[PHOTO AT LEFT - Filipino triathlete Leo Oracion is shown in a videograb from ABS-CBN after planting the Philippine flag on the summit of Mt. Everest, becoming the first Filipino to reach the top of the world’s highest mountain. - Photo By AFP]

MANILA, MAY 18, 2006 (STAR) It was a race of sorts between the country’s top broadcasting networks to scale the world’s highest mountain.

Veteran mountaineer and triathlete Heracleo "Leo" Oracion, backed by ABS-CBN, became the first Filipino to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

Another Filipino climber, Romeo Garduce, covered by rival network GMA-7, has yet to reach the top.

Oracion reached the summit of the 8,848-meter mountain at 3:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m. in Manila yesterday).

He reached the top and planted the Philippine flag after negotiating the Hillary stretch of the mountain, the route taken more than 50 years earlier by Sir Edmund Hillary, the first Westerner to climb Everest.

"The Philippine Eagle has landed at the summit of Mt. Everest," said Arturo Valdez, leader of the First Philippine Mount Everest Expedition, quoting Oracion.

"We have shown the world that the Filipino can," he added.

Valdez said the 32-year-old Oracion left Camp 4 past 9 p.m. Tuesday (11 p.m. in Manila) and went to conquer the top of the mountain with Sherpa guide Pemba.

Camp 4 is the last stopover before the summit of the Earth’s highest peak.

He said Oracion reached the Hillary stretch of the mountain at 12:30 p.m. (2:30 p.m. in Manila), about 1,000 meters away from the summit.

Valdez explained a climber usually takes an hour to reach the summit from the Hillary stretch but Oracion negotiated the route in a brisk, careful step.

"The wind there is so thin. The wind in the area has only one-third oxygen (composition)," Valdez said.

He added the temperature at the summit ridge is about -30 degrees Celsius.

Valdez said Oracion would start descending the mountain on Thursday.

Oracion’s teammate, Erwin "Pastor" Emata, had also reached Camp 4 by 2:30 pm. (4:30 pm. in Manila). He said Emata would push for the summit along with four Mallorcan mountaineers by 8 p.m. (10 p.m. in Manila).

Valdez, along with the rest of the team and ABS-CBN News correspondents Abner Mercado and Vince Rodriguez, are stationed at Everest Base Camp.

A video from ABS-CBN later showed Mercado interviewing Oracion at the top of the mountain with the Philippine flag waving behind them.

Garduce, on the other hand, has reached Camp 2 of the mountain on the same trail. He left at about 7 a.m.

Garduce, who arrived at the Everest base camp in late March, clarified that he was not competing with Oracion and his group but stressed his climb is dedicated to all Filipinos.

Climbing on thin air requires "three breaths for every step," he said.

Last Tuesday, Oracion was at Camp 4 at 26,300 feet of the popular South Col route and closest to the summit. Garduce, on the other hand, was at Camp 2 at 21,000 feet.

Both ABS-CBN and GMA-7 have spent lavishly on sponsorship deals and deployed on-location crews to provide blow-by-blow accounts as the climbers acclimatize and store up supplies and provisions on the upper slopes of the 29,028-foot mountain.

At Malacañang, President Arroyo hailed the efforts of the Filipino mountaineers in conquering the world’s highest peak.

"I extend my heartfelt congratulations on behalf of the Filipino people to Leo Oracion on his spectacular achievement. He is the very picture of hard work, tenacity and courage. He has shown the world the stuff Filipinos are made of," President Arroyo said.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita added the Oracion’s accomplishment showed "the indomitable spirit of man, especially if they are Filipinos."

"Since Mt. Everest is the highest mountain in the world, you can imagine how the world would be looking at Filipinos being able to plant the Philippine flag on top of Mt. Everest," he said.

Ermita said President Arroyo would likely invite Oracion and Garduce, along with the rest of the Philippine team who reached the summit, to Malacañang.

Oracion’s father, Guillermo, said he was proud of his son’s accomplishment.

"I couldn’t be prouder of my son Leo. We can’t help but be worried, but we have faith in his strength as a climber, as well as his determinations as a person," the elder Oracion said.

Fellow mountaineer James Tagara of Manila-based AMCI club said Oracion and Garduce, along with the rest of the Filipinos who reached Mt. Everest, will be treated national heroes.

Tagara claimed the two separate efforts to climb Mt. Everest should not be considered a race.

"I don’t consider it as a race, because mountaineers know when to quit or to pace themselves," Tagara added. - ABS-CBN website, Paolo Romero, Joey Villar, AFP

Conquering Mt Everest By Niña Corpuz The Philippine Star 05/18/2006

And the winner is... Leo Oracion. Everyone’s now talking about the first Filipino to make it to the top of the world’s highest peak. It all started when four Filipino climbers went for their dream, the other three are Romy Garduce, Erwin "Pastor" Emata and Dale Abenojar (who’s claiming he was ahead of Oracion but has no proof).

A month ago, Studio 23’s Vince Rodriguez, who has been reporting from Everest Base Camp, told the Philippine Team about media reports that the Everest climb is turning into a race for the first Filipino to reach the top. But Erwin "Pastor" Emata dismissed this and said, "Everest should be approached with respect. On Sagarmatha (Nepalese name for Everest), you do not race against anyone. It is between you and the mountain. If she allows you to summit, you are lucky. You should never say you will conquer her, because in the end she will always win."

I’ve always wondered why they want to climb Everest. Some of them say it’s a personal goal, and since this is the first-ever Filipino attempt, it’s also for the country. But when your life is on the line, any normal person would think it’s crazy. These people are extra-ordinary and they simply don’t want to exist. They say you don’t feel more alive than when death stares you at the face.

I obviously don’t have a first-hand knowledge of climbing the world’s highest mountain. I’ve read the popular Into Thin Air by veteran climber John Krakauer some years back and I remember reading how she can be so unpredictable, even the world’s best climbers fall to her prey. After all, you cannot control Mother Nature. Krakauer says he was lucky he survived one of Everest’s deadliest storms.

But what if he didn’t live to tell the tale? What if, just like the others, his body vanished underneath the snow? Would it still be worth it? Or would he have died in vain?

I recently saw Brokeback Mountain and apart from the story, I was moved by its breathtaking scenery. I learned that the movie was shot in Wyoming and Texas amidst a sweeping landscape of snowcapped mountains, hills and lakes and all these shapes. Never mind if two macho cowboys were passionately kissing. The bottom line is it’s a rare, incredible love story you wouldn’t want to happen to you but you get moved by it anyway.

But Brokeback Mountain, unlike Everest, is not there. It doesn’t exist. It did in the movie though. Because for Jack Twist, Heath Ledger’s lover, it’s all he lived for. The memories they shared on that mountain were all they’ve got. Better to have your own Brokeback Mountain than nothing at all. I wonder how the mountain took it, a silent witness, to a tragic love-affair.

Mount Everest, on the other hand, continues to reign the Earth. A living witness to the deaths and triumphs of all those who want to conquer her even if some climbers refuse to use the word "conquer," because in the end, she will always win. Maybe, but I don’t think even the world’s greatest mountain will ever conquer the human spirit. People who attempt to climb her year after year are not made of matter. They’re made of the stuff that lives, dies and flies. If Everest has a soul, it’s all the people who gave their lives to her.

Which brings me back to the question, if a climber dies attempting to climb Everest, did he die in vain? Maybe Romy Garduce, Dale Abenojar, Leo Oracion or Pastor Emata can answer the question.

As for me, and maybe for the rest of us, we have our own Everest to conquer. I don’t know where my journey ends. I just hope and pray I can make it to the top and die happy.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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