An Australian volunteer who was doing whatever volunteers do in PNG.
I was there for 2 years until Dec 2005 .. I hope I made the most of it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

To the Top of PNG

As I have said before "You have to keep yourself entertained in PNG". When I wrote it I am sure that I wasn't thinking this would extend to swallowing up an entire weekend with walking for over 15 hours, sitting in a car the same amount, getting 30 minutes of sleep on Saturday night, experiencing freezing cold weather, serious exhaustion and the aches and pains of all that walking. But this is exactly what kept me "entertained" on the weekend past and I can say that it was all worth it.

Ever since I decided to come to PNG, one of the things on my list of must-do's while I am here is to climb Mt Wilhelm. At 4509m it is the highest mountain not only in PNG but Australiasia. Easily beating by double Australia's highest, the bump that is Mt Kosciusko (2228m), and the visually impressive but not quite there Mt Cook (3754m), NZ's biggest.

The attraction was the height of the thing. Since being impressed by going up to the top of Klein Matterhorn in Switzerland (by cable-car, mind you) and seeing the sign proclaiming 3883m, I have taken note of the highest place in altitude that I have been in the world. With a place close to hand here that is higher, it did not take me any convincing to try and better my previous best.

Of course the other attraction is the challenge at climbing and reaching the top, the thrill of making it. Cable-car's don't exist here. I have talked to most of the volunteers I have met here about climbing it and it seems that most of them had attempted it, but all but a couple had failed. The failures had come up with various reasons for not making it to the top, altitude sickness from the fast ascent, too much partying beforehand and not wearing shoes (Helen and Wendy, I now think you are completely long-long). So I thought why don't I try it and see if I can do it. Bragging rights and all that.

The only thing I needed was a willing accomplice and here it seems I had it made with George, my boss, being a keen hiker/mountain climber. He had already climbed the thing quite a few times - 16 by his count - but wanted to do it again as the last time he had done it was 1998. Since I first met him face-to-face at Nadzab airport, we have talked about climbing Mt Wilhelm. He told me back then that we would do it at Easter. Easter came but due to landslips caused by the highlands rainy season the trip was postponed until the Queens Birthday long weekend in June. This came, but coincided with bridge upgrade work on the highway, which meant they were closing the road for the entire weekend. So then we decided we would just do it in a normal weekend, and not worry about using a long weekend. The next free one for both of us was the one just past.

So the amended trip was planned and because of the less time we were going to execute it in blitzkrieg fashion. We would leave Lae straight after work on Friday, staying the night in Goroka after the 3½ hour drive. Drive up to Kunidawa and then turning off the Highlands Highway and go to Gembogl (the closest village to the mountain) at end of the road. Leave the car there, walk for 4 hours on Saturday afternoon to the established base camp huts at the two lakes, Piunde and Anude (mother and daughter). Have dinner and sleep there. Leave at 1am, Sunday morning, and climb to the top of the mountain, arriving at dawn (I'll explain why later). Come back down, in the morning light all the way back to Gembogl, arriving at lunch. Jump in the car and head all the way back to Lae. Well it sounded reasonable at the time.

Friday came and I had got myself prepared. I was using just a day-pack for the entire weekend, which was half filled with my camera and the rest of the space clothes and important bits like my maglite torch with spare batteries. Strapped on the outside was my rainjacket shell and water bottle.

At 3pm the team that wanted to go, converged at Georges place. The call for interested parties had gone out and it turned out that it would be just four of us heading up from Lae - George, Knox (our storeman at DODL), Norman (from UDC - the University consultancy arm) and me.

The trip up was uneventful and we got to Goroka, and dropped our kit off at the cheap accommodation we had arranged. Then we hit the Bird of Paradise hotel to get dinner and a few drinks. I met up with Monica and Jennifer here (AVI guys in Goroka) and had a chat.

The next morning we headed off and drove to Kundiawa as planned and then drove up the rough road to Gembogl at the end of the valley. The valley was impressive in itself, with extremely steep sides and gardens built into those slopes. The trip took 2 and half hours, so by the time we arrived we running behind schedule.

At Gembogl, which is practically the end of the road, we left the car at the high school with the headmaster, who happens to be - like most people in the highlands - someone that George used to work with. We also met up with Ben who works with Norman at UDC. He is a local from the area and arrived earlier to arrange a few things for us. One of these was Steven who would be a guide for the trip. We didn't really need him, but he turned out to be helpful and good fun.

The first part of the trip was to head to the lakes. So at 1pm we headed off up the road, which then turned into a track. It was perfect walking weather, cool and overcast, but it still meant that I had a real sweat happening after not long. By the second stop after two hours of walking, I was absolutely stuffed. I realised that my fitness level was pretty inadequate, and I started to wonder how I would cope for the rest of the hike. I took it easier and kept pushed myself to keep going, it was just the first of many walls that I would have to walk through I told myself (correctly proven it turned out to be too).

We made it to the lakes at 5, walking past waterfalls and up grassland areas. The trees which had started down below as part of established forests, were by the time we reached the lakes, small and stumpy. I asked Ben how high the altitude was and he said it was around 4000m. At over 3500m there is the chance of getting altitude sickness, and the higher you go the more likelihood of it happening. I was feeling light headed, but convinced myself this was just from the physical exertion of coming this far.

The weather was cold but not freezing, and it certainly was not cold enough to stop George from getting his kit off and plunging in to the lake. After a toe dip from me into the icy water I told him he could do it all by himself. Instead I stayed in the house cook near the our arranged mountain hut and warmed myself up by the fire.

