Ascent of Mount Wilhelm on 2001-10-18

Climber: Morgan Batt

Date:Thursday, October 18, 2001
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Wilhelm
    Location:Papua New Guinea
    Elevation:14793 ft / 4508 m

Ascent Trip Report


Like the moon Papua New Guinea has always been there. One could get the impression that the land was only discovered in the sixteenth century with the Portuguese trading expansion. However, settlement has been unearthed in the Kosipe area near Mt Lamington (Nth PNG) with remains of a 26,000 year old village.

The mainland and islands of PNG lie entirely within the tropics. The mainland is split down its length by a massive mountain range, including some of the highest peaks in the Pacific, many over four thousand meters. Much of country, except for the intensively farmed highlands, is covered by tropical rainforests alive with orchids and the timid bird of paradise, brilliant butterflies, ancient mangrove swamps, or wide savannah grasslands, teaming with cassowaries, wild duck, wallabies and deer.

The people who number more than 3million, are largely of Melanesian stock speaking about 700 languages (45% of the world’s languages) of which English and Pidgin are widely understood.

The land has had many names Illpas do Papuas (Land of the fuzzy-haired people), Isl a del Oro (Island of Gold), Nuvo Guinea, British Papua, PNG. The name may change but like the moon and the cloud the land and the people will remain.

What is this land. People began to settle the wide scattered islands off New Guinea 10,000 years ago, New Ireland 6,000, Manus 3,500. Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia Tonga 3,000, Hawaii, Easter Island, New Zealand by 1,000 years ago, But PNG saw its first inhabitants around 50,000 years ago.

The land is ancient. Formed by the North edge of the Australian plate bumping into the Pacific plate forming the highlands about 7 million years ago. So the highland mountains were a bump? When the climate began to warm about 14,000 years ago the snow and ice melted from the highlands. By about 9,000 years ago all the mountains of PNG were free from perpetual snow and ice. Although the mountains still retain a high alpine vegetation the tree line crept up the mountains as the air and earth warmed.

The central highlands development gathered speed with evidence of agriculture some 9,000 years ago in the Wahgi Swamp. The sweet potato was introduced some 300-400 years ago.

In highland culture (especially for the Mendi People) they believe the earth is held up by a single root. Living up in the heavens is the god figure (not an ancestral spirit) whose name is Parapagim. Now and then Parapapim is believed to be looking for sepi kaipi (dried Kaukau/sweet potato). The people believe that earth quakes occur when this god figure knocks the earth or the root. So when the earth shakes in the afternoon or evening the people have learnt that this is Parapapim bringing them food, meaning there would be a surplus of food. If the earth shook in the morning then the people had the idea that there would be a shortage of food.

People in the highlands have their own ideas about the cause of rain, thunder and lightning. The sky above, particularly when it is bright coloured blue is a lake or great pool. The blue lake is thought to be owned by a male and a female. The female is referred to as yeki ten meaning woman angel. Rain falls when yeki ten strikes and splashes the lake/pool with a lollop (paddle-shaped stick).

Lightning occurs when the water is struck and likewise thunder becomes the splash or its noise. The falling water is believed to be the rain that falls.

They consider the yeki ol (man angel) as very good. He is thought to oppose the yeki ten by hiding the lollop in order to stop her form causing rain to fall (in the highlands they average today about 73 metres of rain). If the yeki ol succeeds in this task rain does not occur and the weather stays fine. However, if the yeki ten finds her lollop then rain pours down as she splashes the great sky pool.

The highlands people also have their own ideas about the clouds or mol ol. They consider white and black mol ol as opposing each other. Black mol ol are believed to be the enemy of all people, whereas white mol ol are their friend. The reason why the black clouds are considered bad is because people think it assists the yeki ten in making rain. The black clouds bring the sign of rain and bad weather which people hate. White clouds are believed not to cause rain and are considered the people’s friend. The white cloud are believed to like people because they send up white smoke from their fires. This, it is thought joins the white cloud and gives assistance in the battle against the black cloud.

