Marshall Island

In High Places

By: Burton Falk


My wife, Jo, and I just returned from making the very first recorded ascent of the lowest national high point in the world. Yep, it happened this past January, while we were visiting the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Johnny "Appleseed" Chapman, on Jo's side of the family, will no longer be my children's and grandchildren's most famous relative. No doubt, as soon as my book, Into Thick Air, is published, I'll be signing autographs and publicity photos. The question will be should I inscribe them "Climb every mountain," or just plain "Excelsior?" Could there be a knighthood in store? Like- Sir Edmund (Hillary), Sir Burton has a ring to it.

Then again, maybe what I climbed wasn't the lowest national highpoint in the world (the Maldives' could be lower). Maybe what I climbed wasn't even RMI's true high point. Also, even if it was, maybe I didn't make the first recorded ascent. More likely still, maybe no one really gives a hoot.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is comprised of two of the most isolated island chains on earth. And because of their remoteness, three of the nation's 34 major islands-Bikini, Eniwetok and Kwajalein- have become famous or infamous, depending on your point of view, the first two having been sites for 67 nuclear bomb tests between 1945 and1958, while the third, the largest atoll in the world, is currently a target and tracking site for missiles test-fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base here in California.

RMI is located about half way between Hawaii and New Guinea, just above the equator, and is scattered over 750,000 sq. miles of the Pacific Ocean. Lying parallel to one another, about 150 miles apart, the eastern chain of islands is named Ratak "toward dawn," while the western chain is called Ralik, "toward sunset." The total land area in the whole of RMI is a mere 69.9 sq. miles.

Because of its interesting itinerary, Jo and I signed on to visit Micronesia in January and February of this year, during the first leg of the Crystal Symphony's 2001 world cruise. "Cool," I thought. "I'll be able to bag a few rare high points." Then as I began researching the locations of the various island highs, reality set in. The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronesia, for instance, states that RMI's 34' high point is located on Likiep Atoll. Checking it out, I discovered that the only practical means of getting to Likiep was via a once-a-week Air Marshall Islands flight, leaving from and returning to Majuro Atoll, on which the capital of RMI is located, a trip that afforded a mere two-hour stopover on the high point island.

Regarding Palau and Guam, the Symphony's two other Micronesian ports of call, I found that bagging their highpoints would be possible only if everything (car rentals, weather, guides) fell perfectly into place. And that would put a lot of pressure on us, as "missing the boat" in a region so remote would be a really bad idea. Islands like Pohnpei, on which the highpoint of the Federated States of Micronesia is located; Yap, the most traditional destination in Micronesia, and Saipan, home of salubrious beaches and historic WWII sites, were not to be visited at all.

Meanwhile, since, the cruise would take 13 days to sail from Los Angeles to RMI (including a day each at-yawn-Honolulu and Lahaina), Jo and I began a campaign to convince Crystal Cruise Line to let us embark the Symphony at Maui, thus saving us 7 days on board. Crystal was adamant. "No way," they replied. Finally, 5 months before we were to set sail, we decided, "Hey, let's do this trip on our own." It was one of the better "Heys of Our Lives."

So, what do you know about atolls? Well, because 29 of RMI's 34 major islands are atolls (the other 5 being "low" islands), it's important to know how they were formed, as this in turn explains why the high point of the nation is so low.

The first step in fashioning an atoll involves an undersea volcano building up until it breaches the ocean surface, thus forming an island. Think of the Big Island in Hawaii, which continues to grow even as you read this article. Step number two-and this only can occur in tropical or subtropical zones, no more than 30 degrees north or south of the equator-is for a ring of coral to grow around the new island, creating a fringing reef. As you probably know, a coral reef is. a living organism made up of millions upon millions of polyps with calcareous shells. Anchored to the rock-hard skeletons of ancestors, it too gradually builds its way to the ocean surface.

