It is of a mountain expedition that I am going to speak, but so much time was occupied in reaching the mountain range that mountaineering in the proper sense of the word will occupy but a small part of what I have to say.
before the Alpine Club,
London, March 3, 1914.
A mystical mountain rises from the equatorial jungle of New Guinea. The mountain reveals itself infrequently; it is cloaked for all but a very few days each year by a thick gray mist to the south, and is guarded by a towering ridge of stone to the north. The natives living in the highlands to the northeast, the Dani, call it Dugundugu, which is also their word for ice. They believe the mountain offers strength through its ice, which is white, like the meat of their pigs. The natives living in the jungle south of the mountain, the Damal, call it Namangkawee, which means white arrow. They make their arrows from reeds with white blossoms, which appear to them like the crowns of snow on the mountain. The Indonesians, in whose territory, Irian Jaya, the mountain stands, call it Punjak Jaya, or "victory peak."
In Europe and America the mountain is called Carstensz Pyramid, after the Dutch explorer Jan Carstensz, who in 1623 descried it from his ship in the Arafura Sea. He returned to Holland to report that the mysterious mist which covered the interior of the island had parted one day, and far inland he had glimpsed "a very high mountain range in many places white with snow, which we thought a very singular sight, being so near the line equinoctial." His countrymen thought that Carstensz must have been mad.
Nearly three centuries later, in 1910, a British expedition set off in search of Carstensz Pyramid. In 15 months the party of 262, led by six explorers, inched 30 miles into the jungle from the southern coast—halfway there. Sixteen of the 146 porters died and many more were disabled by accidents, beri-beri and malaria. Upon his return, Wollaston, one of the expedition members, told the Alpine Club, "Even if we had spent twice that time in the country, I doubt if we should have come as far as the foot of the highest range." But he confirmed Carstensz' claim: a mountain of icy beauty does indeed rise from the island's perpetual mist, in fantastic contrast to the dark jungle around it.
March 2, 1981
Wollaston went back in 1912—"for my own peace of mind, if for no other reason"—leading an expedition that numbered 226. Like the first, it included a detachment of soldiers for protection. Said Wollaston, "I ought, perhaps, to explain that this apparently excessive number of men required for the transport of two Europeans for a comparatively short distance, and the subsequent huge bulk of supplies and gear, were made necessary by the nature of the country." For 92 days they trekked, stretching dwindling supplies and fighting diseases. Fog, rain, precipitous rock formations and a glacial ice field turned them back near the mountain's base.
Twenty-four years elapsed before the next assault. An 11-man party led by A.H. Colijn of the Netherlands hacked a trail from the southern coast to the mountain in four weeks, but failed in three attempts to reach its summit. But they had established contact with a mountain tribe, the Kapaukus. Wrote Colijn:
"They were all crowded together on the plateau, where they were dancing and yodelling like madmen, waving their bows and arrows, not knowing whether they should shoot or wait for us.... Suddenly they seized us and dragged us into their frenzied dance.... We screamed and danced with them like madmen, whirling our ice axes above our heads as they did with their bows and arrows. By this participation in their dance we captivated their hearts, however, and they then sat down beside us, fondling our hair and faces."
After World War II, missionaries, most of them American, came to New Guinea. Among other things, they built airstrips. In 1961 a party of climbers led by New Zealander Philip Temple landed on one of these strips, in the highlands northeast of Carstensz Pyramid, and trekked to the vicinity of the mountain in two weeks. They ran out of food while looking for a pass over the Noordwand, the 1,500-foot-high ridge that guards Carstensz Pyramid, and subsequently retreated, bitter and hungry. They had not even seen the mountain.
Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian climber who conquered the north wall of the Eiger in 1938 after eight men had died trying, went after Carstensz Pyramid in 1962. He recruited Temple; with air support and 115 porters they searched out a way over the Noordwand (which Harrer named New Zealand Pass) and climbed a western ridge route to the summit of Carstensz Pyramid. Its altitude: 16,023 feet.
It might be considered foolhardy, the way we came together to climb Carstensz Pyramid last summer. I had never set eyes on either of my climbing partners, Bob Shapiro and Geoff Tabin, before I landed in Jayapura, the only city in Irian Jaya, the western half of the island of New Guinea. The expedition was the dream of Shapiro, 25, of Chappaqua, N.Y., a biologist, who had just completed his second and final year at Oxford, where he had studied philosophy and psychology. Tabin, 24, a Chicagoan and Bob's friend and climbing partner, had graduated cum laude from Yale and had also studied at Oxford. They had met during their first week at Oxford, a university with a rich mountaineering heritage, and within a few days were climbing together on the sea cliffs of Cornwall. In January 1980 the two made the first free ascent of the Diamond Buttress on 17,040-foot Mount Kenya, which rises spectacularly from the east African plateau.
