The expedition to the jungles of Irian Jaya began at Everest Base
Camp. A few years ago I joined a group of Spanish friends in an
ill-fated attempt to climb Everest.
Base Camp in the pre-monsoon climbing season had turned into a
battleground for the revival of the Cold War on the roof of the
world. An American commercial expedition whose punters had paid
upward of $50,000 each to have a go at Everest was busily firing
off angry faxes to the mountaineering authorities in Kathmandu.
They were in a rage over a Russian team that they claimed was using
the American team’s fixed ropes. The Nepalese issue a limited
number of permits to expeditions for specific routes. The
south-east ridge being the least challenging, it is heavily booked
by commercial expeditions with enough cash to line the pockets of
the relevant bureaucrats.
In spite of the daily drudgery at Base Camp, which did not resemble
mountaineering so much as trench warfare, I considered myself a
rather fortunate fellow. I was having immense fun with my Spanish
companions and I shared a tent with César Pérez de Tudela, our
expedition leader and one of Spain’s most distinguished
The most technical and dangerous climbing on the classic south-east
ridge route is the start, or the finish for those on their way
down. This is the Khumbu Icefall, a mile long, 2,000 foot high
jumble of ice blocks, some as large as churches, that spills down
from the lip of the Western Cwm, itself a vast bed of glacial ice
where expeditions set up their Advance Base Camp, ABC in
mountaineering jargon. The Icefall is constantly shifting, slowly
and imperceptibly, and without a moment’s warning a huge block of
ice will snap loose under pressure and come thundering down, taking
with it fixed ropes, crevasse ladders and anyone unfortunate enough
to be in its path.
Things had started to go wrong the day we arrived at Base Camp,
struggling to set up our tents, with the wind howling down the
glacier, driving snow before it. Manolo, one of our strongest
climbers, was down with a severe chest infection. This threw into
disarray César’s plans to take Manolo as his climbing partner in
the first summit bid.
After a few days our food supplies started to run low. Only a
trickle was coming up intermittently on yaks from Namche Bazaar. We
were hit by the worst piece of luck the day our Inmarsat satellite
telephone crashed. This meant César had no way of sending his
newspaper stories to Madrid. In the following days, as we
laboriously shifted supplies up the Icefall to ABC, an unspoken
tension descended on us like an invisible hand. It was getting late
in the climbing season and we were making agonisingly slow headway.
César knew we were dropping behind the bigger and better-equipped
expeditions that had already stocked their high camps. They were
now starting to push on to the South Col, the launching pad to the
summit of Everest.
As the clock ticked closer to the oncoming monsoon, he began making
mistakes that were to cost him dearly. Whenever one of the Sherpas
appeared at our tent with a mug of tea, César would send him away
with a scornful wave. ‘Can’t you use your English to tell him to
leave me alone?’ he growled. In vain I warned him of the risks of
not taking enough fluids.
César was still awake one night when I crawled back in through the
flap after answering nature’s call. With my cap snugly stretched
over my ears and the sleeping bag tugged up round my neck for good
measure, I listened to the faint, steady scratching of his pen.
‘César, you (I) must be totally knackered,’ I pleaded. ‘You (I)
really need to get some sleep.’
‘I’m just making a few notes. I need to have the story blocked out
so I can transmit it on the Inmarsat when I get back tomorrow.’
‘When you get back back from where?’
‘I’m taking another load up the Icefall in the morning. I’ll be off
before dawn, so apologies if I wake you.’ With that he switched off
his head torch, tucking his pen and notebook into a stuff bag
stitched to the tent wall.
‘Hang on a minute, are you sure that’s a wise thing to do?’ I said.
César retorted with a snort, ‘We’ve got to make some headway or
we’re going to miss our window on the weather. Either we move now
or we pack up and go home. Go on, get some sleep. It’ll be all
It was anything but all right, as we found out the next morning at
César’s walkie-talkie crackled to life at eight-forty, twenty
minutes ahead of schedule. César’s voice was laboured, full of
foreboding of calamity. ‘I think I’m about halfway up the
Icefall… I can’t stand up… my chest… the pain is
spreading to my arms…’ His voice faded in and out with the
hiss and static, sharpening the sense of dread. Manolo sprang into
action. He made a stumbling dash across the twenty yards of frozen
moraine to the Spanish Army expedition tents. A few moments later
he was back with Kiko Arregui, the expedition doctor who cupped his
hand to the handset that was erupting with urgent bursts of static.
‘César, Kiko here. Listen, I want you to relax, sit down with your
back propped against the ice, keep your knees raised and undo any
shirt buttons around your neck. Got that? Now tell me about the
pain. Where is it and how severe?’
‘Kiko, it’s very tight in my chest, very difficult to
breathe… everything’s swimming round… Send one of the
fast Sherpas, Chenrezi… my Trinitrate tablets, they’re in the
tent… the first-aid kit…’.
Kiko turned to the four of us hovering over his shoulder. ‘A
fifty-something-year-old heart attack victim trapped in the Icefall
twenty thousand feet up on Everest. What a scenario.’
