Given that it has been over a year since I initially committed to cracking the seven summits and nine months since it all kicked off, the fact that to date I’ve summited only two of the seven was beginning to bear down on my mind. In fact this year I’ve climbed more mountains that are not part of the seven summits than those that are; hardly an efficient strategy to knock of the feat within a year. These additional climbs had their purpose though, a technical mountain, a big mountain etc. however now well into the journey it was time to get on with it and start chalking some off (although I hate the thought that a mountain would be considered a box tick).
The first person to achieve the title of the seven summits was an American oil billionaire called Dick Bass in 1985 and subsequently guided mountaineering companies have him to thank for decades of business that followed on. For the Australasian leg, Bass scaled the grand peak of Mt Kosciusko on a sunny afternoon managing the round trip from the car park in a few hours. Legendary Italian mountaineer, Reinhold Messner quickly called out this achievement sighting the comical difference in achievement between Kosciusko and Everest. He cleverly identified that the continental boundary of Australasia is in fact drawn around the island of Papua, capturing it within. This opened up the far more spectacular and substantial peak of Carstensz Pyramid in West Papua with an impressive altitude of 4,884m and offering a shear rock face of over 600m. He completed the seven summits in 1986 with the inclusion of Carstensz and as such the ‘Bass list’ and the ‘Messner list’ were born. In something of a shameless pissing contest, those that have completed or undertaking the seven summits often quickly clarify which list they have done, of course that has nothing to do with me writing this paragraph… My inclination to climb Carstensz centered around the fact that it is a far more technical peak than any of the other six in the list and as such offers some real legitimacy to the seven summits feat. Although perhaps one day I will sneak up Mt Kosciusko so that the 1% of me that cannot quite get my head around the concept of Australasia’s highest point being in Indonesia is satisfied.
Situated deep within the dangerously tribal Papuan jungle, the appeal of Carstensz is 50% real rock climbing and 50% real wild encounters with less than friendly locals. My cousin Andrew and I, committed as ever for an authentic experience opted to trek in and out (10 additional days in the jungle) from the nearest village rather than take a helicopter from the nearby city to the base camp. However instability that has existed almost ever since the Dutch controversially passed the state to Indonesia in the ‘60s has escalated to violent levels in recent years. This is in addition to the conflict surrounding the world’s largest gold mine that lies only a few kilometers from Carstensz and employs very few Papuans whilst adhering to questionable environmental standards. I will not elaborate on this subject so as to not attract unwanted attention as many climbers have done in the past with poor results. Unfortunately just days before we were scheduled to begin our trek, news of riots in the village of Sugapa (entry point to the jungle) and a consistent recent pattern of extorted trekkers (>$5k/per person) led us to an inevitable decision to take the helicopter to the base camp. A decision that although enormously disappointing at the time turned out to be a gift from the mountain gods.
So, at 4am dressed in 15kg of mountain climbing gear so as to avoid excess baggage charges we landed in Timika, West Papua. Willing to give this little mining town a chance, Andrew and I made out best effort to take in a new city, however given that Trip Advisor offered only two places of interest and both were the airport we retired to Bintangs by the pool and awaited adequate weather to fly. Finally getting a clear morning we had the green light to fly and set off on the epic flight to base camp. Whilst flying over miles and miles of thick jungle I couldn’t help but imagine the lovely 10 day struggle through knee deep mud under almost persistent rain whilst negotiating millions of mosquitos and savage rebels that we had been denied.
Catapulted from an altitude of 50m in Timika to 4200m at base camp in 25 minutes the rulebook of proper acclimatization had been thrown out of the window. Climbed by less than 80 people a year, it is normal to have the mountain to yourself, so after being suddenly dropped at the base camp Andrew and I quickly felt a sense that no one was coming back if one of us came down with altitude sickness. Once the chaos of leaving an idling helicopter was completed and the pilot made his way off, it was quickly clear why those that have climbed Carstensz go on to rave about the experience for life. In an absolute windless silence, we both stared up at the towering 600m rock wall above. Ominous clouds above appeared to promise the relentless torrential downpours that Carstensz is so well known for and over the next 48 hours it did not disappoint.
In the interests of achieving some level of acclimatization, we spent two full days in and around base camp while the body enjoyed around half the density of air than it had had the day before in town. Andrew and I made a day hike up to a nearby glacier (one of three in the area) that appeared entirely out of place given that we were in very much equatorial Indonesia. Our guide Brury advised that we avoid venturing down to the nearby lakes for fear of Free Papua Rebels (OPM) that have become more and more adventurous with their patrols of the mountainous region. Later that afternoon whilst relaxing in our tent, two members of the Free Papua Movement (OPM) came by our lonesome camp wielding a rather large implement of aggression. Historically the OPM rarely ventured to base camp, however this perhaps indicated a new precedent with a willingness to embark on the strenuous climb in search of lucrative opportunities. Brury strategically entertained our two guests with dinner and 90% of our food supplies as well as half a bottle of tequila. Perhaps struggling in good conscious to threaten after such hospitality, the two left with their acquired loot and promised not to return with their friends and more large implements. Andrew was less than convinced of this promise.
At 2am we woke up in a clear and silent night and began our way up the wall. A selection of ropes had been fixed up the wall, some ropes more damaged than others leaving us to often guess which one would be best to select as our insurance. We negotiated our way steadily up the face stopping every hour or so to refuel and take in the view that was quickly developing into something surreal. After 4 hours in relatively clear skies we were tempted to believe we may be gifted with a clear summit, a truly rare occurrence, however with only an hour to go the cloud came in and our view was gone. Negotiating the famous tri-rope bridge was far from the most gnarly part of the climb which called for moments of faith in questionable ropes, bolts and slings put in by god knows who and when. At 8.20am the three of us summited and took in a picture perfect whiteout knowing that this was the highest point in Australasia and a point that many famous climbers of history have celebrated reaching. As with most summit experiences there is a subdued feeling as the perils of the decent loom. Andrew struggled to hide a concern for the decent of a mountain that had turned out to be ‘the most loose shit I’ve ever done’.
Almost as soon as we began the decent, sideways sleet (the worst kind) began pelting us as if to balance the brilliant weather we had had during the climb. Steadily rappelling pitch after pitch in heavy rain we made our way down to base camp and searched for something to drink in celebration. Unfortunately the previous afternoon the OPM had taken all of our supplies and left us with a few bags of herbal tea which wouldn’t have been our first choice for celebration, however nothing was capable of taking away from this moment; a huge feeling of accomplishment and relief.
Interestingly of all the mountains that I have climbed to date, this is the mountain that I could see myself returning to in future, however perhaps once the OPM have become as cool and calm as the Rasta type fellas that they appear to be.
Well now it’s straight on to the next peak, which is the enormously exciting Vinson Massif in Antarctica. According to my friend Hamish who spent a winter season at the South Pole, Antarctica is tropical this time of year. I think I'll still pack a jacket or two though.
Thanks everyone for keeping up with my blog, I’m stoked to see the following!