Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Day 12: Camp II to Sugapa

True to form, the expedition ended on a difficult and stressful note. Ed and I, eager to drink a soda, hurried on with Poxy and made good progress towards Sugapa. We were attempting to make it through our initial first two days in one. We made it to lunch in the village of suangama in a speedy 3:45. We were each served a plate of the local yams and a spinach-esqe plant along with a stick of sugar cane. It was surprisingly good! I ran out of water though, which wasn't a big deal because we were only an hour and a half hike to the motorcycle pickup site.

After completing this section in just over an hour, Ed and I celebrated the completion of our trek and sat down to wait for a motorbike. We waited about 10 mins before our companion--one of the cooks--motioned down the road to Sugapa and said the motorbikes were that way. Disappointed by the prospect of continuing our 'completed' trek, we marched on nonetheless knowing the Sugapa was close.

After a half hour of walking we still hadn't seen any motorbikes and were starting to get frustrated. When we finally reached the supposed motorcycle meetup point, we were again disappointed: no motorbikes.

We sat down there to wait for them. And we proceeded to wait, in the rain, for the better part of the hour. Eventually I asked our cook, "Where are the motorcycles?" and he responded, "Sugapa."

Not exactly the response I was hoping for. After confirming that we would indeed have to walk all the way to Sugapa, we began the final couple hours in a sour mood. Ed went on ahead and I walked up in the middle, with the cook bringing up the rear. The hike turned out to be a 2.5hr slog almost entirely uphill. It honestly felt harder than anything we'd done the entire trip. I had to stop every fifth feet to catch my breath and rest. On top of that, I had long since run out of water and was massively dehydrated in the 90+ degree temperatures.

I reached a fork in the road. Not remembering this point, I randomly selected the left side branch and walked for another hour into the village of Sugapa. I got quite lucky. I waited at our hut for another hour before Ed arrived. He had taken the right side road and had gone on a massive detour. I would not have been able to handle that.

In all, it had taken just under 7.5hrs of walking for me and Ed to reach Sugapa. Compared to the past two days (9.5 and 8.5 hrs respectively) it was short, but still a tough one. It took my mother another hour before she came in and then Robert didn't arrive until nearly 11 hours after we had set out. He had taken a wrong turn and spent several anxious hours unsure of the path. Luckily one of the head porters rescued him.

Tired but content after today's long day, we are all headed to bed early tonight. We have a 6:30am flight (weather permitting of course) and could be back in Bali tomorrow afternoon! Wouldn't that be something...

When I saw this sight, I knew we were back in civilization! Yay!!! Not exactly NYC, but at least there are other people and shelter!

Day 11: Camp III to Camp II

I like to think of the penultimate day of something as the "last" day, because the actual last day is generally pretty easy to complete (psychologically). This harks back to a lesson I learned from my high school cross country coach, Ned Gallagher, who always used to call a final interval an "optional" Ironman run. The idea is that, though you've essentially completed everything, you throw an extra one in to go just a bit farther, a bit harder. This was the approach I took today. I gutted out the 9-hour trail in under 6 hours, considering it my "last" day the whole time. I just hope that I'm not too exhausted for the real final day of the trek--the Ironman day--tomorrow!

This was the hardest trekking day of the hike in, and it wasn't much easier going out. It literally felt like one slip to another, with each perilously close to resulting in a broken leg or a twisted ankle. We also had several terrifying river crossings. I won't even bother to describe them with words; pictures do them much more justice.

Ed and I shot on ahead to try to finish the day speedily. We managed to, and bonded with the porters after arriving at camp. We can almost smell civilization now. And, I have to say, I am quite excited by the prospect of returning to civilization tomorrow. It's been a difficult two weeks. Today I asked my teammates what kind of "reward" they wanted to give themselves/be given when they completed the trek. Robert said a shower, Ed a cigar and glass of aged whiskey, and my mother said a swimming pool and the beach. I'm not sure what I'd like. Perhaps all three things!

Spirits are high as we prep for our "Ironman" day tomorrow. Hopefully the political situation is still stable and we won't run into any issues!

No more wet log crossings! Thank goodness we all survived them uninjured...

Day 10: Camp V to Camp III

Today was a hellishly long day. We combined two of the days from the hike-in and the result was an epic 9-hour slog through hail, mud, and jungle. The day started well enough; the weather was fine until around midday. By noon we had reached the intermediary camp site and ate some lunch. However, almost as soon as we started out after that it began to hail very, very hard. Though they weren't golf-ball sized, the hail was very hard and I was afraid we might have to stop and take cover at one point.

Luckily, it eventually abated and we continued. Because of the wet conditions, however, we were all soaked to the bone and freezing cold. I was legitimately worried that my mother would get hypothermia. We didn't take any breaks for the remainder of the day, and rolled into Camp III in the early evening.

We dried our gear in the porters' smokey tent and then barely made it through dinner before falling asleep. We're seriously going to need it if we intend to get out of this jungle in two more days...

Back to the crazy jungle trekking...notice how our porters are barefoot. They are incredibly strong and have totally awesome hobbit feet!

