13 A Mountain Too High
Those Himalayas of the mind
Are not so easily possessed
There's more than precipice and storm
Between you and your Everest.
- C. Day Lewis
At Kundiawa I boarded a bus for the town of Mt. Hagen, the transfer point for a bus towards Pungumu Village where my friend Kerowa awaited. The patchwork of gardens and tangled terrain of Chimbu Province gave way to the substantial, if less dramatic, hills of the Western Highlands Province.
We rolled into Mt. Hagen, a bustling frontier town and the largest settlement in the island's interior. Alongside the timber-planked trade stores were a few modern buildings, including a new bank where I changed traveler's checks into the local kina. I stood in line on the slick tile floor behind a barefoot man in the traditional attire of a wide belt, made from a hard but pliable tree bark, supporting a drape of woven string cloth in front and a pile of long leaves covering his backside. In polite Pidgin terms, these leaves are called arse-grass, from the Pidgin word arse, or “behind of.” Unofficially, it's an Australian corruption of “ass-grass.”
It looked bizarrely out of place: this man in stone-aged bush dress, depositing a stack of money into his bank account. His son waited outside in jeans and T-shirt in their new Japanese pickup truck, probably to return them to their coffee plantation. At least a few of these local landowners have enjoyed a new found wealth since the Australians were forced out. So many expats had left that, even in a big town like this, it was rare to see a white face these days.
As I walked through town seeking the bus terminal for points west, several ragged-looking tribesmen-turned-sidewalk-vendors followed me thrusting their wares in my face. I didn't particularly need a pig's tusk necklace but, thinking it would let me slip away without offending, I bought one. Instead, like the scent released after the sting of a killer bee, it had the effect of alerting every craftsman and panhandler in town that a cash-laden tourist had arrived for a good fleecing. They even followed me through the vegetable market and into stores, pressing around me so thickly with spears and stone axes thrust in my face that I could hardly move. I settled the matter by stepping into the post office and telling them to fill two large boxes of their wares, which I paid for and shipped on the spot back to my mother in Michigan. Months later, a postman struggled up to her door with bulging and ripped-open boxes containing enough artifacts to fit out several Highlanders in ceremonial dress and weaponry.
At the market I met a man named Ragowa and his son Kiap, who knew Kerowa and lived in the village near him. Ragowa was appointed by the government to be the magistrate of his village and empowered to settle local disputes. He named his son after the Australian Patrol Officers, who were highly respected by the natives for their tough fatherly image. The Australian Kiaps had been lords of the highlands, settling disputes, organizing labor to build roads, arresting lawbreakers and generally taming a savage land. I met their legacy in men named Kiap in every village I entered.
This particular Kiap owned a truck that he used for what the locals refer to as a PMV (Public Motor Vehicle). After loading with passengers and produce from the market, I joined them for the trip to Tambul, the stop nearest the roadless village of Pungumu. From the paved streets of Mt. Hagen, we bounced our way onto a rough track meandering up the mountains toward Tambul. As the altitude increased, the temperature decreased, until I was thankful to be riding in the warmth of the cab this trip. In the open back, the passengers huddled under blankets trying to find shelter from the chill wind and light rain. Some men walked along the road, nearly naked, as if impervious to the cold. Higher up, two men sat huddled over a tiny roadside fire they tended intently.
Our driver stopped for long discussions with every person he recognized along the road, which seemed to be just about everyone. Again and again we stopped while Ragowa and Kiap shared betel nut and stories with old friends. At one of these roadside meetings, Kiap became alarmed and ordered all the passenger's valuables hidden behind his seat in the locked cab. He had been warned of trouble ahead. “Plenti rascal come bombai” (rascals ahead), he said as he shoved the truck in gear and accelerated. Outlaws were raiding travelers ahead and we were heading straight into the fray since it was the only road going west.
We slowed down to pass around a late-model car recently abandoned on the edge of the road with its tires all flat and windows shattered. Around the next bend, sat a similar wreck. Just beyond it, some ten men stood in the center of the road with axes, machetes and clubs in hand. My pulse raced as we came to a stop. I looked behind and saw another group of men come out of the bush to surround us.
