Mike Dillard, chief executive officer of Century Martial Arts and a prominent area developer, is a well known adrenaline junkie — but even he admits he was shaken by his latest adventure.
What began as a recent attempt at mountain climbing in Indonesia was far more dangerous than he ever envisioned as he trekked through territory with battles raging among tribes, Indonesian soldiers, rebels, police and mercenaries.
It’s an adventure that involved a four-day detention at the world’s largest gold mine, the threat of being held for ransom by mercenaries and a daring escape.
Patti Beard was talking to a friend on the night of March 21 when an alarming text message popped up on her phone from Dillard, her brother and employer.
“Stuck in mine detention. Might be public stock. Need strings pulled to get out.”
Over the next few hours, Beard and Dillard exchanged a series of text messages that left them both convinced that Dillard and his wife, Libby, were in grave danger at an American-owned gold mine in a remote Indonesian jungle where they had initially sought refuge.
Beard said authorities with SOS International, which Dillard retained for emergency medical care, warned that without a quick escape the Dillards likely would be escorted from the Indonesian gold mine by mercenaries who would demand a high ransom for their release.
“I’ve lived a charmed life,”
Dillard confesses recalling his various exploits.
“I’ve gotten to do a lot of fun things because of the job I have.”
But what ensued is the sort of drama that Dillard admits was over the top for even a self-admitted adrenaline junkie as himself.
The Oklahoman was not able to reach someone at the gold mining company for reaction to the Dillards’ story.
The trip began with the goal of climbing the Carstensz Pyramid, which at 16,000 feet is one of the world’s “Seven Peaks” (the highest peak on each of the seven continents). The Dillards had already climbed two of the peaks — Aconcagua in Argentina and Kilimanjaro in Africa.
They trained for months before attempting to tackle Carstensz in the Papau province. They knew the real challenge wasn’t the climb itself, but rather the treacherous eight-day jungle trek required to get to the mountain’s base.
They employed Jean Pavillard as their guide — a 24-year veteran who boasted experience mountain climbing on each continent.
Pavillard believed he did a good job explaining the risks of this trip. The Papau province is in a remote part of Indonesia — an area not accustomed to tourism and where the tribes have yet to catch up with the modern world.
“When you go on an expedition, such as Carstensz in Papau, you are really entering an adventure with a lot of unknowns,”
Pavillard said in an interview with The Oklahoman last week.
“You have to be willing and ready to accept those unknowns … It’s the trek, the difficulty of dealing with the tribes. Nobody knows them very well.”
Dillard insists some information about the area was known — but not explained before the journey. He did not know that the Freeport/Grasberg mine near the base of the mountain has been the source of armed conflict for decades.
With profits topping $4.1 billion in 2010, the Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. retains 91 percent of the proceeds while the remaining 9 percent goes to the Indonesian government. Papuans have fought to increase their share of the profits, resulting in violent strikes they claim are suppressed by mercenaries hired as strikebreakers by the mine’s owners.
Tribes are at war. The government is battling the Free Papua Movement — rebels seeking to overthrow the government of Papua and West Papau. Security forces, rebels and tribes all stand accused of violence in the area, with deadly terrorist attacks reported just a month before the Dillards’ arrival.
Yet with so much strife in the area, the Dillards say they knew nothing of the danger that awaited them.
After two days of traveling to Indonesia, the couple arrived by air in Sugapa, a remote village separated from the mountain by a primitive jungle.
Here, the Dillards witnessed how business is done with the natives. Tribal groups battled over who would be hired as their “porters,” who carry gear and supplies, and aid in navigating the trails), and the tour organizers used food, tobacco and other means of bribery to negotiate with locals over permits.
More hints of what was ahead began to emerge: Pavillard advised the couple they would have to use a different trail than the one used on the guide’s previous trek due to fighting among the five represented tribes.
The Dillards also discovered the porters insist on bringing women and children on the hike, despite their objections.
“They take whoever they want,”
“You don’t have a choice. You negotiate with them on that subject, and they’re just taking who they want. And there are others from the town who just come along.”
