RMI Guide Alex Van Steen recently presented at Sustainable Summits: The International Mountain Conference on Environmental Practices, hosted by the American Alpine Club in Golden, CO. Alex was invited to discuss RMI’s partner-building efforts on our Carstensz Pyramid Expedition. Carstensz Pyramid, a steep limestone peak located on the island of New Guinea and one of the world’s Seven Summits, is one of the least accessible peaks of the Seven Summits and presents a mix of environmental, cultural, and outfitting challenges. On major expeditions the success and overall experience of the adventure depends largely on the close ties of the team, including with local partners. RMI is very active in creating close-knit relationships with our local partners. To that end, Carstensz also best exemplifies RMI’s efforts in creating long-term and sustainable partnerships in leading our adventures and in our dedication to Responsible Climbing.
At the Sustainable Summits Conference, Alex introduced the concept of “Giving Relationship” in developing partnerships to the gathering of land managers, climbers, planners and scientists representing the world’s mountainous regions.
“The model that we propose is the model that RMI uses all over the world. The difference here is that Papua is so challenging on so many fronts and the culture is so significantly different than anything we’ve experienced anywhere else in the world. Our model is a social ethic, a little bit like “Leave no trace,” the environmental ethic, or “Do no harm,” the medical ethic, but focused in a positive manner: “Giving Relationship” is our social ethic,” explained Alex.
To best explain the concept of “Giving Relationship,” Alex shared several stories from his time in Papua:
“The essential question when I was speaking with [local Papuans] was, “If you want a partnership, what does partnership look like for you? What do you want?”
“Moses Sondagau works with the local regency government. He and I walked together from one village, Sugapa, to another, Hitadipa, which was about four hours, and we had a significant time to chat. What I learned was that Moses had worked with tour operators for the past decade or so as a porter, and the abuses that he saw toward the porters spurred him to work for the government on behalf of his people.
“Moses now ensures that commercial operators treat their porters well and pay their porters as promised. What he told me was only 75% of the porters had been paid as promised. His task is not an easy one because he is effectively policing both foreign operators as well as the Indonesian operators. That said, he was shocked because I spent so much time chit-chatting with him on the way to Hitadipa. I asked him about his family, I showed him pictures of my own family, and I engaged in what I consider just standard kindnesses that you would show to anybody who you were walking a few hours with, but he told me that no foreigner had ever expressed so much interest in him as a person as I did that day. This really rather shocked me. I told him, “Moses, you are an ‘usua me,’ you are a good man, you’re working on behalf of your people and you’re doing a hard job.” He sincerely appreciated that.
“In this arena of going into schools and sports clinics and churches, I was invited and took the opportunity to speak at two church services, I assisted with an inter-faith Muslim/Christian soccer camp, and I spoke in two high school classrooms at an international school. One of my most intense experiences came in this arena.
“We’d been hiking through the jungle all day and the rain was just incessantly pouring on us. We were coming into a village called Gamagae and all of a sudden I hear all these men yelling. As I am walking into town I see all these people running toward me and one of them was highly agitated, really waving his arms and yelling loudly. This is how I was introduced to Atan Topani.
“I know a bit about Moni culture - I know that they speak loudly; I know that their language is clipped; I know that they don’t smile the same way that we smile, at least not right off the bat – so I was aware of that – but I also didn’t see any or didn’t hear any of the standard language that let me know that they were welcoming me. They were yelling but I wasn’t hearing ‘amakanea,’ ‘amakanenga,’ some of the welcoming phrases that I normally hear.
“Atan was really upset because the last tourist group to come through had come into his church and made a mess. They cooked in his church and left garbage in his church and then left the village. Understandably, he was upset. He wants tourists. He really wants tourists. But he needs tourists to behave considerately. Atan and I spent about two hours doing what’s called “muna muna” - “men’s talk.” Together we developed the “Sugapa Route Visitor Protocols” for travelers: what to do or what not to do when you visit these villages.
“Here again, the essential question was, ‘Atan, if you want a partnership, what does a partnership look like?’ And Atan says, ‘I want visitors, and they are welcome to use our church as shelter, but I want them to be considerate of my community.’ When I came home, I translated this document into Bahasa Indonesian, Dutch, German, Spanish, Japanese and Russian, and now they are ready to be posted in different villages along the Sugapa route.”
