Mount Wilhelm

Mount Wilhelm Trip Report (#13902)

These are my experiences of Mount Wilhelm taken from the book I am presently writing.

1967. With the Department of Lands, Surveys and Mines.

There was a major push on to complete a triangulation network in PNG and one of the hardest areas was through the highlands. It was a mountainous area, which ranged in elevation from 5000 feet in the valleys to the highest peaks at 15000 feet. I was asked to be an assistant to Jim Cavel who was head of the Geodetic Section in Port Moresby. It was a great experience and we spent six months travelling around in choppers. We covered most of the Bismark Ranges and down into the lower regions It was a huge area that covered many regions al the way from Kinantu in the east through to far west of Mendi and almost out as far as the Western District in Papua. Part of the survey bordered the Lower Jimi and Yuat River vicinities, which were largely unexplored and marked as uncontrolled territory on the maps we were using. We worked from ridge to ridge in choppers, setting up beacons and doing our triangulation. We were limited in the uncontrolled areas to only being able to select grass-covered ridges and hilltops to establish our control, as there was no known access into these areas by foot. We covered Mount Wilhelm, the highest mountain at 15000 feet and other mountains of similar height. Mount Wilhelm was a bit of a challenge because the chopper was unable to land on the summit. Instead, he dropped us off with all our heavy survey gear 300 feet below the summit and we had to carry everything to the top, do our survey and cart everything down again. It only takes a few steps carrying a 12volt battery before you run out of wind at that altitude, I can tell you. It took us three trips to get the gear up and the same to come down. But, each time I reached the summit I sat down and had a smoke and admired the view, much to Jim's disapproval of smoking. The view was awesome from the summit and we were fortunate to have clear weather I could see all the way to Madang to the north and beyond were Karkar and Bagabag Islands. Looking south I could see part of the Wahgi Valley 10000 feet below. The rest was jagged peaks all over the place with patches of snow here and there. We made three such flights to Mt. Wilhelm during the project and each time was just as impressive as the last.

1969 with my brother Andy

Andy arrived in Mt. Hagen a couple of weeks later and as I was still had some leave due it was an excellent period for us to get to know each other again. It was ten years since I waved goodbye to him at Hornsea Bridge Station. During that period we had lived in two very different worlds, he in his university hospital, Middle Earth Club and smoggy London and me shooting kangaroos and running around in the mountains of New Guinea. There must have been very few brothers in the world living in such varied circumstances. We decided to get to know each other again by doing a long walk that we would never forget. It took a lot of preparation and especially on Andy's part, as he was not used to jungle terrain and the altitude so he went through a training period of two weeks. He would walk up to the office with me in the mornings, at lunchtime and in the afternoon when we would inevitably take a minor detour to the Army Club and have a few beers. There were no rucksacks available to purchase, so we made our own from cloth with shoulder straps. We also incorporated into the design a head strap, which took some of the weight when ascending hills. Our route plan was to start from Mt. Hagen and go by car to the Gembogl turnoff on the highlands highway in the Chimbu District. From there it was all walking, all the way to Madang on the north coast. It was no ordinary stroll in the woods. We were to walk from our 5000 feet up to the summit on Mt. Wilhelm, at 15000 feet and eventually arrive at sea level. The estimated time was 10 days to two weeks.

So, all prepared we set off and before long it was good to see that Andy's training had paid off. We arranged a lift to Banz and then hitched a lift as far as the Gembogl turnoff. Then the walk began. We slowly ascended to the Gembogl road, a long windy road with very steep drops off the edge into the Chimbu River. We passed Pari village and walked on until dark and camped near the road after setting up our small tent fly. It was beginning to get cold at nights as we reached higher altitudes.

PHOTO Andy on the Gembogl road. The start of the walk.

The next day we followed the same road until we reached the Gembogl patrol post. The Kiap welcomed us and gave us a bed for the night. Next day he gave us a lift in his Land Rover as far as the Gembogl airstrip, which was at an altitude of 9000 feet and the highest airstrip in PNG. It was also the end of the road. It was pretty steep and damp underfoot as we started the true ascent of Mt. Wilhelm. This was a detour to our Madang walk, as we would eventually pass close to the airstrip again when descending the mountain. It was still quite early in the morning as we reached the edge of the tree line altitude at about 11000 feet. It changed dramatically into what looked like a prehistoric forest of large tree ferns, some of the up to fifteen feet high. Half way through the fern forest we heard a loud rumbling noise just ahead of us It was definitely a big landslide which had passed our route and very close too. We only walked a couple of minutes before we found the devastation that the landslide had made right across our path. A large gully had been gouged out by the rocks and mud, which must have passed at an alarming speed. If we had been two minutes ahead of ourselves we may have had a serious problem to contend with.

PHOTO Me in the gully gouged out on Mt. Wilhelm

We climbed through the new gully and continued through the fern forest until we reached what looked pleasantly like the North Yorkshire Moors. Rocks that were overgrown with vegetation very similar to heather as far as one could see. To add to this little piece of England, we came across a patch of wild strawberries, so we rested there and ate a few at an altitude of 12000 feet. There was a hut at 13000 feet that we reached in the afternoon and made camp. By now we were beginning to feel the oxygen shortage and our progress was slowing down slightly. We needed an early start next day to reach the summit and return to somewhere near the airstrip. Next morning, on awakening I noticed Andy's face was swollen due to the altitude and I could only assume that I looked similar. We set off to the ridge above the hut at 13500 feet and found the remains of an American bomber that must have crashed there during the war.

