On the fourth day of our jungle trek from the New Guinea village of Ilaga to the mysterious, mist-shrouded Carstensz Pyramid, whose 16,023-foot peak we intended to climb, Bob Shapiro, Geoff Tabin and I took stock of our situation. We were three Americans in a distant, primitive corner of the world. We had had our passports confiscated by the chamat, Ilaga's Indonesian military chief. Too impatient to deal with the bureaucratic maze that stood between us and the required "walking papers," we had gone to Ilaga without them, been caught out by the chamat and barely allowed to depart for the mountain.
And now, more than 12,000 feet above sea level in the chill, wet jungle fastness, all of us, including our 16 Western Dani porters, were feeling the effects of the altitude.
Bob was recovering from the flu. Although his strength hadn't fully returned, he was happy to feel as good as he did. Geoff was still blithely and easily strolling into and over whatever came next. We all had been breathless the day we landed in Ilaga, at 8,038 feet, and as we trekked higher the air became thinner. On the second day our thirst had become unquenchable, and on the third, blood pounded in our temples as we walked. Now, on the fourth day, I was dizzy most of the time.
The porters were beginning to complain of vague afflictions that could only have been altitude illness. Our chief porter, Aner, would groan lightly and wave vaguely at his solar plexus in response to any queries about his health. The Dani believe the solar plexus contains spiritual matter called etai-eken, or "seeds of singing." Whether an ailment is of the body or soul, a stomachache or a sad heart, they believe the seeds of singing have somehow been upset, probably by ghosts.
March 9, 1981
I vomited the day before, and again this afternoon. I was pale and gaunt, and couldn't concentrate beyond the next step. When I admitted to Bob that the dizziness was unrelenting, he soberly warned me against walking myself into pulmonary edema, and the thought of having to turn back alarmed me. I decided that not only would I not vomit again, but that also I would lie about my condition if the subject came up. Fortunately, the nausea got no worse and as I became acclimatized, it eventually diminished.
I also decided to stop straggling behind Bob and Geoff. But keeping up with them turned out to be impossible. It frustrated me. After all, I was the one who had trained specifically for the trek; Bob and Geoff had been preoccupied with final exams at Oxford and hadn't had time for even the most basic exercise. It seemed a weak argument for me, at 33, to plead the ravages of age, but Bob was 25 and Geoff 24, and that was nearly a decade's difference, I told myself. They say you feel age in your legs first, and my legs were spent. Geoff, the natural athlete, had lost weight, maybe 10 pounds, and he was actually getting faster, using the trek to condition himself for the climb. Bob's legs seemed to be getting longer and longer; once I peered up at him as he stood on the top of a hill in his size-11 boots, and he looked like a lean giant.
Bob kept a steady, strong pace. Geoff and I trekked with less consistency, Geoff's pace punctuated by irrepressible bursts of enthusiasm and mine by lapses of enthusiasm, just as irrepressible. The problem, I thought, was not so much my legs as my spirit. My seeds of singing were upset.
On this gloomiest of days Bob declared that even if we should never reach Carstensz Pyramid, the trek would be enough for him and he would go home satisfied. I couldn't understand that, yet I thought I envied it. Bob and Geoff were on their "strenuous holiday," and were open to the experience. All I wanted to do was climb the goddamn mountain. For six weeks I had been reaching for the top of Carstensz Pyramid, and anything that stood between me and the summit—including the trek—no matter how exotic it was and how privileged I was to be there, was an annoyance. It wasn't a good mix: Geoff was game. Bob was appreciative and I was irritated. I had been trained how to climb a mountain, but enjoying the experience was something I would have to figure out for myself.
The chamat had told us it would take four days to reach Carstensz Pyramid, but four days had passed and we were nowhere near it. We thought Aner had also told us four days, but he couldn't have; the Dani's sense of time is vague, and they have no word for any number greater than three. We probably had asked Aner if it was four days to Carstensz Pyramid, and he had nodded, but he would have nodded if we had said 40 days. When I straggled into camp, last by nearly half an hour. I wanted to grab Aner by the shoulders and say, "But you told us four days! Promise me we'll be there tomorrow!" But no doubt that would only have elicited a meaningless nod of assurance.
