I turned 70 just this July 2021 and couldn’t help but reminisce some of the crazy things I’ve done in my past seven decades on this planet. One of these adventures was a trail run up and down Mayon Volcano all in one day way back the15th of April 1984. Luckily, I saved some notes and contact prints of that unprecedented ascent that I can hazard as a guess was among the Philippines’ first mountain trail runs, though it was non-competitive and accomplished just for the challenge of the enterprise. Here’s my recollection of our interlude with Daragang Magayon when I was in my mid-30s and still in running prime capable of 3.5K/min clips.
The day was perfect for a Mayon climbing adventure. The air was crisp, cool, and balmy. The early morning clouds were like great puffs of white cotton balls, foretelling not of rain but of a cloudy bright Palm Sunday.
And at exactly 5:40 a.m., the bark of a starting gun shoved three figures in running togs into action. Their objective: to establish the fastest record up and down the perfect cone of Albay’s Mt. Mayon.
Among us was the legendary ultra-marathoner Max Telford of New Zealand, who set the pace. It was a slow, deliberately unhurried shuffle from the starting line at San Miguel Corporation’s beer sales office in Legazpi City. It bore Telford’s wisdom of a career mileage in excess of 20,000 miles, enough to circle the earth five times and included runs up Japan’s Mt. Fuji, Mexico’s Mt. Popocapetl, and America’s Mt. Whitney.
Our self-assigned task was aptly dubbed as “The Lagerlite Mayon Challenge,” with SMC’s Lagerlite Beer as our title sponsor. It called for a run from about sea level Legazpi City to Mayon’s 2,642-meter (8,075-foot) summit, passing a terrain loved only by hardened mountaineers.
And with the Perfect Cone only about five kilometers from the storm-birthing Pacific Ocean, squalls up the mountain are not uncommon even during the dry season. If I recall right, less than a week before Telford’s run that April 15, rains and strong winds threatened to derail the 1984 annual congress of the National Mountaineering of the Philippines up Bicolandia’s pride.
But somebody up there must have blessed us so kindly. We got good weather and good running company too. With Telford in the 10-kilometer road run from Legazpi to the climb’s starting point at the abandoned Mayon Imperial Golf Course were two runner escorts: myself who honed a mountain running form as a founding member of the Mountaineering Association of the Philippines (MAP, an offshoot of the UST Mountaineering Club), and Jess Malabed of Metro Manila’s Road Striders. And at the trail run’s mountain leg from Mayon Imperial Golf Course (now defunct), Peter Nance who had run with Telford at Mt. Popocapetl and Mt. Whitney, joined the cast for our bid to top “Daragang Magayon” within a day.
The first leg of the climb was fairly easygoing. We wound through a pretty well-defined, gently sloping trail. But what started as a shuffling run soon became a jogging trot, and with the steeper terrain farther ahead, the jog settled to brisk, walking strides.
This movement was also favored for us to stay on the right trail; getting lost was easy (our main concern before the run) because of crisscrossing trails at Mayon’s base. Constantly, we had to be on the lookout for route markers put up by an advance party the day before.
Extra effort, however, was needed oftentimes to spot the route markers set by veteran Mayon mountaineers George Cordovilla and Renato Victoria of Legazpi City, and by local ultramarathon legend Felix Barredo (Champion of the inaugural Baguio 24-hr Run). The markers, yellow ribbons tied along the way, often merged with the colors of the grasses that abound on Mayon’s lower slopes.
Less than three hours after the start of our run, we reached 2.500 feet above sea level, stopped at the campsite there not only for a breather but also for a homage to the altitude we have gained.
From the campsite, we proceeded to the confines of the Buyuhan Gully, a ravine formed by an ancient molten lava flow from one of the volcano’s many eruptions. The real hard work began in the gully. Carved by cascading rainwaters during the monsoons, the gully floor is very irregular and tapers at an average 40-degree incline.
Dislodged rocks reeled and rolled to disintegrate at a far distance below, a horrifying reminder of what a careless footing could bring. Running the stretch was out of the question; it was (simply put) mountain-climbing all the way. On several occasions, we skirted vertical walls and rock slides, and we had to negotiate the thick undergrowth of the gully’s hogback.
Nonetheless, we made excellent progress, reached 5,000 feet (ASL) at a little past 9:00 a.m., and joined the advance party who camped for the night after climbing a day ahead. Telford et al were met by an enthusiastic Barredo, a first-timer at Mayon, recounting with gusto his cold night’s ordeal at the mountain.
Tiring and growing dehydrated, we feasted on the fruit juices and biscuits brought by the advance party and consumed almost a gallon of water before trudging on for the final push for the summit.
Barredo and Cordovilla (who already has 28 climbs up Mayon then) joined Telford’s group. Meanwhile, the equally experienced mountaineer, Renato Victoria, was left behind to replenish the running expedition’s water supply and follow up the mountain later to serve as a mobile water station for the runners on the way down.
Past the 6,000-foot level, the Buyuhan Gully tapers off and becomes hopelessly choked with boulders, the result of Mayon’s fury at more recent times. We abandoned the gully and took its right hogback, which led to a steep incline of loose cinders and coarse lava sand leading to the steaming summit.
“The last 2,000 feet up Mayon were the most difficult,” Telford told us later.
ur movement had to be slow, deliberate, and laborious, ever watchful of the right footholds which would support our weight. Slips were not uncommon and occasionally, rocks would fly from a misjudged footing. The section was so hard that Malabed, who has no prior mountaineering experience, was left lagging behind, with only 500 meters to go before the summit.
We, however, pushed on and reached Mayon’s crater-summit at 11:00 a.m. The elevation we gained was awe-inspiring as shifting clouds unveiled the sweeping panorama below.
For half an hour, we savored the vista of the sprawling scree slopes leading down to the Buyuhan Gully which cut farther down the vegetated slopes below. Although assailed by the sulfuric fumes of Mayon’s crater, we were mesmerized by the view which covered the outlying towns in the periphery of the volcano’s base, extending even to the islands of San Miguel and Cagraray at the Albay Gulf.
But only half of the battle was won. We still had to descend and resume the run to Legazpi. Thus, after partaking a lunch of biscuits and puffed rice (ampaw) downed with sugared water (Telford, unlike the rest though ate baby food), we descended.
Telford teamed up eventually with Barredo and Victoria. Mayon veteran mountaineer Renato and I, having the climbing experience, acted as sweepers, to help secure Malabed trailing behind. And as another safety measure, Vincent Christian also a seasoned MAP climber, posted himself at the 2,500-foot level of the route to stand by to lead any search and rescue operation that may arise.
Such deployment of support for “The Lagerlite Mayon Challenge” proved reassuring. Except for some minor spills, there were no major mishaps during our descent which is the more dangerous leg of any Mayon climb or any ascent for that matter.
Four hours and 36 minutes after leaving the summit, Telford, along with Victoria, and Barredo, were back at the Legazpi sales office of the San Miguel Beer Division. In so doing, a record of 10 hours and six minutes was set for that Lagerlite Mayon Challenge, a day climb up and down the famous volcano. And this may be a record that shall stand for a long while.
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