It was still dark and cold when we reached the fixed ropes. Our thick gloves made it more difficult to use the ascenders, but it was too cold to go without. Finally, after 5 tough days of hiking through the Papuan jungle, the summit of Carstensz Pyramid was within our reach.
Carstensz Pyramid (Puncak Jaya in Malay) is the highest peak on Mount Carstensz (Jayawijaya) in Indonesia. At 4,884 m it is the highest mountain on the Australasian continental shelf. To mountaineers, climbing the seven summits, the highest mountain on each continent is a highly regarded achievement. Mt. Kosciusko in Australia was thought by some to be the highest for this continent, but as it is only 2,228 m high, mountaineers sought out a higher mountain. Carstensz Pyramid was deemed to be its replacement as one of the official peaks of the Seven Summits.
This story is part of a series ‘Seven Summits’. New chapters will be released over the next few months.
Richard was on his way to accomplishing one of mountaineering’s highest objectives; completing the Seven Summits. Maggie tagged along on this expedition but wasn’t completing the seven summits. Our journey began on a flight from Denpasar, Bali to Timika in the Indonesian province of Papua. Arriving in Timika, we knew we had left touristy Bali behind. It was our first time seeing the distinctive red spit from the betel nut, and the intense, curious stares from locals. After a long wait in Timika’s small airport, we boarded a second small plane bound for Sugapa, deep in the jungles of Papua. The landing strip in Sugapa is a small, short piece of flat land between two dramatic cliffs. Our pilot was one of the best we’ve ever had. He negotiated the tricky terrain with ease.
In Sugapa, we stayed overnight in a local house where we met the other 12 members of the climbing expedition as well as our 3 guides and their assistants.
In the morning, the adventure began, but it wasn’t a climbing adventure yet. The adventure was watching the intense negotiations between our guides and the Dani tribe leaders. Our expedition needed to hire local villagers to work as porters. There had to be an equal number of porters from each village to ensure we didn’t incite fights between the villages. Each tribal chief was negotiated with separately and some of these talks became quite heated. It was an indication of things to come.
The negotiations took most of the morning and since we weren’t involved, we spent our time checking out the local market where we were as much an interest to the locals as they were to us. Many men in the village were dressed in traditional attire wearing only a gourd in front and a small square of leather over the buttocks. These men carried large bows and arrows, and some wore headdresses. They looked to us as if they were still headhunters. We were told that these Dani tribes stopped that practice in the 1960s, but that still meant that many of the tribal elders would had been cannibals. That thought didn’t escape us for our entire time in Papua.
Finally, by noon, we were on our way. We were escorted by armed soldiers to the outskirts of Sugapa, but didn’t even reach the first village when our porters stopped and demanded more money. No one was allowed to pass, until a new agreement was reached. Our guides expected these re-negotiations, so they knew the initial sum wouldn’t be the final price. In fact, we had these stoppages almost daily. It made us a little leery to let these men carry our personal bags of expensive mountaineering equipment, but we didn’t have much choice, and they knew it.
Our guiding company had to find new trekking routes through different villages every few months. After a few trips, the village chiefs demanded extreme amounts of money for or refused to allow expeditions to pass. The route we were taking had only been used once before. That meant that there really wasn’t a trail. The first 4 days of the trek to base camp was through a dense, wet jungle We spent most of the first two days walking along and across layers and layers of fallen over trees that were wet and greasy making them difficult to navigate. Often, we were 10 meters off the ground with only rotting logs to break our fall.
When we weren’t walking on fallen over logs, we were walking through swamps, mud pools and even up rivers. Before the trek began, we couldn’t understand why our guides wouldn’t let us wear our mountaineering boots, but instead insisted that we wear rubber boots. It didn’t take long for us to realize why. It poured every single day of the 5-day trek to base camp making the already saturated ground almost impassable.
Each night, our camps were established on the flattest ground we could find in the thick jungle. Often, they had to cut away trees with machetes to make enough room. We camped on riverbanks and on small flat spaces on the side of hills; anywhere where we could find flat, reasonably dry ground.
The most unusual part about bringing tribal porters was that most of the village came with us too. The porters brought their wives and children, including infants, on our rugged 12-day, 60 km expedition. Two women were over 5 month’s pregnant. None had shoes. They brought yams for their meals, which were cooked over an open fire. At camp, they erected crude frames where they draped tarps for shelter. Initially all of the porters and their families stayed in one shelter, or separate shelters, but very close together. That didn’t last long though.
Over the first few days we started to get to know some of the porters and their families. Half of the group were friendly. We couldn’t speak to each other, so we used typical arm waving and gestures to communicate. During one downpour, a bunch of us crowded into a small shelter for lunch. The families were Christian and before their meal, they were led in prayer. We bowed our heads until they were done. One of the ladies and Maggie caught each other’s eye during the prayer and smiled at each other. At the end of the prayer the villagers all said ‘amen’, so Maggie did too. This lady laughed and laughed and kept saying ‘Amen, Amen’ thinking Maggie had said a word from their local language!!
