Monday, August 19, 2019

The thinnest air

 "I'll take the last climb
Up the mountain, face my fears
The time has come, to make a choice
Use my voice for the love of every man
My mind's made up, never again
Never again, will I turn round"
-Josh Garrels

Many of my blog posts center around a patient's story.  This one is no exception, but it is dramatically different than most.

I was recently blown away by an experience among the mountaintops of Papua New Guinea.  Four of the doctors here, along with a couple of our closer friends from Kudjip station, made the arduous journey and trek up Mt. Wilhelm - the highest mountain in Papua New Guinea (and Oceania).  For several weeks leading up to our trip, I would load up my backpack with water bottles and textbooks and climb the various hills around Kudjip.  Other times I would strap Gabriel on and take him to "enjoy" these long walks.  I knew I needed to build up some muscles and stamina to climb 14,793 feet above sea level on rocky and narrow ledges into the clouded heights above our Waghi valley.

Our two-day adventure started on a Saturday, departing Kudjip in the morning for the nearby Simbu province where we would drive as close to the base of the mountain as we could - a town called Gembok.  Once there, we parked our car, grabbed our gear, hired a few "carriers" and started a 3-hour trek up to base camp at 11,000 feet.  As we climbed higher, the cool air began to thin and the light drizzle of surrounding clouds soaked us.  Once at camp, a small fire provided a little warmth to our chilled feet.  We needed to get an early dinner (noodles and tuna fish) because our next day's march would begin in the pitch dark at 2 o'clock in the morning.

As we ate our noodles trying to retain some heat in our extra layers, a sacred thing happened.  Our dear friend, pastor Apa, told his story.

I will not relay all of the details, but as a young man, Apa found himself entangled in many of the struggles facing Melanesians.  Through a series of tragic events, he lost his son in a flood and found himself ostracized by his family - culminating in some of his brothers beating him and leaving him for dead.  He was brought to Kudjip where he underwent surgery with Dr. Jim Radcliffe and then months of rehabilitation in the hospital.  He described times of incredible challenge while he recovered - questioning the Lord and himself, wondering where he was headed.

We finished our supper early and wrapped up in blankets and sleeping bags to snatch a few hours of sleep before the long march the next day.  At 130 I was stirred by Matt's alarm and the light of some headlamps clicking on.  Our team put some food and water into backpacks and started the trek up Mt Wilhelm.  In the pitch dark we could only see our footing by headlamps and relied heavily on our guides, but about five hours later the sun touched the horizon and we saw high ridges around us and a large mountain still above us.  We had hoped to hit the summit near sun-rise, but it took a couple more hours winding around it to strike the path that would take us to the top.

During Apa's injury and recovery at Kudjip, he turned his life over to Christ and began to seek a new road.  He ultimately landed a job working security for the mission station and then went through Bible College after being taught to read by the Bennetts - a former missionary family here.  Many years later, he now he works on station helping to keep the hospital and mission houses in good repair, but he still pastors a church and is building a home for the disabled - people often neglected in this place. 

After nearly giving up circling the summit, our guide finally directed us to the path that would take us up the steep climb to reach the top.  Apa's son, Bol, led the way showing his youth as the rest of us followed behind.  I never thought I could find a place so cold and windy on our tropical island home, but the noise of the wind and the damp of the clouds reminded me of the incredible diversity of PNG - and the incredible resolve and endurance of our Melanesian brothers and sisters to face whatever comes at them.

I thought I would find the thinnest air in PNG on the chilly heights of Mt. Wilhelm.  But the most sacred presence I felt was huddled into the small A-frame house at base camp listening to Apa recount his incredible tale of being lost, injured and broken - receiving healing and new spiritual life at the hospital - and his ongoing journey into God's path for his life.

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