Before Oxford, Bob had attended Exeter and Penn, and he had hiked 800 miles of the Appalachian Trail. After his first term at Oxford he had hitchhiked more than 1,000 miles across the Sahara to Lagos, Nigeria, having made bets that he would be back in Oxford before classes resumed in five weeks. Geoff, a natural athlete, was captain of the Yale tennis team for two years. In March of last year he leaped off the Royal Gorge suspension bridge, 1,053 feet above the Arkansas River in Colorado, tethered by tripled strands of a 17-mm. bungee cord, for That's Incredible! This was virtually all I knew about my fellow climbers, although we had talked for hours on the phone making plans.
When Bob was 19 he had read an account in Ascent magazine of the second climb of Carstensz Pyramid's north face, a sheer 2,000-foot slab of grooved limestone. The north face lurked in the back of Bob's mind for five years. Then he met Geoff, and they spent a year planning this expedition. From numerous applications they received six grants: from The Mazamas, an alpine club in Portland, Ore.; the University of Oxford; The Drapers' Company, a charitable organization in London; the John R. Hudson Fund of the American Alpine Club; the Mount Everest Foundation; and the A.C. Irvine Travel Fund. Irvine was a young Oxford graduate who in 1924 had disappeared on Everest with George Mallory, then the star of the mountaineering world. They were last seen near the summit in fair weather, making good progress. Many mountaineering analysts (mostly British) believe they made it—29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary—and that some day their bodies will be found with cameras and preserved film, proving it. A trust fund was established in Irvine's name, and made available to Oxford undergraduates for "strenuous holidays," an expression that Bob, an Anglophile, was much taken with. It suited his understated attitude and personal approach toward the anticipated ascent of Carstensz Pyramid.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED had learned of the expedition while it was being planned, and asked me to volunteer, if I wished, and if it could be arranged. Bob and Geoff had just lost a prospective climber, a young Australian physician, to professional demands; so I was taken on. Being an enthusiastic, if casual, rock climber, adventuresome and in good shape, I believed I could reach the summit. So we became a team, to trek through the high jungle to the Western Snow Mountains of New Guinea and climb Carstensz Pyramid, the tallest peak between the Himalayas and the Andes.
Only Bob greeted me at the Jayapura airport on July 18. Geoff was in town trying to get permits for us to travel to Ilaga, a village 200 miles distant, where the 44-mile trek to Carstensz Pyramid would begin. The Indonesian government was careful about whom it allowed into the interior of Irian Jaya. Indonesia's control of the area had not been absolute. There had been outbreaks of armed natives seeking independence—some as recently as 1978—and the government was sensitive. For Ilaga we needed documents called surat jalans, or "walking papers." Bob and Geoff had spent five days in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, vainly chasing surat jalans. In Jayapura we were sent from office to office, from one official to another: the Indonesian police, the Irian Jaya police, the Jayapura police, the Indonesian army. Military Intelligence, Defense Intelligence; we were never sure who was interviewing us. At each office we were told to "please, sit down," and we eventually learned that that invitation spelled trouble. Officials repeatedly cautioned us about something euphemistically referred to as "accidents." One officer told of 10 climbers who had gone toward Carstensz Pyramid, split up, ventured into the jungle one by one, and had never come out. We doubted it. "Accidents" was never quite defined, because to define it might have raised questions about the uprisings.
And although we were armed with assorted endorsements, including letters of introduction from both the American and British embassies, to make us look as important as possible, the documents seemed to invite a Catch-22 proposition: if we were important enough to go to the interior of Irian Jaya, we were too important to be risked there.
A wiser expedition might have pursued the surat jalans more patiently. But Bob had been dreaming of Carstensz Pyramid for six years, Geoff can't sit still, and I had been single-mindedly running up hills and climbing in the rain for six weeks to get ready. We decided to go to Ilaga and take our chances.
Geoff had booked us passage into the jungle with Leroy Kelm, an American pilot serving with the Seventh-Day Adventist Mission and a member of the Missionary Air Fellowship, an organization of missionary bush pilots which provides the most efficient transportation system in Irian Jaya. There are no real roads except in the vicinity of Jayapura.
Leroy had silver muttonchop sideburns and a small empire. He had a hardworking, agreeable wife and a teen-age daughter with nowhere to go to get into trouble. He had a house with a sidewalk in front and a piano with an open hymnal on the music rack. He had his own hangar and airstrip out by his avocado trees. He went to work every day flying airplanes over the jungle, over areas not yet charted, sometimes visiting naked tribesmen from a Stone Age culture, and then he flew home to his family for supper.