Chenrezi translated this to the other Sherpas who were crouched
round the transmitter. They leapt as one into their climbing boots
and crampons. I radioed Kathmandu to have a rescue helicopter flown
in to Base Camp the next morning to evacuate César, as these
magnificent snow leopards bounded up the Icefall to search for
their leader. Kiko began clearing a space in the mess tent, setting
up a drip next to a camp bed.
Five hours later the silence was shattered by a whoop echoing in
the distant Icefall. We scrambled to the mess tent door. The
afternoon snow flurries had started to blow across Base Camp. A
knot of climbers, some with binoculars screwed to their eyes, were
pointing excitedly at the Icefall. After five hours of man-hauling
across gaping crevasses and teetering boulders of ice the rescue
party was slowly inching its way down the final delicate pitches.
César treated his heart attack as a source of irritation, a
temporary setback in his climbing career. Later that year he
‘phoned me with a proposal for an expedition to an unclimbed peak,
Trikora in Papua New Guinea. César had sent me rummaging through
the files of the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society to
root out information on this fabulous 15,000-foot mountain. It
struck me as odd that the combined resources of these hallowed
Meccas of alpine history had failed to produce a single reference
to any mountain of that name in Papua New Guinea. The reason came
clear one morning after several fruitless hours in the RGS map
room, when the friendly bearded keeper took an interest in my
plight. ‘Trikora? The name rings a bell. I believe that’s in Irian
Jaya, the Indonesian half of New Guinea. Let’s have a look.’ Indeed
I rang César to give him the news.
‘Good, good, Irian Jaya it is then. I’ll leave the travel
arrangements to you.’
The excitement of flying into one of the
world’s last largely unexplored territories came as our Twin Otter
droned through the mist-shrouded mountains of Irian Jaya. The first
sensation on emerging into the cool mountain air of the highland
town of Wamena is one of welcome relief after an unpleasant
stopover in the malaria-infested coastal city of Jayapura. The next
is one of total bemusement at the Dani tribesmen, naked except for
their penis sheathes, who wander about the tarmac with detached
The trek to Trikora required 15 porters with food for about eight
days, plus two Dani warriors armed with bows and arrows to
safeguard the sacks of sweet potatoes that make up their staple
The walk into Trikora, the highest of peak of the Jayawijaya range
that bisects Irian Jaya on a west-east axis, took us through the
Baliem Valley, an eerie swampland reminiscent of Conan Doyle’s
Lost World. The valley was discovered less than 60 years ago
by the American adventurer Richard Archibold during a 14-month
reconnaissance in his Catalina flying boat.
Our guide Justinus laid on a jeep and a lorry for the drive to the
roadhead 20 miles west of Wamena, from where we trekked to Lake
Habbema, the site of Archibold’s first landing in the valley. From
there it was a three-day hike to a cave where we were to spend out
last night before the climb. When we reached the cave we discovered
we were not alone. A hunting party of half a dozen or so naked
warriors squatted round a fire, unresponsive to our presence as we
dumped our rain-soaked raingear and arranged our sleeping bags by
the fire. Justinus told us they were Yalis, a tribe of cannibals in
former days whose diet, he assured us, did not include
mountaineers. The Indonesian government tourist brochure on Irian
Jaya promised a land of “simple shocks”, so in a mood of sleepy
resignation we crawled into our sleeping bags and hoped for the
Our assault on the mountain began at 3am.
About an hour after dawn we wearily reached a broad moraine at the
foot of Trikora. It was by now obvious that we should have
established our base camp here instead of at the cave. The approach
march in the dark was by far the most unnerving part of the climb.
We had spent three hours struggling up a 600ft steep grassy slope,
at times up to our knees in water, with nothing but mats of reeds
for hand holds.
Once we started up the rock face the climbing became a delight. The
holds were superb, albeit not very stable, and we were rewarded
with the exhilaration of putting up a route on an unclimbed peak.
The climbing rarely exceeded British grade VD (Very Difficult), but
the sobering thought was always with us that had one of us taken a
fall, it would have required a desperate hike of several days to
Three hours later we were on the summit pyramid, congratulating
ourselves on having completed the first Trikora direttissima yet a
final adventure lay head.
We returned to the roadhead outside Wamena at night in a raging
downpour where Justinus negotiated a lift back to town in a jeep
with an Indonesian road worker. We set off down the bending mud
track, the porters following behind huddled under a tarpaulin in a
lorry. Justinus sat facing me, a look of terror on his face as we
sped round the sharp bends, slewing close to a sheer precipice. Our
driver threw the jeep into first to take a steep uphill gradient
and suddenly slammed on the brakes. The lorry had stalled some 20
yards behind, its wheels spinning in the mud. That’s when the fun
began. The driver hooked a towing cable to the lorry’s front axle.
After a few violent jerks we were moving slowly uphill. When we
reached the top we braced ourselves for a quick stop to release the
tow rope but the driver kept on speeding down toward Wamena some
five miles away. We could hear mournful screams coming from under
the tarpaulin in the lorry, by now completely out of the driver’s
control, whose headlamps pursued us like the glowing eyes of a
panther. César, who was sitting in the front seat, turned to me and
we both burst into laughter. It seemed an appropriate end to the