The beauty and majesty of Mount Apo, the country’s highest peak, have a way of enchanting young people like 23-year-old Alexandrous Ian Caasi. On Maundy Thursday, hours after reaching the peak, Ian went for a swim in the mountain’s freezing but beguiling lake. Minutes later, he was dead.
By Angely Pamila M. Chi
Vol. VII, No. 12 April 29-May 5, 2007
DAVAO CITY — The skies were beginning to dim over Lake Venado at past five that afternoon of Maundy Thursday. Inside their tent, MJ Lapiña and Alexandrous Ian Caasi were sipping coffee.
Ian, 23, was fresh from his nap when MJ, moments earlier, got inside the tent, his video camera in hand. MJ had just taken a footage of their fellow climbers — all 23 of them — from the Mindanao Alliance Mountaineering Club (Malmoc) who, like them, arrived at the peak of Mount Apo four hours earlier, got back down and pitched their tents in front of the boulders near the lake.
Both young men were from Davao City, part of what seemed like a subculture of mountain climbers and environmentalists who make it a point to trek to the country’s highest peak every year, often every chance they get.
The coffee must have tasted great that nippy afternoon. The lake in front of them was placid — and inviting.
After their coffee, MJ, 26, asked Ian to start cooking rice while there was still light. MJ rummaged through his things, took his toothbrush and toothpaste, went out of the tent and walked several meters away to find water.
MJ was still brushing his teeth when he saw someone frantically waving from the middle of the lake.
Moments earlier, Jay Crebillo, 33, the president of Malmoc, was talking to three mountaineers from another group when he saw Ian come out of their tent shortly after MJ left to brush his teeth. Ian was walking opposite MJ’s direction and was wearing the same clothes he had when the group was coming down from the peak. Ian was headed toward the other mountaineers who were taking a dip at the northwest edge of Lake Venado.
Crebillo did not think Ian was going swimming. “I thought he was only going for a walk because he still had his trek pants on,” he recalled. Ian also did not have with him a towel, which the other bathers had, the better to fight off the cold the moment they got out of the water. “I didn’t expect him to take a bath or even swim in the lake because the water was really cold.”
Besides, Crebillo said, authorities at the Digos entry point, where his group passed, had told the mountaineers that swimming in the lake was forbidden.
Crebillo was still talking with his new acquaintances when, moments later, he saw from the corner of his eye the same person that MJ saw, waving his hands, as if crying for help. He thought maybe the swimmer was just playing around because the lake’s bank was just a few feet away.
But when the figure began to sink, Crebillo turned frantic. He sprinted toward the lake, taking his clothes off one by one as he ran, shouting out for help.
MJ thought all the while that Ian was back in their tent, cooking dinner.
As he ran toward the drowning swimmer, Crebillo tripped on holes on the side of Lake Venado. When he was already knee-deep in cold water and ready to dive in, he suffered a leg cramp. Most of the other mountaineers who followed suit experienced the same cramps. There was a reason swimming in the freezing lake was forbidden.
Others frantically tried to gather ropes and empty water gallons, while some stayed on the sidelines, beaten by fear. Jeffrey Parantar, an experienced swimmer, was able to reach Ian, who was still conscious, and pulled him toward the bank. But Parantar ran out of breath after Ian grabbed him by the waist and pulled him down as Ian desperate struggled to surface for air. Parantar also developed cramps in both legs, leaving him with few options. He attempted a one-hand backstroke, grabbing Ian by the hair with his other hand. But what little was left of his energy wore on fast.
At this time, Crebillo called the attention of the porters — residents around Mount Apo who are hired to carry the mountaineers’ heavy loads — to help in the rescue while securing a rope to help pull Ian out. Parantar was floating toward the bank when the porters spotted him and pulled him out of the water, unaware that Ian was still in the lake, drowning fast. Crebillo told the porters and another Malmoc member to go back into the water. But it was too late. Ian could no longer be found.
Days before the trek, Ian’s friends and family said they saw signs, which they interpreted as premonitions of what would happen.
Ian’s mother said her son had asked her to claim his cellphone at the pawnshop if ever he wouldn’t be there to do it. He had pawned the cellphone to finance his trek to Mount Apo.
A neighbor saw Ian without his head — twice — when Ian came to their store to buy supplies. A friend also said Ian had told him to keep the video they were taking as a remembrance because he would be going to Mount Apo where he would be “famous” and will be “seen on TV.”
During the trek, a Lumad named Gudi-Gudi warned Crebillo when they were still at the foot of Mount Apo to watch carefully two of his companions because “something bad will happen.” Crebillo said Gudi-Gudi approached him first while he was telling his group to gather around for a prayer before the climb. When the group passed by Gudi-Gudi’s house on their way to the peak, the native reminded him again to be watchful.
Crebillo did watch the two girls in his group very closely because he thought they were the ones Gudi-Gudi was referring to. He breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the peak and went down to Lake Venado safely. Until he saw the drowning of Ian Caasi.
Back home, Ian was his family’s “errand boy,” a role he played both in his mother’s household in Magallanes and in the household of his uncle, Alexander Caasi, in Bankerohan, where he chose to live after his mother and father separated years ago. His uncle, whom he fondly called “Daddy,” has been his father figure.
When he was not doing house chores, he loved to spend long hours playing his favorite PC game DOTA at Boyztrek, one of the top gaming sites in the city.
Since his mother, Imelda Damali, and seven other siblings lived in Magallanes, Ian often found himself waking up very early in his uncle’s house in Bankerohan to go to his mother’s so he could help in the chores on his way to school.
He also found time to help another relative in Bankerohan, an aunt who sells steamed corn at the market, by waking up as early as 4:30 in the morning to help reheat the unsold corn from the previous day. “He never complained,” his uncle told davaotoday.com. Ian even did the laundry. “He did not make a huge fuss about it. It’s a woman’s job but he did it.”
On the Holy Week trek to Mount Apo, Ian was also the errand boy. His older teammates, MJ and Crebillo particularly, would ask him to do certain chores during the trek, like cooking rice or doing the dishes, which he willingly did.
It was his first time to scale Mount Apo, whose majesty and beauty have always beckoned climbers and youths like Ian. The climb has long been his greatest dream and his most anticipated, especially after he failed to join the climb the previous year because of a bike accident.
Except for a friend who had been prodding him to go to Samal island instead for the Holy Week, everyone in his family did not stop Ian from joining the climb.
In His Blood
His uncle said that it was in Ian’s blood to look for adventure. Ian’s mother was an award-winning runner who played in the Palarong Pambansa, the national athletic competition, who once placed second to Lydia de Vega, once the country’s fastest sprinter. Ian’s uncle was one of the city’s pioneering mountaineers while another uncle is a karatedo instructor at the Philippine Navy.
On April 9, four days after his body was recovered under the dark waters of Lake Venado, Ian was airlifted from Kidapawan to Davao City and brought to his uncle’s home in a modest white wooden coffin. As a final tribute to a young man who had such undying passion for the mountain, the helicopter carrying Ian’s body circled the peak of Mount Apo before it landed in Davao City.
His uncle plans to organize a climb to Mount Apo next year to commemorate Ian’s death in Lake Venado. He also plans to make a scrapbook of Ian’s life. “It’s my way to remember and to make other people remember that Ian lived his life to the fullest,” he said. (Angely Pamila M. Chi/davaotoday.com)