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Mt. Wilhelm: The Descent


Dear faithful and patient reader,

Over six months ago, I climbed Mt. Wilhelm with four of my students, an Austrian missionary named Horst, and assorted local young men who acted as guides.  When I last left off, I, three students–Bernard, Norbert, and Frederick–and two guides made it to the summit in time for sunrise, while an altitude-sick Horst, a freezing Isaiah, and two guides waited at a windy mountain pass for the sun to rise so that they could start down the mountain.

After enjoying the view, reading some psalms, and eating crackers and peanut butter, my group started down slowly but happily.  It ended up being a warm and clear day, which was a welcome change from the coldness of the night.  We had been told that clouds roll in right after sunrise, but at least for the local views, the weather was fine.

Going down was one of the most interesting experiences of my life, for in the daylight I could see where I had toiled in the dark for the first time.  I had these from Eliot in mind often during the way down:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;

I feel like this experience was illuminative of life – that often we toil in the dark, not knowing if beyond is a precipice or safe ground, until we receive some kind of illumination from without.

???????????????????????????????This is the summit of Mt. Wilhelm – basically a giant rock outcropping.



Here are Bernard and myself pointing at our place of triumph.  Since the high point is the last outcropping on a very tall ridge with similar outcropping, you can’t actually see the high point (even in the day) until you almost there.  From here, we lose sight of the high point.




These are the true highlands of PNG – as you can see, there isn’t enough vegetation for the trail to be clearly visible.  We basically follow the ridge line.






Some of the views were unreal.  Here we are, above the clouds.


Our two guides to the top told us that this cross marks where the president of the Missionary Aviation Fellowship of PNG died on his way to the top.  Asthma, I think.

???????????????????????????????This is the trial leading out of the mountain pass where we left Horst and the others.  Thankful, we did not find a Horst-icle here and so we assumed that they had started down the mountain once the sun rose.

The far lake is Lake Meri (=woman).  Our cabin is on the far side on the right.  The closer lake is Lake Man.  Lake Man is basically encircled by tremendously high mountains.  Our path is around and eventually down the right side.


The left side, as you can see, are sheer cliffs with a knife’s edge top.


Here we are about halfway through the right side.  Our path goes to this opening between two great rock outcropping and then we walk along the base of the outcropping in front of us, on its left side. ???????????????????????????????

The view between the rock outcroppings.  It’s sheer cliffs everywhere!  At the bottom of this ravine (not pictured) was a small lake, mostly overgrown with algae.


The view looking backwards, towards the summit area.  The big outcropping is known as the candlestick and during the night it felt like we spent forever walking around it.  The pass that we left Horst at is on the right side.

???????????????????????????????The remains of a Japanese fighter plane that crashed into the mountain during WWII.  Our guides said that the main body of the place slid, over the course of decades, into Lake Man.



That little pond is Red Lake.  It exists on a peninsula of rock jutting into thin air.  All the sides are cliff face.  If I had a billion dollars, I would build myself a helipad and hut right next to Red Lake.

???????????????????????????????It’s hard to make out, but this is a picture looking straight down into Lake Man a few hundred feet below.



Planning with some airplane wreckage – this piece was surprisingly heavy!  I could barely lift it.


The way down had been the way up.


From the shore of Lake Man, the lefthand side.  We had been walking along the top.

???????????????????????????????       Looking straight across Lake Man. The little peak directly across on the left is candlestick.  The lower part on the right is the pass where we left Horst.  I don’t think that I’ve ever seen such a beautiful landscape.  Our guides claim that nothing lives in Lake Man and that no one has ever swum in it.  I got the impression that its water was probably once considered sacred.  I was sorely tempted to jump in and regret somewhat that I did not – but I did not have a full change of clothes, I am sure that the water was frigid, and all the students were in a hurry to get back, now that we were mostly down.


