Shortly after following the small stream, Ted and I came across some red tape affixed to a tree. This was clearly a trail marker, but where the path leaded none of us knew. Blindly, we stuck by the water’s edge instead of chasing after the marked path. My initial thought was that the trail must be for loggers since we were moving through an area of planted cedar trees, but in hindsight perhaps this would lead us to the trail we had hoped to find. The further downstream we traversed, the rougher the terrain. The watershed grew in size as it met neighboring tributaries, with the walls closing in on us. To avoid the waterfalls, both of us climbed high above the river banks, looking for an outlet that would lead us to flatter and easier terrain. Peering down the banks of the river from above, there was no apparent end to the folds of ridges that dropped abruptly to the rocky depths of the canyon.
We changed tack, opting to leave the water source and climb back up towards the ridge we had inadvertently veered from earlier. I once again took the lead, burrowing through the untracked snow for the better part of an hour before collapsing in a winded heap on the spine of the mountain range. The deciduous trees were clearly adorned with small snippets of red tape. Heading east, the trail dropped steeply down to a stream. “This is probably the same stream we just came from”, I remarked. Too dejected to investigate further, we backtracked and continued to the west. Ted’s pace continued to slow as I coasted along with renewed vigor. We were definitely on the right track, but how far would we end up venturing before finding a path down to a village? Were we even on the main ridge between Jyatani and Buna? These thoughts haunted our every move, but neither of us bothered to call a “time out” to assess our position and ponder a logical move. For one, the cloud had rolled back in and the snow began to fall. That storm front to the north was making a sales call, and neither of us wanted to wait around for the sales pitch.
Staying along the ridge proved to be a good idea, as a large metal signboard soon came into view. Rushing ahead, the smile on my face soon turned south as the entire contents were completely overtaken by rust. It was a map of the area, showing our current position as well as the location of neighboring forest roads. For some strange reason, the only legible part of the map was a large red dot with the chinese characters 現在地, which basically translates as You Are Here in cartographer terms. Judging by the amount of cedar trees in this location, we both realized that there must be a forest road somewhere close to here. How else did they hoist this giant signboard up here unless they dropped it by helicopter? Peering off the northern face of the ridge, I could see nothing but a dark stand of cedar in the rapidly fading light of the day. If we dropped off here, we’d lose daylight much faster than continuing west. Just past the sign, the ridge suddenly turned north, heading for who knows where. Using the compass for guidance, both of us agreed that we should continue pushing west, regardless of the terrain because we knew that was the direction we needed to go.
Here we were, leaving the ridge for a second time and straight into another gully. Though starting off quite gentle, the trickle gradually grew in size. Foolishly, we stuck as close to the water’s edge as we could, and with each advancing descent the rapids became larger. Additionally, the daylight continued to wane and we soon found ourselves reaching for our lights. Luckily, Ted had his headlamp, but I was stuck with my Buglit flashlight, which I ended up dropping more times than I can remember. Rock hopping soon proved fruitless, and at one point Ted and I stood on top of a boulder at the top of a small waterfall. There were steep rock faces on both sides of the stream, and no where to go except into the water. Ted took the plunge first, wincing from the chilly water that soaked his lower torso. I dropped my pack, taking everything out of my pockets and shoving them in the uppermost compartment of my pack. I took a deep breath and stepped off the ledge. Water rose past my waist and into my pants as I splashed about. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Now both of us were wet, and the only option now was to keep moving, as neither of us had a change of clothes. Both of us also knew that getting wet again was not an option. We climbed on the left bank of the river, up and over an adjacent bend and dropped back down to the river on the other side. On the descent I leaned too far forward on my trekking pole, watching the metal tubes bend as if done by Superman himself. When I tried to straighten it out, the pole snapped completely in half. Not only was I up the creek without a paddle, but I had nothing to stabilize myself in case I should slip.
Fortunately, Ted had an extra pole that he generously and unselfishly lent to me. The river soon met another waterfall. This one sounded much larger than the previous ones, and in the sheer black of the night there would be no telling how many meters it dropped until it were too late. Again, we skirted the steep banks on the left side of the stream, reaching a point were a small ravine came in from the left. If we continued, it would be necessary to cross this ravine or bypass it by climbing higher up the hill. As I peered down into the abyss, I once again dropped my flashlight, sending it tumbling down about 10 meters directly below me. Now I had no choice but to go down there to retrieve it. The were very few footholds and nothing to grab onto that would aid in the abseil. Rope would have been a really good thing to have in the pack about now, I lamented. Anyway, I took one step to my left and immediately ended up on my backside, slidding at lightning speed to the bottom of the ravine. There was absolutely nothing I could do to stop the momentum. The entire fall only took a few seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. Imagine sliding down a waterslide at your neighboring pool, but instead of landing in the water, your cushion is a bed of sharp, frozen rocks. Just like the moves of a great gymnast, I broke the last part of my fall by sliding on my stomach and dismounted into a full somersault, grazing my nose and forehead in the process before landing in a fully seated position.
“Wes, are you ok?”, yelled Ted from above. “Yes”, I quickly replied, “but I’m bleeding and I’ve lost my gloves.” “This is not good, Wes, this is not good at all.”