In the past people use to go to Lake Kutubu to trade for tagaso tree oil. People believed that the white clouds would guide them during their journey so they chose to go out during the period of time when the white clouds were abundant and black clouds were scarce. People never travelled on long journeys when the sky was covered in black clouds . They were sacred that the black clouds would ‘eat them up on the way’ (that is - make them get lost). I was told the story of a young boy whose father set off on a journey to Lake Kutubu in 1964. At that time his child was only six. The boy and his family waited for the father to return safely. They worried for his safety not only because of the black clouds that began to gather in the sky but also because the terrain through which his father travelled was still wild and the people were still unknown to each other.

Now every day the boy would go out to the village edge to look and see for when his father returned. Six days passed and still no sign of the home coming. During his father’s absence the boy’s mother kept telling him about the risk his father and the two other men were taking with the black clouds. For many nights and days the mother was concerned about the clouds. This also made the boy anxious because he did not really understand what his mother was talking about with the black clouds behaviour. One day the boy asked his mother “What is there about the clouds?” She replied “Son, mol ol are dangerous,, they eat men up. If your father does not return in the next few days he will already have been eaten!” Then she added further “See that thing there”, pointing to the horizon which was covered in thick black clouds, “beyond that is where your father went and now the mol ol have come and covered his way, maybe he has been eaten already, but let’s hope he returns.” Since the boy was still young he believed his mother’s words and cried. A few hours later, the mother called “Now I can see there is good news, the mol ol are moving towards us which means they are bringing your father home, we can expect him any time now”. The mother began to prepare a feast of the fatted pig and some yams and sago. Some five hours later the boy’s father returned home. When the father walked into the village the boy embraced him, and the father said “I was almost eaten up by the mol ol, but had managed to escape because the white mol ol came to my rescue.”

There are many stories about the origins of the highlands and the different terrain’s and sky activities. The anthropomorphism of weather conditions and patterns is common amongst primitive peoples. Hence when you enter the slopes of the highlands it is not just mountains but people’s family and spirits that you begin to touch in the thousands of years of lived history and sacredness of the area.

The Highlands region lies below the mol ol under which is some of PNG’s highest mountains, many unscaled.

“Flight PX132 was called as just arrived and was now ready for departure”. Sometimes you have to wonder why they give some people a PA to speak into. Elvis, the guy next to me in the airport, and I just laughed he said “going backwards maybe we already there”. I love this ancient land and its ancient peoples.

This was my second trip to the highlands but my first to get out and walk the land. When I arrived in Mt Hagen I was met and transferred to the Haus Poroman. A collection of modern grass huts enveloped with crontons and hibiscus plants way out in the hills. That afternoon a bloke named Ilawi went with me on a walk to the local village on top of Mt Tuku. I gathered not many tourists ever venture this way. It was my birthday, 38, and I was happy just being with the land and people. I met a guy who was the son of the man who helped Mick Leahy in his ventures as the first white guy in the highlands. There was another man who gave me some fresh baked yam (my first gift on my birthday) he told me that he had never seen a white fella until he was six. He was about 50 now. That night after a three course meal my family managed to track me down here in the high wilds of PNG to wish me happy birthday - that was great - thanks.

Next morning was a 6.30am start with a big brekki. Two local guys, Thomas and Issac, pick me up for the long 3 hour bone crunching drive to the trek head of the Chimbu Valley in the distant highlands. On the way we stopped for some oil dripping lunch and a dance by the local mudmen. The mudmen have always fascinated me ever since I was seven and saw a picture of some in a National Geographic magazine, I really enjoyed the dance and a chance to wear one of the masks. The farms in this area almost cling with gripped fingers to the side of the 45-70 degree slopes. How they cultivate and water these areas is just pure hard work.
The truck belts out along the road and narrowly scrapes over bridges built hundreds of meters in the air between valley slopes. Some of the bridges are missing a few planks and you can see Thomas eyeing the bridge gearing up for his approach on two narrow planks that keep us from plummeting to the roaring river below. Pass each one the vinyl on the seat is getting more and more dented. Then once again through villages as mysterious as their farming methods. I really thought we were going to accomplish the first four wheel ascent of Mt Wilhelm. I asked where this Betty place was, Issac says “You ken drive all way to very end of road. When road end you find Betty”. Well he was right, miles later up the mountains we twisted and the road narrows and narrows and narrows and finally the dirt appears through Keglsugl Village then the road stops. At which there is a sign “Betty’s Lodge and Trout Farm” - enigmas abound in this land. A trout farm here - well dinner was great.