The trail worsened as the trek continued. The muddy ups and downs were far worse than the Dillards had trained for. Rickety stick bridges provided uncertain passage over potentially deadly rapid waters.
Pavillard, the cook and other crew members fell ill. Libby Dillard, meanwhile, continued to worry about the women and children traveling along the treacherous route. And as the jungle grew more and more dangerous, her emotions frayed.
Pavillard dismissed such fears.
“We as Westerners don’t consider that as safe,”
“And it’s correct — it’s not safe. But sometimes you have to realize those kids live in this environment. They are agile, they are used to it. We had a girl who was about eight years old and I’d estimate neither Michael nor Libby could keep up with her. She lives in the forest and walks faster than anyone.”
The couple was halfway on their journey to the mountain when they discovered some of the porters were armed. The area they were about to cross, they learned, was disputed by warring tribes.
On the eighth day of their trek they were just a couple of hours away from the mountain’s base, but Libby Dillard had been through enough. She was emotionally and physically sick and exhausted. Despite encouragement by her husband to wait, rest, and resume their journey, it was over.
Mike Dillard and Pavillard disagree on what happened next. Pavillard argues the choice to cross the mine was a decision made by Dillard, but that he was confident because the pair were American, they would be safely accommodated.
Dillard said he was told by Pavillard that payments were arranged with guards at the mine to pick them up in a car and take them to a nearby town. Pavillard said he instructed one of the local tour operators to take the couple to the mine, where they were told they could follow a road where a car would meet them.
Once the Dillards arrived, however, the operator left them where there was no road — and no awaiting car. They wandered around large earth movers, and were encountered by a miner who brought them to the mine’s guards.
After a two-hour interrogation, the couple was led to a holding cell, Dillard recalled in his diary. When they finally contacted an American working at the mine, they were told the company’s position was to offer no assistance to mountain climbers, Dillard said. The guards, however, were friendly.
Dillard said he struck a friendship with a guard and managed to get his satellite phone charged and was allowed outside where he was able to get enough reception to send his text message to his sister, alerting her to his plight.
Beard immediately began calling every possible contact. She was informed the embassy had no presence in the area and could not be of any help. The embassy and officials with SOS International also advised Beard that among those protecting the mine may be mercenaries, and they routinely held hikers and climbers in detention for a few days — long enough to research their captives online to determine how much ransom could be demanded for their freedom.
If the Dillards were to be taken away from the mine by the mercenaries, Beard was told, she was to expect that a ransom would be demanded. Beard texted her brother the news and alerted top officers of his company. Dillard said he contemplated trying to overtake the guards, but with both he and his wife ailing, and a long, dangerous trek needed to reach the nearest town, he thought better of such a tactic.
While visiting with a doctor working for a contractor employed by the mine, they thought up another scheme — they would tell the guards Libby Dillard was pregnant and ill, and that the pair needed to go the town’s hospital.
The timing of their departure fortuitously coincided with a Muslim holiday, so all was quiet as they were sneaked onto a steep tram down into the valley.
At the hospital, the doctor conspired to have the couple admitted for two days and helped slip them onto a bus convey back to Timika.
The ruse worked.
“At an unapproachable bus station highly fenced off from the waiting crowd we got off along with several hundred mine workers,”
“I had seven dollars’ worth of rupees, the local currency, in my pocket, and the name of the Rimba Papua hotel. I used the money to get a ride, went into the hotel stinking, wearing filthy clothes and talked our way into a room with my American Express card number which I had memorized,” he said.
After a quick shopping trip, the pair was showered and wearing clean clothes. They were finally safe.
Two weeks later, the Dillards were back home. Libby Dillard on Friday was still ill and being checked for malaria. Michael Dillard, meanwhile, was preparing for a fishing trip in Mexico.
Both say they’ll attempt the climb again someday — under different circumstances. Libby Dillard is proud of her climbs to date — each done in the name of “Oklahoma Lawyers for Children,” a charity that assists children removed from their homes due to abuse.
“There is no calling it quits,”
Libby Dillard said.
“Next time I’ll be better prepared. We’ll use a different guide. I’m doing this for charity. It keeps me going, it inspires me.”