"No way," Leroy said when we told him Ilaga was where we wanted to go. "All I've got is my Aero Commander, and the strip at Ilaga is too short for it. If you had been here a few months ago I could have taken you in. I had a smaller plane then. But half of it's out in the jungle now. I took off with too big a load and came back down about 100 yards past the end of the strip. We couldn't get all the pieces out."
Leroy could, however, fly us to Mulia, only a two-day trek from Ilaga. So we left it at that and had a spaghetti dinner at the Kelms', after which Geoff performed magic tricks and told the story of the Kowloon fortune.
He had been in Hong Kong on his way to China as a member of a Yale tour group, and had taken the ferry across the harbor to Kowloon. Near the landing there was a fortune-teller, and Geoff went into his tiny shop. He found a very old Chinese with a wispy goatee and two-inch-long nails on his little fingers. In telling Geoff's fortune, the old man threw Chinese coins and turtle shells on the floor. When they landed he made notations on a parchment scroll. Then he studied between Geoff's toes with a magnifying glass and made more notes on the scroll. Then he released a parrakeet, observed where it landed, and made another notation. When the old man was finished he told Geoff, in effect, that Geoff was the luckiest sonofabitch he had ever seen.
Geoff was "cheerfully oblivious to society's norms," as Bob put it; once, while serving during a Yale-Columbia tennis match, he responded to a heckler by mooning him, which immediately resulted in Geoff being made the favorite, even though Yale was playing at Columbia. His athletic ability extended well beyond climbing and tennis; for he was an aggressive skier as well. Geoff had reached the top levels of rock climbing in just two years, and as the quickest among us, would lead most of the climb on Carstensz Pyramid. But despite his intellectual credentials, it seemed to me there were some missing steps in Geoff's way of reasoning; his conclusions appeared out of kilter with the evidence, his arithmetic somehow off. I resolved to keep up my guard during the climb.
We slept that night in Kelm's hangar and at dawn we saw the oddest thing. Precisely in the direction of Carstensz Pyramid, a huge fan of pastel hues, an atmospheric phenomenon, extended high above a mountain into the gray sky. Bob said it was an omen that we would have good weather for the climb. The odds were heavy against that: previous expeditions to Carstensz Pyramid, nine of which had reached the summit, had reported miserable weather. While we weren't banking on Bob's premonition, neither were we discounting it. He had been climbing once and needed to wake up at 3 a.m., but had no alarm clock. In the middle of a dreamless night, a word flashed in neon lights before his eyes: INTUITION. He sat upright and turned a flashlight on his wristwatch. The second hand passed 12 at exactly 3 a.m.
Between Geoff's luck and Bob's intuition, we figured we had something extra going for us. I looked at the fan of colors in the direction of Carstensz Pyramid and wondered.
The next morning, barely after we lifted off from Kelm's private airstrip, Bob was already bouncing in his seat behind Leroy, patting him on the back, grinning, thanking him repeatedly for fulfilling his dream. "Boy, this is great, to actually be on our way after all this time," he kept saying as he bounced around. As we flew deeper into the country, we spotted an occasional village in the jungle below us, usually nestled in a valley, its rounded grass huts—called awis—looking like fat haystacks. There were tidy gardens on the hillsides, and wooden fences that drew neat patterns in the rich soil—forming pig corrals, as we learned later.
Sharon Kelm had told us that morning that her husband was quite taken with our adventure and had slept fitfully, he was so excited. We had been in the air only half an hour, flying toward Mulia, when Leroy said, "Oh, what the heck. Let's try to land this thing in Ilaga."
The flash of a tin roof announced Ilaga. The airstrip was on a plateau that ended suddenly at a drop-off, which was marked by a wooden fence pretending to be a protective barrier. The big Aero Commander approached the strip awkwardly. Geoff's eyes were glued to the windshield, and he looked as nervous as I would see him during the entire expedition. We touched down neatly enough, but we realized from the look on Leroy's face that something was wrong. The plane refused to slow; we were sliding in the mud as if on an icy highway. We slid a couple of hundred feet, with the drop at the end of the strip coming disconcertingly close at an alarming rate. The plane veered to the right, toward an embankment, then slid diagonally. Fortunately, the tires began sinking into the mud. It stopped with the tip of its left wing about 20 feet from the drop-off, which we could see over.
There was an explosion of relief and exhilaration in the cabin. Bob's euphoria was unrestrained now. After six years of dreaming, he was actually there. And we had come in with such style.
We had been jumping around the plane and grinning for only a couple of minutes when we heard yelps and howls in the thin air—Ilaga's altitude is 8,038 feet. Suddenly, a boy of about 10 appeared, running over a hill, whooping and whistling. He was naked except for some beads around his neck and his kabewak, a hollowed gourd sheathing his penis, the entire male dress of his people, the Western Dani. More boys followed him, running over the rise shouting "Hu! Hu! Hu!" and a couple of old men brought up the rear.