Part of a “Giving Relationship” entails sitting down on equal terms and discussing the desires and needs of both parties. A simple concept, yet not always followed in many outfitting practices.
“In my most recent trip, I spent just under a month and visited about ten communities, going village-to-village and connecting with random individuals.
“One of the other cultural differences that really was striking to me was that even if you enjoy conversation or you consider yourself a patient person, you have nothing on the Moni. The Moni absolutely love to converse and converse. I found that I had to sit for hours and hours and converse, which was really challenging for me. When I would converse with the people, when I would sit in their huts and at their tables and tell them that I was traveling through the land - rather than helicoptering - to meet the people whose lands I wanted to travel with my customers, they were all incredibly receptive. As a matter of fact, one gentleman – said, ‘This is good talk. This is good talk.’ I won’t ever forget that because it means so much for the Moni to say that.”
A "Giving Relationship" goes beyond being empathetic and actively listening. It also means contributing the skills and experiences we have to our partners in order to prepare them for future collaborations. During his recent visit to Papua, Alex led a training seminar for local porters to teach the practices and progressions of a climbing expedition.
“I had arranged with our Moni partner for various Moni villages to come together – or the men in those villages to come together – in one place and participate in a seminar where we could teach them how to work with tourists. The training seminar was a raging success. We discussed what was working well in other areas where we operate, like our Peru and our Nepal treks, what wasn’t working well, such as porters being mistreated, which we hear a lot about, and what we might need to change, for example, there is no plan at all for human waste in Papua. We discussed how to keep the porters healthy and safe along the trek and in the mountains, we practiced setting up tents, and we concluded by awarding certificates of accomplishment to the porters who participated in the training so that they could show evidence of learning to whatever tour operator might want to hire them; not just our guides, not just us.
“It is difficult to know if this is accurate or not, to be quite honest, but I was told that this was the very first time that a foreigner ever hosted a seminar for indigenous Papuan people; this is the very first time that an indigenous Papuan man was the tour operator rather than an Indonesian or a foreigner. Thirty-five men from varying villages, some were Moni, some were of the Dani tribe, received certificates.”
“Giving Relationship” is far more than a simple catch phrase, it’s a long and complicated process but one that we feel is the only legitimate way to pursue a sustainable partnership.
“As a biased-toward-action American, I wanted to do more. We all do; we want to do it all. But the truth is that relationship building is an incredibly slow and incredibly lengthy process…I don’t immediately even expect others to replicate the couple of years and all the trips of relationship building that I’ve done there, especially not if you’re only going there for a one or two week adventure and maybe once in your life. But in visiting anywhere even once, we can know so much more about this place than simply, ‘I need rubber boots because there’s a lot of mud!’ We can know a lot more than that.
“We believe that this social ethic of “Giving Relationship” does equal access in Papua, not just for the sake of access, but also for the sake of the people and the land there,” explains Alex.
In simple terms, this type of relationship building and long term approach to our partnerships and our climbing objectives is the right thing to do.
See the full presentation here…
Alex Van Steen is a Supervisor at RMI with over 240 ascents of Mt. Rainier by way of more than 20 routes. Since 2012, Alex has led RMI’s effort to create a sustainable tourism industry and developed RMI’s position as the only western commercial guide service to partner with an indigenous Papuan outfitter. He has taken his training and education to Papua and spent time with local community leaders building relationships as well as training and educating porters to work with expeditions. Additionally, Alex has spent more than a decade involving himself in community outreach and education. Locally, he works extensively with at-risk youth as a mentor, pastor, and guardian.
Yesterday, RMI Guide Alex Van Steen joined a host of other local professionals at Columbia Crest STEM School’s First Annual STEM Career Fair. The presenters who were invited to speak tied their professions directly into the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics and encouraged the approximately 125 first through sixth grade students to see the connection between what students were learning in the classroom and what knowledge and skills professionals required in their careers.
The presenters included geologists, meteorologists, naturalists, biologists, veterinarians, computer programmers, science librarians and a variety of other environmental educators. While Alex tied his roles in environmental management, human resources management, and job place safety to the STEM program, the truly exciting part for the students came when they had the opportunity to put hands on all the climbing and mountaineering gear used for the mountain climbing demonstration. Students crawled around in tents and into -30 sleeping bags, saw short demonstrations of how camming units and pitons (yes, pitons!) worked, and some students even donned an 8,000 meter down suit. Big smiles, lots of questions and fun learning!
