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The Path Finder

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We join a rock climbing veteran as he establishes new routes in what has been dubbed the Philippines’ next rock climbing capital.

Story by
Dru Robles
Photography by
Jeric Rustia
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At the base of a slightly overhanging 60-meter limestone crag towering above a sugarcane field in Quezon, Bukidnon, Carlos “Mackie” Makinano Jr. clambers up a vertical crack.

With every step, he purposefully moves a set of grappling hooks and wedges into the rock’s natural features to save his new high point in case of a fall. I am on the sand flea-infested ground, and I dare not shift my weight to scratch an itch; I literally hold Mackie’s lifeline in my hands. Though his gear is reliable and manufactured to spec, the rock itself is untouched, untested.

From time to time, pieces of rock will crumble under Mackie’s bodyweight, causing a handhold or a foothold to come off the wall and bits of limestone to tumble to the ground. One dislodged rock can cause Mackie to swing like a pendulum across the jagged cliff side—or worse, plummet all the way down.

Two and a half body lengths above the ground, Mackie hauls his two-handed heavy duty impact hammer drill up from a rope he’d prepared earlier. White powder rains down on us as the 10mm drill bit bores into solid limestone. After withdrawing the drill and letting it dangle from his waist, he cleans the resulting hole with a pipe cleaner and uses a ball-peen hammer to wedge a stainless-steel expansion bolt into it. Finally, he fastens a stainless steel loop called a hanger to the bolt using an open wrench. Mackie grabs a quickdraw (two carabiners connected by a sling). He clips one end into the hanger, his rope into the other. It’s only after this that we can breathe a little easier.

The slow and precarious process of traditional climbing (“trad”) is how rock climbing has always been done—beginning over 200 years ago, with alpinists whose only intention was to get over a cliff and continue hiking on the other side. It was a hundred years later, after rock climbing grew more popular, that the climbing community embraced the practice of drilling steel bolts into a rock face.

Before then, when climbing was done on relatively easier terrain, there was no need for fixed bolts: Natural rock features and tree trunks were sufficient for temporary anchors, and climbing ropes to protect a climber from a fall. Cliff faces that didn’t present enough placements for trad climbing gear were simply considered impossible to climb.

As climbers began to challenge themselves with more difficult routes, some started to drill bolts into the rock, and left them there for other climbers. Unlike grappling hooks, bolts weren’t easily removed. Purists consider them an eyesore, but bolted routes allowed climbers to safely push their limits with increasingly difficult rock climbs. The purists stuck to a branch of rock climbing called free climbing, which relies only on the climber’s own body to conquer naturally occurring features in rock faces.

In countries like the Philippines, where smooth and brittle limestone is common, trad climbing is more dangerous because of the potential of temporary anchors to slip and of rocks to crack. Here, bolting a route along a rock face becomes even more crucial. An argument can also be made that bolting prevents more damage to the rock, because trad gear causes the rock to crack and crumble.

For these reasons, bolted routes has become the norm in most of Southeast Asia. Bolts like the one that Mackie has just installed serve as protection for other rock climbers after him who want to test their skills without having to face mortal peril.

Climbing is free. Bolting is not. Bolting in the Philippines is a labor of love.

Bolting isn’t always done this way: the safer way would be to find access to the top of the crag through a back trail, and install the bolts while rappelling down. The last time we did this, we spent the better part of the morning hiking through untamed tropical forest with a bolo in hand, carrying our hammer drill, a 70-meter work rope, and about five kilos worth of climbing and bolting gear along with a sparse ration of water and trail food.

For this trip, we’d originally set our sights on a monolith cliff near the peak of a hill. Judging from our earlier drone shots, the rock formation is near-perfectly circular when viewed from above, with a 75-meter vertical rock face along its circumference. In this case, there was no viable back trail to speak of. Unfortunately, as we reached the base, we found the rock was actually crumbly and jagged, with brown marks of water seeping out from within: it wouldn't be suitable for top-down bolting.

