Today, we were walking to Semalak (Cave) Camp, from where I would make my attempt to climb Puncak Trikora. We woke at 06:30 and Wameak produced a delicious breakfast, which looked suspiciously similar to the dinner he had prepared the previous night; nevertheless, it was a big improvement on my freeze-dried fare and I devoured breakfast with two cups of sweet tea. The camp had a very small stream running close by but the water was brown and I didn't really want to drink it, either purified using my water purifier or with iodine.
There obviously hadn't been a lot of rain recently because the ground around the camp was quite dry and the stream was very sluggish. It looked like it would be another clear and hot day. Wameak told me it would be a very long walk today, and I tried to put my sunburned neck (which had kept me awake most of the night) and my almost empty water bottle to the back of my mind.
We climbed south out of the forest for about 15 minutes and the porters decided it was already time for a break at the top of the ridge. Having such a serious nicotine addiction is not conducive to trekking long distances. After a 10-minute break, we progressed onto a series of ridges the ran generally south but we occasionally had to descend one ridge into a short, steep valley and climb up to another ridge to continue our southerly progress. It was clear that we were making good progress and we could see Puncak Trikora in the distance, hovering above a broad valley that was accessible by a break in the mountain wall, down which a small river flowed. One of my porters (Junus, who was the 'substitute' porter) was the strongest in the party and I followed him – Wameak the guide set a slower pace and as I no longer trusted his path-finding ability, I was happy to stick close to Junus to find the best path.
After 3 hours walking under the hot sun, we stopped at a small waterfall in a wooded valley to fill up my waterbottles and to have a rest stop. Wameak produced a pack of digestive biscuits, which we all ate hungrily. I scoffed 10 biscuits and started to feel like a Papuan! What I was already finding remarkable was just how much food the Papuans could consume at one sitting – having read Marks Antice's book 'First Contact' to prepare for the expedition, I was aware that I needed to be careful with food and to make sure that porters didn't consume all their food and help them plan ahead. . However, last night and this morning I was stunned by the heaped platefuls they ate (at least twice as mush as me) and when Wameak confirmed that all the biscuits were now finished (he had only bought two packets), I began to worry slightly about having enough lunch for the remaining days.
We spotted some fresh bootprints heading south on the small path. Although I was surprised to see that there would be tourists climbing Trikora (which is still rarely climbed), I was a bit relieved to know that we could ask detailed questions about the route. We climbed over a small rise and Wameak pointed out a small cave in an escarpment in the distance. We headed slightly downhill towards it and could soon see a tent wedged in the left-hand end of the cave and a tarpaulin flapping in the wind to the right, supported by wooden stakes. Smoke was issuing from behind the tarpaulin so we knew there would be porters sheltering from the wind behind the screen.
We climbed up a short, steep slope into the cave, which was about 50 feet wide, 8 feet high and 12 feet deep. The roof of the cave, which was caked black with the smoke of hundreds of fires, sloped back sharply, so that as you entered you had to crouch lower and lower to reach the back of the cave. The floor had been spread with grass to make it more comfortable. Although the cave would provide excellent shelter from the rain, because it was effectively open to the front, it funnelled the wind that blew down the valley, hence why the incumbent porters had erected a tarpaulin for shelter. As I sat wearily down on my pack, my Dani team introduced themselves to the two others, who were from the Lani tribe and appeared much younger than my porters. The Lani porters explained that one Indonesian tourist was climbing Trikora with one guide and one other porter. They had set off at 5 am and were expected back late in the afternoon.
I wasn't sure that my tent would fit under the sloping ceiling of the cave so started to experiment with various ways of deploying my outer as some kind of makeshift shelter, but soon gave up. I slid the main pole through the outer and secured it and was grateful to see that I had about one inch of clear space and finished pitching my tent. Meanwhile, Wameak was doing what he did best – cooking up a storm. As I was pitching my tent the Indonesian tourist returned from his climb, and although we acknowledged each other briefly, he immediately entered his tent to rest. I decided that was a splendid idea so I did the same. Wameak and I had discussed the possibility of walking up towards Trikora in the afternoon to try to identify the best access route. I thought this was a great idea, but as the afternoon wore on, it became clear that this would remain an idea and would not be put into practice as we were both tired from a long, hot walk. I consoled myself with the knowledge that he would interrogate the other guide and porter for vital navigational information that would help us the next day.
Unfortunately, I forgot to consider Papuan male pride, which meant that under no circumstances would a Papuan male ever show a sign of weakness (such as admitting he didn't know the path to the mountain), even if that sign of weakness could help save his or his client's life.
I had brought with me a rough sketch map drawn by one of my email correspondents, who had visited both Puncak Trikora and Puncak Mandala 20 years before. I had tried to find any reliable mapping of the 3 mountains for several months but had come up with almost nothing. I had visited the Library of the Royal Geographical Society in London in January and made copies of what was available, but these consisted mainly of old maps from expeditions in the 1950s that had no contour lines and very little in the way of detail. Therefore, I was relying heavily on local knowledge to help me find a safe route up the mountains.
Late in the afternoon, the Indonesian tourist re-appeared from his tent and he explained that he was a mountain guide who had guided on Carstensz a few times and he was surveying Trikora with a view to running commercial trips. After Trikora, he was planning to walk for a week down to the Asmat region in the south, where the tribes still lived relatively traditional lives. I showed him my sketch map and asked him some questions about the route onto the mountain. The sketch map didn't bear much resemblance to the physical geography that I could see with my own eyes and he confirmed that he had some difficulty finding a way up to the summit ridge. He also confirmed that there was a lot of scrambling once on the ridge and at least some sections that required technical climbing. He wasn't exactly sure which of the several rocky high points on the ridge was the actual summit. My worst fears were confirmed. He had taken 10.5 hours to ascend and descend with a guide who had apparently been strong and fit and who did in theory know the mountain and had been there before.
My situation, on the other hand, was less advantageous. I didn't have my mountain legs, my guide was unsure of the way and I would have to try to ascend alone. My discussion with him seemed to confirm that we should skirt West along the base of the mountain to find a path up to the summit ridge and then follow the ridge East. I spent a very restless night worrying about whether the easiest of the 3 summits I would attempt (in theory at least) would even be possible.