Dinner was two-minute noodles and baked beans, followed by fruit cake for desert, all washed down by cups of Milo. At around 8 it was bed time. So George, Norman, Ben and me crashed in one room and used the hut supplied bedding, while Knox slept in the house cook.

I was tired enough to really want to go to sleep and I knew I had to sleep, but I did not factor in the fact that Norman sounded like a truck going down a steep hill with it's air brakes in full song. It took me over two hours to get to sleep, and when I finally did it seemed that it was time wake up.

That time was midnight and I roused myself out of bed and got ready. This meant that we left behind anything of non essential items, and just carried what we needed to trudge up the supposed 4 hours to the top.

The night air was, considering where we were, quite pleasant when we headed out. We circled around the bottom lake first and then we started the what turned out to be almost continuous climb for the next 4 hours. My Maglite provided the source for me to see the way, and coupled with the half moon, we were able to progress at a reasonable pace.

While walking it seemed that I was having to take double the amount of breaths that I would normally take to get the same amount of Oxygen out of the thin air. My pulse raced from the effort. We took frequent short stops because of this and this enabled me to keep going. After about an hour a wall was hit and the question of why bother reared it's head. This was pushed aside and I kept going.

The group seemed by this stage to spilt into two. Norman was not coping at all and started to slow down the whole group, so the group started to spilt into two with me, Knox and Steve in the front and the others coming behind. George and Ben were mainly doing this to coax Norman along.

After two hours we started to see some lights from Ramu sugar factory down in the Markham/Ramu valley, which was easily a couple of hundred kilometres away. Then the views became obscured as unwanted mist rolled in around the top of the mountain. This made it extremely cold as the wind also became whipped up. My hands felt it, as I didn't bring gloves along, even though I did try and get some in Lae, but funnily enough there is not a big demand for them there. I had to alternate between holding the torch in my left and right hands and eventually sticking it in my mouth, while my hands recuperated in my pockets.

After 4 hours of walking I was starting to wonder if the bloody thing would ever end. We made it to "Wilhelm's rest" and we were informed that it was only another 30 minutes away to the top. This would enable us to get up there before the dawn and see the sun come up and watch the clouds roll in. The reason you see for going through all this effort of walking in the dark, freezing cold etc, was because in the tropics, the best time to be on top of a mountain is at dawn. Once the sun comes up the clouds will build and obscure it all for you. Unfortunately though, we were already in this situation. I guess it can't be right 100% of the time.

The final 30 minutes dragged on to 45 and then onto an hour. We had slogged for 5 hours and still not reached the top. It was 6am and the sky to the east was becoming lighter. We really needed to get up there to see anything if at all. Me and Knox with Steve leading had left the others behind at Wilhelm's Rest. I kept asking Steve where the peak was because we were now surrounded by multiples of them and they all looked to be the one. After going past 3 of these faux peaks Steve told us that this one was it. Both me and Knox let out a "woohoo" of joy as we were standing directly beneath it and it would only require another 5 minutes of scaling up the rocky face. I was completely and utterly exhausted at this point and just wanted it to be over - to be able to stand on top and know that I have completed it.

What Steve was pointing to though was not the peak we were below but a vague shadow that we could just see through the mist. I didn't even believe that it was a mountain at first and thought it was a trick of the light at this time of the day. A shadow cast by another peak. But it was the real one and it meant we had another 15 minutes to go. I groaned inwardly, but again kicked myself on.

The final ascent involved almost rock climbing like skills, finding handholds and the like to get up. Steve helped me and Knox over some of these and this meant that I was the first to get to the peak. As I stumbled over to the sign sticking up and saw the words written Mt Wilhelm - 4509m. I didn't know weather to laugh or cry, so I did both at the same time. To make it up there was the happiest moment of my life (of the ones that I could remember at that exhaustion hazed moment). Knox came up behind and we shook hands and hugged. Then we both sat down out of the wind and rested while waiting for the others.

I closed my eyes and must have slept, because the next thing I knew was Steve coming up with the others and shouting to me to take photos of the sun coming up. I did and then we took the obligatory pics of standing at the summit. In the wind it was extremely cold with it sleeting. Climbing up the mountain you don't notice it as much but once you stop it is felt.

Unfortunately the view which I had been told so much about - being able to see Madang and the north coast, seeing the south coast etc - was not there because of the mist that had come up. It did though afford us glimpse's of the east coast and the Finnisterre mountain range as it swirled around.

George and me stood up on top and got our photo taken. I looked at him and thought, then told him that he must be completely crazy. He had not worn a hat or trousers the whole way. On the back of his head after the picture was taken I could see a frosting of ice.

On top. Notice the numbers behind Georges head

We didn't stay at the summit for long, perhaps 30 minutes all up, before we headed down. It was good for the sun to be up so we could see the way but it also meant we had four hours of walking ahead of us. At the end of this my legs were like jelly trying to step down all the rocky steps. Going up is certainly easier on your legs than coming down.

Back at the hut at 11 we had a nap for 30 minutes, before having some lunch consisting of more two minute noodles. Then there was another 2 hour walk back to the high school, which was one of the longest two hours I can ever remember, it seemed like it would never stop. My right knee was also very painful making it hard to walk, I must have overstretched it at some point coming down.

Finally we hit the road after some more food and drove all the way back to Lae. I took over the driving at the bottom of the Kassam pass and drove down the Markham valley, getting home at 11:30pm. My exhaustion was absolute and as soon as my head hit the pillow I was out. I woke up 7 hours later in the same position.

It was a brilliant experience and something I will do again one day - but not for a while. I will also have to find another mountain higher as well, to better my PB. There is one in West Papua (Irian Jaya, Indonesia) at 5025m ... hmm.