In the end, we settled for a smaller crag we called Chili Wall, because of the cluster of siling labuyo shrubs along the trail leading towards it. A few paces from the shrubs, the forest opened up to a meadow, with the stained white rock wall towering over the canopy on the other side.

Mackie is suspended 25m up this sheer rock wall when he decides to stop, having installed 11 bolts from the ground up. This route isn’t as tall as most of the others in Quezon, but he has determined that the rock for “quality climbing” on this particular path ends here. Everything above this point is either too crumbly or has dangerously sharp edges jutting out, like a giant meat tenderizer.

In contrast to the monolith we had set our sights on earlier, this bare wall seemed ordinary at first glance; the rock only good for climbing on its lower half. But the more we bolt and test routes, the more we realize that Chili Wall yields just the right mix of easy to moderate terrain needed to attract more casual and beginner climbers to Quezon.



In rock climbing, sport routes are paths lined with fixed bolts and hangers, usually leading from the ground to the top of a rock face. Reaching the top is called ‘sending’ the route—though the route strictly isn’t considered sent until it has been climbed from start to end without falling. When we bolt new anchors into the rock, we establish new routes that people can use to safely climb to the top.

Although the rock itself is fixed, a bolting team can choose the difficulty of the routes that lead to the top of the wall by plotting steeper paths or ones with fewer handholds and footholds. Each 20 to 30-meter route consists of anywhere from 10 to 18 bolts and hangers. Installing a set of bolts takes about five hours of labor, usually under the scorching sun.

By itself, the physical act of bolting is as simple as it is grueling: drill hole, clean out debris, hammer in bolt and hanger, tighten nut—and whatever you do, do not drop anything. The real difficulty lies in plotting where each bolt and hanger will go.

With only one drill at our disposal, our goal is to bolt one to two routes each day over the next week. On our backs, we carry some trail food, coffee, water, and extra brick-sized batteries for the three-kilogram drill that hangs from our harness. Throughout the day, Mackie and I pass the drill back and forth to save our hips from its crushing weight.

After a day of bolting, we spend another hour hammering the route—literally, we hammer and pry off loose rocks that could pop off the wall and hit a climber’s head, and flatten sharp and rough edges that could abrade our ropes. Only after hammering the route can we test it by climbing it from bottom to top. Whoever makes the first ascent gets to name the route, and may one day end up in a guide book. Rather than making all of the first ascents ourselves, Mackie and his team often choose to give other climbers a chance to clinch the coveted FA.

Known ubiquitously as “Kuya Mackie,” Mackie’s been a constant presence in Philippine rock climbing since the 1990s. His introduction to climbing was through an advanced mountaineering course at a cluster of rock formations just past Wawa Dam in Rodriguez, Rizal; better known to rock climbers by its former name, Montalban. Back then, the country’s rock climbing pioneers used whatever they could get for makeshift fall protection, including car engine parts and ordinary polyurethane ropes.

Mackie would hang out and spend nights at Power Up in Tandang Sora, Metro Manila’s first climbing gym. But having just graduated with a Mechanical Engineering degree in 1995, Mackie preferred to do his actual climbing outdoors in Montalban, where he could climb for free.

It wasn’t until 1997, when Power Up opened a second branch in Pasig, that Mackie became a junior instructor, and apprenticed as a routesetter for national climbing competitions. As a routesetter, his role was to create routes that challenged climbers from around the country to try to one-up each other on artificial climbing walls using textured plastic holds.


Mackie wasn’t even paid as an apprentice at first, but he considered the free travel opportunities enough compensation. He rose up the ranks, becoming Head Routesetter and eventually Competition Director during the country’s golden age of competitive climbing, from 1998 to 2005.

It was also at this time that Mackie was introduced to bolting: he was invited to establish rock climbing routes in 1999 by Simon Sandoval, three-time national champion and one of the most prolific climbers in Philippine rock climbing history. Just as the first Filipino climbers took Simon under their wing, Simon taught Mackie, and continued an oral tradition that’s still passed on today.

