High mountain, high stakes

Yesterday I read a very interesting story of a great mountain climber, Kevin Flynn in MPNnow. He had a  unique experience of pleasure of climbing Carstensz Pyramid, Oceania’s highest peak. He had also found himself caught in a violent conflict between native Papuans, Indonesian police squads and the largest gold mine in the world, Freeport.

The story should be read by all Papuan to realise that Kevin can contribute a positive impact in the development of Papua. Not only about the destruction of our mother forest, Kevin can speak to the world about the beauty of our land. Kevin is not a provocateur like many Western visitor in Papua, he is a truly nature lover.

Here is his experience by By Kris Dreessen, staff writer Daily Messenger
Sat May 10, 2008, 06:37 PM EDT

When the angry tribesmen surrounded them and took their duffle bags, Kevin Flynn and his fellow climbers moved to the other end of the runway. They wanted to keep close to the helicopter that was going to fly them away.

He watched as the angry mob surrounded his guide, shouting and pointing fingers. When the guide got shoved, Kevin was sure the tinder box of emotions would blow up. In the tiny mountain village, no one would know if they went missing into the wilds of West Papua.

Photo by Kevin Flynn
Kevin Flynn’s crew makes its way along the Knife’s Edge Ridge on Carstensz Pyramid, so named because it’s so narrow you can straddle either side of the mountain.

“We were freaking,” he says. “We were pretty scared.”

A mountain climber from Fairport, Kevin had just had the unique pleasure of climbing Carstensz Pyramid, Oceania’s highest peak, and now found himself caught in a violent conflict between native Papuans, Indonesian police squads and the largest gold mine in the world. It’s a mess that involves indigenous land rights, a freedom movement, payoffs, massive pollution and murders.

Map of Carstensz, Papua

“It’s like the wild, wild west,” says Kevin. “People can disappear and never be heard from again. It’s just sort of how things go.”

Flying over the mine is overwhelming, says Kevin. Construction vehicles are dwarfed to the size of ants by the enormity of the cliffs and the stretch and depth of the pit.

According to The New York Times – one of the many publications that has featured stories about the conflict – a soot-colored bruise of almost one billion tons of mine waste has been dumped directly into a jungle river of one of the world’s last untouched landscapes – and the tribes’ land. When done, the American Freeport-McMoRan company will generate more than twice as much earth as was excavated to build the Panama Canal. Payouts to military officers raise the question of bribes – and unsolved murders add to the tense mix in the region, which is controlled by Indonesia.

The area is so remote most tribes still wear penis gourds. They don’t have access to resources of their homeland; the Jakarta government sold the rights to the mine. Tribes feel bamboozled. There’s a free Papua movement.

Flare-ups of violence close the Carstensz Pyramid to climbers because its 16,032-foot summit is right by the mine. When it is open, elite climbers who hope to take a crack at it must wrestle a mountain of red tape and permits.

When it finally reopened, Kevin wanted to go. He wanted the adventure, and he says, they were told it was relatively secure.

Kevin went with four of his close climbing buddies, last summer. Together they’ve stood on the tallest peaks on earth. Kevin is among only 170 or so people to climb the Seven Summits – the tallest mountains on each continent. Only about 60 of them have made it to the top of Carstensz Pyramid, which is considered to be the eighth summit.

He had to be evacuated off Mt. Everest and braved endless ice at 40 below in Antarctica. West Papua was an adventure with different peril. At Kevin’s welcome to Indonesia, in fact, a customs official in Jakarta thumbed through his passport and told him there was no room for visa stamps, wink wink, and reminded him how his is a poor country. Kevin unfolded $15 and was waved through.

“Welcome to Indonesia, as I bribe my way into the country,” Kevin laughs.

Kevin’s team flew to the island of New Guinea. There they rented a helicopter to the mountain village of Enarotali. Climbers used to trek for several days to Carstensz base camp, but it’s too dangerous. They had their first run-in there, before they could even take the chopper to base camp at 13,000 feet.

A tribal leader confronted the group, Kevin says, associating them with Freeport because they were westerners. After some heated exchange and precarious moments, Nova, their in-country guide, resolved it. It was a sign of problems to come.

The helicopter ride over the mine to base camp was overwhelming.

“You are to hell and gone. It’s like the land that time forgot,” says Kevin. “And then you fly over the crater, where they’ve raped the land. It is huge. It’s freaking humongous … It’s an extreme environmental rights disaster of just monumental proportion, and it’s just such a remote part of the world that it’s just crazy.”

They pitched their tents at base camp next to a glacial lake, surrounded by the jagged, rocky, snow-covered peaks. From there, it was a 3,000-foot climb to the summit, done in a day. They used fixed rope lines embedded in the rock. They hooked themselves to the rope with carabiners, in case they fell. Kevin also used an ascender, a piece of equipment that allows him to inch forward but can’t slip back.

At the Knife’s Edge Ridge, they straddled both sides of the mountain, it’s so narrow. He also had to navigate a Tyrolian traverse – the kind of move you see in those heart-stopping adventure flicks.

An anchor rope connected rock on either end of a 50-foot gap. The only way across? Slide, hooked to the line with a harness. The drop was 70 feet to a sharp ridge, then more than a thousand feet of rock. Kevin’s buddies talked him through.

“I felt complete trust (in the gear and the climbers),” says Kevin, “but it definitely had my full attention.”

They had left at 5 a.m. and after four hours, they reached the summit in a mist, walking in twos, their arms raised to the sky. Kevin shot video of the finale. “Wooooh!” they shouted at the top.

They took a keepsake photo beside a plaque honoring missing climbers.

“We spent a solid hour (on the summit),” Kevin says, “and told stories and slapped each other on the back. It was a nice exclamation point to the Seven Summits.”
They rappelled down. After the chopper flew them out and made a pit stop in Enarotali, flames of conflict fanned much too close.

Tribe members came to the airport; the leader said they were Americans and Freeport was taking advantage of them. They demanded compensation.

“All of a sudden, the crowds gathered,” Kevin remembers, surrounding their guide, shouting that this is their land. “They’re yelling and it’s just the five of us.”

The crowd of 50 to 70 men took their gear duffles and moved them out of reach, on the other end of the strip. They shoved Nova, who shouted for Kevin and the climbers to get in the chopper. They left him, and their gear, as they evacuated.

Some guys grabbed rocks and ran alongside the helicopter.

“We were so happy to be swooped away,” Kevin says. “… It was a tinder box. I think if one dude had thrown a rock, it would have gone off.”

They did reunite with Nova and their gear about 12 hours later.

Overall, Carstensz Pyramid was real adventure travel, says Kevin, from eating fish with their hands and seeing remote tribes and the conflict in the village. And it’s a shame, he says, that everything is so volatile because of the mine. Nova will no longer ferry climbers into Enarotali. Now even that has become too dangerous.

Kevin says many of the people he encountered were warm, gracious and it was a great experience. But the experience also gave him an honest look into a conflict few others ever see.

“I’m really, really glad I went,” he says. “But I’m not sure I would go again knowing what I know now.”

One Response to High mountain, high stakes

  1. Kris says:

    I was pleased to share Kevin’s story — and the battle that is ongoing and difficult in West Papua — to readers, in our community and far and wide, including here. Few people know about West Papua and the chlallenges native people face there. His story can lend to understanding.

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