Friday, December 30, 2016

What I learned about running in 2016

Let’s talk about running.

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A midsummer training day on Gaustatoppen.

It’s been a great race season for me. I’ve raced more than ever and reaped the rewards of solid training. I even managed to win a race, which I half-joke will probably end up being the high point in my running career! Despite all the success, I’ve experienced my fair share of ups and downs (a twisted ankle at Tromsø Skyrace and the death march to the finish at Oslo Ecotrail come to mind). I don’t offer a whole lot of advice on this blog - there are so many people more qualified to give advice than me - but hopefully some of the lessons I’ve learned can be useful to the rest of the world.

[I wrote a similar post about my 2015 season which you can read here.]

Consistency is king, even if it means you aren’t maxing out the mileage. Do you want to know a secret? Sometimes I think that all serious runners run way more than me! It’s easy to follow fast runners on Strava and other social media, and feel utterly inferior to them. But the fastest runner isn’t the one who trains the most - it’s the one who trains the most without getting injured. It’s better to dial back and run consistently within your current capabilities, than get injured because you are too eager. I didn’t focus too much on trying to push my weekly mileage that much this year, and I believe that’s partially how I got through a tough season uninjured.

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Running in January in the forest in Bygdøy, Oslo. Photo by Zoe

Start where you want to finish. My biggest regret this year was starting too far back in the field at the OCC. It is mentally taxing to go slightly slower than you want to all the time, and physically taxing to get past people on narrow single track. It’s probably just as taxing to start too far forward, burn out and be passed for an entire race.

In previous years I’ve been a middle-half-of-the-pack runner, and I like to start conservatively, but in the last two seasons I’ve progressed to an upper-fourth-of-the-pack runner. I have to start racing like one. My new simple rule is that you have to look at your competition, imagine where you think you are likely to finish, and start approximately there. I tested out this theory at Hanase Trail Run in Japan, and my more aggressive start helped me win the race. 

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Happy and surprised that my aggressive race tactics paid off at Hanase Trail Run. Photo by Kyoto Triathlon Club.

Know when to take a break. No matter how much I wish I was a training machine that recovered instantly and never needed time off, the truth is sometimes I need a little extra rest. In late May and early June I raced 3 times in as many weeks. When my right hip flexor start to twinge, instead of panicking about missing mileage, I took two weeks off and rode my bike instead of running. That way I could get back into training for my late summer races without a nagging almost-injury.

After winning Hanase Trail Race in late October, I basically stopped running and starting binge watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix. Even though my body was feeling fine, I simply wasn’t motivated to get out the door, and I gave myself permission to take the time I needed to find that motivation. Two months later, I’m totally stoked about next season and ready to train again!

Having a little extra leg speed is nice, even in mountainous races. This year, I put in a focused block of training leading up to the Sentrumsløpet 10K to increase my leg speed. While some people might argue that 10K is about endurance more than leg speed, for someone like me who spends most of the year loping around the mountains at a crawl, track intervals added a whole new dimension to my training. Having a little extra speed in the books makes slower paces feel easier, and that’s always good!

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Track workouts can also make you feel nauseous.

And finally: wanna race big mountain races? Put in some big days in the mountains! Even though varying my training, like doing track work, was a good idea, the key to completing a big race like the OCC is specificity. The main challenge of the OCC was the amount of vertical (and, as it turned out, the heat, but that came as a surprise). I simulated that by putting in some big vertical (1500-2500m) days in the Norwegian mountains. I didn’t worry about the pace - some of those days were literally hikes - but knowing I had made it through a 2500 vertical meter day made the thought of tackling 3500 vertical meter that much easier.

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Technical ridge traverse on Gaustatoppen.

What lessons did you learn in 2016?

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Cycling in the French Alps, part 2

In June, Audun and I spent a week cycling through the French Alps. For various reasons I never finished writing about that trip, but maybe pictures from the warm, sunny Alps are just what you need to end the year? You can read the first post about that trip here.

Day 4: La Mure - Le Bourg d’Oisans + Alpe d’Huez. 99.3K, 2330 vertical

From La Mure, we pedaled up the road under the snow-capped peaks of Les Écrins up to Col d’Ornon. The climb was tranquil, but surprisingly difficult. It had looked like a pimple on the elevation profile for the day, dwarfed by what was to come.