Long-time RMI Guide, Alex Van Steen, visited a local second grade classroom at Columbia Crest STEM School as part of RMI’s Community Outreach program. STEM schools, a relatively new concept in Washington State, have a distinct emphasis on hands-on learning and the integration of science, technology, engineering and math into student lessons. RMI has partnered with Columbia Crest STEM to bring our mountaineering experiences right into the classroom. With Alex, the second graders studied the essential question, “What causes a volcano to erupt?” Students thoroughly enjoyed the lesson and learned ways to explain and create their own shield, composite, cinder cone and caldera volcanoes!
RMI Guide Alex Van Steen
In February 2013, I spent several weeks in West Papua with the express intention of connecting with villagers who live along the trek followed by our Carstensz Pyramid climbing programs. I traveled with two translators - one a long-time friend who grew up in West Papua and the other a member of the Moni tribe, a man who truly has a good heart for his people.
I visited about ten villages and had numerous trailside chats. I spent many hours chatting (as well as eating, and playing soccer & table tennis!) and had opportunities to share our vision with various folks: government officials, village elders, tribal chiefs, pastors and school teachers.
The constant thread throughout the conversations involved villagers expressing frustration with tourists who came to “take photographs” and “take summits” but who did not (as it was described to me) “give relationship.” It is understandable that folks were upset when they weren’t paid as promised by unscrupulous outfitters or when they felt unsafe being asked to porter into the high country (the tribal peoples have not traditionally traveled above the jungles, see story below), but it truly resonated with me that when they felt most disrespected was when they were treated as if they were nothing more than pack animals. Quite frankly, they explained, why should they leave their tribal community and upset their daily lives only to be mistreated or underpaid?
The Moni name for Carstensz is Mbai Ngela. It means "Forbidden Egg." The story is that in years gone by when the mountain was snow covered, it resembled an egg, and the fore-fathers forbade their people from going there because it was the hunting grounds of evil spirits and those spirits always killed those who ventured there. Even today, villagers have a very difficult time understanding the science of hypothermia and often will point to and tell of places along the way where the spirits have killed a poor wayfarer!
I knew that in order to eat this elephant, I would need to take it one bite at a time, so I started with small bites of “giving relationship.” I found that when I played soccer (which I am convinced is the lingua franca of relationship) with the local men and boys on village airstrips, that we had laughs to share (mostly at me tripping on the uneven surface!); when I offered to show folks photos of my family, they showed me their village (!); and for all my “otherness” (some folks, I was told, had never seen white-skinned people), I was never denied the hospitality of a meal or a hut as respite from the rain.
Another small bite was the creation of the protocols (below) to be posted in a church along our route. The pastor in this village of twenty people, a good man named Atan, had initially wanted to run me off. I agreed to keep walking, but in deepening the conversation as to why, I learned that an earlier group of tourists had – in his word – “desecrated” the church by leaving garbage there. I whole-heartedly agreed that such practices were unacceptable, and offered to create protocols to instruct tourists how to behave. Through my translators I was able to build a simple list of what it would take for his village to feel respected. They fully wanted tourists to stop for the night but they also needed tourists to respect that privilege.
As I look forward to my next trip, I hope to take a few more bites of the elephant!
THE SUGAPA ROUTE VISITOR PROTOCOLS
This church serves an important role in the community. Guests are welcomed to find refuge here and are asked respect the following requests. This will help ensure use of the building for future travelers.
• Please stay off of the raised area which surrounds the altar. This area is for local religious personnel only and it is considered offensive if others trespass there.
• Please keep hot water, stoves & cookware out of the building. This helps keep the area clean.
• Please hang a trash bag just outside the building to collect your garbage. Villagers will burn your trash for you.
• Because of the importance of Sunday worship, travelers should not expect access to the building on Saturday evenings or Sundays.
• Please do not use the church grounds or property for toilet needs. Ask the Pastor of the church where it is appropriate to wash and use the bathroom.
• Please offer a donation for your use of the church. This is an appropriate and considerate way of expressing thanks.
Download a multi-lingual copy of the Sugapa Route Visitor Protocols here.
