• Irian Jaya


    Irian Jaya

    “Well, that’s four of the seven”, Russell shouted into the wind, his climbing partner Scott reaching up to high-five him. Actually it was a mitten high-five. The two were at the top of Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, one of the seven summits, and they were up without the loss of any fingers or toes. The temperature was forty-three below and the wind was howling at around forty miles an hour so they descended quickly. This trip started by using sky miles to fly to Punta Arenas in southern most Chile. Then hanging around to see if they could get some unused seats to Union Glacier Camp at the base of Vinson – an ice and snow covered mountain rising 16,067 feet above the Antarctic snow plain. It took a week and they finally paid the pilot directly, including seats for the return trip – $8,000 apiece instead of $30,000. The day after landing they started up the mountain, tagging along behind the Ultimate Mountain Adventure Group who were also on the plane. They were a guided party of six – at $39,000 a head. The professionals had told them not to follow behind once the climb started, but in Antarctica there really wasn’t any enforcement of ethical or any other rules.
    So they went right up in four days, a hundred yards behind the guided group, took some pictures at the top and then back down to wait a day for the plane. The professional guides were still mad, and had refused to talk to them, share any supplies or even take their picture.


    The two had been friends since college where they were roommates for a year. They both enjoyed climbing and found that their mountaineering goals and climbing abilities meshed very well. They started pursuing the seven summits when they were in their early thirties, both with families and stable middle class careers. Scott Davis was an owner of an insurance agency and Russell Johnson was the Used Car Manager for his father’s Cadillac Dealership, although to hear him talk, he ran the entire operation. He always insisted on being called Russell rather than Russ. If someone told an interesting story, Russell would immediately tell one that tried to one up the other person.
    Their professions allowed them both to take up to four weeks vacation – they used most of that time to attempt peaks around the world. Russell was adventurous and a fierce competitor, but sarcastic and demeaning, to the point that a lot of people outright disliked him. In fact he was borderline abusive with his own family. At 6 feet 4 inches he kept fit and was overly proud of his toned body and willing to take risks that Scott would not take. Scott was described by friends as driven, a good guy, good sense of humor, and with an infectious smile.
    While they were friends, Scott would not have said they were best friends, in fact his wife did not like Russell and was vocal to Scott about ending the friendship – she thought that Russell was mean spirited, a bully, and could not be trusted. Scott had some minor guilt pangs about leaving his family on these long trips, but felt he deserved it since he worked hard every day. But he did think about his wife’s advice, and in fact he had thought of getting another partner for the remaining peaks.


    At times they had argued vehemently as they climbed together – Scott, at 5 feet ten inches, usually let Russell lead on climbs, but he was equally competent. “Bagging the summits was getting closer every year and certainly Russell was the most available companion to complete all seven.” One of the problems was that Russell thought he was above any laws, rules, or good practices that governed climbing. He believed that fees and permits were a rip off, and that having to hire a licensed guide was strictly BS. At times this attitude had gotten them into trouble, but the worst that had happened was a fine of $2000. Russell figured that by going on the cheap they had saved over $125,000 dollars each so far in their quest.
    Each year they tried to do one mountain. They had good luck with Elbrus in Russia, had to try Aconcagua (22,832 ft.) in Argentina two years in a row because of weather, and had no problem in getting up Kilimanjaro, although they got lost in the jungle at the beginning because they had to travel some distance away from officials who wanted $500 for each permit. Losing their bearings for one full day in the jungle scared the heck out of both of them.
    They had agreed on a modus operandi when they first started climbing. Do it as inexpensively as possible, sometimes with used equipment, slide by the rules, live by their wits. If a rule hasn’t been broken, then break it. So far it had worked well, other than getting lost for that one day in Africa. In each climb they usually suffered abuse from the professional guides, but since the climbs were costing them about one-fifth of the regular price they just let the animosity roll off their backs.
    Now they were looking at the three remaining mountains, Denali in Alaska, Carstensz Pyramid in West New Guinea and of course, Everest. “There really isn’t any question as to the easiest one,” said Russell. Hell, there is a huge gold mine right at the base of Carstensz and it’s only a few thousand feet to the summit at 16,024 feet. Let’s research everything and figure out how to do it for minimal cost.
    And so they started to lay it out, planning to go in the rainy season, which was by far the cheapest but most dangerous. They first found out that the name of area where they were climbing was Irian Jaya, a huge province of Indonesia – the western half of the island of New Guinea. The natives called it Papua and it was like going back to the Stone Age. Carstensz Pyramid was all rock with some minor glaciers and snowfields. The hardest pitch was 5.7, – seventy degrees – which they could easily handle. They would need one rope for protection, good rain gear, but no crampons. Should be able to get up and back in one long day.