Day 9: Base Camp to Camp V

Though we had hoped to make it all the way to a camp between Camps IV and V, we were pleased to at least make it to Camp V. It was a surprisingly tough climb up and over New Zealand Pass and then down and out of the Jaya Range. The weather held up most of the day until the final descent--a harrowingly steep 1000ft climb down through rock, trees, and slick muddy slope. With that behind us it was smooth sailing into Camp V. It was actually the porters who insisted on remaining here for the night. I think they had a pretty tough day with the steep ascent and descent.

The mountain is finally behind us...


I don't know if I've had a more exciting summit day than today...

I actually can't even think of the best place to begin. I guess I'll go chronologically: The "day" started during the night. We woke up just before 1am and ate a hearty breakfast of oatmeal, eggs, and rice. We also received some chocolate bars to add to our summit snack bag. The atmosphere at that hour was unbelievable. It was (relatively) warm and the air felt energized. Looking to the south, the lights of the Freeport Mine gave the sky an ominous red tinge. It looked like a real-world Mordor... (Or the real-life equivalent of the Avatar storyline...but actually.) Though it was several miles away, we could hear the buzz of the machines and their non-stop action; I guess mines operate 24/7. 

After breakfast, we grabbed our gear and made our final adjustments before grouping up to being our summit bid.   The day starts with a rolling 45 minute trek up and over the first range to the actual base of the mountain, which is essentially a massive granite slab sticking up out of the earth. The fixed lines stretch all the way down to this base, so we cached our poles and umbrellas there and prepared to begin the technical portion of the day.

I do not have a ton of rock climbing experience, so this summit was new for me in many ways. One of those ways was rock climbing at night. Rock climbing is hard enough for me in full daylight, but at night your vision is restricted to the narrow halo of light shining from your headlamp. It makes identifying the best handholds and footholds significantly more difficult. I should add that, though one could simply "ascend" using the fixed lines (not actually climb the rock, just use the lines to pull oneself up), I did not want to do this because the lines are quite old and are fraying very badly in places. So I ended up climbing the rock as if I did not have a fixed line and then using my ascender as a self-belay for safety. 

Summit Day begins!
This all felt pretty manageable until the final 70 vertical meters of the climb. At this point, the slope turns completely vertical and the handholds more scarce. Though this sounds painfully difficult, it was actually quite fun to do. By and large, this summit day had turned out to be way more interesting and fun than any I had done before. Though my arms and legs felt fatigued from the six days of trekking and the morning's rock climbing, I almost didn't feel it because of the excitement this terrain provided. 

Once we reached the top of this steep section, we were on the summit ridge. From here it was a 15 minute walk to the Tyrolean Traverse, which is a wire stretched across a 25m gap in the ridge. One essentially slides/pulls oneself across this wire, trying not to look down at the 800+m of empty space below. This was surprisingly difficult. Because you're going slightly uphill, it requires some significant arm muscle to drag your body (and harness and bag) up those final few meters. Luckily we all made it without incident and continued on our traverse of the summit ridge. 

Me pulling myself across the Tyrolean Traverse.
To my surprise, there were two other features on the summit ridge that were actually scarier than the Tyrolean. Both were notches that featured a sort of jump to the other side... If the drop had been a couple feet (or even 10ft) it would have been a piece of cake, but having such a huge drop beneath you makes everything more difficult. We made it across with varying degrees of assistance from our guide Poxy; Ed and I managed it unassisted, but my mother (who has significantly less leg reach than us guys), needed a helping hand to make the jump safely. 

Finally, we ascended the final 50 vertical meters to a steep knob. Suddenly we realized that there was nowhere higher to go. An ice axe marked the highest point in Australasia and we all let out a massive "Woop!" to express our satisfaction and excitement at having made this summit.

To say it had been a difficult journey would be a massive understatement. It was the hardest and most miserable thing I had ever done. But we were only half way; we still needed to get down (and out of the jungle) without incident. 

We spent around half an hour at the summit, taking pictures and exchanging hugs and congratulations. (I reached the summit at 7:27am, with the whole group gathered before 7:35am.) Then we decided to head down before the weather had a chance to turn. In that respect we had been incredibly fortunate all day. We could even see the ocean, some 100+miles away! But didn't want to push our luck, so we began to head down soon after taking some group pics. Ed and I made quick progress, reaching the Tyrolean about half an hour before the others. We waited there and when the others joined us, we all went across the Tyrolean. We were significantly more efficient this time than we had gone across on the way up to the summit. 

From the top of the ridge we abseiled (rappelled) down approximately 8 pitches to get to the base of the fixed lines. This was by far the most dangerous part. As I said, much of this rope was not in good shape and when you're abseiling you're putting all of your trust in a single line. Not a great feeling. At one point, I literally heard a tearing sound coming from my rope. I tried to get off of it as soon as possible. It's only a matter of time before one of those ropes breaks and someone gets injured or dies. 

