Carstensz Pyramid

I was in between guiding gigs in Argentina when I learned the news.  The helicopter we were planning to use for our fly in/out approach of 16,024ft Carstensz Pyramid had been canceled indefinitely until further notice.  I had a total of two days to notify my clients that all of our preparations thus far were in jeopardy of coming apart at the seams.  The reason for the setback was due to contract negotiations between the Australian pilot and the massive Grasberg Mine.  The Grasberg mine is the largest gold mine on the planet and is situated in direct proximity to Carstensz Pyramid.   The mine prohibits climbers from passing through their premises, but are understanding of their helicopter pilots being able to subcontract out their services to accommodate climbers.  Therefore, the Aussie pilot was forced to abstain from all of his helicopter taxi service commitments until a contract could be forged with the mine.  This completely through a curve ball to any expedition that had been in planning stages and were now well on the road to executing this trip into reality.  One of those expeditions just happened to be us!

The first order of business was if I could resurrect a workable trip itinerary with the ground logistics company we had hired in Indonesia.  They already had our deposit and we felt a bit uncertain about our chances, but in the end they came through and were able to parlay our commitment into a trekking expedition.

There is a reason why most people fly in/out of Carstensz Pyramid Base Camp, the trek can be a logistical nightmare!  Not to say that the helicopter option has eliminated all probable hiccups in climbing the highest mountain on the Oceanic Continent, since I have heard of many tales of misfortune of weather delays on that front.  Although the 6 day trek in and 4 day trek out to Carstensz Pyramid absolutely trumps any notion of the many variables that most vivid imagination could conjure up, and therefore we were in for an adventure of a lifetime.

The international arrival for our trip was on the Indonesian island of Bali, which is nestled in the chain of islands that make up the  southern reaches of Southeast Asia.  The international flight from Seattle, USA to Denpasar, Indonesia was a 30+ hour multiple leg flight experience that will cause you to lose a day when crossing the international dateline.  When making your flight reservations, allow for adequate layover time between legs of your journey.  This will give you a buffer should any of your departures be delayed and assure that your luggage is transferred between flights.  As a precautionary measure, make sure you check with the agent (you will need your luggage tags for this) at the gate to see that your luggage actually did make the connecting flight.  This will give you a leg up should any of your bags become delayed in transit.

My flight that departed out of Vancouver, BC was delayed about 2 hours and unfortunately our Boeing 747 couldn’t make up the time in the air due to the headwinds of the jet stream.  Therefore my late arrival into Hong Kong resulted in me having about an hour to spare for the transit.  I thought that this would be enough, but upon my arrival into Denpassar I found that my luggage had not made the switch in time.  Omen for things to come? I try my best not to project such tidings into the universe, but I have yet to tap into a higher level of transcendence when it comes to traveling internationally.  Losing your luggage just sucks.

First and foremost I had to pay for my 30 day visa which cost $25 usd and then make my way through immigration.  Your maximum stay in Indonesia is 60 days and you will also need to have a passport that is valid for 6 months and plenty of free visa pages to be allowed into the country.

After the unfortunate procedure of filing my claim with the fine folks at the Cathy Pacific luggage desk, they had been able to locate my bags in Hong Kong and gave me assurance that they would be on the following days flight to Denpasar.  I made my way through customs and out through the arrival gate and located my driver that had been sent by the hotel.  In the event that you are unable to locate your driver, the key beta is to go directly to the taxi kiosk which is located outside of the arrival entrance.  You will want to prepay with Bluebird taxi (100,000 rupees = $10 usd) and just have them take you to the hotel which is about 3 kms from the airport.

Our initial rally point for our group was at the Ramada Bali Bingtang Resort.  This is the larger of two Ramada Hotels that is located in the popular, high paced Kuta Beach scene.  The resort itself was set up as a starting and stopping point for tour groups and it was a welcome oasis to the spring break party scene that managed to sprawl throughout Kuta Beach area.  I am either getting older or my pallet for the path of least resistance is beginning to manifest itself in my life.

Our Indonesian logistics company we used paid for the 1st and last night of our lodging while in Bali.  Our last day in Bali did allow us to take care of some logistical must do’s…

1. Pack trekking backpack with everything you plan to be carrying on the trail. This will also act as your carry on bag for the domestic commercial flight from Denpasar to Timika. This cannot weigh more then 7 Kilos (15 lbs).

2. Pack duffel for the trek that will be carried by porters. This bag cannot weigh more then 20 Kilos (44 lbs), make sure to have a TSA lock on this duffel. This will also be your only check in bag for the flight from Denpasar to Timika.