When the first boy reached us, Bob said "Kaonak" the Western Dani greeting that can mean "hello," "goodby," "good luck," "take care," any number of things.
"Kaonak" said the boy.
"Kaonak" said Geoff.
The boys and men began unloading our eight big packs. One small boy hefted a 65-pound duffel of freeze-dried food, while others took packs nearly as heavy. A group of boys began laughing at me as I talked into my tape recorder. As soon as they realized what it could do—possibly some of them had seen one before—they broke into song. They surrounded me, chanting and singing and whistling. Today, when I think of the expedition, I remember that moment more vividly than any other.
With the assistance of about two dozen natives, we pushed Leroy's plane out of the mud and pointed it back down the strip. He took off, made a U-turn in the sky and dipped his wings before disappearing over the green mountainous rim of the Ilaga Valley.
We knew there was a Protestant mission in Ilaga, and we were hoping the missionary could recruit porters for us. Bob stayed at the airstrip to watch the equipment, while Geoff and I headed toward the mission, trailed by an entourage of boys who chatted amusedly, the pauses between words filled by the pattering of bare feet in the mud.
At the missionary's, a two-story wooden house painted white and trimmed in dark green, the grass was being cut by a native wearing Bermuda shorts and pushing a Honda power mower. As if he had been expecting us, the gardener shut off the mower and wordlessly showed us to a shed where there was a radio. We flipped channels until we heard English-speaking voices—the missionary band. We were told the Ilaga missionary was on furlough in the States and would be for three more months. We therefore asked our entourage to take us to their chief, the chamat, whom I envisioned as an old, wise man, maybe even painted. A naive imagining. The natives led us to a tin-roofed shack with a porch, and I knew we were exactly where we didn't want to be: at an Indonesian government outpost. Chamat meant chief, all right, military chief. We were in Ilaga illegally and calling on the law. "Please, sit down," a soldier said as we entered the shack.
We sat down in chairs against the wall; two of the chamat's aides sat down in chairs opposite us. Through a dirty window we could see a small building, like a barracks, in front of which were about a dozen milling soldiers, chickens at their feet and M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders. One of the military aides told us there were 46 of them. For a long time that was all anyone said.
Then the chamat came into the room. He was young, no more than 30, lean and unsmiling, wearing civilian clothes. He looked shrewd, and he looked suspicious. Though he spoke English as well as his subordinates, he only addressed us through them. He wanted to know what we were doing in Ilaga.
We explained our plan to climb Carstensz Pyramid. We smiled a lot and tried to pretend nothing was wrong. We asked him how we might hire porters.
The chamat told us something was wrong: our surat jalans. Because we did not have the proper credentials, he would have to detain us until he spoke by radio to his commandant in another village. After a couple of hours, he released us, but only to bring Bob, who was still at the airstrip, and the equipment back to his shack.
It was nearly dark by the time we returned to the outpost. The chamat informed us that the commandant had given permission for us to go to Carstensz Pyramid; we could scarcely believe it. All we had to do was write and sign what he called "the promise"—a waiver holding the Indonesian government blameless should we meet with an accident. We quickly agreed, copying verbatim—imperfect English and all—the "promise" of a Belgian expedition that had passed the outpost earlier.
But we still had a problem: the chamat demanded possession of our passports while we were off climbing. He kept asking for them, and we kept stalling. We had no intention of returning to Ilaga after the climb, but we couldn't tell the chamat that, for that would reveal we were headed toward yet another village for which we had no surat jalans. We knew that just one day's trek from Carstensz Pyramid was a village called Tembagapura, which was near an American copper mine. We planned to exit from there, although from the beginning we had gotten strange vibrations about Tembagapura. The Indonesians wouldn't discuss it, let alone grant surat jalans to the place. It was as if the mine were some kind of secret.
We weren't trying to be underhanded; it was a practical matter: after climbing on Carstensz Pyramid, whether we succeeded in reaching the summit or failed, we didn't think we would have enough food to trek back to Ilaga. Our plan was to travel light and fast. A return trek would mean we would have to cut nearly a week out of our 12-day climbing schedule, which would considerably reduce the chances for success. Time would be squeezed so tightly that any bad weather would probably keep us from the summit.
Despite our worry over the passports, we were buoyed as we spread our gear on the floor of the chamat's shack and divided it into 15 packs of roughly 22 pounds each. The chamat conferred in the corner with Aner, a man of about 40 years wearing a filthy red shirt and Bermuda shorts, who would be our chief porter. Natives hovered on the porch and peered in the window. Once when I looked up from my packing, I saw the grizzled face of an old man. He was wearing a dirty hat pulled over his ears and had one milky eye, and he stared in from the darkness with such plaintive curiosity that he made me want to turn our packing into an open house.
