are memorable even without good photos yung una. In this article, i took the same trail as you did last Feb.


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