After dinner Ken and Betty tell me the local story of Mt Wilhelm. I searched the net before coming but was really unsuccessful in attaining any history of the mountain. So here are some facts gained in between sips of Jack Daniel’s by the glow of the citronella candle.

The first white man to climb Mt Wilhelm was Wilhelm himself a German surveyor. His guide was Dem Cummen (Black arse) who was the father of Joe Blacky an old bloke still living in the area who claims local ownership of the land. The local tribes are Largoo, cumcarne, wondiki, warpanase all belonging to the upper chimbue customary land. The local name of the mountain is midnadi meaning “up above”. And famous in the area is the bundinaroa the red bird of paradise, a supposedly exquisite creature, shy but can be heard. Some American tourists a few years ago were sitting on the veranda of Betty’s when one of these rare creatures landed on the rail for a brief moment - Betty said you could almost here the grass growing it was that quite.

The area was relatively unexplored by the outside world until the Catholic missions stations arrived from Madang in the 1940’s (Betty thinks around 1946-48). And only then did people begin to live in the area up until then it was only used for hunting. Fr Mike, an Australian, started the local Bundi Mission in 1948, and the church was founded and built by the St Vincent De Paul Society. The people believe that the church was good news as they gathered the children and began to educate them and help bring medicines and farming equipment into the area. Human life began to develop rapidly. People were healthy and life was good, and dispite rumours there was no cannibalism in the area.

Sitting in Ken and Betty’s lounge room is a hugh painting of Mt Wilhelm, showing the track up to the summit and the local famous landmarks. Like the Australian F-7 Photographic Liberator 4273052 world war II plane that crashed on the 22 May 1944 near the peak of Mt Wilhelm en-route from Nadzab to a mission over Padaidori Island the remains are still there . Then there is the marker commemorating the death in 1996 of Elly Wald an Israeli who died guiding himself on the mountain - wrong turns up there and your gone. And a marker for Chris Donnon an Ausi soldier who died crossing the river in the 1960’s. Well the Jack Daniel’s is gone and bed seems the best option as we have an early start tomorrow.

Its a beautiful morning and the humidity is low. We gather on Betty’s veranda. I meet my guide Michael. And coming with us, as anyone would know PNG’s always make a party out of a walk even up to the end of a street they all go. So there also is Phillip my cook, Peter Michael’s brother, a little old woman Augusta wrapped in her mari mari with a few teeth chewing beetle nut. Her red smile was great, as the beetle nut stains your teeth badly. With her is a young girl Elisa.

We begin walking up the property boundary, a slow steady climb along dense jungle dripping in Old man’s beard, and blanketed in ferns and orchards. After a few hours we reach a grassy knoll with permanent survey marker 3985. Back to the tropical jungle and beautiful waterfalls. Buckets of good drinking water. The tree ferns soon part as we travel up the high valley floor into open grass land. The walk underneath is boggy due to the high amount of water run off from the snow melt. I imagined that during the rainy season this would be hell - red, wet and slippery.

There are three platues to traverse up. Steady going. As we come up over a little hill there displayed in front of me was Lake Pinunde - absolutely beautiful - the rush of mist swirling on the surface gave the area an almost Tolken ‘middle earth’ feel. This magical scene did not seem to match the hut, an eclectic array of building material held together by another array of fasteners - bolts, rope, wire, vines, nails, rivets and prayer. Home at 3,400 meters. The local name is enwacombuko.