While Ragowa was conducting a long negotiation through his ever so slightly opened window, a few men boarded the back of the truck and shouted at some passengers. The hostility and undertone of violence in their voices shot back and forth like a gun fight. I understood nothing except that we could be hauled out of the truck and killed at any moment. At last, the men stepped back and let us through the barricade.
After catching my breath, I asked Ragowa why there were no police here to guard the road. He told me police could do nothing because the leader of that gang was, until yesterday, a member of the National Parliament. The other men were his constituents, or clansmen. Yesterday, he was ousted from his seat in parliament by a no-confidence vote instigated by a local opponent. Now he was taking revenge on anyone connected to the opposition's clan. Highland-style retribution, swift and severe. Fortunately for us, Ragowa convinced him no one in our truck was involved in their fight.
It was late in the day as we pulled up to Ragowa's village and unloaded the truck. I saw my name scratched on a wooden sign tacked onto a roadside tree. In barely legible Pidgin, it asked people to keep an eye out for me and direct me towards Kerowa's village. For me, it was as welcome as if I had stepped off a plane that had narrowly escaped hijacking to see a limo driver holding up a sign with my name on it. Good and dependable friend, that Kerowa.
We were met here by a lively group of children cheering and running in circles around us. Slightly annoyed, Ragowa picked up a spear and feigned throwing it at them, which scared the kids he took aim at, but only excited the others to more mischief. Some children wore pieces of grass tucked under little belts in imitation of their elders. Others wore nothing at all. Ragowa sent some of them running down the trail to alert Kerowa I was on my way. The rest of the group led me in the same direction at a slower pace. In fading daylight, Kerowa came running down a hill and greeted me with his firm handshake and huge smile. We were both delighted our long journeys had brought us together again.
Using my pen light, I followed Kerowa down a trail that he knew well enough to follow on the blackest of nights. I saw nothing beyond two steps in front of me. My muscles told me our trail wound up and down, always more up than down. We crossed and re-crossed a shallow river and stepped over rough wood fences and past dimly outlined huts.
We arrived at a hillside clearing where the village was partly illuminated by open hearth fires visible through the entryways of a circle of windowless thatched huts. On one side of the clearing stood a row of three huts, one for Kerowa's father, one his mother stayed in with the family piglets, and the newest hut I was to occupy with Kerowa and his brother. Like most other huts in this region, ours was no more than 12 feet across, dark, unventilated, and due to the lack of a chimney, stinking of smoke. The nightly fires in the open dirt hearth were the only way to ward off the cold mountain nights in a village without blankets. The smoke slowly filtered through the thatch, blackening walls, ceiling and lungs along the way. The best air was found by keeping your face as close as possible to the mat on the dirt floor. I thought of the contrast: someone this very minute is walking into a Holiday Inn somewhere and demanding a non-smoking room.
Some fifteen of Kerowa's wantoks (“one talk” means a clansman “of the same language”) followed us inside where we sat around the central fire. Kerowa made introductions in the flickering firelight. I felt like I was living the pages of some previous century anthropologist's diary, reaching across time with every hand I clasped.
As usual at every stop in the Highlands, I was asked to recount the events of my travels between here and Port Moresby and, by their questioning, I saw they wanted me to leave nothing out, no matter how inconsequential. Judging by the prolonged, quizzical, wide-eyed stares and the background chatter of people crowded outside the doorway, it was almost too strange for them to believe. In the eyes of my audience, I might have been a messenger from the world of dreams; a white man staying in their village! Why is he here? What will he do? Where are his clansmen? Something important must be happening!
I handed out some of the rice, flour, tinned milk, sugar and tins of tea I had bought at the trade store in Mt. Hagen. Eventually, the fire burned down to a pile of coals and ashes and the group moved on to their homes. I fell into a deep sleep, wrapped against the cold in my down sleeping bag. The only other blanket in the entire village was the one I had given Kerowa; he and his brother now lay under it together in unaccustomed comfort.
