Carstensz FAQ
West Papua, New Guinea
16,023 feet 4884 meters
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Here are some common questions about climbing Carstensz. I am focusing on the North Face because I climbed it and it is the most common route. This was one of my Memories are Everything® expeditions. Since I am not a guide nor a professional climber, this information is based on my experience and are my opinions so always consult with a professional before making any serious climbing decisions!

About Carstensz Training, Gear & Communication Expedition Basics My Experience

About Carstensz

Q: Where is Carstensz
A: Carstensz Pyramid, also known as Puncak Jaya, is on West Papua (formally Irian Jaya) in Indonesia's New Guinea. The highest peak in this part of world, it is the pinnacle of a long limestone ridge in the Sudirman Range. The Dutch explorer Jan Carstensz first sighted the peak in 1623. It was first climbed by Austrian Heinrich Harrer and team in 1962. Australia's Kosciuszko is sometimes consider the highest in Oceania being on the mainland of Australia but Carstensz holds that honor. View Carstensz on a larger map.

Q: When is it usually climbed?
A: Being near the equator, it can be climbed most anytime of the year and expect heavy daily rain year-round.

Q: I understand that getting to Carstensz's is harder than the climb itself. Was it?
A: Yes. You have three choices in getting to the mountain: drive through the Freeport's Grasberg gold and copper mine (not likely), helicopter to base camp (expensive) or take 4 to 6 days to trek through the jungle to BC and 3-4 out (difficult). All require complicated permits and even when secured can be fragile with entire expeditions being stranded before, during or after a climb. Porters regularly stop on day two in the approach and demand more money. They were paid about $50 a day in 2011 and want that rate doubled. If you helicopter in, as we did, they demand to be compensated for the lost wages paid if we had trekked.

Q: How does Carstensz compare with the other 7 Summits?
A: It is the most technical in that you climb rock at a 5.0 to 5.8 level. You use a jumar on fixed lines and rappel over 20 times on the descent from the summit. There is Tyrolean traverse across a 50' gap. This involves pulling yourself upside down across a suspended steel cable. In October 2011, I stepped on small patches of snow but it can be very icy anytime of the year and rains almost every afternoon year-round. But the real challenge is just getting in and back out.

Q: Is a Carstensz climb dangerous?
A: Absolutely. As with most mountains, weather is the top concern. It can be extremely cold and windy. You need to be off the upper sections by noon. The exposure is real and you sometimes depend on old, frayed lines.

Q: How many people had summited and how many people had died trying?
A: There are no summit figures maintained for Carstensz but I guess less than 500. From speaking with a local guide service, deaths have occurred primarily heart or other health issues related and most often with the porters and not the climbers.

Training, Gear & Communication:

Q: How did you train for this climb?
A: This was part of my  7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer's: Memories Are Everything® project. So I had climbed almost continuously throughout 2010 and 2011 either in training or on the climbs.  I was in excellent condition both the physically and mentally for this climb. But I suggest the usual training regime of running, light weight and aerobic conditioning. Also getting experince on a cimb like the Grand Teton would be excellent preparation. Please see my training page for more ideas.

Q: Was altitude a problem on this climb at 16,000'?
A: Yes, it is always a challenge on these big mountain climbs. Many people feel some type of AMS above 11,000'. As I mentioned before, I had already climbed six other 7 Summits peaks in the previous 11 months, so I was in excellent condition and never felt the altitude or the strain in spite of helicoptering in from sea level and spending only one night at 7,000 before flying to BC at 14,000'.

Q: Can you prepare for the altitude?
A: Not really. The common approach is to move slowly up the mountain (1000' a day maximum) spending your days at a higher altitude than where you sleep up until your summit bid. The human body simply does not function well at high altitudes and especially above 8000m (26,300'). As you go higher, the barometric pressure decreases, although the air still contains 21% oxygen, every breath contains less molecules of oxygen.