Hi Alex, Glad to see you are still at it and your spine is still in good enough
shape to climb the big ones! Not sure if you remember me, but I was your
chiropractor in Federal Way, and we ran into each other on Rainier in ‘95.
Hope all is well with you and yours. Drop me an e-mail if you have a chance.
In every part of the world where we travel, some RMI individual is tasked with developing & maintaining the quality program presented on the web. Whatever their role, that individual typically has a personal attachment, investment and history with the lands, mountains or peoples visited during the program. Their effort includes much more than simply creating an appealing itinerary and a glitzy web presence. The behind-the-scenes work includes addressing RMI’s environmental responsibilities, social responsibilities, and the development of solid logistical support, from understanding local customs to establishing a safety net. Most importantly, this effort involves building relationships with the local community, helping to ensure that we operate as partners wherever we travel with whomever we work. For Carstensz Pyramid in Papua, New Guinea, I get to be that individual.
The description of our program strikingly claims that we are the only outfit in the Western Hemisphere to partner exclusively with indigenous Papuans. Does it make you wonder how that came to pass?
Papua’s somewhat notorious reputation extends beyond the daily rain, and slick mud and logs of the jungle trek, and beyond the remote nature, sharp rock, and high altitude of the actual climb. And that’s already a lot! Truthfully, for those who research their objectives carefully, Papua’s reputation extends even beyond the uncertainty and flexibility required to visit an area where political tensions and security concerns exists. Shouldn’t you choose your outfitter most carefully?
In February I spent approximately three weeks in New Guinea’s “interior” with the intention not just to climb Carstensz Pyramid again, having guided a recent trip, but, as I enjoy saying, “I went to meet people.” Most of my time was spent among the Moni and Dani tribes of the highlands, but I also had the opportunity to shake hands with Indonesian government officials, Papuan regency representatives, folks with the Freeport mine, school teachers, pastors and missionaries, both Indonesian and expat, village elders, and even folks who were likely associated with the freedom movement (though that was difficult to tell because it seemed like politics was on everyone’s lips.)
I met a lot of people, explained what I was up to, and had many discussions with many people (with both tribal and Bahasa Indonesia translators helping me). Some folks expressed utter amazement that I was walking through their lands. This is predominantly because I was off the beaten path, i.e., not on the traditional, historical routes which have seen a good bit of use (and abuse). My presence also elicited appreciation (something I didn’t necessarily expect) because I was choosing to walk through the land rather than helicopter over it. Very practically speaking, people explained, flying over their lands excludes them from the benefits tourism can bring. I was already convinced that the model for sustainable tourism needed to include the indigenous peoples who inhabited the lands we wish to travel though en route to Carstensz, and spending all these weeks on the ground emphasized my sense for following socially responsible practices.
RMI's commitment to Responsible Climbing pursues environmentally and socially responsible practices. This is simple enough to say, but a significant investment of time, energy & money is required to make good on those words. I have been told by many of the people with whom I connected in Papua, that my “relationship building” excursion (which included porter and trekking guide training, as well as discussions regarding tourist behaviors and expectations for each of the villages along the trek) was the first of its kind by a Western outfitter.
Sadly, the people of Papua (whether indigenous or Indonesian) have become accustomed to transactions which center solely around the exchange of money. I would suggest that for a tribal culture, where community is highly valued, to encounter trekkers & climbers with expectations to “take” home interesting stories, photographs and a summit, who repeatedly fail to “give” relationships, virtually guarantees a poor experience for both sides. I’m not trying to paint too broad of a picture because the truth is that each individual Papuan also wants what is best for his/her own person, family or tribe, just as we do in the West. I do, however, suggest that our social responsibility must encompass more than just paying porters well for work done well. Failure to build strong relationships will lead further down the present path experienced by many Western outfitters: where porters feel poorly treated and are sometimes not paid, and where tourists feel exploited and are sometimes extorted. Looking further down that path, do you wonder what it might look like? It looks just like the tensions which closed the route through Beoga years ago after hostages were taken. It looks just like the tensions which are currently threatening the Illaga route following a hostage/extortion situation in July 2012, or the abandonment and subsequent death of a sick Danish climber by a highly experienced outfitter. It looks just like an increasing number of operators who no longer have the option to peaceably travel through tribal lands and now offer helicopter transit up and over “tribal tensions.” And honestly, with some of the political and societal tensions which exist, unless outfitters work to develop relationships which are in line with indigenous tribal cultures, tourists will have no options other than to hire armed police or military to escort them through tribal lands. Wouldn’t it be more culturally and socially responsible to build relationships with the native peoples in which both parties collaborated to build a sustainable model of tourism?
