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Ascent of Ngihneni on 2019-01-05

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Saturday, January 5, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Ngihneni
    Location:Micronesia
    Elevation:2595 ft / 790 m

Ascent Trip Report

The highest point in the Federated States of Micronesia is not known with certainty, except that it is either Mt Ngihneni or Nahnalaud, both on the island of Pohnpei and approximately 2,595ft according to SRTM data. According to a local guiding company (http://www.pohnpei-adventure.com/nahnalaud/) the mountains were surveyed in the 1970s, but with error margins larger than the difference in elevation between the two peaks. Until a more careful survey is completed, highpointers should probably climb both peaks to be safe.

It is not completely clear whether a guide is required by law. According to the pohnpei-adenture guiding company, one route up the mountain, the Pehleng Route, does not technically require a guide by law, though the other routes on the mountain may require permission of the land owners at the trailheads.

Matthew and I had given ourselves 26 hours on the ground in FSM, and didn’t want to use a guide. It would be funner to climb the mountain on our own if allowed, and cheaper. However, it could be more difficult if we didn’t know which trails were actually maintained and we might be forced to do a lot of bushwhacking to reach the summit.

Our plan to figure out the status of the trails was to stop in the tourist office in Pohnpei and ask, though be vague enough about our intentions that they wouldn’t insist that we hire a guide. We had just finished climbing Mt Ngerchelchuus, the Palau highpoint, and got on a flight at 1:45am January 4 from Koror to Guam. In Guam we caught the famous island-hopper flight, which took us to Chuuk and then Pohnpei, landing at 1:00pm.

At the airport we picked up a rental car at Budget, and unfortunately one of the front tires had a slow leak. It looked slow enough that we topped off the air at a gas station and hoped for the best. We drove to the tourism office in town and asked for any trail maps, hoping they would have a copy of the excellent quality Australian-made maps from 2014. Unfortunately they were out. We told them we wanted to do a little hiking and asked about a few of the trails. They said the Pehleng trail in fact required permission from the landowners, as did every other trail we asked about. However, they said if we just wanted to do a short hike the Six Waterfalls trail would be a good one.

They seemed to imply that we did not actually need permission to hike this trail. This was actually one of the approach trails to Nahnlaud and Ngihneni, and was the shortest trail with the least elevation gain. The only problem was that it followed a valley then went straight up a steep hillside to the summit, while the Pehleng trail followed a ridge the entire way. We suspected the Pehleng Trail may be overgrown the entire way, based on a report from a hiker that took in 2015 with a guide. We expected the Six Waterfalls trail to maintained to the waterfalls, since it sounded popular, but likely overgrown and impossible to follow after that.

It would be much easier to follow a ridge than bushwhack up a hillside if neither had a good trail, but we decided to go with the Six Waterfalls trail because it was the only one that apparently did not require any owner permission to use.

After leaving the tourism office we picked up some groceries at the ACE store nearby, packed up our packs for a quick start up the trail to avoid questions from anyone nearby, and started the drive.

It took about an hour on narrow but paved roads counter clockwise around the island. We turned left on a paved road (6.825431, 158.169224) and drove up past an elementary school to the road end. The road was paved to the school, then dirt. The end of the road had plenty of parking, but was next to some houses. We didn’t want anyone to tell us we couldn’t park at their house, so we backtracked down the road and pulled off to the side out of view of any houses. Then we quickly got out, put on our packs, and started hiking around 4pm.

We quickly passed the houses and followed a trail into the jungle. The trail was well maintained and easy to follow. After about half an hour we passed a guide and three clients hiking out. The guide was surprised to see us and asked if we knew where we were going. We said yes, that we were hiking to the waterfalls and knew the way. He didn’t ask any more questions and luckily didn’t tell us we weren’t allowed. So we continued hiking.

After we passed the last waterfall in a deep gorge we were prepared to start bushwhacking, but amazingly the trail continued up the left side of the stream. It was not maintained as well, but was still easy to follow. We continued through the jungle until the trail descended to a long stream crossing and we couldn’t see any trail on the other side.

From there we backtracked and tried to follow a faint path directly up the hillside, but then changed our minds and waded across the stream. The trail in fact continued, and we kept following it through the jungle.

By 6:30pm we reached a huge landslide that seemed quite recent and completely obliterated the trail for several hundred feet. We were directly below to the south of Nahnlaud, and with sunset very soon we thought it would likely be very difficult to find a trail on the other side of the landslide in the dark, if the trail even continued. So we made the fateful decision to bushwhack up to the summit from there.

