Climbing Carstensz Pyramid, the Strangest of the 7 Summits
Updated: May 20, 2019
Carstensz Pyramid is an odd mountain.
For starters, it’s included on the famed 7 Summits list; a collection of the tallest peaks on each continent. Located in Papua, Indonesia, many would assume this land is part of Asia. However, Carstensz is counted as Australia’s highest peak. If you find this confusing, rest assured, you’re not alone. The real high point of Australia is Mt. Kosciuszko, a gently sloping, seven-thousand foot peak between Sydney and Melbourne. It’s such a light walk that when I told residents that I had flown halfway around the world to climb it, I was met with blank stares and a resounding chorus of, “Why?”
In 1986, Kosciuszko was deemed too wimpy of a peak to be included on such a prestigious list, and it was unceremoniously dropped. But that left the problem: how can we only have six summits when there are seven continents? The answer was to venture north into Asia and choose a mountain that was relatively close to Australia. Carstensz Pyramid was a mere six hundred miles away. To deal with that pesky fact that it was not a part of the Australian continent, new names were floated: Oceania and Australasia. And to this day, there is no strong consensus on what constitutes the final peak, or even the final continent. Many, like myself, just cover their bases and climb both.
The name itself is also an oddity. Named for Dutch explorer, Jan Carstenszoon, Carstensz Pyramid is often confused with Puncak Jaya, a neighboring peak. We all have that irritating friend who feels the need to correct our minor scruples. Mine was all too happy to tell me that Puncak Jaya was actually the correct title for this climb. Even Wikipedia backed up his claims, saying that the mountain goes by two names.
However, on the climb itsel, Papuans were quick to assure us that Puncak Jaya and Carstensz Pyramid were two separate mountains that stand over Yellow Valley. They politely requested that we stop mixing them up. (You heard it here, folks.) Being the kind, understanding person I am, I rubbed it in my friend's face the moment I got back to wifi.
Finally, the geography and politics of the region are fascinating. Rising above the Papuan jungle, Carstensz Pyramid is a sixteen-thousand foot rock slab. The jagged terrain and steep drops make it the most technical of the 7 Summits, as it requires a good deal of rock climbing to reach the top. In the past, climbers would hike up to ten days through misty jungle to reach base camp at fourteen thousand feet. They would then begin climbing up the steep rock face to the summit.
However, the political situation has gotten to the point where climbers are encouraged to fly by helicopter directly to base camp—a trip from sea level to fourteen thousand feet that takes only forty-five minutes and leaves many climbers feeling the effects of altitude; nausea, headaches, and dizziness. Normally, such a leap in altitude would be avoided at all costs, but walking through the jungle has it’s own risks. Papua is made up of over eighty different tribes, less than a dozen of which have been given representation in Indonesia’s government. Naturally, this upsets the remaining tribes, and they are trying to fight for their independence. Unfortunately, inter-tribal conflict is common, and without a united front, their bid for independence is unlikely. Climbers have been asked by the locals to kindly stay out of their affairs (and their territory). Those who ignore this request are forced to pay exorbitant fees just to continue along the trail.
With all that in mind, this past month, I set off for Carstensz, intent on bringing my count of the completed 7 Summits (or for me, eight) to a solid five. I’ve been mountain and rock climbing for over a decade. I had studied every map of the route I could get my hands on, prepping for whatever challenges lay ahead. And finally, after four days of travel from San Francisco, I arrived at base camp.
The climb itself was a blast, if short. After so many days of travel, omitting the jungle portion of the trip leaves only one full day of climbing. The entire rock face can be summited in under twelve hours. So we climbed, scrambled, and rappelled our way up and down, all eight members of our team reaching the top. (It’s worth noting that this team consisted of four women and four men, a rare occurrence of the women not being outnumbered.) The biggest thrill of the climb was a steep drop spanned by a tightrope.
Holding onto two hand ropes for support, we then walked the tightrope over the terrifying open expanse. For yours truly, it was a clear highlight of the day, matched only by my speed-demon rappelling down the last thousand feet of rock.
Back at base camp, the long wait began. The helicopters won’t fly in rainy or cloudy weather, and when you’re in a jungle, sunny days are scarce. Our team sat at base camp for five days. First, we ran out of beer (a tragedy), then food began running low (mildly concerning), and finally, we started having to ration the toilet paper (full-blown nightmare). To pass the time, we went on hikes, braided each other’s hair, and gambled for the remaining rations. Every day, as the rainclouds blotted out the sun and hope for our retrieval faded, we would settle into our routines; naps, group activities, and shared stories.
It may sound anticlimactic, especially after the excitement of our summit day, but these are the moments that make a trip special. Learning that the man you’ve been sharing a tent with for a week is an aspiring novelist, or that the mild-mannered woman you climbed beside is a hardcore survivalist. Climbers shared their secrets for a well lived life: appreciating the moment, finding God in all aspects of nature, or, strangely enough for a goal-driven climber, pure hedonism. It’s incredibly liberating to share your heart with a group of people who have no expectations. My work is irrelevant, my societal status meaningless. Even spouses and families fade to the background, stripping us down to the core of who we are. These are the moments that make these trips special, and keep me coming back for more. Not the mountain, not the glory, just the people.
The helicopter did eventually find its way to us, and whisked us back to civilization. (To my dismay, that day's activity was boat races, made with garbage scavenged from the hills. I'll admit, I was sad to see the helicopter flying into the valley.) After several weeks back in California, I’m back to the daily grind. Clients during the day, writing at night, taking care of my family in-between. But I can already feel the first longings for another adventure, the desire to connect with others on such a base level.
Because lying in a soggy, freezing tent at night, with an upset stomach and an altitude headache, I know I'm with my people.