Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

Climbing Australasia’s highest peak

Ricky Munday tells WideWorld about his current expedition to Papua
Ricky ascending through forest at Mount Stanley

Ricky Munday has taken some time off work and he’s going climbing. So far, so normal – but Ricky’s not an office worker from Slough, and he’s not heading for the local indoor rock wall.

Once a Centre for Glasgow Hawks Rugby team, Ricky Munday is now an aid worker – most recently in Sudan – and he’s just embarked on an expedition which will involve hacking his way through jungle-covered slopes, before scrambling up sharp limestone faces to summit Australasia’s three highest peaks:  Puncak Mandala (4,684m), Puncak Jaya (Carstensz Pyramid, 4,884m) and lastly Puncak Trikora (4,730m).

They are all in Papua, the Indonesian province and western half of the island of New Guinea, distinct from Papua New Guinea, which is part of the Commonwealth and forms the eastern half of the island.

Risks are pretty high: beyond the inherent dangers of solo climbs and altitude sickness, there are also low-level conflicts between Papuan separatists and the Indonesian authorities, plus the risk of malaria.

Ricky has form in this area, however: in 2008 he led an expedition to Africa to climb Mount Stanley (5099m), Mount Kenya (5199m) and Mount Kilimanjaro (5895m) in 20 days.

We’re sensing a three peaks theme, are we right?

It’s part of a very long-term project to climb the three highest peaks on every continent. It’s good to have the time, I work in humanitarian aid, and had some free time at the end of my current contract so I’ve got six to eight weeks to do this.

What’s the schedule, and what’s your team?

The first mountain I’m climbing, Puncak Mandala, is actually the third highest. I had hoped to climb the south face, which has only been done once before, by Bruce Parry and Mark Anstice. Unfortunately my partner pulled out so I’m now going to have to try from the north face, which has only been climbed successfully before by a large Dutch group back in the late ’50s.

The second mountain I’m climbing is the highest and that’s Puncak Jaya, also known as Carstensz Pyramid. There I’m making base camp with an international team I’m joining up with, as permits to climb are difficult to get hold of.

Puncak Trikora is the second highest and it’s my final climb. It’ll actually be the shortest trip of the three, though, as it’s closer to a population centre, Wamena in the Baliem Valley. It’ll form the base for the expedition to the third climb.

There I’ll have to hire a local agent just to smooth my passage and ease the process of getting travel permits, in part because it will be a lot easier having someone who speaks the language and can support the fact that I’m not doing anything dubious.

What is the local climate and geography like?

It’s going to be tough; we fly into the nearest airstrip, which is around five days from the mountain along local hunting trails. Along the trails the local tribes build hunting shelters, but these obviously only go so high, so after that it’s me on my own, machete in hand, trying to find a way through.

Puncak Mandala is roughly the height of Mont Blanc so there’s a real risk of altitude sickness, which I’m obviously hoping to avoid.

The tree line goes up to about 4,000 metres and after that it’s climbing on limestone, which is pretty sharp. It’s not a technical climb though and for a lot of it I’ll be scrambling. I’ll take a short rope to help with some short abseils.

I’ll be at altitude so it won’t be super hot, but there’ll be heavy rain every day and it’ll be uncomfortably humid.

Any particular challenges on Papua you’re worried about?

I’m worried about the permits to get to the mountains. Once I’m there I can relax and start the physical effort, which I enjoy. But it has taken a year to plan, to get sponsors and all the rest, and to think that it all depends on some local official worries me. But the climbing? Nah, I’m looking forward to that.

The area has a pretty fractious history – how are you dealing with that?

The main problem is that it’s Indonesian territory but there is a Papua separatist movement. It’s low-level rebel activity with attacks on the Indonesian army, but it’s not something I want to dwell on. I’m there for the climbing and my work in aid agencies has taught me that neutrality is the best policy.

What is the local population like?

They live very remote lives; I mean there’s almost no infrastructure, just airstrips hacked into the mountains, and they rely on missionary flights for many supplies like medicine. But if the missionary flights can’t fly, due to cloud from the heavy rainfall for example, then they’re completely isolated.

It’s a primitive lifestyle compared to what we know, but we can’t judge it by our standards.

What studies are you hoping to complete?

I’ve been kindly funded by the Alpine Club of Canada and I’m going to be making an extensive photographic record of the glaciers for them. A recent expedition found that the glaciers around Carstensz Pyramid were retreating fast, and could be gone with 15 years if the recession doesn’t halt, so I wanted to be able to record what was left of them.

I was hoping to take some water samples for the University of Glasgow, but I was relying on the researchers to get more involved in the process, as I was in Sudan at the time, but unfortunately that’s fallen through.

What has your training been like?

[Laughs] Well my training has been pretty limited I’m afraid, based on the fact I’ve been in Sudan for the past months. When I was in Darfur I simply wasn’t allowed to run or jog because of the security problems, and then when I moved to Khartoum the average temperature was around 45C and no matter how hydrated I stayed I couldn’t run without getting cramps in my calves.

I’m lucky as I maintain a good level of fitness and I can get up to fitness quickly. I’m hoping as well that the first climb will act as good build-up for the rest.

What essential kit are you taking with you? How are you coping with the challenge of taking jungle and mountain kit?

Well it’s a tough call and obviously I want to carry as much as I can. I will employ local porters; it’s expected actually, as it’s income for them. In terms of kit though my most essential pieces will be my communications gear – without that I’d be stuffed. So I’ve got my sat phone, which turned up today, a solar panel, an expedition rugged-ised laptop and a BGAN for email.

With this I can report daily back to a friend who is acting as UK base manager, and I’ll keep him updated. He’s got the number of the heli charter companies and the British High Commission should anything go wrong.

What’s next then?

Well right now I’m just sh***ing myself about getting all my kit together in time. But post-expedition I’m off to spend six months in Bangladesh, but I was thinking that it might be the right time to try for the three highest peaks in Europe. That’s something to think about for January.

Ricky left for Jakarta on Friday 19th November. For more information, visit: www.aus3peaks.com