Regardless of what they may tell you over beers at the pub, climbers prefer to avoid situations where they are completely dependent on a single piece of equipment.
Sometimes these circumstances are inevitable, like when you have to do a monster rappel down a big wall on a line of rope that runs over a sharp edge above. You tend to see people running that gear through some tests before hanging it out there, even after they’ve triple checked it. Maybe that screw gate just happened to magically come open in the 5 seconds since the last squeeze check.
Hanging completely suspended on horizontal climbing ropes to cross from one feature to the next is known as a Tyrolean Traverse. A time when you are truly dependent on your gear traversing over a 500-foot deep chasm along the knife-edged limestone ridge of Carstensz Pyramid in the heart of an Indonesian jungle is enough to get even the most experienced alpinists into a zen-like state of determination. Throw in questionable weather, 16,000 feet of elevation, and the fact that you have to go back across the same line on the way down from the summit, and you have got yourself one hell of a good adventure story for when you do in fact return to the pub.
The Seventh Summit: Carstensz Pyramid
Carstensz Pyramid, or Puncak Jaya as the locals call it, is located on the island of Papua, Indonesia. It is a massive hunk of beautifully pocketed limestone that shoots abruptly out of a very dense forest. This mountaineering prize is protected by a week-long trek through remote rain forests rife with historical accounts of failed expeditions, be they from local tribe issues that turn the parties back even before reaching base camp, private mining company restrictions on access or the tons of government red tape. All party conflicts aside, the many kilometers of mud, stream crossings and carrying of loads have cut the expedition short for aspiring climbers as well.
It is widely considered by the mountaineering community to be the “Seventh Summit” covering the Australia/Oceania swath of earth for those trying to climb the highest mountain on each continent. Some still opt to climb Mt. Kosciusko on the continent of Australia and simply call it a day, but in reality the Kosciusko version is a relatively straightforward affair consisting of a paved road that gains access to a high pass leaving a mere 5-mile hiking path to the summit. Not exactly a mountaineering challenge worthy of the trophy mantel, but a nice vacation to be sure.
Carstensz Pyramid on the other hand is regarded as one of the most technically difficult of the Seven Summits – a true alpine rock climb that entails all the access issues, meticulous climbing and rappelling skills, big exposure and constantly changing weather throughout most days on the hill. Throw in the high price tag it takes to knock this one out and you have got yourself what most in the mountaineering community consider the real prize to complete the list.
Getting to Base Camp
I went to climb this peak in November with two clients. We had the luxury of having the appropriate funds to hire a helicopter to fly into the base camp from a remote mining city of mixed Christian and Muslim influence called Timika. This not only saved our small team the 5-day walk through rain soaked rugged mountains, but also allowed us one of the most incredible helicopter rides you can imagine. It took just an hour to leave the humid lowlands of Timika, zoom through steep tree lined cliffs and land at Carstensz Base Camp at 14,000 feet.
Our plan was to just sneak up to the 16,024 foot summit the following day, before the rapid change in altitude could set in. We made an acclimatization hike to help adjust our bodies’ regulation of blood pH and to get a glimpse of the massive slab of Limestone we planned to climb. While looking up at the route, it is easy to distinguish where the massive Tyrolean traverse was waiting – a rather ominous gap in the ridge awaiting above us.
The morning began dark and chilly with snow and strong winds, forcing an early delay for the climb. Eventually, I motivated myself out of my comfy Sierra Designs down sleeping bag to wake the boys and make a brew of mandatory French pressed coffee. The plan was to climb the roughly 2000 feet of vertical elevation in a single rapid push. The rock face was beautifully featured with pockets and the exposure only intensified as I made my way to the ridge. Most sections of the climbing are protected with fixed rope that is maintained by the small collective of commercial climbing groups, such as our own, that visit the peak. This allows rapid ascent and descent by rappelling back down the route.
