Story and photos by David Morton
The doors opened and we were in another world. Minutes earlier our plane didn’t so much touch down, as it skipped down the dirt runway and slowly lost momentum like a well-thrown flat rock skipping across the water.
We were in Sugapa, the “burgeoning” new seat of local government in Papua, Indonesia. We had heard that lots of new construction was going on in Sugapa and the population was expanding quickly. When we found ourselves surrounded by villagers with bows, arrows and penis gourds we quickly realized that burgeoning is a relative term.
Our team totaled four: Noah Galloway, Tim Medvetz, Ken Sauls and myself. Tim founded an organization called The Heroes Project a few years back in order to provide an adventure outlet for injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Noah, an injured veteran, was chosen to join us for this trip, and Ken was documenting the expedition. When Noah returned for his second assignment in Iraq his convoy ran over a particularly powerful IED. On Christmas Eve, 2005, Noah awoke in the U.S. to find himself without an arm and a leg. Amputated above the elbow and above the knee, Noah’s left limbs were not what they had previously been. A new experience of the world began for him.
Our objective for this expedition was to climb Carstensz Pyramid, a 16,000-plus-foot peak on the Indonesian side of the island of New Guinea. It’s an alpine rock route, or “rockaneering” route, that I had climbed with clients on four previous occasions. Being one of the seven summits has propelled Carstensz into recent popularity, though its average number of ascents per year is only around 100. We knew the route would be difficult for Noah, and the trek into base camp would likely take a tremendous amount of effort in its own right. It was that and more.
The next morning, nearly every resident of the village had assembled around the hut we spent the night in. Over our morning cups of sludge slandered as “coffee” we could hear the voices of children playing and adults milling about just outside the door. Once we had organized our gear and loaded the packs inside the dark hut we looked at each other and gave an obligatory head nod indicating we were ready. Noah led us out into the sunlight and the awaiting mob. It felt like something akin to a celebrity exiting his limo into a throng of groupies, except ours were half naked, carried spears and didn’t scream our names. They stared. And they didn’t stop staring for the next 12 days.
Arriving at Carstensz Pyramid’s base camp typically requires a five-day trek through Papua jungle and marshland, much of which must be done in rubber boots because of the extreme mud and insanely saturated ground. It is not your average approach, but a serious effort with honest, hard work required, and if you’re missing an arm and leg you’d better be on your game. I knew Noah fit the bill from the moment I met him. He’s hard as nails but very human, which I knew made him even stronger than some stereotypical macho hard man. The villagers weren’t so sure. They saw his manufactured metal leg and lack of an arm and decided the entire village needed to pray for us before we departed.
This wasn’t immediately clear. Our Indonesian local guide had indicated there was something up as the Papuan villagers “discussed” a situation. Their discussions often involve aggressive and loud dialogue. We’d call it shouting. It’s unsettling. There’s also a lack of any sort of facial recognition of closure or agreement. No smiles. No handshakes. No nods of the head. We were left to wonder throughout the trip if each issue (of which there were many) was ever resolved. Regardless, the message was finally delivered that everyone needed to gather in prayer. We all took a knee. Twenty minutes later we began one hell of a walk.
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