We had spent the day trekking across the Zengillorong Plateau. On our map the plateau was dark green and covered with amoeba-shaped spots labeled NUMEROUS SINKHOLES. I loved the expression, felt it could be an epitaph. We slogged across this 13,000-foot-high savanna, dodging Numerous Sinkholes hidden by thigh-high grass and patiently waiting to suck our legs off at the knees.
The Sinkholes were concentrated in the Basins of Ijomba, named by a previous climber for his favorite porter. Our porters yelped and yipped as we slurped through the bog. Bob appeared beside me, his hands behind his back and his head down, like a man pacing the floor. "Fairly severe marshland." he said as I tugged at my thigh to unstick a foot. The bog ended at the foot of a huge hill, which had Numerous Sinkholes oozing down its side. It was the steepest, longest, slimiest hill of a trek replete with steep, long, slimy hills. The drill on this hill was two steps up, slide back one; two up, back one, for 20 feet, then rest. It went like this for hundreds of feet. A succession of ridges each appeared to be the summit, but they invariably and dishearteningly revealed nothing but more hill beyond. A cold gray drizzle was falling. My legs were at their weakest and my enthusiasm its lowest. I stopped to pant and curse a while. Bob came along again, moving steadily up the hill. "Fairly definitive mud," he said. Geoff was stripped to his swim trunks beneath his raincoat and was wearing sneakers, his galoshes having been sucked off by sinkholes. I think he was whistling. "Hmm, pretty slick little trail here," he said cheerfully as he moved on. I wanted to kill him.
We were still in our sleeping bags the next morning when we heard the call of the mountain quail, one of the few suggestions of animal life, other than tropical birds and tree-climbing rats, that we encountered. Then we heard Aner's voice, sounding as if he were scolding someone. I lifted a corner of the tent flap and saw him standing on a hill surrounded by the porters, who were squatting or kneeling. He was speaking firmly and rhythmically, and as he continued, his voice gathered speed and urgency. Soon he was almost shouting, and he glanced toward the sky as if he wanted to shake his fist at it. Aner was praying; when God replaced the ghosts as an object of worship, the new belief apparently inherited some of the Dani irreverence toward spirits.
We didn't make it to Carstensz Pyramid on the fifth day, either. But we were camping in the shadow of the Noordwand, the four-mile-long, 1,500-foot-high ridge of peaks that had repulsed the New Zealand expedition of 1961. We pitched our tent next to a glacial lake, the porters camping 100 yards away under a rock shelter whose walls were blackened from the smoke of fires past. Half a mile away stood the north wall of Ngga Pulu, 15,947 feet, the peak at the east end of the Noordwand; its face was broad and sheer, with icefalls cascading like cataracts hundreds of feet down.
We were awakened the next morning by what sounded like barking. It was the porters; often they greeted their days with a sharp woof! that sounded like a dog barking in the distance. That day Aner led us straight over the Noordwand through the 14,764-foot New Zealand Pass, the only part of the ridge not fringed by ice. We scrambled up over sharp rocks and through patches of snow. Still barefoot and mostly naked, the porters climbed toward the pass, using one hand on the rocks and the other to steady the heavy packs on their shoulders.
When we topped the pass, an icy wind slapped us in the face; at that moment Carstensz Pyramid came into view for the first time. My spirits instantly shot sky-high; I felt like shouting. We looked out across two steep-walled valleys, each about a thousand feet deep and together less than a mile wide—the Meren Valley and the Yellow Valley. They were divided by a long, craggy moraine ridge, and they contained blue and green glacial pools. At the eastern end of the ridge was a peak separating the Meren Glacier and the Carstensz Glacier. Carstensz Pyramid's north face rose 2,000 feet high, bathed in sunlight. We could clearly see dark grooves and cracks zigzagging up the slab. Bob pointed out the routes of the previous parties that had climbed the face, and then traced the new route that we hoped would lead us to the summit. It was a black crack, bottom-to-top right smack in the center of the face. "I feel like I know that wall as well as anyone possibly could without ever being there," Bob said.
We pitched base camp in the Meren Valley, at the foot of the glacier. We gave the porters these instructions: 10 were to return to Ilaga, and six were to stay for 12 days while we climbed. Of course, it was fairly hopeless to expect them to understand such a complicated plan, and we didn't. We shook their hands and embraced them, and they all disappeared down the Meren Valley toward Tembagapura, a village near an American copper mine.