It began raining lightly as we collected our umbrellas and poles. We then began a casual walk back to Base Camp, all excited by our big summit. We reached Base Camp after 9:59 minutes of climbing--an average time for a Carstensz summit bid. We were shocked to find that our cooks (and one of our guides, Yosh, who had gone down due to illness), had prepared a massive lunch and even had cold Balinesian beer (Bintang--a great drink) ready for us! Nothing could have made up more happy. 

After stuffing ourselves, we retired for the day. We still have a four day trek out, so we need all the rest we can get. To be honest, this summit day was one of (if not the) easiest day of the entire expedition so far. Hopefully we will manage to make it out of this jungle efficiently and safely. 

Wooohooo! Another summit down!

Our whole group at the summit of Carstensz Pyramid, the highest peak in Australasia.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Day 7: Camp V to Base Camp

We're finally here! Phase one of the expedition accomplished. It was a pleasant five hour hike up and down the rocky granite Jaya range. We went over New Zealand pass and down to the base of Carstensz. The mountain appears as a massive granite upshoot and dwarfs everything around it.

As usual, it rained during our trek. However we noticed today that instead of fat raindrops, it was actually pouring down hail! This makes sense, since New Zealand Pass is 4,500m.

It's a weird feeling being completely alone on the mountain. Every other peak I've climbed, there have been other teams climbing at the same time. Here, it's just us. It's a pretty cool feeling!

Anyway, the temperature is definitely dropping (the perpetual dampness of everything doesn't help..) and is probably in the low 50s now. Gloves are a must for the rock sections because of how sharp it is--you'd cut up your hands otherwise.

Once at camp (4,330m according to the sign here), we sorted through our summit gear in preparation for tonight's summit bid. We are excited but nervous too!

Because we did not want to risk getting out clean, dry summit clothes wet in the afternoon rain, my mother and I both used our pee bottles. For me this was super easy because a) I'm a guy and b) I've had countless times to practice. My mother, however, had never used her 'female urinary device' (it's called a GoGirl and is aimed at women who need to pee in public or in a tent like now). These devices are not super complicated but some practice beforehand is definitely recommended. My mother had not done this and it was both amusing and painful to hear her struggle with it as I shut my eyes. Luckily none of our stuff got sprayed.

We're going to get some shut eye now in advance of our 1am wake up and 2am departure for the summit!

My mother at Carstensz Pyramid Base Camp after six long, hard days of trekking.

Day 6: Camp IV to Camp V

It was nice to have a solid five hour day after the agony of days three, four, and five. It was a rolling day, first down into a winding valley and then slowly up the valley to the base of the Jaya range. Apparently Base Camp is a five hour walk over the range. I can't tell you how excited I am that this hike is nearly complete.

Today was very similar to all of our previous days: hours of trudging through deep mud up and down hills in the rain--sometimes a light drizzle and sometimes a massive downpour. The group morale has definitely improved now that we are within sniffing distance of the mountain. People are already discussing how to best avoid or shorten the hike out...! Unfortunately, our best option appears to be combining days 1 and 2 and 5 and 6 of the hike, coming in in four days instead of six. This would be difficult but doable. The other potential options have major roadblocks: getting a helicopter from base camp is both expensive and impossible since there are no longer any pilots trained to fly in and land there; accessing the Freeport Mine road is very risky and potentially dangerous, as other climbers who have done that have been locked up in shipping containers or worse...

This leads me to one serious concern I've harbored the entire trip: our safety. If something were to happen and one of us was seriously injured, what would we do? It is an unbelievably difficult four to six day hike back to the nearest village, and the nearest medical clinic is still an hour plane ride from there! The reality is, we cannot afford to injure ourselves. Without access to the mine road or a helicopter rescue, there is no realistic way we could reach medical assistance in a timely fashion. This hike is life or death. You either stay healthy, or you're screwed.

Anyway, not such a pleasant thought to end on but sleep is calling. If all goes well, we'll be at Base Camp tomorrow afternoon and pushing for the summit tomorrow night!

We're at the base of the Jaya Range! Soooo close to Base Camp...

Day 5: Camp III to Camp IV

I write this at Camp IV, within sight of the Pyramid. Seven hours of long, arduous trekking and we can finally see our goal! Today's terrain was markedly different from the dense jungle we had walked through the past three days. Now we are traveling through swampy marshland. There was more mud today than all the previous days combined. At one point I even sunk in to my felt like quicksand and for a couple minutes I thought I wouldn't be able to extract myself.

We walked ahead of the guides today. For some reason they went at a very slow pace. When the clouds cleared above the ridge we were traversing, we saw a massive rocky ridge several miles distant. Until the guides arrived we mistakenly believed  it to be Carstensz. In reality, Carstensz is behind this ridge. Not the best news to hear after a long day of trekking.

