Carstensz Pyramid

Height: 4884m

Location: Papua Province, Indonesia, Australia-Oceania

Carstensz Pyramid is the highest mountain on the Australian-Oceania continental plate. The most recent official survey data shows that it rises to a height of 4884m (16024 feet) above sea level making it, not only the highest island peak in the world, but also the highest point between the Americas and the Himalayan mountains. Carstensz Pyramid, also called Puncak Jaya by some, and Puncak Jaya Kesuma or only Jaya Kesuma by others, is located in the Papua province of Indonesia (to the west of Papua New Guinea). Carstensz Pyramid was named after Dutch explorer Jan Carstensz who first sighted the glaciers on the peak of the mountain on a rare clear day in 1623. He was ridiculed in Europe when he said that he had seen snow near the equator. Carstensz Pryamid lies only 4 degrees South of the equator and there are four glaciers in the mountain range near Carstensz Pyramid. The rate of glacial retreat in this area is rapid and it is likely that within a decade these glaciers will have disappeared which would then make the greater Australia continental plate the first completely ice free continent on the planet in 100,000 years.


Ascent date: 10 August 2008

This British Expedition was led by Dave Pritt of Adventure Peaks Ltd in Ambleside and the rest of the expedition members were Ashley Hale from Norfolk, Duncan Hale from Durham and Andy Rice from Herts.

The main challenges involved in an ascent of the Carstensz Pyramid include the impassable jungle, confrontation with primitive tribes that have cannibalistic tendencies, the absence of maps and information, problems with the Papuan guerilla freedom movement, potential problems with altitude sickness, and the difficulty of the rock climbing to gain the summit. Carstensz Pyramid is rated as being at least as technically difficult as, if not more so than, Mount Everest.

The first person who ever made it to the summit of Carstensz Pyramid was the Austrian climber Heinrich Harrer (of ‘Seven years in Tibet’ fame) on 13th February 1962. Carstensz Pyramid is not an easy mountain to reach the summit of. In 2005, the official statistics said that it had been climbed by a little over 100 people. Every year Mount Everest’s summit sees more visitors than Carstensz Pyramid.

Since Carstensz Pyramid reopened to mountaineers in July 2005 the main access and egress has been by using chartered helicopter flights. Some expeditions have tried to access and/or egress the mountain via the Freeport “Grasberg mine”, which is the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine in the world. The mining giant PT Freeport Indonesia contributed 95.8 trillion Rupiah (US$105.27 billion) to Indonesia’s GDP in 2007 and they view mountaineers as a nuisance that generates little revenue for them. Permits are no longer issued by the Indonesian government for access and/or egress via this route and some recent expeditions have encountered significant difficulties as a result. A Czech led expedition in November 2007 was blocked from leaving Carstensz Pyramid base camp for a period of three weeks to go through the mine and eventually when they left base camp their expedition leader spent 4 days in prison for illegally exiting via the mine.

Since July 2005, only one expedition had accessed the mountain by trekking from the airstrip at Ilaga (60 km to the west of Carstensz Pyramid). However, due to circumstances experienced by this Romanian group whilst gaining access they opted to illegally exit via the Grasberg mine and face the consequences. Overall Carstensz Pyramid is logistically the hardest mountain of the coveted Seven Summits to succeed on. For Ashley, Duncan and I this was our fourth mountain in the seven summits challenge and for Andy it was his third. The success of all members of this British expedition to reach the summit continues Adventure Peaks Ltd’s unrivalled 100% success record on this mountain.

After securing all of the appropriate Indonesian permits for the expedition, we left the UK on Wednesday 30th July 2008 to attempt an overland expedition to Carstensz Pyramid. Originally, consideration had been given to accessing the mountain with a chartered helicopter flight, but due to rapidly rising fuel costs this option became too expensive. In just one day, on 23rd May 2008, fuel prices in Indonesia were raised by 30%. Alternative arrangements had to be put in place to make the expedition financially viable.

We arrived in the Papuan province town of Timika using a scheduled air flight from Bali early on the morning of Friday 1st August 2008. To pacify the local police and to guarantee that we did not make an illegal access attempt to Carstensz Pyramid through the mine, a twin otter aircraft was chartered for the morning of 1st August that took us directly to an airstrip at Ilaga which is about 60 km east of Carstensz Pyramid. Before Carstensz Pyramid was closed to mountaineers in 1995 a few expeditions had successfully accessed the mountain using this approach route. There was little information available about this access route and it was not certain whether it was still passable.

Having arrived at the Ilaga airstrip, the we were met by many members of the Dani tribe and proceeded into the settlement of Ilaga to meet with the local police officer as required by the Indonesian government permit.The expedition team were introduced to the Dani tribal chief of the Ilaga settlement and negotiations were started to get safe passage through to the next village of Pinapa granted. The traditional attire of the male Dani tribe is penis gourds and bird feathers worn through their noses. Most of the Dani people that we met no longer wore the traditional attire for day to day activities as they found it too cold for their environment. However it was not uncommon to see older Dani people wearing the traditional penis gourds walking around the village.