Roosters loudly announced the dawn long before it arrived. At sunrise, I stepped outside to find about fifty of Kerowa's wantoks gathered for an official welcome. Kerowa's brother was village spokesman for the day and he gave a long and eloquent speech. He droned on and on to the delight of the audience while Kerowa haltingly translated the plestok to me in Pidgin. By the time I mentally retranslated it to English, it was barely comprehensible. Oratory is a respected art form among these people and is performed for any reason at all, perhaps mostly to satisfy the speaker's desire to hear himself addressing a crowd.
When he finished, it was my turn to reply. Compared to Kerowa's brother, I was a big disappointment. With Kerowa interpreting, I thanked them for the welcome, praised their village, their gardens, the fat hogs, the strong women, whatever came to mind.
By prearrangement, Kerowa announced I would purchase some of their handicrafts. Gift exchange up here was not optional and people give according to their means. I anticipated the problems arising if the entire valley thought I was buying unlimited amounts of bilums and spears. So I gave Kerowa four hundred dollars in kina and told him to purchase the items that best represented his people's crafts, and to buy at least one item from everyone. Mainly, I was trying to avoid offending anyone.
I didn't really need these things though I did value them. It was not my desire to outwit them and plunder their possessions. The problem is you can't just hand out money for nothing. Do that and you lose their respect and they will expect a handout from every white man they ever see, eventually losing their own self-respect. This was the only practical way I could think to put some money into the local economy. It was also a good way to encourage pride in their culture. Seeing that others placed a value on their traditional crafts could encourage them to produce more and help pass the skills to the next generation.
It's hard to know when charity or trade does more harm than good. Everything a visitor does has a potential impact on local culture and health. For example, if you innocently pass out blankets to people who have lived without them and who don't see the need for frequent washing, they risk developing skin problems from insects, fungus and bacteria they otherwise would not have known when curled up nearly naked around the fire. The difficulty is in knowing the lasting effects of your choices – before you make them.
Kerowa collected an assortment of intricately carved bamboo arrows, wooden bows, ceremonial stone axes, woven armbands, kina shell necklaces and some items I couldn't readily identify. We later carried out four bundles, delivered them by truck to Mt. Hagen Post Office, where they were flown to Port Moresby, then shipped to Michigan via Australia. It was a five-month journey and not everything arrived intact. A longer postal route is hard to conceive.
At least one day a week, Kerowa and I traveled to his family's gardens on the high slopes above the village. A constant escort of children accompanied us along trails cut through gardens left to fallow. The children formed a single-file safari line in front and behind us. The ones ahead swung bush knives to clear the way, their arse-grass bouncing around as they walked. We stopped to watch a long-tailed bird of paradise floating across the valley on slowly pulsing wings, dragging a black-trimmed white scarf of a tail, until it faded into the green misty hillside.
We crossed the next river on a series of rocks as the rushing water plunged over a precipice and landed thundering at the valley floor. The children played a daring game of dancing on the slippery submerged rocks at the edge of the waterfall. I was anxious someone might be swept over the side but they were sure-footed and well-practiced. A woman crossed the river carrying a full bilum of sweet potatoes on her back. A string tied to her wrist ran down to the leg of a baby piglet struggling to keep its head above water as she pulled it along. She continued towards the village, the piglet now sliding along the muddy path at her heels.
We passed people in fields landscaping mounds of earth into sweet potato gardens. Once the potatoes were planted, the earthen mounds allowed for better drainage of rainwater. Kerowa stopped to admire one of the girls who had stopped work and was eyeing us shyly. “Em mari bilong me bombai” (she will be my wife later), he said. His parents had arranged for him to marry this girl. The bride price had not yet been settled and until it was, the couple was not allowed any contact with each other. Kerowa's tender expression towards her indicated he approved of his parents' decision, although the Western notion of love and the ridiculous notion of compatibility doesn't enter into the courtship at all.
