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The 7th Summit

As the packed skiff lurched ahead and suddenly became weightless in the surf, my mind went blank.

The sounds of men shouting, the crash of waves, the grind of the black pebbles against the belly of our boat and the low sputter of the engine all faded away, replaced by a strange peace. We had done the thing. The giant was slain and receding in the distance, laying there in its lush, green armor. The preparations had paid off. The challenges of the past week had been met and overcome, there was nothing left to do but leave. It was a strange feeling- we had come to love the very place we came to conquer, and leaving it behind now felt a bit like that cliché scene in a movie where two enemies embrace after trying to kill each other.

View this article's accompanying photos in our gallery

One month earlier, I had received an intriguing message. Was I interested in accompanying and reporting on a group of climbers in their attempt to summit the tallest point in the CNMI, Mount Agrigan? Having longed to see the mysterious and greatly romanticized northern islands for years, the answer was an immediate YES.” As it turns out, the climbers are a loosely organized group of adventurers known as the Highpointers Club. Their fairly straightforward goal is to visit all 50 states and climb the highest point therein. Some, however, have expanded that vision to include territories, and for the CNMI that means taking the ~20 hour boat ride up to sparsely populated Agrigan and blazing a trail three miles in and 3,204' up through forest, swordgrass, wild pigs, and hordes of swarming flies to the tallest peak on the rim of a volcano. As an indication of how difficult an undertaking it is, last year they succeeded for the first time in recorded history.

Expedition leader Clint Kaul was on the first summit team, and proved an invaluable source of information about what would be needed as we made our way to the top. It is not merely a hike, but at times a steep and challenging climb requiring technical equipment and knowledge. Conversations with elders who lived there in the past, the Indigenous Affairs and Northern Islands Mayor’s Offices, boat operators Norman and Kelly Tenorio and longtime resident Analee Villagomez filled me in about what to expect on the island, its history, and what life would be like for our brief stay there. Supplies were purchased, bags were packed, and on the morning of Wednesday, June 12th, the Super Emerald pulled out of the harbor and turned north loaded with four climbers, four locals hired as guides/ cutters, one intrepid journalist, and almost 1,000lbs of water bottles.

The trip north was smooth. We were accompanied by a number of nautical regulars, including a friendly pod of dolphins and a large Booby which sat on our bow all through the night. After a day and a night at sea, we awoke with Pagan stretched out just behind us and Agrigan in the near distance, bathed in the sunrise and wearing a cloud mwar. As we approached, everybody craned their necks, quietly speculating on the adventure ahead. At 8am we anchored and went ashore, and began setting up base camp in the old dispensary building which was recently rebuilt by employees of the Northern Islands Mayor’s Office living there. These five men proved to be immensely helpful over the course of our trip, from helping us ashore to literally becoming lifesavers for one of our members later on.

We would be employing the seige strategy to reach the top; guides/ cutters would go ahead clearing and marking a trail while the rest of us would make incremental trips back and forth ferrying water higher up, a few 5 liter bottles at a time. Camps would be made in stages as everybody filtered up. The terrain is challenging to say the least. Leaving the dispensary building you immediately begin navigating a winding footpath, narrow and uneven, with a very steep grade. You briefly follow and then cross a dry bed of smooth stone, filled with a slippery river of hundreds of fallen mangoes. After this you begin a dusty path meandering through a deep and ancient forest filled with breadfruit and coconut trees inhabited by dangerous wild pigs, and always up up up. It was here that I was charged by a territorial sow at one point, and another of our climbers suffered a heat stroke and fell several meters into a gully only to be found and carried down the hill to safety by two other climbers and the villagers- undoubtedly saving his life.

* * *

After the forest, you face the swordgrass tunnel. In earlier correspondence, Clint had referred to it as such, which I regarded with some skepticism. A tunnel after all, is something you go through, on either side and particularly overhead. How could grass be a tunnel? As it turns out, Clint was right. Ten foot tall swordgrass most definitely forms a tunnel, and any exposed skin will immediately be shredded. On top of that, as it is cut it lays down in a slippery bed that at times feels like walking uphill on roller skates. The work done here by the cutters was nothing short of heroic. Once the path was cleared, the round trip from the dispensary to the first camp at the top of the swordgrass tunnel took anywhere from 2-4 hours depending on the climbers fatigue, and was made countless times over the first few days.

