Mother Mountaineer



On April 16, 2010, Nini Andrada Sacro — known as Nanay to a whole community of mountaineers — lay face down at the bottom of a twelve-foot pool in Batangas, eyeing the grime and grout of the pool’s tiles before completely blacking out.
Seconds before, she used her remaining strength to push nine-year-old daughter, Katha, to the shallow end of the pool. Mother and daughter spent an afternoon in play before Katha accidentally veered to the deeper end and used Nini as a step ladder to push herself to the surface. Taller than her petite mom, even in panic, Katha continuously shouted, “Sorry, Ma, sorry!” for the scratches and bruises she knew were imprinted on her mother. Both grappled for what seemed like hours before a waiter spotted them and dove down to rescue an unconscious Nini. In Katha’s recollection, a decade after, Nini’s forehead and temple swelled up to twice their size, and she was rushed to the nearest hospital to be intubated. Her oxygen level had gone alarmingly low.
In what would seem like a twist of fate, Nini had been spending the weekend learning how to sink. While an experienced mountaineer, the sea was a foreign frontier to her. The weekend was supposed to be a casual scuba diving session with friends like fellow Filipina mountaineer Janet Belarmino - one of the first three women in the world to traverse Mt. Everest. Janet and her medical team were in another part of the resort for a teaching conference at the time of the accident. Once the danger had passed, Janet lovingly ribbed Nini, “Mountaineer ka kasi, kaya ka sinuka ng tubig. Pinababalik ka siguro sa bundok.” 
Two months later, Nini would experience a different kind of drowning, an unforeseen crisis that would take her family to deeper waters. Nini’s sister, Andrea, and brother, William, were diagnosed with colorectal cancer just three weeks apart. For Andrea, Stage 3. For William, Stage 4. 


“Hindi namin alam kung paano sasabihin to my brother na may Stage 4 cancer na siya, and he had six months to live,” said Nini, who, at that time, was running a branch of Habagat - one of the Philippine’s pioneer outdoor equipment brands . It was quickly becoming a go-to spot for the mountaineering community in Manila. She eventually had to close the shop in Recto to focus on her siblings. 
“My brother and sister were classmates sa chemo, so hatid sundo ko sila.” Seeing her siblings’ struggle with the disease made Nini ask herself, what could she do to ease their burden? More pointedly, what could a mountaineer like her do for those who might not be able to climb mountains - or even just see the sunset - again? Six months after her siblings’ official diagnosis, Nini started Climb Against Cancer - a climbing community slash prayer group that offered their summits to Filipinos fighting the disease. 
With a specially composed prayer from a priest friend stuck to their Nalgene bottles or on their pack’s bag tags, Nanay Nini would read the names of family and friends. Her fellow climbers would huddle in a circle at 10,000 feet above sea level, the closest to heaven that you can get in the Philippines, and bow their heads together. 
“You always ask naman for guidance before you climb, and also when you go down, so sabi ko, why don’t we pray when we reach the summit as well?” After a feature in CNN, Nini and her fellow climbers received hundreds of prayer requests from all over the country.  
Despite the crisis, both siblings had financially prepared for their chemotherapy well, and Nini and her prayer community’s thoughts were all they needed. “I had to put that out kasi hindi mo maiiwasan na may doubts. People might think I used the money for Climb Against Cancer for my siblings. Everything was recorded, and everything had receipts. Sabi ko sa iba, kung yun po ang aking gusto, kulang pa po ang kalahating milyon. The only thing they needed was prayers. That’s something you cannot buy.” 
On April, 2011, during the anniversary of her second life or what Nini calls her “first birthday ng pagkalunod,” she organized the first-ever simultaneous climb to raise P500,000 for the blood transfusion and infusion room for kids with cancer in Philippine General Hospital.  
“Wala kaming pinangakong sponsorship for gamutan. We cannot. But what we could do at that point was to pray for you and with you,” said Nini. 
Even when William eventually succumbed to his diagnosis and Andrea survived, Nini continued on her reflective climbs since the group's founding in 2010, disrupted only by the coming of the COVID-19 pandemic. 



