Slogging through the jungles and muddy bogs of Papua New Guinea, one of seven mountaineers turned to the others and summed up just how far they were from civilization.
“He said, ‘The people on the International Space Station are closer to medical care than we are,’ ” said Mark Ursino, a 59-year-old climber from Issaquah. “He was joking, but it’s actually true.”
The remoteness of their adventure, of course, was a large part of why they were making the trip. It was as much a part of the allure of the trip as the expedition’s ultimate goal: the summit of 16,024-foot Carstensz Pyramid.
“It was one of the best overall adventures I’ve ever been on,” said Jason Edwards, a Tacoma resident who led the trip for Ashford-based International Mountain Guides. “It’s so remote, one of the farthest places in the world you can possibly go.”
Edwards has climbed many of the highest mountains in the world, including the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent.
In 2002, Edwards became the 66th person to climb the original version of the Seven Summits. But he’d long wanted to climb Carstensz to complete the second version.
The two versions are differentiated by a little gerrymandering and a lot more challenge.
The original version calls for climbers to summit Mount Kosciusko, the 7,310-foot high point of Australia, which requires little more than an afternoon hike.
The second version defines the seventh continent as Oceania – Australia, Indonesia and other surrounding islands – and brings in the bigger challenge of Carstensz.
When Edwards reached the summit he became the 117th person to complete both versions, said Harry Kikstra, director of 7summits.com in The Netherlands.
Political unrest has frequently made it difficult to get permission to climb Carstensz, said Edwards. The 2011 trip was IMG’s first expedition to Carstensz in five years.
Not only is Carstensz significantly more challenging than Kosciusko, it might be the most significant climbing feat in the world that requires rubber boots.
“This was definitely the longest I’d ever spent in Wellingtons,” said Ursino, who has climbed all of the Seven Summits except Mount Everest. “... Most of the places I’ve trekked and climbed around the world have established routes. This was much more rugged and more difficult.”
Just reaching the base of the mountain requires trudging 40 miles through jungle, moorlands and bogs. It’s little wonder that most Carstensz climbers take a helicopter to base camp rather than make the slog.
But in July, Edwards’ group had no such option because the local helicopter company couldn’t provide them service.
In fact, IMG co-director Eric Simonson says helicopter service for climbers has been notoriously unreliable for years. He’s heard of other guide services getting their clients all the way to Papua New Guinea only to have to come home without climbing the mountain because the helicopters never showed up.
There are four ways to reach Carstensz: helicopter, two trekking routes or by cableway tram from the mining community on the south side of the mountain.
With the helicopters out and the mine rarely welcoming climbers (Simonson was one of the few invited to go this way in 2001), IMG was left with only one option.
Ursino, 59, was a little hesitant at first when he learned they’d be trekking instead of flying because it meant adding a week to the trip and would require the group to be gone July 2-24.
But after making the trek, the participants realized it made the trip even more memorable, and IMG is considering making the trek standard for future expeditions.
The team rendezvoused in Jakarta, Indonesia, and then flew to Nabire, where they took a twin-engine flight to Ilaga. There they met government officials and hired porters for the expedition.
The 40-mile trek to base camp took five days and undulated between 11,800 and 12,700 feet above sea level. Edwards said in some places the moss was five feet deep.
“It was like stepping on a big sponge,” he said. “It wasn’t uncommon for us to hike for hours with water in our boots.”
In some places, the climbers and porters would wade through deep swamps, soaking their feet.
“We put on wet socks pretty much every day because we knew we were going to get wet anyway,” Edwards said.
Once the team arrived at base camp, it prepared for the 13-hour summit climb.
“In some respects it was easier than some days of the trek,” Edwards said.
The climb is on limestone eroded by rain. Simonson compared the rock to coral and said traction was excellent. But the rough rock also took its toll on other gear. When Simonson climbed in 2001, he wore through a pair of leather gloves in one day.
Edwards said one of the highlights of the climb was a traverse over a 50-foot gap.
To cross, the climbers had to clip into a rope strung tight across the gap, then pull themselves across hand-over-hand with a 3,000-foot drop below them.
All six of Edwards’ clients successfully reached the summit, and the next day they started the long trek home.
“The summit was almost anticlimactic in terms of effort,” Ursino said. “It was different because I’m more used to glaciated peaks and this was rock. It was a great climb, but the real efforting happened on the trek.”
Still, standing on top of Carstensz, Edwards added another accomplishment to his already long climbing résumé.
Kikstra maintains what are widely considered the definitive Seven Summit lists and even though his website, 7summits.com, hasn’t been updated in more than a year, he is still tracking those who climb both versions. By his calculations, Edwards is the 117th person to climb all eight of the Seven Summits.
IMG plans to lead another group to Carstensz next year, and Simonson said he’ll likely ask Edwards to lead the trip again. Edwards, who has climbed four of the Seven Summits twice, says he’d like to do the trip again.
“It wasn’t the equivalent of Mount Everest, but with the trek it was maybe equivalent to McKinley (the Alaskan peak that ranks as North America’s highest) or Aconcagua (South America’s highest peak),” Edwards said. “It was an excellent trip.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure