Of all the 7 Summits, Carstensz Pyramid was the most challenging; logistically and climbing. I knew it would be an adventure based on many reports of climbers being stranded at remote airports, porters abandoning teams, malaria and more; it was all this and then some.
I left Colorado on October 13th, 2011 and arrived several days later in New Guinea by way of Bali where I met up with the rest of Mountain Trip (MT) team. The plan was to fly from Bali to Timika, West Papua and directly to Carstensz Base Camp via helicopter. However, the uncertainty of the schedule started immediately with notifications that our flights had been delayed, but then changed within hours requiring a rush to an airport.
While somewhat normal for this part of the world, where we were going was far behind all modern boundaries so flexibility was required. To complicate matters, we flew into the mining town of Timika which is, for all practical purposes, owned by the Freeport mining company who operates the world's largest gold and copper mine, Grasberg, a few miles from the summit of Carstensz.
The majority of the 12,000 workers were at the end of a month long strike wanting a 10X increase in wages. There had been several deaths due to violence and the miners had taken over the airport at Timika, ground zero for the strike, shutting off jet fuel supplies and effectively closing the airport. While we knew of the conflict, we still flew into Timika expecting it to be calm with the strike scheduled to end a few days before our arrival. A mistake.
The Boeing 737 landed in Timika on a hot and humid day, and as we entered the arrivals room, it was clear this was not Kansas. We waited for our bags, which arrived without delay, and cleared a casual customs process. There was an air of anticipation all around. The customs person warned us to be careful.
Scott Woolums, our guide, met up with Franky Kowaas, owner of Manado Adventures, our local contact. We took two air conditioned Toyota minivans to the hotel. Freeport had closed the best hotel in town where we had reservations, previously owned by Sheraton, to prevent foreign journalist having easy access to the strike activity, so we switched to a basic hotel in central Timika.
The waiting game began in earnest. MT had promised, and we had paid for, helicopters to the Carstensz base camp but had always set expectations that anything could go wrong and we might have to trek 6 days through the jungle to reach BC. This was part of a Carstensz climb and the reason many western operators ignore it, simply too difficult.
But MT had conducted over 12 successful climbs plus Scott had 3 previous summits so I went with them based on this track record. Once in Timika, it became clear that our schedule was at risk. With no jet fuel, there were no flights. Scott kept in continuous communication with Franky who repeatedly assured us that everything was going fine. I had heard this before from local operators, eager to prove themselves to westerners to drive future business. When he said we had 100% guarantee we would make it to BC, I felt discouraged.
With no fuel, Franky worked his contacts to charter fixed winged and helicopter flights using Jakarta based Susi air. The previous helicopter flights MT had arranged had backed out a few weeks earlier, unbeknownst to us. We spent the next two days in the hotel, advised not to wander due to the violence; however several of the team rented scooters and toured the country side with minor altercations.
Plan B or C or D
After two days delay, which was minor in the grand scheme, we boarded the most amazing airplane I have ever flown, the Swiss made, Pilatus Pilot. Franky, in an incredible act of commitment, had worked with Susi, and Scott had monitored, verified and endorsed a plan that required 24 individual flights, plus a fuel cache for the helicopter, to transport the team from Timika to the isolated village of Bilogai in Sugapa and then to the Base Camp in the Yellow Valley at the base of Carstensz and, presumably back out.
Knowing that many teams had traveled to Timika and never went any further, we felt grateful. However, it was at a cost. The extra flights required an additional 10% to our already paid fees; and that was supplemented by thousands of dollars paid by MT and Manado. So it was shared contribution to make this helicopter trip work. Ours was the first successful helicopter flight in one and half years and the reason many western operators do not run regular helicopter and emphasize the "adventure" of a jungle trek. With all due respect to those points, I wanted a helicopter.
After a day delay, we left the hotel for the airport without incident. We boarded the Pilatus in two groups separated by a few hours and landed in the remote village of Bilogai in the Sugapa region of Western Papua. I felt like I had gone back a few hundred years. We flew over Carstensz and the Grasberg mine. I was amazed at the immense size of the mine and the remoteness of Carstensz. Also the sharp ridge of the peak. We saw the Lakes Base camp and about 12 tents.