    “My Gosh”, said Scott, “look at the close up maps of the area”. Its going to be harder to get to the base than it is to climb the mountain – at least a five day hike with porters and a guide. The dang place is a morass of swamps, mangrove growths, impenetrable jungle, dense plains and sharp rock. There are fresh water Crocodiles, Carpet Pythons, many species of deadly vipers and a huge variety of poison frogs. The first three days look like an endless mud hole, with slippery foliage and lots of deadfall. Three Hundred different dialects are spoken and rebels have been trying to achieve independence from Indonesia since 1960.
    The government has never been able to exterminate them because of the jungle depth. Insurgents killed three mining employees last year and there was a six-week strike at the mine. In fact you may remember that Michael Rockefeller, Nelson Rockefeller’s son, disappeared back in 1962. Most believe that a Croc got him, but even now, this wild area is still dotted with tribes that would just as soon kill and eat you rather than sell you their primitive art. From 1995 to 2005 no visitors or climbers of any kind were allowed in the area because of the danger of being kidnapped or killed.


    In 1623, the first Dutch explorer, Jan Carstenszoon, landed on the south side of the island and reported he had seen a peak with snow on the top. He was roundly ridiculed, since this area was almost right on the Equator. And it wasn’t until 300 years later in 1936 that a Dutch Geologist Jean Dozy saw the mountain and climbed some of the snow-capped peaks. He also wrote a detailed report showing that there was some blackish green rock at around twelve thousand feet – looked like copper outcropping. Nothing was done with this report because WWII broke out and the information was put in a file cabinet in Amsterdam. Then a geologist in NYC, Frank Nelson, finally got a copy of the report and confirmed with a visit that it was a major find. Mining Giant Freeport McMoran entered the area in 1974 and began feasibility studies. In the nineties the Grasberg mine became the largest gold producer in the world, and the third largest copper producer. It eventually employed thousands of men, including hundreds of security personnel – you could see the open pit from space, the rim of which went up to 14,000 feet. The ore concentrate was removed via a huge gravity driven slurry pipeline that went 76 miles to the coast.


