Before we arrived Ormoc City in the Philippines, we had done some research about Alto Peak (1330m), which is the highest peak in the Eastern Visayas region. Locally this peak is more correctly known as Mt. Mindieun, Amendiuen or Amindiwin (yes, a lot of variations over the same name).
Shoot first, ask later
A couple of sources we had been in touch with was very negative to Alto Peak because of NPA (Maoist rebels) activity in this area. Just over a year ago, an innocent botanist was shot dead in these wild and beautiful mountains. The military had apparently confused him with an NPA rebel. "Shoot first, ask later" seems to be the custom here, thus the military can actually prove to be a greater threat than the Maoists (NPA). Some hikers have experienced that the military has aimed at them, and even tried to shoot at them. Understandably our sources recommended us instead to climb Tres Marias, located on the neighboring island of Biliran, the second highest peak in Eastern Visayas. This island is said to have no Maoist rebels, but it's dotted with poisonous snakes there.
Despite of all the horror stories, we had not given up to climb Alto Peak. When I walked around in the busy streets of Ormoc, I came across the official tourist office next to the terminal (Tourism of Ormoc). I went in there to ask them about Alto Peak and if there was any NPA threat in the area. Their feedback was actually very promising, and they told me that the rebels mostly are defeated. Just as a precaution, they ensured me that the army would be informed if we decided to go up there. They gave me the telephone number (09095756540) for a possible guide, his name was Peter Ian (firstname.lastname@example.org). Back at our hotel (IA Lodge) Emily called Peter Ian, and we agreed to meet in person at the Greenwich restaurant the following day.
Meeting with our guide Peter Ian
Peter Ian showed up as agreed, and we talked more about Alto Peak over a meal of pasta. We agreed on a 3-day itinerary (2 nights) that included both Alto Peak and Lake Danao. Peter Ian said he would charge 500 pesos (12 USD) per day for guiding plus some money to buy food for himself, so we gave him 500 pesos (12 USD) in advance for food. This is a normal price in the Philippines, so we felt absolutely no need to haggle down the price. We got a very good impression of Peter Ian during this meeting. He had been to Alto Peak one time before, but he is not a commercial or professional guide. He is a bit like us, being very interested in the mountains and nature. So if he could earn some extra cash as a guide on his local mountains, that would enable him to travel to other mountains. We finished the meeting and Emily and I walked over to a large supermarket in Ormoc (Gaisano Riverside Mall) to stock up on food and snacks for ourselves for 3 days. Then we went back to the hotel to pack and get some sleep.
Next morning we went to the tourist office, where we had agreed to meet Peter Ian at 08:30am. It turned out that Peter Ian already had talked to the officials at the tourist office and got the acceptance that we could go into the area. There was no written permit or anything, so we assume that this was just a verbal formality which was to ensure our safety. We paid no fees for this service. Peter Ian told us that a friend of him wanted to join as well. He stressed that this of course was voluntarily from his friend side, and not something we should pay extra for. We had no objections, on the contrary, it would just be fun to join with another local youth with a strong passion for mountains.
In a overloaded jeepney to Cabintan
We walked over to the jeepney terminal, just a stone's throw away from the tourist office. From there a jeepney leaves every day to Cabintan at 10am (notice that there is only one departure per day). This trip takes about 2 hours, but costs only 30 pesos (0.70 USD) per person. As soon as the overloaded jeepney left the city center of Ormoc, we climbed onto the roof of the jeepney to get more space and better views. Peter Ian's friend (Benjamin) jumped on the jeepney about halfway, and that finally completed our team.
Upon arrival at Cabintan (680m) all four of us visited the village chieftain to register ourselves into a book. This is supposedly for the sake of our security, and applies to all visitors, both foreigners and visiting Filipinos. It was his wife who arranged this, because the chieftain was on a mission outside the village. In the book we could see that there had only been one team here during the first 10 months of 2011. A Philippine team had been to Alto Peak in June 2011.So this was yet another sign that Alto Peak rarely has hikers on its soil. As of 2007 there had been fewer than 10 ascents in the history on this secluded peak, but as a result of the booming interest in mountaineering in recent years in the Philippines (mostly thanks Pinoymountaineer.com), this figure has now risen to 40-50 ascents (according to Peter Ian's estimates). I know that among these there have been a woman from New Zealand on the top (2010), but other than her, it is unlikely that there have been any other westerns on the top.
The wife of the village chieftain in Canbintan was very friendly towards us. We borrowed the toilet and ate our food indoors. There was never any questions about money. In Cabintan there is pure hospitality only, because tourism and commercialism has not arrived at this village yet.
