Carstenz Pyramid
Somewhere between the bottom and the summit
is the answer to the mystery why we climb.

Greg Child

The Mountain of Many Names

Carstensz Pyramid got its name after Jan Carstenszoon, a Dutch explorer, who in 1623, claimed he had seen snow near the equator after he sighted the glaciers on the mountain’s peak on a rare clear day. It’s also known as Puncak Jaya – Mountain Victorius, Nemangkawi – White Arrow – in Amungkal, Carstensz Toppen and Gunung Soekarno. Mountaineers usually call it Carstensz Pyramid.

Say goodbye to the glacier

In 1936, when glaciers still covered 13 square km of the mountain, Ngga Pulu was the tallest peak in the Sudirman Range. The glaciers are disappearing at an alarming rate. As a result of climate change, the last remaining glaciers on the mountain are predicted to vanish by 2020, according to the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency. The 21 meter deep ice layer has melted by 4 meters since 2015. Since 1936, 80% of the glacier has vanished. The Meren glacier is nearly gone.

My mountain’s higher than yours

Standing at 4,884 metres above sea level, Carstensz Pyramid is the highest mountain in Indonesia, the highest in the Indonesian Papua region including Papua New Guinea, the highest on the continent of Australia, comprising New Guinea, Australia, Timor, and other islands, including the submerged continental shelf, and it’s the highest mountain in Oceania. It’s also the tallest island mountain on Earth, and the 5th highest mountain in political Southeast Asia. And, as if that weren’t enough, it’s also the highest point between the Himalayas and the Andes.

Jungle, rain, rock, glaciers and ice

The mountain has the lowest elevation of the Seven Summits, the highest technical rating, the most miserable approach – five days through dense jungle often in the rain, no way to get rescued except by foot over very difficult and slippery terrain, temperatures from equatorial at the base, to sub-zero at the summit. Most injuries occur on the three to four day descent from base camp because of exhaustion and the difficulty in controlling your hiking speed as the environment is wet and slippery. Unfortunately, due to unrest in the area, we had to fly in to base camp by helicopter, bypassing the jungle and all its adventures.

Carstensz Pyramid
Carstensz Pyramid
Carstensz Pyramid
Carstensz Pyramid

Climbing the mountain of many names

Arguably the most exotic of the Seven Summits, the Carstensz Pyramid is located in the Indonesian province of Papua on the western half of the island of New Guinea. While my hope had been to trek through the jungle to get to base camp, due to recent unrest in area I was advised against this by our local Indonesian guide and logistics provider. Instead, we were to fly the last 40 miles by helicopter, landing at base camp (4,200m). We would spend a few days acclimatising to the altitude before undertaking the climb itself.

The weather, however, and as the pilots only operate under VFR (visual flight rules) conditions, meant the helicopter couldn’t fly due to rain and cloudy conditions. As a result, we spent nine days sitting in the town of Timika waiting for the weather to clear. Mentally, this was perhaps the toughest part of the whole trip – having trained and traveled so far to get there, and being able to see the mountain, but not being able to actually climb it.

Eventually, the weather did clear enough for us to be able to fly in. Because of the enforced wait, we opted to climb immediately rather than to wait and risk further weather delay.

The climb itself is almost 2,000ft (600m) of steep, rough limestone, with a few scrambling ‘steps’ between the steeper sections. During the climb, it was either snowing or raining most of the time, which was fine, but unfortunately our view of the surrounding area was not great as a result. Every now and then, when the clouds cleared for a moment, it was incredible to see remnants of a nearby glacier. Not much of the glacier is left, but it was still remarkable to see a snowfield so close to the equator. After ascending the main face, we reached the jagged and exposed summit ridge and traversed from there to the true summit. After years of dreaming about this climb, it felt incredible to stand on the highest point of Oceania and complete my sixth of the Seven Summits!

The descent was interesting. After all the precipitation we’d had, there were sheets of water running down the face of the mountain. At times it felt like we were climbing down a waterfall!

After a couple of days back in base camp, the helicopter was able to fly in and collect us and I started my long journey back home – arriving just in time for the kids’ first day at their new schools in Colorado, USA.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.

T.S. Eliot