Marianas Variety

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Climbing the highest peak in Micronesia

GARY Reckelhoff has been climbing mountains for about a decade. In December of 2016, he set out to become a U.S. Highpointer — someone who has climbed the highest peaks in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

When Gary arrived in the CNMI three weeks ago, he already had 45 of the 56 peaks under his belt. He and 11 fellow climbers had their sights set on Agrihan, the highest peak in Micronesia and what he calls “the Wild West, as far as mountaineering is concerned.”

There is no record of Agrihan ever being summited, though it’s beyond likely that past inhabitants of the Marianas made the climb at some point in the last 4,000 years. That said, no record means no maps, no trails, and no amount of preparation that can guarantee success.

In fact, this was expedition leader John Mitchler’s third attempt to scale Agrihan. He brought a crew of climbers to climb the relatively modest 3,166-foot peak in 2014, but with limited information and only three days’ time, Mitchler’s first team failed to make it even half way up the mountain. In 2015, a larger team made a second attempt, this time with more local help and seven days. They ran out of time, supplies and man power only “twenty-six feet from history” (later they would discover that the second team was actually around 200 feet short of the summit).

This time around, the hikers came more prepared than ever.

“I think the only thing we didn’t bring that was discussed on the gear list was a grappling hook that could be launched from a gun of sorts,” said Reckelhoff. “Most people on the trip brought standard luggage you would bring on a leisure trip plus two checked bags that weighed 50-70 pounds a piece with climbing rope, climbing harnesses, different carabiners and belaying devices.”

The crew also brought a surprising amount of winter mountaineering equipment. “The volcanic environment requires unconventional stuff,” Reckelhoff explained, “because there are no trees, no mud, no rocks…we had to burry aluminum [snow] pickets in the volcanic soil and tie ropes off of it and that was your anchor.”

“We also decided to bring these things called micro spikes…which is essentially a rubber net you pull over your shoe, because you have all this sword grass and it’s very wet. Without some kind of traction aid you could slip and with what we’re doing, a slip means an 800-foot fall into a crater.”

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Joe Omar, lead guide

Mitchell’s hikers were aided by six locals — “Jungle” Joe Omar, Lawrence Twelfang, Frank Camacho, Vincent Falig, Ray Sablan, and Inos Germinaro. Gary Sword helped the hikers find what they needed before they set off from Saipan (he and his wife Rosemond supported the teams on their earlier attempts) and Keli Tenorio provided passage from Saipan on her boat, Super Emerald.

They arrived on Agrihan on May 27. Reckelhoff said a four-man crew began cutting a trail through the woods immediately; the weather was uncertain and time was of the essence.

“The forest had its own challenges because you’re walking over a sea of coconuts,” he said. Plus they weren’t alone; wild hogs roam the forests, and they’re known for being aggressive toward humans.

“The locals brought these things, M-80’s, really loud fireworks to startle and scare the pigs because some of them are pretty big… and they have tusks.”

Reckelhoff said the climbers also saw monitor lizards that were “easily six feet long.”

“They would usually startle you because they blend in almost like camouflage on tree trunks,” he said. “But sometimes we would scare them and they would literally just fall off the trees — this fifteen-pound lizard would smack on the ground in front of you and take off in another direction.”

On their third day of trekking, the team was confronted by a sea of saw grass up to eight feet high. They were about one-third up the summit, facing what Reckelhoff called “a wall of vegetation.”

“The saw grass on the second third of the mountain was probably the hardest most insufferable part because it was so hot, there was next to no shade, and the flies were really intense,” he said. “Easily you’ll have sixty to one hundred flies on you at one time. Like the first day it’s shocking and your senses are sort of overwhelmed, but I think after that, all of us kind of became consciously unaware... like unless a fly is trying to crawl across your eyeball or enter your mouth you just become accepting of the fact that they’re everywhere.”

