In celebration of National Women’s Day (March 8), we are featuring Philippine women who have conquered – and continue to climb – some of the highest mountain peaks in the Philippines and around the world.
Presidential Proclamation 24 and 227 as well as Republic Act 6469 declare the observance of March as “Women’s Role in History Month” as well as the first week of March as “Women’s Week” and March 8 as “National Women’s Day.” This is according to the Philippine Commission on Women as they call on both the government and private sector to conduct activities in recognition of the role Filipinas have played in history.
In our own context of mountaineering, here are five women who were initially recognized in their heyday, but seem to have been forgotten by the media and collective memories.
1) Noelle Wenceslao
On May 16, 2007 at 8:10 a.m. (Philippine Time), Noelle Wenceslao officially became the first Filipino female mountain climber to reach the top of the 29,035-foot Mt. Everest in Nepal. She was part of the three-female mountaineer contingent who would be recognized as the first three Filipinas to reach the peak of Mt. Everest. The other two are Carina Dayondon and Janet Belarmino.
A native of San Juan, Manila, Noelle holds the rank of seawoman first class in the Philippine Coast Guard. She is also a member of the Philippine National Dragon Boat Team where she was a member even before training for the Mt. Everest expedition. She had to give up her place on the team to train for Mt. Everest from 2004 – 2007.
Of the 40 female mountaineers who were recruited for the expedition training, only Noelle, Dayondon, and Belarmino were selected to climb Mt. Everest.
Even after conquering Mt. Everest, her fame could not automatically return her to the National Dragon Boat Team, so she had to try out again just to pass and become a member again. A far cry from the high school and college lass who said she “sucked at all sports and came to hate sports.”
2) Carina Dayondon
Carina is a tactical officer LTJG (Lieutenant-Junior Grade) in the Philippine Coast Guard and is officially the second Filipino woman to have reached the top of Mt. Everest on May 16, 2007. But, according to the 37-year old mountain climbing dreamer, her mountaineering days are far from over. After Everest and up to 2015, she climbed no less than Mt. McKinley (Alaska, USA), Mt. Elbrus (Caucasus, Russia), Mt. Kosciuszko (Australia), and Mt. Kilimanjaro (Tanzania). Unfortunately, these succeeding climbs went unnoticed by the Philippine media.
However, Carina isn’t stopping there; this native of Don Carlos, Bukidnon, is now in training and preparing to climb Mt. Vinson in Antarctica and Mt. Aconcagua in South America, the last two of what is called the “World’s Seven Summits.”
Being born in a landlocked province like Bukidnon contributed greatly for her love for mountaineering. However, she was fresh out of college when she joined the Mt. Everest expedition training camp in 2004, something her parents didn’t support because she was looked upon to support the studies of her younger siblings. Eventually, her work with the Coast Guard, monetary sponsorships, and winnings from various competitions she joined allowed her to send back money to her family.
3) Janet Belarmino
Janet is a seawoman first class in the Philippine Coast Guard and is officially the third Filipino woman to reach the peak of Mt. Everest on May 16, 2007. Belarmino, along with fellow teammate-climbers Noelle Wenceslao and Carina Dayondon, are also the first women from Southeast Asia to accomplish the feat.
Janet is a native of Bayombong, Nueva Ecija, still remembers how she first grew to love climbing mountains in her younger years by climbing a lot of trees. In college, she trained and became involved in mountaineering. Janet feels blessed to be in an elite company of climbers who have reached the top of Mt. Everest, but remains humble in character and her pursuits.
Humbled because, in spite of the feat, she achieved it using only a borrowed hand-me-down climbing suit. She was the third person to use that suit to get to the top of Mt. Everest. The Filipino’s equipment were not state-of-the-art; her mask kept on growing icicles and she could hardly breathe, and their boots, crampons, and axe were old and heavy.
Though she felt proud and elated when she reached the top, Janet felt small as she viewed the wide expanse of the world below her. She was in the strangest mix of emotions and speechless, and learned a valuable life lesson of how little knowledge you have and you always need to explore more.
4) Liza Avelino
Like the female conquerors of Mt. Everest, Liza has humble beginnings as a Pinay domestic helper who decided to reinvent herself as a Hong Kong adventurer. Aged 43 back in 2015, she has been working as a maid in Hong Kong for 19 years. To reinvent herself, she decided to become a mountaineer and at least climb to the top of the 20,305-foot peak of Island Peak, around 10 kilometers from Mt. Everest in the Everest region.
Liza saved up for more than a year so she could achieve this 22-day trek up the Himalayas. It was always her dream to travel the world, but could do little with a lack of resources. When she came back from the mountaineering trek, her employer was so proud of her, and Liza got an interview from the South China Morning Post.
Island Peak is a snowy peak in the Himalayas near Mt. Everest with temperatures ranging between -7ºC and -15ºC. It’s popular with mountaineers who don’t have the endurance to reach Mt. Everest, or for training purposes. She joined a trekking company and travelled with two Irish guides, three fellow European hikers, and the normal crew of sherpas. Not bad for this Davao City native who was born to farming parents and became a domestic helper in Hong Kong at 24.
5) Philippine Women’s Mountaineers
Number 5 isn’t a single person but focuses on all the female members of the only mountaineering organization in the Philippines solely for women. The Philippine Women’s Mountaineers was established because all mountaineering organizations are male dominated, and many male climbers complain that females slow down a climbing expedition.
Pinay mountaineers beg to differ, and decided to form their own organization. After all, to conquer the peak of the mountain doesn’t need speed. A climb can be done slowly, but surely, with the ultimate goal of reaching the top.
The female mountaineers number usually between 25 and 30 members at any time. The organization’s theme is “Kahandaan at Pagtugon sa Sakuna, Tungkulin ng Bawat Isa” (Preparedness and Disaster Response is Everybody’s Duty). The group often does their mountain climbing at Tinagong Dagat in Mount Mandalagan, Negros Occidental. The group is so well known that they sometimes conduct discussions on Disaster Risk Reduction through Environmental Protection at Barangay Patag.
The Tinagong Dagat and Mt. Mandalagan trek usually takes around 5 – 7 hours. This includes passing through Barangay Cabatangan near Talisay. It was here that the Philippine Women’s Mountaineers gained the news headlines when 25 female trekkers had to be rescued after being stranded due to bad weather.
The experienced mountaineers – mostly coming from Cebu and Manila – became stranded because they had to stop after one of the members, 33-year old Noreen Grace Cañasa, slipped and hit a rock, fracturing her leg above the ankle. Rescuers reached the group after 3 hours. The bad weather hampered the rescue attempts.
The Philippine Women’s Mountaineers shows that many women are now into mountaineering and, like their male counterparts, simply want to climb and conquer mountain peaks just like anyone interested in this extreme sport. The organization may also become a future launch pad for Pinays who decide to follow in the footsteps of Avelino, Belarmino, Dayondon, and Wenceslao and conquer the peaks of the world.