The mine is owned by Freeport Indonesia Inc., a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Freeport Minerals Company. It is a $250 million enterprise with 1,983 employees. Its presence in such close proximity to Carstensz Pyramid is an unfortunate blot on a tableau of nature at its purest, and makes a mockery of the mountain's claim to remoteness. The mockery was vivid: garbage and graffiti where we made our base camp. It was impossible to put the situation in perspective without being sadly cynical. We had flown halfway around the world to a mysterious island inhabited by people barely out of the Stone Age, trekked for six days through rain forests and Numerous Sinkholes and over icy mountain passes to find garbage overflowing from scattered oil drums and messages spray-painted on the rocks.
That night Bob and Geoff slept in the North Face dome tent, and I slept in the smaller Marmot Mountain Works two-man, with half the climbing equipment tucked snugly at my feet (we stuffed the rest in one of the toppled oil drums).
It was the coldest night so far. We planned to start the ascent the next morning, so I organized my climbing rack in my tent, using the cozy yellow glow of a candle for light. Above the candle, hanging limply and looking kind of silly, were my socks, dangling from a chain of carabiners in a futile attempt to dry by the candle's heat.
After sleeping for a couple of hours, I awoke, shivering. Wind was shaking the tent, and I could hear a glacial freshet hurrying somewhere in the darkness. I unzipped the tent flap and stuck my nose into the cold black air. The Meren Glacier was sprayed silver by a full moon that floated high above. I would watch the glacier over the next few days, and it always seemed to be the color of the sky, changing like a chameleon. There were days when the horizon line over the glacier was completely lost, as if sky and ice had merged.
The Dani believe the sun is a woman who dresses like a warrior. She climbs a tree in the east every dawn, walks across the sky during the day and climbs down a tree in the west at dusk. The moon is a man who looks over her at night. I gazed at the moon a while, and then returned to the tent for a couple more hours of fitful sleep.
Our plan was to spend three or four days climbing two easier routes to the summit, in order to acclimatize to 16,000 feet and learn the mountain, to prepare for the north face attempt, our ultimate objective. On the first day we tried a traverse to the summit from the east, an appealing route because it looked relatively non-technical, and had been climbed only once before—by the famous Tyrolean mountaineer Reinhold Messner. We began at the edge of the Carstensz Glacier—at 222 acres it is slightly less than half the size of the Meren Glacier—and climbed westward over a series of sawtooth peaks. We had to shinny out on their edges, which were so sharp we couldn't lower our crotches on them (the running joke of a previous expedition had been that the chief danger was castration), to a 30- or 40-foot rappel at the end. Then we would gradually climb upward, often over scree, to the next peak. But we had trouble finding our way between the peaks, and lost about three hours. So, rather than spend the night on the mountain, we descended.
We had accomplished two important things. First, we had climbed to nearly 16,000 feet and had experienced no major setbacks because of altitude, although we all had headaches—mine in my eyes; I found myself turning my head stiffly in order to keep from moving my eyeballs, but aspirin relieved the discomfort. Second, and just as important, we had learned a lot about what kind of team we were. Over supper that night—with the moon lighting the dark blue sky, and after I had lobbed a rock at a red-eyed rat that was stalking our freeze-dried beef Stroganoff and terrorizing Geoff—we agreed we each had an important weakness. Geoff's was his damn-the-torpe-does, full-speed-ahead approach, Bob's was-his cautiousness. They worked well as a team because one's weakness canceled out the other's. Mine was impatience. I couldn't change overnight; Bob and Geoff would have to accept my weakness as I would theirs.
The next day we decided to retrace the path of the very first ascent of the Pyramid, by Austrian Heinrich Harrer in 1962. It was a traverse from the west. We rose at five, well before first light, and stepped out of our tents into a heavy mist. We ate breakfast in the darkness, a miasma of oatmeal, sugar, raisins, butter and powdered milk, so sweet and lumpy it was hard to swallow. With our souvenir kabewaks, native penis sheaths, in our packs (for a photo of us wearing them on the summit), we broke camp and set out for the base of Carstensz Pyramid.
