Carstensz Pyramid (Puncak Jaya)

Behind Enemy Lines



  • Sudirman Range - Papua - Indonesia - Oceania
  • 4,884 m / 16,024 ft
  • s 4o 05’ e 137o 11’
  • Expedition Length: 7 days
  • Summit: December 7, 2005




It was Friday, November 25, 2005 and, as I sat in a departure lounge at Beirut’s Ra c Hariri Interna- tional Airport, waiting to board a ight that would jet me towards the next instalment of my quest to climb the Seven Summits, I wondered what drove me to do what I was doing. This related not only to ascending the mountain, but to everything else around it: the months of mental preparation and physical training; the readying of gear; the book- ing of ights and expedition permits; the goodbye hugs and tears; the often cramped travel condi- tions; the sometimes squalid accommodation; the inland transportation in rugged surroundings... I could go on and on. Never mind the tortures of the climb itself!

My main motivation, I concluded, must be a burning desire to go out and experience new frontiers; to discover the world and myself, and to en- counter different people, cultures and beliefs. Yet, what I didn’t realise was that my latest adventure would be fraught with some of the greatest dangers I had faced up to this point, both on the mountain and, more speci cally, actually getting there in the rst place. And this was because my destination had, until recently, been off-limits to all but a hand- ful of people.

Included on Reinhold Messner’s Seven Summits list because, at 4,884 metres, it is the highest moun- tain in the geopolitical regions of Oceania and Aus- tralasia – as opposed to the 2,228 metres Mount Kosciuszko which, as the tallest peak of the less inclusive Australian continent, is on the list postu- lated by Richard Bass – Carstensz Pyramid is not only the high point between the Andes and the Himalayas and the world’s highest island summit, but it is also located in one of the least hospitable and most inaccessible places on Earth: the Indonesian province of Papua. While you are making your way through dense jungle just to reach the mountain, this locale exposes you to local freedom ghters, fundamentalist terrorists and corrupt soldiers who are battling them while guarding the world’s larg- est gold – and third-largest copper – reserve.

The 1.25 million acre Freeport-McMoRan mine, which stretches from the coastal town of Tem- bagapura to the base of the mountain, employs more than 18,000 people and, having earned the world’s most populous Islamic nation $33 billion between 1992 and 2004, accounts for nearly two percent of its annual gross domestic product. All of which is ample reason for the Indonesian govern- ment, which owns a 20 percent stake in the mine, to want to protect its interests. The problem is, this hasn’t helped the climbers who, in recent years, have wanted to tackle the granite giant whose local name is Puncak Jaya, meaning ‘Peak of Glory’.

The 1996 riots by those who objected to Free- port’s part-ownership by a Louisiana entrepreneur, as well as by environmentalists protesting against its dumping of waste all over the surrounding land and into the nearby rivers, prompted the hiring of troops to stop people accessing the easiest way of reaching Carstensz Pyramid. This long and steep gravel road runs not only from Tembagapura to the mine, but also up, over and through the mountain. Among the alternatives is a ve-day jungle hike that requires police permits, military permits and plen- ty of bribes. Due to the safety of tourists becom- ing increasingly threatened by guerrilla activities – not to mention the lurking danger of cannibalistic tribesmen who wear nothing but penis gourds – even this route was prohibited and, in 2002, the mountain was actually shut down altogether.

Someone named Frankie eventually changed all that. A little man with big connections, Frankie came up with a relatively quick and ef cient way of reaching the Pyramid – named in honour of Dutch explorer Jan Carstenszoon (a.k.a. Carstensz), who rst sighted the glaciers on its peak in 1623 – without having to go anywhere near the mine. This involves pay-offs to those who can issue the necessary permits and then the chartering of helicopters, so that visitors can y to and from the black-and- white-striped Zebra Wall, which, at 3,700 metres, lies atop the mine and about 300 metres below Base Camp.

Frankie is an ingenious guy and when, partly thanks to his efforts, Carstensz was reopened to the public in July 2005, he was assigned to guide the team with which I would be climbing there about ve months later. That was, once I had booked my trip through Mountain Madness, the Seattle- based company owned by my good friend Christine Boskoff, whom I had met while en route to Vinson Massif some 12 months earlier. This would prove to be a fortuitous choice.

It was Frankie and his driver who met me at Manado Airport on November 26, 2005. Unusually for Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim- majority nation, Manado is a predominantly Chris- tian town, and Frankie, wearing a cross around his neck, was proud to show me many of its churches as we drove towards the appropriately named Ritzy Hotel. Once there, I chatted in the lobby with Chris- tine, a wonderful person and expert climber who, together with her climbing partner Charlie Fowler, would be killed a year later by an avalanche on Chi- na’s Mount Genyen.