A very lazy afternoon, walking and exploring the area and the waterfalls. Sitting in the sun reading and thinking - just heaven. The boys joined me for afternoon Mass for “All Souls”. Phillip then got to work in the grass hut with an open fire and produced trout and veges for dinner with these cream biscuits almost like Sayo biscuits but much better. I then produced four little bottles of Scotch one for each of the party, well did their faces light up. It was just enough for a bed time nip. I was asleep by 6.30pm - for rise time was going to be 1.30am - this obsession with early dawns and mountains must be an international thing. It really is about the best clear sky you can get before the sun rise. I was woken about 10pm that night by the rain pelting down on the tin roof - NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Looks like yeki ten was hard at work splashing in the sky pool. I can’t stand walking in the rain or sloshing in mud especially going up hill. This rain just kept coming and coming. It seemed like ark time was nearing. At one o’clock as we rose the rain stopped and the night cleared beautifully. The moon was full and plump ready for the picking. The mandatory cuppa was now brewing and Phillip was cooking eggs. I realised it was breakfast for me but I said I didn’t want it as I never eat on the morning of a climb. We left at exactly 2.00am not a minute before.

We walked to the opposite side of the lake, climbed near the waterfall, across the ridge to the snake path, under the rocks to the saddle (where the plane crash site is). Walked up and under what I called “shield rock”, across to the transmitter station. Stopping to catch our breath at the blue cross erected by the local Catholic Parish. The dawn was beginning to break upon us. The whole sky was electric - sun, mist and cloud dancing with each other. This really is where the mol ol bilong mountains. We traversed around the station rocks and there was Wilhelm peak or traditionally called . I had not been able to see this yet because it was set back from view in our camp. It wasn’t a massif but a littleif. But still worth the effort to stand on the highest peak in the Pacific rim (this does not include West Papua because that belongs to Asia). We scrambled up the rock face and arrived at the summit at 7.10am. Time for the mandatory photos, sing, sit, look, wonder and Mass. It is my ritual on a peak. We then down climbed at 7.45am arriving back at the hut at 10.30am. Cuppa and bed.
I awoke about 1.00pm and Phillip immediately made me a cuppa and some lunch - more of those cream biscuits yum, but the bully beef I buried, I think it is the only descent thing to do with this canned meat. Another lazy afternoon writing, exploring and reflecting. The boys were great for a chat about life and the local area. Dinner was two minute noodles and vege with butter rice - Phillip is trying hard with what he has.

Some Austrians arrived and just seemed to take over the hut. So I went out and joined the boys in the smoke house. Augusta soon arrives and we have a story session in full swing. This time sitting around a fire listening to the ancient stories of the locals was enthralling and scared. I think because I was a priest they just accepted me as local. Bed 7.30pm - the Austrians snored all night but that’s hut life.

Breakfast was a new taste sensation - fried egg, on Sayo biscuits dripping in honey and some local green plant. It’s Sunday and the boys ask if I would celebrate Mass before we head back to Betty’s. Yes of course. So they clear a little area and in the rising sun we celebrate a Mass. I know about half the Mass in Pidgin which seemed to please and surprise them. The insects crawled into the sacred wine. No one seemed to mind as I picked them out. The view down the valley was breath taking - praise God hey!

We arrived back at Betty’s place about 9.30am in time for a cuppa and a flushing toilet - small pleasures. I had brought along a Polaroid camera, so I took everyone’s photo and gave it to them. Elisa said it was the best present she had ever had - a photo of herself. Well I suppose there are no 1 hour photo shops up here - yet.

Ezekiel and Thomas arrive, hugs and thanks all around. I will miss this place. Every where I go I seem to leave a part of my heart there and fill the gap with a fond memory. The people, the food, the stories and the mists that belong to the mountains.

There were no survivors. Those who died were of the 20th Combat Mapping Squadron: 1st Lt Loren Barstow (pilot), 2nd Lt Jack Connor (co-pilot), 2nd Lt Douglas Puck (navigator), S/Sgt. Harlod Valentine (radio operator), S/Sgt Edwin Maille (engineer), S/Sgt Leonard Diamond (photographer), and gunners Sgt George Harvey, Sgt John Schmitt, Sgt Stephen Boudreaux, S/Sgt Luis Degallado, S/Sgt George Dick, may they rest in peace.
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