Irish climber Martin Walsh has just conquered the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia. Here he tells us what it took to take on one the seven summits. And it sounds like quite the adventure.
Climbers don’t always look approachable. Often smelly, sporting stubble (men of course) and wearing clothes encrusted with grime. Stony faces grimace as they struggle up that last steep section or ponder the crux of the overhang looming in their future. But I’ll let you in on a secret, climbers are all softies. They are dreamers and romantics. They devour stories of young George Mallory in his tweeds on the slopes of Everest, daydream about dodging seracs with Maurice Herzog on Annapurna or helping heroic Ger McDonnell assist injured climbers on K2.
When climbers dream at night they dream of mountains that look like Carstensz Pyramid in Papua, Indonesia.
When climbers dream at night they dream of mountains that look like Carstensz Pyramid in Papua, Indonesia. Its north face is an explosion of limestone rock straight through the floor of the Yellow Valley heading skywards for 2000 feet. When I first saw it up close in March I noticed fellow (experienced) climbers do a second take accompanied by staring intently for some minutes, followed by mumbling that went on for some time. No humping up grassy slopes or walking across boggy expanses here. This is a proper “tie-in and off you climb” gig. It’s a big beautiful rugged mountain and if it was in County Wicklow I would try to climb it every week.
Unfortunately, it’s not in Wicklow it’s just north of Darwin, Australia. Its 16,024 feet high and is one of the 7 Summits – the highest mountains on the seven continents. It’s considered the Summit for the Australia/ Oceania Continent. (Arguments over the definition of continents are best kept for the pub).
Indonesia is extraordinary. Try and introduce it in a few sentences and you end up sounding like Christy Moore singing Lisdoonvarna.
Indonesia is extraordinary. Try and introduce it in a few sentences and you end up sounding like Christy Moore singing Lisdoonvarna: “There’s island hopping and coffee growing, volcanoes and rumours of cannibals too – anyone for the last of the orangutans”! With over 260 million people and the world’s largest island country of 13,000+ islands – diverse isn’t the word. I flew there in March to climb the highest island peak in the world, the Carstensz Pyramid.
It was first climbed in 1962 by Heinrich Harrer, author of Seven Years in Tibet and legendary book The White Spider about the Eiger. Reinhold Messner, the great Italian climber, climbed it in 1971 and is regarded as the first mountaineer to climb the Seven Summits list including Carstensz.
One of the trickiest aspects is getting into basecamp in the Yellow Valley to start climbing. I arrived in Bali and then flew out at 1am the next night to a rural airport, Timika, surrounded by jungle on the island of Papua. This internal flight takes four hours.
Obstacle number one is the weather. Clouds hover over the mountains. You pray for a break in the clouds early in the morning so the helicopter can take off. HELICOPTER!! What sort of climbing trip is this you ask? Unfortunately, it’s the only way to get to basecamp. While there is a road that goes close to the mountain it’s controlled by the Freeport Mine. It’s the biggest gold mine in the world and is an extraordinary sight. When the CEO of the mine was a child I suspect a climber stole his teddy-bear because to say they don’t welcome climbers is an understatement. I had to sign all sorts of declarations that I wouldn’t go near the mine for fear of prosecution, incarceration etc. The Indonesian State recently obtained a share of the mine and it’s now protected by private and state security. Only a naïve or unfortunate climber would wander close to it.
On top of that, the locals are restless. They see fortunes extracted from the mine with a limited trickle to them. The poverty among the local community is starkly evident. While they live in tumble down huts on the side of the road, the mine has developed a gated community with manicured grounds, private schools with international teachers, swimming pools, volleyball courts, football pitches a golf club and supermarkets. As a result, not all visitors are welcome and we were advised to be careful. In addition, there is an ongoing push for independence from local insurgents so you need to be aware of your environment. Hence the helicopter takes climbers away from the mine and trouble spots. I felt safe but our guides were paranoid about our safety.
After a two day delay due to weather, we got a break in the clouds and two helicopter loads of climbers were up and away. There were 10 climbers in total from all over the globe in my group: US, Lebanon, UK, South Korea, Norway and India led by four superb local guides. Most of us flew into basecamp at about 14,000 feet on the two choppers. However, the last flight with four climbers turned back within five minutes of camp due to cloud. This was gut-wrenching for them. Not only did they have to pay for an additional flight (the dreaded Return to Base fee) but they would have one day’s less acclimation.
Whoever named it the Yellow Valley was having a giggle. Nothing yellow lives or grows there. It’s a dramatic grey limestone bowl of a valley like something from Lord of the Rings.
Arriving into basecamp at 14,000 feet is a serious jump in altitude and far from advisable but there was no alternative. Whoever named it the Yellow Valley was having a giggle. Nothing yellow lives or grows there. It’s a dramatic grey limestone bowl of a valley like something from Lord of the Rings.
We huffed and puffed in the thin air putting up tents. Whether it was good company, good grub or the fact that we were finally on the mountain, spirits were high. We settled in for the night wrapped in big sleeping bags and many layers to keep out the bitter cold.