Farther up the hills we harvested a bilum bag full of cabbages. Children brought us handfuls of red berries and sticks of a celery-like plant that we ate on the spot. A boy climbed a pandanus tree and chopped free a few coconut-sized karuka nuts. Another boy rapidly started a fire by using a vine to spin a stick on a block of wood. A friction-heated ember ignited a pile of dry grass and sticks and within minutes the karuka nuts were roasting on the fire. The baked nut tasted of a combination of coconut and sweet potato.
Walking through the forest above the gardens, I discovered a bird of paradise nest built on the ground. Constructed of tightly packed ferns and moss, the nest spanned the width of my arms. In its center, the birds erected a tower of interlocking twigs reaching above my head. I looked up as Kerowa let loose an arrow into the trees overhead. Seconds later a brightly colored bird fell in a slow pirouette to the ground. Stunned by the three-pronged arrow, it fell silently, but was now protesting loudly, as Kerowa held it up by its wingtips.
I recognized it as a King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, distinguished by two enormous feathers streaming back from the sides of its head to more than five times the length of its palm-size body. I wanted the bird released to add its colors to the sky but Kerowa preferred to see its colors in his headdress. To amuse me he did agree to keep the bird as a temporary pet and wove a bamboo cage for it. A few days later it died, either a result of physical trauma from the arrow or the loss of freedom that a wild creature needs. It was not a complete waste, for the two long checkered feathers ended up decorating Kerowa's headdress and his father made a bite-size meal of its tiny body.
In a section of dead forest above the village, a man axed down one of many lifeless trees. He carried the log over his shoulder back to the village. To cook their food and heat their hut at night, each family uses as much timber as one man can chop and carry in one trip up the hill each day. As I watched him at his work, my mind wandered back to the brisk autumn days I spent chopping firewood in the northern Michigan forests and bringing it home by the trailer full to heat our home through a long winter. It's a strange thing to dream of faraway places, only to find when I reach them, I am dreaming of home. The affliction of the dreamer, I suppose.
On the way back to the village, the boys sighted birds in the treetops high above us. With bow and arrows slung over their shoulders, four boys silently climbed four trees. They sat near the tops on branches and we quietly sat on the ground below. Even the birds went silent as they sensed danger. Most creatures of the forest sense your presence and quietly disappear before you see them. Others stand their ground, confidently defended by poison or with camouflage that mimics something inedible. To hunt successfully here, you must sit still in one place long enough that you become part of the forest.
On a silent signal four arrows let loose simultaneously. A blackbird dropped dead from the sky and another small meal was won by the hunters.
In the village, we unloaded our sacks of sweet potatoes, cabbages, karuka, miniature tomatoes and some guava-like fruit. When divided among so many people, aside from plenty of sweet potatoes, it was a meager supply. The gardens provide grudgingly here when they produce at all. The soil is tired in most places and the elevation too high for most crops. Bananas and other tropical fruits will not grow here at all. Neither does the continually cold climate allow for growing beans and their corn is pitifully stunted and sickly. In the lower valleys, tea and coffee are cash crops. The Pungumu sell nothing except for a sparse wildflower they collect and sell to an agent of a pharmaceutical company in Mt. Hagen for 50 cents a kilo. The total annual village income from this feather-light crop averages less than thirty dollars.
When crops fail during a year of too much or too little rain, the people survive on one meal per day of sweet potatoes and such wild plants as they can gather. The pigs are almost sacred to them and are only eaten at special ceremonies, resulting in hunger for much of the rest of the year. During the yearly sing-sing, about half of their pigs are killed and eaten in two days of frenzied feasting. By definition, a Highlander is either mentally and physically tough or he is quickly dying. Weak children don't survive to adulthood.
In the evenings, we visited in one or another crowded hut. Firelight stabbed at the darkness and flickered on the faces of storytellers. Kerowa's father was usually among us. He was typical of the men of the valley; medium height, thin and muscular with strong facial features. A curved pig's tusk pierced his nose. The only other clothing he possessed was a loin cloth and the arse-grass that covered his buttocks. As the rain drummed down outside he told stories of tribal wars, famines and cannibal feasts; a simple and severe life little-changed from his father's years when white men and the world outside were unimagined. Sometimes as he squatted on his heels he would play his bamboo flute, softly conjuring up a temporary tranquility. These are the typical sights and sounds I remember most when I think of the Pungumu living in their world primeval, where time passed over them with no more noticeable effect than the clouds passing overhead.