I spent most of the day with the porters. We have 28 porters not including the two babies that are along with their parents (and are carried on their mothers' shoulders throughout). The porters are incredibly impressive. They manage to walk at the same pace as us while carrying 50 pounds in bags slung across their forehead. Moreover, almost all are barefoot and not clothed in adequate attire. On days like today, when it rained nearly nonstop, I don't know how they do it. I've noticed some of them wiping or swatting themselves with a certain leaf. Apparently this is a form of traditional medicine that keeps illness at bay. I'm keen to try it myself! I have been slightly horrified by some of the wounds that the porters have. There is one young girl who has massive, festering wounds on both legs. Since they do not have any access to medical care, it's a wonder that it hasn't seemed to impede her movement or abilities.

Dinner on the trek is a non-affair. It usually rains in the afternoon and evening so leaving the tent to eat is not something you look forward to. Furthermore, just getting to the kitchen tent involves crossing a sea of mud and majorly dirtying your feet. Then, the stools just sink into the mud leaving you squatting next to the camp table shoveling food into your mouth as quickly as you can. Then it's back to the tent to clean the feet (for the billionth time) and crash on your damp sleeping bag. Why does anyone do this?

Anyway I'm pretty exhausted from four long days of trekking. I'm hoping (perhaps unrealistically) that tomorrow will be shorter and dryer. A boy can dream...

Can you call it "rock climbing" if there are just tree roots and no rocks...?

Day 4: Camp II to Camp III

Phew today was hellish. Nine hours of muddy jungle hiking to get to Camp III. The highlight of the morning was a large river crossing on a single tree branch suspended over gushing white water. At one point I thought Ed would fall in but he maintained his balance. We got to lunch three hours in thinking 'this is hard' but also that we could manage the second half of the day. Little did we know it would be a six hour slog uphill in pouring rain. The mud situation was much worse than we had seen so far. At points it came up to our knees. But that isn't even the worst part. It's the unending slipperiness of everything. The trees, branches, vines, roots...everything is wet and slippery. It makes every step a gamble. Unfortunately I seem to be on the losing end more often than not. I faceplanted in the mud several times today. It honestly feels like I'm going from near-injury to near-injury.

I have learned several things about jungle trekking, however. First is just adjusting one's attitude to be willing to get dirty and fall. There is no way you could do this trekking without grabbing onto numerous branches, roots, or vines. I've also learned to watch every step because each one matters and can mean the difference between staying healthy and getting injured. And getting injured out here could mean death since there is no way to get out...Sugapa is the closest heli- or plane landing site and it's three hard days of climbing away. Finally, I've learned to never 100% trust the terrain I'm moving on. Many times I've stepped on a branch only to have it crack and split open, or landed on what appears to be solid turf only to fall right through into a hole. The jungle can be a deceiving  place. All in all, though, it's not so bad. It's just one big sponge really.

We are now recuperating in our tent refocusing before tomorrow--our last big day (hopefully) and also our first day actually seeing the mountain!

I don't think I've ever been this dirty in my life...

Day 3: Suangama to Camp II

Another day of hard jungle trekking down. Today was much more difficult than yesterday. We started at around 9am after a filling breakfast of rice and eggs. We hiked until 3pm with minimal breaks. It was very, very muddy. We had a number of stream crossings and very muddy sections. We are following a river uphill into the highlands. This involves moving up and down and pretty steep, slippery trails. I've been impressed by the quality of the path thus far. I think there's an incentive for the locals to work on the trail and improve it because of the enormous economic windfall an expedition bring. Each of the 30 or so porters makes 7-8 million rupiah per expedition. That's roughly $700...per porter! Considering the average income in Papua is less than a dollar a day, these locals are making a killing.

We made camp in between the traditional Camp I and Camp II because we were so far behind from yesterday. Our guides are confident we'll make up time as we continue on.

I also learned a lot about the local cannibals. They reside primarily on the north coast of the island. They only eat their enemies and do so after a conflict. They do not eat the heart; instead, they keep it because it means 'they're the man'. They prefer to eat the thigh after it has been grilled.

All in all we're enjoying this adventure tremendously so far. We've been very lucky with both local/political issues and with weather. We've also seen a beautiful full rainbow and several butterflies--both good omens for me. Not just good omens for me, it turns out. Our guides informed is that it was yesterday's rainbow that convince their porters to resolve their dispute in favor of continuing with us. Good thing too because with no porters there is certainly no expedition.

We are eating dinner now and all eager to sleep after today's difficult day. More tomorrow!

My mother posing before one of the numerous raging river crossings.

Day 2: Sugapa to Suangama

We awoke to another large meal of rice and eggs before resorting our gear in advance of the porter weigh in. After finding it sufficiently light (or heavy, depending on one's perspective--under 17kg), we waited for the final negotiations to conclude on porter payment before heading off for the first of our six trekking days.

We rode the first 5km on the back of 150cc motorbikes. Someone on the July expedition had crashed during this and was medevaced I was more than a little anxious for this section considering how horrendous the roads are. (With a lot of persuasion, Robert--a motorcycle dealer and expert--convinced the local to let him drive. Unfortunately the bike couldn't make it up one of the hills so the local had to walk the rest of the way!) Luckily we all made it to the start of the trail in one piece. The trail was a thin dirt path that wound its way up through hillside and at times into forest. This area is inhabited by Dani tribesmen so some of the local area is cultivated--they grow sugar cane and potatoes primarily. The hiking was up and down, with the occasional stream crossing.

