Dust billows from beneath the thud as we slump the crash pads in front of our chosen boulder. “Another day, another boulder”, has been the theme of several trips to Wawa. Most of the new projects we’ve been discovering require a lot of serious pulling. Hence, at times we find ourselves psyched on working, on a one a day basis, the stellar lines. Sometime, at least a decade ago, when the majority of the climbing in the Philippines was on bolted sport routes, the popular area test piece was a route tagged “3 Stitches,” so named after the first ascentionist’s surgical epic while working the route. To this day, the sharp hold on the route, notorious for the surgical procedure, still garners caution for those brave enough to step upto the plate. At least that was the way it was when I tied-in beneath it. It is a single story I aptly remember, but most of the thick climbing history of the area, except for a few stories shared over beer and fried chicken at Aling Norma’s Eatery, has been forgotten. All thanks to the pesky access issues that have plagued the area, much of the climbing activity faded to nearly nothing. Now after so many years of dormancy, Wawa once again is getting the attention it much deserves. The access issue has been resolved and a new breed of climbers are now invading its ravine banks. History is once again being written and climbing in Wawa is evolving in a new direction.
Nestled at the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains, Wawa Montalban, was once a safe haven for the Philippine Revolutionary Group known as the KKK. In April 1895 the "Kataastaasang Kagalanggalangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan” took refuge in Pamitnan Cave. Their first cry for freedom against Spanish Rule took place in the caverns found in the hollows of the Karst mountains of Wawa. KhakhawStemming from this struggle for freedom from Spanish sovereign, a local legend “Bernardo Carpio”, instilled itself into Philippine mythology. Bernardo Carpio, a giant in local folklore, tore the mountain in half splitting it and giving birth to the river gorge as he tried to escape from Spanish soldiers. In 1909, apparently in need of salvaging the devastation created by the giant, the Americans built the Wawa Dam as a reservoir and pumping facility. In later years, during the Pacific War of WWII, Wawa, Montalban became a battlefield. It became a Japanese Holding Point where the main strength of the former Japanese Manila Defense Force, the Kobayashi Force, which was formed around a nucleus of four infantry battalions with its commander, Maj. Gen. Takashi Kobayashi, defended against the returning Americans, under Gen. MacArthur. Evidence of the epic battle can still be seen on the boulders and rock faces. Where the smooth limestone faces catches a sudden peculiar circular track radiating outwards like a spider web, it’s obvious these were hit by bullets aimed at some poor soldier’s head. Down by the river, it can be quite stomach wrenching imagining the thousands of bullets that once flew over the boulders during the war. Where a boulder has seen several bullet hits, it can become quite spooky thinking a soldier could have died right where you lay your crashpad.
Discounting the eerie thought of whistling bullets long since spent, bouldering in Wawa can be a very rewarding agenda. The river gorge is littered with blocks of gigantic proportions. We’ve barely begun our foray into its depths but already we’ve been rewarded with some stellar lines which keep us coming back to. The bouldering area is generally a small compact arena of smooth, white, water worn limestone. The entire span of the river can be crossed in seconds, by just jumping from boulder to boulder. The length of the river, where the boulders have tumbled down to, can be no further than 500m. Smoothened out pockets, occasional crimps and lots of friction dependent slapping characterize the boulders. The boulder (battle)field is not huge, but what it lacks in quantity it surely makes up for in quality, and is a godsend, being the nearest venue for Manila based climbers. Sector “Kambingan” aptly named after the goats or “kambing” that share a stake at this area, is the nearest bouldering spot from the parking. Huge Acacia tree canopies the first set of boulders less than 5 minutes walk from Aling Norma’s Eatery. Four established boulders are set near each other. This area is one of the first clusters established, early in the mid 90’s. Later, in 1999, armed with make do crashpads and a formidable posse of new age climbers we set our sights on “Kambingan.” A full season later, a new set of problems went up and bouldering awakened to a higher standard. To climb at this area means a mandatory early start as the area is very near the village centre. It gets crowded as the day goes on. Notable lines of interest would be “Roman Holiday” (V5), a juggy start on a roof, ending on a series of pockets and a thin finish on the face, and “The Avneger” (V7), same start as “Roman Holiday” but exits to the right via a slopey edge with an index finger bite and a long extended reach for the finishing moves. Over at