I was beginning to get comfortable here, feeling I was learning something valuable from my hosts and about myself, strengthening spirit and body, until….
Rambling down the trail one morning towards the river, a growing pain throbbed through my head, lodging behind my eyeballs and finally bringing me to my knees. Later that day, as the stabbing pain subsided, my limbs ached until I felt I had barely the energy to move. That night I sweated profusely while a quaking fever and chills racked me with uncontrollable spasms. Like an ocean tide, the fever swept over me in spells which started anew every six hours or so. Added to this, a raw throat and constant muscle aches kept me in a thoroughly miserable state. Was it malaria or something even worse? I had been above the malarial altitude for over two weeks and I was daily taking the recommended anti-malarial so I feared it must be something ominous.
The next day, I rested as best I could between hourly trips to the partially enclosed hole in the ground that served as our outhouse. Fluids were running out of my body from all directions. The daily dinner of a bowl filled high with sweet potatoes now revolted me. I could not eat but forced myself to drink two gallons of water each day to keep from dying quickly of dehydration. My kidneys were out of control and seemed to pour out twice as much water as I took in, no matter how much I drank. Then they started to shut down. The urine looked dark. I told myself it was not dark enough to indicate blackwater fever, which might give me only 24 hours to live. The fifty-odd steps from hut to outhouse became so much of a struggle that I made the trip on hands and knees when I thought no one was watching.
Another day and night of this hell passed and I wondered how long I could go on. An old, heavily tattooed man who served as shaman in the next village came to examine me. He looked long into my drawn face and yellowing eyes and announced I had malaria. I held up my medicine bottle and said, “Impossible.” He ignored me and the little plastic bottle of white man's magic I shook in his face.
He told Kerowa and his brother they must immerse me in the cold river nearby to reduce my fever. I was already shivering under my coat and blanket as close to the fire as I could wrap myself without going up in flames. When Kerowa translated their plan, I swore at him and told them all to go away. They stepped out. Minutes later they returned, picked me up and carried me to the river with me too weak to do more than futilely flail my arms, threaten, and curse them all.
After surviving the initial shock of the cold water the fight went out of me. They picked me up and laid me out on the grass next to the river to live or die. My fever had temporarily reduced and my brain began to think clearly again. We talked and agreed I must get to the hospital in Mt. Hagen. The soonest we could leave was the next morning at first light.
The sickness returned that afternoon and I spent a hideous night with the nightmares of my fever-inflamed brain. The smoke from the fire hung just above the floor, causing my eyes to water and my chest to ache. I had the urge, but not the strength, to cough. I vaguely remember Kerowa crying over me as he repeated prayers in Pidgin to Jesus and the white God not to let me die.
Later I awoke, not sure of where I was or who I was. Kerowa and his brother shared my blanket as they lay close on each side of me to keep me warm. At my feet sat the shaman, his face furrowed with lines like a weathered cliff. He droned out haunting melodious chants to the spirit world. I recall the coals of a dying fire casting a subdued red glow to the close walls of woven bamboo. I studied their tight pattern and then looked above to the low roof of kunai grass that seemed to press down on me. What is this? A panic swept over me that I was inside a shrinking coffin. I groped for the doorway and crawled outside to be engulfed in a welcome tide of open sky and clear air.
In the morning, seeing I was unexpectedly still alive, Kerowa smiled, though it was doubtful to all of us how long I would remain so. We began our long journey to Mt. Hagen with me trudging on grimly with rubbery knees, blurred vision and pinwheels of light flashing before my eyes. I took ten steps, rested, took ten more steps and rested again. As I grew weaker, Kerowa and his brother supported me with my arms flung over their shoulders. They pulled, dragged and carried me up the steepest parts of the trail. Descending the final steep section above the river, I slipped and slid face first down to the river's edge, dragging my companions with me. My mouth and eyes caked with mud, my friends picked me up and carried me the last few steps into Ragowa's village, where they propped me up against the outside of a hut as they went to flag down a truck on the road.
