Puncak Jaya - 16024' - North Face Class 4
Section 1 - Introduction and initial planning
As anyone who may have the displeasure of following my crazy adventures may know, I kind of vanished from the Pacific Northwest climbing scene for most of this summer (most of the whole year of 2019 really), but that is because I got an opportunity to work at the infamous Grasberg Mine in Papua, Indonesia as my first assignment with the new company I started working for in May. This mine has toggled on and off as being the largest gold mine in the world, and for miners, geologists and other engineers, it's dubbed as the single premier mining site in the entire world to get the chance to experience. I'd like to give some insight on my experience working at Grasberg in addition to writing a trip report about the climb of Puncak Jaya and how that came to happen, because as you may expect there's the good, the bad, and the ugly I had to contend with during my two separate 1 month visits.
The Grasberg open pit mine sits at an elevation of 13,00 feet high in the Maoke range that bisects the island of New Guinea, which formed when the Australian plate rammed into the SE edge of the Eurasian Plate. This mountain range is rarely visited by westerners, and is one of the most difficult areas to access for climbing. Most of the workers at the mine are Indonesian who descend on Papua for employment from all the surrounding islands. Freeport's subsidiary company PTFI operates the colossal mine-site which not only includes the open pit, but moving down the mountain to the south also includes the mill and 5 underground mine operations below the pit in the 9,000-11,000 foot range, various office buildings and conveyor systems in the 7500-9,000 foot range with adjacent villages for worker accommodations, a town of about 10,000 people called Tambagapura at 6300 feet, the city of Timika at the foot of the mountains at 1600 feet, and a portsite on the southern coast of Papua at sea level complete with massive storage facilities, coal fired power plant and a soon to be operational smelter. A gravel road connects all this together from the portsite at mile 0, Timika at mile 30, Tembagapura at mile 68, and finally the open pit at about mile 70.
After quitting my job at Site C in northern BC (rotational 2 week on/1 week off job I had from July 2018 through April 2019), I started working for small independent company who specializes in instrumentation support for mining operations and dams. I was hied to support the operations we work on in Colorado, however it just so happened that the time I was on-boarded, they were halfway through a unique support and QA/QC contract for a trial tunnel support design that was getting built in an unusually soft and poor zone of rock in one of the underground mining operations. The mine development team had a need to find a way to safely keep tunnels supported throughout the life of the operation potentially 40 years in length, but with the rock so altered and weak (but rich in ore), a new liner design was made and for the first trial run it included 1500 monitoring instruments. That's where we come in, and since my new company was short staffed at the time, all the stars aligned for the opportunity for me to go to Papua! Within 3 weeks of my first day, on May 22nd I was on a first class flight from Denver to Singapore on Singapore Air, one of the most luxurious airlines in the world.
I had a three day stay in Singapore while I had my work visa taken care of, and I was given free reign to explore the city. I honestly wasn't expecting much, but Singapore caught be by total surprise. Unlike the grime and pollution I envisioned and heard from many large Asian cities, Singapore was immaculately clean and the air was clear! Not only that but it was exceptionally multicultural, with beautiful architecture and plentiful green space. The only major downside was the heat and humidity, but nonetheless I explored the city on foot, mainly avoiding leaving the hotel during midday though. My first evening there I walked to the famous gardens on the bay park and as the sun was setting, I started taking some very colorful photos of the city at night, which is when Singapore really shines. Just by chance I stumbled by two laser light shows as I walked around the bay stopping for food and drinks at a few locations. One was at the gardens while the second was actually displayed in the water with patterns of fountains and colorful lights view able from the docks. It was a fun evening, topped off by every third person asking how tall I was
Singapore photos at night shown below.
The next day I also walked over to the botanical gardens and afterwards took the subway down to Universal Studios Singapore which was a big resort type place on an island immediately south of the city. It was very hot!
