With so many different regions and things to see and do in the country, it was hard to make decisions, but at an early stage, I put the climb of Mount Wilhelm on my wish list for Papua New Guinea. After serious troubles with a local guy pushing to be my guide while I already had one arranged, I end up setting off alone on a sunny morning in a bad mood. At the end of the track, I find a well-maintained trail, with wooden steps to facilitate the hike through the forest. I quickly go up the mountain, taking most of the short cuts on the way, and earlier than I expected, I reach a valley dotted with huge ferns. I am now above 3,000 metres, and reaching altitudes where no trees grow. Ahead of me, I see a waterfall coming down, and after cautiously negotiating the trail which at times is pretty muddy (I want to keep my feet and shoes dry as much as possible), I climb close to a big slab of rock where the water rushes down. Just a little higher, I already reach the first lake, Pinde, and drop my backpack on a wooden bench 1h45 after starting off the trailhead. This is such a wild landscape, so different from what I have seen before here, that my bad mood has already passed long before. It has been sunny so far, but thick clouds are looming over the mountains. I can see another waterfall above the lake. I eat some of the passion fruits, drink water, and enjoy the ever changing views. No one shows up, and I am getting a little cold; the best way to warm up is to walk more, so I decide to hike up to the second lake, a short climb. I cannot resist the temptation to take a dip in the lake; it is a short one, as the water is indeed ice cold. We are supposed to climb to the summit in the middle of the night, but I cannot resist the temptation to explore still a little higher up, which is supposed to be a very steep section. Indeed, making my way up the trail quickly takes me to around 4,000m, and I start feeling the effects of the altitude. I am now surrounded by clouds. For a moment, I consider pushing to the summit straightaway, but decide against it, mostly because there would be no views. Then, I hear John shouting from deep below. I descend, and spot several pieces of the wreck of a US military plane that crashed here in 1944 on a reconnaissance mission. I find John waiting at the second lake, and we walk back to camp, cook a simple meal, chat with some locals who are sleeping in a hut which is heated by a fire, and sleep early.
The sound of the alarm clock on my watch is just strong enough to wake me up at 1.30am. I dress up, wake up John, we eat some crackers and I put hot water in my bottle. Time to go. The bottom line from all I have read while preparing for this climb, is not to underestimate Mount Wilhelm, and although I feel well prepared, climbing in the dark makes me a little anxious. It directly turns out that the torch John has borrowed, is very weak, so he climbs ahead of me in the bright bundle of light coming from my headlight. I just hope the batteries will last for a couple of hours. Seeing a million bright stars in the sky above our heads makes me very happy - we will probably have good views at the summit. I recognize several sections from the day before, and we work our way up the steep section. When we pass my point of return from the previous day, I am on new terrain. Even though we are over 4,000m already, it takes a long time for us to go higher: the trail climbs and descends. We make regular stops to catch our breath and to eat some crackers. Then, we can see a very subtle change in the darkness of the sky: in the east, the blackness is slowly lifted, and after a while, we even see contours of mountains. We pass under an antenna with a red light, and then, the contours of the summit of Mount Wilhelm finally reveal themselves. The trail is not always clear here; John guides me to the base of the rocky lump sticking into the sky, and then, after a short scramble up the steep rocks, I reach the top. John has stayed down; with only thin socks to protect his hands, he probably prefers to protect himself from the cold wind which blows around the summit. It has taken us 3h10 to reach the summit.
The sun is still behind the horizon, so I sit down at the metal frame with the plaque indicating the summit of Mount Wilhelm at 4,509m, put on my last layer, a sweater, and just wait and see. Daylight is already providing me a view of the surrounding mountain ranges and the clouds which float in the sky far below me, above valleys that are still dark. Then, the first rays of sunlight reach the summit, and I realize that I am the first person in the country to see the sun rise. The clouds turn pink, the mountains are not black anymore, and I feel elated at seeing the bright orange ball rise above the horizon. There are clouds in the distance, so I cannot see the Bismarck Sea and the Coral Sea. After taking time to soak in the views, I make my way down the rocks, and only now, realize that they are partly covered by frost. I now see that tiny delicate plants are all covered with a thin layer of ice crystals as well. We walk down, taking our time to soak in the views, stop at the memorial plaque of Christopher Donnan, who disappeared here at the end of 1971. John then tells me about the other accidents that happend on Mount Wilhelm: an Israeli tourist stayed behind and fell down the mountain, another guy who managed to survive in a cage in which he was trapped, rescued, but still passed away, and another climber who had a heart attack near the summit. John wants to congratulate me for a successful climb, but I ask him to do so only after we make it safely back to Keglsugl. Then, I suddenly feel empty, and try to eat as much as possible. John did not take any water, and we only have a little left, making eating more difficult. The views are spectacular, especially when the twin lakes come into view, and we see all the peaks that I could not see the day before. When we reach the spot where the US military plane crashed, I hike up again, and to my surprise, most of the wreckage still lies scattered around the mountain. There are wings, parts of the body of the plane, and thousands of small pieces. The bodies have been recovered, but the rest of the plane still lies here after more than 70 years. When we make it back to the hut, we have some instant noodles, which give us enough energy to make it all the way back to the village. Walking the main street of Keglsugl, a strong feeling of pride comes over me: we have made it to the highest peak of Oceania!
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Mount Wilhelm (Papua New Guinea). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Mount Wilhelm.
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