A bony and bent old man crouched on his heels and put an arm around me as I sat there shivering. It was Ragowa's father, a man who had been a warrior and tribal chief in his day. Now his frail and aged body marked him as being near the end of a hard life. We sat there like that, old man comforting a sick traveler, as a mother would a baby, until Kerowa returned with Kiap and his truck.
An eternity of body-shocking bumps ensued until I was carried feet first into Mt. Hagen Haus Sic (the “sick house,” or hospital). A blood test was quickly analyzed and a harried-looking Australian doctor came up to my gurney in the hall. “What is it doctor?” I asked.
“Another bloody bush adventurer, eh? You've got at least two strains of drug resistant malaria with a very low blood count and that fungal rash all over your lower body has gone into secondary infection,” he said as he poked a gloved finger around my groin. He then directed the nurse to wheel me into the critical condition ward.
The rash! In my brush with death I was beyond that kind of pain and I'd forgotten about it, until my mud-caked boots and pants were peeled off me. It was shocking to see that the jock itch and athlete's foot fungus that had bothered me for weeks had spread unchecked due to my low blood count and was consuming my flesh from my toes to my waist.
The doctor told Kerowa to return in three days, by which time I might be well enough to leave, if I wasn't dead. Then he turned me over to a couple of nurses who spent the next hour unsuccessfully trying to insert IV needles into my shrunken veins. They then gave me the first of several near lethal doses of quinine sulfate tablets to kill the malaria. That night my ears rang and buzzed from the effects of quinine. Behind my eyes hung a dull weight, like a heavy stone was lodged there. The fever continued coursing through my veins with alternating floods of fierce heat and icy cold. The battle of parasite and immune system and medications raged on.
I should have headed for the hospital on the first day of the attack. At least I survived. Not so fortunate was the girl in the bed next to mine. Sometime during the night she died, they said of the dreaded blackwater fever. Her mother stood next to her bed wailing her sorrow long after the tearful nurses had carried the little girl's limp body away. This room is where her spirit departed and this is where she cried out her lament. Don't think because of their rough ways that these people don't feel sorrow as strong as any of us. As preoccupied as we were with our own troubles, no one in our room who was capable of consciousness could help but to grieve with her. The girl could have been saved with one dollar's worth of timely medicine – that was something to cry about. I saw clearly that I had always lived in a privileged and sheltered environment. In this other world, life is short and seldom kind.
The next day, I suddenly broke out of the fever and into a drenching sweat that saturated my sheets but somehow felt refreshing compared to what I had been going through. From that point on, the medicine took effect and I slowly recovered. Now the soreness and incessant itching of my infected rash became unbearable. The nurses offered some ointments that gave only slight relief. It drove me near madness with desperation for a month longer until I saw a specialist in Port Moresby who pumped me full of antibiotics and a three-month course of antifungal griseofulvin that came in liver-straining tablets the size of horse pills.
On Sunday, an underemployed native priest visited the critical ward. He roared at us in Pidgin to repent our sins before it was too late. Up and down the aisle between our beds he stomped, pounding his bible against an open palm for effect. Occasionally he stopped, pointing an accusing finger at one of us, and blared, “Em samting bilong yu tasol” (This means you, brother)! Imprisoned in our beds as we were, he had us at a disadvantage. This man was an artful master, hitting us with the message that we had only ourselves to blame for our predicaments. His God was rightly punishing us and we must repent now while there was still a chance or face the well-stoked furnace of Hell. No one responded. Disgusted, he left no room for doubt as to our fate, then left us to it, mumbling about the futility of his job on the way out. I pictured myself getting up and punching him in the nose, then imagined he would have enjoyed beating me to death with his bible.
