Tommy Danger is the founder and CEO of the non-profit More Than Just Me. He’s currently in the middle of a project called More Than Just Mountains to climb the Seven Summits (the highest peak on each continent) to raise awareness for Cystic Fibrosis. In this three-part series, his shares his unbelievable adventures climbing Carstensz Pyramid in Papua, Indonesia. At the end of Part I, the skies unleashed a punishing hail storm.
Of all the hail storms I’ve experienced, this was different. Only the back and front of my knees were exposed, where my rain boot/sock stopped and the bottom of my men’s hiking shorts ended, but I felt every pelt of rocky ice. The conditions deteriorated quickly as the relentless hail mixed with cold.
I couldn’t fathom what the porters were going through. They were barefoot, and their cotton layers were soaked in no time. That wasn’t the biggest problem for them. When it hails, they believe God is angry. They had no desire to mess with an angry God.
We kept climbing up a steep and muddy slope to reach an overhang on the side of a cliff. We drove our trekking poles deep into the ground to prevent a deadly slip. As we approached the overhang, we could see the porters huddled below, shivering and cold. Despite layers, wool socks and my waterproof Jetstream Jacket, I was numb, and thoughts of hypothermia swirled in my head. The hail had ceased, but the rain was relentless.
The porters paced in the tiny space, talking to each other and our guides. The volume and intensity of the conversations escalated, and even though I don’t speak the Papua language, I could hear the same phrases repeated over and over. Shaking from the cold, I wrapped my arms around my body and looked to see our guide Loren take a long hit from his Indonesian cigarette. As he blew out the smoke, he stared into the distance and said, “They’re striking.”
In stunned silence, we watched each porter unravel their homemade nets from our duffel bags and descend down the muddy slopes to return to Camp 4. As the shock wore off, I turned to Loren. What now? We were still 2.5 hours away from base camp and now had no one to help carry our gear.
The four climbers and Loren gathered together to discuss our options. There were several viable though not ideal scenarios, but we decided to camp in our current location and then double carry our gear to Base Camp in the morning. We wouldn’t wait on the porters because we had no idea if they would come back, and we wanted to move as quickly as possible and avoid the heavy, afternoon rains.
We pitched our tents along the cliff side under the overhang. Despite the unfortunate circumstances, we took the opportunity to enjoy the views from our unique vantage point. Then we set our alarms for 6 AM and settled in for the night.
# # #
As the most conditioned, Jon K left camp first the following morning, with Mark on his tail. John and I knew it would be a long day, so we took our time. We filled our packs to capacity to make the second carry easier. Right out of camp, we started climbing. We reached the first pass, dropped into a little valley, and then faced a 300-ft wall with razor sharp rock and mostly class 4 and 5 moves. We reached the top of this wall, dropped into a smaller valley, and began a gradual incline to what seemed like another planet. Black rock and smoky mist surrounded us.
It was nice to hike without going up or down and enjoy this unique part of the world. Eventually we met Jon K as he headed back for the second load. We confirmed our plan and continued until we saw Mark. John and I eventually found the rock where the guys stored their gear before heading back for the heavy duffels. We laid down our backpacks, left our trekking poles and headed back for the second load. We passed our guides, and Loren informed us there was no sign of the porters.
After transferring all of the gear to the midpoint, we started the 1000-ft descent to Base Camp. Each step was a delicate balance on the sharp rock and loose scree. We eventually reached a point where we peered down into Base Camp and beyond to Carstensz Pyramid and the glacier lakes that flooded the area below.
In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by pristine glacier-fed lakes, Base Camp lay covered in trash. My heart ached from the utter ignorance and disregard. But, I was happy to finally be in camp, even though I had climb back out for our second load. We wasted no time tucking our duffels under the vestibules and heading back.
After transporting the second load, we unpacked our gear and rested. Yet, something seemed off. It was taking our guides too long to come down. Hours past, and eventually we heard them arrive, conversing in local dialect.
They informed us that the porters had eventually returned and were shocked to discover we had already moved our gear. As the porters claimed it was their job, our guides simply responded: “You didn’t finish your job and the Americans want to climb this mountain.”