3. Pack a duffel with all of the gear you will not be bringing and leave tagged and locked at the Ramada Hotel in Bali.

4. Relax and enjoy Bali. You can rent surf boards on Kuta beach and the hotel has a nice spa.

Our Indonesian logistics team paid for our lunch and dinner during our stay in Bali.  The lunch we had was at the hotel and dinner we had at a restaurant in the Kuta beach area (that gave you upper back massages while you waited for your meal).  After dinner we retired to the hotel and we only had about 4 hours of rest since we had to check out of our hotel room at 1 am on the morning of the 26th in order to catch our 3 am departure from Denpasar to Timika.  Our meeting time was at 1 am sharp in the early morning.  We needed to bring all of our luggage with us. Our day pack and checking in duffel was loaded into the van. While our duffel to be stored at the hotel was taken at this time by the hotel staff.

We were transported as a group to the airport in the transportation provided by the Ramada Hotel.  Our flight departed Denpasar on Garuda Airlines (Indonesian airline) at 3 am and arrived into Timika, Papua at 6 am.  We flew on a Boeing 737. and our logistics people had organized this flight and facilitated the check in process while we were in Denpasar.

There seemed to be no way around this early flight departure. The Garuda flight we were on originated from Jakarta then stopped in Bali and then continued onto Timika. Therefore, you can start your trip from either Jakarta or Bali. In my opinion, Bali is a nicer place to depart from and arrive back to after a long trip on Carstensz Pyramid.

There were two independents that were on our expedition and shared our permit. They originated from Jakarta and were on our flight from Denpasar to Timika.

Early this morning we arrived into Timika and we were picked up by our divers which our Indonesian staff had arranged ahead of time for us. We were transferred to our hotel and checked in. We were then able to have breakfast at the hotel.  During this afternoon we had to weigh our duffel for the chartered flight to Ilaga.  We weighed our gear, we weighed ourselves, and we left all of this gear at the airline office. We also brought our daypacks to be weighed, but we brought these back to the hotel. Make sure your duffel has a lock on it since you will not be seeing this duffel until you arrive in Ilaga.  Therefore you will need to make sure that you have everything you need with you and packed in your daypack.

Later this afternoon and evening our Indonesian staff organized the Lunch and Dinner and we used our hired drivers for the transport.
It was during our free time on this day that our Indonesian staff informed us that we were going to be delayed a day in Timika. This was not good news since we only had two contingency days figured into our schedule and this setback would use up our final contingency day. The reason for the delay was that the pilot of our chartered flight decided that he did not want to fly. It wasn’t weather related since we had clear skies.  Most of Papua was settled by Christian Missionaries and the Indonesian’s whether Christian, Muslim, or Hindu are super religious. We would have been flying on a Sunday, so we deduced that this was the reason why we didn’t fly. This was a domino effect from our delay in Bali as a result of the independent having a difficult time with his entry into Indonesia in Jakarta.
Our Indonesian staff planned some activities for this extra day we had in Timika. We had a driver take us around to a community out along the coastal tidal flats and we visited a community center that was created as a good will gesture by the Grasburg mine (of the Freeport Company, Louisiana). The center had some good restaurants and we had lunch there. They also had a really nice Olympic size pool which we spent the latter part of the afternoon.
The morning of our flight from Timika to Ilaga had us rallying at the hotel dining hall for our 5 am breakfast.  We needed to be at the airport in Timika early (around 6 am) and our flight departed around 6:30 am. We did not need to go through security, so there was no need to worry about pocket knives, liquids, etc.  Although we were told to wait in our vehicle until summoned by the flight crew. The reason being was that people from the Papua separatists movement (or OPM) were protesting for their provincial separation outside of the airport and they do not like climbers going into climb Carstensz Pyramid.

We flew on a Twin engine Otter. Similar to ones flown into the Khumbu in Nepal. The airstrip we flew into was also reminiscent of Lukla and the elevation is around 2100m/7000ft. Once we landed at Ilaga (Sugapu) we were met by some of the local Dani people. They carried our gear for us from the airstrip to the Village of Panapa. The walk took about 45min and we wore our Wellington (Rubber) boots for this section since it is very muddy.

We spent this day at the Chiefs house in Panapa Village. The chief is very gracious to open up his home to visiting climbers and tried our best to be as respectful as possible. The meals were prepared for us by our Indonesian cook staff and we ate our meals in the Chiefs house. We had a good deal of free time on this day. Nice time to connect with the locals or play a hand of hearts (I have now dominated at hearts on 6 of the 7 continents thus far). There are two rooms on the second floor of the house which we were able to lay out our bags and sleep.