After the priest left, another man in our room gave his last rasping breath and died. The news reached his family in minutes and about fifteen of them burst into the room screaming and wailing. They continued for hours, refusing to let the nurses remove the body. I hid under my sheet, hoping to go unnoticed, and wishing this world of nightmares would go away. When the body was finally moved, they continued their ceremony just outside my window until daylight. The men kept up a steady rhythm of chants, while women shrieked horribly and pounded the walls until they dropped in exhaustion, allowing other women to take up the ghastly wailing. Nobody slept that night.
When Kerowa returned to the hospital after three days, I was as weak as a baby but on my feet again and more than ready to leave. We returned to Pungumu where I convalesced and took short walks around the valley. Soon I must leave the highlands to continue my voyage, but I first wanted to climb PNG's highest mountain, Mt. Wilhelm. Kerowa agreed to join me and when I felt strong enough, we left the village. As we walked down the trail to the road with our heavy packs, we were followed by most of the clan with women crying in the familiar highland's farewell.
A series of trucks took us to Mt. Hagen and back east along the Highlands Highway to Kundiawa, where we turned north to Keglsugl, a village at the base of Mt. Wilhelm. At Kundiawa the road ascended the awesome Chimbu gorge. For two hours we clung to our seats watching the canyon recede below. Black clouds enveloped us and barricades loomed out of the mist to signal road shoulders fallen away. The broken track of a road rose through the cloud deck where the village of Keglsugl lay shrouded in a cold mist. From there we slogged on foot along a muddy trail and into the equatorial high-altitude cloud forest.
Exhausted from the day's travel, we dropped our packs and set up camp at an alpine lake named Aunde. At 11,500 feet above the sea, the air was noticeably thinner and I was surprised how the damp, cold air sapped my energy and will to keep climbing. The next day, as we set out for the summit, my lungs heaved for oxygen and a pain in the front of my head pounded relentlessly. Kerowa was not looking his usual, healthy self either, and our progress was measured in short, deliberate steps. At just over 13,000 feet, we were halted by near freezing rain and risked losing the poorly marked path in zero visibility. I had underestimated how penetrating the cold was here, even within a few degrees of the equator.
We spent an uncomfortable night perched in bivy bags among the jagged rocks in befogged isolation. We had no camp stove and it was too wet to start a fire. Rain continued to fall darkly and leak through to my soul. The wind moaned as it gusted over the rocks, matching our outward desolation with our mood within.
A gray dawn brought no reprieve. We grimly held on, unable to go forward, unwilling to retreat. There was nothing to do but watch the rain settle into puddles in the rocks that overflowed and trickled into rivulets and flowed eventually to the lake below. I could imagine the lake waters overflowing into a river that brought the waters back to the sea where they evaporated and condensed into new clouds driven by the winds back up the same mountain to release and begin the cycle anew.
We retreated back to Lake Aunde that afternoon where we stayed three more days trying to recover our strength while awaiting better weather. Kerowa pointed to a valley far to the west of an anonymous fold of mountains where “the land is so terrible that men cannot live on it or even step on it.” I had heard of it before, a tortured mass of eroded limestone so sharp it was dubbed “broken bottle country.” People wandered in there and did not always return.
On the third morning, the skies cleared and we briefly saw our objective, the peak of the mountain that the Chimbu people call Enduwa Kombugu. Optimistically, we set out for the summit and were driven back, yet again, by heavy rains and the fatigue of my malaria-weakened body. I was trying to surmount my own limitations, as well as the menacing peak. I had grasped its flanks and couldn't bear to let go. Before I could give up, I demanded at least for this mountain to teach me something.
We were now out of food, my body was exhausted, and my spirits depressed. Cold, wet, hungry – I couldn't justify punishing Kerowa, or myself, with this madness any longer. Yes, I was sick of this cursed mountain and finally admitted it had beaten me. I had reached deep to summon both my resolve and strength and yet it was not enough. After five long days of battling the mountain, we turned to go home in defeat. Courage, it is said, lies somewhere between recklessness and cowardice. My lesson here: humility.