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Mt. Wilhelm: the ascent

Dear fearless reader, you have no doubt been at the edge of your seat for these past months, eager to know how I ascended (and descended) from the highest mountain in Papua New Guinea.  Well you can finally regain your proper posture.  Here’s the story of the ascent!

Fr. George Mondia, the parish priest of Denglagu, dropped us off at the foot of the trail.  Our party consisted of myself, Horst (an Austrian computer specialist), four students, and four local boys acting as guides.  The first part of the trail was through rainforest.  As might be expected, the trail was wet, but a lot of wood had been placed down on the trail, so the hiking was fine.  There were four designated rest stops in the forest, some with pit toilets and makeshift benches.  Our guides insisted that we should not eat or drink anything until rest #3 or 4, which I thought was silly.  In Boy Scouts we were encouraged to drink water frequently and to nibble on trail mix while hiking.  The nationals, however, have a strange custom of only eating at the end of a long hike.

 

Here we are resting at Rest #3.  Apparently sugarcane does not violate the eating taboo.  Note that only the whiteskins seem tired!  We provided food for the guides, which they carried up the mountain in a cracker box!

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At Rest #4, the terrain changed entirely.  We were out now in something like a swampy savannah between wooded hills.  The only trees were these lovely dwarf palm trees.  The guides called it Cambridge country, though they did not know why.  From this rest stop we could see the secondary school we had been at yesterday far down below.

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This is the view looking back from about halfway across Cambridge country.  There was a lovely little waterfall here.  I joked that the upper half of this area was Oxford country and the guides then referred to it as Oxford for the rest of the trip.  Here’s Oxford country, our destination is the non-wooded area on the left.

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About four hours after we started hiking, we were at a beautiful lake surrounded on three sides by mountains.  Due to the presence of two cabins, this area is known as base camp.  Our cabin was two buildings: an A-frame building with a gas stove and lots of cooking gear, but no gas; and a bunkhouse.  (I didn’t take a good picture of them).  We wondered about the lake some.  Our plan was to start hiking around midnight so that we would be sure of reaching the summit by daybreak.  We tried cooking our kaukau (sweet potatoes), but the wood was a bit damp and we had trouble getting enough heat from the fire to roast or boil them.  So instead it was decided that we would let them cook slowly and that we would eat them at midnight.  I tried to take a nap in my sleeping bag, but the best I achieved was a light doze.  I was the only one with a sleeping bag – some of the others tried to rest, but I think that they were too cold as I kept hearing them moving about.  Finally midnight came, we dressed as warmly as we could, divided the food, grabbed our lights and started on our way.

Here I am at the base camp lake, Lake Meri (=Lake Woman).  The waterfall in the distance comes from Lake Man.  The first part of our hike to the summit would be hiking up to Lake Man on the left side of the waterfall.

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So we hiked in the dark for the next six hours and some of us reached the summit just as the sun was coming up.  It was quite the adventure.  It was cold and windy and we could only see what our flashlights and headlamps illuminated.  We first climbed up to Lake Man, which is ringed by high, steep mountains.  Mt. Wilhelm was basically straight across the lake from us.  To get there we hiked up the left side of the mountains ringing the lake and then walked along near the top of the ridge line, such that rock was almost always to our left and blackness to our right.  Did the blackness conceal a cliff-face or a gentle slope?  You could never tell.

Horst had trouble from almost the beginning.  He lost his breath easily (being a heavy smoker) and also was not dressed warmly enough.  At 39, he was also the senior member of the expedition.  I insisted that we had to keep stopping for him and that the goal of our trip was for us all to reach the top.  I think that the nationals were frustrated by all the stops, but I think that they kept us from getting too tired.  Unfortunately, Horst was probably suffering from altitude sickness and we probably should have sent him back earlier.  Instead I and the guides encouraged him and helped him as we could, until finally, high up on the ridge, he said that he could go no further and just wanted to rest out of the wind and wait for the sun to rise.

Now, our guides were just local young men and not actually trained rangers and here it showed.  They did not understand that Horst was in trouble and they still had the goal of getting us up the mountain.  So when I asked them if there was a good shelter anywhere nearby, they claimed that there was shelter at a place called Christopher Donaldson, where the trail finally climbed out of the ridge around Lake Man and entered the summit area.  Despite Horst’s protests, the guides half-carried him up to Christopher Donaldson, which in reality was simply a small break in the ridge line which offered no shelter at all; in fact the wind blew through it freely.  Christopher Donaldson was in fact a Jewish man that had frozen to death on the mountain!

Horst refused to go further.  He simply curled up at the bottom of a rock face.  I covered him with an emergency blanket that I brought and some extra clothes.  I gave him some food and water, but there was nothing to be done until the sun rose and it warmed up.  At last we decided to split up.  I, Norbert, Bernard, Frederick and two guides went on.  Horst, Isaiah (who was very cold) and two guides stayed behind at the pass.  It was about 5:00 am.  The sun would rise around 6:00 and the summit was supposed to be about an hour away.

The last hour was tough going through a barren, rocky no man’s land.  The great ridge we were on had several rocky caps on it and Mt. Wilhelm was simply the highest cap.  It could not even be seen until one was only a few minutes walk from it.  The sky started to brighten.  We got strung out – me and one guide in the lead with the students and the other guide trailing.  The final ascent was a steep boulder scramble and then I was up  – the first of the group – bathed in the pink/orange light of the rising sun.  Soon we were all at the summit, just in time for sunrise:

 

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For some reason, this ugly structure is at the top.  I have no idea what purpose it serves.

 

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Here comes the sun . . .

 

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Looking north.  The colors of rock and sky were fantastic.

 

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The view to the northeast, I think.

 

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This the view west.  You can understand by looking at these mountains why the Europeans initially thought that the Highlands of PNG were uninhabitable.  However, I think that the far ridge might be the north boundary of the Waghi Valley, which is where I live.

 

 

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Peanut butter, hard crackers, and red kool-aid: the breakfast of champions!  I had heartburn for the next two days . . .

 

 

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We greet the day.

 

 

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A triumphant philosopher!

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I’ll try to write about the descent in a more timely fashion.  It was only on the way down that I saw where I had been walking on the way up.

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