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Poppies on the way up Col d'Ornon

We didn’t see many cyclists until we reached the top of the col. On the descent, more and more cyclists appeared, some climbing uphill, others taking in the view, while a few daring souls zoomed past us on the downhill at death-defying speeds. It felt like we were following a trail of ants to their nest, the nest in this case being the center of all things road biking in France: Bourg d’Oisans.

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Audun takes in the view on the descent to Bourg d'Oisans

I have passed through Bourg d’Oisans once before, on a rainy October day shortly after purchasing my first road bike. Bourg d’Oisans in June is a completely different town. There were literally more bikes than cars. For the first time on our trip, lycra was the exactly right thing to be wearing.

We found our hotel, but the proprietor was out cycling (because why else would you live there really?). So we stopped for lunch in the shade, discussing our next move. Obviously we were going to ride Alpe d’Huez, the central attraction in Bourg d’Oisans. But I vaguely remembered seeing the pro riders descend down the back side in last year’s Tour de France. Audun found some information cards in the hotel reception, and we discovered Col de Sarenne, the alternative, roughly paved descent of Alpe d’Huez. We were sold. 

But first I had to PR on the ascent of Alpe d’Huez. I certainly wasn’t going to let my 2012 self be faster than my 2016 self, on a new carbon bike to boot. It was a hot day, and I set out hard up the switchbacks. Audun rode next to me, not working nearly as hard, but pointed out that we were passing people whenever I voiced self doubt. We met a talkative Swiss guy who made the last few hairpins pass more quickly.

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Working hard at hairpin number 9 on Alpe d’Huez,

By the time we reached the top, I had laid down a 20 minute PR on the climb, and had completely toasted myself in the effort. I was overheated, dizzy and queasy. Determined to continue, I found a stream to cool down in.

Soon I was ready for Col de Sarenne. The road continue to climb, and past the circus that is Alpe d’Huez, it turns out the scenery is stunning. I saw the peak of La Meije, so familiar from my ski days at Les Deux Alpes, in the distance. Then there was the long, hairpin descent, and the flat ride around the mountain back to Bourg d’Oisans.

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Descending Col de Sarenne, with La Meije in the background.

Back at the hotel, it was time to relax with some good food and beer. Tomorrow was the big day.

Day 5: Le Bourg d’Oisans - Albertville. 124.1K, 3027 vertical

On the menu for day five was two monster cols: Col de Glandon and Col de la Madeleine. We could choose to ride the valley around to Albertville after Col de Glandon if this turned out to be too much climbing.

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Setting out from Bourg d’Oisans.

Col de Glandon dovetails with Col de la Croix Fer most of the way. It’s a long climb, but the beginning is the steepest part and the scenery makes up for the pain of climbing.  We met droves of other cyclists to chat with on the ascent.

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Audun eminates Peter Sagan on Col de Glandon.

The descent from Col de Glandon was beautiful, and faster than Col de Sarenne as the road was significantly higher quality.

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The descent from Col de Glandon

In the village of La Chambre, we reached the decision point: drag ourselves over one more punishing climb, or roll around the mountain to Albertville? We mulled over it over a picnic lunch. I was feeling pretty tired, with 5 full days of cycling in my legs. At the same time, who knows when I would get the opportunity to cycle Col de la Madeleine again? In the end, we decided to go for it. There was no hurry; I didn’t have a time to beat like on Alpe d’Huez.

It was a ridiculously long climb to the top of Col de la Madeleine, but at least there were wild strawberries to eat on the route.

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Strawberries along the Col de la Madeleine road.

Long distance cycling is like long distance running in some ways: just keep pedaling and you will get there in the end.

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Col de la Madeleine.

Day 6: Albertville - Annecy. 55.2K, 798 vertical

I felt positivity hungover from the previous day’s efforts when we woke up in Albertville. Still, I didn’t want to just ride the boring, flat road around to Annecy. We decided to through in the smallest col would could find on the route to Annecy for good measured.

I regretted this decision as soon as we started climbing. My climbing legs were utterly trashed. 

“I had better get a really big ice cream this afternoon,” I grumbled.

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Col de Tamié. Phew.

I had vaguely remembered that there were beaches along Lac d’Annecy, and we managed to find one, deciding that three hours cycling would just do for today. Then we bought the largest ice creams the restaurant next to the beach sold...

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The largest ice cream sundaes on the menu.

…and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon watching the clouds drift over Lac d’Annecy.