Eventually I was on my way on another first class Singapore air flight to Bali, however I didn't get to stay more than a few hours at the Bali airport before getting on the 1am flight to Timika, which is the chartered city that acts as the launching point for all personnel coming to Grasberg to work. Timika is also the launching point for people who come to climb Puncak Jaya, however since the long trek through the jungle to reach Puncak Jaya has long been shut down, the only way for climbers in recent times to be able to access the mountain is via a small helicopter. More on that later though. As I mentioned, most of the people working there are Indonesian however there are a decently large portion of expat workers, primarily from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. I was actually one of just a small handful of Americans I saw my entire time there, which throughout my time there further cemented how lucky I was to experience it all.
Getting personnel from the airport in Timika to Tembagapura happens one of two ways. On the rare days where it isn't cloudy and raining, the mine flies people up on large old Russian army helicopters which takes 25 minutes to get to the 6300 foot town where I stayed every night. Normally though, it's a 3 hour bus ride on custom built buses engineered off of a monster truck chassis and specifically designed to handle the insanely steep gravel road. All the windows on the buses are also covered with Kevlar paneling due to past conflicts with the native Papuan peoples and the Indonesian army, in which the mining personnel and equipment would sometimes get caught in the middle of it all. The Kevlar paneling protected the workers inside the buses from AK bullets! As recently as last year there was still heated tension throughout the region however, luckily things have settled down a bit in 2019, and I never felt insecure or unsafe there. The Papuan people are actually very friendly, many of them have been fighting for independence from Indonesia ever since the Dutch relinquished control of the region and this has typically been the source of conflict in the past. Even today, there is still resistance movements against the Indonesian Army. You can certainly imagine with the mine bringing in a huge percentage of the GDP for Indonesia the Papuan independence movement unfortunately seems futile.
Fortunately for my first day in Papua when I landed in Timika, I was lucky enough to have a clear morning and I was able to take the helicopter up. The helicopter was so old though I was barely able to see out from the windows they were so scratched up so I didn't see too much. Still better than a slow 3 hour bus ride that only goes 40 miles! My accommodation in Tembagapura consisted of a decently nice room and my own bathroom in one of the barracks, and there were a few decent restaurants, a mess hall for buffet style meals, a hospital, a bar, a sports complex with outdoor soccer field, swimming pool, and a community center with shops and groceries. Everything was free and completely covered by Freeport for all the residents, because only mine workers and their direct families are allowed to stay in Tembagapura. What never stopped amazing me was the 2000 meter high wall towering above town just littered with gigantic waterfalls! Staring at that never got old, and the amazing thing is that peak is insignificant compared to the highest peaks along the crest of the range. Security was pretty strict, and no one without a supplied badge, which are only given out to pre-approved workers are allowed to get on the buses or helicopter from Timika. Because of this, no one without mine access can climb Puncak Jaya utilizing the mine road from Timika, unless you befriend an Indonesian worker who has a vehicle, and vehicle access to drive up to the open pit, as well as an ability to sweet talk the security guards along the way to allow you to pass without a badge. Only a small percentage of mine workers have vehicles, and even less are allowed to drive up to the pit, and typically the security guards are only ever lenient to their friends, so getting up the mine as a tourist is very difficult and obviously grounds for immediate deportation if you were caught.
Of course, there was a fat chance I would be given a vehicle because my stay was just a temporary one. Therefore I still had my work cut out for how I was going to climb the mountain while working 6 days per week/14 hours each day, not to mention the weather is abominable 95% of the time! The only chance it's ever clear is right early in the morning between the hours of 4am-8am, with a bluebird day happening maybe 15-20 days per year. It rains somewhere on the mine site every single day of the year, and Tembagapura would see rain in the afternoon on average 25-26 days every month. If it wasn't rain it was fog, and if it wasn't fog it would be overcast. Since my bus transport into the underground mine where I was doing my work left Tembagapura every morning at 3:30am, I would enter the mine well before twilight, and by the time I got out every afternoon at 4pm, it was always raining. Therefore, I saw direct sunlight only once from my first day of work until I left Papua in the end of June at the end of my first trip; 5 weeks later
Despite that however, I accomplished a lot in planning during my first trip for how I would climb Puncak Jaya. Since I got one day off each week (which it rained on all of them my first trip), and I had received some contacts of who to talk to before leaving the US, I found a small low-key hiking group that typically goes for short walks in the mountains surrounding the open pit every Sunday, and in that group I met Russel from Australia, who was also keen to climb it. Like myself, he travels constantly! The leader of this group who had the vehicle and access privileges had been in communication with a local agency in Timika who was working closely with the upper level mining personnel throughout the past 6-8 months to once again allow access through the mine for workers. Back in 2015, PTFI shut down all access to any hiking or climbing outside the boundaries of the mine due to a death of an Indonesian who wandered off beyond the lease boundary and wasn't prepared. He died of exposure, causing the mine to shut everything down for everyone. This is important to note because this is what I was told right before I flew to Timika. As of my arrival in May, the access was still closed even for mine workers. However just in the past couple months, things changed and progressed when Maximus, who owns the company Adventure Carstensz successfully gained permission to bring people with mine access up the mountain. Maximus also owns a staffing company that provides the mine with the majority of their Indonesian workforce and is also a member of one of the original 7 Papuan tribes in the vicinity of the minesite so he is a prominent figure in both Papua and at the mine. He is also extremely kind and great to talk to.