The chamat acted as the porters' agent. He set their wages at 800 rupiah ($1.28) per man per day. We feared a large part of that would be the chamat's commission, but he permitted us no direct communication with the porters regarding their salary. We wondered where they spent their money; we later found out that the mission operates a store.
The idea was to get out of Ilaga with our porters and our passports. I spent most of the night in my sleeping bag scheming, to the accompaniment of the chamat and his aides playing cards under a harsh kerosene lamp in the next room. It was the last night of the sacred month of Ramadan, during which Moslems are permitted no food or drink by day.
Our hosts eventually did go to bed. It was still dark when I heard Bob stir, and I explained my plan. I would sneak out before dawn and go back to the mission. The chamat would miss me as soon as he awakened, of course, and Bob would tell him I had gone to use the mission radio to charter a flight out of Ilaga two weeks hence, and I must have inadvertently taken the passports. Then the hard part: Bob would have to talk the chamat into letting the expedition proceed by assuring him we would send the passports back with a runner. It seemed a reasonable risk. With reservations, Bob agreed.
I sneaked off in the predawn mist and spent the morning at the mission, relieving the suspense by playing with the tape recorder with the natives. A boy would stand up and introduce himself and a song he was going to sing, and others would join him in singing it. One young man stepped forward and announced, "I song." He gestured to the tape recorder and to his mouth to make sure I got it. He stood erect and sang proudly into the recorder:
Everybody ought to know,
Everybody ought to know,
Everybody ought to know
Who Jesus is.
Neither Bob nor I had been terribly optimistic about the departure scheme, so we grinned hugely at each other when I looked up and saw him leading a long file of porters carrying our equipment on their heads. Geoff, walking beside Bob, was the first to speak. "All right!" he shouted jubilantly. "Now let's get out of here!"
The caravan that followed Bob and Geoff numbered considerably more than 12 porters, which was how many we thought we had hired. Bob and Geoff happily explained that our abundance of help was the fruit of Dani enthusiasm, and that the problem had not been procuring labor but turning it down. The expedition had grown from its first step away from the outpost; the load was already spread among a score or more. For a moment I thought the trek might be cheapened if we didn't carry our own packs. Then I kind of liked the idea.
We hiked along like a Fourth of July parade, attracting older men who walked with us, chatting with the porters they knew. Three women carried potatoes in their yums—net bags woven from fiber made from reeds and decorated with bright orchid stems. The yums hung from their heads down over their shoulders and served to drape their backs, which modesty prompts them to keep covered. Twenty-five pounds of potatoes—or maybe a baby wrapped in leaves—could be carried in a large yum. The women took smooth, purposeful strides; they seemed to glide over the pig fences we clambered across. As we went, the porters gathered potatoes for the journey, usually handed from one woman to another over a garden fence. We passed a government school, and children streamed out, scores of them, laughing and shouting. I spotted a little boy of about six, who wore only a tiny kabewak. He was the only one with no beads, so I gave him a small charm necklace a friend had given me for luck. The necklace charmed him; his smile charmed me. The children surrounded us and sang to us. As we moved on, they continued singing. Their parting song was the most beautiful. They sang it in Indonesian. It was Bringing in the Sheaves.
SAM: PLEASE GIVE THE BEARER OF THIS NOTE OUR PASSPORTS. BOB.
That morning, when I hadn't returned from the mission, the chamat had sent a runner with the note from Bob. He had just caught up with us.
We were four hours out of Ilaga, which gave us a good lead on the chamat and his 46 soldiers; it was tempting just to take the passports and run. But we didn't know how the chamat might react. Would he send his troops after us? Could we get to the jungle by nightfall? Was it true that Indonesian soldiers are afraid of "accidents" in the jungle at night? Could the chamat radio Tembagapura and arrange for our arrest?
After discussing it for half an hour, we reduced the argument to a simple proposition: relinquishing the passports would not keep us off the summit of Carstensz Pyramid, but holding them might. We gave the passports to the runner.
That settled, we continued, snaking up a slippery hill toward the rain forest. We had lost many of the surplus carriers (including the older women); they had just seen us to the end of the Ilaga Valley. The final number settled at 16: 13 young men, two teen-age girls and one boy of about 12. The boy led the train, carrying 15 pounds of potatoes in a yum hanging from his head. Then came Geoff, in blue boxer trunks, a preppie gray wool crewneck sweater and galoshes, a yum full of potatoes hanging down his back. He was followed by a native called Yoni.
