“You’re going where?”
“You know, like Papua New Guinea.” Still blank. “Have you ever played Risk (the board game)? It’s that big island down near Australia.”
“ooooh. Why’re you going there?”
“To climb Carstensz Pyramid.”
“climb what? “ aaaand…eyes glass over.
This is pretty much the conversation I’ve been having for about a year now. Because not many people really know anything about Papua (which by the way is the western half of the island, and officially part of Indonesia; the eastern half is the country of Papua New Guinea). And even fewer have ever heard of Carstensz Pyramid. Not surprising in many respects, despite its status as the highest peak of Oceania and therefore one of the famed seven summits. Arguably the most elusive of the seven, Carstensz (or Puncak Jaya as it’s natively known) is in a very remote part of the world, smack in the middle of the deep jungles with only native tribes and the world’s largest gold mine as neighbors. There is essentially zero useable infrastructure (the mine obviously boasts roads and such, but they are maniacally protective of their operations and venturing too close can end in a face-off with heavily armed guards and perhaps worse). So would-be visitors and climbers to the mountain are required to absolve a 5-6 day trek through the jungle, assuming they can purchase and secure all the required permits, and successfully navigate the tribal rivalries and disputes. Or, for those cash flush beyond the already exorbitant sums required for permits, logistics, and travel – hire a helicopter.
And then once you finally reach base camp at 4300m, there is still the climb itself to look forward to…or not, depending on your viewpoint. Because scaling Carstensz requires a 600m climb up the rock face, and then a harrowing traverse along a long ridge, including multiple gaps of over 20m which are crossed on cables suspended between rock buttresses. And although the mountain has an equatorial location, the altitude means that it is very often covered in a dusting of snow. It is by far the most technical of the seven summits, requiring true rock climbing know-how in addition to the physical strain of trekking in- and out and adjusting to alititude. Given this technical nature of the climb, combined with the difficulty of getting there (and the expense, and let’s not forget the risk), it’s no wonder that only about 500 people have ever made the ascent.
And so, yes, you’re allowed to have that glazed-over look as I tell you about my upcoming expedition. I’ve come to expect it, and probably would have responded in the exact same way before the onset of my seven summits obsession. If that’s what it is – an obsession – that’s driving me. In fact, for those people who get passed the glassy-eyed stage and start to understand the adventure I’m embarking upon, one of the many follow-on questions that tend to come up is, “why are you doing this?!”
So far, I’ve mainly kept my answer at the symptomatic level, with my explanations of how each passing year sees me suffering more intensely from a fear of heights. And so if I ever want to summit this mountain, it should be sooner rather than later. And that’s true! It’s also one of the many aspects of this adventure that elicits indescribable fear. I do not know how I’m going to navigate across that ridge, completely exposed at over 4800m altitude and a drop of 600m on either side of me. Have you ever wanted something, but the thought of going after it invariably causes your stomach to clench, nausea to set in, and a head-throbbing dizziness? That’s what Carstensz does to me.
And yet here I sit on Cathay Pacific’s flight from Zurich to Hong Kong. And then to Denpasar, Bali where I will meet my local guide for the first time. A person in whose hands I’m very literally putting my life; hoping he can manage the difficulties of tribal negotiation, permit gathering, and at the same time find the way through the jungle and safely up and back down the mountain. The region of the world we’re exploring is notorious for all manner of challenges – from kidnapping and natural disaster to extortion and cannibalism. And I’m going it alone, trusting that this yet-to-be-met guide, me and some hired porters will succeed. Even more reason for stomach-clenching.
So back to the question: why? I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and it isn’t an easy question to answer. Today, sitting on this plane with my heart in my throat, leftover tears from my goodbyes at home still threatening to spill over, there are so many partial answers. To prove to myself that I’m stronger than I think. To experience something extraordinary. To become part of an elite group of mountaineers. To experience the culture of the primeval, almost untouched-by-western-influence tribes. To make my son, husband and family proud. To push beyond my personal boundaries and still find a way to continue, to see things through. To be inspired and to inspire. Maybe that’s the reason. The REAL reason. Every person on this planet has a definition and an image of him- or herself. And so often in life, our self-imposed definitions create limitations. To who we are, on what we can do. We define ourselves and then live accordingly. And what a tragedy, when we can all go so far beyond, can do things that are so distant to who we think we are. Maybe that’s it for me. I’m just a normal person, and I push myself to do kind of non-normal things – unattainable things, based on who I was 10 years ago or even 10 months ago – just to show that it’s worth the effort of reaching further, that it’s possible.
At least, let’s hope it works out that way. 😉