2017 will mark the 10 year anniversary of Regie Pablo’s successful climb of Mount Everest and he opens up why he was not able to fulfill his dream of becoming the first Filipino to summit the mountain.
EVEREST IS A DREAM for most mountaineers and to some Filipino mountaineers back in the 1990’s, despite the danger, it was the Holy Grail. No Filipino mountaineer have ascended it yet and becoming the first one to plant the Philippine flag on top of what had been dubbed as the highest mountain on earth is too beautiful a dream, a tantalizing title to hold. It meant becoming the pride of the country, fame, sponsorship and that lifetime sense of accomplishment.
Because he didn’t want to meet at a crowded café, I met Pablo at his home where he live with his wife and daughter. We both decided to order pizza for dinner while Bong Magana, the President of CLIMBER, a non-profit organization who introduced me to Pablo, was running late.
It was a warm summer night and Pablo was wearing a pair of simple shorts and a shirt with logos that read 1st Filipino Everest Expedition ’07 and The North Face. Nine years since his successful ascent of Mt. Everest are the visible lines on his face, an extra pound here and there and he now sports a trimmed hair in contrast to nine years ago when he sported a longer mane and a much leaner frame.
Looking at his climb photos spread on the sofa, what hadn’t changed were the warmth of his smile and the glint of adventure in his eyes
“My Dad was my hero” Pablo began, as his voice quivered with memory when he started talking about his childhood. At age 5, Pablo never dreamt of climbing mountains, he had asthma and although he brought home most of the awards at school, he missed the best in scout. Thanks to his father who brings home his supply of National Geographic, it showed him the world and what adventures it could offer.
Pablo’s father was a seaman who, like all fathers, worked hard to support his family, “Most of the time he’s not home but when he is, after a month or two I would sense that he is in a tizzy or hindi mapakali. What I saw in him was the desire to see the world. He gifted me with a telescope and so I wanted to become an astronomer”
But fate has its own plans, following the usual trajectory of young men; Pablo went to college and graduated from Mapua Institute of Technology in 1992. He went on to work for Benguet Management Corporation, a mining company and in there he was exposed to the mountains and its exploitation. He transferred to Globe Telecommunications in 1994 which made it possible for him to travel within the country and climb mountains.
“I saw some colleagues at work who were doing some training. When I asked why, they told me they were preparing for a climb so I said, uy mukhang masaya yan sali naman ako“
One night changed his life or rather the people he met that night contributed to who he had become.
Pablo became a member of Globe Adventure Club and went on to become the President of the Mountaineering Federation of the Philippines (MFPI) from 2003-2007, one of the umbrellas of several mountaineering groups and clubs in the country back then.
In 1998, David Lim successfully led a Singaporean expedition team to Mt. Everest which prompted Monty Sorongan, one of the organizers of the Indonesian Everest team, to drop this challenge, “Isn’t it time that Filipinos do it too?”
And unknowingly for Pablo, that challenge sparked a dream.
IN 2001, PABLO RECEIVED AN INVITATION from Sorongan to climb Carstensz Pyramid (4,884m) or Puncak Jaya of Mount Carstensz in Indonesia which was highly rated as a technical climb. He had to undergo some training to prepare but unfortunately it was cancelled because of local insurgency. He was left with ice axe, crampons and other gears he bought but nowhere to go.
However, life has its own way of doing things because when one door closes another opens and this time it was an invitation to climb Razdelnaya Peak (6148m) in Kyrgyzstan which would give him his first taste of Alpine Mountaineering. It was then that he realized that he want to climb Mt. Everest and that he might stand a chance. David Lim was instrumental in Pablo’s aspiration – he showed him a sample of a training program and became his go-to for advice.
Pablo then ascended Petite Aug. Verte (4,148m), France and Croix de Fer (2,343m), Switzerland in 2002 following his training climb.
However, his plans would take a different turn at the MFPI’s Annual Congress. Taking in the political climate during that time, the federation suggested that it is about time that a Filipino vies for Mt. Everest to uplift the spirit of the Filipinos and spark nationalism.
Pablo had originally planned to do it with an international expedition team and joining a Philippine team there is a chance that his dream to become the first Filipino on Everest won’t be realized.
“Admittedly, I am not strong and there is a possibility that I may not be able to realize my dream but I belong to an organization and it would be selfish of me if I did it alone, I reluctantly said yes”
Pablo’s reluctance stemmed from his sacrifices – effort, money he had already spent and his career which already took the backseat. Saying yes meant he has to start again this time with the team.
If Pablo followed his original plan, according to him he would have attempted Mt. Everest between 2004 and 2005.
In 2003, Pablo kissed his dream goodbye.
The First Philippine Mt. Everest Expedition Team (FPMEE) was launched that year backed by ABS-CBN with Pablo as one of the lead organizers. The team included Leo Oracion, Noelle Wenceslao, Carina Dayondon, Janet Belarmino, Butch Sebastian, Art Valdez among others.