Yoni had the athletic grace of Lynn Swann. He was tall for a Dani, about 5'9", with broad, lean shoulders and a wedge-shaped torso, and weighed about 150 pounds. Like those of all the Dani, his feet were broad and tough; over the next few days we would watch him turn hot coals and walk over jagged rocks with them. His toes gripped the muddy trail like thick fingers. On his head. Yoni balanced a bulging duffel bag of freeze-dried food weighing 30 pounds, our heaviest pack. From his forehead he carried a yum with another 25 pounds of potatoes. I followed him on the trail, awestruck at the way he walked quickly along slippery logs, losing neither his balance nor his rhythm.
"Nawok!" shouted Yoni, leading us three tuans—white men—along a dark, serpentine trail in the rain forest. Rays of sun shone through the roof of the forest, drawing stripes and shadows on the vines; it was as if giant Venetian blinds hung from the trees.
"Let's go!" we shouted back to Yoni, translating his "nawok."
"Lez go!" shouted Yoni.
"Nawok!" we shouted back, our spirits lifted by him.
We continued for more than a mile like that, exchanging cries of encouragement with the porters, some of whom had brought other Dani words into the game.
The most efficient way to move through the mucky jungle was along the tops of logs. Some of them had fallen to make a natural trail, while others had been chopped to make a trail. They were all wickedly slimy, angling their way through trees and vines and ferns growing from the marshy ground, and crossing roaring tributaries and deep dark gorges only a troll could love.
Geoff would amble blithely and eagerly onto even the slimiest log; it wouldn't have surprised me if he had taken off his galoshes and gone barefoot, like the Dani, just for fun. Bob was cautious; he wouldn't cross a risky log unless there was no way under or around it. I took most of the logs as personal tests.
They weren't really tests of balance and courage, and it wasn't ego; if I saw a log I felt I couldn't cross, I wasn't reluctant to look for a way around it. What would bother me would be to turn away from one I could have crossed. The test was in knowing where the line was.
My preparation for the expedition had been not only physical—the six solid weeks of climbing and running, mostly uphill—but also what amounted to a crash course in mountaineering. For the "dress rehearsal." my trainer. Ronald Sacks of New Paltz, N. Y., an experienced mountaineer who in 1979 had spent 32 days on the face of 5,000-foot Mount Thor on Baffin Island in an unsuccessful attempt to scale it, waited for a rainy day and chose a face route on Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire. "The idea is to attempt the most intimidating mountain you think you can climb," Ron had said before we started. I had been trying not to be intimidated by the climb (which would go well), but the thought of that statement as a blueprint for life gave me butterflies.
The logs were mountains, and my attitude toward them was consistent with the challenge of climbing. It's simply a matter of fulfilling your potential, without overstepping it.
Which is why I was thinking about what I would do if I started falling off a log. So much that it was almost inevitable that I would fall. When my foot began to slip, I knew it would be a fall, but I thought I could catch myself on the log. But it was so slimy my hands slipped over its sides; I hugged and squeezed it with my legs, and spun upside down, 10 feet above the ground. For just a moment I hung there like a possum, then I dropped off and fell, looking up at the log as if it were being yanked away. As I was falling I heard cries of alarm ring from the porters: "Woo! Woo! Woo!" I landed with a thud on my back, coming to earth on the soft bank of a small stream, and bounced up unhurt.
The Dani believe that whenever a person slips on a trail, he has been pushed by a ghost. My quick rebound from such a nasty-looking fall seemed to stun them; they looked at me strangely when I got up smiling. I like to think that they believed I had taken a hard shot from the ghosts and come back defiant.
The nearest porters approached me with sympathetic expressions. Each offered his hand and a soft "kaonak." I was surprised, and touched, by their concern. "We're glad you're still with us," they seemed to be saying.
They didn't really treat me any differently after that incident, however; they probably quickly forgot it. In any event, any spirituality I may have acquired that day was stripped away a day later when I began vomiting along the trail from altitude illness.
Our first camp was deep in the high jungle, the altitude near 9,000 feet. We had flown over the low jungle, the real jungle, so there were no leeches or pythons or mosquitoes the size of storks, but it was very dark and thick. The porters chopped down a 40-foot pandanus tree after arguing so riotously over which direction it should fall that we were all laughing. They needed wood for a fire and to rebuild their kanangda, a shelter along the trail, this one a rundown A-frame, infrequently used. After replacing the missing slats with strips cut from the pandanus, they patched the gaping holes in the thatched roof with pandanus leaves, which they also wove into sleeping mats after softening them by whisking them through the campfire.
