MAYNOOTH, IRELAND – The late Francis Nii, quoted in the just released book, ‘Man Bilong Buk’, wondered how many Papua New Guineans might have stood atop PNG on its highest mountain, Mt Wilhelm.
This set me reminiscing back to 1974, when I was based at Rebiamul, the headquarters of the Catholic Diocese of Mt Hagen.
There were several expatriate volunteers there as well and, along with two Austrian ladies and two American men, I decided to attempt to climb Mt Wilhelm, or Ke Kombuglo as it is known by the Simbu people from whose lands it rises.
So one Sunday our party left Hagen in the early morning and drove into Simbu and along the narrow and precipitous road to the Catholic mission at Denglagu, near Keglsugl at the foot of Mt Wilhelm.
We then began walking through mountain bush and rainforest and before nightfall had reached the lower of two lakes (which I now know to be Piunde or Pinde, the upper lake being Aunde or Yaundo) where there was a permanent building – a former research station - where we slept in our sleeping bags.
The walk up to the lakes was tiring and the altitude at 11,500 feet was already creating problems for some of our party.
The plan was to sleep early, rise very early in the morning and try and get to the top for sunrise.
However one of the Austrian women and one of the American men decided they would not go further.
So early next morning Martha Stachl, Bill Rennick and I set off up the mountain.
The track was visible and easy to follow and the climb not too steep. No ropes were needed. Some sections of the path were marked with paint.
On the way up a steep ridge we could see the remains of a US military aircraft that had crashed in 1944 killing all the crew.
By now the altitude was creating problems for the three of us. Although we had all been living at an altitude of over 5,000 feet in Mt Hagen for over a year, the climb up to 14,800 feet was beginning to have an impact. Breathing was more difficult.
We paused and discussed whether we had climbed enough or whether we should continue all the way to the top.
Bill and I favoured turning back because of the difficulty created by the high altitude.
Martha, with experience of Austria’s mountains, boldly declared, “Well, I’m going on to the top.”
And she strode ahead of us up the track. Bill and I felt we had no option but to follow her footsteps.
Fortunately, as we continued the trek we seemed to adapt a bit better to the altitude and managed to keep going.
Thanks to Martha’s persistence we did get to the summit at just around sunrise.
We were lucky that it was a relatively clear morning and we could see all around.
Mount Michael was clear to the south and Mount Giluwe to the west. The Coastwatchers’ lighthouse in far off Madang was blinking.
It was wonderful to see this magnificent vista of the Papua New Guinea highlands right down to the coast. It certainly made the climb worthwhile.
We soaked in the views and headed back to the lakes and, together with our two companions, trekked downhill back to Keglsugl and Denglagu.
We picked up our vehicle and were back in Mt Hagen that same evening.
All these years later, I’m glad I took the opportunity to get to the top of Papua New Guinea.
It was a tough climb but the scenery was great and we were lucky to have such a clear view from Mt Wilhelm’s peak.
The photos accompanying this article were all taken by me on that climb, which was well worth doing.
Further reading on Mt Wilhelm from PNG Attitude
From time to time it has been suggested that Mt Wilhelm's name be changed, see this article by Chris Overland and a clarifying subsidiary comment from Sil Bolkin
For a longer description of the mountain climb see Dominica Are’s ‘Mixed blessing: Doing something different for new year’