On Saturday the 2nd August 2008, we had received permission to move onto the village of Pinapa from Ilaga as the start of the trek in toward Carstensz Pyramid. As we left Ilaga it felt like the entire settlement was with us as the porters’ wives and children accompanied us up to Pinapa. It had been expected that upon arrival at Pinapa there would be a brief meeting with the village and then we would have been allowed to proceed through the equatorial rainforest towards Carstensz Pyramid. As the expedition approached Pinapa we were instructed to not take any photographs until appropriate permissions had been granted.

Upon arrival we were escorted by machete-wielding Dani tribe members to an area where we were searched for weapons. Then our rucksacks had to be emptied to demonstrate that we were not a threat. After the Dani people were satisfied that we were not a threat to them we were escorted into a room where we met a man whom we were never told the name of, but he seemed to control everything in this settlement. This main guy was a senior member of the Free Papua Movement (Indonesian: Organisasi Papua Merdeka, abbreviated OPM). The OPM is a separatist organisation established in 1965 which seeks independence for Western New Guinea from Indonesia. Since its inception the OPM has attempted diplomatic dialogue, conducted West Papuan flag raising ceremonies (illegal under Indonesian law) and undertaken militant actions.

As we were led into the room the team’s translator told them that this guy and/or his men have previously killed and maimed.The guy firstly requested to see the Indonesian permits for accessing Papua and Carstensz Pyramid. He thoroughly examined them then stated that the paperwork was correct but that they did not honour Indonesian government permits. Negotiations then commenced to ensure safe passage out of Pinapa, on towards Carstensz Pyramid, and for safe passage back to Ilaga. The final price paid for safe passage was very expensive, however it was secured. Additional funds had to be specially flown in from Timika to Ilaga (no one carries over 140 million Rupiah – over £10,000 – in cash around with them).

In addition the guy decided how many porters would be required, how much they would be paid per day away from the village, how much food was to be purchased from the village for the porters, what price would be paid for the food, and he decided that the Pinapa village chief must accompany the expedition to Carstensz Pyramid and he decided how much the chief was to be paid as well. The original helicopter access option was beginning to look cheap again.

Following all of the negotiations it was getting dark and we had to spend a night in Pinapa, a village where everyone carries a machete or bow & arrows. So, on the third day of being in Papua, we left Pinapa with our translator and chef and headed towards Carstensz Pyramid with thirty four porters. It had been anticipated that only about six porters would have been required, however there is little negotiating to be had with people holding machetes and fire arms. Leaving Pinapa with 34 porters reminded us of the fiction book ‘An ascent of Rum Doodle’ where a small mountaineering team needed an excessively large number of porters to support them.

The trek towards Carstensz Pyramid was estimated, from historical information, to take in the region of 5 to 6 days walking over a variety of terrain. The first section involved climbing up through the equatorial rainforest to a high level plateau. The trek through the rainforest involved continually climbing over fallen trees, hacking through undergrowth, limbo dancing under fallen trees and tight rope walking along felled tree trunks across ravines and gullies.

On the third day, after only covering six km from Pinapa, the afternoon rains commenced early. Being British we threw on our waterproofs and were keen to keep moving towards the mountain. This was part of the learning experience: as soon as it starts to rain the Dani people want to be under shelter with a fire going. Therefore, as the rain started, they felled a few small trees and rapidly built a shelter using a tarpaulin sheet large enough to fit thirty four underneath. They built two fires inside the temporary shelter and would not move again until the next day. We had no choice but to find a flatish piece of ground to pitch our tents and wait for the next morning.

On the fourth day, we managed to rise above the equatorial rainforest and started walking across the high level plateau at about 4000m towards Carstensz Pyramid. Walking over this terrain, which was incredibly boggy, was comparable to walking across a soaking wet Rannoch moor. The afternoon rains came early and, yet again, little distance had been covered (6.5 km).

Gradually over the next few days we made progress across the high plateau towards Carstensz Pyramid through boggy terrain, past spectacular limestone pinnacles, multiple sink holes, large waterfalls. We waded across multiple rivers, crossed over mountain passes and eventually, on the 9th day of being in Papua, we saw the impressive north face of Carstensz Pyramid rising from the Meren valley. The mountain was first seen by the team from the “New Zealand pass”. This pass was named after the 1936 New Zealand expedition led by Collin Putt. They tried to find this pass to cross the Snow mountains to allow them to access the Meren valley, however they failed.

The south face of Carstensz Pyramid is a wall of rock that rises about 500 to 600m high from the valley. There are about a dozen rock climbing routes that go up this face of the mountain and the most straight-forward one is the original route of Heinrich Harrer. This route takes a line of weakness slanting left to right into a scree basin and then up a gully system above, onto the west ridge. From there a long exposed traverse leads to the summit.

Base camp for Carstensz Pyramid is located at about 4300m altitude and would be an idyllic campsite apart from all of the rubbish that seems to have accumulated from previous expeditions that had not taken their rubbish with them. Although it had taken us 9 days to reach the mountain base we were now only 2 to 3 hours walk away from the Grasberg mine. We did not experience it ourselves, but it is mentioned in some mountaineering books that at weekends mineworkers and their guards sometimes come up to base camp, leave their litter and graffiti and fire off their AK-47s.

