On February 16, 1623, Dutch explorer Jan Carstensz stood on the deck of his ship gazing eastward and as he recorded in his journal “we were at about 1½ mile’s distance from the low-lying land in 5 or 6 fathom, clayey bottom; at a distance of about 10 miles by estimation into the interior, we saw a very high mountain-range in many places white with snow, which we thought a very singular sight, being so near the line equinoctial.”
Carstensz was referring to the snow-capped peaks of New Guinea’s Snowy Mountains (Pegunungan Maoke in the local language) that we now know as Puncak Trikora, Puncak Yamin, Puncak Mandala and the highest of them all, the one that now bears his name, Carstensz Pyramid (Puncak Jaya). It’s an irony that may well have Carstensz saying “I told you so” from his grave because his claim of snow-capped peaks so near the equator earned him much ridicule back in Europe and took another 200 years to verify.
The debate over which was the highest peak in New Guinea wasn’t settled until 1994. Ngga Pulu had previously been recorded at 4900m but extensive snow melt on the peak had reduced it to 4,862m so when Carstensz Pyramid’s rocky peak was officially measured at 4,884m it grabbed the title of the highest mountain in Australasia and Oceania.
Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer (of Seven Years in Tibet fame) and three fellow climbers became the first to summit Carstensz in 1962. Previous attempts had reached the mountains glacier covered slopes but been turned back by bad weather. To this day the number of climbers to have bagged Carstensz only numbers in the hundreds and that’s only partly due to the fact access to the mountain was prohibited between 1995 and 2005. It was opened again in 2006, although permits are still carefully scrutinised before being issued, and access routes to base camp are limited and logistically difficult.
The climb has a highly technical rating, with some climbers claiming that the exposed rocky wall along the summit ridge is as sharp as glass. Despite this, it’s actually getting to base camp that is regarded as the hardest part of an assault on Carstensz. The standard route involves a charter flight from Timika to a remote village in the central highlands followed by a 5 day trek through thick, wet jungle in freezing temperatures. Strikes by porters demanding extra money after starting out are common and there’s virtually no chance of a helicopter evacuation should someone become ill or injured.
It goes without saying that climbing Carstensz is not something to be undertaken by weekend peak baggers or on a whim. It can be done if you’re prepared to do some serious training, sign up with one of the mountaineering companies offering Carstensz expeditions and fork over between US$12,500 – $18,000. Now whilst that puts Carstensz firmly out of reach of most of us, have a look at Mount Trikora instead if you’re keen to bag one of Papua’s snowy mountain peaks.