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Audun on the beach in Annecy

After getting slightly too much sun, we pedaled the final kilometers into Annecy, and walked around the old city in search of raclette. Because, cheese for dinner!

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Mmmmcheese

Day 7: Annecy - Geneva via Aix-les-Bains. 136.2K, 1358 vertical

On the final day, our job was to get back to Geneva. Plan A was to ride to Aix-les-Bains, and ride the circuit of Lac du Bourget before taking the train back to Geneva.

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Rolling along Lac d’Annecy.

We started the day with a moderate climb over Col de Leschaux. It was a grey, dreary day, and we didn’t see much of the mountains. My legs were significantly fresher after the easy day in Annecy.

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Audun crests over the last big climb of our trip, Col de Leschaux. 

By the time we reached Aix-les-Bains, it was clear that the circuit of Lac de Bourget wasn’t going to be nearly as scenic as we had hoped. The mountains were shrouded in clouds.

“We could just ride to Geneva!” I suggested to Audun, half-joking. The look on his face made me realize that this was just stupid enough to sound fun to him. Geneva was 90 kilometers from Aix-les-Bains. A quick stop at the store in Aix-les-Bains to load up on snacks, and we were cresting through the rolling hills towards Geneva. I alternately regretted and thoroughly enjoyed extending our ride for another four hours.

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A kite seen on the road to Geneva.

It takes a certain kind of stupid to ride an extra 90 kilometers when you could take a perfectly nice train to Geneva. I’m glad Audun has just as much of that stupid as I do.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Sunday, December 25, 2016

From Balete to Bohol (The Philippines, part 3)

Read the previous posts on this trip here: [part 1][part 2]

Having falling asleep just after sunset, it was natural to awake just before sunrise. Everything at the tiny mountain farmhouse was just as peaceful as the day before. The fire place under the lean-to was crackling once more and we sat in silence again, waiting for the sunrise. Breakfast was boiled kamote, the local variation of sweet potato, peeled, boiled, and eaten whole with the hands. It was white and tasted vaguely of honey. The food may not have been complex, but there was a lot of it, and the leftovers would be lunch for the family.

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Tony and his family on the morning of our departure.

Soon enough Audun, Tony and I were off, hiking through the foggy morning. Although our original goal had been Mt Pulag, the highest mountain on Luzon island, we had decided to eschew this particular peak in order to enjoy the path less taken: first the Mt Purgatory traverse, and now to Dumli-ing falls. First we had a two hour trek out to the village of Balete, still all on trails, once again in variable but wet weather. I marvelled at how far we really were from the rest of the world. I hadn’t had cell phone coverage since Baguio. This was doubly strange since I had just gotten engaged, and only Audun and I really knew about it.

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Hiking out to Balete.

The village of Balete is connected to the outside world by a rough dirt road, only recently constructed. We ditched our packs at the local Barangay hall and hiked down to Dumli-ing falls. The trail was overgrown, and Tony forged ahead with a small machete, hacking away the vegetation in front of us. I stopped occasionally to pick zealous leeches off my shoes, much less afraid of them now that my ankles were covered by long wool socks and the leeches were not sucking my blood.

Dumli-ing falls could have served as the model for Paradise falls in Pixar’s beautiful movie Up. A long, single drop fanned out and crashed on wicked-looking rocks below. This would be such a big tourist attraction, I thought, if it weren’t so hard to get to!

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Dumli-ing falls

Back in Balete, we were invited for coffee, boiled bananas and buns at the local school. It was a national holiday, so the children weren’t there, but the administration was hard at work, and we discussed the challenges of education in the Philippines with the headmistress.

Afterwards we took a group photo, making what I only later realized was the Duterte fist symbol. It’s hard to understate how popular Duterte actually is in the Philippines. In the west, we only hear horror stories about all the murders happening under his regime. These stories are true, and it’s horrible. However, it’s hard to criticize Duterte to the locals in the Cordilleras, who just seem so damned pleased with him. (I’m sure this would differ if you polled opinions on the streets of Manila, where drug addicts and dealers alike are being slaughtered in droves).

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Go Duterte? With the administration of Balete School.

Next began a long, arduous journey back to Manila, in order to travel to our next destination, the tourist island of Bohol. We hiked up a muddy road from Balete for a while, before being picked up by a passing van and spending a terrifying hour wondering if the ageing van would make it up the next rugged incline.