From that point, the terrain is slightly less steep, and the vegetation changes again. Ferns approximately 3’ tall cover the slope, and strangely walking through them was not unlike walking through waist deep snow. Tiny wild peppers, which are hot as they are delicious, grow in clumps. Different kinds of moss is visible on every tree. Purple, white, and yellow wildflowers splatter the carpet of ferns, and the occasional clump of swordgrass is shorter than before. The weather too is different as you make your way into this upper elevation, which is crisscrossed by deep ravines that must be roped in and out of. The wind is stronger and almost constant; fog periodically rolls through, as do cold rain showers. Gigantic fruit bats soar about like Nazgul from Middle Earth, and spending the night here means bundling up and borrowing deep into your sleeping bag, hoping you won’t get beat to death by a flapping tarp during the night.

Beyond this intermediate height lays the summit. From here on, the scene begins to look more like something from a Dr. Seuss illustration than anything you might find on Saipan. Thick moss hangs in clumps around squat, gnarled trees hosting green and orange lichens. Through the cold mist, steep spires of the crater rim appear and must be crossed. On either side of the sometimes extremely narrow path, one false step on the soggy ground sends you plunging as much as 1,500 feet down to certain death. We inched along, testing each foothold before trusting it with our full weight. At one point, a cable ladder had to be set. Two of the more experienced team members fitted with long climbing spikes and rope harnesses positioned it for the rest of us to climb up over a dangerous drop. From there, the final stretch was a near vertical fin of that had to be climbed with the aid of a rope. One of our local guides/ cutters actually traversed this final stretch barefoot, preferring lightness and agility to modern technical kit.

* * *

As we each dragged our weary bodies onto the summit, a patch of dirt barely 5'x7', we were met with the cheers of our peers ahead and a sense of pride at what had been accomplished. All told, from an original roster on Saipan of ten, a total of six of us reached the summit. We added our names to a very short list in a notebook stored in a PVC pipe, took pictures, and ran some GPS experiments. The view was rather dull at first, but after a few minutes the clouds parted revealing the entirety of the crater. Fairy terns soared below, tiny white specks against a lush green backdrop. In the center is a small, barren patch of rock where steam still rises up- a subtle indication of the monster below. Two giant formations rise from the floor of the caldera to the south, a bank of bare cliffs belts around the northwest, and to the east clouds flow in through a dip in the rim. Some members stayed several hours, basking in the reward for the weeks labors- others elected to descend quickly, having been cold and hot and wet and sore for long enough. Even still, the trip back down was punctuated by photo stops every few minutes, as it is impossible to ignore the spectacular view for very long.

Two members spent an extra night camping on the mountain, and the rest of us spent the extra day visiting with the residents. As we all eventually wound up at base camp, we ate and drank like kings with our new friends on homemade smoked fish jerky, fresh fruit, powdered milk, warm beer, and the last of our camping rations. Later on the boat ride back we would stop in Pagan lagoon for a delicious sunset feast prepared by the ships crew- but still, it’s hard to beat canned sardines and Tang when you’re exhausted. We shared music, photos, and stories of generations of residents in the past as well as our time up on the mountain and signed their picnic table with a sharpie. We patted the heads of several dogs, a doomed coconut crab, and a rooster named Shampoo. Gifts and handshakes were exchanged, and with a great many moans and groans we loaded our putrid belongings and full hearts onto the skiff to re-board the Super Emerald and begin the long journey back towards wherever we had come from.

Agrigan is the seventh island from Saipan, approximately 240mi north. Five men live there presently, working on building and beautification projects assigned by NIMO. It is challenging work, far from support and resources, but they are doing a great job. The small community is kept clean and tidy, with flowers and edible produce planted everywhere. During our stay there we found the facilities to be quite livable, albeit challenging in some ways. There is no running water, but the outhouses were well maintained and sanitary. There is no power grid, but the generator and solar chargers were ample for our occasional device charging needs. It was actually quite refreshing to use electronics on a very minimal basis. There is no Joeten, but the sea and the forest provide more than enough to eat. In conclusion, I would encourage anyone looking for adventure and a meaningful break from their “regular” life to contact the Northern Islands Mayor’s Office about participating in their ongoing projects.

Special thanks to the guides/cutters — Ray Sablan, Joe Omar, Lawrence Twelbang, Inos Germinaro; Agrigan residents Chris Kaipat, Jeremy Tapolei, Eddie Suares, AJ Suares, CJ Tapolei; the climbers — Clint Kaul, Rob Suero, David Darby, Roger Kaul; Mayor Ben Santos; the crew of the Super Emerald; and Fishing and Tackle store.

Note: despite this article being about the experiences of a team I was merely accompanying to document, a sense of comradarie developed through the shared labors and difficulties to such degree that by the completion of the goal, there was no “I” and “them” but rather “we,” and the pronouns used in this writing intentionally reflect that.