Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring

 

This should have been a quick and easy trip, but in Papua things rarely work out that way. My plan was to use a helicopter to fly in and out of Carstensz Base Camp and avoid the long muddy trek through the jungle. Allowing 3 days for acclimatisation plus the climb would enable the whole trip to be completed in 7-8 days from Jakarta. This is an expensive way to run a Carstensz trip, but suited the busy schedule of my client, a Chinese businessman.

Things began to unravel as soon as we arrived in Indonesia. We learnt that the helicopter I had chartered was non-operational and awaiting a spare part. We were told to expect a delay of around 4 days, so we continued our journey to the island of Papua at the extreme eastern end of the Indonesian Archipelago to find out exactly what the situation was. On landing at Nabire, after an uncomfortable night flight via Makassar and Biak, we could see the stricken helicopter on the tarmac. We were then told that the delay could be up to six days. The required spare part, en route from Europe via Singapore, had been delayed by the Indonesian customs authorities.

Rather than risk an indeterminate wait we decided to fly to the nearest airstrip to Carstensz and make the 6 day trek through the jungle to Base Camp. We fully expected that helicopter would be able to collect us after the climb thus removing the need to repeat the jungle trek in the opposite direction. By now John, a climber from the UK, had joined us in Papua. My original intention had been for John and I to make a separate ascent of Carstensz after Mr Nubo the Chinese climber had returned home. The delay to the first trip led to the two trips being combined and we operated as a group of three for the remainder of our time in Papua. The weather In Nabire alternated between fierce heat and torrential tropical downpours. Our initial impressions of the Hotel Nusantara had not been favourable but were soon relieved to learn that at least the roof did not leak. Conditions did not look favourable for camping.

My previous trip to Carstensz in 2009 had suffered from 'normal' Papuan weather conditions with lots of rain and mud in the jungle making travel both difficult and uncomfortable. I was really not looking forward to a repeat and had only been persuaded to return by the promise of a warm and dry helicopter trip to Base Camp.

In the event we were remarkably lucky. There was almost no rain during our six day trek and conditions were not too wet. We all wore good quality rubber 'Wellington' boots and these were certainly the best footwear for the conditions. Jimmy, our local guide and fixer, had made many trips from Sugapa to Carstensz and was an invaluable aid in negotiating the complex tribal politics with the local villagers recruited to work as porters. Each porter carries a load of about 15-17 kg at the start of the trip and they expect this to reduce as the trip progresses. Unlike porters in the Himalayan countries there is no system of dismissing surplus porters along the trail as their loads are consumed. In Papua all the porters expect to remain with the expedition for the duration of the trip.

Between us we had three loads of personal kit plus one of camping/cooking/climbing kit and two of food and fuel, giving a total of six loads. By the time that Jimmy's equipment had been added plus the food and shelter for the porters our entourage had grown to 15 adults plus one boy. The porters were drawn from the three main tribes of the area, the Dani, the Lani, and the Moni. The only way an expedition can cross the territory of the three tribes is to share the porter jobs between members of the three communities. The porters carrying our bags were mostly strong young men equipped with plastic ponchos for the expected rain and stout rubber boots. They were supported by an almost equal number of women who carried their provisions in the form of large heavy net bags of sweet potatoes. Interestingly all the women were barefoot despite having to cope with the same difficult ground as the boot wearing men.

Freed from the incessant rain that had made my previous journey quite an ordeal I was able to appreciate the beauty of the changing landscape along the route to the mountains. Leaving Sugapa the trail initially winds its way through cultivated land. There are few flat areas and what farming there is takes place on steep hillsides only recently cleared of native forest. The main staple of the Papuan highlands is the sweet potato but a few vegetables are also grown and pigs are the only livestock kept in the villages.

We spent the first night of our trek at Swangama, the last settlement on the trail. The porters spent most of the night organising themselves and their provisions for the following day. With the noise of chattering porters, crying children, barking dogs and squealing pigs we did not get much sleep. The next day we entered the forest proper. At first the path was distinct and followed a large river. Soon the trail became more overgrown and a variety of obstacles were encountered. In some places large mudslides had washed away the path, in others the undergrowth obscured the trail. Patches of mud and water ensured that wellington boots were definitely the best type of footwear. The large river was crossed twice on flimsy wooden bridges before we reached the campsite after seven hours of walking. The site was small and there was barely enough dry ground for two tents, but there was a small wooden hut frame with a palm frond roof that could be used as a basic cook shelter. The porters gathered on the other side of the river on a patch of rocky ground. They quickly constructed a large wooden frame to support the orange plastic tarp they had carried. This provided a quick and effective shelter and they proceeded to light a fire of damp wood filling the structure with acrid smoke.