another boulder, “8Ball” (V6), a crimpy and thin arête awaits you but is best in cooler months. Several easier lines of V0 to V3 are also to be found in this area. Warm-up on “Manang Kambing”, “Erotique” and “Slapshock.” Total number of area problems: 11. Sector “Ultimo” is another 5 minutes up river. Walk on up the main path towards the dam but hike down on the rocky slopes towards the river banks, once you see the main prow from across the river. The huge orange boulder towering over the perfectly flat, sandy landing will be the main draw. At the point of writing two projects still stand. Before crossing there are a few warm-ups. “Indiana Jones” (V2) and “The Temple of Doom” (V3), are perfect warm-ups to get you started if this is your desired destination. Test out the “Crystal Skull” (V6) for a more hefty session. Several other easy lines V0 to V3, possibly still unclimbed can be spotted in the same area. Most of us haven’t been paying enough attention to these as we’re all focused on the harder projects. After crossing the river, sometimes over makeshift bamboo footbridges put up by the locals, THE highball will loom over you. Two projects are on the main face. The project on the left we dubbed “The Aerosmith Project”, starts with an undercut for the left and an awkward crimp for the right. Getting off the ground becomes the first crux once you’re on it, latching the right hand gaston to a sharp flake will be the second and keeping your feet on the third. Moving up from here seems to be where all hell breaks loose. The problem is still 4 to 5 more hard moves on awkward crimps to the lip. Another 2 to 3 moves waits over the lip before it ever gets done. That is the stand-up start. There is even a lower start which would add 2 to 3 moves that would probably make the problem a whole grade harder. The one to the right of this is “The Messenger Project.” This starts a third of the way up the boulder as there is a footblock at the base. The holds on this one are better but the landing becomes a bit sketchy because of the smaller boulder. Power-steering is a must before you bail out. These tall lines easily hit the 25 foot mark to the top. Other lines of note are “Khakhaw” (V4) on the left arête of the boulder, “Orihinal na Galaw” (V3) found on the shady right face of the same boulder and “Three Steps to Fame” (V2) on the cliff band behind the boulder. Total number of area problems: 14 plus 2 mega projects and another handful of unclimbed easier lines. Sector “Redemption,” another of the original areas, established in the mid ‘90s. Resting under an old steel footbridge up river, it is reached in 5 minutes from Sector “Ultimo. “Redemption” is the super classic sport route of balancey moves and thin footholds, which incidentally is possibly the very first route I ever climbed outdoors, over a decade ago. With the area having a limited selection of sport routes, spending time bouldering here was possibly the most logical progression. One boulder resting in the shadows of “Redemption” has a slew of unnamed old school sloper problems. Bouldering in those days may have been a mere diversion from climbing “Redemption” but today, bouldering is the main priority. New moderate problems exist with still the possibility of harder sit-down starts. “Chaos” and “Order,” two new lines are up in the area both in the V2-3 range. The “Butterfly Effect” (V4) starts on Chaos but exits on a huge slopey undercling at the highest point on the boulder. Sit-down starts adding 2 to 3 moves are still possible. “Moon Burn” (V6) lies lower toward the river but presents a perfect line on an angled rock at 60 degrees to the ground. Total number of area problems: 8 and plenty of unexplored rock. Sector “Dam,” is the newest area so far. It is the furthest area to reach, but no more than a minute away from Sector “Redemption.” The short walk up towards the dam reveals a new set of clustered boulders with great possibilities, with many moderate to easy lines being ticked off so far. With it being the most distant area, and with many excellent projects closer to the parking lot, not much of the area has been developd. So far we have: “Stranger than Friction” (V4), “No Heart” (V2) and “Braveheart” (V3) are all on the long boulder with the slopey top out, which is very obvious when facing the dam. “Just Damn It” (V3) is a tall 12ft line just down towards the river. It is perfectly vertical and a very alluring this problem. Warm-up on “Karen’s Arete” (V2), and then “David and Jule-iath” (V2), under the influence of a spectacular view of Manang Kambingthe dam. A tall proud limestone tower watches as we play beneath it. It calls and soon bolting new routes will be the agenda. Total number of area problems: 6 and plenty of unexplored rock. Minor areas can still be found and other clusters are still yet unclimbed. On the whole, the entire river gorge still holds many secrets. At a single glace, what may seem to be an easily exhaustible well of problems holds much more, with projects still widely strewn about the gorge, with a little more exploration likely revealing more, harder and perhaps even more fantastic lines?
