Fear the Volcano, Conquer the Climb

After quitting our jobs and heading to the other side of the world, our only plans were lying in the perfect white sand and soaking up paradise. But six thousand feet up, the mystical mountain beckoned.

Fear the Volcano, Conquer the Climb

Should you find yourself lounging on one of the countless white sand beaches of the Gili Islands, and should you look across the perfect turquoise water toward the horizon where the sun rises, your gaze will inevitably fall on the great Gunung Rinjani. And if you have been in Indonesia for at least a week, you will notice how the people here speak of their sacred volcano — with deep reverence, drawing out the middle syllable as if to pay their respects. “Rinjaaani,” they will say with a hypnotic mix of fear and awe. Almost at a whisper.

Once a year, at the beginning of the rainy season, Balinese Hindus trek up Indonesia’s second highest peak in a mass pilgrimage to deliver ceremonial offerings to the mountain deities. When the pilgrims reach the top, they fling jewelry, precious metals and coins into Rinjani’s deep crater lake. Their offerings sink to the heart of the mountain.

We had just started our own pilgrimage of sorts, my husband and I. It wasn’t a religious journey, but it did feel sacred, the fulfillment of a promise we’d made to ourselves: to take a long, wandering look around the world before life handed us more responsibilities (namely children, but also a mortgage, maybe grad school; things we expected to come in our thirties). We’d quit our jobs with a sense of fear and awe, drawn to the alluring goddess of exploration but not without our niggling questions: What if leaving our jobs and our friends and our fairly perfect life turned out to be a mistake? What if flinging that all aside was a foolish offering?

After packing the boxes and selling the flimsy IKEA furniture, after moving out of our duplex and cramming all our belongings into a 10x10x10-foot storage unit, we were down to one backpack each. After long hugs and sad goodbyes, after parting with my husband’s trusty Volvo and finishing our last days of work, we had landed on the other side of the globe. The reality of our upheaval was still catching up to us, but the warm, perfumed Balinese air wrapped us in frangipani fragrance by day and smoky incense by night, blessing the first step of our journey. Though a burning desire for adventure is what finally pushed us to take this leap, all either of us really wanted to do at that moment was luxuriate on white sand beaches, soaking up long, lazy days in paradise.

And yet. When we weren’t snorkeling or reading or trying to pedal rusty bicycles through soft sand, we pondered the mountain, considering the challenge it posed. In return, Rinjani, enthroned across the water on the main island of Lombok, continued to beckon us. Intimidate us.

“Look at those clouds,” I would say. “I’m sure it’s just pouring rain over there.”
Shrouded in threatening thunderheads more often than not, the sacred volcano loomed in our consciousness. Each day, my husband and I recited this approximate conversation.

“And it’s so ridiculously hot here,” he would reply. “No one can hike in this heat.” We would affirm one another’s concerns, but the gazing continued. The rain and heat were really just flimsy veils fluttering across the real issue, the one I wouldn’t say out loud: the fear that we wouldn’t make it if we tried.

On our last day on the islands, we rehearsed our logic one last time. Rain and heat. Two strong votes (or excuses) against Rinjani. It was decided.

But then we met Edy.

We left the enchanting Gilis on the early morning taxi-boat to meet our pre-arranged driver at a chaotic Lombok port. We didn’t know what he looked like, only that his name was Edy, but he had to be the grinning man in the blue track jacket pushing through the buzzing crowd of merchants and ferry passengers, the one calling out “Bob? Bob? Bob David?”

A misty hilltop in Indonesia.
A misty hilltop in Indonesia.

“Rob Davis?” I offered my husband’s name. And with that Edy swept us out of the bustle and into his rickety van.