This would be a great time to sit down and talk with your Indonesian staff and lay out your expectations of them.
Things to cover in debrief. 1) Firm breakfast and dinner times. 2) High standard of cleanliness with cook staff. 3) Departure times from camp on trekking days, earlier the better, have your Indonesian staff talk with the chief and head porter before the chief does his briefing with the porter staff,  and be present as well for this discussion to represent the westerners.

You will want to make sure that your Indonesian staff is bringing these items and adhering to your expectations you are establishing with them: 1) A separate dining tent and a separate cook tent, do not allow your staff to cook in the dining tent. 2) A dining table is brought to keep food elevated off of the ground.
3) That the fastest porter is in charge of carrying the members tents and that these are all together and are first to arrive into camp. Preferably when the team members arrive into camp.

You will also most likely cross paths with the Papua Separatists Group (OPM) while on the trek (the same folks protesting at the airport). They are Dani in their appearance and can be armed and dangerous (ours we encountered were not). Your Indonesian staff have budgeted donation (bribe) money for this situation. Ours gave about 1 million rupees, which comes to about $1,000 USD.
Our first activity of the trip was trekking from Panapa Village our first camp,  Jungle Camp I.  This was a long day and took us about 9 hrs. We ascended about 3500ft through thick and steep jungle terrain and it was very muddy, lots of slick roots, logs to step over/under, and log bridges to cross. We departed Panapa Village around 8:30am and arrived at our camp 1 at 5:30pm.  The elevation pinpoints that marked our journey began at Panapa Village (2100m/7000ft) and ended at Jungle Camp 1 (3200m/10500ft).
Most teams do the trek from Panapa Village to Carstensz Pyramid in 6 days on the way in. We had to do the trek in 5 days do to us losing the days in Bali and Timika. Therefore some teams will camp at 2300m and then camp at the camp at 3200m respectively.  Overall there are many camps along the trek from Panapa to CP Base accommodating many itinerary options.
You will have a difficult time getting early departure starts to your day. Even if you get up early, motivate your Indonesian cook staff to rally, break down your tents and pack your duffel for the porters. The local Dani people who will act as your porters will be adamant that you wait for them to eat and finish their morning routine. Then they will want you to be apart of their morning prayer that is usually facilitated by the head porter. This is all fine and good, but on average we would be departing at 8:30am in the morning as a result and lays down the gauntlet when it comes to cover 15+ miles each day.
This day marked a developing and ultimately chronic issue we had to face throughout our journey. Our head Indonesian guide who was also the primary owner/operator of the trekking company we hired, had thought it would be alright to allow his office manager (who also happened to be his wife’s sister) to accompany the team on the trek to climb Carstensz Pyramid. This decision was completely unknown to us prior to our arrival into Indonesia. The clincher was that this person was not in good shape and on this day we noticed her struggling right out of the gate.
As a result of the slower pace of this person, our head Indonesian guide (47 summits of Carstensz) found it was his obligation to walk with her (obviously she did require extra assistance), although his services were greatly needed by us in the capacity of him being at the front of the group. The role of your head Indonesian guide is to be the general liaison between the western customers and the Dani porter staff throughout the trip. We consulted with him many times to be up front, but to no avail, and therefore he (and the slower one) would often arrive into camp anywhere from 3-5 hrs. after we had arrived.
This was a real bummer, he was a decent guide, but just lacked the common sense or foresight and had just made a really poor decision with allowing this person onto the trip. We ultimately did put an end to this person actually going to the summit (she was actually really relieved) and therefore stayed with the Dani staff at Camp 4 and waited for us to return from our summit bid. Although we still needed to do the 4 day trek back out (a story for another time).
Therefore, you will want to make sure that if you have been given the assurance from your logistics company that you are receiving services for a pvt. trip, that you maintain that communication and keep the channels open religiously . To top it off, our Indonesian staff also allowed two independents to join our trip as well, and again with no forewarning. Ultimately it all worked out since one of them was super fit and experienced. While the other (was fit) but lacked any technical skills for the summit attempt. He ended up doing fine, but I had to take him under my wing on several occasions whilst guiding my three clients on our summit day (all good).
The second day of our trek marked the activity of going from Jungle Camp 1 to River Camp 2.  These pinpoints were Jungle Camp 1 (3200m/10500ft) and River Camp 2 (3200m/10500ft).