With the mist lifting, we climbed all morning. Most of the time we scrambled up scree slopes, which were as monotonous as the muddy hills had been. Still training, I thought, itching to get to the real climbing. I was discovering the difference between mountaineering and rock climbing.
At noon we came around a corner and were confronted by a tiny crack creeping diagonally up the rock for 20 feet, requiring a series of moves more difficult than anything we had encountered so far. The rock hung outward. There were a few tiny toeholds, but they were almost useless because gravity would be tugging our toes out and away from the rock. It would be an extremely strenuous few moves, and we knew it would be the crux of this route.
Geoff struggled on the crack for about 20 minutes, then ran out of strength and fell away from it. Belaying from below, I caught and held him suspended in the air in his harness. I suggested he come down and remove his pack, which was 30 pounds tugging on his shoulders, pulling him back and draining energy from his arms. He dismissed any necessity to lighten his load and went back at the rock. He fell again. I lowered him down to the belay stance with me, and he removed his pack and rested.
Without a pack, though with less strength, he tried the crack again. This time he got near the top before he fell. It was a sudden fall, and he hit hard against the rock before the rope stopped him. "I'm blind!" he shouted. "Is my eye bleeding?" He felt no blood, and, satisfied that the injury was not severe, he quickly settled down, dangling in his harness, cupping his eye with his hand and cursing.
The pain and blurry vision seemed to make Geoff even more determined. After resting a few minutes he went back at the rock and squinted and cursed some more; this time he placed a foot in a nylon stirrup he had anchored in the crack with a nut. He had been climbing free, but now, by stepping into the sling, he was going to climb on aid. Using another sling, he inched around a corner at the top of the crack. Bob and I followed, the climbing much easier for us because we used the slings Geoff had placed. It took some 90 minutes to climb those 20 feet, too slow a pace if we were to reach the summit and get down before dark.
There were places on the route where we could virtually spit to the ground on either side. The belay stance below the crux had been one of those places: it was on a small ridge wide enough for a secure stance but narrow enough to fall. I was anchored by a sling Geoff had wrapped around a cantaloupe-sized rock loosely lodged in a crack in a big boulder. Upon seeing the anchor I had mumbled, "This is ridiculous," as I lifted out the rock with one hand. Geoff said, "Don't worry, it'll hold. If I fall, the force will pull you down on the rock anyhow." I put the rock back and settled into the shaky stance without argument, figuring it was his decision, not mine. It was his life, not mine. I was wrong, of course, on both counts. And I had broken the promise I had made to myself that first night in Jayapura, when I recognized that it might be important to keep my guard up with Geoff.
When Geoff fell the third time and his protection popped out, I had been jerked off my feet and swung about five feet into the face Geoff was climbing. By catching myself against the face, I had kept most of the pressure off the loose rock and it went untested. If another piece of Geoff's protection had popped out, the rock would have gotten a very serious test. It seemed amusing to me that you could go down either way here, left or right, forward or backward, by your own stupidity or someone else's. The sinkholes were numerous. Then it seemed perverse that it seemed amusing.
An hour later we reached the summit. We gazed down the south face, an ice climb that was challenging as recently as a decade ago, but, because of the rapid recession of the glaciers, is mostly a trudge today. Smaller hanging glaciers were draped like bibs over a maze of steep ridges crisscrossed by deep gorges. The craggy peaks at the western edge of the Snow Mountains disappeared into the mist. Behind that mist, in five short miles, the elevation dropped 10,000 feet to the jungle, and beyond lay the Arafura Sea and the Indian Ocean. To the east were more outcroppings, one of them snowy Wollaston Peak, named for A.F.R. Wollaston, the Englishman who made the first, futile expedition to Carstensz in 1910, and whose passion and vision had been realized only by others.
The descent went quickly. We traversed in the snow on the shaded back of the mountain, slid down scree slopes, down-climbed, and made seven rappels on the face. But we were caught by nightfall during the 45-minute hike from the mountain to base camp, and we had yet to cross the moraine ridge that separated the valleys. We had only one headlamp with us, which Geoff wore. It made blurry rainbows and yellow streaks in the darkness before his bad eye. We were unroped, traversing a steep scree slope. Eventually we had to go down, but not yet; somewhere in the black void below us—maybe 100 feet away, maybe 10 feet—was a cliff. At every move the scree threatened to roll away under our feet like marbles, carrying us clawing desperately down through the dark. I slipped and gasped more times than I can remember; for days afterward, dirt from the slope remained under my fingernails.
