Carstensz Pyramid, Oceania

My 6th of the Seven Summits

At the tail-end of the Africa trip, as is often the case at the conclusion of any of these expeditions, Eric and I began scheming about what our next climb could be, and we agreed that a trip to Carstensz Pyramid (16,023′ – the highest point in Oceania), on the island of New Guinea in the Indonesian Province of Papua, would be ideal. So, I flew to Australia in February of 2011 and quickly hiked to the top of Mt. Kosciuszko (7,310′), which is the highest point in Australia and part of the Dick Bass version of the Seven Summits. The hardest part of this portion of the adventure was driving on the left-hand side of the road. The next leg of the journey would prove much more difficult, however.

From Australia, I flew to Bali, where I met Eric and the rest of the team, which included Dave and Todd (both from my Antarctica trip). Here, we prepared our gear and ourselves for the Papuan high country, one of the most remote and wild places on earth. After a commercial flight followed by a flight in a small Cessna, we arrived in the village of Ilaga in the highlands of New Guinea. From there, we hiked an hour or so to the even smaller village of Pinapa, where the local Dani tribe still lives in grass huts, travels barefoot, and eats sweet potato as their primary staple (~80% of their diet), and have lived here for nearly 40,000 years. They also used to wear only horims (penis gourds) until the Western missionaries arrived in the 1960s. We took the same route to Carstensz Pyramid as taken by Heinrich Harrer (of Seven Years in Tibet fame) in 1962 when he was the first to climb the mountain. It’s a 50-mile approach to base camp in a region of the world so remote that it is believed that over 40 tribes still have never had any interactions with Westerners.

Once we arrived in Pinapa, I shared some of the photos from Heinrich Harrer’s account of his climbing trip of Carstensz called “I Come From the Stone Age” with the local Dani tribe, which they enthusiastically observed with what came to be a typical “ahhh-eeeee” response before speaking rapidly in their Dani dialect. It was very endearing. The Dani also loved to have their picture taken and then would immediately want to see it on the camera’s LCD screen to which their response was always the same “ahhh-eeee” combined with their huge grins. So, after an afternoon in Pinapa during which we got to know the villagers and our eventual porters (and during which I fought off a bad GI infection with the help of a healthy dose of Cipro), we started the journey to basecamp.

It was a grueling 5-day trek through steep, mud-walled jungles, marshy highlands, valleys with countless river crossings, and high mountain passes. Each afternoon greeted us with torrential downpours and we were mostly wet for the duration of our 11-day expedition, which certainly wears on you over time. This, coupled with a food supply that was incredibly protein deficient (we ate nearly 90% carbohydrates on this expedition), made for a tough trip physically, which eventually took its toll. In fact, the average weight loss for our team was 15 pounds over the 11 days, while I managed to lose 22 pounds.

This was the toughest expedition I had completed to this point due to the tough terrain, ceaseless rains, extreme lack of protein (which we called “food stress”), lack of sleep, contending with everything being wet and some health issues. It was also an incredible adventure in an extremely remote, pristine, unforgiving environment with a great group of people and an unbelievable indigenous population. Despite all of the challenges, we had a terrific climb. After the 5-day, 50-mile trek to base camp, we started at 2am for the summit. The limestone on this peak is exceptionally sharp and sticky, which makes for terrific, aesthetic and efficient climbing. We climbed the huge, 3,000’ north face to attain the west ridge. From there, we continued up the west ridge until we reached a huge 50-foot gap, which requires a Tyrolean traverse to get across. Completing the Tyrolean traverse was an incredible experience, as we had to cross the 50-foot chasm on a rope/steel cable system while staring straight down a 2,000’ drop on either side. It was exhilarating and definitely a highlight of the climb.

From the Tyrolean traverse, it was mostly an easy scramble to the summit of Carstensz. The entire team made it to the top of Oceania and then retreated safely to base camp after countless rappels down the north face in a total 14-hour push. The trip in its entirety was a nearly indescribable experience that I am proud to have completed and am grateful that I will never have to repeat. Summit day was perfect in nearly all respects, and it was our only day on the expedition where it did not rain. It was meant to be, I suppose.

However, the trip was not yet over. We still had to retreat the 50 miles to Pinapa and Ilaga. One day out from high camp and 40 miles from Pinapa, I experienced severe chest pains, which was very frightening. We were concerned that it might be some sort of cardiac event or possibly a pulmonary embolism or even pneumonia.

My condition was so serious that we tried to summon a helicopter evacuation, but the rescue service could not locate us in the middle of nowhere. Regardless, the nearest available heli turned out to be in Papua New Guinea anyway – the eastern half of the island and a sovereign nation – and they were having trouble getting permission from Jakarta (the capital of Indonesia) to enter Indonesian airspace to even come look for us. We had more support and evacuation possibilities on Antarctica than here. At this point, it was the only time in my climbing life where I thought I might not make it home, and I even began to steel myself for that final phone call home to say my goodbyes. A very grim prospect. However, when it became apparent that no rescue was forthcoming, I powered through and slowly earned those final 40 miles back to Pinapa and the recovery from what turned out to be an infection of the pleura.

Our group’s success added to the tally of ~250 people that had summited Carstensz Pyramid to this point, making it the most remote and logistically challenging of the Seven Summits in many ways. Below, and via this link, is a video from an expedition teammate that provides a good sense of what this adventure was like.

And with my success on Carstensz and Kosciuszko, I had climbed 6 of the 7 summits, leaving only one peak to climb to complete this goal…