Sunday, March 1, 2015

Climbing Carstensz

My team (Levi, Romi, Jemmy) resting at the ridge of Carstensz Pyramid (2011)

It was good that we started late, around 3 a.m. instead of 1 a.m. It was miserably cold and wet out there. Being cold was one thing, being cold and wet was another. The latter was worse!

It was still dark when we started climbing the wall. At night we only saw the immediate area that we were tackling.  If I had seen the huge, endless vertical black wall towering over us, I’d have mentally surrendered out of stress.

We slowly, cautiously and meticulously moved up the wall, taking deliberate steps or holds. The wet wall, constant rain and numbing cold made the climb harder and trickier. After hours of laborious vertical climbing, I exited the couloir, a little vertical passage or corridor in an otherwise smooth rock face. The next wall section was smoother and didn’t have many good holds. I had reached the most difficult section of Carstensz, the crux.  If the wall and our hands were dry and if we were using rock climbing shoes, the crux would’ve been manageable.  

I climbed the flat wall’s first meter or so and found it challenging. I “read the wall” and tried to find a good route while holding on for dear life, but I couldn’t figure out my next move. My legs were tiring. Desperate, I decided to rope climb by pulling the fixed rope with my wet gloves and moving up one or so meters. There was more to go, and the giant wall didn’t seem friendly. 

I realized that what I had done was stupid. One mistake and I could’ve slipped and fallen to the last anchor point, or worse, down the entire length of this thousand foot wall! I aimed to climb the Seven Summits, not die in one of them!

I looked up and calculated that I’d be out of the crux after a few more meters of hard climbing. A few more after that and I’d be at the summit ridge. 

With a failing safety device and challenging rock wall ahead of me, my next wrong move could be my last. Rope climbing was out of the question. I came up with alternatives while trying to keep my balance on tiny foot and hand holds. Levi was below me, figuring out what I was up to.

I pulled out a thin flat web loop and thought that a prussic knot was better than my failing Jumar.  I wrapped around my string around the rope three times and tied the end of my prussic knot to my second karabiner that was attached to my harness.

I pushed and pulled the knot through the rope to remove small particles of ice and get a good grip. I moved the knot to a maximum distance forward, prayed, then resumed climbing upwards. I relaxed my weight on the rope. The knot locked and held!  Yes!

This technique was safer than my Jumar. I finished the section with that prussic knot in place until I reached the top of the summit ridge.

Soon Levi followed and reached the top of the ridge. He solved the crux puzzle challenge on the way up, but it was easier for him. We rested before resuming the walk to the exposed ridge.  Visibility was a few meters. I could see the silhouettes of the next higher sections of the ridge.

Along this route, we had to pass through three gaps. The ridge wasn’t a continuous walk the way some gums had very long sharp teeth. Some sections had a missing tooth. Managing a gap was something I’d not done in my life. It reminded me of images that I saw in climbing magazines but never seen for real or tackled first hand. There was a 15-ft gap and in between and a little low was a small protrusion of rock wide enough to rest your butt on. At about 14,000 ft of altitude, there was an abyss below.

I took an attitude of bahala na while executing the jump. I had to trust that those remaining ropes were still okay. I clipped on to one, then jumped towards the small rock. The timing was right, the rappel device locked so I wouldn’t go over the small life-saving rock. This small rock protrusion was barely four square feet of semi-flat resting space! My precarious landing was spot on. I took a good breath, momentarily reflected on my life, on my sins and my possible spiritual destination, then jumped again, trying to catch a good hold of the other side of the ridge, while pushing up and locking my Jumar ascender to prevent a fall. I felt like the stunt double of Sylvester Stallone in his movie Cliffhanger.
The longest gap was still to come at 50 feet. Read again: 50 freakin’ feet!  That was way too wide. Over the years, climbers and operators in Carstensz realized that it was better to put cables and ropes to simplify the traverse instead of rappelling down and climbing up the other side of the gap.
When we got there, there were five inches of solid ice dangling on all the ropes and the main metal cable. Jemmy almost aborted our climb. In his eight years of guiding, he hadn’t seen ice that thick on the ropes. At first I didn’t understand when he said, “Going back.” I thought he meant that we had to come down after the summit. He considered going down from that point. I might have pushed him over the cliff if the message was clearer.   
He prepared for a traverse, clipping his cow tails or safety line with karabiners into the parallel ropes. Then he clipped his harness-attached pulley on the main metal cable. He seemed to hesitate. Maybe he was saying a prayer. He suddenly jumped and started his traverse. He violently pulled his cow tails to remove all the dangling ice. He was partially successful. When he got to the third of the section, he stopped, hooked his arm on one rope to rest and started panting hard. I thought it was a funny scene, not realizing that what he had done was hard. Levi and I observed, partly awed, partly anxious. We captured Jemmy’s moment on video. Levi shouted, “Go, Jemmy, kaya mo yan!” 
I couldn’t recall how much time Jemmy took to cross. It was at least 15-20minutes. I had done this type of traverse, normally called Tyrolean, many times in local adventure racing and knew that I could cover a 50-ft gap in maybe a minute. Two minutes at most. It worried me to see a strong guide suffering in this traverse and taking a longer time to do it.
My turn came. My technique to avoid fear of heights was to not to look down and focus on the rope works. I’d have time to look down after! The going was super tough. The remaining few inches of ice on the ropes prevented me from hauling myself properly. I couldn’t remember that a Tyrolean Traverse was like an injured monkey’s crawl. It was a slow rope crawl with the added challenge of iced ropes as stoppers. Like Jemmy, I rested by hooking my arm on safety ropes so I could somehow pull myself into upright position, except that I rested too frequently. Rope traversing upside down with a pack, with ice stoppers on your supposedly smooth rope, at an altitude of 14,000 ft wasn’t easy as I thought.
Finally, I reached the end of the gap, panting like hell. I thought, “Wow! I didn’t die!”  Any rope traverse that I had ever done in my life paled in comparison with what I just did!

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