The Shark Teeth Between You and Summiting Oceania’s Tallest Mountain

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Wally Yegiora / EyeEm
Wally Yegiora / EyeEm

There are two lists of the Seven Summits, the highest peak on every continent. The Bass List, named after Richard (Dick) Bass, which includes Kosciuszko, the highest peak in Australia, at 7,310 feet. The second list is exactly the same as the first list only it swaps the highest peak in Australia for the highest peak in Oceania, which happens to be in Indonesia. This list known as the Messner List, named after famous mountaineer, Reinhold Messner. The Messner list includes Carstensz Pyramid, and it is the only pure rock climbing within the Seven Summits.

In the excerpt below from her new memoir, To The Greatest Heights, we drop in to find Vanessa O’Brien and her teammates navigating the dense jungles of New Guinea as they struggle their way to reach the highest peak in Oceania at 16,024 feet.

Day three, the thick jungle canopy protected us somewhat from the rain as we slogged through the slippery mud puddles. I tried to land a giant step over a log and heard the crotch of my rain pants give way with a cartoonish rrrrrriiiiiiip. What could I do but carry on, mooning the people behind me? I was carrying a GoPro, but I had to delete a lot of lush green footage that was nothing but me cursing and yelling profanities at whoever was listening. Scrambling up and over a fallen tree trunk, I yanked my boot out of the mud with such force that—fwock!—I smacked my forehead against an overhanging tree trunk with a dull, wet thud. I stumbled to my knees, stars reeling in front of my eyes.

“Oh my God!” Ruth and Andrea came running.

“Shit. Who put that tree there?” I tried to play it off, laughing at first, then fighting tears of pain and embarrassment.

“Vanessa, are you okay?” My teammates peeled me off the ground and picked bits of embedded bark from my forehead.

“I’m fine. I’m good.”

I was not good. Every part of my body felt shocked and soggy and hurting. My pants were ripped, my clothes were full of mud, and my feet were wrinkled and soaked. I took some aspirin and continued on, but my foul mood and body aches had blossomed into a prize migraine. Twilight fell, and the mosquitoes came out in force, but we sprayed ourselves with DEET and trudged on by the light of our headlamps. Every once in a while, someone in the lead would call back, “Tree!” or “Rock!” and we’d focus our lamps upward in the mist to avoid hitting our heads. When we stopped for the night, Joyo nudged my elbow and said, “Less jungle tomorrow. More rocks.”

“Hooray.”

That might be the only time I’ve ever welcomed rocks.

Supper was delicious. I will say that. We had the most flavorful meat and rice. Otherwise the whole day was pretty grim. We hung up our wet clothes and tried to dry our waterlogged feet, lined up like mushrooms on a log. The next day, we crossed our first big river, walking a mossy log like a balance beam over roiling Class IV whitewater rapids. Andrea went first, a surefooted pro. I went next, taking my time, praying and breathing. Step. Add weight. Steady. Ruth followed me, but Kurt took one look at the churning water and shook his head. His feet were frostbitten, his pack was overweight, and he didn’t trust that slimy green log. He got down on his bum and shimmied all the way across, pants be damned.

We made camp in the dark, soaked to the bone, reeking of DEET, but we woke up the next morning to see that we were above the tree line. We traversed wide-open fields and felt the humidity drop. Finally, we caught a glimpse of the object of our desire, Carstensz Pyramid, off in the distance, a great limestone saw blade shrouded by fog that billowed up from the jungle. The mountain cuts into the sky with such force, you can almost hear echoes of its creation, a massive collision of the Australian and Pacific Plates. Rocky steps popped up on the trail, and we scrambled over them, hanging on to the rocks as our boots collected mud and morning dew.

Another full day of this, and we arrived at Base Camp, just over 4,000 meters, next to an aquamarine lake at the foot of Carstensz Pyramid. We could see the Grasberg mine, the largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine in the world. It was a huge source of income for Indonesia, so it was politically important. Although helicopters used to fly people to Base Camp over the mines, this was not allowed after early climbers allegedly took photos of what appeared to be a strip mining operation. In 2012, as I understood it, mine owners rarely granted anyone permission to pass by, overhead or on foot. There was a story about a guide who entered the mine zone and ended up spending two weeks locked in a shipping container. Hence the five-day journey through the jungle instead of a two-day trek through the mine.

That night, after another amazing dinner (roasted pig with sweet potatoes this time), we gathered for a gear check. We’d used no climbing gear so far. Now, out came the harnesses, ascenders, rappel devices, and carabiners for the task ahead. I reminded everyone to wear gloves. The temperature had dropped to 40 degrees. Anticipating difficult rock climbing, we talked through the route, and Kurt went over how to execute a Tyrolean traverse, when two or three pieces of rope are suspended for a half mile or so between two rocks, allowing one to clip onto the rope and dangle—face to the sky, great void at your back—as you pull yourself arm over arm to the other side.

We were up at 2AM for our summit bid. The cold felt clean and sharp, high above the stifling heat of the jungle. I never thought I’d say it, but I was thrilled at the thought of seeing snow. The climb got real almost immediately.

“Trust your feet,” said Joyo. “Keep moving upward.”

I flung myself forward and grabbed hold, heart racing, and pulled myself up the slope. The rock was almost vertical, and my hands were getting sweaty. Or maybe the rock was wet with mist. Condensation made narrow ledges glassy and slick, but I was wearing my three-season Trangos. So far, so good. Most steps and arm grips were generous, and the cool, misty environment was strangely calming. I couldn’t overthink or plan ahead. The mountain offered me only one opportunity at a time, so I took each one as it came and moved on with gratitude. Dawn rose with an eerie silver horror-flick fog, but I was focused on the black rock in front of me, focused on where I placed my feet, focused on keeping my upper body loose and light.

The top of Carstensz Pyramid is a tricky SOB; you’re up there on that narrow blade, but to get to the actual summit, you have to traverse a series of jagged fangs that appear to be connected. When you get right up to it, however, there are gaps between the teeth.

When Joyo jumped over and landed on the tip of a rock shaped like a needle, I thought, Oh, hell no! There is no way I can jump on that shark’s tooth. It wasn’t going to happen for me. I would fall short or overshoot.

You got this, Vanessa.

I summoned my inner Stretch Armstrong and extended myself across far enough to grasp Joyo’s hand. Using his knee as an extension of the rock, I was able to make it. On to the Tyrolean traverse, which wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. I clipped in and worked the ropes, hand over fist. The rope sagged in an elongated U, so gravity helped push me to the middle, but I had to work harder to pull myself uphill on the receiving end. I confused the choreography a little and reached my destination the wrong way round, so I had to turn to climb up. Soon enough there was another gap-toothed grin I was too short to jump over. I don’t remember how I made it happen, but I’m certain it wasn’t pretty.

I summited Carstensz Pyramid, Sugapa route, at 16,023 feet, at 8:30 AM on September 23, 2012.

Standing in the silence of the hard-earned summit, I looked down on the Grasberg mine, a gaping wound where a rare equatorial glacier used to be. I don’t recall what I was thinking at the time, but when I revisit the moment in my mind, I feel a sisterhood with this mountain, Puncak Jaya, her strength and her scars. I do remember how good it felt when the snow began falling. I turned my face up and stuck out my tongue to catch a few airy flakes, almost able to forget the heat and humidity below. With gravity on our side, we rappelled like freewheeling dragonflies, down from the cold fog to the cool boulders to the warm timberline and back into that impenetrable blanket of moist jungle heat.

Excerpted from To the Greatest Heights, published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Vanessa O’Brien.

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