Despite our votes against Rinjani, Rob and I still wanted to visit the village of Senaru, the starting point for Rinjani trekkers. We’d peruse the local markets and hike to the surrounding waterfalls, we told ourselves. We’d be satisfied by proximity. Fear supplies plenty of excuses, but even a small seed of curiosity – of awe – is enough to push you forward. We didn’t have a hotel reservation in Senaru; we figured Edy would suggest a place. But when we reached the village, Edy didn’t ask our plans. He just kept driving. Until there were no more hotels. Until the road ended. And the road happened to end right at his friend’s trekking company. (Sometimes a driver who is promised a cut of the profits will also shove you toward your fears.)

We don’t have much time, we told Edy’s friend after being introduced. We just want to do a little exploring around the village. “Oh, but Rinjaaani!” Edy’s friend exclaimed. “Let me tell you. You can leave in one hour, camp at the crater rim. Back tomorrow by noon. Plenty time. Very nice.”

We mentioned the rain and the heat.

“No rain! And very shady, not hot!”

I couldn’t tell what Rob was thinking, but the lure of adventure was starting to wiggle under my skin. We re-evaluated in hushed tones as Edy and his friend looked on intently. Proddingly. We were already there. And how hard could it really be? We gathered some information: “Is it cold at the top?” (No, no. Very nice.) “What’s the elevation gain?” (2,000 meters over nine kilometers.) Conversion note: The metric system is tricky. It makes things sound easier. That’s 6,000 feet up in just six miles.

“You just go slowly, slowly. Very nice.” This from a trekking professional. Perhaps it was his charming toothy grin that convinced us.

Rob and I glanced at each other, checking for agreement, and nodded our heads in unison. After all, we didn’t quit our jobs to sunbathe on white sand beaches. We’d left home to do things that were a little harder than our everyday lives – such as spontaneous volcano treks.

Our companions on this unplanned adventure turned out to be two Olympic-fitness-level volcano trekking gurus, both in their early twenties: our guide Mr. Man (who wore flip-flops) and our porter Mr. Uji (who wore no shoes). That’s how they introduced themselves, Mr. Man and Mr. Uji. Already breathing alarmingly hard after the first 1.5kilometers, Rob and I reached the official arched welcome sign to Rinjani National Park too tired to celebrate this discouraging milepost. We would indeed be going slowly, slowly. I could read my own thoughts on Rob’s sweat-streaked face: What had we gotten ourselves into?

Kaitlin atop the volcano, Gunung Rinjani.
Kaitlin atop the volcano, Gunung Rinjani.

As we continued upward into dense rain forest, the trail became a never-ending ladder of tangled roots, rising into misty clouds. Lizards darted across the trail. Unseen monkeys crashed through distant branches. The daypack we took turns carrying dug into my shoulders. The world disappeared below us and my new world contracted into the singular mission of willing my feet forward: Take another step. Step. Breathe slower. Step. Oh. Step. Dear. Step. Lord. Step. I’mgoingtodie. Take a break. Repeat every five minutes to slow heart rate.

At every break, while we guzzled water, Mr. Man drank nothing, sometimes smoked a cigarette, and patiently repeated his trekking guru mantra: “Slowly, slowly. But surely.” His words began to haunt me. Is he insulting our pace, I wondered, or encouraging us that we’re making normal progress? Sometimes he would drop in another piece of advice: “With more power, we get there faster.”

I felt dread at the distance that still lay before us. I felt doubt that we would actually make it. I felt shame at the possibility of turning back. I also felt a growing ache in my legs and a general weakness everywhere else. But I did not feel this power Mr. Man spoke of.

If you have ever hiked straight up a mountain, cloaked in thick humidity and drenched in your own sweat for five hours (until Rinjani, I never had), you probably know that the words which pop into your mind as you do it are not the classiest. And if you’ve ever had a porter carry all your food and water, as well as your tent, bed roll and sleeping bag (again, I never had), and still scamper barefooted past you, beating you to the campsite by an hour, you may know what it’s like to seriously doubt your own physical ability. Or maybe you just accept your place in the fitness hierarchy better than me.