The final step occurs a few million years later, when, due to subsidence and erosion, the volcanic island disappears completely. All that is left is the coral reef encircling a newly created void-now called a lagoon. Voila, an atoll! Even today-check it out if you don't believe me-the Air Marshall Islands (AMI) web site indicates that their once a week flight from Majuro to Likiep and back operates on Thursdays. Taking them at their word, and also considering Continental Micronesia's famous Island Hopper flights, which fly thrice weekly from Honolulu to Guam, via Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Chuuk (and back again the next day), I laid out our itinerary so that we'd be in Majuro on a Thursday, then .I called my travel agent to arrange our flights. She called back a day or two later to report that, while the Continental reservations were no problem, she could not book the Likiep seats, as AMI was not responding to her email request.

Concerned, I e-mailed AMI directly to make my own reservations-or at least confirm the current Likiep schedule. After two weeks, I too had received no answer. I then e-mailed our hotel in Majuro, the Outrigger, to see if they could obtain an updated AMI flight schedule. The hotel promptly e-mailed back that the Likiep flight would operate only on Sundays throughout January 2001. I called my travel agent, and rearranged our schedule.

Still lacking Likiep reservations, however, I finally decided to call AMI in Majuro directly, where a woman answered, "Hello?" When I inquired, "Air Marshall Islands?," she replied, somewhat reluctantly; I thought, "Yes." Inquiring about the Likiep flight, she told me the flight would operate only on Saturdays in January. Sensing that was the best information I was going to get, I reserved two seats ($240 each, round trip), after which I called my travel agent to once again rearrange our schedule.

For the most part, Micronesia consists of four mid-Pacific archipelagos-the Marshall, Gilbert, Caroline and Mariana Islands-a vast region into which, archeologists believe, Austronesian-speaking people from S.E. Asia began migrating almost 4,000 years ago. Although the western-most islands, such as Palau and Yap, are thought to have been the first areas populated, the earliest artifacts uncovered in Micronesia to date-carbon-dated back to 1960 BC-were discovered on Bikini.

The first European to set foot in Micronesia was Ferdinand Magellan, who, during the first roundthe-world voyage, landed on Guam in January 1521. Eight years later in 1529, Alvaro de Saasavedra, on yet another Spanish expedition, made the first European sighting of the Marshall Islands. Somewhat inexplicably, it was the English sea captain, John Marshall, who visited the area in 1788, 259 years after de Saasavedra, for whom the islands were eventually named.

In 1885, following a quarter century of copra plantation development by German businessmen, the Marshalls became a German Protectorate. In 1914, the Japanese, using World War I as an excuse, seized control of the Marshalls, along with most of the rest of Micronesia, and then proceeded to colonize and fortify the region in a rather blatant extension of their own empire. Following WWII, the Japanese having been ousted, the United Nations ceded most of Micronesia as a Trust Territory to the United States (with the Gilbert and Ellice Islands going to Britain). In 1978, the Marshallese drafted and approved their own constitution, and in 1986, RMI became an independent nation--although it still maintains special, mostly financial, ties with the U.S.

Today the population. of RMI numbers approximately 50,000, about 23;000 of whom live on Majuro.

Jo and I landed at the Majuro airport in the midst of a midday shower on Thursday, -January 24. After checking into the modern lagoon-front Outrigger Hotel, we walked into the long, narrow town called DUD (for three once-separate communities, Delap, Uliga and Darrit), where we came upon the office of the Marshall Islands Visitor Authority--a fortuitous discovery, indeed.

Stepping inside the air-conditioned office, we met Benjamin Graham, the Authority's young, bright and personable general manager. Explaining our desire to climb the high point of the country, Ben first directed us to the office's large map collection, which included charts for every major island in the young nation. Scanning the U.S. Government map for Likiep Atoll, I discovered that most of the data had been gathered by the Japanese in the mid-Thirties during their occupation of the island. Although depths of passageways through the coral reefs and lagoon anchorages were abundant, land elevations were rarely indicated. We found no helpful highpoint information, whatsoever.