I was once again incredibly fortunate with the timing of my visit as he completed the negotiation process with upper level management about the beginning of June. I was given his contact info by the leader of the hiking group I mentioned earlier as he too was interested in climbing Puncak Jaya, however since he, and the majority of others in the group were permanent employees, they weren't planning to climb it until October or November when the weather is marginally better. I did go on a couple walks with the group my first visit but never got anything close to a clear day. Unfortunately I didn't have much time like the permanent employees in the group did, as my second trip was going to be my last and was only from July 26 - August 17th. I would have to climb it during my second trip or lose the opportunity forever. Typically March-August are the worst weather months, which I totally understood why as it rained every single day in June during my first visit, and every single day in July when I was on break back in the US. Anyways, after meeting up with Maximus and his team a few times, I convinced Russel to join me during that window of my second visit, which also luckily overlapped with one of his rotations. He was the most in-shape person of the group as well so I knew we would be just fine if we could get a weather window.
Ruth, the main point of contact for us who works for Maximus (and also has a job on the minesite) was very flexible for us since we had to work around difficult schedules between Russel and I and when the guide could come up. I worked underground while Russel worked at the open pit. I usually would never climb with a guide, however this was something different. If successful, Russel and I would be the first people to climb Puncak Jaya legally accessing from the mine in many years, as well as the first time Adventure Carstensz would bring people up the mountain through the mine. Since Advenure Carstensz recently also became recognized by the governing bodies of Indonesia as the primary agency for climbs of Puncak Jaya off the mine for tourists (since they are the only local Papuan agency), all other agencies need the permission from Maximus himself to legally fly clients into base camp. When Maximus secured permission from the mine, our trip would become the first legal climb on both fronts. This would become a big deal because if our trip went sour, it could have potentially put an end to it all once again, but if it was a success, the door would then continue to open for future climbs accessing via the mine with Adventure Carstensz, and allow confidence to be instilled in the eyes of the powers that be that people can indeed climb the mountain safely.
Since I was also able to prove I had extensive experience in climbing and mountaineering to Maximus and his team (something the vast majority of people looking to climb Puncak Jaya have none of), they allowed us lots of freedom. Plus, a good amount of the money Russel and I paid definitely goes back into assisting the local peoples in Timika and the nearby villages. Because Maximus is so well known in Papua, climbing Puncak Jaya with his agency will also provide you the knowledge that all the locals and tribal peoples will support you as well and if you do have a chance encounter with them it won't end badly. Whether you have mine access or not, if you're interested in climbing Puncak Jaya, look no further than going with Adventure Carstensz. They are also going to be the cheapest option with all inclusive packages (including helicopter transport from Timika) as low as $7000. With mine access, I paid $2000 for the trip plus my flights there were free. That will be the standard cost per person for all people wishing to climb it with access to the mine. Now, without further ado, I will describe the climb itself. in the next section. I won't go into too much detail about everything I was doing for work, but if you're curious, feel free to send me a PM and I can describe that in more detail.