Everest legend Tom Hornbein explained it to the American Lung Association this way:

The lower oxygen stimulates chemoreceptors that initiate an increase in breathing, resulting in a lowering of the partial pressure of CO2 and hence more alkaline blood pH. The kidneys begin to unload bicarbonate to compensate. Though this adaptation can take many days, up to 80% occurs just in the first 48 to 72 hours. There are many other physiologic changes going on, among them the stimulus of low oxygen to release the hormone, erythropoietin to stimulate more red blood cell production, a physiological and still acceptable form of blood doping that enhances endurance performance at low altitudes. Adaptive changes are not always good for one’s health. Some South American high altitude residents can have what’s called chronic mountain sickness, resulting from too many red blood cells; their blood can be up to 84-85% red blood cells. The increased blood viscosity and sometimes associated pulmonary hypertension can result in right heart failure.

You cannot do much to acclimatize while at a low altitude but there are companies that claim to help the acclimatization process through specially designed tents that simulate the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations. I have no personal experience with these systems but you can find more details at the Hypoxico website. They cost about $7,000 or can be rented for about $170 a week. Outside Magazine posted an article in 2013 questioning their effectiveness.

Q: What kind of equipment did you use?
Click for a larger view of my Everest gear. A: Mostly I use the same gear I used on Kilimanjaro plus my technical climbing gear. My personal technical equipment included a harness, carabineers and jumar. I traveled and and lived in basic trekking clothes. As for warmth, I always wear a knit cap and at least liner gloves when I get the least bit cool - regardless of the outside temp. I used a 2 layer system of Merino wool base layer (top and bottom) and my Patagonia Guide Pants for the summit. I carried and sometimes wore my Patagonia Micro Puff and/or JetStream Shell. I have a gear page for reference. I am very pleased with all my gear but had a few standouts that I note on my gear page.

Q: Anything special in your gear for Carstensz?
A: I used everything on my gear page under 6,000 - 7,000m climbs. We had excellent weather in mid October with temps never below 20F. But Carstensz can be extremely cold and windy so multiple layers are required. My boots were the Montrail High tops and were warm enough and fine for the rock climbing. Also, bring a sturdy pair of gloves given the unbelievable sharp limestone rocks. I used my Mountain Hardwear Torsion gloves and they worked well. I used a 20F synthetic sleeping bag which was good due to the heavy rain and high moisture; a down sleeping bag would have been stressed.

Q: Did you use a satellite phone?
A: For details on my expedition communications, please see this tutorial. I used an Iridium phone to post dispatches on this site. Thuraya is a better solution given the stationery orbit of their satellites. I could never keep an Iridium longer than 3 minutes given the location of base camp in a valley between two high ridges.

Expedition Basics

Q: Which route is most popular?
A: There is only one primary route, the North Face, but there have been other routes. The North Face starts from the Yellow Valley which is where we established our Base camp instead of over the ridge at the Lakes camp.

Q: How long will it take?
A: The climb is only one day but you usually spend a couple of days before and after so plan on 4 days climbing plus 6 days to trek in and 4 days to trek out if that is your choice. We flew in by helicopter in one day and another day out.

Q: Isn't the jungle trek a key part of a Carstensz climb?
A: Many people who have compeleted the trek say it was more interesting that the climb itself given the jungle (hot and humid), tribes (bribes) and spongy marsh bogs (hard to traverse). I can fully understand. If you have time, the desire and want to save a few dollars, then the trek starting from the remote village of llaga may be for you. I got my cultural experience throughout my time in Papua - in Timika and when we flew to the remote and isolated village of Bilogai in the Sugapa Region. There we interacted with the local's, including members of the Dani tribe complete with their penis gourds.

Q: How much does a standard climb cost with and without a guide?
A: The costs can range from $10,000 to $20,000 depending on who you use. Western companies offer services more familiar to western climbers including hygiene, food, safety procedures and group gear. However they usually partner with a local Indonesian guide service. Most western companies charge the same price as of 2011 of $18,500 regarldess of trek or helicopter.

Q: Do I need a permit to climb?
A: Yes. All climbers must have several permits issued by the Indonesian Government. If you try to go through the mine, there is another very convoluted process which is almost always unsuccessful.

