It was 2 AM in June when we started out in the black of night, a full array of stars over our heads. Our small headlamps lit the way. We began to climb steadily upward toward the black outline of a mountain ahead. Each step brought us close to our goal and higher up Mt Wilhelm. Periodically we had to stop to catch our breath in the depleted oxygen environment but not too long or our muscles began to cramp from the cold wind.
The day before we had driven from Kudjip for 3 hours to the base of Mt Wilhelm and hiked 2000 vertical feet to around 11,000 ft elevation to stay the night in a small cabin on an ice cold lake. Five out of eleven of us had decided to try and summit Mt. Wilhelm, which is 14,793 ft. It is the highest mountain in PNG. We arose at 1:30 and grabbed a quick bit to eat and got instructions from our guide. “Walk carefully. Don’t fall backwards, if you are going to fall, fall forward and toward your left. There are many places you can fall off a cliff on your right. Stay together.” With those sobering words we started out. As we climbed higher and the hill got steeper my legs began to burn. All we could see was the world illuminated by our head lights. Repeatedly there was a sense of emptiness to the right. At some point on the trip each of us reached a point of mental or physical exhaustion but with the help of our companions we found new reserves to climb ever higher.
Venus began its arc across the Southern sky. At around 5am a faint red glow appeared on the horizon This was the first time we could see how high we were and how steep the slope beside the trail. An ice cold wind began to blast as we skirted the mountains ridge line toward the summit. Full light set up in time to make the tricky last 1/2 mile. There were times, climbing over ledges with 45 degree drop offs, where my fear confronted my willpower but little by little we cleared the ridge line and began ascending the rocky shoot to the summit. Over giant boulders and up granite slopes and then over one last ledge and we were on top looking across the majesty of PNG.
The sun shining on our faces and the icy wind blasting our tired bodies. We stayed on top long enough for a few pictures and a quick look around and then the cold wind drove us off. The descent would reveal the full scope of how grueling our dark hike had been. It would take 9 hours round trip. As we had ascended we had briefly discussed why make such a hard, long climb with so little oxygen. Because it’s there and we wanted to see God’s creation.