We were supposed to go all the way to Camp I in the jungle but the last group to pass through had neglected to pay the porters from the village of Suangama and so we were forced to spend the night in this village while our guides worked out a deal with the locals.

The village where we stayed the night.
Luckily, the rains started after we ha made camp in the village so we are still dry. Not sure how long that will last...

The highlight of the afternoon was twofold: first was developing some pleasant friendships with locals. They even invited me in to socialize in their hut. The huts are circular--almost like wooden yurts--and are covered in wood and straw. The cook fire is in the center of the hut and fills it up with smoke due to a lack of ventilation. We took pictures and laughed together.

The second highlight was a series of disputes resolved in the local fashion. The first was the porter issue I mentioned earlier. The two tribes: Moni from Sugapa and Dani from Suangama came to an agreement by which the expedition would continue with several more locals hired as porters. The second was a domestic dispute between a local woman and man. We couldn't make heads or tails of it but there was a lot of aggressive yelling followed by what appeared to be a judiciated discussion with several other village people acting as mediators. Turns out the dispute was over the price of yams that day. The final agreement was concluded by the divvying up of a huge bag of yams!

Now we're having dinner and then heading to bed. The next couple of days will be extra difficult due today's shortened itinerary.

Day 1: Bali to Timika to Sugapa

My mother and I stayed up all night in order to catch our domestic flight from Bali to Timika which left at 2am. The flight was 3 hours long and I slept the whole way. It was surprisingly comfortable as I had three economy class seats on which to stretch out.

At the airport in Papua before flying into the jungle.
Once in Timika, we immediately recognized our two other expedition companions: an American-Australian named Robert and a 21-year-old British guy named Ed. We picked up our luggage--thankfully it all arrived--and met our guides outside...except we were stopped by local government officials before we made it out the doors. They brought us into a separate room and asked us about our plans and for our information. After almost half an hour of waiting and discussion, they wrote our names and passport info in a book and kept photocopies of our passports. We finally made it outsides and met our guides Yosh and Poxy.

I had thought we would spend a night in Timika, a ramshackle town with a very culturally interesting and provincial feel. Papua had a very different vibe from the other parts of Indonesia; I'm not surprised that they are seeking their independence. The locals are culturally, ethnically, and even racially distinct from the majority of Indonesians. People in Papua are predominantly Moni, and are darker skinned with very prominent cheekbones and tightly curled black hair. The adults do not smile often, but the children are always laughing and sneaking smiles at you. It isn't that the adults are unfriendly, often just saying 'hi' and smiling is enough to elicit a shy grin, but they just seem more withdrawn and less outgoing with us foreigners.

Anyways, much to my surprise our guides immediately brought us to the building next door and I realized that we were flying straight into the jungle. We repacked some of our stuff and collected it in one bag to leave in Timika for our return. Since I had thought we would be staying in Timika, I had worn normal clothes. This meant that I had to change into my junglewear in the middle of the domestic terminal with amused locals looking on.

We waited several hours for the weather to clear before jumping into a small Cessna for our forty minute flight to Sugapa, the last real civilization that we will experience on this end of the trip. By 'civilization' I mean cell phone reception (but no 3G or data service or Internet access) and roads (unpaved, of course) and actual huts for shelter. It's my understanding that there is one more small village beyond this and then after that...jungle. 

(To make matters more nerve-wracking, the day before local separatist militia members had stormed the runway in Sugapa, not allowing any planes to land...we were hoping that there were taking a day off today.)

During our flight, as we entered the highlands, an automated female voice suddenly said 'Warning. Warning. Pull up.' I trusted our pilot, but it was quite scary. The clouds were so thick that it wasn't clear how far above the mountains we were. Then a hole opened up and trees were poking through! After that, I was praying for a safe landing until we finally got to Sugapa.

We were greeted  on the muddy airstrip by a crowd of locals. I think a local sport is watching planes come in onto the airstrip because it seemed everyone in the village was out there.

We unloaded our bags and began walking into the village. It was about 1km from the airstrip along an only slightly muddy dirt road. We walked through the main street of the village before turning into a small hut. The hut actually was larger than it appeared at first sight and we unpacked our bags in a room. My mother took the bed, I got the floor. Because we had not slept much in the night, we took a nap before lunch and then again between lunch and dinner.

The food so far has been excellent. Fried chicken and French fries, curry and rice, Oreos, and fried soy beans have all been in the menu do far. That said, one of our teammates--Ed--is already sick and having diarrhea. I'm pretty sure that we'll all get stomache issues on this trip  eventually so I think he might actually be lucky to get it now, sooner rather than later.

We've also been joined by mosquitos...and large ones at that. I'm glad that I'm taking anti-malaria medicine. Wouldn't want to get that out here...