    Russell and Scott looked at this giant slurry pipeline and road as they got to the town of Timinka, thinking this climb would be a breeze now that they could use the mining road. However they found out they were not allowed to use the road and would have to find guides to take them via the jungle trails they had read about.
    They ended up hiring Moni tribesmen, staying about a mile off the main road that snaked its way to the mine. Scott could not believe the minimal cost that Russell had negotiated with the six natives – $500 for the main guide and $300 each for the others. “Hey”, Russell said, “These are mud people, look, they still have bones in their noses. “They are stupid, don’t know nothing,’” Scott thought about saying something to Russell, but then decided to just let it slide.
    It took four long exhausting treks to reach the mountain area – rain and then afternoon mist during most of each day. After establishing their base camp the next day, they started climbing at five AM in the morning – beginning at around 13,000 feet, the mine about two miles away. The climb was straightforward on rock, with a lot of scrambling along the top ridge. But it was steeper and very slippery in the constant rain. Scott had Russell on belay when he took a 15 ft. fall – stretching the wet rope, but no harm done. They topped out around 1:00 PM, just as the afternoon mist began to join the clouds. They swung their metal ice axes around and the static electricity threw blue sparks.
    “Well, it looks like we got away with another one”, said Russell. “All we have to do is to get back to the coast, get on the plane to Jakarta and back home”. Scott said, “ It’s going to be a rough four days in the rain before we get there”. “I’m still nervous about how far you beat the tribesmen down for carrying our supplies and guiding us, they seemed unhappy this morning.” “Oh, don’t be such a worrier”, Russell said irritably. “I’ve always been able to get us out of any situation”. But Scott did worry as they down climbed and got back to the camp around 6:00 PM.
    The next day started out with torrential rain and the trail became very slippery – in a couple of places they roped up just to make sure of their footing. That evening the Moni guide and his bearers kept to themselves and did not show their normal smiles. In the morning they descended into the edges of the rain forest with terrific thunderstorms and wind. Sometimes they could not even see the trail ahead – the wind was almost horizontal and the rain so thick that they had to spit rainwater every few breathes – they hadn’t heard any sounds from the mine trucks and wondered how far away from the haul road they really were.
    That evening, the natives offered no conversation. Everyone ate cold food from their packs and tried to keep some part of their body dry. About 6:00 PM, Dianga, the chief guide, came over and said he wanted to talk. His English was limited but it was clear he wanted more money to finish the trek. Russell immediately jumped up and started to berate him, saying such things as they had a contract and that Dianga was not an honorable person and that he could go to hell. Dianga did not say anything but the expression on his face was fierce. He stalked off and went back to where his bearers were. Russell poked Scott in the ribs and said, “These people are dumb as dirt, I guess I showed him”. Scott said quietly, “I’m afraid we are going to have trouble before we get back”. “Just be careful”. Russell replied, “Come on, if worst came to worst we can just go to the mine road and claim we are lost”.
    In a half hour, Dianga was back again, this time with the five others. He said, “We will not go on, unless we get double the amount promised”. Russell took Scott’s advice and said: “We will offer you a 10% increase and then a tip at the end if we are satisfied”. “That is our best offer. “Take it or leave it, you black bastard”. Dianga stomped off and they could hear raised voices. Scott was very concerned. “Look Russell, these people are used to doing things different than we are”. “This mountain and trek are not like the other mountains where there is some civilization around”. Lets see if we can’t come to a compromise”. “We’ve bagged the mountain, we can ease off now – the money we are talking about is really immaterial to us, but would make a huge difference to these people”. Let’s just meet their demands.” Dave said it was a manner of principle, but he’d sleep on it.
    An hour after they turned in, Scott felt strong arms pinning him to the ground in his sleeping bag. He turned to see three of the tribesmen holding him. Russell was being treated similarly by three others. “What do you want”, both men spoke simultaneously. No one answered but the men stood them up and tied their hands behind them. Then a hood of woven vines was put over their heads. Despite their continued pleading and saying that they agreed to the terms, nothing was said. Then the guides and porters got them dressed and started marching them away from camp about 9:00 PM. Both Scott and Russell cried out that they would do whatever it took to make the guides happy. But there was no response. They slipped and fell and staggered for what seemed hours. Their shoes were then removed, pockets emptied, and both were laid back to back in the mud. Dianga said in broken English, “You are in God’s hands now”. Then there was silence. The bonds that held them were not tight and after an hour they were able to free themselves and take off the hoods. It was pitch black with no moon, just the constant rain – they crawled up to the base of giant tree. They decided to just stay where they were and then hike out to the trail in the morning.
    The night was terrible, cool rain on and off until they were shaking, no dry place to lay sounds of all kinds of animals in the jungle. They were used to sleeping in the forest, but now they were alone and everything seemed frightening.