The following day the vegetation along the trail changed and we moved from forest to jungle. A network of exposed tree roots replaced solid ground underfoot, fallen trees frequently blocked the route, and slippery logs formed makeshift bridges over areas of swamp. We stopped for lunch in a natural clearing where several varieties of wild flowers could be seen including the carnivorous pitcher plants that trap and dissolve insects. Later in the day we gained height and bamboo plants became more numerous in the undergrowth. Seven hours after starting out we climbed a short steep hill to leave the jungle behind and establish camp at the start of yet another vegetation zone. On the fourth day of the trek we were able to enjoy walking in a more open landscape. We entered an area where ferns, bushes and heather replaced tall trees. Initially the trail crossed some swampy ground before gaining a ridge crest with commanding views. From here we got our first sight of the distant snow capped peaks. The water source at the 'normal' campsite was dry and we were forced to drop off the ridge to camp lower by a small stream.

The next day the trail crossed open grassland and we made faster progress towards the mountain barrier to the south. A natural stone bridge took us across a fast flowing river gorge deeply incised into the limestone bedrock. We saw the remains of a wooden bridge built by a previous expedition when the water level must have been several meters higher. This was the shortest day of the trek to Base Camp and it made a pleasant change to have some to rest in the afternoon after arriving early at camp.

On the final day of the walk the character of the landscape changed again. Soon after leaving camp we reached a picturesque lake. Behind this a steep difficult slope led to a second lake. Above this we gained rocky limestone slopes above the last vegetation. A seemingly impregnable rock barrier was breached via a series of ramps and ledges leading to New Zealand Pass at 4,400m. From here we got our first views of Carstensz, a high rocky ridge running in an East / West direction with a serrated summit of towers and notches. From the top of the pass it was short decent to the site of Base Camp beside a cobalt blue lake. The porters dropped our baggage before heading for the nearby Freeport mine to scavenge for food and abandoned items of equipment that they could put to use back in their villages.

It rained heavily in the night and at one point it looked impossible that it should stop in time for us to climb to the summit the following day. However it was dry by 03.30 when we left Base Camp for the one hour walk to the start of the climb. There were a few clouds above but the sky was mostly clear with the moon and stars visible. In the west we could see the orange glow of the Freeport mine lights and the occasional rumble of machinery could be heard. Our local guide Jimmy had been to the summit more than a dozen times before and chose to join us for the ascent. Route finding is rarely difficult as much of the climb is equipped with fixed ropes. I climbed in front followed by Mr Nubo then Jimmy with John (the most experienced climber) bringing up the rear. We made steady progress up a corner and gully system, occasionally broken by wide ledges. The main hazard on the lower part of the climb was dislodging loose stones from these ledges onto the climbers below. By 07.00 we had climbed the steep final pitch to join the crest of the summit ridge from where we had clear views eastwards into the large crater of the Freeport mine and southwards to the coastal town of Timika.

A short distance along the ridge we came to the famous 'Tyrolean traverse' where a 15m gap is bridged by a collection of old ropes and a fairly recent steel cable. Objectively this is fairly safe but a leap of faith is required by the first person to trust their weight on the ice-covered ropes. With a bit of heaving and pulling all four of us crossed the gap without too much difficulty. On the other side we were able to proceed towards the summit approx 600m distant and 100m higher. On the way there are three smaller gaps to cross. While none are as dramatic s the 'big' one, they each require a degree of care to negotiate without undue exertion. For most of the summit ridge we were climbing in the sun, for the final section we moved into the shade and the rocks were covered in a thin layer of snow. This did not delay our progress up the final easy ground and by 09.00 all four of us stood on the summit. For Mr Nubo this was the last of his 'seven summits' and we spent some time taking his photograph with the flags and banners of the many organisations in China that he represents. The weather remained fair for our descent and we became one of the few teams to have climbed Carstensz without getting soaked either on the way up or on the way down.

On returning to Base Camp we learnt that the helicopter had still not been repaired. Rather than risk a long wait with an uncertain outcome we decided to start trekking back to Sugapa the next day. We completed the walk in four days, three of them requiring 8-9 hours of walking. The weather by now had reverted to a more normal pattern of dry mornings followed by wet afternoons. Although it rarely rained before 14.00 / 15.00 each day the few hours of heavy rain were enough to ensure that we were thoroughly soaked by the time we reached camp each day. The wet and muddy walk out from Base Camp served to remind us how lucky we had been to enjoy a dry trek the previous week.

From Sugapa we flew to Nabire where we were able to dry all the wet clothing and equipment under a scorching sun, and have a first proper wash in almost two weeks. We learnt that the helicopter had been repaired the previous day and was now available for flights to Base Camp, just too late to be of any use to us.

The trip had turned out very differently from the original plan, but both Mr Nubo and John were pleased with their ascents and for different reasons were not too unhappy at the unexpected trek. Nubo had never experienced anything like to jungle and declared that it had been more 'interesting' than flying in and out by helicopter. John was an experienced jungle veteran having travelled extensively in the jungles of Africa and South America. He actively claims to enjoy jungles and revels in the infinite variety of colours and textures to be found beneath the forest canopy. He declared the jungle of Papua to be quite 'friendly' and free of many of the hazardous plants and animals encountered on his previous travels.

I also think that the jungle is indeed interesting and worth experiencing once.  However I do not think that any sensible person should make the trek to Carstensz more than once. I might be persuaded to return to Carstensz at some point in the future, but only if the helicopter is working!

David Hamilton 06/08/2010

David Hamilton
High Adventure
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