Hiking on Guam, in the Mariana Islands: Is Mount Lamlam an authentic rival to Mount Everest?

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The higher you climb on Guam’s Mount Lamlam, the more beautiful the views become. This is Cetti Bay on the southwestern side of the island. 

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the 12th in a series about my March 2018 trip to Guam, and Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan. See my April 1 discussion of Navy man George Tweed’s ability to elude capture by Japanese soldiers for more than two years on Guam in World War II; April 8 about Okinawan food specialties, and visits to a market and area known for its pottery; April 15 about the sinking of Japan’s Tsushima Maru and the deaths of hundreds of schoolchildren during WWII; April 29 about photographing newlyweds after their Shinto ceremony; May 14 about the WWII destruction of Shurijo Castle; May 21 about making soba noodles from scratch at a cooking class in Naha; June 16 about Peace Memorial Park, a former WWII battlefield and now a sprawling complex that commemorates the Battle of Okinawa; June 27 about the sister cities of Naha, Okinawa and Fuzhou, China and their shared bond celebrated at Fukushuen Garden;  July 22 about the former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters in Okinawa; August 15 about WWII-related sites on Guam; and August 28 about the Guam Museum and the island’s cultural heritage.

Consider this an apples and oranges discussion. Our topic: tallest mountain on Earth.

Mount Lamlam is the highest point on the island of Guam, topping out at about 1,332 feet (406 meters) above sea level. Some make the claim that it is “higher” than Mount Everest (29,035 feet, 8850 meters), so how can this be? 

The mountains have almost nothing in common. Mount Lamlam, in a tropical marine climate in the South Pacific, is nothing like the ice, snow and bone-chilling temperatures facing those that attempt to scale Everest. 

Reasonably fit hikers can make a round-trip hike of Lamlam, near the village of Agat on the southwestern part of the island, in little more than three hours. (Agat’s beach was one of the locations where U.S. troops came ashore on July 21, 1944 in an opening battle to retake the island from the Japanese during World War II.)

It takes many days and altitude acclimatization — to say nothing of thousands of dollars, permits and teams of guides and sherpas — to tackle Everest, in the mighty Himalayas between Nepal and Tibet.

The answer to the height question is the Mariana Trench, a deep depression in the Pacific Ocean floor, which is where Lamlam begins. If measuring from that point, Lamlam rises to 37,820 feet. But because the majority of Lamlam is submerged, it obviously isn’t equal to the Everest climb. 

Some evidence also points to Mauna Kea, a volcano on the big island of Hawaii, as being the tallest on Earth, topping out at more than 33,000 feet from base to peak (10,200 meters). It’s not really possible to compare the peaks using the same parameters, which is where the apples and oranges come in.

But in Lamlam’s favor, even considering the remote location of Guam in the Mariana islands chain, is that it is likely that far more visitors and residents have successfully summited it than ever will Everest.

It wasn’t until May 29, 1953, that New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to stand atop Everest. Since then, about 4,000 people have successfully summited, but about 200 climbers have died trying while pitting themselves against the treacherous peak.  

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Keep your eyes open for pretty flowers among the native plants.

The trek up Mount Lamlam (it means lightning in the indigenous Chamorro language) — with no need for expensive gear, clothing or oxygen tanks —  offers a superb view of Cetti Bay. All you need to do is glance back over your shoulder to drink in the deep blue sea and a rocky coastline. Contrast that to the surrounding scenery of lush green hills, native grasses, delicate flowers and plants as you continue up Lamlam. 

I’d recommend wearing long shorts or even long pants because in many sections, the poorly marked but well-worn red-dirt path goes through swaths of head-high jagged sword grass. (I didn’t see any wooden signs or arrows pointing the way. Flimsy pieces of cloth were tied to some plants, and I think these were meant to indicate the route.)

There are a few steep inclines where you may feel safer by making like a crab on the way up and sliding on your rear end on the way down.

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The jagged sword grass is head-high in some areas, and you’ll have to use your hands to part the overgrowth in others. 

In places, the sword grass is so thick that it isn’t hard to imagine how fleeing American service personnel (see April 1, 2018 post on Navy man George Tweed), stationed on Guam during World War II, crouched among the native plants while moving to more secure locations, dodging search parties of Japanese soldiers along the way. 

In my heavily jet-lagged state, I probably slowed down the pace of our threesome, the other two of whom had also previously climbed part of the roughly 2.5-mile route.

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The path off to the right will lead to a stand of crosses. If you take this leg, you won’t be heading to the top of Mount Lamlam.

About midway up the path, branching off to the right, are clusters of crosses large and small, placed by local Catholics (about 85 percent of the local population practices the religion), but we continued past this secondary peak. Small figures of Mary adorned with beads and individual crosses also dotted the trail.

Just below the summit is a rocky stretch that I declined to tackle. I thought I might be able to get up the steep landscape, but with no secure hand-holds or railings, I worried about getting down safely. As this was at the beginning of a two-week trip, I thought it wiser not to risk gashing myself on the rocks or even worse, breaking a bone. 

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Part of the rocky terrain just below Mount Lamlam’s summit. It’s steeper than it looks.

Must-haves for the outing: Hat; sunglasses; sunscreen; mosquito repellent; water; snacks; sturdy, broken-in closed-toed shoes; and a camera. A guide would also be a good idea if you plan on going alone, especially if you are an inexperienced hiker.

I saw people hiking in ill-advised flip-flops and very short shorts, with none of the support gear I just mentioned. But more amazing were the folks either carrying babies or pushing them in strollers. My guess would be that they weren’t planning on going to the summit and were just out for a gentler walk.

The hike is easier and more enjoyable when the terrain is dry. And if you’re walking at sunrise or sunset, make sure to take flashlights.  

Quick reference: Mount Lamlam, open year-round, around-the-clock. Free. No shelter, food or water are available along the route. Trailhead is across from Bakanan Cetti Overlook, about 10 minutes north of Naval Base Guam on Route 2/2A. 

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