But they weren’t all friendly. Some of the porters’ demands started to become more outrageous and a division developed between the villages. One side was kind and knew they were getting a fare wage, but the other side was aggressive. They demanded more and more money and even claimed we were stealing their yams! They started to set up two different camps each night to stay as far away from each other as possible.
When we finally emerged from the dense jungle, we had beautiful views of small hills covered by unusual looking tree-ferns and the sarang semut plant. These plants are often sliced in half as route markers. They claim this plant can cure everything from asthma to cancer. The terrain also had interesting limestone rock formations, similar to the Pinnacle Trek in Borneo. As our views opened up we could see the mountains of the Sudirman Range, letting us know we were getting closer to our goal.
Thankfully, the final day of the trek to base camp was on a dry trail. We walked on shale, up and down hills and beside large mountain tarns. We were in the clouds as we hiked up the steep rocky path to New Zealand Pass. From the top we got our first look at the limestone slabs of Carstensz Pyramid. It’s a formidable looking wall with a sheer limestone face. At the base of the pass is the Valley of Ten Lakes. Basecamp was to be set up on the shore of one of these lakes.
On summit day, we woke at 3 am and were happily surprised to see stars. That meant that it wasn’t cloudy and therefore may not rain. What luck! We hiked for an hour in the dark to the base of the wall where there were fixed ropes. It was quite cold at 4,000 m elevation, so we were all dressed in gortex jackets, thick gloves and balaclavas under our climbing helmets. It was still dark as we began the ascent up the 600m wall. The steepness of the wall required scrambling; using hands and feet. The darkness made it difficult to see hand and foot holds or even which way the route went. Managing the ascenders on the ropes with thick gloves was a little difficult, but it was too cold to go without. We scrambled up the rock face going through chimneys, gullies and along cracks. Finally, after an hour and a half, we had reached the top of the ridge, but the route didn’t get easier. We had to stay on fixed ropes as we navigated the narrow ridge and its deep notches. The most challenging part of our climb was crossing a 30m wide gap. To cross this gap would mean doing at least a grade 5.8 technical climb which at these temperatures and elevation would have been very challenging. Instead, guiding companies installed a Tyrolean Traverse. Attached to a fixed cable, we had to pull ourselves across the 20m deep, 30m wide gap. We were lucky to have our guide Poxi to help us get across. He scooted across the traverse on his own with ease. From the other side he was able to assist us, by pulling us across the traverse. Although we helped him by pulling on the cables ourselves, he did most of the work to get each one of us across. It was exhilarating!
From there though we still had to continue along the narrow ridge, passing over large gaps with deep crevasses. From the ridge we had amazing views of the Sudirman Range including Sumantri and Ngga Pulu Peak. There were a lot of clouds, but they made for fantastic pictures. Finally, after 30 minutes, we arrive at the summit! Carstensz Pyramid’s summit is a rocky plateau with a small rock feature that we all proudly stood on for our summit pictures. Another of the 7 summits completed by Richard, and this one also by Maggie.
As they say, summiting is only half way, we still had to get down. That meant re-crossing the Tyrolean traverse with Poxi’s help and rappelling all of the way down the 600m cliff. In the daytime, we were able to see what we had just climbed and it was impressive.
The next day, we enjoyed a lovely rest day at our lakeside campsite, while the other half of our expedition summited. We needed the rest as we knew we still had to retrace our steps through the swamps and thick jungle. We were treated to a beautiful blue sky, and a gorgeous scene as the surrounding mountains and our colourful tents reflected off the mountain tarn.
Basecamp is very close to a mining operation. Our porters didn’t stay with us at basecamp as it’s very cold. Instead, they descended down to the mining camp. When we saw them 2 days later, most were dressed in miner’s vests and hardhats. We’re not sure if they stole the gear or if they were gifts, but the porters seemed proud to be wearing them.
On our second last day, the daily porter re-negotiations reached a head. They demanded unreasonable amounts of money. Both sides were yelling and fighting. A couple of the porters pulled out their machetes and charged at our guides. It was very intense. In the end they did receive more money, but not nearly the hundreds of dollars that they were demanding. During our final night in Sugapa, the 14 climbers held a meeting where we decided that we would not tip the porters. We all believed that the porters needed to learn how to manage business with climbing expeditions and threatening with machetes is not the way to earn a tip.
We used Adventure Indonesia as our guiding company and were very pleased with their mountaineering skills, knowledge and their trip organization.
Carstesz Pyramid slide show including video of the Tyrolean Traverse.
Coming up Next: Hanoi and Halong Bay
For more stories from our other adventures, go to Destinations.
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