We topped off water in the stream at the landslide so we each carried 3 liters and would be prepared to camp anywhere. The hiking up the landslide path was easy at first, but then the landslide turned into a cliff and we cut into the jungle. The sun set as we entered the jungle and from then on we needed our headlamps.

Matthew led the way as we essentially bushwhacked straight up the mountain. It was steep enough that we often needed to pull ourselves up on branches, but frequently the branches and plants would break or pull out of the mud. There were very few strong plants in that jungle. Often I used what I call the mud bollard technique, where I hugged a big chunk of mud and plant debris and used that to pull myself up. Our progress was often thwarted by vertical cliffs, which we had to bushwhack around.

After an hour of probably the most difficult bushwhacking we’ve ever done, in the dark and rain no less, we crested the edge of the summit plateau. There the jungle got even denser, and we had to crawl over and under complex root systems, heading toward our GPS mark of the summit location.

Eventually I noticed a weathered, moss-covered piece of pink and black duct tape on a tree, and we stumbled across a faint trail. We followed the trail and soon found ourselves on a small clearing, the summit of Nahnlaud. It was 8:30pm, and we abandoned any plans of tagging Ngihneni that night.

We followed the faint trail back to the plateau and briefly started heading west, towards an old shelter we’d read about that was supposedly 5 minutes from the summit. But the trail disappeared, and we soon gave up. We instead headed east to a flat spot on the trail. We piled up leaves and branches on top of the mud, then set up our tarp and the tent underneath.

We were both completely drenched, but each had a spare dry shirt which we used as loin cloths to sleep in so our sleeping bags would stay dry. It rained throughout the night, but we were dry under the tarp. Unfortunately my cold returned and I stayed up coughing most of the night.

The next day we had to catch a 3:30pm flight out of Pohnpei, which was the only flight of the day so couldn’t be missed. We also needed to climb the other highpoint contender, Nghineni, though there was no reported trail to its summit.

Bushwhacking in the dark would be very difficult, so we got up before sunrise and were hiking just as it got light, around 6:45am. The trail was at first easy to follow, but we soon lost it heading east and instead bushwhacked to the ridge to Nghineni, using our GPS units for nagivation.

There was indeed no trail along the ridge, and the going was quite tough. We started back calculating what schedule we’d need to keep to make our flight, and determined that we needed to turn around at 8am to give ourselves enough safety factor to not miss the flight. If I missed that flight, I would get back to Seattle a day or two later, which would be bad because I had to give a lecture the day after my planned return.

We picked up the pace bushwhacking with Matthew in the lead. We roughly followed the ridge, but dropped down to the right when the bushwhacking got too dense. At 8am we looked at the GPS and were only 100ft from the summit, so continued on. By 8:03am we officially crested the summit. There were no higher points anywhere nearby, and the location was consistent with our GPS topographic map.

We recorded summit measurements (Nahnlaud 2,534ft and Nghineni 2,526ft) but unfortunately the phone GPS units are not accurate enough to definitively say which one is taller when our measurements showed only an 8ft difference.

After a few quick pictures we hustled back down. We followed our route along the ridge to the saddle just east of
Nahnlaud, then descended straight down following the gradient. The jungle got more open as we descended, and we eventually stumbled across a trail. I’ve read some groups camp at a cave at the head of that valley, and it appears there actually is a trail from Nahnlaud down to the cave, which is the trail we hit.

After a few minutes on the trail I noticed a faint intersection, and we took a right turn descending into the valley. We lost the trail soon after, but then refound it, and amazingly the trail continued all the way to the landslide.

We crossed the landslide, followed a few cairns we’d left, and met back up with the trail from our ascent route. From there the route was easy to follow back. When we reached the waterfall we actually encountered a hunter carrying out a wild boar on a stick, but he was far away and didn’t say anything to us.

We got back to the car at 11am, well ahead of schedule, and stopped to change into dry clothes. As we were just about to pull away a car came down the road from the trailhead and the driver asked us which government agency we worked for. I guess he assumed since we were white we worked for the government. We told him we were just tourists, and he then told us that the land owners at the trailhead were angry at us for not asking for permission. We told him the tourism office told us we didn’t need permission, but he was still angry and said we were supposed to ask.

We said we were sorry and would ask next time, and then he was satisfied and drove away. Without any further delay we took off and drove back to Palikir. We were early enough that we had time to find a small park and dry out our soaking wet packs and clothes. We ended up making our 3:30pm flight out to Guam where we would climb one final mountain, Mt Lamlam, the Guam highpoint.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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