On Sunday 10th August, at about 4am local time (8pm Saturday 9th August UK time), we left Carstensz Pyramid base camp for our summit bid. By 5am we had reached the base of the original route up the north face of Carstensz Pyramid, geared up and, although it was still dark, started rock climbing up the steep two thousand foot high wall to the west ridge of the mountain.

After about an hour of rock climbing the sun began to rise and the full extent of our exposed position on the mountain became apparent. We continued up to the ridge then started to move along the airy, snowy ridge towards the summit. All five of us reached the summit at around 10:40am local time in glorious sunshine.

Photos were quickly taken of the summit but we could not relax until we were back down at the base of the mountain. Every afternoon, almost without fail, there are heavy rains in Papua. Being on a near-vertical rock face in the rain is not an appealing proposition so we rapidly made our way down the west ridge to the top of the original route climb. We then descended the 2000 vertical feet, mostly by abseiling, to get back down to a path.

We managed to make it make to base camp in a time of only eleven and a half hours. As soon as the team were safely back at base camp and under shelter the afternoon rains commenced. For Dave Pritt, who had previously climbed Carstensz Pyramid whilst guiding other climbers, this was the first time that he had seen the entire ridge and didn’t get soaked descending the mountain.

Having reached the summit of Carstensz Pyramid, the final stage was to get back to civilisation. It had been expected that the next day we would begin to trudge back to Ilaga, however there was a surprise when the Pinapa chief came into base camp shouting and waving his machete. Our cook seemed to be the brunt of the anger and was chased around the camp site by one of the chief’s men lashing out with his machete. Thankfully the cook was nimble and didn’t get his head taken off.

Our translator and the cook were ordered to go to a lower warmer campsite where the porters were located to resolve the situation. Apparently, whilst we had been up on the mountain the cook had done something trivial that was disrespectful to the chief. Although the relationship between the team and the Dani tribe porters had been warming during the trek in to Carstensz Pyramid, this incident showed that their attitude could change rapidly so we had to keep respecting the wishes of the chief.

The following day the cook and the chief seemed to have repaired their relationship and we were allowed to proceed back towards Ilaga. Food supplies were running low as it had taken longer to reach base camp than planned. The benefit of this was that the porters were keen to make rapid progress to Pinapa. They were much more amenable to early starts to avoid the rain and walking longer distances in a day than they had been at any other point in the expedition.

It took five days of walking to reach Pinapa and we were allowed passage down to Ilaga on the fifth day after some further discussions and payments in relation to the expedition. Due to the one day delay in leaving base camp, it meant that we reached Ilaga on the afternoon of Saturday 16th August. The last flight out of Ilaga was in the morning of the 16th and, as there were no flights on Sundays, we had to wait until the Monday to board an aircraft and get towards a hotel for a much needed shower.

Sunday 17th of August 2008 was the 63rd anniversary of Indonesia’s independence. There was a huge contrast between the villages of Ilaga and Pinapa. Ilaga suddenly had hundreds of Indonesian flags out on display with people busy preparing for independence day celebrations and Pinapa looked no different from when we had first seen it a few weeks previously.

Despite our unwashed smelly state, we were made honorary guests to sit with the government officials presiding over the independence parades and celebrations. We were glad that we were not Dutch. After the independence day celebrations, along with Dave Pritt we had a meeting with a government official who wishes to see the Ilaga regency develop and prosper. The government official was very keen to encourage mountaineers to come to the area and to use Ilaga as the starting point for expeditions to Carstensz Pyramid as it would provide employment for local people and help fund the development of their infrastructure. Various aspects of the expedition were discussed with the government official and he was keen to work closely with the local community and the OPM guy to ensure smoother and more cost effective passage in the future.

To make trekking into Carstensz Pyramid from Ilaga environmentally sustainable a few changes would be required. Dave’s company, Adventure Peaks Ltd, have offered to fund one of the locals (who is likely to become the next chief of Pinapa) to go trekking on one of their expeditions, to learn for themselves what is expected from Western visitors. The conclusion of the meeting was highly positive in terms of improving access for future mountaineers and hopefully the prices will reduce as a result.

Overall we felt privileged to have been able to trek into Carstensz Pyramid and become the first expedition to successfully trek into and out of the mountain range from Ilaga since the mountain re-opened in July 2005. We were also privileged to spend time with the Dani people, learning about their culture, and being lucky enough to have a dry sunny successful day reaching the highest point on the Oceania continental plate.

Media and online coverage

Interview with Myrddyn Phillips – Youtube

Ashley Hale on the tyrollean traverse on the summit ridge of Carstensz Pyramid – YouTube

Panoramic view from the summit of Carstensz Pyramid – YouTube

Dani tribal chatter during a descent from the New Zealand pass – YouTube

News coverage – Press and Journal

News coverage – BBC

Adventure Peaks Expedition

Ascent photos – Facebook

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