We wandered back and forth for a couple of hours. I watched the small beam of light on Geoff's head dim with his voice as he wandered away into the blackness and mist along the slope, looking for a trail, then reappear as he came back unrewarded. We debated in the dark about what to do, our confused shouts coming out of the night at each other. Eventually Geoff found the way down, around the cliff, and we staggered to camp and went straight to sleep, successful but not feeling very much like it.
The next day Geoff's eye was much better, and we prepared for the climb of the north face. Waiting out the afternoon's rain, we gobbled a three-pound tin of chocolate butter cookies in one sitting, which made us all feel better. We set the alarm for 4:45 a.m. the next morning, and the first sound we heard after its buzz was the thumping of rain on our tent. The rock would be unclimbable, impossibly slippery, so we would have to wait. Geoff was stir-crazy by noon and went out in the rain to scramble up the Middenspitz, the peak separating the Meren and Carstensz Glaciers. Bob and I stayed inside the tent, ate candy bars and read—he The Snow Leopard, I Huckleberry Finn, having finished the former on the trek.
Dawn arrived the next morning as we were scrambling toward the north face. I looked up from its base and could see only half of it, gray clouds hiding everything above the Grand Traverse (so named by Bob), a wide belt where we hoped to bivouac that night. It had rained all night, and the rock was wet and cold and slippery. I was too wired to be nervous. Geoff led off, climbing an eight-inch-wide vertical crack, and was soon 100 feet up the face.
The crux came early, before noon. It was a classic overhanging ledge, extending about nine feet from the face and creating a roof. The crack that led Geoff there continued up the overhang, but got very narrow. Geoff could try to climb that crack, or he could carefully traverse to his left about 15 feet and attempt a crack where the overhang appeared smaller.
"Whoa! That's one big overhang!" Geoff shouted down to Bob and me. "Every time I get closer to it the perspective changes." Geoff felt he could climb the crack to his left free and the one above him with aid. He shouted down to us for opinions, and Bob and I advised him to traverse over to the easier crack. But the longer Geoff studied the overhang, the more he felt he could free-climb the harder crack. At the bottom edge of the overhang, he wedged a #7 hex, a hollow hexagon of aluminum, for protection and tried to climb over the lip.
He fell twice, both times gently. But just before the second fall, he had managed to fit in another piece of protection, a #3 hex, about the size of a walnut. He attached a sling to the hex and resorted to aid-climbing by putting his foot in the sling. He reached over his head blindly, out and up to the top of the overhang, his fingers slapping the rock and groping for something to grab. There was nothing but smooth, wet rock. When it spit him off, his foot slipped through the sling and it flipped him; he dangled upside down from the overhang, 300 feet above the ground, secured only by the hex he had wiggled into a crack two fingers wide.
Belaying him from below, I lowered Geoff about six feet as he wrestled himself upright and swung back to the rock under the overhang. He traversed over to the easier crack, where he found the overhang to be only about six feet, and free-climbed it after a lesser struggle.
As I climbed the face toward the overhang, it began to drizzle, then to hail and finally to snow. Geoff was just above me, belaying from the roof of the overhang, making suggestions and giving encouragement. I reached out to the overhang, twisting and stretching as far as my joints would permit, and pulled with as much strength as my muscles could provide, while Geoff kept the rope taut.
After a lot of grunting and kicking at the air with my feet, I pulled myself up on the roof with Geoff. The crack continued above the overhang, but it didn't widen; rarely could we squeeze anything broader than our hands and the toes of our climbing shoes into it. Often the only footholds were loose clumps of vegetation growing from the crack. They threatened to crumble out at their roots, so we trod on them gingerly. Because Geoff was above me, he would be able to catch me if I fell, and I could catch Bob below me, minimizing the drop, but Geoff was up there on the leading end of the rope—the "sharp" end, as climbers call it—often unprotected, 800 feet off the ground, standing on loose little clumps of grass and clinging to a wall of rock while icy water dribbled down his sleeves to his armpits.
The crack eventually spread into a chimney, which we squeezed into. We inched upward by shuffling, using our arms, and elbows, backs and feet for leverage. It was grungy climbing, with all kinds of muck dropping on us, but we couldn't move out onto the face because it was so slippery.