The Greeting Committee
As the plane landed, about a hundred villagers swarmed the airplane, with the goal carrying our bags to Carstensz BC or just out of curiosity. You see, this village has no roads, zero; in or out, so if you want to visit, you have to trek many days across the jungle or fly in. Visitors were a novelty but also a source of income.
That said, the hospitality turned to extortion as they learned we would not hire them to ferry our gear to base camp but instead would use a helicopter. About 30 well built, strong men (porters) gathered in a large group asking for compensation, represented by their leader. Franky negotiated with their leader and reached an agreement which involved cash.
We spent the night in a basic but primitive and comfortable compound run by the local Catholic Priest. The kids were constant visitors as were the locals out of curiosity. Our Manado guides cooked dinner and we actually watched an Everest DVD on the TV the Priest had!, so it was not pr imitative. Assuming the helicopters would arrive the next morning we went to sleep swatting mosquitoes.
With scheduling better than a US airline, the helicopter arrived at the dirt airstrip the next morning. We had moved from the hotel to the airstrip using the services of the locals and their motorcycles who transported our bags and then us. Some walked the mile. Once again, we were the center of attention - or more accurately the center of controversy. While at the airstrip, we watched a couple of small planes (Twin Otters) land then offloading an amazing variety of cargo from lumber to food to sheet meta and a few new motorcycles. The locals gathered closely looking for a few rupees to carry the goods to their destination.
Cash Accepted Here
But something more ominous occurred as the porters, clansmen's and tribes gathered on the short ridge line above the airstrip.
Occasionally, one would approach us asking if we needed help to carry our bags. We politely pleaded ignorance. Soon two men appeared in western clothes with megaphones. What followed appeared as a political rally but really was an attempt to calm the porters that if they stopped our flight, attacked us or otherwise interfered; their future trade as porters would be in jeopardy. The head man occasionally made a comment accompanied by large gestures to which the followers nodded their heads or shook their bows and arrows or guns. With all this, I never felt in harms way and even joined the ridge crew for a picture.
The helicopter arrived and then another plane which offloaded five barrels of fuel for our helicopter flights in and back out. The first group flew out as the rest us waited with the mob. After two flights the helicopter was refueled using a battery operated pump, complete with some spillage. Another flight and the entire team was at the Yellow Valley. Scott insisted we land there because it was lower the the Lake Base Camp (the usual spot for Carstensz climbs), closer to start of the route and flatter with more room. His experience proved right on as it exactly as he envisioned.
Base Camp, finally
As we landed, a team of 12 with Austria's Kari Kobler was descending. They wanted to use our helicopters to avoid the trek out but more importantly, they had one person with a temperature of 103F who was showing signs of malaria. Scott arranged for our last helicopter flight to transport the sick climber. Another group guided by a local company a few days earlier had refused to walk out after the difficult trek in and wanted to leave via the mine or via helicopter. It seemed that if you walked in, you desperately wanted to leave a different way! But many expeditions have successfully walked in and out. It showed me that if you can get a helicopter then you can focus on the climb and not the trek, which is what I was here for.
We set up our base camp with three tents and a tarp strung over a single rope to be used for shelter for cooking and eating. There was a concern about acclimatization given we had flown from sea level to 7,000' in Bilogai then directly to 14,000' so we spent the next 36 hours resting at our new home. The area was unusual with high ridges to the north and south, Carstensz's North Face was in full view and the route somewhat obvious. We could see the glaciers on nearby peaks. Amazing given this was a few hundred miles from the equator surrounded by hot jungle.
The next day we took a short walk a few hundred feet up the route to familiarize ourselves with it as well as to check out the ropes given we would start climbing at 2:00 AM that night. I was amazed at how sharp the limestone rock edges were and wondered if my gloves would hold up. That afternoon, on schedule, the rain started like it did everyday we were there. The tents provided by Manado, a new series from ExPed, leaked horribly as it rained hard. Chuck, my tent mate and I, put our rain gear over our sleeping bags to try to preserve the warmth for the cold part of the night.
But this was all part of the experience. We knew we were fortunate to have helicoptered in and were anxious to start climbing. We rose at 1:30 AM for a simple breakfast, mostly coffee, and left with headlamps aglow towards the summit on October 22nd.
