A New Year’s Eve Climb: From the Deepest Mine to the Highest Mountain

By Darren Talyaga

An Entry in the Award for Short Stories

It was the first day of January 2017, at exactly 7am in the morning that we finally reached the summit of Mt Wilhelm, PNG’s highest mountain. All was just as we had planned – to start off a great New Year 2017 from our country and the South Pacific’s highest peak, and it was the best feeling ever.

After a minute of hilarious photo shots on this the narrow peak, I congratulated my colleagues and team members. Greg Karol who had come all the way from Jiwaka free country, James Wambi who had taken a bus ride from the beautiful Tsaka Valley of Wapenamanda, and of course our local tour guides, JT John Thomas, Winman and Mark who also were so supportive on this epic climb of our lives.

With sheer exhaustion from the steep climb for seven straight hours since 1AM in the morning, we were all gasping for the thin air at this high elevation of 4509m. My gloves were wet from gripping onto shrubs and rocks along the rocky trek and I could feel my fingers burning through with the chilling cold mountain climate. I had to force the last of my fresh energy to give a shout out and look up at the signpost at the peak once again with a sigh of relief, and disbelief.

New Year’s resolutions and so many thoughts came to me all at once with the chilling strong wind that almost blew my coat’s hood off. I have to admit that I had felt like giving up just a few metres down. It was right there just below Christopher’s Memorial Site that I had come to understood why so many had given up and returned. So many things in life was hard also for me, nobody said it was going to be easy, not even this climb and soon I gave a tear. If I had given up, it would be an excuse on reason that I’d still make it to the top the next day after going down to rest at the base camp, or one day come to finish it, all prepared really well, if I would have a second chance.

I felt I was least prepared when my socks were getting damp within my low cut trekking shoes only on the first climb towards the plane crash site. But now at the mountain top, the two plastic bags I had worn over my socks still kept my warm within the dampness of my shoe.

Our camera’s battery was down as too many shots were taken on the first day with over excitement. Luckily, another team on the trip shared theirs and we later downloaded the photos, our evidence of the trip and the spectacular views that were never to be missed. I always thought that only a few well organised teams, mainly international tourists climbed this mountain, but I was fascinated to see so many locals. So many teams, from teenage students to working class, church goers and even solo trekkers came to take the challenge to climb Mt Wilhelm and for whatever reasons only they themselves would know.

The trek and the mountain is sacredly safe and anyone can go but at least with a guide. The local guides are very gentle and understanding and have a deep respect for their mountain. On our return, they voluntarily picked up trashes that were left by other trekkers. It was great to have walked this famous trek with them and others at that time.

Before we had actually started, I remember the gentle ‘ambai’ lady who had provided the best hospitality at the lake side cabin telling us “If you feel that you are tired and cannot go any further, please return for your own safety. Know that it is only a rock you’re going to see.”

And here now sitting at this rock mountain, not just any but Mt Wilhelm, the highest I’d ever got to, I looked around to see the horizon still covered in a white heavenly mist. We were up above the clouds and it was breathtaking. Working in PNG’s deepest underground Porgera mine at almost 600m below the surface, I was now here at the top of PNG’s highest peak, Mt Wilhelm. Wow! With a smile, I stooped down and picked up a piece of rock, a granite as is the peak, and gently put it inside my small bag. I was taking a piece of Mt Wilhelm home, literally, as my souvenir.

The next day on our way from the base camp JJ, Tekla Gembog, along a dirt road cut into along the slopes of the great Wara Simbu, our guides came along invited by our host, colleague and friend, James Thomas, who has always called the base of this giant mountain his tribal and childhood home. I looked at my guide Mark and told him “As a guide, I know it’s usual that you’ve take so many people to the top of Mt Wilhelm, but know that for each one, it is a very special trip in their life, thank you”

Soon we reached Kundiawa from where we departed and I left for home and my family with a tale and an experience to tell. It was an incredible journey and from this I had also learned some valuable lessons.

So many things happen in life when we are least prepared, a change even if have planned, but never give up, improvise, refocus, get going and complete it on the first run. There may never be a second chance as this. It is also true that you have to understand yourself, and go at your own pace and way knowing that you’ll still get there, whatever your goal is. I also realised that that the ones on the road, that same path (whatever path in life) are the ones you will turn to for what you need, seek and appreciate them. Finally but never the least, do one thing out of the ordinary, visit a place, do something new, take a souvenir and you’ll always have a tale to tell.

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