Peak of terror for Emerald miner
JUST hours after Emerald coal miner Luke Richmond stood on top of the world, the adventurer's euphoria was tempered by terror as he suddenly faced decapitation by machete or surrender to militant security forces in the jungle wilds of West Papua.
With virtually no chance of survival if he resisted, Luke and his fellow mountaineers played the odds and found themselves detained in a cramped shipping container on a ragged rock face for six days while cannibalistic tribal elders debated whether to kill one of them in a primitive form of justice.
"I've sort of been in a few situations like that before and it's all about not losing your mind," Luke said.
"You've just got to do stuff in your mind, because if you just sit there, that's when you'll lose it."
What began as another step toward becoming the first Australian to climb the world's seven highest mountains became a harrowing experience after a freak rock fall crushed one of the local kids that had set out with Luke's group up the 4882m Carstensz Pyramid in Papua New Guinea.
For six days, the 10 climbers and about 50 local villagers hacked their way through some of the thickest jungle in the world just to reach the base of the mountain.
After 14 hours of what Luke called a "perfect climb", the group stood on Australasia's highest peak and thought the hardest part was over.
"It was a perfect climb. Six days through the jungle and one day on the mountain - it was incredible," Luke said.
"But on that night, that's when the problem started."
When a rock, about the size of a body board, landed on the young porter, the village chief thought he had been killed instantly and sought justice according to local tribal law.
"The head villager ran down to our camp with his machete and began yelling for blood," he said.
"He was waiting for someone to show himself so he could level the score.
"In that part of the world, the local people have a fairly simple way of thinking: 'the climbers brought us here and we are hurt, so now they must be hurt'.
"An eye for an eye."
The group's mountain guide confronted the chief, finally convincing him to hold off killing one of the mountaineers, at least until after a discussion the next day.
They were told to return to the scene where they were greeted by mixed emotions - some of the villagers shook the westerners' hands, some smiled, while others glared with intense resentment at the 'murderers' when they asked to see the porter.
"We took one look at his rising chest and told them he was still alive," Luke said.
"We immediately mustered everyone together and built a stretcher out of old timber and then used one of their tarps to wrap the stretcher with the boy inside into something that could be carried steadily."
The closest available medical help was at a nearby mine where 10,000 Papua New Guinean miners were on strike and violent riots had broken out.
Although fearful, the group had no option as the boy needed help, and if he died, one of the westerners would be killed.
"By dinner that night it was clear that we could not take the chance and head back into the jungle with this team of porters, it was simply too risky," Luke said.
With no helicopter evacuation possible, the group surrendered to mine security who detained the group, confining them to a small shipping container perched on the edge of the mine.
For six days they ate only one meal of cold rice and chicken as they tried relentlessly to contact trek organisers Adventure Indonesia for evacuation.
On the morning of the sixth day, a Russian helicopter finally arrived at the mine and the hungry, tired and stressed mountaineers were flown to the nearby Timika, only to be evacuated again as rioters and striking mine workers took over the town.
Eventually the group made it back to Bali, safety and freedom.
"I was stoked," Luke said.
"Until that point when we landed in Bali, nothing was set in concrete and could change at any time."
Now back in Sydney, Luke summed up the trek simply as "hectic", and has no intention of near-decapitation and possible cannibalism stopping him from conquering the seven summits.
In a few weeks he leaves for Thailand to begin training for his next mission - Vincent Massif in Antarctica.
Luke has already tackled Denali in Alaska, Aconcagua in South America and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
He will return to Russia next July for his second attempt at Elbrus.
"Four from five isn't bad, not bad at all," Luke said.