As we took the first of many steps on our three-day trek up Mount Rinjani, I looked up at the summit looming high above and thought to myself, “That doesn’t look too far. We will easily climb this.” About 10 minutes later, as I was sweating freely and out of breath, I realized it was going to be every bit as difficult as advertised.
Climbing Mt. Rinjani, the 2nd highest volcano in Indonesia, is a right of passage for many visitors to the island nation. For some reason, I felt compelled to climb it, lured by a sadistic siren call. I could have been enjoying the world-class beaches that surround the island of Lombok, but instead chose to hike up an active volcano that might erupt and incinerate me in a toxic fireball.
Day one would be a long, steep climb to the crater rim, day two would include a middle of the night ascent to the summit for sunrise, then a descent to the crater lake and a hike up the other side of the caldera, and day three would be a long descent to town. I had read many blog posts that described it as the “most difficult physical activity of my life,” so I can’t say that I wasn’t warned.
We were hiking with a Canadian/American couple named Dave and Ellen, plus our guide and four porters carrying our tents, food, cooking equipment, sleeping bags, and other supplies we’d need. If you ever want to feel out of shape, try struggling up a mountain while being outpaced by guys wearing flimsy sandals and carrying 75 pounds of gear.
After about an hour of walking, we came upon a clump of trees and took refuge in the shade. I was already sweating profusely and knew I’d be stinky and sticky for the next three days. At that time, another hiker arrived. Her name was Sarah, and she had the effortless beauty of a fitness model. Sporting Lulu Lemon shorts, a black tank top, and dark sunglasses, she managed to somehow look pretty while hiking. All of us were decked out in North Face, hiking boots and trekking gear. She was the kind of girl that other girls hate on sight, except that she turned out to be a real sweetheart.
Sarah gave us a friendly greeting and chatted with us for a bit.
“How is your guide?” she asked in her Kiwi accent.
“Great,” we replied
“Mine is a little dodgy,” she said. “He sells weed on Gili T six months a year and is a hiking guide the other half,” she said.
“How do you know that?”
“He offered to sell me some. I think he is looking for a customer.”
As we remained in the shade, still recovering, Sarah bound up the mountain – her dread-locked guide in tow, struggling to keep up.
Shortly after meeting Sarah, a Frenchman in shorts and a light jacket, but no porters, gear or guides with him, came galloping down the mountain with the grace of a gazelle. He ran past us, then turned around, and bound back up the trail. He asked our guide directions to the town. He informed us that he’d already been to the summit that morning. “I woke up at 3am and hiked to the summit for sunrise,” he said. He then looked us over and continued, “But you will need to start earlier.” At that, he took his 5% body fat and started running down the mountain again.
I stopped to tie my shoe and then rushed a bit to catch the group. I passed a hiker who saw me hurrying and said portentously, “Conserve your energy. You are going to need it.”
Although Sara, Ultra-Marathon French Dude, and other hikers were making me feel bad for myself, we encountered a man who made me feel like a mountaineer. Relaxing in the shade and smoking cigarettes like it was his job was a guy from Jakarta who we creatively nicknamed “Jakarta.”
“Are you on your way down,” we asked the avuncular man who was relaxing in the shade. “Oh no, I’m on my way up,” he informed us as he lit a cigarette off the butt of another.” He had the relaxed air of a man on the beach, not a person climbing a 12,000-foot volcano.
After another two hours walk across the tree-less lower slopes of the sun-blasted volcano, we arrived at a shady area and stopped for lunch. Our porters, who had raced ahead of us with our gear, were busy cooking lunch. Dave, Ellen, Kristi and I were placed on camp chairs in the shade, on a small hill. We looked like royalty looking down on our servants. Dave felt a certain discomfort. “I feel like I should be helping them cook,” he said. As they brought us cookies, fresh cut fruit, tea, and coffee, we all settled into our role of royalty.
We ate a Rinjani-sized mountain of pasta, chicken, and rice for lunch. It initially looked like way too much food, but as we made our way up the steep mountain, we realized we needed every one of those calories.
The real suffering began after lunch. The three hours before lunch were across gradually inclined hills, but the next phase was straight up with almost no switchbacks. Our Achilles and calves were stretched to the max as our feet hit the slopes at awkward angles. The intense tropical sun was high in the sky, assaulting us. Mercifully, clouds started to roll in, but would often give us only a few seconds of respite before blowing away.
I was really struggling. The pace of the group was too slow for me – I am a fast hiker. I couldn’t get in rhythm; I was whiney and unhappy. “Why am I on this peak and not on a pristine beach right now,” I thought once or maybe 50 times, give or take.
After about 6.5 hours of hiking, my spirit nearly crushed, we plopped down in a pine forest. At this time, a thick fog had settled in so I was no longer hot, but instead cold with my wet shirt and sweat-soaked hair giving me chills. It was Halloween and the fog and trees combined to make an eerie ambiance.
“I feel like a headless demon might walk through those trees with a machete and kill us,” Dave said.
“That would be awesome!” I declared.
“You would be okay with dying,” Dave said incredulously.
“Yes. If it meant this suffering was to be over, I’d happily have my head chopped off by a demon right now.”
Our guide then gave us cookies and told us it was only 30 minutes until camp. You’ve never seen four happier adults. Fueled by cookies and the hope of the crater half an hour away, we galloped up the mountain with newfound enthusiasm.
Upon reaching the crater, we could see nothing but dense fog. As we settled in at camp, drinking coffee and tea and lounging about, the clouds started to break up, and we were given a spectacular view of the caldera and crater lake. Clouds swirled around the bowl like vapor from a witch’s cauldron and sunrays pierced through, warming us up. It was a beautiful, magical experience. We ate a pile of food, all the while lamenting not having any Bintang. I thought about finding Sarah’s guide to see if I could make a purchase – for medicinal purposes only, to kill the pain from the hike – but as soon as the sun went below the horizon, it became bitter cold, and we all retreated to our tents. I laid awake for the next 4 hours, dreading the 1 am wake-up call to hike to the summit.
TO BE CONTINUED…