I encourage you to follow my blog at http://climbcarstensz.wordpress.com as I continue to share stories of what I have learned and of what we seek to build over time.
Enjoyed this post. One of the primary reasons I like to climb is the opportunity to explore and understand other cultures. Reaching a summit is obviously awesome. However everything that leads up to a summit push, as well as after, is really what it’s all about. For me anyway, ‘tagging summits’ (not that I’ve tagged that many) is just as much about learning about other cultures as it is reaching the summit.
The final RMI EXPEDITIONS climb of our North Cascade’s season took place under excellent weather & high spirits. The three of us (RMI Guides Jake Beren and Alex Van Steen, with climber Jim Lumberg) enjoyed late season conditions. The chimneys, gullies and summit pyramid didn’t have an ounce of snow in them, making for absolutely fantastic & fun rock scrambling & climbing. On summit morning, we postponed our bid by an hour or two as rain threatened, but by the time we took off the skies were clearing and we enjoyed an improving day and stellar climbing.
RMI Guide Alex Van Steen
As we descended the path leading to the Moni tribal village Ugimba, two men - wearing only traditional kotekas (penis gourds) and tribal markings and wielding large bow and arrow sets - stepped out of the bush and onto the path, raising their weapons toward us as they did so. Our hearts stopped, but just for a breath. A moment later two pairs of young women also stepped into our path. Equally modestly dressed in grass skirts and colorful jog bras – I guess that’s what I should call their tops – also with a variety of facial paintings and tribal markings, the women began a series of repetitive calls that sounded very much like an old style emergency alert siren. The sound that issued from them rang amazingly loud and clear and others, further toward the village, responded in kind, setting up a sort of path of sonic bread crumbs for us to follow. We were being treated to an entirely genuine and traditional village welcome ceremony, complete with dance and song.
The welcome committee, now growing rapidly as additional warriors, women and children joined in, guided us patiently toward Ugimba. Running ahead about fifty feet, then stopping to dance as we caught up, and all the while calling out, the six of us were soon engulfed in a small sea of Moni tribes-peoples. In the distance, even from entirely across the valley and opening meadows, we could see all eyes on us.
I asked Sara, one of the two teens on our trip - and a stalwart kid at that! - if she would like to lead. I was afraid that perhaps she was not able to see some of the traditional welcome ceremony as I was walking in front and blocking her view. I wanted for her to experience this as fully as possible since this was by far a most unexpected and exceptional experience. She responded, a bit reservedly, “Oh, I’m experiencing this!” And we were.
What a fantastic climax to our day of trekking through the heat, humidity and wetness of the jungle. We knew we had a lot to look forward to on this trip as we were engaged on an excellent adventure via a route that has seen few western travelers, with a two-fold goal: first, safely reach and return from the summit of Carstensz Pyramid and second, build relationships with indigenous people which would respectfully balance our visit with their way of life. This excursion represented our inaugural effort and we were full of hope that we might attain our goals.
The village of Ugimba lies in the heart of Moni land in Papua, deep in the jungles of New Guinea. It is the deepest of the tribal villages; only immensely dense jungle and the high marshes and limestone plateau’s of the Sudirman mountain range lie further afield. We would travel this road less traveled en route to Carstensz Pyramid, the jutting high point of the Australasian continental mass (or the high point of Oceania as some call it.)
Six days of arduous trekking eventually led us to our Carstensz Base Camp at 13,900 feet alongside a pair of sky blue alpine lakes known as the Peacock Pools. Rising all around and above camp, amazing rock ridges and towers fought for our attention. If this were the U.S. Rockies or Cascades, the place would be inundated with routes. Here, however, only the most significant line of weakness on the highest peak – the original route – remained the solitary choice for climbers. (Sadly, we knew others had travelled here as plenty of garbage had been left strewn about Base Camp. We have since begun an initiative to help clean this beautiful area, and look forward to working cooperatively with locals and visiting climbers in the future.)