The way down to Lake Meri was lovely.  We were mostly walking by cascades the whole way down.  I do downhills quite slowly, so by this time, I was in the rear.  The guides waited for me, while the rest of group moved on.  We found the rest of party resting by the cabin –  I had had the key and so they could not get inside.  Luckily, it was dry and relatively warm.  I was in favor of resting a bit before going down, since we had been on the trail for 12 to 13 hours.  We left around midnight and returned around 1:00.  We had a meal of roasted sweet potatoes.  Afterwards, I was packing up my things and before I knew it, I was the only one there!  Everyone else decided that it was time to get going.  One of the guides came back and got me.

Now that we were experienced mountain men, we blew through the way down.  What took us four hours to hike up the day before took us only about two this time.  It was also lightly raining, so the idea of a hot meal that wasn’t sweet potatoes or crackers and peanut butter and showers at Denglagu motivated us to get down in good time.


Here we are back in Cambridge country!

Fr. George told us to call him when we got to the end of the trail.  It came out right by a rather large compound apparently owned by the local member of Parliament.  I called and texted Fr. George, but no answer.  We waited a bit and then decided that we, like true mountain men, would walk back.  We went down the road and ended up at the secondary school that Horst and I had walked to before.  So we came down to Denglagu from the steep hills above, passing through one of our guides’ frontyards!

By now it was getting dark and Fr. George was nowhere to be found.  A local woman was kind enough to cook us dinner.  The plan had been for Fr. George to take us back to Kundiawa in the morning the next day and then for Fr. Michael to pick us up there.  I contacted Fr. Michael, who had done pastoral work in Denglagu before, and he advised us to forget Fr. George and take a PMV out of Denglagu early in the morning.  Apparently, since the driving conditions are so poor, the PMV’s leave before 7:30 am and try to return around noon.

So before turning in for the night, we made the plan for me to wake up at 6:00 and see if Fr. George had returned in the night.  If he was still absent, I was to wake up everyone else and we would walk down to the village to find a PMV (people moving vehicle).  Well, I followed the plan, but the seminarians normally wake up at 5:30 during the school year, so some of them were up then.  They saw that Fr. George was not back and they watched two PMV’s go by, but they decided to let me follow the plan!  So, in short, waking and learning that we had already missed two PMV’s, I roused Horst, hurriedly packed, and ran down to the village to join the rest of my students.  We got the last PMV to leave Denglagu – it was a landrover with a pickup bed.  Me and about twenty people were packed into the back of the landrover and off we went!  At one point, it could not make it up a muddy hill, so we all got out.  Chains were attached to the front and passengers that were strong and of sure footing pulled our ride up the hill!?  I was wearing sandals and was not one of the pullers, since I slid down the hill when just standing still.

At last we reached Kundiawa.  There was no sign of Fr. Michael.  He had sent me a text that I had not seen during the journey, which read “talk to the rector.”  So I called the rector and was told that since I had not arranged the transportation with him (but with the vice rector), it had never been the plan for someone from the seminary to pick us up from Kundiawa.  Thus, we ended up taking a PMV from Kundiawa to Banz; luckily we had brought enough money for the fare.  Then in Banz, we got another PMV back to Good Shepherd.  And so I learned firsthand that the public transportation system in PNG is not that bad – people actually went out of their way a bit to see that I was okay during these trips.

Once back at Good Shepherd, I stayed in bed for the next two days.  It was about two months before the rector and I were on good terms again . . .

On the whole, it was an incredible, one in a lifetime experience and I feel blessed to have done it.  However, the whole trip proved the truth of the saying, “In PNG nothing is easy.”


Rebecca and I are planning to try Mt. Giluwe, the second highest mountain this coming June.  Hopefully I will have learned from my experiences and will be able to plan a much better trip!

1 Comment

  1. Rebecca says:

    May there be no end to your adventures, and the beautiful rewards of your treks! And without those relational faux-pas, we would never learn, eh?



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