Direction for 2009: Toward Unity


Written by Former President Fidel V. Ramos

The epic story of the successful ascent to the summit of the highest peak on earth by the First Philippine Mount Everest Expedition (FPMEE) led by veteran mountaineer and marathoner, Arturo Valdez, deserves to be told and retold, over and over again.

At the onset of the New Year when leaders and concerned citizens declare their resolutions and commitments, no better message can be given to our people than that of the unity, solidarity and teamwork of three youthful Pinoys and three Pinays who climbed to the top of Everest in May, 2006 and May, 2007, respectively. The lessons of intrepidity, audacity and grim determination to overcome – exemplified by their incomparable feat against overwhelming odds – are beautifully clear and should not be miss by those elected to lead us.

Filipinos can prevail and succeed – no matter how high the goal – if we put our acts together. Our Everest team displayed exceptional harmony in action that all can emulate. The team’s virtues of caring, sharing, and daring for each other throughout their arduous journey to the “roof the world” 29,035 feet high enabled them to surmount every crisis along the way.

To live the dream

Now available in bookstores is FPMEE’s outstanding coffee table book “Live The Dream” which records the uncommon courage of Leo Oracion, Pastour Emata and Romi Garduce. Just the book’s remarkable photographs depicting vulnerable humans pitted against snow-covered cliffs and icy crevasses, already provide your money’s worth. But more than the stark images of “man against nature,” the accompanying inspirational narrative makes for a real-life thriller that raises our pride in being Filipino.

It has repeatedly been said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with one first step. The all-Filipino expedition up Everest followed that process. More than 20 years ago, it was but a dream, a pregnant seed planted and patiently nurtured in Art’s heart. Over time it became a passion for him to put a Filipino team on Everest’s pinnacle sometime in May.

This incredible achievement became reality on May 17, 2006. Leo Oracion, a superbly fit 32-year-old from Lucban, Quezon under Mt. Banahaw’s shadow, reached Everest’s summit after 17 hours of backbreaking, non-stop climbing that final day. Our entire nation was electrified, full of pride and joy. Oracion’s feat was followed the next day by Emata and Garduce.

Putting our Philippine house in order: To do or die

The Pinoy team’s ascent to the top of the world is a compelling signal for every Filipino, our elected leaders in particular, to now put our Philippine house in order. For the sake of our beloved Motherland, we, too, can scale the summit of life’s challenges in our daily tasks. This we can achieve through concerted and sustained team efforts against selfishness, extravagance, greed, corruption, inefficiency, complacency, and other daunting threats of Philippine progress.

What stood out in the unprecedented 1-2-3 Filipino triumph on top Everest by Oracion, Emata and Garduce were their raw courage and do-or-die spirit, plus the exceptional support of the rest of the team. Above all was their faith in God in the face of formidable adversities and trials during two years of rigorous preparation under Art’s guidance. To get properly organized, FPMEE had to seek the generosity of kind-hearted sponsors for funds, food, logistics, technical assistance and even just encouragement to keep the risky venture going.

As Mountaineering Federation of the Philippines (MFP) President, Art started dreaming of ascending Mt. Everest after climbing Sabah’s Mt. Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest at 13,440 feet 26 years ago. But it was to remain just a dormant ambition for the next two decades principally due to “lack of focus, determination and funding,” according to Valdez. He continues, The dream was brought back to life in October, 2003 in Bacolod (my hometown) when in the presence of all MFP presidents, I announced I was forming the Philippines Everest Team, and targeting April and May, 2007 for the summit bid.”

Visioning, calculating, calling the shots

Talk about visioning, calculating chances of success, earmarking climbers, organizing for action, and calling the shots! The FPMEE did what they dreamed to do and set out to do – right on the button in May, 2007! As a team, they just did it, never mind the risks, the problems, and the odds. Had the leader and team-mates wavered along the way, there would have been no Everest summit for Filipinos to brag about. So, we have already a Manny Pacquiao – triple world champion and best “pound-for-pound” boxer of his time – about whom we are extremely proud and who is much sought after by politicians, “wannabe somethings,” and ordinary citizens alike for photo-ops. The Olympic gold, however remains elusive, although Anthony Villanueva and Onyok Velasco – to their credit – came oh, so close!