From the towering mountaintops to the white-sand beaches, Indonesia is unlike anywhere else on earth. For snapshots of other travelers’ life-changing moments here, check out this Indonesia photo gallery from our partners at Expedia.

The relentlessly steep trail – had they never heard of switchbacks? – was broken into marked segments called “Positions.” Reaching a Position meant a longer break, which also meant assuming a new position: sprawled out on a wooden tent platform underneath a green metal roof. The platforms hosted other exhausted trekkers like us, lying flat on their backs in such intense relief you’d think the platform was a communal waterbed. Rob and I joined them eagerly, encouraged to feel some solidarity in our struggle. But these longer breaks were still too short, and my relief was kept in check by the knowledge that Mr. Man would soon energetically announce, “OK, we go?” It wasn’t really a question.

After one of these precious Position breaks, I gathered enough energy to ask Mr. Man about himself. When he first introduced himself, he’d proudly reported that he was twenty-two years old “and already married!” So I asked if he had any children yet. A wistful look swept over his face and he told me in minimal English that yes, he had a baby daughter. Before I could finish my congratulations, he interrupted me softly and politely.

“She only alive few weeks.”

It took a moment for my weary brain to process his words. Was she just a few weeks old or had she only lived a few weeks? I could tell by the way he looked off into the thick forest what he meant. “I’m so sorry.”

He nodded and we continued on in silence. Making it up this mountain was the hardest thing in my life at that moment. But climbing this volcano was Mr. Man’s day job. He didn’t need to disrupt his life, quit his job and fly around the world to find challenges, or metaphors for challenges. Mr. Man didn’t need a metaphor.

Mr. Uji (who wore flip-flops while cooking but not while hiking) preparing food for the climb.
Mr. Uji (who wore flip-flops while cooking but not while hiking) preparing food for the climb.

At last, our campsite appeared through the trees like a miracle from the mountain gods. Most trekking groups camp at Position 4, pitching their tents on the crater rim so all they have to do to see the sunrise is unzip their tent flaps. But because of our late (or unplanned) start, we had to stop for the night at Position 3. Usually this would bother me – missing the full experience, stopping short of the goal – but I was just happy to take off my hiking boots and examine my blisters.

Mr. Uji had already set up a bright orange tent for us, which looked as inviting as a fluffy king-sized bed. Rob and I didn’t care that we were still two kilometers from the rim or that we’d be waking up at four a.m. to reach it by sunrise. All that mattered was that we were no longer climbing. While Mr. Uji built a fire and cooked us massive plates of nasi goreng (an Indonesian staple of fried rice, fried egg and fried chicken, with a side of rice cracker, also fried), we rang out our wet pieces of clothing and tied them to the beams of our tent platform, like prayer flags offered to the great Rinjani gods: Please have mercy on us tomorrow. Amen.

The clouds we’d hiked through all day now hung below us, painted in warm sunset shades of tangerine and fuchsia. Perched on our tent platform above the clouds, Rob and I ate our fried feast by candlelight and fell asleep to the lullaby of wind howling up on the crater rim and wild mountain dogs sniffing hungrily in nearby bushes.

At four a.m. our alarm woke us: Good morning, quads! Time to keep climbing! A starlit sky and full moon softened the edges of the sharp morning chill. Huddled next to a smoldering fire of damp wood with Mr. Man and Mr. Uji, we sipped sweet tea and ate a few cookies to help us find that power our cheerful guide kept talking about. Mr. Man turned to us with a childlike grin: “When we get to the great rim, I have surprise for you — Sprite! Coke! For drinking while the sun rises!” Ah yes, I thought. My pre-dawn beverage of choice.

Orange tents on the rim of the volcano.
Orange tents on the rim of the volcano.

