The U.P. Mountaineers


The UP Mountaineers have become far larger, more influential, and more enduring than its founders could ever have foreseen.

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Jason Quibilan
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Since it started as an unofficial adventure group in the 1970s, the UP Mountaineers have become far larger, more influential, and more enduring than its founders could ever have foreseen. More than any other organization, UPM has changed the way Filipinos experience the outdoors over its four decades of existence.

In fact, it’s no stretch to say that all other mountaineering clubs in the country today owe their existence in one form or another—sometimes very literally—to UPM. Their training manual, a collection of hard-won knowledge of the outdoors, has become the source material for many other training manuals in use today.

Building a storehouse of knowledge and experience is one thing, but UPM has also cultivated a collective conscience that it has managed to pass down from one generation of mountaineers to the next. By teaching its members how to enjoy the outdoors, we have all learned how to connect with nature, how to actively care for and protect the very world we live in, and how to care for one another.

The First

Benjie Francisco & Boboy Francisco

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times to be an explorer. In the 1970s, Boboy Francisco had no one to talk to, much less anybody to learn from, about the strong pull the outdoors held over him. He’d already climbed his first mountain in 1969—with his barkada from Purok Aguinaldo, Area 17 inside the UP campus grounds, Boboy had climbed what he’d christened the “Blue Mountains” in Montalban (really Mt. Mataba), without a guide, without maps, without even the faintest idea what was in store for them.

Despite the odds, Boboy managed to lead his troop up to the peak. “The panorama that greeted us was spectacular. It was a reward more than we expected after all the difficulty of climbing. Looking further towards the east were more blue mountains, extending far north and far south. The great Sierra Madre, the mother of mountains, is the longest mountain range in the country. Looking west, it was the city skyline bathing in the orange tinge of the setting sun. The University of the Philippines was easily discernible,” he would write in his blog.

“It was my first mountain. It was the start of a lifetime’s passion. That climb on Mt. Mataba made it clear to me that the calling of the Blue Mountains is my destiny, a life of adventure, discovery and learning. For the rest of my life, I will be climbing our country’s beautiful mountains.”

No one had any way to know it then, but that climb heralded more than a personal beginning; this was where the seeds for the UP Mountaineers—to be perfectly fair, for mountaineering in the Philippines as we know it—were sown.

UPM was still a few years away from that first peak. The UP campus was at the eye of the First Quarter Storm, and with the subsequent declaration of martial law throughout the country, “namumundok” took on quite another meaning altogether. On his further expeditions on the mountains, Boboy was often warned to take care not to be mistaken for either rebel or soldier. But the pull of the outdoors was far too strong to stop Boboy and his small band of adventurers.

In 1977, UP Mountaineers was finally established, with seven members in the original roster, including Boboy’s brother, Benjie. By necessity, the pioneering batches had to teach themselves the ropes (literally), and the training materials they cobbled together eventually became the UPM training manual—the first substantial repository of information about mountaineering in the country, and the basis for the handbooks of nearly all mountaineering groups to follow.

Boboy remains active in mountaineering circles to this day. As one of the first mountain guides in the country, he has lent his experience to new generations of guides around the country (the Sagada Environmental Guides Association and the Mt. Pulag Guides Association, for example, were the result of his training seminars). He’s also been at the forefront of search-and-rescue operations, and, incredibly, still leads exploratory climb to forge new trails. Once a trailblazer, always a trailblazer.

The Summiteer

Romi Garduce (’91)

UPM prides itself on producing skilled mountaineers, and no doubt there will be many great ones rising from its ranks. Nevertheless, no one will ever surpass Romi Garduce for his pioneering achievements in the field: As part of a Filipino team attempting Everest concurrently with the First Philippine Mount Everest Expedition and as the first Filipino to complete the fabled Seven Summits, Garduce has made mountaineering history. On the road to completing the Seven Summits, he kept setting records—as the first Filipino to climb the Mt. Aconcagua, in January 2005, then the highest altitude ever achieved by a Filipino; he topped his own record eight months later at Cho Oyu. And then, Garduce summited Everest behind Leo Oracion and Erwin Emata, in May 2006.

It took six more years to complete the rest of the Seven Summits (Mts. Elbrus, Denali, Kosciuszko, the Carsztenz Pyramid, and Vinson Massif). Fittingly, on Everest and on the last two Seven Summits expeditions, Garduce counted UPM alumni among his support team.

The Icon

Romeo Lee (’90)

Of the generations of UPM members, Romeo Lee might be the most popular and most recognizable of all. Still known as “Wild Thing,” the famously eccentric Romeo Lee is a visual artist, a musician, and all-around personality who’s managed to draw a cult following since he was a student at the College of Fine Arts.

The following, well, followed him through his stint as a mountaineer, and although he is no longer active in the climbing circles, Romeo Lee still stands as a symbol for that irrepressible spirit that the UPM is known for. “We’vealways had a reputation for enjoying life a little too much,” says UPM president Jom Daclan. And no one has ever embodied it better than Lee.