Our departure was at 8am and we begin the day hiking up a steep slope to reach our first high pass which brought us to the first (of many) highlands marsh plateaus. We were happy to have our Wellington boots for this entire day since their was a lot of wallowing through the mud.  The terrain eventually does open up into rolling terrain through many really cool outcrops of limestone pinnacles. This is pretty and cruiser and the end of the day will bring you down off of the plateau into a lower valley. You will then have to negotiate your first major river crossing and then continue up the adjacent valley for another 45 minutes until you reach the camp which is located on the bank of another river.

You will know that you are getting close to the first river crossing when you see this pertinent landmark, a large limestone cave, with carvings on the inside. After you cross the first major river, which is at the bottom of the valley, you will then parallel a different river as you make your way up the adjacent valley. Make sure you stay on the uphill side of the river, this will allow you to only have to cross the river once as opposed to three times.

This day could result in people getting spread out due to the cruiser terrain once you get to the limestone pinnacle region. The trail is pretty well defined although I would recommend that you have people constantly regroup at the many passes you will be going over.

We actually had a minor situation with two of my clients who were moving faster then the rest of the group,  I had stayed back with one of my slower clients and the two continued ahead. Initially I was fine with it since they were following one of our Indonesian staff who knew the way, but the problem resulted when they got so far ahead that I lost my visual on them. They had taken the liberty to cross the river on their own and continued to follow the Indonesian staff member all the way to camp 2.  I was far behind with my client that was moving much slower. We got to the big limestone cave and waited for the rest of our Indonesian staff and Dani porters to arrive. The porters arrived first and decided then and there that they were going to all camp in the cave. They directed us to head down to the river and camp, although we still had another 45 minutes to get to the real camp 2 further up the valley.  Meanwhile, my two clients and the Indonesian staff member were at the real camp 2. We tried our best to convince our porters to go the extra 45 minutes, but no dice, and we then had to send a porter to retrieve my two clients and the Indonesian staff member.
Since we were not at the traditional camp 2, we needed to create tent platforms. Our Dani staff were helpful and used their machetes to cut down bushes and grasses to create the platforms. Most of the campsites are uneven marshes and moors, therefore we had to use some care to pick out some good tent locations. You may even need to consolidate space and pitch all the tents side by side.

On day three of our trek in we left at around 8 am and made our our destination for the day would be camp 3 located in the highlands marsh.We begin the day with 2 big river crossings and then begin ascending up the valley through steepening terrain. We wore our Wellington boots for this entire day.  As we gained the plateau that marked the start of the highlands marsh region, our trail was mainly full of up/down, rolling and wet terrain until we reached our camp at 11,800ft.  Today was chock full of river and stream crossings, about 12 in total, and careful steps were needed to avoid having our boots fill  up with water.

Everyday we would experience the classic Papuan afternoon downpour. Like clockwork, it would begin between 12pm and carry on/off until around 3pm. You will want to have your rain gear and umbrella accessible at all times.  I found that my rain pants (even with full side zips open) were just too much for active trekking and would result in overheating, so I would often just use my parka and umbrella to keep the magnitude of the rain at bay.

One thing is for certain, the Dani porter staff do not like walking in the rain. Once the afternoon rains begin, your staff will stop dead in their tracks and build a big fire to warm themselves and cook their sweet potatoes by. They will also want to have you stop and wait out the weather with them, I guess misery likes company.  Even when we attempted to continue on ahead, the Dani would all get really upset and yell at you to stop and wait with them. We were in their lands and we did not want to upset our hosts, s0 we often waited with them a majority of the time on our trek in. Eventually though it just became too much and we would continue on despite their demands, especially when we trekking out after the climb.

Camping in the highlands marsh can be a challenge and we would instruct our Dani staff to prep the tent sites for us by cutting down the tall grass (that is available in the vicinity) and then laying the grass down like stable hay in the tent site locations. This would make our tent sites much more flat, comfortable, and dry amongst the uneven hummocks of wetness that are indicative of this area.

As we continued our epic slog filled adventure through the highlands marshes, our final camp of the trek was to be the fabled camp 4 (12,200ft), near the foot of New Zealand Pass.  This was ultimately our longest day of the trek.  It begins by crossing more of the highlands marshes until you are presented with more stream and river crossings.  Again, we took our time to find the best possible place to cross the rivers. There are places to hop from boulder to boulder to avoid getting wet, although you will most likely be fording the rivers and streams. We often would take our socks and insoles out of your Wellington boots for the crossings, but this would be a bit time consuming.  Looking back, it would have been a good idea to bring some Teva style sandals along since most of the crossings were over our knees. Our trekking poles provided plenty of aid to our balance in the turbid waters.