Walking on an abandoned road to Base Camp
We started to hike at 1pm, in the beginning on a very good gravel road. As the road began to rise outside of the village, it transformed into an abandoned road. It became increasingly overgrown, the higher up we came. When we got up to the pass, we could smell the sulfur, a sign that this area still have volcanic activity. We took a small detour to have a look at the "Old Drilling Site". Here the government has drilled into the ground to find a source of hot steam which produce electricity. But this site seems now to be abandoned.
From the pass (920m), we continued gradually down the abandoned road. Eventually it became almost invisible. The only thing that indicated that this was once a road, was the level surface compared to the surrounding terrain. More than two hours after we left Cabintan we came to a small stream that crossed the road/track. This is the most suitable place to set up a camp (820m) below Alto Peak. It was supposed to have taken us 4 hours to reach here, according to Peter Ian. But although we arrived way too early, we decided nevertheless to stick to our itinerary; namely to camp here, rather than having to carry tents, food and water to the top of Alto Peak.
We pitched our tents and sought refuge from the insects, so we could get a little rest and eventually a dinner. There was a couple of showers in the afternoon, so we had to put on the outer layer of the tent as well. Then it became uncomfortably hot inside the tent. I had hopes of slightly cooler temperatures during the night. But it remained a hot night, so our warm blanket was never needed.
Through dense jungle to the top
Next morning we were up at 6am, and ate our breakfast before we began the climb to the top. We followed the abandoned road a little further, before we left it and continued steeply upwards through the dense jungle (this "junction" is almost impossible to see, thus I have enclosed my gps-track for route finding). The guys that pioneered this route a few years ago, had cut a path through the dense jungle. Subsequent groups have, to some extent, tried to maintain the route, but there is not much evidence of a track here. We crossed over and under fallen trees, walked through wet grass and bushes (some with thorns) and when there was no foothold at all, we hauled ourselves up branches of varying quality. It went slow, very slow at times.
We eventually reached the summit after 2.5 hours. Alto Peak is a sharp mountain, thus there is not much of space on the top. The fog had appeared, so we had no views either. According to my GPS the elevation was 1026m after putting it on the highest point for a while. Getting down from the steep and slippery mountain took its time. But there was always some branches to keep hold of, so we avoided any big falls. Safely down in the camp again, we ate a quick lunch before we continued the hike towards Cabintan.
Camping at Lake Danao
In Cabintan we bought us some refreshing cold Coke, before we started to negotiate with the local motorcycle heroes regarding transportation to Lake Danao, approx 10 km away. Each motorcycle could only take one passenger, because of the steep and bad roads. We ended up paying 150 pesos (3.50 USD) for each motorcycle. The motorcycle journey was indeed horrible, there is no doubt that this is a substantial risk to take. But all of us arrived safely without accidents. Lake Danao is a beautiful lake located 820 meters above sea-level. First we had to stop at the village chieftain's house in order to register and to ensure our safety. The chieftain also said that they would send a guy to patrol our camp after dark. All this was free of charge and well in line with their motto "we are happy to serve you".
It took us almost one hour to walk over to the other side of Lake Danao, where there is a outlook platform and good possibilities for camping. The patrol arrived as agreed by nightfall, after we had a simple dinner. We were so tired after a long day that we almost immediately fell asleep after a big bottle of Red Horse beer. Unfortunately we were plagued by ant all night long, for in some way they came into our tent.
Next morning after breakfast we were met by another village resident. His name was Tope and he smiled broadly. He invited us for a hike around the lake. Tope turned out to be an avid mountaineer, and he was very interested to know more about my trips in the Himalayas and the Andes. On my question about why neither Peter Ian, Benjamin nor Tope had girlfriends, the response was that none of the girls understood their passion for the mountains. The local girls are probably more interested in a hard working man rather than a mountain bum like us.Tope took us back to the village, after we had walked for more than two hours. We said goodbye to Tope and jumped on a multicab, which took us back to Ormoc for 30 pesos (0.70 USD) per passenger. It was great to get back to civilization in order to shower, check e-mail and enjoy good food again. Now we will carry on to Cebu to get some tan on the white sandy beaches of Malapascua and perhaps climb Osmena Peak, the highest peak in Central Visayas.
Finally I want to thank Peter Ian and Benjamin who gave us such a splendid trip to Alto Peak. I can highly recommend them for other hikers who want a guide in this beautiful area !!!
Alto Peak at EveryTrail