The climbing of Carstensz Pyramid is rather spectacular, with rock that just won’t let you go, even when it runs with rain water (and it rains every day.) The route initially climbs a series of 4th and low 5th class rock gullies before traversing along the narrow summit ridge and over several small notches, toward the summit. The climbing involves mostly scrambling, with dramatic exposure and a few short sections of mid 5th class climbing. Fixed lines and a Tyrolean traverse bypass many of the difficulties. Even with rain, fog and a bit of snowfall, and the altitude, it remains an imminently do-able adventure.
After a long day of effort, two of us - including 17-year old Sara - reached the summit, and all of us returned tired but unscathed. Still some distance from the summit, with the lateness of hour and deteriorating weather on our shoulders, Tuck and I, as guides, made the choice to split the team: Sara and I headed for the summit, with the expectation that we would catch the remainder of the team just before the Tyrolean, and rejoin to complete the descent. Even with more than two hundred high altitude peaks between the two of us, guiding thousands of climbers on hundreds and hundreds of climbs, decisions like this remind us that professional mountain guiding is a most serious profession.
Sara’s dad, Bill (who climbed phenomenally well), and I plan to return to Ugimba in the following six months to help the Ugimba Moni explore options for healthy community development. Bill and I were both strongly and positively impacted by the Ugimba people who helped make this adventure a reality for our team. As we continue to support the development of local enterprise and promote the rights of indigenous peoples both to develop tourism and maintain their traditional lifestyles and customs, we invite you to follow us. I will be posting monthly at http://climbcarstensz.wordpress.com.
RMI Guide Alex Van Steen
We have just finished a fun dinner after returning to Timika late this afternoon. Admittedly though, the dinner, as delicious as it was, paled in comparison to a shower after all these days in the humid & muddy jungle!
This trip has been demanding in so many ways that the whole adventure is just that much sweeter now that it has ended. Mark Tucker and I are off to Bali for a day of body surfing (oh how I hate my job!) and then back to the U.S.
Thanks for following along.
All the best,
RMI Guide Alex Van Steen
Mark Tucker, good to hear that you’ve completed the summit list! I can recall hearing you talk about Aconcagua and my daughter, Erin, still has the small chip from the biggest “hill”, from when we lived next to you on Dagny Circle. Congrats! I’ll complete my seventh continent, and 110th country, in March 2013! Les.
Posted by: Leslie Kelly on 7/13/2012 at 7:19 pm
McGahan clan… congrats to all of you! Sooo proud! I can’t wait to hear all about it! Love y’al, Coach/Mrs. Eubanks
P.S. Katie… Are you keeping your backpack as neat as your PE Locker???? :)
Good morning, this is Alex Van Steen from the Carstensz Expedition. And my oh my, what a day we had yesterday. And here is the great word: RMI has summitted Carstensz Pyramid! We had a long day but everybody, despite being exhausted, did, really, really well. We all have a little bit of an altitude hack and the desire to head the other direction, but we are just loving this experience. I wish I could send photos via this dispatch, but they will be posted later. We've got lots of photos, and lots more stories. Stay tuned. Thanks, good-bye.
RMI Guide Alex Van Steen with the Carstensz summit news.
Alex, I’m so proud of you!!! Good job. Love, your cousin-in-law!!! ;-)
Posted by: Lynnette Rutledge on 7/6/2012 at 7:53 pm
Hey guys!! So incredibly proud of all of you! To celebrate your achievements today, Sophie and Kasey slept til noon!!!!You guys are all amazing. Can’t wait to see the pics and hear the stories. Get home safe!
Mark Tucker checking in from the Carstensz Pyramid Expedition. All is well. We had a great training day today. We climbed a portion of the route just trying to familiarize ourselves with the terrain and technique. Our team is doing very well. We were pleasantly surprised at the abilities of our group here.
So, of course, it had to starting raining. We did start out in some clear weather but the spicket turned on and it is raining right now. We are going to take a look at the weather starting about midnight tonight. And at some point we’ll pull the trigger and give it our best shot. Safety is our number one priority but we are going to push it hard and hope that we get a chance to make the summit.
We look forward to climbing tonight but for now, we have to get some rest.
Thanks for checking in.
RMI Guide Mark Tucker
RMI Guide Mark Tucker checks in from Carstensz Pyramid Base Camp.