We climbed the rest of the day, a trio of voices in bright clothing moving up the rock through a gray mist. I would watch Geoff disappear above me, then hear his voice when he reached the end of the pitch. Then I would shout down to Bob, deep in the mist below me, and soon he would climb up out of it. Bob and Geoff saw each other infrequently.
The sixth and final pitch of the day was the nicest. We once looked down to see a long cloud blow away, revealing the Yellow Valley. The aquamarine ponds on its floor looked like swimming pools seen from an airplane. Occasionally during the afternoon we heard thunder rumbling over the jungle behind the mountain.
The Grand Traverse had an ethereal quality to it. It was dusk, and everything was in shades of gray: the rock, the sky, the mist, the haze drifting between gendarmes, spires that rose like cement columns, and over narrow scree slopes that weaved around like sidewalks. Compared to the rest of the mountain, the Grand Traverse was almost benign. It felt like halftime.
We found a concave boulder, and the three of us curled up against it, with a view down the top slope of the Grand Traverse, over the edge of the mountain and across the two valleys to the Noordwand. We lay our nylon ropes down like a rug to insulate ourselves from the cold rock, put on every stitch of clothing we carried, crawled into our bivvy sacks and pulled them over our heads, ate a few candy bars for dinner, and sat there for 12 hours, freezing. Actually, the temperature was in the 20s, which, as mountaineering bivouacs go, is like having a heat wave. I thought of climbers who spend a week of bivvies in temperatures much colder, and was awestruck.
I slept an hour at most, all in pieces, Bob and Geoff not much more than that. We repeatedly rearranged ourselves as we tried to keep from falling out of the lap of the rock. We didn't talk much, except to grumble; we sang Happy Birthday to my sister in Rhode Island; I planned every day of my life for the next eight months and asked what time it was a lot. As dawn approached, I thought the sun was stuck.
When it appeared at last, the sun was framed by a window on top of Ngga Pulu. By the time we broke camp, the sun had simply disappeared from the window without ever rising, and all that remained were gray clouds.
It took an hour or so to feel our feet again, for they had gone numb. Immediately after we started climbing, we were on firm, dry rock. The wind had thinned the clouds, and the sun was hitting our backs; it felt like October. When we looked over our shoulders we could see both glaciers below us, a pale, icy blue, reflecting the sky.
Bob was exhausted from the sleepless night, and was moving slowly at the bottom of the rope. I was excited about having great climbing at last. Brittle needles of limestone made the climbing easy, but they were so sharp my golf gloves were torn to shreds. I took them off, and once when I retied a shoe noticed blood on the laces from cuts on my hands, the fingers punctured as if by tacks.
We climbed through a window that led from a chimney to the face, and the wind almost blew us back. We looked straight up and saw about 600 feet of big-wall climbing to the summit. We felt we had it in the bag: no more overhangs, no more mucky chimneys, no more grassy-cracks, no more drizzle. Just the face and fair weather; almost like rock climbing. We looked straight down to the ground, about 1,400 feet. There were six or seven glacial pools scattered on the Yellow Valley floor, some aqua, some emerald, some pearl, some chalky.
Through the middle of the day we climbed steadily up the rock, five vertical pitches to the summit, alternating leads. Because it was our second time on the summit in five days, we felt more at ease when we got there. We crawled around the rocks a while, trying to find the best spot for a photograph. Geoff took off his clothes and put on his kabewak again, as we all had four days earlier, and posed for another photo in case the first didn't come out. We looked off to the south but saw nothing but a sea of white clouds. When we felt our body hair rising and heard our carabiners humming from static electricity, Bob suggested—fairly frantically—that we get our buns down quick, unless we wanted to become human lightning rods.
None of us wanted to spend another night on the mountain. Time was short; it was about three, which left only 3½ hours of daylight, putting pressure on us to make a rapid descent. We couldn't afford mistakes or to waste a minute.