Section 2 - Climbing Puncak Jaya
After a 3 week break back in the PNW and in the Sierras between my two trips to Papua (more on that in this trip report), I returned to Grasberg with all the planning stages complete on July 25th. All I had to do was scrutinize the weather forecasts every waking moment and give Adventure Carstensz as much notice as possible when Russel and I wanted to go. The first Sunday of my second trip (July 27th) went by where the weather was decent, but since that was just my 3rd day back we weren't prepared to go right then, so we went for another short walk with the hiking group. We hiked up to a ridge on the south side of Puncak Jaya and got a close look at the south face which few people ever see up close, since everyone climbs it from the north side, and the south side can only be accessed from the mine. We went right by a large area of collapsing and crumbling rock and was on the extension of the west ridge of Puncak Jaya. This collapse zone is a result of one of the block cave mines deep below the surface. This was one of the ugly moments working here when I realized that the mine is literally eating not just one gigantic hole in the mountains here but multiple! This particular one was just getting taken out from underneath rather than the surface, and was very close to Puncak Jaya. (Side note: as unfortunate as it is to have such a scar on the mountains, look up block cave mining and how it's done...it'll blow your mind). It was a beautiful 2 hour walk, but by 9am it completely fogged in. I told Russell as it was starting to fog in that's all we needed...a 2 hour clear window one morning to climb it. Neither of us wanted to pay the $2000 if we weren't going to see anything!
The next week went by and it rained every single day. Initial weather forecasts on Tuesday that week hinted of a possible tiny window Saturday morning (this would have been August 3rd). The following weekend came though and it rained even harder! The weather was actually unusually bad and I actually worked every day and didn't take a day off that next weekend. Ruth was getting worried if we were going to decide to pull the plug or not, which she had put in a lot of hours planning with Russel and I and neither of us had paid her anything.
When the following Tuesday came around, I saw this pop up on the Meteo Blue weather forecast and almost fell out of my chair in excitement!
A substantial gap in rain scheduled for Friday August 9th. Of course it had still been pissing down rain 24 hours a day up to that point so Russel was skeptical but I was confident it would hold because all models were consistent. We confirmed with Ruth our decision and plans were set in motion. We would get picked up from Tembagapura at 11am on Thursday the day before and get dropped off at the eastern edge of the pit at a place called the Bali Dump and hike the two hour approach to base camp from there. At some point early in the morning we would start climbing in the dark, summit st sunrise to a hopefully clear view then descend, returning to the mine shortly after lunchtime. I was able to afford to take two days off from working underground since I worked both days the previous weekend, and I had a co-worker who could take any crucial notes I may have needed while gone.
In short, we executed that plan perfectly, and luck was once again with me as I witnessed the most memorable sunrise I have ever seen on the summit of Puncak Jaya. As we rode up to the pit it was a foggy late morning as it normally is, but right when we crested the top of the hill the fog disappeared and opened up allowing up visibility all around the surrounding peaks. I honestly didn't expect good weather on the Thursday for our hike in but I began to think we may be getting an additional bonus!
We picked up Russel, since his office was up top and we were dropped off at the edge of the Bali dump near the base of the Zebra Wall (where technical climbing used to be done decades ago). A few bulldozers were moving around resurfacing the area since they were excavating some of the dumped material out for re-mining. Our team consisted of Russel and I, our "guide" Korma (who is also a member of the Indonesian SWAT team!) and his assistant Maxi (our cook). Maxi wouldn't go all the way to the summit. We carefully walked through the work area and up to the edge of the mine lease where a stark change back to natural vegetation began, and a nice wooden staircase started ascending the hill to the top of the small ridge separating the Yellow Valley where the base camp is located from the much larger valley to the north that used to be the normal approach before the open pit mine dump blocked it off by piling 125 meters of dump material in the valley filling up the end of it, which required a treacherous descent down the edge to get to the original valley floor. This was another ugly part of the mine. All the material excavated out from the pit was dumped on the surrounding sides, raising the terrain by over 100 meters over large areas completely covering the original swampland and terrain and totally burying some fairly large natural rock features. Because of this, people no longer take the easy trail up the wide valley leading east and instead go over the ridge first and hike up the Yellow Valley directly to base camp. See the map below where the red line shows the old approach (3 miles each way) and the green line shows the new approach we took (1.5 miles each way). Where we were dropped off was at an elevation of 13,250 feet and with base camp at 14,050 feet our net elevation gain was only 800 feet!