Off to bed now. Hopefully we will start our trekking tomorrow without incident or delay!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Carstensz Pyramid: The Uncensored Introduction…

Two of the Seven Summits scare me. The first is Denali. Denali frightens me because of the weather—it’s totally out of one’s control and can be incredibly unpredictable. Every year, people die in accidents unrelated to any mistake they have made. An example of this would be the four Japanese climbers who died in an avalanche while descending Motorcycle Hill. Sometimes, shit happens and the weather causes unfortunate incidents.

The other mountain that makes me nervous is Carstensz Pyramid…but not because of the weather. There are several political and cultural anomalies that make Carstensz Pyramid one of the most dangerous summits in my opinion. I’ll break it down for you:

  1. Independence Movement: The province in which Carstensz Pyramid is located is currently trying to gain its independence from Indonesia. In the past months, they have killed a foreign journalist, shot at incoming planes, and conducted other dangerous stunts to further their movement. Separatist groups/independence movements are notoriously unpredictable and impassioned…you definitely don’t want to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Considering our expedition begins the day of Indonesia’s independence, we might be doing exactly that…flying into a dangerous place at a very bad time.
  2. Exotic LocationThe first issue is heightened by the fact that—of all the Seven Summits, even Everest—Carstensz Pyramid is the most difficult to get to. Just reaching the base of the mountain requires an arduous 5-10 day jungle hike through dense rainforest. There isn’t another option (helicopters no longer fly to Base Camp with any regularity). And getting out can’t be expedited…you’re stuck walking the 100 or so km to the nearest village whether you want to or not. This makes medical or safety evacuations difficult if not impossible. Not the most encouraging of situations.
  3. Freeport MineThe other nuance about the location is the Freeport Mine at the base of the mountain. I guess I lied…technically it is possible to get to the mountain quickly…but only through the Freeport Mine which operates essentially as its own country. It has its own armed security force that shoots on sight if anyone approaches. One group last year had an urgent medical issue and entered the mine, only to be shut in a shipping container without fresh food for seven days. Eventually a mineworker felt bad and was able to sneak them out on a helicopter. Cool, in like an adventure movie way. Not so cool when you are actually facing that as a real potential situation.
  4. Local Culture and CustomsThe final dangerous aspect of this expedition is the locals. The local people of Iryan Jaya are incredibly impoverished. Making money as porters for expeditions is an important source of income for many of them. This is good, because if not for this income they might be eating you. Yes, that’s right, some of these tribes still practice cannibalism. They also use blow darts. And wear penis gourds. Don’t believe me? Just wait for the pics. If I ever get back to civilization…because the final thing is that their judicial system is based on an eye for an eye. So a situation might arise when someone—a local working as a porter, perhaps—gets crushed by a random rock fall. The locals would then hold the westerners responsible and exact “justice” by…yes…killing him or her. You probably don’t believe me. I wish I were making this up. How I know it’s true? It happened on an expedition last year. 

As you can tell, this mountain will be an adventure no matter what happens. And by “adventure” I mean “an experience, usually hazardous, whose ending you do know not or cannot predict.” I’m just hoping that my ending involves us making it back home safely…! 

One Down, One to Go! (A Kosciusko Summit...)

So yesterday I summited Mt. Kosciusko (locally known as Kozzie). After waiting in the small ski resort village of Thredbo for two days, the weather finally cleared up and I snowshoed the 14km hike up to the summit of Kozzie and back. With few clear features, I can imagine that this climb could be quite dangerous in bad conditions. Luckily, I only had to deal with strong winds. Other than that, I had clear skies and a bright sun to accompany me up to the summit. On my way, I met two other American Seven Summits aspirants—they were on their sixth of the seven, with only Vinson left. We took some pictures at the summit then headed back down. In all, it took less than 4 hours round trip. Compared to the other mountains I’ve climbed, it was quite easy. But it was also beautiful and I’m glad that I was able to find a good weather window to make the top.

So I’m back in Sydney tomorrow then headed up to Bali to meet my mother. In a couple days, she and I will fly into the jungles of Iryan Jaya to begin our Carstensz Pyramid expedition. I am very excited but also somewhat nervous…but more on that later!

An Intro: Mt. Kosciusko vs. Carstensz Pyramid

As some of you might know, there are two different Seven Summit lists: the original Bass List and the Messner List. These two lists differ only in one way: their Oceania summit. Dick Bass, when he first climbed the Seven Summits, selected Kosciusko as Oceania’s summit since it is the highest peak of Australia. Reinhold Messner argued later that the continent of Oceania included several other higher peaks, the biggest of which was Carstensz Pyramid—a very technically difficult granite peak in the province of Western Papua in Indonesia. Most Seven Summit climbers do only Kosciusko, which, at a height of 2,228m, is a cake-walk. Roughly 30% of Seven Summit aspirants climb Carstensz Pyramid instead of in addition to Kosciusko. I plan on doing both of these mountains this month. I leave now for Sydney, Australia, which is about 7 hours from the base of Kosciusko. A week later,  I will fly to Bali to prepare for my assault on Carstensz Pyramid. Hopefully, by the end of the month I will have knocked off both of the Oceania peaks. 

