Mount Wilhelm: into the clouds


Marisa Howden tackles a tough ascent on Papua New Guinea’s highest peak, Mount Wilhelm.

As we make our way up from Betty’s Lodge at 2800 metres to base camp at 3550 metres, the scenery changes from lush forests to open valleys with picturesque views of the mountainous Chimbu Province.

We listen attentively as our lead guide, Paul, points out the sound of a bird of paradise. Paul tells us he has summited Mount Wilhelm more than 500 times, which invokes some confidence as I push towards base camp.

There are four rest stops along the way, and it takes a bit over three hours to get there, where a stunning sunset over Lake Aunde meets us. It’s a strenuous hike through moss forests, across alpine grasslands and up muddy waterfalls, but well worth it for the beautiful scenery.

Don’t underestimate the effects of altitude. Several people in our group are struck down immediately and can only make it this far. If time is on your side, consider a night at Betty’s Lodge before the trek to help acclimatise.

An old university monitoring station serves as our accommodation for the evening, which includes a gas burner and a drop toilet. We repack our bags, load up on carbohydrates for dinner and go to bed early.

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Summit attempt

We wake just before 1am, the early morning chill gnawing at our limbs as we gear up. Layered in thermals and heavy jackets, with our head torches shining bright, we set off at 1.30am, hopeful to reach the summit for sunrise.

The trek starts moderately as we make our way up beside a waterfall that connects Mount Wilhelm’s top and bottom lakes. The terrain is muddy and the sound of the water whooshing past is a little scary.

‘At some points, I am on my hands and knees, using all of my strength to pull me up sheer granite surfaces.’

Our guides lead us past the top lake (not that we know it’s there as our head torches offer the only light). We break, fuelling up on muesli bars and bananas as we strip back layers, the pace of the hike serving as a warming agent.

We continue on, and begin to spread out as our fitness levels begin to show. I’m in the middle with my guide, who holds my hand up every rocky step, ensuring my footing is correct, especially up the nearly vertical rock walls we begin to face.

My heart accelerates each time we come across these steep faces, as I try not to think of all the wrong ways this could go. At some points, I am on my hands and knees, using all of my strength to pull me up sheer granite surfaces.

We take another break, this time on the side of a grassy cliff. I’m panting, my heart trying to keep up with my lungs, the piercing pain of climbing at altitude constricting every breath. I hadn’t noticed at first, but the weather has turned as an icy wind whips across the mountain.

I layer back up, this time with every single piece of clothing I have brought. But even with a beanie, neck warmer, hooded ski jacket and two pairs of gloves, I’m still freezing, wind and sleet thrashing at my face. So we keep moving, my only reassuring thought that we’re going to be at the summit soon.

We make our way through another tricky bit, climbing up with our hands. My nerves really start to come into play, the thought of falling and leaving my children without a mother debilitating.

We pause halfway up a very arduous bit and I check the time – 5.30am, less than an hour until sunrise, less than an hour to go. But for some reason I ask my guide, ‘How much longer?’ and I am met with the worst possible answer.

“Another four hours,” he answers.

“What!” I am in a state of shock. “That’s not possible. It’s nearly sunrise. We should be there by sunrise.”

He shines his torch up the mountain and reiterates, “another four hours”.

This is an excerpt of the story ‘Into the clouds’, which was first published in the March-April 2020 edition of Paradise, the in-flight magazine of Air Niugini.

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