Before we could begin rappelling down the face we had to cut along a 200-yard traverse on a snow ledge that slanted down the south side. We clipped into the rope and traveled along the ledge until we came through a notch and then down a long, snowy ramp that led to the eastern edge of the face. We leapfrogged down in long rappels, a couple of them completely suspended and inside deep chimneys. It was like sliding down a long fire pole into a mine shaft. This was our third time over the same descent route, and we were getting the system down. Geoff would rappel first, then head off to place the anchor for the next rappel; Bob and I would follow, coiling and carrying our two 150-foot ropes. We worked with polish, better than at any time so far. Failure to work smoothly had disappointed and frustrated me throughout the expedition, and it felt good to finally be a team. We hit bottom at dark and went back to camp and a cold dinner of chicken chop suey and tuna à la Neptune; our stove was out of kerosene.
The next morning, a Sunday, I started hiking to Tembagapura. The plan was for me to try to retrieve the passports, while Bob and Geoff would traverse the Noordwand and climb a virgin peak Bob had had his eye on, before joining me in Tembagapura. They wanted to name it Kikes Peak, both of them being Jewish and having a sense of humor.
The hike to Tembagapura couldn't have been nicer, although I was exhausted and dirty and isolated enough to feel like the sole survivor of some terrible epic. The sun was shining yet again as I walked down through the Meren Valley. Carstensz Pyramid rose on my left and the Noordwand on my right. Three-and-a-half miles below in Carstensz Meadow, the mountain ridges tapered and their walls turned from rock to vine, with exotic-sounding birds calling from them.
Soon I heard a bulldozer. I followed the trail toward the sound and passed the Ertsberg, whose 600-foot-high cliffs blend into an open-pit mine. When I reached a dusty road I hopped a ride on a truck to the foreman's office. The Indonesian foreman greeted me with bewilderment, but took me down in the tram line that drops 2,000 feet, all of it through thick clouds, the world's longest unsuspended tram, to the mill, where after another 2,300-foot drop over a twisting gravel road lay "Coppertown," Tembagapura, population 3,300. About 200 are American miners and their families.
I was delivered to the Indonesian townsite superintendent, who offered me a cold beer in the living room of his prefab house while in the next room his children watched two television sets, one a color console playing a video cassette of Walt Disney cartoons.
That night I lay in bed in the staff dormitory after a hot shower and a dinner of barbecued chicken with four helpings of everything in sight. The mine had damaged the trip to Carstensz Pyramid by announcing its presence in the graffiti and garbage at base camp. Now, as I rested between its sheets with my belly full of its comforts, it was spoiling the climb. Of course, no one was forcing me to eat its chicken and sleep in its bed, but there was nowhere else to go. It was naive to think that Tembagapura would be a native village like Ilaga, that such a village could even exist next to a $250 million American enterprise, a veritable Yankee industrial Atlantis in the jungle.
Actually, there was a native village: Waa. It was a Damal slum, built from Tembagapura's waste on a hillside in the valley. The denizens of Waa (and Upper Waa, as Bob called its sister slum higher up the hillside) lacked the spirit of their brothers in Ilaga. I tried recording their songs, but they mumbled self-consciously, like people singing the national anthem at a football game.
Bob and Geoff arrived the next evening, three days early. They had completed their snow traverse of the Noordwand, over both glaciers as well as Ngga Pulu, and had been on their way toward Kikes Peak when they ran into the porters heading back to Ilaga. At that moment, it seemed just too complicated to organize the porters around another plan, so they took them back to base camp, collected the rest of our gear and trekked to the mine. They gave the porters our worn ropes and much of our clothing as a final farewell and bonus. Later, Bob and Geoff were sorry they had given up so easily on their unclimbed mountain.
Over dinner, while watching them eat their lamb stew in the mine mess as ravenously as I had my first meal there, I reported on the passport situation. Someone would have to return to Ilaga to get them. I was rested, but at the moment my feet were too swollen to get my boots on. There was no airstrip at the mine on which a bush plane could land, but the mine had two helicopters. However, it had no reason to fly to Ilaga.
The mine accorded us every physical comfort, but an American manager made it clear that they didn't appreciate having to look after passers-through. We were told we were "uninvited guests."
However, the mining company could hardly load us up with barbecued chicken and shove us off toward Ilaga. And we couldn't leave the country without our passports. And we couldn't get our passports without the mine's assistance, at least not quickly, though we didn't expect the mine management to bail us out. But they wanted to get rid of us and get back to digging copper. "For all we know, you're an environmentalist," one manager told me with a grin that made me think he wasn't joking.