Chris had arrived a few hours earlier and, a couple of days later, while I was scuba-diving amid the reefs of the nearby Bunaken National Park, she and Frankie returned to the airport to collect my three American climbing partners: Martin, a wit- ty 60-year-old from Alabama, who delighted me with his strong Southern accent; Chuck, an ami- able young marathon runner from Boston; and Bo (short for Robert), an outgoing Michigan native and MBA student at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, who had just completed an exchange programme in Bangkok.

It didn’t take any of us long to realise that Frankie was worth his weight in gold. Most of the other groups who were in Manado to climb Cart- stensz had aligned themselves with a local guide named Monty, yet he evidently didn’t have the right contacts in Jakarta to obtain the necessary per- mits. Frankie was the only person who could do so, by way of government of cials and the Freeport mine’s hired military personnel, and now many of the climbers who had paid Monty a great deal of money were desperately asking Frankie if he could help them out.

Frankie couldn’t deal with them. He had to focus on our needs and, after he’d given us the choice of travelling by helicopter to the Zebra Wall or cross- ing the mine on foot with the assistance of porters and army of cers, we told him that we preferred the latter option. After all, should anything go wrong, we could still opt for Plan B and be own over the heavily guarded, gold-rich area. All we had to do was stay out of trouble and not get caught by the wrong party.

Thursday, December 1, was quite a day. Having pulled an all-nighter with Bo, Frankie was so hung over that he could hardly walk, let alone join Chris, Chuck and me for an early morning run. Still, he did nd suf cient energy later on to visit the lo- cal hospital with Martin, who had a bad toothache. Back at the hotel, Bo was trying to gure out who had stolen $600 from an envelope stored inside his backpack, which had stayed in his room. Since the envelope hadn’t been removed, the police assumed the thief was a pro, yet their investigation ultimate- ly didn’t identify the culprit or recover Bo’s money.

Following our run, Chris, Chuck and I decided to visit a nearby market and, once there, we saw rats, bats, snakes and dogs on sale... for eating! This was no pet shop. Those poor creatures were dead and were being offered as a delicacy. None of us could believe it. At one of the dog stands, a young kid holding a large butcher’s knife stood atop a pile of canine esh and bones, having decapitated the poor creatures with some skilfully executed slashing strokes under the watchful, horri ed gaze of yet more dogs, who were silently awaiting their turn in a cage only a few metres away. Blood was everywhere, and so was the revolting stench that quickly drove me away. I can usually tolerate some pretty nasty odours, but this was so bad that even the sh market would smell wonderful by comparison. So much for sampling the local delights on my travels.

The next day, we all took a very early morning ight to Soreang, in the Indonesian province of West Java and, from there, we then caught a shorter ight to Timika Airport in Tembagapura. However, since our bags had only made it as far as Soreang, we drove without them to the upmarket Sheraton hotel where, as in Manado, Frankie was swamped by anxious Western mountaineers who hadn’t been able to obtain the necessary climbing permits. Giv- en his friendly and obliging nature, he would have liked to help them, but this wouldn’t have been pos- sible without neglecting us. And besides, what he had planned for our trip towards the mountain was nothing short of a military-style operation that re- quired close scrutiny on his part.

Petri ed that we were about to be thrown in some remote and lthy pris- on cell or, worse still, shot and dumped by the side of the road.

Rather than cross the mine on foot, Frankie had arranged for us to be collected from the back of the hotel just before midnight on December 3, trans- ported in a seven-passenger Toyota van to an army outpost and, accompanied by a well compensated military of cer, smuggled towards the Pyramid’s Base Camp inside an Indonesian Army Land Cruis- er. It was excruciatingly hot and humid inside that vehicle, especially as the windows had to remain shut so that we could hide behind the resulting condensation. Still, if this caused some perspira- tion, we were really sweating bullets when, at the rst checkpoint about 20 minutes into this part of the journey, the Land Cruiser’s back door was suddenly ung open. There we were – Chris and I ducking down, Martin and Chuck pretending to be asleep, and Bo disguised in an army uniform – all petri ed that we could be caught and thrown in some remote and lthy prison cell or, worse still, shot and dumped by the side of the road. Having lived much of my life in a war zone, I was used to an atmosphere of ever-present danger, but I had never found myself in a situation quite like this.

As it turned out, the person who opened the door was a friend of our personal army of cer, so we were free to continue our ascent. However, there were four more checkpoints and we all held our breath at every one of them. I also held my bursting bladder, having just washed down a Lariam anti- malaria pill with the prescribed one-and-a-half litres of water. An hour into the drive, as the roads got steeper and we approached an altitude of 1,000 metres, the Land Cruiser’s engine overheated and so, very nearly, did I.

We had to wait 10 minutes for the engine to cool, and I was now so desperate to pee that, scared of stepping outside the vehicle and being caught hold- ing my manhood, I even considered relieving myself into my drinking water bottle. That wouldn’t have been a good idea. Instead, I held on until we had nally reached the Freeport-McMoRan mine and taken our rst look at this impressive ‘city in the jungle’ as its powerful lighting illuminated the oth- erwise pitch-black night-time sky.

During a 20-minute wait for the mine’s private cable car that would speed us up to 3,500 metres, I was able to sneak out the back of the Land Cruiser and relieve myself in some bushes. Then, once we’d been informed that the cable car was available, the Toyota reversed all the way to its door and, one by one, we ran inside, ducking like soldiers who were ghting a street battle. I managed to lm part of the covert 10-minute ride that revealed more of the mining operation and adjacent city down below. After another short road trip in yet another army vehicle, we reached our destination: a military compound that, not surprisingly, was dirty and infested with cockroaches.

It wasn’t until 4:00 in the afternoon that the rest of our bags arrived and, when we set off for Base Camp just before midnight so that, again, no one would notice us, the Land Cruiser was full to the brim. Still, it powered its way up the muddy roads of the upper mine and, as we hid behind its pur- posely mud-smeared side and rear windows, we re- ally felt like a team of SAS commandos embarking on a ‘mission impossible’ behind enemy lines.

The subsequent trek up to Base Camp, in driving rain and total darkness, was completed with heavy backpacks, while initially holding an umbrella in one hand and a walking pole in the other. After about 20 minutes, we arrived at the Zebra Wall, but it was another half an hour before the rain eased to the point where we no longer needed umbrellas.

We reached Base Camp some three hours after setting out on foot, and it was 4:00 am by the time Martin, Chuck and I settled into our tent and fell into a much needed sleep. Five hours later, when I re-emerged into the great outdoors, the view was stunning, consisting of several beautiful turquoise lakes surrounded by huge granite walls that tow- er to the sky, including the main one that we’d be climbing, which rises more than 600 metres from its base to the summit.

Following a rest day that was well earned (due to the mental stress, rather than any physical ex- ertion), we spent Tuesday, December 6, climbing to the base of the Pyramid and practising on the lower xed lines. Certainly, the Pyramid looked impres- sive, but in no way did I think it would take us more than 10 hours to reach the top. Little did I – or any of us – know that the next day, summit day, would boast by far the worst weather that we’d experience in this habitually warm part of the world.

I led as soon as we began making our way up the steep rock wall and, although the rock was wet, it was also abrasive enough to grip onto when climbing. The ongoing rain certainly didn’t deter me from enjoying this part of the ascent, which boasted sev- eral hand and footholds yet, when we reached the ridge, things started to deteriorate. The rain turned to sleet and snow, and what had, until then, been a challenging but pleasant rock climb, quickly turned into a balancing act on a razor-sharp edge, with deep ravines on either side, conducted amid dete- riorating climatic conditions.

I secured each move and made sure of every step, knowing that any error could be fatal.

After jumaring up an extremely exposed verti- cal rock and rappelling down the other side with an increasingly ice-covered rope, Bo and I reached an inverted, overhanging wall that represented the most technically dif cult part of the climb. Again, I decided to go rst yet, in my haste to get on with it, I failed to properly adjust the length of my ju- mars’ runners. Consequently, the next thing I knew, I was hanging with both jumars – one on each rope – about three metres above an uncomfortably small ledge that also had huge drops on either side. Due to the incorrect length of the runners, I was no lon- ger able to pull myself up or lower myself down, and I struggled for a moment – much to Bo’s amuse- ment – until I nally managed to place one foot on the wall and the other on the rock just behind it, adopting a stance worthy of a top ballet dancer.

Had I been even a fraction shorter, I wouldn’t have been able to do this and raise myself just enough to release the jumars, whose teeth had dug deep into the ropes under my weight.

Fortunately, I managed it, and so I painstak- ingly installed my descender and, after removing the other jumar, gently lowered myself back down to the ledge. There, I shortened my runners while watching Bo – who was no longer laughing – clum- sily wriggle his way up the overhang. Properly ad- justing the length of the runners is crucial before jumaring – this was a cheap lesson that could have cost me a lot more.

By the time I subsequently made it to the top of the inverted wall, Bo was, surprisingly, already quite a long way ahead, which meant that he didn’t even wait at the top. This, to me, somewhat proved his inexperience. Meanwhile, since I couldn’t wait for the others who were too far back, I kept moving along the ridge, taking photos and shooting footage every time the sleet and snow subsided, and then carefully putting the cameras back into their Ziploc bags before reinserting them in my jacket’s large waterproof, zipped chest pockets. With a couple of extremely tricky and exposed sections still ahead, I secured each move and made sure of every step, knowing that any error could be fatal, especially as I was now climbing alone. Chris, Martin and Chuck looked like tiny dots of red, blue and yellow down below on the dark grey, yet now brie y sunlit face of the mountain.

This was technical climbing, the like of which I had never experienced or expected, and it took me another three hours to nally reach the sum- mit amid incessant rain, sleet and snow. Bo was al- ready there, and he asked me to take some photos of him, since his own camera was wet and no longer operational. In return, he photographed and lmed me with my ags, and then, after I’d said a prayer and left our fellow climbers a bag of beef jerky at the foot of the plaque that marks the summit, we commenced the long, dangerous descent towards the foot of the wall, some 600 metres below.

I felt a sense of relief at having renewed my accidental death insurance policy – that’s how exposed and dangerous some of the moves were.

We came across Martin, Chris and Chuck on the ridge, and I encouraged them while pointing to the summit. Then we passed Frankie, who was resting inside a small cave with a young Indonesian climb- ing companion, who looked scared and almost in a state of shock. By now, the weather was going hay- wire, with driving sleet soon making the conditions so ridiculous that I felt a sense of relief at having renewed my accidental death insurance policy on the Internet at the Ritzy Hotel in Manado. A silly thought, maybe, but that’s how exposed and dan- gerous some of the moves were. Certainly, I had scaled 8,000-metre summits and this 4,884-metre peak was one of the lowest that I had climbed, but I honestly felt more threatened here than ever be- fore. This, in turn, taught me never to underestimate anything in life, and that every task or job deserves all the respect one can give it.

A couple of times, one of my descenders slipped, due to ice building up around it, and it was only much later, when we’d left the ridge, that I began to feel less likely to have an accident. Still, the ropes were so snowy and icy that rappelling down on them made my extreme weather Gore-Tex gloves and garments soaking wet on the inside. As on Ama Dablam, I refrained from looking down at the steep sections, while convincing myself that, whether from ve metres or 500 metres, a fall is a fall. This time, however, having already experienced this type of situation, I did feel a little more secure and, after putting on my spare pair of dry gloves, I continued rappelling down the several lengths of rope to the base of the wall.

All the while, I kept checking every anchor and making sure that the rope below me was still there and in good condition. So, when Bo, who was fol- lowing right behind, kept asking me if the rope and anchors were okay, I nally joked, “What better proof do you need than me trusting them with my own life?”

Later, when we encountered a length of frayed rope near the foot of the climb, I removed my pack and took the time to x it properly, so that it would be safe for the others to rappel on. Although the conditions kept improving as we moved down the mountain, the rain never let up, yet this was like cat’s pee compared to the ongoing hell that our col- leagues were probably still contending with near the summit. We arrived at Base Camp precisely 13 hours and 19 minutes after leaving there at 1:50 am, and when the others still hadn’t shown up, after it began getting dark around 6:00 pm, I became seri- ously concerned. Then, just as I was about to walk over to Bo’s tent to discuss this, I heard Chris’s voice as she walked into camp. What a relief!

All of us had reached the summit and returned safely without incident, except for Chuck, who had slipped and opened a 10-centimetre gash below his right knee. As ever, he was in good spirits, and his and the others’ presence certainly lightened my own mood as we settled in for the night. The next day, Thursday, December 8, we left camp at 5:30 in the afternoon, hoping to glimpse the scenery before darkness fell, yet this coincided with rain starting to fall yet again and it didn’t stop the rest of the way. We reached the Zebra Wall at around 7:00 pm, and as we walked towards the Toyota Land Cruiser, we could see the CAT 797B ‘monster’ trucks going back and forth in the distance, each transporting a payload of several tonnes of precious metals.

A quick drive down to the army compound was followed by a four-hour nap before we descended the steep, narrow roads inside the mine. Again, this was done in a car with mud-smeared windows, yet we still ducked down as we passed each of the checkpoints and, 40 minutes into our journey, we also had to transfer to a new car, because of brake problems with the rst one. At that point, we were still within the mine and, after going through a couple of tunnels, we switched vehicles yet again, this time climbing into a brand new and far more comfortable Land Rover Defender 110. Now we were riding in style and, although we still encoun- tered some trucks going up and down, the drama was over.

This had been my strangest expedition to date; one on which just getting to the mountain had been more dif cult than the climb itself, and that hadn’t been easy. While ying from Tembagapura back to Soreang, I had time to re ect on where I’d been and where I was going, and that’s when I asked myself: was I out of my mind, planning to venture yet again – but this time as far as possible – into that area known as the ‘Death Zone’?