Reflections on "The Great One" (Denali)

I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t upset about not summiting Denali. That said, I am very proud of myself for giving it my all. In the end, it was not my fault I did not summit. In fact I did everything humanly possible to try to get up there without putting myself in danger. Mountaineering is a variable sport, and weather is a big part of the game. So, all things considered, it’s really not bad. And in a weird way I’m actually happy that I didn’t summit because it means that I will likely get the chance to return next June.

35%...that's a pretty low success rate. Not as low as Foraker's 0% though...

My experience on Denali taught me several things. Primary among them would be that big expedition mountaineering—when you’re spending weeks to months on a mountain—is even more mental than other mountain climbing. Climbing any mountain is a mental game, that’s for sure, but “the hang”—the sitting around for days on end waiting out bad weather—adds a whole new, difficult component to the picture. I don’t think I’ve mastered the “art of the hang.” as Joe used to call it, but I do think I’m getting there. You can’t over-think or over-analyze it. You’re on the mountain, so you must enjoy it. If it’s meant to happen, it will happen—eventually.

It also revealed to me how close one gets to his or her teammates on an expedition. I cannot remember the last time I felt as lonely as I did the day after I joined the second group at Camp III. I was shocked how much I missed my old teammates, not because my new ones were less cool, fun, or interesting, but because I had developed strong, meaningful bonds with my old team that were very difficult to forget or replace. Luckily, I established new relationships quickly and began to develop a strong rapport with my new team that complemented—but never replaced—my bonds with my initial team. 

Finally, Denali reminded me that we cannot accomplish everything perfectly. I knew going into this project that it would be unrealistic for me to go “7 for 7” and summit each mountain without fail. That said, I still held onto a na├»ve hope that it would happen, both for my sake and for the sake of my parents’ wallet. But Denali proved to me that you have to be ready to try again, and I think I am up for that challenge. You can count on one thing, Denali, that you’ll be seeing me again next June for Round II. Because even though I didn’t summit this time, I haven’t given up. I’ll be back. 

My final group...a mix of three Mountain Trip expeditions!

Day 27: Move down to Base Camp and fly off

Phew, what a grueling day. The good news is that we made it all the way down to Base Camp in safety despite some bad conditions. The evening started off well. We left camp around 8pm with clear skies and nice weather. However, by the time we got down to Camp II the clouds had come in and we were moving in a whiteout. 

After digging up our cache there, we continued down towards Camp I. But we soon lost track of the trail and wandered around for hours using the GPS to find our way down. This section of the descent, which should have taken around 1.5 hours, took us 3 hours. It was cold and everyone’s clothes and faces glistened in the moonlight. Karen’s hair had even frozen solid around her face. If it hadn’t been cold and miserable, it would have seemed magical. Finally we made it down to Camp I and took a brief rest there before continuing on to the final six miles of the trek to Base Camp. 

A couple hours later, we began our hike up Heartbreak Hill—a usually mellow hill that feels like torture after a 13 hours descent. It definitely didn’t feel so mellow to me at that point. Furthermore, we had to walk up another half hour beyond Base Camp because as the season progresses, the ice runway melts so it keeps getting pushed up the glacier. Finally we made it and had a celebratory moment for getting back down safely. We set up our tents and rested (it was now around 9am). The clouds hadn’t let up at all, so we were not optimistic that we’d be flying out that day. Some teams have spent up to a week at Base Camp waiting to fly out… (that expedition had to dig through the trash to find food to eat…).

Flying off...

All of a sudden, around 6pm that night, we got a call to begin flattening out the runway. This involves strapping on your snowshoes and walking up and down the glacier runway in a line so that the places can land safely. Just as we finished this, we heard the unmistakable buzz of a plane descending and we sprinted back to our camp to pack up our stuff. If the plane did get a chance to land, we might be able to fly out. Luck was on our side then, because two planes landed so we threw all our gear into the jet and took off out of there. After a beautiful half hour ride back to Talkeetna, we set foot on dirt once more. And boy did it feel weird. After a month of just snow, rock, and ice, I was back in the forest and back in civilization. We are spending the night in Talkeetna and then heading back to Anchorage tomorrow morning after a  final breakfast at The Roadhouse. 

Suddenly I feel dirty...

Day 26: Weather Day

And it doesn’t look like we’re going to get one… We move down tonight and plan to go all the way from this camp (at 14,200ft) to Base Camp (7,200ft) in one push.

Day 25: Weather Day

Still majorly dangerous avalanche conditions on the Headwall.  We only have one more day here before we have to go down (our “up or down day”). I think we’re really hoping for a miracle now… 

Playing cards with Tessa in the tent!