The first part of the route was rock scrambling on a fixed rope, maybe high class 4. We gained altitude quickly before hitting a short flat section of scree but it soon turned vertical as we followed the ropes. The ropes were very old, frayed and the anchors suspect. Johnny, our local guide, led the way and Scott as second; I swept our group of five. Scott would stop multiple times to repair anchors or replace suspect rope with the line he carried but he only had about 100m so we still climbed on some rotten line.
I was not too concerned going up but knew with the sharp angles we would be arm wrapping or rappelling on the descent and the risk would be high. We made steady progress toward the summit ridge. The climbing involved classic rock moves at the high class 4 to 5.7 level. We used a jumar attached to our harnesses for aid but it was not really necessary except for a few moments. The final pitch to the summit ridge was a steep chimney, maybe at 60 degrees but with plenty of foot and handholds. The sun was starting rise as we crested the ridge.
It took a few minutes to reach the large gap where we would execute a Tyrolean Traverse. A steel cable has been set up a year earlier and there was a rat's nest of fixed lines strung across the 50' gap. It was 100' to the ledge below but another 2,000' along the north and south face to the valley floor on both sides so this was serious exposure and nothing to be dealt with casually.
Johnny crossed first and Scott took his position at the other side as one by one we attached our figure of eight (which was attached to harness) to a pulley straddling the cable with a locking carabineer and then a 'biner also attached to our harness to three of the fixed lines. The maneuver was a bit awkward as you had to get your waist very close to the cable, clip in and the rotate so that you faced upwards to pull yourself along the line; all this while perched on the edge of the gap. Going up was slightly more effort in that you had to pull yourself uphill .There was another rope that Johnny would use to pull you but it often added no real value.
I took my position, attached myself to the pulley and leaned back allowing my full weight to be supported by these lines. It was a leap of faith in that I had minimal confidence in them. But, with helmet cam on, I pulled myself across letting out a whoop of glee. It was fun! I got to the other side in less than a minute and awkwardly pulled myself back onto the sharp rock. We continued to make progress towards the summit. There were two more short gaps that required some tricky down climbing and requisite up climbing before we reached the final pitch to the summit. There were a few patches of fresh snow along the summit ridge but nothing serious.
This video was shot by Chuck Raper waiting his turn and also using my helmet cam as I made the traverse:
The summit was a bit complex with two major small spots marked by a well worn plaque and an ice axe with an Indonesian flag. The views were excellent on this mostly clear and breezy day. I made my traditional call to Cathy, my wife, who had been following me on the SPOT GPS tracker and then to my blog noting this was the 7th of 8 climbs in the 7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer's: Memories are Everything.
The descent followed the same route but was more involved as we used those old lines for rappelling and arm wrapping, I tried to use my legs as much as possible and never felt comfortable until I touched the Yellow Valley floor.
Scott wanted to split our team of 7 climbers into two pushes so the next team went the following night with 100% success as well. Then we stared the waiting game for the helicopter fight out. Meanwhile, a new group arrived at the Lakes Base camp including an Iraqi war veteran with a mechanical leg and only one arm. It had taken them 9 days to reach the camp via the jungle trek. I have total admiration and respect for this individual. They left for the summit, intending to take two days with a bivy on the way up, as we left.
The Susi Air helicopter arrived within an hour of when they said and four flights later we were all back in Bilogai A cargo flight arrived about 30 minutes after our last flight so we jumped on it to take us up to Nabri where we spent the night. The next day involved four different flights across Indonesian to reach Bali. On a mission, I took a flight out that same night to Sydney for my final 7 Summits climb on Kosciuszko.
So, what a climb! I thoroughly enjoyed the rock climbing aspect of Carstensz. It actually reminded me of the Colorado 14ers, Capital Peak and Pyramid. I felt very fortunate to have used the helicopter. Candidly, I had no desire to trek days through the hot, humid, leach infested jungle; bribing the local tribes for access and dealing with extortion oriented porters. Maybe because this was due to being gone from home for 7 of the last 11 months climbing the 7 Summits; but I was overjoyed to ride in the helicopter looking at the jungle.
Being in New Guinea reminded me that the world has a long way to go but that societies get along just fine in their own way and there are many approaches to life.
Memories are Everything
Arnette is a speaker, mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. He is climbing the 7 Summits throughout 2011, all to raise $1 million for Alzheimer's research. You can read more on his site.