Carstensz Pyramid – My 8th Continental Summit

  • Elevation : 16,023 feet (4,884 meters)
  • Continent : Austral-Asia/ Oceania
  • Location : West Papua Province, Indonesia
  • Mountain Range : Sudirman Range
  • First Ascent : 1962 by Heinrich Harrer
  • My Ascent : August 2008

Carstensz Pyramid is a jagged and snowcapped peak that looms over the vast central rainforest of New Guinea, and tops out with a 2,000-foot wall of vertical limestone. It is the highest island peak in the world and the highest point between the Himalayas and the Andes. Carstensz was 7th or 8th continental summit depending on your viewpoint; some geographers consider Australia, the islands of Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea as a broader continent which they call, Austral-Asia. Others place Carstensz in a separate eighth continent called, Oceania. Because of its remoteness and challenging technical climbing, mountaineers rank Carstensz as the true seventh summit.

Because of an independence movement in West Papua and powerful mining companies which do not welcome tourists, access to the mountain has been very limited for 50 years. Fewer than 100 mountaineers have completed this version of the Seven Summits. In the jungle below Carstensz is a stark clash of cultures, from climbers like me clad in high-tech gear and talking on satellite phones, to primitive indigenous tribesmen wearing traditional penis gourds and wielding bows and arrows, to paramilitary soldiers wearing camouflage with AK-47’s slung over their shoulders.

Excerpt from “The Adversity Advantage”

For me, the indisputable crux of the journey wasn’t the climb itself, but the approach. A new route to base camp had recently been forged from the small village of Sugapa where we landed in a supply plane crammed with climbing gear for us and pigs for the locals. Turns out, we would only be the third group to make this approach – seven days and fifty miles through one of the most dense rainforests in the world. Only faint hunting and game trails existed, so we weaved and bobbed, with Lucas, our head porter, in front of us, hacking away at the vegetation with his machete.

Describing it as walking would be misleading, More often we crawled on our hands and knees in the deep mud, through narrow slots under fallen trees, and then along the tops of those trees, since their knobby trunks were usually the only open pathway. I learned quickly that jungles are far from flat. The ground is so soft, powerful rivers cut deep narrow valleys through the earth which we had to cross. Often we had to climb hundreds of feet vertically up slippery moss and roots, or side-hill along miniscule trails which dropped away on one side into a white raging river. My longtime climbing partner, Charley Mace, would look down and always say the same thing: “E, This is a don’t fall zone.”

For hours, we’d scramble over chaotic lattice-works of exposed roots rising up twenty feet or more off the ground. My trekking poles, which I leaned on for balance, would constantly pop through the gaps and send me flailing. I was so envious of the locals who casually walked along with their bare toes gripping the gnarled roots like fingers. When the flora would open up enough that we actually got to walk upright, even though we were usually squishing through knee-deep mud, my poles continually sinking and getting stuck nearly to the handles, it felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

The irony was that I had actually chosen to be here. I had completed the traditional version of the Seven Summits. Carstensz was an add-on. The second, and even greater irony, was that as an adventurer in the modern world, I had the option to take a helicopter straight to the mountain’s base and skip the difficult jungle approach altogether. But flying over the rainforest and bagging a peak, with the least amount of inconvenience, didn’t sit right. I wanted to fully experience this place, and I realized that would mean more suffering. Even though that sounded good, in the midst of the groveling, part of me couldn’t stop asking what I was doing here.