I am just an average hiker and my stride is slow. If the hike is a challenge, then I am cocksure I get more sluggish. So when I asked my Batan Island tourist guide, Kuya Eyet, how was it to climb the highest point of the smallest and northernmost province of the Philippines, he said it was easy but with a little bit of difficulty from its shoulder to the top. I assumed the trek would be quite of a child’s play. So, I thought…
I collected my mountain trekking permit from DENR for P150 and arranged for a tour guide who knew the mountain well. A tour guide is paid P1500 per group or solo. That is a fixed price. Shortly before 0530hrs on the next day which was also my last day in Batanes, I launched the tramp with my tour guide, Owal, a 29 year old local who said that he usually climbs Mt. Iraya with his friends taking them 2-3 hours to scale it up and half an hour to 1 hour to run down the slope. However, he assured me not to worry because an average hiker can do it in 5 or 6 hours. Again I thought, that’s not bad at all. I can finish it at lunchtime so I can still go for a swim in a beach near Basco port before twilight.
The more I presumed that the climb was straightforward when I saw Owal wearing just his pair of slippers. He said it would be easier for him to thread the mountain just donning it. The only thing he pronounced that I should keep an eye on was the possible appearance of pit vipers which are endemic in the range.
The hike commenced at the end of Basco airport runway where the base of Mt. Iraya is. It was a leisurely walk at the onset passing through a small area of grassland where I saw a cow and a carabao. After a few minutes, the trail entered upon a slope ascend and as we went higher, the path was becoming trickier. There were no trail signs to keep a hiker in the right direction. The track was covered with overgrown tropical plants. That’s when it made sense why a guide was required. It was remarkably easy to get lost in the forest. Owal took out his bolo knife and began to chop off the vegetations that crawled through the trails. As we soared, we shuffled on muddy soil, scrambled under and over old fallen trees, aped up through narrow ridges and continuously filtered into the clouds. What made my choice of enterprise more precarious was the brief downpour of rain before we embarked on it.
Until we reached the shoulder of the mountain… At this point, Owal who did not show any sign of tiredness briefed me that going up to the summit would be quite demanding of strength and energy due to its almost vertical inclination. I think he was just giving me a subtle description so I would not succumb to surrender. I was already exhausted and was getting much slower but I was determined to reach the top. By this time too, the clouds were becoming thicker.
Indeed, it was everything but easy for me. The trail to Mt. Iraya’s crown is where the rain water flows. It is rocky, slippery and very narrow. To my amazement, Owal was hopping up effortlessly in his slippers! On the other hand, I was grabbing stalks after stalks of tall grasses and plants holding on for my dear life! It felt like forever. I was soaking in my sweat, I had cuts on my arms and hands and I was also worried stiff of the idea of pit vipers! But I must get to the top! And I did! After 5.5 hours! Perhaps for Owal, that was too long but for me, it was not that bad.
At the vestibule of the mountaintop were a couple of crevices that I did not take immediate notice of until Owal pointed them out to me. These were partially covered with grasses. One was deep and the other was not. The second hole might be just a little bit over a meter only.
Nonetheless, if you fall on it, you’ll never know the extent of damage it’s gonna cause you. Owal said that the smaller fissure was pretty new. Just one wrong step to your side was a sure fall. So be careful! Again, that’s why you have to have a guide.
If there is one thing I really like to suggest to DENR or to DOT or whatever government agency in Batanes is involved in maintaining and protecting Mt. Iraya, that is to keep the trail clear and safe for hikers. Maybe consider designing, developing and building a sustainable trail system that will increase people’s awareness to the importance of environmental conservation while keeping the safety of those who like to experience the mountain and its forests. Don’t get me wrong, the Ivatans are already doing a great job conserving and preserving their natural abode.
As would have been our expectation, there was no clear view of the surroundings at the top of Mt. Iraya because the clouds decided to veil the mountain all day. On one side of the ridge is the huge crater and on the other side is the steep face of the mountain.
After we fed our empty belly with my take away food from my homestay, we headed to our way down. Descent is always a chink in my armor as my right knee always painfully suffers so I knew this was going to be tortoiselike. After another 5 grueling hours of almost sliding and dragging myself down, too cautious too due to another cloudburst, we finally got to the bottom. Needless to say, my pants and shoes were heavily soiled. At this moment, we ran out of our food supply. Thanks to the coconut fruits and Batanes nuts that were littering around, our thirsts were quenched and our hunger, a little bit filled.
Despite getting a stiff painful right knee, I am happy I did it. Despite not having the rare opportunity of witnessing a clear view of Batanes from the summit of Mt. Iraya, I am pleased that I made it to the top and back. Not bad, isn’t it?
IMPORTANT TIPS BEFORE CLIMBING MT. IRAYA
- Obtain a Mountain Trekking Permit from the DENR office for P150. You will not be allowed to hike Mt. Iraya without a permit. Owal said this was just implemented last year. Originally, it was proposed that even locals should pay for the permit but this was met with disfavor so the plan was abandoned.
- Do not go alone. You are not allowed to do so. A tourist guide is required by DENR and DOT to come with you for your safety. You can arrange it yourself or DENR can make recommendations of credited tourist guides.
- Wear a proper hiking footwear. Water resistant hiking boots are recommended. Unless you are like Owal, who can trek even barefoot.
- Check the weather before you go. It’s a lot trickier up in the mountain when it rains. The trails are already wet due to thick vegetation so imagine when the heavens decide to spit on earth.
- Wear long sleeves. Thin, lighter clothes are preferable as you can get hot and sweaty.
- Eat enough amount of meal before you commence the trek. Silly me, I just had a cup of coffee because I left my homestay quite early at 0515hrs. Still, not a good excuse.
- Bring enough amount of food. You’ll never know how long it’s gonna take you to hike the mountain. Well, unless you’re an advanced mountaineer and fit and fast enough to do it.
- Let friends, family and your accommodation staff know where you are going.
- BE CAREFUL AT ALL TIMES!
Again, Dios Mamajes Batanes!