We climbed with relaxed efficiency into the sunshine of the morning, trading in our warm wool hats for climbing helmets and Zeal Optics polarized lenses. Despite the warmth, we were always cognizant of the ticking clock because speed is safety on these types of routes. Carefully planned ten-minute breaks offer enough time to eat a PowerBar, down a drink and take in the vista of green jungle and turquoise glacial lakes below. After about four hours of gaining on the ridge that leads to the summit pyramid, the snow started to fall. In Indonesia, the mix of high altitude, humid air and mountains creates the perfect recipe for experiencing sun, rain, snow, cold, warm, and snow again. We reached the Tyrolean traverse. Through the 50-foot gap of visibility, we could sense the massive void.
The rock edge drops abruptly away, leaving a massive gap in the ridge like a missing tooth. We checked the anchors – they were professionally placed by previous parties using 1-inch tubular webbing, Black Diamond Lost Arrow pitons and equalized effectively. Several strands of 11-millimeter static climbing rope spanned the 90 feet of nothing to the other side. We took care to clip our master point carabiner from our harness into two of the ropes and a separate sling to a third line, which would give us redundancy if one rope were to fail. You could see each climber do the double and triple check of those carabiner gates before lowering off.
For some in our team, this was a new and understandably tense experience – they appeared to just want to get across, cursing under their breath with an odd prayer thrown in for good measure, never stopping to look down at the yawing abyss below. One by one, we clipped into multiple horizontal sections of static climbing rope and placed all our trust into the system. Hand over hand is the only way to pull yourself across. Your arms get pumped and the sheer relief of reaching the other side becomes enough to energize you for the remaining hour-long climb on the knife edge ridge to reach the summit above.
A Bid for the Summit
We still had plenty of ground to cover so we continued upward immediately. The weather and time of day started to take my attention. There were several more small gaps in the ridge and 4th-class scrambling sections between us and the summit. The team was moving very well and we knew that we could reach the summit, but my head still went on the constant swivel anyway. We checked carabiners, the clock and our layers in the freezing rain that began to fall. I told the team to have their cameras ready because it would be a fun, but fast, summit party.
The snow stopped for a brief moment as we stepped onto the very top of the amazing mountain. We shared a big bear hug on hunk of rock the size of a small coffee table with 2000 feet of sheer exposure dropping down the North face. Wet and cold, energized and smiling, we had it: The summit of Carstensz Pyramid. She was difficult to climb and costly to reach, but we had done it.
The Way Back
All that remained was to reverse the process: To traverse many steep gaps, cross the Tyrolean traverse again and rappel the countless pitches back to flat ground, all with that quiet elation that mountaineers feel upon while realizing their goal.
We quickly made our way back down the route. The pace was faster but more cautious; the return run is when mistakes are made. We approached the Tyrolean traverse and thankfully caught a break. The timing was perfect. The clouds began to part and the sun beat down on the ridge. The team crossed the ropes and gathered on the other side for warm tea and a break. I came over last and allowed myself a brief moment to look down at my surroundings while hanging mid-length on the horizontal ropes. The view was quite simply superb.
Though climbing the seven summits was never a specific goal of mine, through default, I have guided all of them except Mt. Vinson. Too close to knocking them all off my list now, I must seek out the last far away mountain that is also costly to get to and near the same altitude as Carstensz Pyramid. But the landscape below this final summit will lie in stark contrast to the lush rainforests of Indonesia. Mt. Vinson stands on one of the coldest, driest, and most remote place on the planet: Antarctica.
Things You’ll Need to Know to Climb The Seventh Summit
- Carstensz Pyramid is the highest mountain in Australia/Oceania, at 4,884 meters – 16,024 feet
- Expeditions fly into Jakarta and connect via domestic flight to Timika
- A climber must possess basic rock climbing and rappelling skills, as well as solid mountaineering experience
- Permits are required to gain access to Carstensz Pyramid, and must be organized by a local operator
- Most individuals join a professional guiding service to ensure safety and expedition management (Mountain Professionals guides 9-day helicopter supported trips to climb Carstensz Pyramid, very similar to the one you just read about)
The author of this article, Ryan Waters, is a professional mountain guide, mountaineer and polar adventurer. He has climbed extensively in the Himalayas, Andes, and many other corners of the world. In 2010 he and his partner completed the first unassisted and unsupported ski traverse of Antarctica over 70 days. He owns Mountain Professionals, which leads expeditions around the globe.
All photos in this article are © 2011 Ryan Waters.