Most Isuzu events are known in the motoring beat as tests of stamina and willpower, yet giving participants a taste of mountain air rarely experienced by others. From the Mt. Pulag (the country's second-highest peak, found in the Cordillera mountain range and 2,934 meters above sea level or ASL) expedition to last year's long drive to Atimonan (Quezon, for a corporate social responsibility/tree-planting venture) to the thrice-conquered Mount Pinatubo trips, these affairs showed the character (albeit under duress) of each and every motoring journalist that have joined these Isuzu-sponsored experiences.

A recently concluded (June 22-24) Isuzu event in Davao and North Cotabato also showcased character under trying times, this time for both venue and guests - a three-day assault on Mt. Apo (the country's highest mountain, 10,311 feet/3,143 meters ASL) billed as the Isuzu-Mount Apo 4x4 Drive (sponsored by Oceanic Shipping Liners and Pilipinas Shell).

"The Alterra and the D-Max will not back down from any type of terrain and driving condition. You've seen this before and you'll see this again in this event." - Art Balmadrid (IPC vice-president for corporate business)

By the time motoring journalists and Isuzu top brass touched down at Davao International Airport at 7 a.m. June 22 (Thursday), participants declared themselves fit as fiddles for the Apo assault and hied off to Kidapawan City ( North Cotabato). This was done in order to pay a courtesy call to (Kidapawan City mayor) Rodolfo Gantuangco, receive briefing instructions from the Kidapawan Tourism and Investment Office and test the tarmac abilities of the D-Max pickup and the Alterra SUV (sport utility vehicle).

This writer was teamed up with Philippine Daily Inquirer special sections reporter Charles Buban, BusinessWorld reporter Barbara Lorenzo and ManilaStandardToday fitness/sports writer Reuel Vidal, with a gold Alterra as the weapon of choice for the two-hour Davao-Kidapawan travel and Lorenzo insisting that she take the reins. The 3.0L, I-TEQ 4JJ1 direct injection (common rail) 146ps, 30 [email protected] rpm diesel engine took this foursome's gear, themselves and a bunch of snacks quickly to the Kidapawan city hall, with the Alterra's IHHI turbocharger coming alive real fast (roughly 3500 rpm onwards) and helping immensely in overtaking maneuvers.

The Alterra's much-maligned (according to some message boards) Flex Ride Move rear suspension (with semi-elliptical leaf springs and telescopic shock absorbers) proved to be a stable companion on the tarmac roads of Davao and North Cotabato, giving a smooth ride instead of a harsh one. This revelation promptly gave this writer the impression that the Alterra, if meant to be an everyday vehicle, MUST be a constant people AND cargo hauler. Use the Alterra as a vehicle for one's daily urban commute to and from work and one will have a bouncy experience with the said suspension, sort of like being in a lowrider usually seen in rap videos with the airbag suspension gone haywire. On the other hand, tote a lot of people and cargo in the Alterra constantly and the ride will become smoother. Not exactly passenger car-smooth, but not as rough as a Willys jeep ride either.

Upon arrival at the Kidapawan tourism and investment office and city hall, it was revealed that the group was given a special privilege - a chance to go up Mt. Apo using a VIP trail used solely by PNOC (Philippine National Oil Company, which has a geothermal plant at the foot of the mountain). Also, the group is the only non-PNOC personnel group for this year to go up Mt. Apo at a time when the mountain is closed for rehabilitation (the period of June-September is closed for trail inspection and cleaning, except for documentation purposes).

"Do you know where you are? Two grand up, you're at your vertical limit, you're already dying. Look at you. You can hardly stand. If you think you can stop me, go ahead." - Montgomery Wick (Vertical Limit)

After the briefing, the group drove 22kms southeast of Kidapawan to Mahommanoy Resort at the base of Mt. Apo for additional briefing and lunch, then another six kilometers southeast to PNOC Site G (2,200 meters ASL, the launch point for the climb) for the 1:30 p.m. ascent to the MACADAC (Mt. Apo Climbers Association of Davao City, 2,300 meters ASL) campsite for an overnight stay. The climb severely tested the adventure-experienced and adventure-inexperienced alike, as the first 50 minutes of the climb featured constant, lung-bursting 60-70 degree inclines and rocky trails that turned into muddy quagmires (no thanks to torrential rains) by 3 p.m.

The climb to the MACADAC campsite provided participants with new glimpses into nature, but also showed that nature can be maddeningly cruel. This writer had a brush with death an hour or two into the said trail, when he slipped on a muddy descent and fell just inches from a deep, sheer-descending ravine and only his porter's hand as his only means of grip. Melissa Liu (daughter of Isuzu Davao president Milton Liu, whose family also joined the trip) blacked out 40 minutes due to exhaustion into the said trail and had to be escorted back to Mahommanoy Resort. The rest had to endure step by painful step going to MACADAC as the seemingly never-ending inclines and inclement weather took its toll on breathing ability and leg strength, with people barely standing the last 10 minutes going to the MACADAC site. Nevertheless, everybody reached the MACADAC site by 9:00 p.m. in shivering cold and displaying various aches and pains.

The next day saw the group leave MACADAC campsite at 6:00-6:30 a.m. for the summit, some fueled by raw emotion (including this writer, who missed breakfast and left on an empty stomach before leaving the said campsite) and some fueled by breakfast. By 9:50 a.m., this writer managed to reach Apo's summit, followed closely behind by Isuzu's Timmy Naval, Lea Gomez, Ellen Dizon and Art Balmadrid, Manila Bulletin senior reporter Aris Ilagan and Auto Review producer/host Ron de los Reyes.

Upon reaching the summit, sucking oxygen into the lungs, there surfaced a strange, unwarranted sense of calm. The world beyond the glasses, hair, flesh, proteins and liquid that composed this writer's face was vivid but seemed not quite real, as if a TV camera was panning (moving laterally) slowly across the line of sight. It can be disengaging and thoroughly insulated from outside stimuli, yet rewarding with a sense of rarefied air and accomplishment.

But any impulse of self-congratulation this writer felt upon summiting Mt. Apo was quickly quashed (after the mandatory lunch and photo ops) by the brutal reminder that there was 7,000 feet of sky on either side of the summit ridge, that safety also was at stake here, that I would pay for a single bungled step with a bevy of injuries if I got too carried away with the descent back to Site G.

Sure enough, the muddy trail (it rained overnight on the mountain) made footing slippery on the descent, with Top Gear Philippines' Andrew Asuncion slipping no less than 10 times on the way back and ripping the middle of his pants in the process. The descent also featured fog that made visibility impossible from two feet away onwards, but didn't deter visibility with regards to the ground in front of you.

"Climbing mountains will never be a safe, predictable, rule-bound enterprise. It is an activity that idealizes risk-taking; its most celebrated figures have always been those who stuck their necks out the farthest and managed to get away with it." - Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air)

Despite the hazards, the group managed to get back to Site G, Mahommanoy Resort (for dinner), and the Davao Insular Waterfront hotel for some much-needed rest and relaxation. By the time the group were safely esconced in their hotel rooms, it dawned upon this writer that he was in distinct company - those who bucked breakfast, body pains, near-death experiences and several hazards and displayed more guts than sense to reach the rarefied air of the summit of the country's highest mountain.