Eventually, Nini’s mission transcended the fight against physical ailments. It became a resistance against a bigger “cancer ng lipunan” too.  The battle had always been there, she said, since her first climb to Mt. Banahaw. Perhaps it goes even way back to her college days in Far Eastern University as a Fine Arts student.
At that time, she had no basic mountaineering skills, but she already felt a certain unease every time someone left trash at the peak. “Kung kaya mo naman dalhin, kaya mo rin ligpitin, diba?” 
The most transformative experience Nini had was her climb in Cambulo, Ifugao, where she would stay for days and weeks to gauge the community’s needs. Together with the Alapaap Mountaineers of the Mountaineering Federation of the Philippines, Nini would lug fifteen liters worth of books and school supplies. That was the easy part. Lugging something that would truly stay with the community was harder. “Doon ko nakita yung kakulangan sa community. Maraming dumarating na tourists. They pay for their lodging and everything pero wala naman talagang naiiwan. Walang pwedeng makipanibangan na mahaba-haba.”  
To address this, Alapaap Mountaineers, opened a library for the children in Cambulo. When they turned over the library, “Grabe talaga, iyakan!” The children even gave a song and dance number complete with gong and traditional wear, something she assured the community they didn’t need as an exchange. She loathes the thought of letting children wait until midnight just to carry on a cultural show for visitors. Nini adamantly reminds the chieftain and elders they visit that they are not obliged to sing and dance. “It is our choice. If you are helping, it is your choice to bring gifts. Tayong nagtanong kung anong kailangan nila. We asked, and we gave. Kung turnover lang, no need for cultural shows. Di tayo kailangan na pang-National Geographic ang dating.”


It’s difficult to tell where Nini’s impact starts and ends because in her term, “nanganganak kasi sila lahat.” 

At the start of the enhanced community quarantine in Manila, for instance, even when her husband and assistant were struck with COVID-19, Nini still channeled her restlessness into tending to another societal injustice - caring for healthcare workers.  While she had prepared slow, homecooked meals for 500 to 1,000 community members before, cooking in bulk for frontliners was admittedly a first for her. Since March 2020, Nini has cooked over 60,000 meals for fatigued nurses and doctors, and street dwellers all over Manila. Direly undercompensated to begin with, at only a P60.00 basic allowance per day, and without risk allowance, front liners would approach Nini to share their sentiments, “Nanay, ayoko na po, pagod na po ako.”
Empathizing with the idea of this abnormal non-movement, Nini’s way of care is a homecooked meal. Baked ribs. Tandoori. Chicken adobo. All with piping hot rice. Cooked to hopefully show the level of appreciation she wants front liners to feel during this global crisis. “Pampabuhay lang. Pampataas ng kanilang kaluluwa. Gusto ko lang maramdaman nila na may pakialam kami, kahit man lang sa food.”
Because she has taken on the role of nanay to all the communities that she belongs to, adding front liners to her many “anaks,” requests for home-cooked meals come in droves. Sometimes tinola, sometimes pritong bangus. Nini is uncompromising on quality and timeliness. The rice has to arrive at the hospital, still hot no matter what. Whatever the request,  Nini tries to indulge them all. 
“Ako nga nasa bahay na, napapraning na ako.” Admittedly, Nini, also a talented pen artist and muralist, has erased and repainted several square meters of her artwork on her own walls to cope with cabin fever. “Hindi to ang regular nating galaw. Sanay tayo lumalabas, nagba-bike, umaakyat ng bundok. What more for our frontliners who have their PPEs on almost 24/7. I cannot imagine yung hirap at puyat nila, yung bigat ng suot at duties nila.”

Nini admits she takes a lot from her livelihood as an advertising practitioner and as a pen artist to fund all these. Her small artwork sells for P4,000 to P5,000 a piece and is mainly sold on Facebook. Sometimes foreigners would purchase art pieces for as much as P50,000, and some locals willingly donate sacks of vegetables and rice. But two years since the first breakout of COVID-19, these are now few and far between because of donor fatigue. Nini’s income and commissions go to buying ingredients for her pandemic kitchen, especially if she already committed to her many “anaks”. “Mabuti nalang mahaba ang pasensya ng husband ko,” Nini says and laughs. 
Just like any mother with a multitude of roles, Nini herself finds it difficult to see what the common thread is to all that she does. “Ewan ko. Isa akong creative. Isa akong artist. Somehow, alam ko manganganak yung mga gagawin ko.”
More than this, her advocacies na “hindi lang sa bundok, hindi lang sa patag,” hinges on the inner good of people. Involving the community in her artwork and philanthropic work, in retrospect, was the intent of all that she did, and does. While Nini says she’s not the best cook, artist, or mountaineer, she banks on people recognizing the hope in sharing what they have, that if people were given an avenue to help, they would. “Naniniwala ako na mas maraming mabubuting tao kaysa sa masama. So, para sa akin, kailangan ko lang umpisahan.”
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