The "Snows" On Mount Apo

By Miguel A. Bernad S.J.

Al amanecer contemplabamos desde
el vapor la cumbre del monte Apo,
por donde revienta el crater de un
volcan; la cumbre, cubierta de azufre,
parecia nevada con el reflejo de los
rayos del sol.
--Jose Fernandez Cuevas S.J. (1860)


From the city of Davao on a clear day, one can see a high mountain that rises in the west. Its head is almost always lost in clouds; but in the early morning when the air is clear and the sky cloudless, it towers in spectacular grandeur, its eastern face gleaming with a white covering that looks like snow. This is Apo, which historians and cartographers have called the highest of Philippine mountains.

A snow-capped mountain in the tropics is of course an oddity, and Apo's white-covered summit has naturally aroused speculation. My attention to this unusual phenomenon was first called from an unexpected quarter. The Carmelite nuns are a cloistered congregation shut off from the world; but though they shun the world of men, they love to look out upon the world of God, to gaze at the beauty of sky and sea and mountain. From the windows of their monastery in Davao they can see the splendor of Apo. One of the nuns born and bred in France under the shadow of Mont Blanc, was talking behind the grille. One could not see her face, but in her voice one could sense the vitality of those who love the mountains She wanted to know what that glistening substance was that crowned Mt. Apo, for she was of course certain that it was neither ice nor snow.

She was right. It is neither ice nor snow. It is sulphur. Indeed, what seems white from afar is really not white but yellow. The best way to appreciate this fact is to go up in an airplane in the early morning to a height of some eight thousand feet. The mountain itself is almost ten thousand feet high: but at eight thousand feet, one can get a full view of the mountain's magnificent cone gleaming golden-yellow in the morning sun.

Scientists, of course, and missionaries have known the true nature of the "snow" atop Mount Apo. As early as 1660 the Jesuit historian, Father Francisco Colin, had noted that this volcano was giving out sulfur, In 1900 Phelps Whitmarsh reported that the sulphur field "covers perhaps ten acres (and) is about one thousand feet below the crater . . . Scattered over this area were eight or ten sulphur cones from six to twenty feet high, and hundreds of smaller jets. They were shaped at the top like a steamship's ventilator and emitted choking fumes with a noise half puff and half grunt and had incrusted the entire surroundings with about an inch of sulphur."

Yet even well-informed men could not help noting how much the sulphur resembled snow. In 1860 the Jesuit Superior, Father Jose Fernandez Cuevas, was making a voyage to various places in Mindanao to survey the possibility of reestablishing the Jesuit mission there. From the deck of his steamer as it sailed up the Gulf of Davao he saw "at daybreak the summit of Mount Apo . . . covered with sulphur which in the reflected rays of the sun looked like snow." The British ornithologist, Walter Goodfellow, who visited Apo in 1903 and again in 1905, remarked that "The white slope viewed from a distance conveys the impression of a snow-capped summit, and it is difficult to believe that it is not so. At sunrise and sunset it glows with all the beautiful tints of a snowy peak."

These were well-informed men. But there have been others less well informed. In 1930 Father Miguel Selga S.J. of the Manila Observatory was amused at the report sent from Davao that from the belfry of the church the "snow" on Apo could be seen! Incautious journalists have rushed to the periodicals breathless with the "news" -- and unwary editors have published a picture or two (taken of course from a great distance) purporting to "prove" -- that snow had fallen at last upon a Philippine mountain, only seven degrees north of the equator.

The Mountain's Name

It is not surprising that such a mountain, so majestic, so alive with mysterious energies, should exercise a spell upon the primitive imagination. To the Muslims of the river valleys of Cotabato who lived afar off and who could thus look upon the mountain with detached objectivity, Apo was not a very fearful mountain. They gave it a matter-of-fact name -- Sandayan -- meaning solfatara. The suggestion has been made that the "Sicarnan" in Orozco's map of the Philippines (1699) and in Murillo Velarde's (1734) was a misspelling of Sandaya. When we climbed Mount Apo in 1958, our Manobo guides and porters told us that the "white slopes" (i.e. the sulphur deposit) of Apo are called Sandaya.

But to the peoples who lived nearer the mountain, in the forests and hills that surround it (for no one lives upon Apo itself), this enormous piece of rock, reaching to the sky, clothed more than half-way in dense mysterious forests, and emitting smoke from half a dozen solfataras, was a compelling presence indeed. They gave it a respectful name -- Apo -- which means both "lord" (with connotations of superiority and power) and "ancient ancestor", the "grandfather of mountains."