Mackie was so enthusiastic about bolting that Simon and Nana Araneta, the female national champion at the time, gave him the two years of unlimited inter-island ferry rides they had won in a competition. This enabled Mackie to establish the sport in other provinces, starting with Rumagayray in Iloilo. Since then, he has become the driving force behind the development of nearly every major rock climbing area in the country, including Toledo, Cebu; Atimonan and Quirino in Quezon Province; Dingle and Igbaras in Iloilo; and now, Quezon, Bukidnon.



The landlocked municipality of Quezon, Bukidnon is found between three Mindanaoan cities, best represented in the early years of competitive sport climbing: Cagayan De Oro lies north, Iligan northwest, and Davao southeast.

Just under five kilometers from Chili Wall, the Kiokong Ecotourism Project was born of a 2005 municipal ordinance that reallocated property from a military reservation towards ecotourism. Smack in the middle of this vast and wild land is the 180-meter behemoth, the Kiokong White Wall, standing about as tall as Makati’s RCBC Plaza Yuchengco Tower and almost as wide as a city block. So tall is Kiokong that it needs to be climbed in five or six sections, or pitches, at a time. Each individual pitch—around 25 to 30 meters high—would rival the highest single-pitch climbs in the country.

Once developed, Kiokong will be the tallest bolted crag for rock climbing in the Philippines. The peerless crag is currently off-limits to climbers due to other projects on the horizon, but there are plenty of other treasures in the meantime: In the past year, Mackie’s team—which has grown to eight members—has bolted over 90 routes across six massive crags in Quezon. This puts it at par with the 96 bolted routes between two crags in Toledo, Cebu, currently the area with the most number of routes.


While the crags in Toledo are nearly maxed out, Mackie estimates Quezon could potentially have at least 300 more routes—not yet including the nearby towns and cities. Though few rock climbers are from Quezon itself, there were whispers of the province’s potential for rock climbing since the 1990s.

The story goes that a UP Diliman student from a prominent family in Bukidnon enrolled in a wall climbing P.E. class at Power Up Tandang Sora, and liked it so much that in 2000, her family invited a group of four climbers—including Mackie—to develop a smaller, more manageable crag in Quezon known as Blue Water. But, after bolting six routes there, the team never heard from the family again.

Unbeknownst to everyone, a small band of homegrown climbers soon began to frequent Blue Water on the weekends, climbing the same routes over and over. In 2005, local climber Jboy Sanchez and his friends finally acquired a drill and set their sights on new lines in Blue Water.

Popular climbing hotspots around Southeast Asia receive hundreds of thousands of visitors per year from around the world.

“Yung first drill namin, ’yung isang butas, isang baterya,” recalls Jboy. The cheaper drill meant it took them a whole week to do what Mackie and his team could normally accomplish in an afternoon. After acquiring a better drill a few years later, Jboy also tried to bolt a nameless 70-meter crag in Barangay San Jose, later dubbed Meow Pow.

Meow Pow was easy to access, and was visible from the Davao-Bukidnon highway. But Jboy and friends returned the day after bolting to find that the bolts had been sawed off—by local farmers, he suspects. To avoid the same thing from happening again, they bolted an additional two less-accessible routes—and, satisfied with what they had accomplished, stopped there.

It was also around this time that Iligan climber Mark Battung had moved to Bukidnon to live with his wife. Perhaps the strongest climber from his hometown and a regular in the National Sport Climbing circuit, he’d bolted a few routes back home and had the same idea for Quezon. Now, Mark owns Adventure Technology Outfitters, an outdoor tour company offering vertical bivouac adventures on a ledge 150 meters up the wall.

Although he had his heart set on developing sport climbing on Kiokong White Wall, Mark had no way of funding his aspirations. And with no guarantee of returns, he only managed to add a few routes to Blue Water, bringing the total number up to 10. As far as Kiokong was concerned, Mark contented himself with rappelling down and making overnight trips to the cavernous ledge.