Bob, Geoff and I ate a freeze-dried supper, an excellent Mountain House vegetable stew, and looked out of our tent into the night and the kanangda. The porters had spread ferns around the fire, and all 16 of them nestled around it. Aner invited us in. We squeezed into the hut, coughing and groping in the thick smoke, and they made room for us near the fire.
We thought it would be a good time for introductions. Bob began, presenting himself, then Geoff, then me. The porters picked up on this game immediately, and, smiling, moving around the kanangda, recited their names in turn: Aner, Yoni, Wunduwi, Martinus, Pilippus, Sepanus.... Then they sang for us, gentle chants with a chorus, each song preceded by a grandiose introduction. Bob took the stage and told them we were going to sing a spiritual of the American South, and we warbled a horrendous rendition of Amazing Grace. Aner said a prayer and then we went back to our tent for bed.
I woke up when a hard rain tapered to a patter. It was almost 4:30. From behind the tent came the pre-dawn sounds of the jungle—a rushing stream, the caws and bips of tropical birds. I rolled over on my stomach and peeked through the net doorway of our tent, across the darkness to the kanangda. White smoke rose through the thatched roof and drifted up into the dark sky. The fire flickered, silhouetting the hunched bodies of three or four porters as they squatted, staring into it. I could hear low chanting and the gentle giggling of the girls.
That morning Geoff and I felt good enough to shout, but Bob rose with the flu. We stuffed vitamins down his throat and lozenges into his pockets, but he was beyond stuffing. The porters could see something was wrong with him. Bob groaned for them, waving his hands obscurely over his body. Martinus looked at him in an almost fatherly way.
Martinus was a handsome man, with a full black beard and a charming smile. He had a hairy chest, which for most of the trek was covered by Geoff's crew neck. In a small pouch he carried his valuables—rupiah notes, cowrie shells (which once served as currency among Dani) and his worn ayak, which he was especially proud of.
Like those of most male Dani, Martinus' septum was pierced. The worn ayak is a battle ornament of boar tusks worn through the nose. The tusks are flattened by painstaking scraping, then tied together end to end. Martinus liked to show off his worn ayak; he would carefully take it from the pouch, slip it into his nose, adjust it, and pose with his chest thrust out, grinning vainly. He would first twist the tusks of the worn ayak up, making it curve like a handlebar mustache, then down, making it droop like a Fu Manchu.
Aner had a worn ayak as well, which Geoff admired as much as Aner admired Geoff's necktie, so they traded. The tie was an Oxford Dangerous Sports Society four-in-hand, black with a wheelchair emblem. Aner's worn ayak was unfinished when they traded, so he spent his spare time during the expedition scraping the tusks. Somehow it didn't seem fitting for our chief porter to be laboring so grimly for a necktie. It was like seeing your favorite grade-school teacher pumping gas as a second job.
Bob was sitting on a rock holding his head in his hands, and Martinus came over and put a hand on Bob's forehead. The porters bowed as Martinus prayed for Bob's recovery.
Martinus was a pastor. The Ilaga mission had sent him away to a Bible school in another village for three years. Martinus' clan name was Kogoya. Martinus was the Christian name he had taken when baptized.
Later in the trek, Martinus would spear a bat and roast it in the coals, then break it into little pieces and pass the morsels around the fire to the other porters. The next day he would do the same with a bright green parrot, which had a delicate taste. The bat we didn't sample.
Bob was not encouraged by the first mile of our second day out, which was consistently steep. After 35 minutes Aner halted the expedition for a rest, but Bob grimly trudged on for another half-hour, moving weakly but keeping pace by not resting. I could barely believe it; I couldn't imagine pushing that hard with the flu. He paused once on the top of a hill and stood there looking near death.
By midafternoon the weather was as gloomy as Bob was. The mist had turned to rain, then to hail, then to sleet as we climbed higher. It was the equatorial mountain precipitation pattern we would experience from this point on: consistently rotten. Cold drizzle most afternoons, harder rain at night, maybe clear in the morning. Annual rainfall: 132 inches.
Most of the porters were still naked; I imagined myself standing naked on the Niagara Falls observation deck in early November, and shivered. Aner stopped us when the rain turned to sleet. He lit a fire and we stood three-deep around it. In front of me were the goosebump-covered shoulders of the porter Wunduwi, a forlorn look in his eyes.
As the day wore on, the party pulled away from Bob and me as we brought up the rear about 200 yards behind the rest. I had slowed my pace to keep Bob company, but I was moving no slower than I wanted to; I welcomed the excuse to ease off. We were both relieved when the second night's kanangda appeared, even if it was on top of a 200-foot hill. Geoff was cheerfully waiting for us there. When we reached the kanangda, Bob and I collapsed on the ground outside and lay there in the drizzle.