    Finally it got light although they couldn’t see the sun because it was still raining steadily. In fact they couldn’t see much of anything other than the jungle canopy above them and the green rainforest curtain all around. They both were sick at heart, and sat under the large tree to decide what to do. The first question in their minds was what direction they should start to walk. And they had to have some sort of coverings to protect their feet. Scott’s feet had begun to itch and he looked down he saw what appeared to be several grey worms on his bare feet. He tried to shake them off, but nothing happened. He pulled one away with some difficulty and it left a round red bleeding sore on his ankle. They were leaches and he quickly found they were all over his body. They would bite, send in an anesthetic and tear a dime sized round hole in the skin to get to the blood. He knew the creatures could be burned or salt applied to get them off painlessly. But he and Russell pulled off each slimy leach, creating bleeding soars all over their legs. Scott suggested that they maybe pray for God’s help in being rescued. Russell told him it was a waste of time; God is not interested in Irian Jaya or us. Scott did pray silently to himself. He was as frightened as he ever had been in his life.
    The Grassberg pipeline was the primary landmark in this area. It went south seventy-six miles to the port of Amamapare. There were no roads in this part of the island. So the best plan seemed to be to head for the mine or the pipeline. Scott climbed the tallest tree he could find, but between the vast jungle and the rain, he came back without any idea. It appeared to them that they would have to go by dead reckoning. Scott thought it was one way and Russell was sure it was 90 degrees in a different direction. Russell was very adamant saying that he had kept track during the march. Scott was quite sure that the porters had marched them to several points of the compass to confuse them. But he decided to go along with Russell. They started off after binding their feet with strips torn from their shirts.
    “I wonder if someone will come looking for us”, “Probably never will”, said Russell. “Our porters and guide will just keep our stuff and return to their villages, saying that they left us in town”. “Also we didn’t get a permit and we didn’t check in with the mine. Remember the last five miles to the mountain base were done at night. We don’t have return tickets to Jakarta or to the US. Only our wives will start to worry in about a week. I guess if we had to we could make it a week while they find us. Scott thought to himself, “no one is going to find us in this jungle, unless it is some of the local natives who are out hunting”.
    They took off in Russell’s direction. It was impossible to walk in a straight line – there were huge trees and swamps and mud sinks that required detours, and hills that exhausted them on the way up. They kept slogging along but did not see any sign of a trail or human existence. After six hours stumbling in the rain they decided to take a prolonged rest. Both had cuts on their feet and they felt exposed lying down with their upper torsos naked. Scott jumped up. Look he said, “There is one of the hoods that was over our heads. We have been going in a circle”.
    They looked at one another, fear tightening the muscles in their faces. “What to do now”? As usual Russell took the lead and said, look, I’m positive this time, lifting his arm, it’s this direction”. “What direction is that?’ Asked Scott. With the rain and the forest canopy, neither had any idea if they were going North, South, East or West. Scott spoke again, “I really think it is just the opposite of the direction you are picking. It’s just a gut feeling, but I’m sure that it is our best chance”. Russell, used to being the dominant one said, “ Nope, you’re wrong”. “Lets start out now”. Scott refused, saying he was sure about this direction. Russell immediately began to demean him, reminding him about a past experience where Scott had been wrong. But this time Scott refused to change his mind.
    “Damn you Scott, I’m trying to save us here – just follow behind me”. Scott said no, but then came up with alternate plan – “look, why don’t we go our separate ways, keeping track of the trail we blaze by bending over foliage every few yards, and then we meet back here just before it starts to get dark”. “That way we can cover more ground and if one of us finds a landmark we can both get out of this horrible mess”.
    Russell was angry. “Okay, I can see you don’t believe me. Damn you then, go off in this God Forsaken Jungle on your own”. “If I find a landmark and it’s too late, I’ll come back in the morning”. “I’ll make sure I leave enough of a trail so you can follow me if you change your mind”. “If you were smart you would come with me right now”.
    They shook hands and wished each other good luck, dripping in the rain, then walked in opposite directions, neither looking back. It was now three o’clock and Scott knew he could only hike for about two hours before he would have to return to beat the darkness. He retied the cloth around his feet and made sure he bent ferns and branches as he started out. The jungle was so dense that his progress was slow, sometimes having to go fifty yards or so out of his way to make any progress through the jungle. He started to doubt his choice. He was glad when the two hours were up as he retraced his steps. Maybe Russell would be waiting for him with good news. Getting back was harder than he thought and he got off the trail he had blazed twice, but finally made it back as twilight fell. No Russell, no sign that he had been there.
    There was nothing to do but wait, try to survive the night and then hope Russell came back in the morning. The night was horrible; there was constant rain, lighting flashes and roaring thunder. With no watch, he had no idea of time. During one flash he thought he saw some sort of animal. The next flash showed it larger and closer. He backed up against the tree where he was sheltered and grabbed a hanging vine.
    The next flash showed nothing, but he thought he could hear the animal out to the side. He grasped the vine, put his feet against the tree, and started to pull himself up. After ten feet he swung onto a branch. He looked below him when the next flash occurred. There was nothing, but he was afraid to go down, so he spent a sleepless night hanging on to a huge limb. As day broke, he started to climb down, reaching for a thick vine that was not a vine. The viper’s fangs just missing his cheek as he dropped it. Hands shaking he began yelling for Russell as he picked off the morning leeches. After what he figured was a couple of hours he climbed down and started off, retracing his trail from before, once again praying – hoping that Russell would somehow follow.
    Now he was hungry and thirsty, the ground seemed to soak up all the moisture and there were frogs and snakes in the scum covered ponds and puddles. Finally he found an open tree trunk and drank deeply – he tried chewing some plant stems but they were bitter and he had to spit them out. The sun was faintly visible though the clouds, the temperature went into the 90’s. Soon he was dripping with sweat and his anxiety was rising. His hopes that Russell had finally found a way and was looking for him were diminishing. He wondered if he had made enough of a trail for Russell to find him.
    “Why had they separated”? “If I have to die out here, I don’t want to die alone.” He thought he might find a stream and then could follow it towards a river, but there was nothing, just swamps with giant mangroves. He was already exhausted but afraid to rest. The undergrowth was so thick that he sometimes had to beat his naked arms against the vines and giant ferns to make a passageway. Tears ran down his face as he thought about his wife, his two twin daughters and an infant son who would never know what happened to him. Just like Michael Rockefeller.
    The day passed, and he tried to remain calm and keep his head about him. He often thought he heard noises behind him and almost broke into a run, but he knew that would be the final breakdown – the grip on his sanity releasing. He was cut and bruised from falling over tangled roots and vines – insect bites covered his entire body – vermin finding his bloody sores. His cloth wrapped feet were bleeding and painful to his touch – he was wretched, filthy with mud and stains. He could feel the leaches drilling his legs again and lice or something worse in his hair. He even thought about suicide just to end this horror – if he had a knife he could slit his wrists. He looked up to see if he could find a strong vine for a noose, but then thought about someone finding his remains, and he couldn’t bear that. He kept feeling that there was some large animal stalking him – when he stopped it stopped. Now it was approaching darkness and his hysteria was to the point that he screamed out loud. “Come and get me whatever is out there – I’m ready to die”.
    Everything hurt so bad he finally resorted to crawling. He found a tree he could just barely scale and climbed up to a fork. He dreamed that he was at his own funeral, all his family and friends weeping around an empty coffin. The usual platitudes “about God needing him home early” and “that he died doing what he wanted” just made his skin crawl. Sleeping fitfully with hope that this was all a bad dream, his body relaxed and he fell to the jungle floor just before daybreak – awakening to hell.