For us, this day kicked our butts! We stayed consistent with our normal late departure out of camp as a result of our porters wanting us to wait for them. In hindsight, and if it is at all possible, I would have really pushed the staff early on make 7am departures a mainstay to our daily routine.  Most of our time was taken up by the river crossings (ringing out wet socks) and the afternoon downpours forced us to stop multiple times to sit with our inherently ombrophobic Dani staff.  Again, in hindsight, I would not make this apart of our daily repertoire, best to keep the team moving forward.

After one of our last river crossings of the day we were witness to one of our Dani staff instigating a coup with some of the Papuan porter staff. They wanted to stop and not continue onto our camp which was resulting in us having to camp early and setting us further behind schedule.  We were still about 2-3 hours away from our camp 4 and we did not want to adhere to their demands for many reasons. The main one was that we needed to get to our camp 4 since the following day would be our move to base camp and the second was that the site they were choosing was horribly marshy, uneven, and very wet.
Our Indonesian staff members, tried their best to communicate with the porters and motivate them to continue.   Struggling with the language barrier is a common occurrence in the land of the Dani and was a issue at times.  Even though they are super hardworking, the Dani, can become very lazy and stubborn at times.  So after almost 2 hrs. of trying to convince the Dani staff to continue on, one of the Indonesian staff members brought out a bag of candies and offered one to each of the Dani porters. The porter who had been the instigator, then motioned to the rest of the porters and said it was alright to continue and we all then began to move again. Go figure that a bag of candies would be the bargaining chip we needed to motivate our team.
As a result of this delay, we all ended up arriving into camp 4 in the dark and in a classic Papuan downpour of rain.  Headlamps were needed, but the Dani staff did not have any at their disposal. Therefore after we had gotten all of the group members to camp, both myself and the other guide had to go back down and help assist the porters back to camp with our headlamps.
In light of our late and sporadic arrival of our group, most of the member tents were all spread out amongst the porters and we only had a few of the tents available to set up. We were all soaking wet and some of the group members were without their duffel bags as well. I ultimately had to head back down a third time to locate the remainder of our porter staff and found a group of the porters hanging out around a fire in a cave. With them were the missing tents and duffel bags, so I rallied them to depart the warmth of the fire and led them back up to the camp with my headlamp.  Leading a group up through razor sharp fins of limestone in the pouring rain is no picnic and by the time we all finally arrived into camp it was 11pm.  We were soaking wet, starving, and mentally and physically exhausted. To add insult to injury, our Indonesian cook staff did not make dinner for due to the dyer conditions.  Everyone was tired and just wanted to sleep, although our staff of Dani porters had other intentions since they ended up chanting, singing and screaming at the tops of their lungs until 3am.  Normally I like the Dani’s singing and chanting, but we were all not happy with it this evening.
After an exhausting 3 hours of rest, we needed to put on our game faces and begin the day of our final push to Carstensz Pyramid base camp.  Lucky for us that this was one of the shorts days in respect to time duration, but it did not take away from the fact that we needed to ascend/descend notorious New Zealand Pass.
We departed our camp (12,200ft) at the foot of New Zealand Pass at 8:30 am.

The beginning of our day had us walking through more of the muddy marsh lands, but then transitioned into a climb of a steep muddy face to a our first pass.  From here we descended down to Larson Lake, a good sized lake that was named after one of the early missionaries that visited with the Dani of this area.  From here we made our way around the lake and to the upper reaches of New Zealand Pass.  This area transitions into a pure alpine zone as you make your way to New Zealand Pass and continues as you then drop down into the valley where Carstensz Pyramid  base camp is located.  We arrived into base camp around 2 pm and this was early enough to allow us to have plenty of rest before our summit bid.

We found the water is marginal at base camp. Our camp was beautifully situated on the shore of a lake, but the lake has a lot of harsh minerals in it and is not fit to drink. What worked well for us was to continuously fill up our water bottles along the varies side streams we encountered along our trek prior to our arrival into base camp.  Most of the streams are very clear and the water tasted really good, although we still treated our water with iodine (we were in Papua).

We found plenty of really nice flat tent platforms down by the lake, although the ground is too hard for tent stakes. We were lucky to have long guidelines on all of our tents in order to utilize the many available rocks as anchors here. The water our staff  collected is above the lake and toward the hill in the direction of Carstensz Pyramid. This was decent water and far from the toilet that is adjacent to the tent sites on the shore of the lake.  It was a  bit of a trash heap here and I recommend packing out your human waste in a blue bag or WAG bag product.
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