But, in terms of the tremendous odds against success, and equally critical, the painstaking mobilization of skills, technical support and logistics – even just to make the attempt – the scaling of Mt. Everest as a collective achievement far outshines any individual or group accomplishment by Filipinos thus far. This is what makes the Mt. Everest climb so inspiring, not just as an admirable physical feat in the spirit of the Olympic ideal of “Altius (higher), Citius (faster), Fortius (stronger),” but as the symbol of the heights Filipinos can attain as a competitive national team – because FRMEE did it!

Moving upwards: Step by painful step

In many extraordinary ways, Leo Oracion’s final assault on the summit parallels the multi-generational process of nation-building which is a heroic struggle by Filipinos starting from the early revolts against colonizer Spain in the 16th century. The initial stage of military occupation and evangelization by Miguel Lopez de Legaspi with his soldiers and friars was the platform from which our heroic forebears, as barangays and communities, rebelled against Spanish rule. Preceding all that was Chieftain Lapu-Lapu’s historic defense of Mactan versus Ferdinand Magellan’s armoured conquistadores which resulted in the latter’s shameful defeat on April 27, 1521 at the hands of lightly-equipped natives brandishing no more than “kampilans” (two-handed bladed weapons).

Upon vanquishing Magellan and seeing his fleet scamper to safer waters, Lapu-Lapu proclaimed: “I bow to no man, I owe allegiance only to my people!” – thus becoming the first Filipino national hero.

The FPMEE Base Camp was located on the South (Nepal) side of the Himalayas. At 17,600 feet of altitude, it is already three times higher than Baguio where Filipinos, since the early 1900s have vacationed because of its cool climate. In preparing for the 2007 ascent, the FPMEE had to contend not only with usual problems of funding and logistics and the enormities of terrain and weather but, unexpectedly, also stepped into an ongoing Maoist-led anti-monarchy rebellion in Katmandu. For days, Nepal’s capital and surrounding towns were in chaos, with business activities and schools at a standstill, and many people killed and injured

Adjust or die

The most wearisome obstacle, according to Art, was acclimatization. At Base Camp elevation, available oxygen is only half that at sea level, but diminishes to only 1/3 at the summit. Temperatures dip down to freezing cold and even lower. At the very top, the unacclimatized or maladjusted person could pass out in 30 minutes, and die within one hour from oxygen insufficiency.

Having trained intensively for two years by climbing lesser but nevertheless formidable peaks, the FPMEE’s determination to move upwards to the roof of the world heightened even as hardships continued to mount. Their “Kaya ng Pinoy!” spirit was sustained and fortified by their collective commitment to “Adjust or Die-But-Do-It for the Philippines.” Leo Oracion, in fact, and his fellow climbers, had signed a compact agreeing that if they die climbing Everest, their bodies should be left there for good, preserved underneath the snow. They were ready to die for Pilipinas Kong Mahal. How like Dr. Jose Rizal and today’s AFP-PNP personnel securing the State, fighting criminals, performing search-and-rescue, and other life-threatening operations!

What about the tree Pinay summiteers? Theirs is an equally inspiring saga of grit, physical toughness, and mental discipline that proved they can be equal to, if not better than, Pinoys. Our women mountaineering icons could well represent the majority of our OFWs who are mostly mothers who left family and home at great sacrifice. Exactly one year later in May, 2008 along a steeper, longer and more difficult “traverse” from the Tibet, China side, Carina Dayondon, Janet Belarmino, and Noelle Wenceslao climbed to the top of Mt. Everest. But, that’s another story.

Next Sunday – Abangan: “For the Women Climbers: A More Arduous Route.”