Still half-asleep, we set off with flashlights for the rest of our climb, 1,800 feet of elevation gain ahead of us. A cup of coffee would have done wonders. Moonstruck and windswept like the rocky slope above us, we maintained our diligent snail’s pace. But I was acutely aware of the minutes melting into the pinkening horizon. I started to worry that we wouldn’t beat the sun to the crater rim. And witnessing that magic moment when the sun spilled into the crater was the whole point, wasn’t it?

I was right on Mr. Man’s heels, my hiking boots following in his flip-flopped steps. Rob trailed a bit behind me. It was light enough now that I could make out the exhaustion on his face. Mr. Man kept glancing anxiously back at him and urging me to find my power, reminding me (unnecessarily) that we didn’t want to miss the sunrise. At the top of the last rise, Mr. Man pointed triumphantly to a ridge fringed with orange tents. A real-life REI ad.

“The Great Rim,” he announced reverently. “You go fast. Use the power. Take photo of sunrise.”

I was torn. Should I wait for my husband so we could reach the summit together? Or should I grab his camera and hike as fast as my shaking legs would carry me so we’d at least have a picture of the sunrise? I waited for Rob and asked him. Wordlessly, he handed me the camera. I paused. A knot of guilt settled in my throat, but I swallowed it, turned and continued scrambling up the steep incline with fresh determination. Was this the power?

Mr. Man on the great rim of the Rinjani.
Mr. Man on the great rim of the Rinjani.

Relief rushed through me as I took my last step up onto the great rim. I made it, I thought. I beat the sun. But as I took in the anticipated view, my relief vanished. We’d quit our jobs together. And we’d struggled all the way up this mountain together – all 6,000 quad-burning feet of elevation gain. I kept one eye on the magenta horizon and one on Rob’s shape growing closer. Rinjani’s rim was outlined in golden light when I handed him the camera, the sun moments from cresting. When it did, Mr. Man handed us our sodas. Rob took the Coke. I took the Sprite. The mysterious awe that had beckoned us, first from our jobs and then from that lazy beach, spread out before us. Cotton candy clouds spilled over the rim into the crater bowl. We toasted to the power.

How much wealth sat piled at the bottom of that deep blue lake? How many prayers and hopes? What did those Rinjani pilgrims seek up here above the clouds?

Sunrise arrives on the Rinjani.
Sunrise arrives on the Rinjani.

Atop Rinjani’s crater rim, you can see the entire mountainside you’ve just climbed. You can see all the way to the ocean, to the three Gili Islands, like delicately placed teardrops, where yesterday you sat on a beach gazing up at this mountain. Where fear trumped awe. The power, you realize, is in the reversal. The fear still exists, but the awe is stronger.

Rinjani’s pilgrims know this power. They fear the volcano because they know what it can take away. I assumed this was the reason for their pilgrimage – that they ascend this mountain each year to pray for mercy. Perhaps some do, but they also believe in its blessing. They gather on the lakeshore and pray for rain. They collect holy water. It is awe, primarily, that lures them up the near-vertical slopes every year, awe that they fling into the lake, awe – not fear – that fills up the heart of this mountain.

Kaitlin and Rob flashing a celebratory thumbs up after finishing the trek.
Kaitlin and Rob flashing a celebratory thumbs up after finishing the trek.

We finished our sodas, savoring the last drops. Mr. Man looked at his watch. “We should begin the descent,” he said. The three of us galloped and leapt over tree roots, quads rejoicing, kilometers ticking by in a blur. At particularly steep stretches, I paid mental homage to the ghosts of the last day’s uphill struggle. Now I was the one trailing behind. I couldn’t keep up with my husband’s springy, long-legged lope. I heard Mr. Man laughing behind me as we ran, a boy just barely a man who already knew what life could take away and what it took to keep going.

“The power!” Mr. Man called out, jubilant, flapping down the mountain in his rubber flip-flops.

* * *

From the towering mountaintops to the white-sand beaches, Indonesia is unlike anywhere else on earth. For snapshots of other travelers’ life-changing moments here, check out this Indonesia photo gallery from our partners at Expedia.