PHOTO Andy with our guide and the propeller

PHOTO Me above the lake where the rest of the plane went

There were bits all over the place and even pieces of old uniform still to be found. We assumed that he must have struck the ridge and exploded and most of the plane must have fallen down the steep drop into the small lake below. The only complete item we found was a propeller. We were now making the final assault on the summit with only 1500 feet to go. Andy was slowing down considerably and was counting how many steps he could take before passing out. Typical Doctor, I thought. The effort was well worth it as we slowly passed a few drifts of snow. We finally stood there and looked down through the clear morning sky at the long walk ahead of us to the north coast.

PHOTO View from the top of Mt. Wilhelm looking north towards Madang and the long walk ahead

It was not all down hill as there were several smaller ranges that lay in front of us. The rest of the day we spent descending Mt. Wilhelm in a southerly direction to 9000 feet near the airstrip and then climbing up again towards a pass through the Bismark Ranges that would take us to Bundi. Still far from the ridge, we made camp and I cooked the most fowl concoction, which from that day became known as the mess burger. This camp was at 11000 feet and very cold and wet. In the morning we made the ridge and met some highland traders who were camped there. It reminded me of the stories that Yaga had told me and I just wondered if this was the spot where he bartered for his steel axe. We arrived at the Bundi patrol post in the afternoon and spent an interesting evening with the Kiap who took us out to dinner to a very well established Catholic Mission. The Father had a good supply of beer and home made cigars, so we had a pleasant evening there. He also told us of his attempt to grow grapes for wine making. He had tried for years without success then one year he partially ring-barked one vine when it flowered and it grew grapes. He only ever managed to do this once.

Next day we were on our way again to the Usino patrol post, which was two days walk away. The Kiap managed to radio my friend Terry Hubbard to inform him of our approximate arrival time there. It was up and over another range where Andy encountered his first batch of leaches. At noon we reached the top of the ridge and also the edge of the jungle. Ahead of us was a very steep drop down to the grass plains of the village of Faita and the Ramu River. We could see all this from where we stood including another old American plane that had crashed far down below in the grasslands. This time the plane was intact. It was probably a 3000-foot decent to the Ramu and incredibly steep. Andy lost both his big toe nails due to the pressure on his toes going down hill in very wet conditions. The people of Faita were very different to what we had been used to in the highlands. They were thin and didn't look too healthy but never the less pleasant to get along with. It was not very often that they had white men visitors, so it was quite an occasion for them. Andy managed to practice his “doctorly” skills on a couple of children, which made everyone extremely happy.

PHOTO Camping for the night at Faita.

In the morning the people of Faita assisted us in getting across the Ramu River. It was a fairly swift flowing river and was in flood at the time we crossed and we had to walk, or tightrope may have been a better word, for what seemed like ages on submersed logs, which would have been a form of boardwalk in normal dry conditions. We boarded the canoe and set off in the usual diagonal direction of a landing place on the other side. With thanks all round we set off over quite flat ground for a change towards Usino. We met a couple of men who were cooking up a flying fox along the road. They invited us for lunch so we joined them for stewed flying fox and then continued to our destination.

PHOTO The Ramu River crossing

PHOTO . Andy with the flying fox that we had for lunch

Terry put us up and his house-proud wife spoilt us with good food. I could not believe that people could manage to transport a piano so far out in the jungle as this, but Terry's wife had demanded this, and it had been so. Terry proudly showed us all his projects on the patrol post including a half built airstrip. He had also found a use for old beer bottles that he had cemented into floors to extend the use of the cement. We stayed an extra day as we stank and needed our clothes washing according to Terry's wife. Our final leg of the walk was now in hand. The terrain was small hill after ridge after hill. And we had left behind the cool mountain air for heat and humidity. By late afternoon we had reached our final river crossing. As we were having a wash in the river we heard a familiar sound from somewhere over on the other side. It was a car travelling along a road. We were almost back into civilization again. We discussed whether we should make a dash for it and try and get a lift into Madang before dark but decided to camp the night and make a more leisurely approach the next day. After breakfast we packed up our camping gear for the last time and found a boat across the river. We certainly must have been near civilization because he charged us for the boat ride. A lift in the back of a truck by a man who thought we were mad, walking all the way from Mt. Hagen, and we were in Madang. Our long walk certainly had the right effect and we got to know each other again as brothers.

1972. With friends from Dillingham Corp. on the Highlands highway project.

Yet another accent was made with work mates from the Highlands highway project where I was employed as surveyor.

We departed from the construction camp one early Saturday morning and drove to the airstrip at Keglsugl. We climbed to the hut at 13500 feet and camped there for the night. Next morning we climbed to the summit and then descended to the car by noon. We returned to the construction camp by late afternoon.

These are my experiences regarding Mount Wilhelm.

Dave Stanford.

August. 2004.

Mount Wilhelm Trip Report Index