Mt. Wilhelm

Originally uploaded by islandmon

Hi from on top of the world, Mt. Wilhelm! Well not really on top, only 4509 meters or 14,788 feet, but the highest point on Papua New Guinea anyway. You may wonder what I’m doing up here, midlife crisis, early onset of dementia, I can’t really say for sure. But it sure was fun getting here, difficult too, now for the details.

Part of my job is to lead high school juniors and seniors on outdoor education adventures. One such activity is to climb the highest peak on PNG, Mt. Wilhelm. It was one of the reasons I took the job. We started training about 2 months before, climbing local hills every week and weekend. Because we would be at an altitude higher than 2000 meters, we had to be prepared for altitude sickness. This is a not so nice condition where because there is not as much oxygen in the air at higher altitudes, your body starts to react with headaches, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting and can lead to serious consequences (even death) if you don’t descend.

We left Moresby (sea level) on a Friday and flew to Mt. Hagen (1500 meters or almost a mile high).You could already feel the difference in the air and temperature. From Hagen we drove 2 hours through Western Highlands province to a town called Kundiawa in Chimbu. From here it took us 3 hours to drive the last 40 kilometers (27miles) on a dirt mountain road. The views were great and the cliffs steep. We finally arrived in Kegasugl (2500 meters, 8000 feet) where we stayed at Betty’s Lodge.
On Saturday morning our group of 11 (4 guidesa, 2 teachers and 5 students) left for base camp, a 5 hour 12 kilometer (8mile) climb to Lake a Pinotubo. During this walk we climber about 900 meters or about 3000 feet to 3400 meters). We arrived at the base camp at 12pm and ate lunch and prepared for our attempt at the summit. We had planned to do some light walking at the lake to get used to the altitude but it rained and we chose to stay indoors. You could really feal the thinness of the air. A couple of people decided to take a swim in the near freezing lake but I was too smart for that having experienced that feeling while living in Finland. We later found out that the lake was cursed and anyone who swam in it would not make the summit. Of the 3 who swam, 2 did not make it. It was about 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit). We had a nice spaghetti dinner at about 6pm and tried to rest. We were scheduled to leave for the summit at 1am.

At 12 am we got up to prepare and at 1 am we left. The first two hours were a steady hard climbing walk. We climbed about 300 meters during this time. Most of us were dressed quite heavily and began to perspire. After 2 hours I took of my heavy coat but unfortunately the clothes underneath were soaked but I couldn’t keep the coat on. After the first two hours 2 of our climbers turned back due to altitude sickness. We sent a guide with them.

In the next 3 hours we climbed at a steeper rate, altogether about 600 meters (2000 feet). The cliffs were steep and it was good in many ways it was dark because you could see too far down. One guide told me that if any one fell they should fall to the left toward the mountain. Some of the trails were less than a foot wide and the guides helped people across individually. Another climber turned back with a guide leaving 2 guides and 4 climbers for the final 200 meter climb.

At about 6am it started to get light and the worst of the climbing was done. But all of us had headaches and we still couldn’t see Mt. Wilhelm. Evidently you can’t see it until your almost there. At this altitude we started seeing memorials to the hikers who have lost their lives on this climb. We started more to understand exactly what we were facing. We were supposed to make it for sunrise but were a little behind so we saw the sunrise at 4400 meters. It was clouded over so unfortunately it wasn’t so good. At 7:15 we finally had Mt. Wilhelm in our sights, a barren rock on top of other barren rocks. Its name in the local language means “barren rock”. We got to the base of Mt. Wilhelm at about 7:40 am and dropped our climbing sticks for the hand over hand 50 meter (150 foot) climb and at 8:00am we made it to the summit. It was below freezing there and hard to breath and cloudy but it still felt great. What a feeling! We took some pictures and made some satellite phone calls. The views were great; you could see both the northern and southern coastlines and a volcano on a distant island.

After about 20 minutes we started the dreaded 6 hour trip back. The adrenaline had worn off by then and the altitude sickness really set in. I felt like I was leading a hospital train. My crew was limping, puking and stumbling. We did our best to get down as fast as possible. However it started raining about 11am and continued until we got back to base camp. The rain turned the trails into streams and slowed us down but we finally made it to base camp at 2:30 pm were we rested and ate. At 5pm we left for the 5 hour hike to the lodge. We arrived at the lodge at 9pm more tired than I have ever been in my life. We walked and climbed 18 hours in a 20 hour period.

I know that most people in the group thought I wouldn’t make it, you know, young kids and the old guy. But I knew I would give it my best effort and just keep pushing, like the tortoise and the hare. I’m happy that I made and I know a little more about myself now than before the climb. It may be the hardest thing I have ever done. But I also I thank God that no one was hurt and everybody made it back safely.

I will enjoy this “natural high” for a long time.


3 Responses to “Mt. Wilhelm”

  1. 1 skruttilutti September 30, 2008 at 2:13 am

    Wow Scott! What an account. I am so glad you did this. Congratulations!

  2. 2 johnnyk April 22, 2011 at 6:17 am

    Good on you mate, I plan to do this one in Aug 2011.
    May I suggest Mt Kilimanjaro next on your bucket list, that was a great climb.

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