It's important to note that Google Maps and Google Earth mislabel the summit of Puncak Jaya, which is actually the large peak just east of where they show it labelled. The peak incorrectly labeled as Puncak Jaya on Google is actually the second highest peak in Oceania, which has one of the three equatorial glaciers on its SW slopes. The other two are are on the peaks immediately across the valley north of Punjak Jaya. As we crested the small ridge we could see one of these glaciers at the head of Yellow Valley to the east. The clouds were still pretty high and we still had great visibility and I was getting ever more stoked as we walked closer to Punjak Jaya. Once we descended into the valley I saw the opposite side of the subsidence zone I mentioned above from our hike a couple weeks before. Huge blocks of rock have slid down the Limestone slabs on this side of the ridge as well and the ground was literally crumbling apart as it sinks into the hole being excavated from the extraction level deep below. Luckily this underground mine won't affect Puncak Jaya itself. We experienced a few very short burts of light rain as we walked up the valley. I was sure glad I brought my mine boots for the approach because the valley was very muddy and the vegetation deep and wet. I was amazed how at nearly 10,000 feet there could be so much vegetation, but that's the equitorial areas for you I guess! My trail runners would have been soaked, which I needed for the climb so I am glad I suffered the heavy bots for the short walk to camp. At about 3:15pm we reached the base camp and to my complete shock there were 5-6 large tents there.
Turns out they were a group of 7 Indonesian guides who were flown in via helicopter 8 days prior, and their plan was to fly their European clients in the next day after they arrived but the weather was so bad the following week they couldn't fly in, therefore they had been stuck there at base camp over a week and their clients were stuck in Timika. They were pretty shocked to see us come up from the mine, but when we informed them of good weather the following day they looked a bit more excited. Their clients would actually fly in the next morning just as we started down from the summit and make the summit in the afternoon. We set up camp a couple hundred meters beyond their encampment and Maxi made a much, much better dinner than I would have made
It was a delicious chicken sandwich with great Indonesian spices and veal meatballs in a spicy noodle soup. I loved it. We lounged around the rest of the afternoon and decided not to take any chances the following morning and start way earlier than I normally ever would. We agreed on a 1am wake up time with the goal to start moving at 1:30. I expected it would take us about 2 hours and 45 minutes f moving time to reach the summit (Korma thought I was crazy lol) but just in case something came up that would give us a couple extra hours before sunrise. I really wanted to summit at sunrise to give us the absolute best possible chance of a view...little did we know we would be climbing on the first totally clear bluebird day in at least 3 months.
Neither Russel or I got any sleep...mainly because we were thinking about it too much haha. Maxi came in with more spicy chicken sandwiches for us at 1am and right at 1:30 we started the short walk to the base of the real scrambling. It's worth noting the entire route has fixed ropes...sometimes as many as 5-6 ropes in the same places so the climb itself for someone with climbing experience is extremely easy. I didn't feel like there was any 5th class from Washington YDS standards and there really wasn't ever much exposure. I was comfortable not using them much at all however to ensure I didn't screw it up for everyone that would come after us, I placed the microtraxion device I had brought on the fixed rope before climbing a few of the more sustained 4th class spots. I was more or less setting the pace for what I believed would get us to the top in 2 hours and 45 minutes and I was hitting it spot on. So much so that I told Russel we will need to probably wait a total of 2 hours along the way since sunrise wasn't until about 6:30am. However with twilight starting about 45 minutes before that we could still be ok.
We continued in the dark, and emerged onto a long, low angle flat section that was covered in scree. By this point I was beginning to notice the elevation slightly but nothing of real note since I was working in the 10,000 foot range every day underground. There was one final 45 meter sustained class 4 wall to climb before reaching the ridgecrest, which I thought was the most fun part of the climb with great holds and very solid rock. In reality the whole climb was really solid. Upon reaching the ridge we were greeted with a strong breeze, and were able to see crystal clear skies off to the south. We found a sheltered place and took a 25 minute nap since we were less than an hour from the summit at this point and it was only 3:45am. To the south we could see the lights of Timika glowing in a very low fog blanket hovering around sea level. The lights of the entire mining operation lit up the otherwise very dark night sky, and poking through the gaps in the few clouds were stars. I was getting a giddy excitement for what was about to lie ahead.