Then we hitch-hiked down to Ambageg, where we waited for one of the ubiquitous vans headed for Baguio. All of the vans that passed were full, so we took a tricycle ride (also terrifying) a little further down to the main road. Finally, a van head for Baguio picked us up and we were off.

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The tricycle driver and Tony load our things onto the tricycle.

From Baguio, another night bus brought us back to Manila, and we headed to the airport to pick up our baggage and catch the first flight to Bohol. Which eventually brought us to Pangalao Nature Island Resort, and an experience that was basically the exact opposite of what we had been doing for the first four days in the Philippines. It was so luxurious it basically made Audun and I slightly uncomfortable.

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Breakfast at Pangalao Nature Island Resort. Life is good.

We arrived at our bungalow with a private jacuzzi and view of the ocean and proceed to unpack the wet, disgusting contents of our hiking packs, spreading them all over the spacious terrace. For the next three days, we attempted to live the resort lifestyle. We rented a tennis court for an hour, than lay by the pool, devouring books and editing photos. It was comfortable and relaxing in a way most of my vacations are not.

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Drying camping equipment on our terrace while enjoying the private jacuzzi.

Unfortunately, occasional rainstorms marred our tropical paradise. I also felt strangely imprisoned in the resort. We travelled to different places on the island to eat dinner, and the contrast between the opulence within the resort’s gates and houses of the locals was pretty stark. I felt like an outsider on a completely different level than I had while hiking in the Cordilleras.

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One of the daily rainstorms.

One day, we hired a car and a guide to see the main sights on the island. The tarsiers visiting center was pretty incredible, although I became dubious when I realized that tarsiers actually shouldn’t be awake during the day and that undue stress could kill them. The tarsiers in the reserve looked like miniature aliens, and they were most definitely awake.

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Tarsiers in a semi-natural habitat. They're vulnerable to extinction, and hopefully tourism provides motivation to keep them alive and well.

Then there was the famous Chocolate Hills, hundreds of natural conical karst mounds that dot the landscape of mainland Bohol. Audun and I had originally wanted to rent mountain bikes to see them, but we had had enough of being wet and muddy for one trip and so decided against it. Then our guide shanghaied us into rented an ATV to drive around the base of the hills. It was not my idea of fun. The guide made us stop all the time and pose for cringe-worthy pictures. I dislike the whole packaged tourism thing, where someone else decides where you have to take pictures and how you should experience a landscape. I guess I should have learned to stay clear of guided tours by now...

In all honesty, the best way to see the Chocolate Hills was from the viewing platform. One Chocolate Hill is cool, but it’s the experience of seeing hundreds spread into the distance that’s breathtaking.

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Taking in the Chocolate hills (they turn brown during the late summer).

Besides the tarsiers and the Chocolate Hills, we took in the Bataclan church, and a river cruise at lunch accompanied by lived music (ouch).

Three nights at the swanky resort was enough for both Audun and I. On the last morning, I decided to get in a run before the 30 hours of travel back to Norway. I settled on the hotel treadmill, but to my dismay there was a man whose job it was to watch me run and attend to my every need. He tried to give me a glass of water while I was going at full tilt, and I nearly fell over and spilt it. Then I paused the treadmill to collect myself, and he pretend to be all impressed with my 25 minute run. (You know nothing, Jon Snow!) It was super awkward. I guess I just not cut out for a lifestyle of being waited on hand and foot!

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The ocean view from our bungalow at the resort.

The lesson? The best and most authentic moments of tourism are those off the beaten path. 

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Proposal (The Philippines, part 2)

(Read part 1 of my trip to the Philippines here)

It was 4:45 am on my birthday, and a bobbing circle of wet trail was illuminated by the beam of my headlamp. Audun, our local guide Tony and I were hiking towards the ominously named Mt Purgatory traverse in the Cordilleras. Despite all of our hopes of improved weather today, it was drizzling. All of these factors combined may not sound like a set of an ideal birthday, but I was undeniably stoked to be out there, exploring this tiny, strange corner of the world.

After an hour or so we crested our first ‘peak’ of the day, Mt Mangagew. The Cordilleras are remote but inhabited, and Tony pointed out a tiny elementary school near the top of Mangagew. Every tiny town in the Cordilleras seems to have a school, which makes sense since they are so far from each other.