Ben said that he, too, had heard that the highpoint of RMI was on Likiep, but he wasn't aware of how or by whom that fact had been determined. He then volunteered to contact a Likiep resident, Joe de Brum, a person who should know all about the atoll, as his two great-grandfathers, Jose de Brum, a Portuguese whaler, and Adolph Capelle,, a German businessman, had purchased the island from a Marshallese chief back in 1877. "In fact," he said, "Joe is a really great guy. I'll radio him and ask him. to give you a tour when you arrive Saturday."

The next day, Friday, Jo and I visited the Alele Museum, Library and National Archives in D-U-D, where, in addition to perusing the small but excellent collection of Marshallese artifacts, we again looked for definitive information on the country's high point. Once again we came up empty handed.

On Saturday morning, January 26, our small Air Marshall Islands plane touched down on Likiep's grass runway about 11:30 a.m.-a mere 2-314 hours late. AMI, it seems, runs more like a taxi service than a for-profit airline. That morning, for instance, they had so many passengers who wanted to fly to the intervening atoll of Wotje that they decided to first run a planeful up there, then come back and pick up the Likiep passengers.

The delay was forgotten as soon as we stepped out of the plane, however. Standing there in the midday sunshine were both Joe de Brum and his wife, the latter of whom placed leis around our necks. And that was just the start of our memorable visit.

During the next two hours Joe, who is a very lively 70 years of age, squired us around his family's island, first leading us through the "mansion," built by his grandfather, Joachim de Brum, about 1900. This commodious three-room building once served as home to a man who could have been straight out of a novel by Maughm, Michener Or Conrad. Not only was Joachim a benevolent Lord Jim sort, but he also possessed enough interest and insight to photographically record the turn of the century life on his island, an important collection, now stored in the Alele Museum in D-U-D, which Jo and I had viewed the previous day.

Next Joe walked us over to the island's new 12-unit hotel, which is situated in the lee of a coconut palm grove, on the lagoon side of the atoll, overlooking a curving white sand beach. Since the beach itself drops off rather steeply into the lagoon, the color of the calm waters change from crystal clear to turquoise to dark blue in a very short distance. It's very pretty.

If you really, really want to get away from it all, we suggest you give Likiep your utmost consideration. No TVs, no telephones, no trafficjust a gentle trade wind and some most friendly people you'll meet anywhere. Keep in mind, however, that there is only one flight a week into and off of the island-so you have to stay for a minimum of seven days. Also be advised that there is BYOB policy in effect, as no alcoholic beverages are sold there. Although you can buy all your meals at the hotel, many guests prefer to bring a few supplies of their own. Catching and preparing your own fish dinners also seems to be quite popular.

Next, Joe showed us a small Japanese-built solar-powered ice plant, the product of which allows the island fishermen to preserve their catches while awaiting the arrival of the factory ship. We then continued down a dirt road to a well-maintained Catholic church possessing some of the most beautiful stained glass windows you can imagine. And all this on an island with a total population of only 200.

Lastly, we boarded the lone vehicle on Likiep, a very small pick up truck Jo and Joe in the front, me on the truck bed-and drove out to where Joe thought the high point might be. "My guess is that these mounds I'm going to show you were thrown up during a big typhoon," he said. And, sure enough, there, near the west end of Likiep Island, we found a series of 10-15' high hummocks, shaded by towering coconut palms. Picking out the one we thought the highest, I strapped on my crampons, roped up, and after a grueling 30 second climb, with only one ice axe arrest, there I was-"The top of the world, ma!"

We took the appropriate photos, and then headed back for the airstrip, where we arrived just in time to board our return flight. As we lifted off from the verdant island, we could see Joe standing in the shade of the coconut palms, waving us goodbye. We were truly touched by his warmth and hospitality. We can't begin to thank him enough.

Two days after the "climb," we left RMI, heading for Pohnpei, where we planned to bag the high point of the Federated States of Micronesia. In retrospect, we believe that the best part of our visit to this new island country was getting to know the Marshallese people, a very friendly and warmhearted bunch, indeed. The "aloha" spirit, that has begun to disappear in the hustle and bustle of today's Hawaii, remains in full force in RMI. If you should ever decide to visit the Marshalls, just flash a smile in anyone's direction, and you'll get a broader one back in return-we guarantee it!


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