The Freeport helicopter made a weekly vegetable run to Beoga, a village an easy two-day trek from Ilaga, and it was agreed that one of us would go along. Geoff went one morning, only to return 15 minutes later when the chopper couldn't get above the cloud ceiling over the valley. The next day he was bumped for a higher-priority passenger. And the following day the mist was too thick for takeoff. The mine finally offered to let us charter its second helicopter.
Our pilot was a likable Texan whose favorite word was "kinko," which is what he figured we were for climbing mountains. He said the only humans he'd ever seen crazier than us were some guys who dived off a bridge connected by a bungee cord, on That's Incredible! When Geoff told him that he had been one of those guys, the Texan just shook his head as if to say, "It figures." He had most recently flown for an oil company off the Louisiana coast, but ultimately found flying back and forth across water without challenge. He believed his duty in Tembagapura was the best civilian helicopter pilot's job in the world. The flying was so demanding, the country so fantastic! He figured he was in the right place and right situation if World War III broke out; he could take his chopper and fill it with supplies and load up his Vietnamese wife and handsome young son and go live in the jungle. He had his gold-panning gear, and he knew just the spot.
The helicopter rose out of a mist at daybreak, straight up over Tembagapura before banking away. In an hour we were over Ilaga's tin roofs. We landed next to the chamat's shack, amid hundreds of whooping Western Dani.
The chamat was not impressed. He greeted us unsmiling at the door of his shack. "Please, sit down," he said to me. motioning to a chair at the table. Bob and Geoff waited outside while I bargained for our passports.
"Where are the porters?" he asked. "Haven't you seen them?" I replied. He informed me that they were my responsibility, and because they hadn't arrived yet, that must mean they were working overtime. He recalculated their fee and discovered I had not paid him enough. "You must pay 45,000 rupiah [$72] more," the chamat said. So I did, and he smiled for the first time, and handed over the passports. I hopped like Gunsmoke's Chester (an infection had sprouted on my thigh in fertile Tembagapura) back to the helicopter, jubilant. We lifted out of a crowd of cheering Dani and sped to Tembagapura, arriving just moments before the mist sealed it for the day. We dived into what looked like The Twilight Zone—a thick fog with crawling slimy vines at its fringes—and Tembagapura magically appeared beneath it.
The next morning we took a Freeport bus over the 65-mile dirt road to the airstrip on the coast and flew off, Bob to Bali, Geoff to Hong Kong and I to Singapore, each for a couple days R&R before returning to the U.S.
We had become the sixth party to climb the north face of Carstensz Pyramid. We put a new route on the face. We may have been the first party to climb it free.
A Californian named Bruce Carson climbed the north face solo in 1973. There is a very good chance he freed it; his account of the expedition in the American Alpine Journal is brief to the point of failing to say. Maybe it wasn't important to him. Carson was killed in 1975 when he fell through a cornice on the summit of Trisul, a 23,362-foot peak in the Indian Himalayas. He was 24. Royal Robbins wrote of Carson in the American Alpine Journal, "He was...an unusually brilliant rock climber, who could draw the line fine without getting flustered." Maybe he never told anyone whether he freed it or not.
I like to think he did. The man climbed the mountain solo.
Since our return to the States, Bob has gone back to Penn to study neuroanatomy. When he settled into an apartment in Philadelphia, he kept hearing "fairly intense discussions" of street crime. He said Philadelphia's the most dangerous place he's been in years.
I spent two months reliving the expedition through some 2,000 slides, 14 hours of tapes and God knows how many hours thinking and writing about it. I decided two things. I had tainted it for myself—though I hope not Bob and Geoff—by being so goal-oriented. Bob and Geoff named our route "Romance not Ego." It's a great name. The other thing I decided is that I would have either one of them as an expedition partner again.
Geoff entered Harvard Medical School last fall, and a month later had an accident. Climbing without a rope on boulders near Cambridge, Mass., he fell 25 feet, head first. He snapped a wrist and was unconscious for nine hours. He spent nine days in the hospital, and he lost a week somewhere, but most of his memory is back. He even caught up with his classes by semester's end. Broken wrist and all, he was playing tennis—at midnight. Geoff's doctor told him he was the luckiest sonofabitch he'd ever seen.