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Hiking in towards Mt Purgatory in the predawn light.

After Mangagew, the path to Purgatory took us down an extremely muddy road. I couldn’t imagine a car getting anywhere in these conditions, when the peanut-butter like mud filled in every crevice in the tread of my running shoes and I fought for purchase with every step. Tony, covered in a see-through plastic bag and sporting practical rubber boots, floated like a ghost ahead of me, seeming never to slip.

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MUD!

I was happy when dawn came, although the light didn’t improve the weather. The landscape was shrouded in clouds, and the rain continued. I guess early December is the rainy season in the Cordilleras despite the opposite impression I was given by my guidebook. The occasional guard dog barked as we passed by ramshackle farm buildings that bordered lush fields soaking up the rain.

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Dawn on the fields below Mt Pack.

Eventually we veered off the muddy road into a gravelly trail that provided much easier going. We were above the farmlands now, and soon entered what Tony called the ‘mossy forest’. I pity the people who tried to find their way over this range of mountains for the first time. The vegetation was extremely thick, and seemed to being doing its best to reclaim the trail. 

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The mossy forest on Mt Pack.

A final steep climb brought us to the unassuming summit of Mt Pack, which was not much more than a sign post in a circular area of cleared forest. What must have been a viewpoint on a better day was a glimpse inside of the stomach of a cloud today. We stopped for snacks. It was still relatively early in the morning, but now hours since breakfast. Birthday candy bar, if not cake, I thought as I munched on a Snickers.

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Orchids on Mt Pack.

‘Caution: slippery trail’ a trail signed warned, before the trail took a nosedive on wet roots. Usually adept on technical trail, I felt cumbersome with a heavily loaded backpack and was glad of my hiking poles to keep my balance. There was no longer any question of keeping my feet dry; the areas between the roots were filled with water so it was either get wet or slip. 

“This is the wettest trail I’ve ever been on,” commented Audun. I tended to agree.

I was surprised when Tony informed us that were were on the ‘summit’ of Mt Purgatory. It seemed more like an open saddle point than the top of anything. Tony spoke with someone on his walky-talky, and I could detect a hint of surprise in the voice coming out of the walky-talky.

“We will go down to Bakian to meet the head of my guide association,” Tony informed us, “And then down the other side of the mountain to Cabayo. We can stay with my sister!” This was news to us, and Audun and I scrambled to look at the map we had downloaded on our phones. Going to Cabayo meant that would basically drop down the other side of the mountain from the main Mt Purgatory traverse trail. There was no trail marked on our maps for this option.

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Tony on Mt Purgatory

Following our guide, we trekked down the hill from Mt Purgatory to Bakian, which proved to be a small cluster of houses above another expanse of farmland on the steep hillside. Tony’s colleague showed us into a small, unfurnished hut where we could sit inside for lunch.

“Most people take 10 or 12 hours to hike here!” she exclaimed as she had us signed one of the ubiquitous log books. We had been out for just over 5 hours. 

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The wooden hut at Bakian where Audun popped the question.

As I entered the wooden hut, I suddenly realized how thoroughly soaked I really was. I changed into a dry wool shirt for lunch and began to cook some noodles. Audun rummaged in his backpack. He came over and sat next to me, holding a small black box. The next few moments are rather blurred in my mind. Before I could wrap my mind around what was happening, he was asking me to marry him and I said yes! 

After such an emotional moment, it was surreal to go through the motions of cooking, and eating, and packing up, and then setting out to hike again. But soon we were back out in the rain, an engagement ring firmly placed on my grimy finger. We headed down a narrow trail, bound for Cabayo.

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The trail to Cabayo.

The trail was not very well used, and mudslides had taken out some short sections. Then we reached the first hanging bridge, constructed entirely out of woven steel cables. I looked at it dubiously before stepping on and immediately putting my foot into the void between two of the cables. In my scramble to pull out my foot I scraped my finger on the cable handholds. Stupid!

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Confidence-inspiring hanging bridges.

A little later I noticed something black on my shoe and bent down to inspect. To my horror, I discovered that several leeches had made their way into my ankle socks and were greedily leeching blood. I then discovered my irrational fear of leeches. I’m not proud to admit it, but I basically started screaming and made Audun pick them all off! (His reward for becoming my fiancé, I later joked). I changed to long wool socks, hoping the leeches couldn’t get through them. I hate leeches!