Day 24: Weather Day

The sun was out and it was warm once more but, alas, we are still stuck at Camp III. The avalanche risk has not decreased at all so we are still in a holding pattern. Fingers crossed that something happens soon… Up until today, not a single one of the 100+ people at camp had gone up the slope because of the avalanche risk, but today a group of Norwegian climbers tried going up to recover their skis which were cached up at the top of the ridge. Fortunately, they made it back safely. But unfortunately, they only made it halfway up the slope and turned around after exhausting themselves in the chest-deep snow. Their analysis of the slope conditions is that the avalanche won’t decrease for weeks more at best… Fingers crossed that they’re wrong…

Day 23: Weather Day

Well no luck moving back up to High Camp today. The snow from the storm the past couple days has dumped over 1.5 of powder onto the Headwall (that steep, 2000 ft slope that is right out of Camp III). Apparently there is a really weak persistent layer beneath this fresh snow, and it is ripe to avalanche. At this point, we either want it to avalanche, so that the slope can stabilize once more, or we want the snow to pack down and strengthen the weak layer so that it is no longer a big risk. No word on how long this might take… 

Day 22: Cache at the 16,200ft Ridge

I must admit that I’m still a little drained from yesterday, but after five days in a tent doing nothing it’s nice to get some exercise. Our cache today was actually pretty exciting. The bad weather from yesterday continued to persist and, though we were sheltered from the high winds for much of the day, the clouds and snow did not abate at all.  It took us around four hours to get up to the ridge due to the less-than-ideal weather conditions, and much longer going down than expected because white-out conditions developed. After coming down the fixed lines, Roman, who was on point, couldn’t find the trail so we all roped up into one big line and one of my new guides—Karen—took the lead. She is clearly a strong and experienced guide, and with her at the front we were able to get back on the path and make it safely down to Camp III once more.

My new group is very international, even more so than my last group. There are two other Americans, one South African, two Germans, a Slovakian, and an Australian. It was a pretty tough adjustment to leave my original group and just jump right into a new one, but my two tent-mates, Karin (the South African) and Tess (the Alaskan) have been especially welcoming. To be honest, I’m most excited to be able to eat more of Mountain Trip’s fabulous expedition food. Tonight we had pizza again. It was delicious! Nom nom nom. 

Day 21: Move down to Camp III (14,200ft)

Well, this is it: we’re moving down. Joe came into our tent at around 10am and told us the news. Apparently the park rangers who had been stationed up here at High Camp had moved down earlier this morning and strongly recommended that we follow suit because a “Perfect Storm” is converging on the mountain. Four low pressure (bad weather) systems are coming in from all sides. Already the winds have started to howl and the snow almost horizontally directly into our faces.  We broke down camp in these conditions and then proceeded to rope up into our two rope teams to descend. The park rangers and another climbing expedition had already begun their descent when we made our way to the top of the ridge. 

Greg, my tent-mate, was leading our team (it is standard procedure for the guides to be at the back of the rope when descending). As he rounded the first narrow strip of the ridge, which involves stepping around a massive rock with only a couple inches of ground separating it from a very exposed drop, the a huge gust of wind picked him up and he slammed into the boulder. It was hard for me to see whether he had been injured, but we stayed there waiting for him to recover for several minutes. He stood pressed against the rock, gripping it tightly with his arms outstretched. A couple minutes later, Joe gave the call to retreat back to High Camp. We set up a tent and huddled inside together, still in all of our gear. Greg had bruised his knee pretty badly when he hit the rock, so he took some painkillers. About two hours later, we made a second attempt at descending. This time Travis, one of our guides, led at the front of the rope team. 

Luckily the weather had gotten significantly better and the wind had died down a bit. About half way down the ridge looms a massive rock feature called Washburn’s Thumb.  This is where the upper set of fixed lines are. We began descending this section, but communication was difficult because one’s voice isn’t always carried around the rock. With this in mind, we all proceeded slowly and cautiously. When I was several feet from the starting point of the lines—out of sight of those below me and only barely in the sight of those above—I felt a sudden, powerful yank on the rope and a split-second later I hit the ground. On impulse I grabbed the adze and shaft of my ice axe and self-arrested, which stopped me from being dragged any further down. I dug my feet into the ice and adjusted my grip, still in shock that someone had fallen. Joe yelled down to Greg, who had taken a fall halfway down the lines, when it is most exposed. He appeared fine, just shaken—a natural reaction. We waited there for several more minutes to recollect ourselves before continuing our descent.  We reached the top of the lower fixed lines without any more incidents. From there, it was smooth sailing into Camp III, where we all got some well-deserved recuperation time. Though it had not been the most physically strenuous of days, the disappointment of going down added to the mental drain of the weather and the fall made it the difficult day of the whole expedition to that point.  I think that’s all for now. (I need to get some sleep.)

Update: Good news, folks! I worked out a deal with my guides to join another Mountain Trip team that is currently at Camp III. We are planning to cache back up at 16,200ft tomorrow, so if all goes well, we have several potential summit days after that.

Day 20: Weather Day

Still stuck at High Camp…weather looks like it’s going to improve, then goes sour again. Very mentally distressed. Hope it will clear up tomorrow so that we can summit. Our “Up or Down Day” (the day by which you need to either be moving up—in our case, to the summit—or moving down to Base Camp to fly off because you’re out of time) is approaching quickly. 

Day 19: Weather Day

Day 19: Weather Day
Another weather day…in protest of the bad weather, I am not going to write a blog post. Take that, weather gods.