The Green Thumbs

Anthony Arbias (’10), Lee-Ann Canals (’13), Michelle De Los Reyes (’13), Omie Mallari (’85), Fredd Ochavo (’05)

By their definition, a mountaineer isn’t someone who only enjoys the outdoors; a mountaineer has to be an active steward of the outdoors.

In many ways, the Environment Committee (ENCOM) is the most natural spinoff of UPM, a group dedicated to matters of conservation and protection. Under the Green Is Good (GIG) banner, for the past years the major thrust of ENCOM has been in reforestation and watershed management. Their initiatives are particularly focused on the Ipo Watershed, which is relatively overlooked compared to the Angat and La Mesa watersheds but is no less important.

Taking a commendable long-term, holistic approach, ENCOM’s efforts don’t stop at tree-planting and environmental awareness drives. They collaborate with government agencies and NGOs alike, and promote education and alternative livelihood projects for communities in different areas. No surprise that among their ranks are alumni who continue to be prominent environmental activists (like Fredd Ochavo) and scientists (like botanist Anthony Arbias).

The Triathlete

Noel Rivera (’83)

Members of UPM have always been considered prime specimens of physical fitness, and the group has always taken pride in its reputation as a haven for elite athletes and outdoorsmen.

No surprise that the founders of the Triathlon Association of the Philippines—who are also the pioneers of the competitive sport—have their roots in UPM. Noel Rivera, a swimming coach and teacher at the College of Human Kinetics, was there for the dawn of the sport, in the late ’80s. He first embraced triathlon as a way to cross-train his swimmers, but it quickly became clear to everyone that the multi-disciplinary sport was a natural fit for mountaineers who were drawn to the three non-mechanized sports and who relished the chance for competition.

The High Flyers

Dennis (’04) and Celina Lopez (’08)

In the beginning, rock climbing wasn’t thought of as a separate pursuit as much as it was an additional skill adjunct to mountaineering. It’s no surprise that UPM also had a hand in pioneering the sport in the country. The rise of rock climbing in the country has, in fact, been closely intertwined with UPM, as the metro’s first indoor climbing gyms were set up by members looking to practice their skills in the nascent sport in the mid-’90s.

Today, the Vertical Climbing Team is part and parcel of UPM, and Dennis Lopez, a past president of the group, and Celina Cruz-Lopez, formerly the head of the Environment Committee, now fulfill another role, as advocates and cheerleaders for newer members entering into the sport.

The Everyday Heroes

Omie Mallari (’85), M.G. Ebro (’86), Shiela Hinaut (’12), Kat Padua (’12)

This is the group you hope you will never need. But if you’re ever caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, this is also the group you want to be on your side.

As an auxiliary group within UPM, there has been an on-call rescue team active for over two decades to help conducting mountain search-and-rescue missions. It’s perhaps the most harrowing—but necessary—calling, to be able to respond to fellow climbers in dire, sometimes life- threathening, trouble.

But it was another kind of disaster that created the Search and Rescue team (UPMSAR) as we know it today—a disaster on a national scale that hit close to home. When Typhoon Ondoy flooded great swaths of Metro Manila in 2009, many UPM members found themselves victims of the disaster. Realizing that, with access to proper training, organization, and equipment, they would be able to help, UPM voted to formalize the creation of UPMSAR, with a view to expanding its mission outside mountain rescues.

Today, UPMSAR exists as an all-volunteer group trained for Emergency response and disaster relief. It’s never good news when the group is called—as it was in 2013, when UPMSAR was called to help search for a missing climber on Mt. Maculot; —but there has only been praise for their professionalism and skill, especially under pressure.

UPMSAR has also been deployed to aid in relief operations during Typhoon Sendong in 2011, the Bohol earthquake and Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, and during last year’s Typhoon Nona. They have been sent to rescue missions in the aftermath of Typhoon Mario in 2016 and the habagat of 2012.

The Rockstars

Johnny Trasadas (’13), Ara Peoro (’13), Trisha Reyes (’15), Thumbie Remigio (’97), Patricia Morota (’12), Kyle Antolin (’12)

There are many Rockstars among UP Mountaineers—and that’s all thanks to veteran climber, multisport athlete, and trail runner Thumbie Remigio. Two years ago, Thumbie decided to start an intensive training program open to all UPM members, designed to get newbies in fighting form for the outdoors. While UP Mountaineers already carry a well-earned reputation for their physical fitness, participants found themselves benefiting from the training program designed by Thumbie—himself well-known as a race director and as one of the country’s strongest trail runners.

The Rockstars, true to their name, began to win at competitions, particularly trail running races that tested the endurance of the most elite athletes. These six are some of the most successful podium-finishers in the country today.


This story was originally published in GRID Volume 02.

This story was originally published in

Volume 2 | The Places that Shape Us

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