We continued on, and I nervously tried to avoid peeking my socks every few minutes. Audun firmly reminded me that every time I opened my sock more leeches could get in!

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Descending to Cabayo.

The trail descended steeply to Cabayo, over several more hanging bridges and passed numerous small rice terraces. Cabayo was another tiny village, connected to the outside world by an extremely muddy dirt road reminiscent of the one we had hiked early that morning. The entire population of the village seemed to be sitting around, watching us enter the town. We were the main attraction on an otherwise dreary Tuesday afternoon. We stopped at the Barangay hall to sign a couple of log books while Tony chatted with his friends.

It was mid-afternoon by now, and I was starting to get tired. I asked Tony how far we had to go to his sister’s house, and my heart sunk a little when he replied, “Maybe two hours.”  I still had some snacks, and I furtively ate them, not sure whether it would be polite to share with the towns people. They looked well-feed enough enough, but were clearly very poor. Most of them were missing teeth.

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I’m a lot taller than most of the Igorot people!

It cleared off as we hiked out of Cabayo, and the sun hit us, just beginning to dry off our soaking things.

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Up the valley, to Tony’s sister’s house!

We were on a well-established footpath, passing by numerous fields and cobbled together with a terrifying collection of suspension bridges.

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A very long suspension bridge.

We had been hiking for nearly 12 hours and it had just begun to drizzle again when Tony pointed out a building just off the trail as our destination for the evening. It began to pour as entered the yard outside the tiny house and were shown into a secondary building which seemed to function as a storage shed. Tony’s sister, and three generations of family all lived in the tiny one-room house.

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Tony’s sister’s house, where three generations lived in a single room. The lean-to on the left was the combined living room and kitchen for the family.

A lean-to containing two fireplaces under a tin roof functioned as combined kitchen and living room. Audun and I joined the some of the family around one of the fireplaces. Tony’s sister cooked over the other, which was covered by a shaped piece of metal that turned it into a primitive stove. Sitting by the fire was extremely peaceful; either no one spoke English or they weren’t really interested in talking to us. (Based on my experience with the Philippines in general I think it was the former). Tony’s nephew turned the handle on a crank bellows, producing a rattling sound that blew on the fire. The rain drummed on the tin roof and turned the yard outside into a pool of mud.

We were invited to share the family dinner. Once again, the main calorie source was red rice, this time with a side of a spinach-like vegetable and some canned fish. There was chili paste to spice things up.

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We sat around as the sun set, and the outdoor living room was illuminate by a single battery powered light. Tony’s niece, probably my age or younger, sat and played with her youngest child, smiling shyly as I looked on. Soon after dark everyone began to retire to the tiny house, and we retreated to our storage room. It had been a long, exhausting day, and I’ll remember this one forever.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Mt Ugo (The Philippines, part 1)

A four-hour flight from Osaka to Manila followed by en a six and a half hour overnight bus ride to Baguio City and a mildly terrifying taxi ride brought us to Tinongdan Barangay Hall. Hall was a generous word for the colorful but tired wooden building surrounded by thick forest. The entrance was flanked by a couple of tired-looking dogs, the kind of half-tame half-stray we had seen many of since landing in Manila. Having left most of our baggage in storage at the Manila airport, Audun and I were carrying backpacks with camping equipment and food for several days. We were, we hoped, prepared for anything. Except what we met.

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A barangay is the smallest adminstrative unit in the Philippines, and an important institution in the countryside.

We planned to hike from Tinongdan over Mt Ugo to Boundary, and then continue trekking to Mt Pulag, the highest mountain in Luzon. I had found reasonably good information online, and we had topographic maps (which virutally don’t exist in paper format in the Philippines) via the OsmAnd app on our phones. But the Barangay captain was not about to allow us to go traipsing off into the jungle alone. He was surprised that we hadn’t called in advanced and requested a guide, and immediately set about calling one, muttering something about an emergency as he offered us coffee. Audun and I soon resigned ourselves to our fate and waited patiently, signing the first of what turned out to be many log books along the way. We chatted with some curious visitors from another barangay. Everyone spoke English, although the level and accent varied greatly. They were going to visit a large nearby dam which I was given to understand was built by Norwegian engineers. Small world.

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Me, the barangay captain on my left and his visitors surrounding us.