The morning was as cold as it was clear, and the porters were slow leaving camp. The porter Sam wanted all my clothes. Early in the trek he had discovered my yellow raincoat, and he had become attached to it, rain or shine. It conveniently unzipped from the bottom, which allowed room for his long kabewak. But during the previous afternoon's hail I had reclaimed it, trading him an umbrella and a turtleneck. And when he skinned his toe on a rock, he borrowed my sneakers—though I marveled that he ever got them on. Sam had got his name when I introduced myself. "Sam," I said, pointing to my chest. "Sam," he said, pointing to his chest.
On the trek Sam carried a machete on his shoulder wherever he went. In the rain forest he once came running excitedly down the trail and flung the machete at a rat in a tree, but missed, and was disappointed at not bagging dinner.
Dealing with the porters' discomforts was difficult; it was easy to give them aspirin and rub their sore shoulders with ointment, but we were in a moral bind when it came to their warmth. More than once we watched a porter trudge along, naked and miserable in the rain, carrying our warm, dry clothes on his back. But if we were to give up a warm jacket and it got wet, we wouldn't have it when it was needed. We might get sick and risk the climb. We owed it to the expedition to ensure our own health and comfort. Still, we often felt guilty.
While we were hoarding our clothing, the porters were exhibiting nothing but generosity, toward each other as well as us. The night we packed in the chamat's shack we had made sure the 12 packs weighed the same. But none of the porters seemed to care if his pack was heavy or light; when one porter got tired, another would take some of his load; if one straggled, another would go back for him. One misty morning, very early, I noticed Martinus discreetly testing the weights of the packs as they lay around the camp, but I doubt that he was motivated by any attempt to make his trek more comfortable at the expense of his brothers.
Martinus certainly never showed any reluctance to shoulder a burden, which he proved when we were crossing a Whitewater tributary that guaranteed wet legs. Geoff had gotten soaked leaping the narrowest but deepest part. Bob had gotten soaked wading through the widest but shallowest part. I was standing on the near bank planning my attack. Martinus stepped into the rushing water, which came up to his thighs, and gestured for me to step off the bank onto his shoulders, which I did. He carried me across the river, using a staff to steady himself.
The survival of Bob, Geoff and me depended entirely on things made and done for us. Our clothes came out of packs, we slept in Poly-Fil and nylon, and our food came from laboratories. The porters' chief garment was a pandanus mat folded into a parka. They slept naked around a fire in a grass hut. They ate nothing but potatoes and the occasional bat or rat or bird; sometimes they chewed on ferns. Yet they never seriously coveted our possessions—Sam notwithstanding—and were eager to share their own. Their kanangdas were open to us; our tents were too small for visitors. We warmed ourselves by their fire, while we had only a small kerosene stove to offer. They fed us their potatoes; we offered them only infrequent nibbles of our turkey Tetrazzini.
They were so gentle and generous it was difficult to comprehend that until the '60s their society had been based on warfare. The warring had vague causes, among them to placate ghosts. Warriors from neighborhoods only a few miles apart would periodically square off on a battleground and throw spears and shoot arrows and shout insults at each other, often personal insults, because they frequently knew each other. Women would watch from hillsides, glancing over their shoulders as they tended their potato gardens. Wars were called off if it began raining. There was rarely any hand-to-hand fighting, never any claimed territory. Warriors sometimes cooked and ate a fallen enemy as a gesture of contempt, but cannibalism was not a common practice. Score was only loosely kept; a balanced slate wasn't necessarily needed to satisfy the ghosts. Sometimes no one got killed, sometimes one, rarely more.
In the last 15 years, the ghosts have lost a lot of their influence to soldiers and missionaries. The Dutch began to pacify the Dani in the late '50s, with some success. But after the Dutch lost Irian Jaya to Indonesia in 1963, pacification measures were intensified as government outposts in the jungle were expanded. (The Ilaga military outpost was established in 1977.)
It is curious how easily most Dani accepted pacification, almost with the same casual indifference with which they fought their wars. Robert Gardner and Karl Heider, members of the first American anthropological team to study the Dani, the 1961 Harvard-Peabody Expedition, wrote an eloquent book about them, called Gardens of War. Gardner, who organized the expedition, and Heider closed their book with these words: "Without [war] the culture would be entirely different; indeed, perhaps it could not find sufficient means to survive except parasitically as the novelty of missionaries or policemen."
At the moment our own survival was a more immediate concern. We had covered but 12 of the 44 miles to the base of Carstensz Pyramid; Bob was sick, our porters were suffering from the cold—and as rain followed mist and mist enveloped us again, we had yet to gain the first glimpse of our high, elusive goal.
Area of Detail
Slogging through sinkholes, across razor-sharp rocks and around glaciers, the expedition reaches Carstensz Pyramid to begin its assault.