The three-year program included climbs to Mt. Kinabalu (4095m), Malaysia, attending a climb school in India where the team summited Baralacha Peak (5300m) and Kyorang Peak (6,300m), then went to Mt. Aylmer (4000m) in New Zealand and Muztagh Ata (6938m) in China.
According to Pablo, the original plan was to assault Everest on three fronts – south, north and western cwm, it was an ambitious project especially the western route.
“Our flag has a rectangle, the plan was to time our climbs and reach the summit at the same time and then piece together the flag. We wanted to show the world, hey, we are one country”
Unfortunately, that ambitious plan never happened.
Because in 2006, the team found out that GMA-7 is backing Romi Garduce to summit Everest who had by that time already climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, one of the seven summits in 2002 and Cho Oyu in 2005, this forced the Philippine Team to push for a summit attempt that year instead of the following year as planned.
THE SUMMIT WAS LOOMING, however Pablo was not selected to be on the expedition team. Why?
“It was an obvious selection process based on who was fit at that time and Leo Oracion was that guy. I was instead given the marching order to expose the three women on the team to more peaks because they would be the next banner climb”
According to Pablo, the selection process was very subjective. He cited one member who did not make the cut on the onset (in India) where they attended a school but has bagged championships from races like Ironman after.
Moving forward, he and the remaining team summited Dingboche Peak (5200m), Kallap Patar (5545m) and Island Peak (6189m) while Oracion and other members of the expedition team pushed for the summit.
On 17th of May 2006, I remember seeing Leo Oracion with the Philippine flag on top of Everest on the screen of our television, just like every Filipino who had an access to news media. He was tagged as the first Filipino to have set foot on Everest and I would like to think that like me, others too were proud to be called Filipinos at that moment.
It was indeed a historic event both for the country and the mountaineering community.
Pablo, the three women and other members of the team were already in the Philippines when it happened, they joined millions of Filipinos in celebrating the feat.
Then they were off to climb Denali or Mt. Mckinley (6193m), the highest in North America which they successfully summited together with Cho Oyu (8100m) in China that same year.
It was in Cho Oyu where Pablo lost one thumb to frostbite and the tips of several fingers. “It’s a numbing thing but it was painful” as he showed what remains of his thumb.
“Even the genitalia, if exposed there is a possibility of frostbite so we stayed inside the tent even when we pee”
Pablo got married in December of 2006.
THE CREEPING TROUBLE over financial and management style finally caught up with the team which eventually led to a distressing division within FPMEE.
“The agreement was that Oracion and the others will help on the financial side because they now have the capability to attract sponsorships but it didn’t happen. They helped the three women and we were left on our own”
Pablo admitted that he was deeply affected by what happened. He was angry, he was hurt and the conflict had cost him several friendships.
Trace of sadness still lace his words as he reminisce, “I was literally crying because I have sacrificed a lot and foremost I shared the dream. They can never ever deny that they could never have done it without me, I would not claim it alone but I was part of it. I played a big role but when it was our turn – my turn, we were discarded, there was no support”
Pablo paused, as he tried to contain the emotions triggered by the memories, “I think they believed we were no longer of value”
He could remember that 3 or 4 more men members of FPMEE would have wanted to summit but because of lack of funding they were not able to fulfill their own dream.
But life must go on.
Left on his own with commitments to personal sponsors, Pablo had to push through. With the help of Globe Telecommunications, his biggest sponsor and friends who donated, he signed up with Asian Trekking International Expedition and joined an international expedition team composed of 12 people including Pablo, they were Marjolein De Bruycker (Belgium), Brian Wilfred Oestrike (US), Justin Joel Hewitt (US), Shane David Edmonds (US), Frederick Levi Borst (US), Kazufumi Watandbe (Japan), Yasuhiko Mochizuki (Japan), Michael Niemeier (Denmark), Libor Kozak (Czechoslovakia), Paulo R. P. Coelho (Brazil) and Helena G.P. Pinto Coelho (Brazil).
For most mountaineers there is no “easy” route up Everest, it is just choosing your own poison as the South Col has the Khumbu Icefall while the Northeast Ridge Standard or North Col is known for the Steps, crazy weather and a higher rate of fatality during that time.
Asked why Pablo chose the North Col, Pablo did not hesitate, “It was cheaper”.
This debunks some opinions that he chose it because it was one of the most dangerous route.
Indeed in 2007, the rates for the North Col route was lower than the South Col maybe because of the number of fatality or the location of the starting point which is Tibet but to date, the rates and fatality are now almost the same.
However, things did not go well even at high altitude for Pablo. At high camp where mountaineers take a rest before the final assault, Pablo’s guide was stricken with altitude sickness and caused a delay.