Soon enough, our guide arrived, clad in hiking pants, boots and a small day pack. At my relatively average height of 5’6” I dwarfed him, something I would soon get used to. The native tribes of the Cordilleras region, collectively called Igorots, are short and ethnically distinct from other Philppinos, even speaking their own languages. The steep, densely forested slopes of these mountains were a stronghold that Spanish Catholicism couldn’t conquer; the Igorots have maintained their culture despite many assimilation attempts. It was precisely into the midst of this culture that we hoped to get.

Our guide took one look at us, and asked if we were runners. Since I dislike being coddled by guides, I answered with a resounding “Yes, we’re both quite fit." He started to look kind of nervous, like he hoped he could keep up. Oops.

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Goats don’t care. Along the road near the beginning of the trek up Mt Ugo.

When we finally set off for Mt Ugo, our guide set a hard pace. We descended from the hall, crossed the valley bottom and began climbing steeply uphill on a narrow concrete trail that passed through numerous carefully tended rice terraces. We stopped for a break at a table in front of a house, our guide chatting with the owners. These were clearly poor people. The house was constructed of a hodge-podge of greying wood and tin, and the owners had a small shop and a homemade pool table out front. A gathering place. 

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Rice terraces on the slopes of Mt Ugo.

“This is the last house with electricity,” our guide explained, “They are a building a power line up the hill to the others, but it won’t be switched on until 2017.” I remembered a figure I recently read, that around 1 billion people worldwide live without electricity, and realized I was about to meet some of them.

I chatted a little with our guide, and learned that this was only a part-time job for him. There were a whole slew of local guides, and they rotated who was ‘on call’ from week to week. On their off weeks, they were sustenance farmers, just like the people whose houses we were passing in our ascent. 

It was a hot day, and I soon regretted telling the guide I was in great shape as he set the pace uphill. My backpack was much larger than his, and I was probably working harder than I should have to keep up, but I wasn’t about to let him go. Luckily he seemed to be working pretty hard too, and took numerous breaks. Despite the lack of electricity, I saw at least one smart phone in the hand of a woman we passed.

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A narrow trail along a sprouting rice terrace.

We passed through another settlement, where another group of hikers was taking a break from their descent of Mt Ugo. One of the hikers had a brought a card game and some candy for the local children. Audun and I sat awkwardly out of the way and ate our lunches. I felt like we should be entertaining these children, too, but I didn’t really have anything to offer.

As our trek continued, we met a bunch of other groups of hikers, mostly Philippinos, all with their own guides. They had ostensibly summited Mt Ugo the previous day, so it seemed odd that they were so high up on the mountain still. Maybe they started late? 

The weather did an abrupt 180 and it began to rain heavily. I was grateful for the coolness first, but soon had to resign myself to getting wet. 

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The guide and I on the Mt Ugo climb.

When it seemed like we must have exhausted the supply of descending tourists to greet, a couple with a guide in rain boots and jeans stopped to chat with our guide. Our guide turned to us, explaining that we would swap guides here. He lived on this side of the mountain, while this new guide, Rico, lived on the other, so it only made sense really. 

Rico was older, more taciturn and didn’t take nearly so many breaks as the first. It was still raining, and as we neared the summit we also entered thick layer of fog. Needless to say, there were no views from the summit, and so it felt a little anticlimatic. We could only hope for better weather on the next summit.

The descent was extremely steep and muddy, and I used my trekking poles to keep my balance. I marvelled at Rico who seemingly didn’t slip at all. I guess his rubber boots were the best footwear choice!

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Descending Mt Ugo in the fog.

It was only an hour before dark when we reached the village of Domolpos, still fairly high up on the mountain. Rico told us we could spend the night in a school house there. Given the state of the ground, soaked, inside sounded good.

There were some dark thatched houses at the outskirts of the village, thick window shutters tightly closed. Rico to pointed one, and said point-blank, “There are five mummies in there.” I shuddered. I had read about Igorot mummification in our a guide book, a relatively gruesome process that took close to one year and involved collecting bodily juices in a jar and blow smoke through the nostrils of the unfortunate victim. Luckily the mummy house wasn’t next to the school house.

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Rico and the mummy house

In the school house, we hung up our things in a futile attempt to dry them and ate freezed-dried food, watching the last of the light disappear. The village’s stray dogs sniffed at our door, hoping for some scraps. After dark, the bad nights sleep on the bus caught up with me and we went to sleep relatively quickly.

