mount pinatubo, the philippines

Climbing Mount Pinatubo

The Philippines. Angeles City.  March. Our night was troubled. We were anxious about the climb. Would it be too hot? What about heat stroke? If it rained, would we be buried by the notorious flash floods of lahar (mud)? Was our guide competent?

I re-read my guide book to quell my fears.

The Philippines, Jeepney, by Jo Castro, pic Copyright by Jo Castro

In 1991 an avalanche of lahar raced down the hillsides

Mount Pinatubo rumbled awake, after 600 years of peace, during June 1991. The inferno which followed displaced almost a million people from Central Luzon and destroyed thousands of hectares of farmland. About 41,000 homes were destroyed and hundreds of people died. Angeles City was once a boom-town fuelled by the Americans stationed at Clark Air Base, but it too was virtually destroyed.

Steam and boulders shot up about 40km into the sky.  Ash and sand settled in huge deposits around the volcano creating amazing landscapes with towers up to 20 metres high. Stones the size of balls flew into the air and avalanches of lahar raced down the hillsides submerging or burying everything in their wake.

Mount Pinatubo, copyright Jo Castro
We would be climbing up there? Through that?

My fears were not quelled. My fears were considerably heightened.

I slept fitfully, and was awoken at 4am. Pre-dawn was dark and cool; cockerels were crowing and there was a huge canopy of stars.

The red jeepney was half-loaded with a motley stash of rucksacks containing tents and supplies. Two half-asleep porters lounged across them.

Cool air zipped through the open sides of the jeep as we lurched onto the main road. The smell of earth and the countryside made me glad to be away from Manila and I felt the first tinge of excitement working its way into my veins.

Dinner is bought

We stopped at a place called Maraming. The first streaks of dawn were seeping into the sky. Our guide sauntered out of the jeepney and began to walk away.

   “Where’s he going?” I asked.

   “To get food,” the driver replied.

Where had he gone to get food at this time in the morning? Maraming looked like a jeepney heaven with a few old men in vests stretching and yawning on the sidewalk.

Ten minutes later our guide came back into focus. He was carrying a plastic bag.

   “What did you get?” someone asked hopefully.


   “Where from?”

   “The market. Fresh chicken,” he clucked, “alive!”

We all looked at the plastic bag.

There was nothing alive in there anymore. On a tummy devoid of even a cup of tea I felt nauseous at this earthy thought so early in the morning.

With dinner purchased the jeepney rumbled into life again. Our guide fell asleep with his legs dangling on the dashboard. We hung on to various bits of rusty railing and tried to do the “sleep-anywhere” trick – to no avail.

Far from Manila and city life

As it became lighter I caught glimpses of small thatched houses, long vistas of grass and the distant Zambales mountains. Carabao lounged in small patches of flood water, girls in brightly coloured wrap-around skirts were intent on their early morning chores, and a small boy rode an oxen across a field misty with the early morning light.

How far away we seemed to be from the essence of Manila; so far from pollution and noise and frenetic activity.

Mount Pinatubo by Jo Castro

We stopped in a village where a ‘tourist office’ listed prices for porters and guides on a blackboard. We had to sign a book to say we were venturing onto the slopes of Mount Pinatubo. We were probably, without knowing it, signing our lives away too.

On, on in the red Jeepney

After a long wait, during which thoughts were discussed, points were raised and probably new rules were made up, we set off again – now with a couple of extra porters. They hung on to the back, perching on two small ledges above the exhaust. We invited them in, but they only laughed. Their laughter was carried away by the wind, and the speed of the jeepney, speeding now across the flat lahar deposits which blew into white dust clouds behind us.

We passed a small settlement of Aeta people living under hastily constructed shelters of bamboo. They waved at us as we rumbled past, onwards towards their mountain, which once used to be their home – their ancestral acreage.

After what seemed like ages,  we came to a halt by a little bamboo shelter. It was 7am. This was it then.

Time to start walking into the void towards a crater with a lake. We needed to beat the sun for once it found us in the weirdly shaped ravines we would be imprisoned by its heat.

Mount Pinatubo by Jo Castro

Our Son was 11 years old.

“This is going to such an adventure for him!” My hubby said.

“Yes,” I said not really buying in to all the man to man stuff because all I could think about was his tender years, his pale skin and the searing heat. As his mother my mind was preoccupied with survival, not adventure.

Concerned for his safety in this unrelenting looking wilderness, I wanted to chicken out, but I couldn’t. All I could think about was would we reach the top without mishap?

Would you like to find out what happened on this, one of the great hikes of the world?

Installment two of the Mount Pinatubo travel story follows here: Part Two Mount Pinatubo, The Philippines

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  1. Glad you enjoyed it Jill! Next installment coming up 🙂 Please check back soon.

  2. Wow! Can’t wait for the next installment. Cheers!

  3. Great to hear from you Justin! Thanks! Maybe you’d like to send me a link to the video you made (with a few words about why you made it) and I could include that too?

  4. It sounds like an adventure already. I do understand your concern for your son. Sometimes Dads think things will be fun, but they might not be. The climb does not look easy!

  5. It wasn’t easy, Jan! And Dad’s are a lot more gung ho than Mums are sometimes, I reckon! At the end though, it was an achievement.

  6. I can fully understand your concerns Jo. It would have been much easier to be lying on a beautiful beach staring at the turquoise water and ordering a cocktail! But what an adventure and with a great reward at the end!

  7. Yes, it was an adventure – one of those where it’s tough at the time, but great to look back on. I think I probably had the thought of a blue sea and cocktail in my mind a lot of the time 🙂

  8. I’ll live this adventure through you 🙂 Nice to know that you lived to write about it!

  9. It was a great adventure Nancie, and as you can see, Yes, we all did live to tell the tale 🙂

  10. What an adventure. I hope the fact that there is a Part 2 to come means that you made it safely to the top (and back again)!

  11. Wow! This takes me back to my time in the Philippines in the mid-90s, and drives through lahar fields en route to Baguio. It was–and still must be–a moonscape! One great side effect for at least a few years after the Pinatubo eruption was a bounty crop of mangoes, with all the soil enriched by volcanic ash. Eager to see the next installment!

  12. Ahh Anita … mangoes! Yes! Driving to Baguio, remember it well. I bet we have many notes to swap 🙂

  13. Elaine J. Masters

    I’ve had that sense of trepidation before risky adventures too, especially when family is along. How cool that you persevered.

  14. I used to travel to Manila regularly for work and always wanted to see Pinatubo. It definitely commanded respect from the community. I look forward to seeing the next installment with your family.

  15. Don’t the best adventures always contain an element of fear? I’ll look forward to the rest of the story! I’ve no doubt you came, saw and conquered, and that everyone got out alive, as well.

  16. Wow! I was right there with you on the adventure. Scary but I wanted to stay with you. Great story.

  17. Yes I just kept on putting the fear behind me and one foot in front of the other Elaine!

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