On 16 May 2007 while Pablo was at high camp, the three women under the banner “Kaya ng Pinay” planted the Philippine flag on top of Everest and was the first group to traverse by coming up the North Col and descending on South Col. To date, they are still the first Filipino women mountaineers to have climbed the mountain.
“I climb mountains because it allows me to celebrate life and everything it has to offer. It comes in the form of challenges, rewards, failures, fulfillment and exploration. It gives me the opportunity to appreciate what is normally taken for granted in the lowland. It also allows me to know my physical and mental limits and how to overcome them. Climbing for me is an expression of freedom in its purest form” – Regie Pablo
THEN IT WAS TIME for Pablo to claim his own 15 minute fame.
Pablo admitted that he had no premonition if he would be able to reach the summit “because at that altitude, the brain is no longer working properly, what remains was the will to go on. Hindi ko alam kung anong araw na o petsa but I knew in my heart that I was afraid for my life. I have a wife waiting at home”
He profess to have said the rosary many times and left it all to God as news came that two members from his expedition team were dead.
From below, Mt. Everest looks beautiful against the blue sky but to the mountaineers slowly making their way up the summit, that beauty could no longer register in their minds.
That state was perfectly described by Messner, “When I rest I feel utterly lifeless except that my throat burns when I draw breath. I can scarcely go on. No despair, no happiness, no anxiety. I have not lost the mastery of my feelings, there are actually no more feelings. I consist only of will. After each few meters this too fizzles out in unending tiredness. Then I think nothing. I let myself fall, just lie there. For an indefinite time I remain completely irresolute. Then I make a few steps again.”
Pablo described the climb as arduous and because he lost a thumb, navigating the ropes was harder for him but the dead bodies he passed by motivated him more to take another step, it never occurred to him to turn back.
On Everest, dead bodies are landmarks and he didn’t want to become one. From his expedition team, only five were able to summit while 2 died due to altitude sickness.
He reached the peak early morning of 17th May 2007 – one year from Leo Oracion’s successful climb and a day later from the three pinays.
The sun was brightly shining.
What did he felt? He inclined his head and smiled, “It’s over, was the first thoughts I had, then the feeling of relief followed by mixed emotions” but the descent proved to be more challenging than the ascent.
Why? “Mahirap bumaba, kasi pagbaba ko naghihintay ung marami kong utang” he jokingly said, laughing. According to him, he spent a staggering php 2.5 million (approx) for the three-year program including the Mt. Everest climb which cost php 1 million (approx).
It was days after his successful climb that reality started to set in.
He was able to fulfill his dream. He had claimed his own 15 minutes of fame despite all the odds.
AMONG THE EVEREST SUMMITEERS, Pablo says that he went through a lot of challenges. His climb received the least hype and the media coverage he received was because of the insistence of Globe Telecommunications, his main sponsor. Checking it up, indeed, Pablo is not on the list of those who received a presidential citation.
“I have regrets but regrets are always an afterthought. I went through so much that there is always that what if – if I followed my original plan I wouldn’t have had to go through it all, it could have been different”
But Pablo live with the belief that if things didn’t happen this way it could have happened the other way, “If hindi nangyari ung away sa grupo, I couldn’t have summited but maybe I was driven to prove that I can also do it”
Nine years later, he is not closing doors to climbing mountains and is keeping his sight on climbing the remaining highest mountains of the seven continents aligned with his desire to be a success story.
“I would like to be a story of someone who was not designed to be successful but was able to make it; an ordinary person who was able to do something extraordinary. Some people would say, hindi mo kaya, we can show them that we can”
Since his ascent of Mt. Everest, Pablo have been busy with his numerous advocacies which revolves on environment and the preservation of the indigenous culture and its weaves. He is also moonlighting as CLIMBER’s BMC speaker for Alpine Mountaineering where he continues to inspire young mountaineers.
A book is also in the works which he described as something of a biography that he started after his Everest climb but according to him that was the time when emotions were still high.
“I had to let it pass, after some time I found myself appreciative of what had happened and the realizations started to set in. My focus now is to tell the story, I want to let my child know of what really happened, it is no longer about emotions. My perspective shifted when I became a father and I have lost a lot of friends to death, these things really can change how one view the world”
Pablo is planning to release the book in time with the 10 year anniversary of his successful climb of Everest which would be in 2017.
As my eyes examined the doodles of Pablo’s daughter on the walls – one can see several flowers, a sun, a tree and grasses, which became something as a decoration alongside several expensive paintings of Sky Biscocho, I was reminded of what he had told me when I interviewed him for a separate article, humility is his take away from the mountains.
“Humility is one of the lessons the mountains taught me, mountaineering is a humbling experience. Hindi ung tipong ipagyayabang mo, kaya nga ayoko gamitin ung word na conquer. Dapat magpasalamat ka kasi the mountains let you experience it”
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