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Ready to go outside the Domolpos schoolhouse.

Rico reappeared the next morning at 7 am sharp. The descent to Boundary usually took around 5 hours, he informed us, but he thought we could do it in 4. (We did it in 3). In Boundary, we would have to switch guides yet again. The trails past Boundary were out of the territory of the Mt Ugo guides.

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Rico had swapped his rubber boots of the previous day with white and red Nikes.

The descent passed quickly. It wasn’t raining but the trails were still slick from the day before. We walked in the fog for a while, with occasional glimpses of the valley below appearing. I pondered our current problem. Being rather sleep-deprived from the bus ride when we arrived in Baguio, we had failed to really think before we withdrew cash, and I was fairly certain we didn’t have enough on us for the rest of our hike.

I’m used to never having to carry cash, and so I don’t really think too much about how much I will actually need. Here in the high Cordilleras, we could be hours from the nearest ATM. This mistake could easily cost us half a day of hiking.

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A break in the fog affords a glimpse of the Cordilleras.

We arrived at Kayapa town hall, a few kilometers down the road from Boundary (“This trail has fewer leeches,” Rico said.) and began the process of waiting for a guide all over again. There was another log book to sign inside the town hall. The insides of the town hall looked like a parody of bureaucracy. There were many people, hard at work, all scribbling on papers. There were no computers.

We explained our cash plight to the town treasurer, who sat writing his signature on a tall stack of papers. With characteristic Philippino helpfulness, he offered to drive us to the nearest ATM in the hilariously named Bambang, one hour away. Although we had hoped to continue hiking that day, we reasoned that there was still plenty of time and that we needed the cash, so we climbed in to the van with the treasurer and set off.

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Taking a break outside of Kayapa Town Hall.

One hour later, we jumped off in the noisy town of Bambang, withdrew cash, and were put on a jeepney back to Kayapa. The jeepney was full of people and their purchases from their trip to town, and I rode the whole way with my backpack awkwardly placed on my laps. There were a couple of guys sitting on the roof of the jeepney. The ride back to Kayapa was mostly uphill, and the jeepney had to stop twice to cool down the motor with water from hoses along the road. 

Back in Kayapa, we stopped at the covered market to buy some more food. The locals at the market were very interested in what we were up to. They thought we were crazy to want to hike all the way to Mt Pulag. “It’s raining!” they exclaimed, pointing outside. And so it was. One girl seemed particularly enamoured by our travels.

“You came from Norway to the Philippines to have an adventure!” she exclaimed. Right you are. 

As I paid for our food, a diminutive man in a leather jacket and crocks began to talk with Audun. “He’s says he’s our guide,” said Audun in Norwegian. I wasn’t so sure about this. He certainly didn’t look much like a guide; maybe he was just trying to scam us? 

We soon ascertained that Tony was, in fact, the guide that Rico had called, and that he was intent on taking us to Mt Purgatory, which was not what we had planned, but in the right direction at least. Tony produced a full-color brochure with a description of the hike, which looked nice, and so we agreed to go with him to Mt Purgatory.

The rain persisted as we waited for a passing van to pick us up. Public transportation is strange in the Philippines. There are very few buses that actually run on any kind of schedule, but most of the vehicles on the road are for-hire and will pick up passengers for a small fee. Basically you just stand around, flagging vans until one going in the right direction and with enough space arrives.

By the time the van dropped us at the trailhead, Audun and I were pretty stoked to finally get hiking. But Tony took one look at the dismal rain and suggested we spend the night at his friend’s house near the trailhead. We were hardly in a position to argue, and he promised we would start at 4 am the next morning to get in a long hike.

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Puppies keeping warm on the doormat.

Soon we were installed in a simple, but dry guest hut, and then drinking coffee and eating cinnamon rolls in the main house. Half-tame dogs lay just outside the house, trying to gather some warmth, while kittens almost crawled into the heat of the fireplace.

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The couple who owned the house chatted a little with us in English before switching to their native language to crack jokes with Tony. Their three children came home from school and said a quick hello before scurrying away from us, the intimidating foreigners. We were served a simple dinner of red rice, stewed squash and mushroom, and a sauce of ground chilis. Then it was early to bed, again, with a 3:30am alarm set. The next day was my 26th birthday, and it was time to go big.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

(All the pictures in this post are taken by Audun, who recently bought a new camera and became my official blog photographer.)