Sport Routes and Trad Areas
As I have alluded to, much of the development of the climbing in Wawa has been mostly of sport routes. Bolting on the karst limestone started in the mid 90’s with majority of routes being bolted from 1998 to 2001 – routes vary from 5.9 to 5.12b/c. Although, I’m not going to delve into the realm of sport climbing here, perhaps another article is warranted for that discussion…
Wawa, Montalban, Rizal is the nearest climbing area from the NCR (National Capital Region). If you have the option of where to stay, Quezon City would provide a closer and a more convenient access to the crag. Otherwise, staying in Manila would add another hour or so, going to and fro of Wawa.
By Public Transport
Take the Cubao-Marikina-Montalban route. The public utility jeepneys (the local way to travel), as well as the “FX” (a cross between a taxi and a jeepney minus) both take this route. From Cubao, Quezon City, take either the “FX” or the graffiti covered jeepney marked with the “Montalban” route on the side. The trip will be around an hour or so depending on traffic, with the route terminating at San Rafel. Get-off here and then take another jeepney, which follows the Wawa-San Rafel route. Both terminals are nearby are easy to find. The ride into Wawa from San Rafael is no more than 10 to 12 minutes.
Coming from anywhere in Quezon City, head on to Commonwealth Avenue, then turn right just before the “Sandigang Bayan” building. Keep straight until you hit Payatas Road to your right. This down turning road skims the mountain side, bypassing several towns serviced by public transport. Follow the flow of public transport going to San Rafael once back on the main road and finally make your way up to Wawa. You have to pay Php 20.00 access fee for private vehicles just before entering Wawa proper.
Where to Stay
Once at Wawa, look for “Aling Norma’s Eatery”, a towering old acacia tree shades the premises. A cool breeze wafts across your face, you feel cold behind the ears, the hair at the back of your neck softly ruffles up and then you realize time stopping where you stand. Panning around 360 degrees at the entryway will help the realization sink in. Wawa is the last village before entering the Sierra Madre Mountain Range and this is where all local climbing activity starts. Ask for the climber’s log book. It takes only a few seconds to register your name and climbing area of choice. There is also a mandatory fee of PhP 10.00 per climber that goes to the DOT Office (Dept. of Tourism Office) in the area. This is in part of the resolution of the previous access issue. Aling Norma runs the canteen and has seen into the construction of several rooms which can be rented out by climbers. So far, three rooms are available for long stays. Rooms go for PhP 500.00 per room for an unlimited number occupants. For longer stays and minimum occupancy, there is always the possibility of obtaining a lower rate from Aling Norma.
Where to Eat
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are especially delightful at Aling Norma’s. The food is at its best in the mornings, just before hitting the crags and she serves all other native home cooked meals throughout the day. Also, ask for her super hot homemade chilli-garlic sauce (caution, use sparingly, it’s really that hot!). Also try her local version of “Chicken Ramen,” best with her hot chilli sauce! When the sun becomes unbearably Daily Sightshot, especially during the summer months, it’s best to scurry back down to Aling Norma’s, wait out the heat and resume bouldering after the sun’s assault gives way.
When to Go
Bouldering in Wawa can be done once the rainy season grinds to a halt, although that can be tricky to predict, especially with today’s constantly changing weather patterns. September to November remains practically the first ‘bouldering season’, as the rains start letting up around the end of August. December to February is the coolest period of months – this is the best climbing season – when cool temps in the mornings present the best conditions on offer. March to early May are the hottest months, however the bouldering can still be good early in the day, with the bonus of the water levels being lower at this time of the year and access to the river boulders becoming easier. Late May to August is the wet season, bouldering during these months can be sporadic.
Useful Tips and Extra Activities
Being one of the closest escapes from Manila, Wawa has become the melting pot of numerous outdoor activities. Whether a trail runner, mountain biker, rock climber, or caver, Wawa is the place for you. It is, as I’ve said, a god send for the city slickers of Manila. On most weekends, people flock from the nearby towns to rest and cool off on the banks of Wawa River. If you don’t like too many people, better to go on a weekday or start very early to get a good jump on the crowd. Keep away from the goats when they are on your desired boulder. The local goat herder can sometimes be annoyingly noisy ranting different words you might not like. It is always better to have at least two good pads all the time in fact the more the better, as with areas such as Magic Wood, the landings are often uneven.