“Hi Jeff, you don’t know me but my name is Wade Fairley. I’m an adventure photographer and I’ve secured some funding to climb a peak in Irian Jaya. We’re putting together a team right now. Just wondering if you’d be keen to come along? Just to give you an idea, we want to climb a 2,000-foot limestone wall on Ngga Pulu, a sub-summit of Carstenz Pyramid. It looks a lot like the wall you just climbed in Potrero Chico. Give me a call back if you’re interested.”
It was 1995 and I was more than interested. I’d never heard of Ngga Pulu, but I was well acquainted with Carstenz Pyramid (aka Puncak Jaya, 16,024 feet) the highest mountain in Oceania. Carstenz is also the highest point between the Andes and the Himalaya, and the highest island peak in the world. It is also arguably the hardest of the Seven Summits given its mandatory 62-mile jungle trek approach and technical rock climbing.
Carstenz Pyramid wasn’t climbed until 1962 when the famous Austrian climber Heinrich Harrer joined forces with the New Zealander Phillip Temple (who pioneered the approach) to scale the rocky north ridge to the apex.
I called Wade and he filled me in on the plan. In a laconic Australian accent he explained that Ngga Pulu (15,944 feet) had been climbed in 1936 by a Dutch expedition. Aerial photos of the Puncak Jaya icecap taken by that expedition showed that Ngga Pulu was likely well over 16,000 feet and therefore taller than Carstenz Pyramid at the time of the Dutch first ascent.
“The icecap is melting, mate. Don’t you see? The Freeport McMoRan open-pit mine is right there on one of the Seven Summits, polluting the air and water. When the Dani people protest they lock them in mining containers. You’ve got environmental terrorism, human rights abuses, and a totally bitching 2,000-foot wall of limestone. I’ve read about your Mexican route, seen the images. One World magazine wants a story on an ascent of the “ghost” Seven Summit by its most technical route as well as the bigger eco-picture. Are you in?”
Dumb question. Of course I was in.
We met later that afternoon at the boulders along Austin’s Greenbelt and had a sweaty summer afternoon session. Wade was a boyish, clear-eyed fellow with a steady gaze and a rogue grin. Over the course of that afternoon he sketched out more details. We’d be joined by an Australian anthropologist named Roger who studied the native culture as well as bringing along a climatologist to study the icecap.
Regarding the climb Wade explained: “I know some people who tried the wall and they say it’s comprised entirely of razor-sharp limestone incuts. We’ll probably have to climb in gloves and hiking boots, and use extra-thick ropes.”
“What about pro?”
The plan sounded at once brilliant and deranged.
“The one stumbling block we have right now is the political unrest,” Wade continued. “Seems like the Dani are tired of being fucked over by Freeport McMoRan. When they get stirred up they’ve been known to take out their displeasure on any white foreigner.”
“What do they do?”
“Have you ever heard of Long Pig?”
“Put it this way, mate: The sorcerer cuts off your Johnson and boils it to make soup then they skin you down and eat you. The cannibals say human flesh tastes like pork, hence Long Pig.”
“No worries, though. We’ll have Roger along and he can talk to them. Remember, it’s the mine they’re angry with, not us. We’re trying to help them. Hopefully that will count for something.”
As the weeks passed and our departure date approached I boned up on the ecology of the Sudirman range in the western central highlands of Papau, New Guinea and was blown away at the biodiversity. Tree-kangaroos, wallabies, bandicoots, echidna, 700 species of birds, 30,000 species of beetles, the world’s longest lizard (Papau monitor), 16,000 species of plants, including 124 genera which are endemic—all this dependent on the water not being polluted by the open-pit mine tailings from the Grasberg gold mine located on the flanks of Carstenz Pyramid.
Geologically, limestone walls seemed to crop up everywhere. According to Wade, a section of the hike to the mountain wound through a forest of 200-foot rock towers, and the photo he had of the face on Ngga Pulu looked like a big wall climber’s dream—a Cima Grande at 16,000 feet.
I also spent some time reading up on the tribes of the New Guinean highlands. No wonder they clashed with the miners. Their rustic world, ruled by magic, seemed so completely at odds with the Western paradigm of scientific method and capitalism. First contacted by the Dutch explorer Hendrikus Albertus Lorentz in 1909, the tribes practiced cannibalism and headhunting until well into the 20th century and they have a wary attitude toward foreigners to this day.