“‘Yung government, hindi nila naisip na potential for tourism [ang rock climbing],” explains Mark. “Mas interested sila sa ginagawa ko, which is natutulog sa wall.”

Later, Mark was contacted by the Department of Tourism to bring his little hobby to the masses.


Meanwhile, Mackie was constantly asked to take another look at Quezon whenever he’d visit Mindanao as a competition organizer. But with no clear prospects and little local support, he first busied himself developing other areas: in Cebu, Iloilo, Baguio, Quirino Province, and El Nido.

Finally in 2016, having relocated from CDO to Davao and frustrated with the lack of climbing gyms in the city, veteran climber Chico Pace contacted Mackie once again with the idea of bolting in Quezon—this time promising to look for sponsors and help with the actual bolting. One of the first people this newly-formed team looked to for support was Mark Battung, who was by now the pre-eminent consultant on extreme activities in Bukidnon. Occupied with other planned developments and having been away from free climbing for over a decade, Mark instead suggested a climber in his employ who he thought might be of better service to the duo: be the errant bolter-cum-tourism official, Jboy Sanchez.

Upon reaching Quezon, Mackie is greeted warmly by the staff of our rest house before settling into his usual room and preparing our gear. Once everything is assembled and accounted for, it’s dinner and then drinks with a group of climbers who made the four-hour drive from Cagayan de Oro to purposely coincide with our bolting trip.

This will become a common theme throughout our stay in Bukidnon, with gaggles of Mindanaoan climbers from nearby towns and far away cities dropping by for drinks and a bit of climbing. Some are experienced climbers, others now finding their way back to climbing, while most are local tour guides and rescue workers who are still unsure of themselves on the rock. They all look to Mackie for guidance and encouragement, and rarely climb in the new areas while he’s away.



Every so often, mid-bolt or while preparing at the foot of the crag, the eagle-eyed Kuya Mackie will call out tips to a climber on the wall and point out a foot hold that he missed. “Baliktad ang quickdraw mo! Ang itom, butangan sa ibabaw,” Mackie once called down to a group of local climbers 15 meters below him, in their local tongue. Even after warning them that he would be too busy to entertain them this time, it becomes immediately apparent that he’s been keeping an eye on the neophytes all along.

Always two steps ahead, Mackie knows exactly how much gear each person has in his packs, how much each pack weighs, and what time everyone’s flight arrives. This way, he knows, for example, that he can ask me to bring an extra four kilos worth of hardware that will arrive with me on Thursday afternoon without exceeding my baggage limit. Halfway through our trip, photographer Jeric Rustia coins the term “alagang Makinano.” He knows what level of difficulty each of us can climb, what our food preferences are, and even what our sleeping habits are like.

Throughout the trip, Mackie updates me on the strengths and weaknesses of the bolts we’re using, the purchase and transportation of new stainless steel bolts from Singapore, as well as the situation with funding, our deals with sponsors, and coordination with local government officials.

“I don’t know kung naniniwala sila,” Mackie reflects. “Kasi minsan kapag ang kinakakausap mo taga-LGU, natutuwa lang sila na may nagpupunta. Pero hindi mo rin alam kung naniniwala sila na talagang magiging climbing capital.”

Climbing is free. Bolting is not. Bolting in the Philippines is a labor of love. Those who want to develop new areas shell out their own cash and collect donations from friends to pay for the literal nuts and bolts that keep them safe on the rock. Even though there are eight members of the Quezon bolting team, only two or three are present on any given trip. The cost of an average route in materials alone is around Php 3,500 to 6,000, depending on how many bolts are used, what kind, and where they’re sourced. Individuals chip in, however way they can: Most bolts are flown in little by little from Singapore in the check-in baggage of climbers. Mackie estimates there are about 300 routes to go; at an average of 15 bolts per route, they still need funding for at least 4,500 more bolts and hangers.