Human Sacrifice

To the tribes that lived around Apo -- the Atas to the north, the Bagobos to the east and southeast, the Guiangas, the Calangas, Culamans, Tagacaolos, and the Bilaans farther off -- Apo was a dreaded mountain. To the Bagobos it was the home of Mandarangan, "god of the gore", who dwelt upon a throne of fire, forever thirsting for human blood. Each year at stated intervals, or whenever there was any calamity public or private, or when they had to approach the mountain, they would placate the wrath of Mandarangan with the blood of a human victim, usually a slave whom they had captured or bought from the Sarangani Bay area. They even made a business of the whole affair. Father Cuevas reports: "They speculate on these bloody holocausts, demanding a fee from all those whose wish to enjoy the barbarous delight of inflicting wounds upon the victim. The members of these tribes have the custom of paying for an assassination, by giving to the interested parties a certain number of porcelain plates which serve them for money."

The callousness with which the Bagobos butchered their victims was in keeping with the callousness with which they butchered their own children when born deformed, with the result that the Bagobos were a remarkably handsome race -- the envy, doubtless, of the most advanced eugenists.

Today such savage practices appear to have completely disappeared, though superstitious offerings of food, tobacco, money and cloth are still made. We came upon two such sacrifices during our ascent of Apo in April 1958. But as late as 9 December 1907 a human victim was killed in sacrifice at Tabon by the Bagobos, of which an account has been given by a party of geologists who passed through that was a month later.

What The Geologists Say

The geologists tell us some interesting facts about Apo. They tell us that it is a volcanic cone built up in Pleistocene or in "recent" geologic time. ("Recent" to the geologist would be extremely ancient to most of us.) They also tell us that Apo does not arise directly out of the plain, as does Arayat in Central Luzon (or Nui Ba Den in Viet Nam). Mount Apo sits upon the shoulder of another mountain, which of course gives it additional height. "Sitting" is of course my term: the geologists call it "burying." In other words, Apo is like a rider on horse-back, the horse being the cordillera or mountain-range that stretches across the island of Mindanao from north to south, from Diwata and Sipaca Points in the north to Sarangani Bay in the south. Apo, moreover, is a rider sitting squarely in the horses back. In technical language: "this volcanic mass is elongate in the north-south direction and the apex appears to coincide approximately with the axis of the folded range which it apparently buries." In this respect Apo differs from other volcanic masses in the area, for both Mount Matutum and Parker Volcano are built up somewhat to the west of the axis of the folded range.

Basement rock has been found at various places along this cordillera, but the rock of Apo itself is igneous. Montano, who climbed Apo with Governor Rajal and Father Gisbert in 1880, brought down rock specimens from the summit, which were later identified as andesites. The chief geologist of the Philippine government, at the time, Warren D. Smith, climbed Apo in 1908 and also found andesitic rocks. He surmised that at some time in the immemorial past, Apo must have had a violent explosion, Krakatoan in magnitude.

Virgin Forests

The fact that Apo is, so to speak, a mountain sitting upon a whole range of mountains makes it difficult of access. All the more so, since both the volcano itself (p to a height of 8500 feet) and the entire mountain range that surrounds it are covered with virgin forests, semi-temperate in the higher elevations, dense tropical jungles in the lower. The British ornithologist Walter Goodfellow, whom we have already quoted, describes the topography well:
The picturesque and active volcano of Apo stands about twenty miles inland from the SE. coast of the Davao province, and appears to fall away in a succession of gradual forest-covered slopes to the sea; but on nearer acquaintance, these slopes are not nearly so gentle as they appear to be from a distance, for the luxuriant forests hide many a deep gorge where raging torrents rush down from the heights above and whose waters must be traversed for considerable distances and crossed again and again with no little danger to travelers. Cliffs must be scaled at dizzy heights where scarce a foothold exists beyond that afforded by a few clinging roots. Turning some ugly corners in this manner is extremely risky work and at first sight appears an impossibility. There is another and longer trail up the mountain to the highest Bagobo village of Tandaya, by which the worst part of the waters is avoided; but it is in some ways more tiring and is only used by the natives during the rainy season when the former is impassable.

The whole mountain (he continues) is covered with dense jungle up to about 8500 feet, beyond which comes a broken, white stony slope and crumbling cliffs intersected by many burning fissures from which proceeds an incessant noise as of colossal machinery at work underground.
Of the forests themselves, Goodfellow says:
The upper forests are dark and gloomy, and the thick, hanging -- and often black-looking -- mosses which cover every trunk and branch give a funereal aspect to the whole. One seems to come upon this depressing region with a strange suddenness, for a little below are many deep arms in the mountain containing hot springs where the steam, always arising, causes a rank growth of the most verdant tropical vegetation imaginable to spring. Giant ferns and beautiful orchids here struggle with each other for supremacy.
This, then is Apo -- the "lord", the "grandfather of mountains" -- which dominates the entire region that surrounds the Gulf of Davao. Indeed, it is from Apo's fiery nature that the gulf gets its name, for we are told that Davao -- a name applied to gulf, city and province -- was originally Dabaon, a word that means "full of flame".

Such a mountain, so magnificent, so seemingly inaccessible yet so temptingly near, stands as a perpetual challenge to all who love the heights. And for the past one hundred years, that challenge has been repeatedly accepted. 



(In Progress)