Given the altitude, I got little sleep and muddled through on excitement and adrenalin. Day two dawned with the arrival of our four fellow climbers and we decided to do a few hours climbing. It was a good opportunity to use equipment such as a jumar (jumar – a handle you clamp to a rope that allows you to move freely upwards and helps you climb but locks if you start to fall down). There isn’t much call for a jumar on Lugnaquilla so the practice was welcome!
Early to bed with the usual pre-climb nerves. The alarm went off at 3.30am with an intended 4.30am start. I shuffled from foot to foot in the mess tent to generate heat. We all crammed down a little food and water to the light of our headlamps. Some grabbed snacks for the day. I had my homemade flapjacks which had been energetically stirred by my son Crean in a big mixing bowl. His interest in their preparation mainly driven by the fact that the main ingredients are honey, golden syrup and brown sugar. Apart from tasting great and the fact that they could survive nuclear winter the flapjacks contained hundreds of calories.
It was a ten minute walk to the start of the climb. There’s a slightly tricky first pitch to get onto the mountain proper and I had to focus. I stepped up, balanced on my left leg, pushed forward my jumar and swung up around the first corner. My climbing style will never be described as balletic but I had started fine and was delighted to have a good start under my belt.
It’s a 50-foot gap in the summit ridge that I have to cross on wires like a tightrope. Should be spicy.
The first section takes 40 minutes. It’s a modest gradient on loose gravel. I watched my footing to avoid knocking stones onto others. A quick rest and I headed into the next stage, a series of three gullies at a higher gradient. It takes an hour and you need to ensure you’re clipped in and using your jumar to ascend. The climbing was enjoyable with big clumpy limestone holds. A five-minute flapjack break and I was into the final climb to the summit ridge. It’s almost vertical and requires constant use of the jumar. I focus on using my legs to avoid strain on my arms. Halfway up the warm sun rises and I stop for a break and sit back in my harness suspended in mid-air. Looking up I can see my friend Mark, half an hour ahead, climbing across the famous Tyrolean traverse. It’s a 50-foot gap in the summit ridge that I have to cross on wires like a tightrope. Should be spicy.
I reach the summit ridge. The morning is bright and dry but it’s very windy. Poxi, my guide tells me it’s over 55mph. I can’t tell if he is winding me up. That would be pretty high for the ridge walk we are about to undertake. Poxi is an inscrutable lad, a cross between Paul Newman and Yoda as he lounges on the ridge puffing a cigarette. I decide to ignore him and proceed.
I clip my jumar out of the way at the back of my harness and pull out the “cows-tail” (a sling that attaches me to a fixed rope) and clip into the rope fixed all the way to the summit. I start across the ridge cautiously and watch my footing.
15 minutes later I come to the Tyrolean traverse that climbers sweat over. It’s a 50-foot gap where a massive chunk of rock has fallen out of the ridge. There are two steel wires over which you hang your arms and one wire for your feet, tightrope style. I was next in line so I slide down a short slope on my backside (doesn’t sound wise really does it?!). I clip onto the upper wires and have my first attempt at funambulism at 16,000 feet. I step out and begin crossing. Mid-way the wind decides to gust and I sway sideways. I look down, look around and stay focused and was across 30 seconds later. Now we’re hurling!
I proceed around a large pinnacle and see the second obstacle. It’s not so much an obstacle as a messy pain in the ass that could be serious if it doesn’t work out.
I proceed around a large pinnacle and see the second obstacle. It’s not so much an obstacle as a messy pain in the ass that could be serious if it doesn’t work out. It’s a ten-foot gap in the ridge that I have to cross with four moves involved. First, step backwards towards the gap gripping the rope like a Mayo man lifting the Sam Maguire. Then step backwards and down with your left foot to a tiny toehold followed by a step down to a similar barely noticeable modulation in the rock with your right toe. Then, the biggie is the last move where you put your left leg out behind you and letting the rope slide through your hands you let yourself fall backwards and hope that your foot land on the opposite slope in a sort of doing the splits movement. Then spin around and clamber up the opposite side. For a man who will never be confused with Rudolf Nureyev I’m delighted with my progress as I take off up the ridge.
Now we start the final ascent to the summit. It looks a bit steep and scary but it’s straightforward once you’re on it. Fifteen minutes later I am standing with my pals at the summit being buffeted by a strong wind. The obligatory summit photos begin as Poxi lounges on the edge, feet dangling and yet another cigarette in his mouth.
I’m not a huge fan of this much wind up high so once the photos are over I’m heading down. I take a moment to remind myself to focus as complacency and tiredness cause accidents. One more flapjack and I’m off. We have been blessed by the mountain gods with a beautiful morning. Yesterday I met a group coming down from the mountain. They climbed in a storm and had been hit by rockfall. I congratulated them on their success but they looked beaten and bedraggled. I count my blessings.
An hour later and I’ve crossed back over the ridge. I dig out my Figure of 8 abseil device and the next hour is enormous fun as we abseil down the rockface. Closest to me are my Lebanese and US pals and I can hear their laughter and shouts all over the mountain. Soon we are safely down at basecamp. Smiles, water, photos are the order of the day. The whole climb took about seven hours.
Buzzed following the climb I tell Poxy I could go back up and climb it again. Lighting a cigarette he does his best Newman-smile and says: “People don’t always make sensible suggestions at 14000 feet”.
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