Routesetters also wear out their personal gear, and usually pay for their own transportation—Mackie has retired at least two pairs of hiking shoes, an assortment of tools, and countless flip-flops in the past year alone. In June last year, Chico bought a new hammer drill for around USD 800 of his own money so that the team could double their efforts.

Things don’t always go smoothly; there are many factors to keep in mind that will affect the placement of the bolts. For example, the hardness of the limestone, the desired difficulty of the route, the distance from the previous bolt, the presence of sufficient hand holds, the potential for drag (unwanted tension in the rope) and abrasion to a climbing rope, the flatness of the drilling surface. Calculate wrong, and you’ll have to abandon the bolt.

The act of bolting also comes with its own set of inherent risks. The best thing to do in case of an unexpected fall while drilling is to throw the drill as far away from your body as possible. (This is easier said than done.) More common is the problem of wildlife—snakes, geckos, hornets, and wasps. Wasps had visited Mackie on Chili Wall, and he was stung on his neck, back, and nose before he completed his anchor and rappelled to safety.

On the whole, it’s not the worst that could have happened.

They all look to Mackie for guidance and encouragement, and rarely climb in the new areas while he’s away.

Mackie is organizing a climbing festival in May, meant to bolster support from the government and introduce Quezon to the climbing community. Since it was decided, the bolting team has been busy adding other routes that can be climbed in the shade in the summer.

Meeting with the Bukidnon tourism coordinator, we discuss the climbers accommodations, possible event sponsors, seminars on climbing and safety, a possible photo contest, and a climbing competition. The local government pledges to provide 100 t-shirts for the participants along with a welcome dinner and Mayor’s Night celebrations. On his end, Mackie promises to have 120 routes ready and, more importantly, attract an attendance of at least 100 climbers. The festival will serve as a litmus test on whether Quezon can attract climbers from around the Philippines.

In truth, popular climbing hotspots around Southeast Asia receive hundreds of thousands of visitors per year from around the world. Cantabaco crag in Cebu, which has only 70 routes, attracts dozens of foreigners each year. But the team is hesitant to invite outsiders while the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao stands. For now, at least, we set that thought aside.

Mackie has organized a small barbecue in the driveway of our rest house. Everyone is invited. As slabs of tuna grill over hot coals, Donna prepares pink salmon sinigang. Mark and I discuss the pros and cons of different gear. Jboy demonstrates how various climbing equipment perfectly doubles as a bottle opener as he pours us another round of beers. Off to the side, photographer Jeric confers with Mackie about the challenges he faced as the competition director of a series of youth climbing competitions. The future of rock climbing in the Philippines seems bright. In three to five years, the Quezon Bolting Team will have reached its goal of bolting 400 routes. Climbers from neighboring Maramag and Valencia have already come and asked Mackie to take a look at their untouched crags.

While we’re in Quezon, Mackie’s own bolting drill is en route to a semi-developed crag in Igbaras, Iloilo. He’s also in touch with resort owners in Borawan Island to bolt a few lines that can be offered to their clients. Perhaps most telling of all, officials from Nagtipunan, Quirino Province, which previously funded the bolting of 20 routes in 2015, had heard about Bukidnon and decided that they want to try to compete for the title of Rock Climbing Capital in the North.



Ask him why he does what he does, and Mackie will spout different answers at different times. In the beginning, he says outdoor development afforded him the opportunity to travel and climb all over the Philippines. That wasn’t sustainable. He says he made a commitment to the local government. He says he likes seeing people climb his routes. One time, he said he bolts because people keep giving him bolts.

Back in March 2017, on my very first trip to Quezon, I stood latched to a natural crevice in the Meow Pow wall, nicknamed the Ledge of Common Sense. As I tied a rope to my harness in preparation for the second pitch of the climb, Mackie looked at me and said, “Maghanda ka na, Dru. Ito na yung magiging pinakamataas na climb mo sa buong buhay mo.”

The grin on his face as he said it may be the answer I was looking for.

--

This story was originally published in GRID Volume 05.

This story was originally published in

Volume 5 | The Great Outdoors

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