Reckelhoff said that the saw grass was sharp enough to unravel clothing and slice innumerable paper-cut-like wounds into unprotected skin. Even when the local trailblazers cut through the grass with machetes, they left behind razor-sharp stalks that stuck up from the ground like daggers. The team navigated the saw grass maze for two days, sending drones into the air when they lost sight of the ridge.

The unfavorable conditions are all part of what Reckelhoff calls “Type 2 fun.”

“Type 1 fun is what you’d have on a normal vacation where you’ve having fun in the moment,” he explained. “Type 2 fun is when you’re suffering, you’re sweaty, it sort of sucks, you’re probably cursing at some point… and only after the fact you’re like, ‘That was really fun.’”

“But I think maybe half of us, like myself, are crazy enough where in the moment, even when you’re suffering, you’re like, ‘This is great.’”

Around 2000 feet up, the saw grass began to shorten and thin. Eventually it was only waist-high.

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“Once you get to the upper 800 feet of elevation, it’s almost a completely different environment,” Reckelhoff said. “You’re looking at cutting through ferns, not saw grass, and you have a totally different array of insects and plants that you don’t see at lower elevation.”

During the final stretch, Reckelhoff photographed some insects and plants that were unfamiliar to employees of Fish and Wildlife — it seems that the northern island may be home to undocumented organisms in addition to unmapped terrain.

On day six, they reached the rim of Agrihan’s enormous volcanic crater.

“There were so many different words that the team members used to describe it,” said Reckelhoff. “Like ‘unspoiled wilderness’ or ‘The Lost World.’”

“You’re looking down almost vertically on birds that are soaring a few hundred feet below you and they’re 500 feet off the crater floor. And it’s equally mysterious because… there were always clouds moving so you were never quite privileged enough to see all of it at once, you would just see glimpses with sunlight shining through.”

At the center of the crater, they could see a sulfur pool and steam vent; from their vantage point it appeared pond-like, but satellite mapping revealed that the pool was larger than a football field.

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Gary Reckelhoff uses a Topcon Precision Leveling Device to determine the true summit.

When they finally arrived at what they believed to be the highest peak of Agrihan, a sensitive leveling instrument demonstrated that they were actually ten feet below the true summit. Determined to reach the absolute highest point on Agrihan, the hikers buckled down for another day of precarious climbing around the edge of the crater.

Reckelhoff says that was the point when the locals lost interest: “We tried to encourage them to stay up there the following morning… and they kind of smiled like ‘Yeah that’s great and all but it’s incredibly cold up here,’” he remembers. He says the peak is “a good 30 degrees cooler than it is at beach level” and “has its own weather system and its own clouds.”

“The locals got to the top and were like ‘Ok you guys do you,’ and they tore off towards the beach.”

The climbers had to use three rope lines and a caving ladder to get to the summit — the path from the rim to the peak took 30 additional minutes to traverse and was so precarious that two climbers chose not to risk it. They reached the true summit on June 1, and while it was too narrow a space for the mountain climbers to pose for a group photo, Reckelhoff managed to camp there for one night.

“I was literally clipped in with a climbing harness and a rope in a little sleeping bag…right on the summit,” he said. The team stayed another day to map the area. They also left their mark — a bottled summit register attached to a mountaineering ax.

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Mountaineering ax with summit register at Agrihan’s highest peak.  Contributed photos

Now that the trail has been cut, an experienced climber can hike from Agrihan’s beach to its summit in only four hours.

“I know the Northern Islands Mayor’s Office is really enthusiastic and wants to keep the trail cut and open which I would love to see done,” said Reckelhoff. “I think having been there and having seen it, the island has immense value from an ecotourism point — maybe not to leisure tourists — but it’s a fun, challenging hike that essentially no one has done.”

The hikers also hope to spearhead the naming of the peak: “It's customary for the mountain climbers of a successful first ascent to name the summit,” Reckelhoff said. “We have chosen to defer this to the people of CNMI and would like readers to consider the beauty, ruggedness, and nature of Agrihan’s summit and submit a suggestion in the native Chamorro language to Gary Sword at KKMP.”