    He figured this would be his last day, he would die tonight – he would welcome death just to get this incredible emotional and physical pain over. He could not believe that he had deteriorated so far in just four days. The sun was finally up and he could finally determine which was east and west. He broke off a branch to use as a crutch and started in the same general direction. The jungle steamed and he was immediately thirsty, but he only found one large puddle, with a green froth over the top that was more like slime than scum. He used his teeth to strain the water as he drank and then spit out the little worms, grit, moss and other muck that was left. Staggering he fell into a hole and had real difficulty freeing himself from the clinging black mud that attached itself like glue – his one foot loosing its wrap – finally grabbing a mangrove root to get out. He crawled on, thinking of his family, tears running down his face. Ready to just lie still. He felt shame, that he had put himself in this situation and was going to die from making foolish choices. He got up but then fell flat again, watching the insects crawling over him, knowing that in a few hours he would be their feast. He had given up all hope. He raised his head and could see that twilight was on its way.
    Then he heard something – sounded like a diesel engine. He yelled and screamed, but no one answered back. The sound was starting to fade but he thought he could tell the direction. He mustered up all his strength and shuffled and crawled toward the diminishing sound. Soon there was no sound at all and he wondered if he had been hallucinating. After a couple of hundred yards he could see a clearing through the trees. As he approached he recognized the huge slurry pipeline from the mine. He was saved. He fell to the earth and thanked God, sobbing as he realized he had been given a second chance to be with his family, friends and others who loved him. It took him a day to stop crying, and he was afraid to go to sleep because his nightmares had him lost in the jungle again.
    “And Russell?” Here is what probably happened. He ended up a few miles from where Scott found the pipeline. He may have slipped and put his hand down and crushed a colorful poison dart frog or maybe disturbed a Papuan Death Adder – his hand and arm would have swollen in a manner of minutes. He probably staggered on making one last attempt to find help. Eventually he would have lain on his side, eyes closing, feeling the poison completely the journey through his body – probably glad that it was over, and that death was here to take him. In a week all that would be left was his skeleton, in six months nothing – all covered by the jungle verde. He was never found despite an immediate search by hundred’s of tribesmen and men from the mine and a week’s search by his friends and family, led by Scott. Their original guides disappeared.
    EPILOGUE: The near death event changed Scott dramatically – he was quieter, not somber or sullen, but just more thoughtful – still had his grin and enthusiasm for life. He lost any interest in the final two peaks. Most of those who knew him said his value system had changed. He now put his family above anything else – No more adventure vacations alone – the first to volunteer for any community or church projects. And he played by the rules realizing that they were there for a reason. He thought back occasionally on how different everything would have turned out if Russell and he had not always tried to always change the rules. He went to a psychiatrist for about a year to help him sleep and to also come to grips with what had happened to him in the jungle.
    He was ask continually if he thought that God had heard and answered his prayers. He replied quietly that he didn’t really know, but that he had thought a lot about it. He believed that God was not arbitrary, and so it was hard to explain his escape and not Russell’s. When ask to speak about his experience to church or community groups, he refused. He did know that the values he thought had defined him as a person were not his climbing accomplishments or career accolades, but the positive effect he could bring in service to others – especially to be a good father and husband. As time went on his nightmares lessened, but he would still occasionally awake gasping for air, screaming, on the floor of the jungle with no hope.

    Joseph Ollivier
    May 2013

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