After 25 minutes, we started up the easy ridgecrest, which was an excellent run, and within 5 minutes we reached the famous Tyrolean cable traverse. It was about 25 meters long and crossed the gap in the ridge that used to be the crux of the climb where one would have to rappel down 30 meters, leave that rope and climb 5.6 back up 30 meters to the other side, then use the first rope to top rope back up on return. However about 4 years ago the cables were build to make it easier for non-climbers. I had not actually done something like that before, but since we were clipped into both side cables, if your foot slipped off the one bottom cable and you fell off, you weren't going anywhere. In the dark you couldn't see the bottom so it wasn't so bad anyways. The main difficulty was the rime ice that had covered the cables making it tough to pull the carabiners across! It was also very windy making the crossing swaying me as I went.
Russel and then Korma followed and we continued on the ridge, crossing two more much smaller gaps with short ropes stretched across them to clip to as you traversed across. We then found another sheltered spot to wait another 15 minutes before finishing the final class 2 walk to the south side of the ridge to the summit, which we reached at 6:00am. For an hour and a half we lamented in the grandest views we could have imagined. The vibrant color, the clear views in all directions, the shadow cast by Puncak Jaya as the sun rose, a broken spectre, sunbeams, and a helicopter flyby was all seen and photographed. Despite the wind and temperatures hovering at freezing I was able to get many great photos, shown below.
Korma told us that this was his 28th time reaching the summit of Puncak Jaya, but it was the first time he saw the sunrise from the top! His usual clients will take 8-10 hours to reach the summit from base camp and I just couldn't wrap my head around how it would take that long to climb just 1,800 feet. Including the 90 minutes we spent sitting and waiting for time to pass, in addition to me purposely slowing down the pace and taking it really easy, we reached the top in 4.5 hours after leaving camp. Korma insisted we were very fast, but I guess people climbing the 7 summits are rarely experienced climbers. Typically clients will jug up the fixed ropes on jumars the ENTIRE way which blew my mind considering how straightforward the climb was. Arguably, I would be leery about guiding someone up any mountain who couldn't scramble class 2 or class 3, which gives me respect for Korma for doing it dozens of times and keeping them safe. Regardless, it was an experience we all cherished.
At 7:30am we started down, and now that it was light, I could take photos of the route. 10 minutes after leaving the summit we saw below us the helicopter deliver the clients from Timika. They walked out like little ants and even from way up above we could tell they were excited! To descend we rappelled a few of the fixed lines down the 4th class stretches and downclimbed the rest. The cable traverse on the way back was very cool to photograph.
We continued down rapping some of the fixed ropes when desired, otherwise we downclimbed the rest. Being able to see the route as we descended confirmed that I did not think any of it was 5th class. By 9am we were back at camp and lounging around, at which point the newly arrived clients chatted with us and congratulated our ascent. They quickly prepared to start climbing immediately after. They actually started up at 10am, as we ate lunch and Russel took a nap.
Since we had some spare time before having to start hiking out (our pickup at the Bali dump was scheduled for 2pm), I hiked 300 feet up to the crest of the ridge separating the Yellow Valley from the large valley just north to get an overlook view of the lakes on the other side. They were bright aqua blue and green with the sun shining down on them, a rare sight in these mountains.
Shortly after 11am we started the easy hike back to Grasberg, but with my big mining boots back on, hiking back over the ridge was really challenging! Our ride was waiting just as planned, and upon arrival, we notified the dozer operators we were about to walk through and by 3pm I was back in Tembagapura, showered, and shared a celebratory dinner with the Adventure Carstensz team, Russel and a few of my other friends and co-workers. Photos were shared and a great time was had by all. I believe we made a great impression for future trips for Puncak Jaya.
If anyone wishes for more information regarding how to climb Puncak Jaya, or assistance with logistics, feel free to send me a message! I would be glad to help.