Monday, February 11, 2008


HOME ON THE RANGE. The Zambales Mountain Range as seen from the Pampanga side. The range forms a natural border that runs through Zambales, Tarlac and Pangasinan. The Zambales range is home to Mount Pinatubo, which caused the century’s 2nd biggest volcanic eruption, awakening in June 1991 after 600 years of dormancy. Circa 1924-1926.

“I was poorly born on the top of the mountain...”, so goes a song I learned from the singing of my Mother. As Kapampangans, we grew up under the shadows of not just one but many mountains—the grand Bunduk Arayat in the east and the expansive undulating slopes in the west—the Zambales Mountain Range. When I was growing up, I knew very little of those nameless blue-grey mountains that loomed above Clark Field, paying less attention to them than the more familiar Arayat. The only time my interest was kindled was when I was in elementary school. I remember we were in our gardening classes, I must have been in Grade 5 then. Our vegetable plots were situated in an enclosed farm fronting the mountain range, so we had a commanding, unobstructed view of the landscape. We were at work on our pechay plots when a school boy stood transfixed before the mountains and shouted to us all that he could see an image of the Virgin on the flank of the mountain! This created quite a stir amongst us gullible 10 year olds. For days, I would strain my eyes on those mountains, and I swear that on a clear day, I, too, could see the faint outline of our Lady!

The Zambales mountain range forms a border that traverses the whole length of Zambales, extends into Tarlac and ends somewhere near Pangasinan’s Agno River. The mountains consist of old volcanic stocks, formed under intense heat and pressure from deep beneath the Earth’s surface, centuries ago. The mountain range is noted for its endemic tropical rainforests and flowering plants like wild orchids that number over 60 species. The mountains had no real agricultural value to Kapampangans, except for a thousand or so Aetas who were found living there in the 1900s. They were cultivating corn and bartering beeswax and rattan with lwlanders in exchange for cloth and salt.

Of course, the most famous occupant of the Zambales range is Mount Pinatubo, which awoke after 600 years of slumber in June 1991 and caused one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in modern history. (Other mountains in the range include Mt. Liwitan, Mt. Kontitik and Mt. Dalayap, whose virgin forests were mercifully spared from Pinatubo’s lahar flows).

There are no recorded documents of Pinatubo’s ancient upheavals, but there exists an oral account from the hardy Aetas, handed down from generation to generation and collected by the eminent anthropologist H. Otley Beyer in 1915. Aetas tell of a violent fight between Arayat and Pinatubo in which big boulders were heaved by the latter, levelling off the cone of Arayat. There were also accounts of earth tremors, rumbling noises, a rain of ash, hot rocks and lava flows that went on for years.

When the Americans came to build Fort Stotsenburg, they familiarized themselves with the rough terrains of the Zambales range. One of their first objectives was to scale Mount Pinatubo, which was one of the highest mountains there, almost twice the height of Arayat. This became a popular past-time for American soldiers who inexplicably nicknamed Pinatubo as “Ida’s Tit”. Camp Sanchez, a picturesque forest encampment set up along the artillery trail (also known as the China Sea Trail) that ran through the mountain borders of Pampanga and Zambales, became the starting point for the ascent of Pinatubo. Successful climbers who reached the peak could sign their names in a guest book up the mountain and certificates were given to those who reached certain designated distances. The conquistadores, as the triumphant American climbers were called, were given certain privileges for their feat, such as leaving their shirt tails out even during formal occasions.

It is interesting to note that in April 1907, a Marine Corps expedition under Maj. E. K. Cole hacked its way to Pinatubo. Accompanying the group was Warren D. Smith, a Division of Mines employee who concluded that “Mount Pinatubo is not a volcano and we saw no signs of its ever having been one, although the rock constituting it is porphyritic”. In November 1914, a Pvt. Edgar J. Eckton of the 7th Cavalry supposedly reached the apex of Mt. Pinatubo but there are half a dozen or so claimants to this feat of honor. In 1921, the first airplane flight over Mt. Pinatubo was successfully undertaken.

Years after the Pinatubo eruption, the range was blanketed with ash that gave it an eerie, snow-covered look, white and ghostly from afar. Today, the Zambales mountain range has regained much of its color and vegetation, forming a scenic backdrop once again to Pampanga’s phoenix-like rise to progress.
(26 October 2003)

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