Q: Do I really need a guide for Carstensz?
A: I cannot imagine trying to climb Carstensz without local support at a minimum to deal with the local tribes. Carstensz is a serious high-altitude technical rock climb and it is in Indonesia so there are not only climbing issues but cultural ones to work through. Some people go to Carstensz without a formal western guide and use a local service which can be risky depending on who you select. There are usually not a lot of climbers on Carstensz so your team could be alone. In harsh weather (white-outs) or in a medical emergency, you will be on your own so consider your skill level carefully. Also rock fall and exposure falls are real dangers. It is common for the porters to abandon expeditions. Helicopter evacuation is a rare possibility. But still you must bring a two-way radio and a sat phone in my opinion and have the frequency or number of the local rescue resources already programmed in.

Q: Are there local guides for Carstensz?
A: Yes, several services are available online and are very eager for your business.

My 2011 Experience

Elbrus summit Q: Did you summit?
A: Yes, I reached the summit on October 22, 2011.

Q: Why did you choose Mountain Trip as guide services?
A: They had run over 12 trips and Scott Woolums, one of their Sr. Guides and owner of his own company, had summited Carstensz 3 previous times. Plus they claimed to have a reliable helicopter service thus avoiding the multi-day jungle trek in and out. They partnered with Franky Kowaas owner of Manado Adventure, for local logistics and guides.

Q: How did they perform?
A: Very well but everything has to be framed with respect to the primitive and remote nature of Papua. The logistics were uncertain the entire time primarily due to a huge strike at the Freeport mine. All our flights in Papua became at risk given we flew into Timika, ground-zero for the strike - and the local miners took over the airport and cut off fuel for flights. The mining company closed the hotel we were planning to use.

With all this Franky and Scott worked hard to arrange a complicated series of fixed-wing and helicopter flights through Susi Air out of Jakarta that included dropping off fuel caches. There were about 25 individual flights required to get us on and off the mountain at an extra cost that was split between our climbing team of 6, Mountain Trip and Manado. Susi was outstanding in their commitment and service. Manado's local guides (2) were very skilled and showed a lot of care for the clients. They had well over 150 summits between them. Franky came to base camp to oversee logistics. Scott was very competent in leading the team.

Q: What was Base Camp like?
A: The base camp was very primitive, like backpacking. The food was not very good, mostly eggs, rice and soup. The "kitchen and dining ' tent was a tarp on the dirt with no chairs, but we were weight limited using helicopters and you would be as well using porters so this is customary for Carstensz. The tents provided by Manado leaked horribly.

Q: Please describe the summit route.
A: From the Yellow Valley Base Camp at 14,000' , it was a 10 minute walk to the start of the lower rock walls of Carstensz proper. If we had stayed at the Lakes Camp it would have added an hour and a 500' gain and loss to reach the same point. The climbing was high class 4/low class 5 rock scrambling from the start. We left BC at 2:00 AM and reached the summit ridge in about 3 hours following the old and frayed fixed lines up narrow gullies and chimneys. There were several relatively flat spots were we walked across scree. Scott and Johnny (the local guide) replaced several ropes and anchors along the way. The summit ridge is reasonably wide. It is a short walk to the 50' gap where a permanent steel cable is now rigged along with about 5 other ropes. We used a Tyrolean Traverse technique which is a pulley (or locking 'biners) attached to the steel cable and a carabineer to the other lines to get across the gap. There were two more gaps, both about 10 feet across and 10 feet deep that we down and up climbed before the final 30' up-climb section to the small summit. We carefully rappelled or arm wrapped the same route back to camp. The ascent took 4:45 hours and the return about the same. It was 11 hours round trip including summit time and delays associated with replacing ropes and anchors.

This is a video of me crossing the Traverse:

Q: What kind of weather conditions did you have?
A: It was not very cold. Night temps were in the mid 30'sF and day time in the 60'sF. We had heavy rain each afternoon from 1 to 8PM.

Q: Did you use bottled oxygen?
A: No, supplemental oxygen is usually only used above 26,300'.

Q: Would you climb Carstensz again?
A: Probably not. The climb was a lot of fun but it is too expensive and difficult to reach. It was being in New Guinea that made Carstensz interesting.

Bottom Line

Carstensz is a unique climb in the world and especially noted as one of the 7 Summits. The climbing was tremendous fun, albeit short. But the uncertainty around logistics and the constant outflow of unexpected money puts a damper on the experience.