In 1961, Michael Rockefeller, son of Vice Presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller, was part of the Harvard-Peabody anthropological study sent to the region. Michael disappeared and some speculated that he was killed and eaten by Asmat tribesmen. Author Paul Toohey claimed in his book Rocky Goes West that Rockefeller’s mother hired a private investigator in 1979 to go to New Guinea and investigate Michael’s disappearance. According to Toohey, the investigator traded a boat engine for the skulls of the only white men the tribe claimed to have killed. The Rockefeller family never commented on the event, if it in fact even occurred, but an episode on the History Channel’s “Vanishings” claimed that Rockefeller’s mother did pay the investigator the $250,000 reward for providing final proof of Michael’s death.
I began to both yearn for and dread contact with the Dani people in much the same way one might look forward to meeting a potentially hungry Martian on Mars.
Sadly, our expedition to climb Ngga Pulu was busted by a political lockdown. Just a couple of weeks before we were scheduled to depart, some militant Dani tribesmen kidnapped a group of German tourists. I never heard whether the Germans were released or consumed, but the entire Carstenz massif was closed to tourism for 10 years (1995 to 2005) after the incident.
I met Wade one last time. We climbed through a circuit of traverses at Sunken Gardens and eventually huddled in the shade of a collapsing buttress down by the creek.
“Too bad it didn’t work out,” Wade said. “But that’s cool. Perhaps it simply wasn’t meant to be.”
“Meant to be?”
“Well, you know, like a warning. Maybe some force was looking out for us.”
Did magic still have a place in our Western world-view after all?
“You mean some ‘higher force?’” I asked, chiding him.
Wade met my eyes with his unflinching gaze.
“Put it this way, mate. Maybe it’s better we didn’t go.”
“I guess I’m just choked that we had a chance to do something fun that would have raised awareness to the eco-disaster in progress.” In fact, I was young and the romance of travel still burned in my heart like a crush. I was devastated.
“There will be other trips.”
Wade was already planning the first circumnavigation of South Georgia island by kayak, a feat he would almost pull off before being forced out of the water by ice and having to resort to a desperate portage across the Shackleton Gap in December 1996. Today, Wade is one of the industry’s most sought-after polar cameramen with lots of film credits including Planet Earth and Great Migrations.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I consented.
“No, it’s true. Listen, Jeff, back when I was just out of high school me and my best mate decided to row our sea kayaks from Australia to the Philippines.”
“Yeah, man. We got it into our heads that we should do this big adventure right out of school even though the Australian state department had issued a traveler’s advisory. Long story short, we made it and set up camp on one of the many deserted islands. One night a couple of pretty rough-looking guys walked into camp. One of them had a machete. The other guy had a rifle. We knew that piracy was rampant and these guys looked the part. They started asking if we had gas for the lantern but we just looked at each other and stayed quiet. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the guy raise his gun, point it at my friend and fire. I bolted for the woods and heard a second shot. It hit me in the back but I kept running as far as I could, eventually collapsing and burrowing into some mangrove roots all benched up by a lagoon. A little later, I heard a second shot and I knew my best friend was dead.
“The pirates searched for me till late that night. I remember hearing their footsteps and watching the flashlight beam sweep the water just a few feet away. Eventually they left but they came back the next morning and I had to hide in the roots again all day and all night. The mosquitoes bit me all over, man, and I was too scared to get out of my hiding place and drink so I became totally dehydrated. I watched as my blood leaked into the lagoon and I got weaker and weaker.
“On the second day, I heard a boat. At that point, I knew I was going to die if I didn’t get help so I risked it and called for help. It turned out to be some fishermen and they took me to a remote clinic—so remote that they didn’t have a phone or even a radio. I stayed in that clinic for two months before a journalist heard rumors of the Australian who had been shot. My parents thought I was dead, and my friend’s parents … well … what can you say? Sometimes it’s better when a trip falls through.”
Just last week I read this headline on the Global Post website: “Cannibal Cult Arrested For Making Penis Soup.” It seems that the witchdoctors of West Papau had been overcharging tribesmen ($472 plus a pig and a bag of rice) to cast out evil spirits so the locals banded together, cut off the sorcerers' Johnsons for soup, skinned the bodies down and ate them.
Local Police Commander Anthony Wagambie admitted that investigating the case was difficult since there were no remains. “They’re probably all eaten up,” he stated.
The news prompted memories of Wade Fairley and our almost-adventure, as well as his sagacious advice to heed the subtle signs from higher powers. But despite the bad press, that long-ago blown adventure has taken root in my imagination. Carstenz massif is open to exploration once again and I keep hoping that Wade will call with an offer to climb the big wall on Ngga Pulu, to write the eco-story of the century and possibly meet the cannibals of Papau, New Guinea.