We later saw some of the porters at Base Camp, and our guides told them to be ready at 8 AM the day after our summit. The porters usually build shelter with wood in the surrounding area and throw a tarp over the top to keep the rain out. But there is no wood in Base Camp, so the porters hike two hours beyond camp to the infamous Gold Mine. As locals, they are granted permission to enter the lands surrounding the Gold Mine, buy firewood and supplies at the store, and seek shelter in a cave. The morning after our summit, they would hike back to Base Camp and pack up our gear so we could start the 4-day hike back to Sugapa.
# # #
At 3 AM on summit morning, we awoke to dark and peaceful skies. The hike began with a 45-minute jaunt up and down some ridges before reaching the technical section of the mountain. We stopped to unload our harnesses, carabiners, helmets, and ascenders.
Harness on. Check. Carabiners. 22.214.171.124.5.6.7 check. Slings. Check. Helmet on and strapped. Check. Ascender. Check?!
I attached my jumar (ascender) to my non-locking carabiner and eventually to my harness, only to see Mark throwing gear out of his way and scrambling to find his ascender. There is no summiting Carstensz Pyramid without your jumar, and Mark’s was 45-minutes away at Base Camp.
Our guide Romie, who doesn’t speak much English, didn’t even hesitate. He handed Mark his jumar, took off his harness, and began the trek back to Base Camp. This would be Romie’s 37th summit of Carstensz Pyramid, and he knows the route like the back of his hand. Loren took his place at the front and began to ascend the razor-sharp rock in the darkness.
With the help of our headlamps, we found finger holds and moved our ascenders up. An hour into the climb the snow started. Wait…what? IT NEVER SNOWS ON THIS PEAK. But, by this point, I had learned that nothing about this adventure was normal. The snow helped in some ways, allowing better visibility as the lumens from our headlamps struck its crystallized collection of dust and moisture.
We continued. Climb. Move jumar. Repeat.
All came to a halt when we reached a vertical wall with nowhere to go but up straight up. As I looked over the upcoming climb, Jon K began upwards, searching for the best possible route to the ridge line. It was at least 200 feet of vertical, sharp, and wet rock before we could rest.
We continued, and instead of lamenting my numb fingers, I focused instead on the CFers sitting in a hospital. I climbed for them, knowing they would gladly trade their immeasurable suffering for this temporary pain.
We reached the end of this pitch and continued on the jagged ridge line. We approached multiple traverses and stared at ropes stretched to their limits. Our guide provided instructions, directing us to arm wrap two ropes with each arm, repel down the side of the rock, and land on the next rock.
This part of our journey was all about doing. We couldn’t think too much. We needed to exert confidence and keep moving, all while trying to block out thoughts about having to do the same exact maneuvers on the way back down.
We approached the big traverse: the one you read about in all the articles and books written about Carstensz Pyramid. I don’t care how many safety ropes there are when you see it. You literally walk across a tiny cable between two rocks. Beneath you lies a lot of air before more jagged rock. A lot of air…
I don’t have a fear of heights but as my age increases and my family grows, I do have a fear of death. I know if one of the ropes breaks, my fear will become reality.
Cameras rolling? Great. I took one small step at a time, and before I knew it, I was over. The summit waited around the corner and up the ridge. The snow stopped, and the sky opened up. I mic’ed up, and John rolled the camera as I took the final steps on the 5th of our Seven Summits bid.
More Than Just Mountains isn’t about climbing each peak; it’s about those with Cystic Fibrosis who are currently stuck on Mount CF struggling for each breath. Each day they gain altitude and wait for the day they can return to Base Camp, and eventually home, where the oxygen is rich and full of life. We climb so one day we can be the rescue helicopter that pulls 70,000 worldwide back to safety and out of altitude.
On the summit, we unfurled our flags, snapped photos, and remembered those we have lost. We released their ashes into the slight breeze to an endless view from the highest point in the Oceania region.
After one final look, we headed down, crossed the gaping traverses, and repelled the slick rock faces. As we removed our harnesses and grabbed our trekking the poles, it began to rain.
We arrived at Base Camp around noon, ready to relax before our four-day return trek through the jungle. Little did we know the next morning held a change of plans we never could’ve predicted. Don’t miss Part III.
Photos by John Burkett, Red Tide Productions