Standing precariously on a ridge of loose volcanic scree, I squeezed the top of the trekking pole and pushed down with all my strength. A thin, broken trail of lights was now snaking its way to the summit roughly 100 metres above my head, a darkened mass that loomed tantalisingly close under the brightness of a full moon. In the distance I could just make out the finish line: two pinnacles forming a natural gateway to the peak.
The ascent took roughly four hours from the closest campsite, and here I was on the final stretch, with less than 30 minutes to go. Feet splayed outward, I took one, two, three steps, then four, until they slid hopelessly down the 45-degree slope, almost to the point where I had started just moments earlier. I closed my eyes, gasping for breath as multiple questions blazed through my mind. What on earth am I doing? I wondered. Why am I even here?
Six weeks before the trip, a friend had regaled me with her own account of the arduous climb up Mt. Rinjani. “It was physically the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. The last 300 metres… what can I compare it to?” Her eyes darted around, searching for the right answer. “I know!” she cried. “It’s like walking on marbles.”
Now, as I tackled that same treacherous slope, I realised the truth of her words. Gone were the tables of solid rock that had been my milestones on the lower reaches of the trail. In the beam of my headtorch there existed only the cruel eternity of ash and gravel. And then I felt it – a dull ache coursing slowly through my calves, the telltale sign before they would clench and paralyse in a wave of excruciating pain. “No.” I whispered. “Not now. Not when you’ve come this close!”
Soon the stones littering the ground began to take shape in a faint blue light. I turned my head eastwards and saw the colours of day – warm pink and dusty gold – emerging from a line of clouds on the horizon. My immediate goal was reaching the summit before sunrise, but now there was no time to lose. Battling gravity, the onset of leg cramps, and an almost irresistible desire to give in, I gritted my teeth and pressed on.
* * *
The previous day, Bama and I were perched at our campsite on the crater rim, staring wide-eyed at the forbidding horn rising 3,726m above sea level – tall enough to make it Indonesia’s second-highest volcano. We watched the clouds swirling around its flanks, as the late afternoon sun lit up a web of rain-eroded gullies. “The most important thing is being mentally prepared.” Our guide, Jen, was hinting at the seriousness of our task. Few things, not even the stories of those who had gone before, could prepare us for the challenge that lay ahead.
Our trek had begun over six hours ago, down a backcountry road leading from the village of Sembalun Lawang. The scent of garlic permeated the air as we passed through ripening fields and pastureland. Beyond a stony, dried-up riverbed, a herd of cattle greeted us with a melodious orchestra of clanging cowbells in iron and wood, as though it was a gamelan ensemble. Eventually the trail led into a wide savannah before climbing into stands of pine, lost amid the clouds.
I was curious about the animals that lived on Rinjani. “Deer, wild boar, snakes, many birds,” Jen told us. And monkeys? He waved his arm. “Banyak sekali monyet.” – too many monkeys. It wasn’t long before we had our first brush with the resident long-tailed macaques. At Sembalun POS 2, a rest stop with a concrete bridge spanning a lush canyon, an alpha male, hungry for biscuits, bared his teeth and shook the branches above our heads. Further up the hillside, a larger macaque sat motionless in the middle of the trail, seemingly apathetic to our presence. Fellow trekkers would nickname him the “monkey guardian” of the mountain.
The campsite was cloaked in fog when we arrived, but soon welcome rays of sunlight pierced the fabric lining the inside of our tent. Zipping down the door in keen anticipation, we rushed out for our first view of Rinjani’s sheer walls and the crater lake, Segara Anak, some 600 metres below.
Mount Rinjani is a brooding presence that dominates the northern half of Lombok, an active volcano among more than 120 dotting the islands of Indonesia. Stretching 5,120 kilometres (3,181 miles) along the Pacific Ring of Fire, this is a land of volcanic superlatives.
Tambora, on the neighbouring island of Sumbawa, tore itself apart in 1815 with the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history, resulting in global crop failures, widespread famine and a “Year Without a Summer”. Krakatau, anchored in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, followed just 68 years later, killing more than 36,000 in the ensuing catastrophe. Heard up to 3,000 miles (4,800 km) away, the volcano’s explosion was the loudest sound ever recorded.
Here too, on the slopes of Rinjani, we could see the raw power of nature and the scars of a violent past. The volcano experienced a cataclysmic eruption in the mid-13th century, creating the caldera we see today. Scientists now believe that Rinjani’s outburst may have triggered the Little Ice Age – matching concentrations of sulphur in ice core samples from that period seem to back up the claims.
The Sasak have no oral or written records of that particular event, but their mountain is steeped in myth and legend. As we stood transfixed on the crater rim, Jen recounted the creation story of Gunung Baru, the newer cinder cone that sits inside the caldera. According to Sasak folklore, it was formed when a djinn (genie) built a house and the mountain exploded. The same djinn constructed his istana – or palace – in an empty crater beyond the summit.
I asked about Dewi Anjani, the mythical queen who is said to live on the mountain. “The Balinese come to Rinjani to give her offerings. They sacrifice animals – chickens – and throw their jewellery into the lake.” Jen’s voice rose in disbelief. “Diamonds!”
Sadly Segara Anak is also home to a less welcome sort of offering. Hoping to dip our painful toes into the cold crater lake, we walked defeated along a rocky shore strewn with rubbish. Through the clear waters I spotted chicken bones, fish spines, and waving shreds of plastic. Cleaning parties come once a month, Jen told us, but a lack of environmental awareness among the local residents may be desecrating their sacred mountain.
* * *
Jen was waiting, sure-footed and patient, as I took the final steps towards the summit, just in time for the sunrise. We joined the throng already gathered on the table-like terrain, where I found a spot and quickly collapsed in a heap.
“Do you want hot chocolate?” I watched in disbelief as Jen reached into his bag and pulled out a thermos of hot water, producing a metal mug and lid before ripping open a sachet of Milo. Warming up on our viewpoint overlooking the still waters of Segara Anak, we waited for the sun’s rays to strike the crater walls and reveal the shadow of Rinjani, stretching out towards the distant horizon. Agung, Bali’s highest mountain, was clearly visible to the west, and down below, the three Gilis lay like tiny stepping stones toward the fabled island.
“Do you want to go down?” Now that the sun had risen, Jen seemed eager to make the two-hour hike back to camp. We stayed perhaps another 10 minutes, before I reluctantly got to my feet for the descent. Coming down, the distances seemed far longer than they were in the dark.
It was on that day that I began to understand a valuable truth: mankind may have the innate desire to “conquer” mountains – to seek out personal glory, or quench a thirst for adventure – but ultimately it is up to the natural world to decide whether or not we succeed.
Just after we reached the campsite from the summit, a thick bank of clouds rolled in, obscuring the upper portions of the mountain. I thought of those who were still fighting their way to the top as we came hurtling down, and I finally realised why Jen had encouraged me to descend as soon as he did. Later on he would tell me how fortunate we were. “Last week it was very windy up there… so many people gave up.” I could scarcely believe the kindness of the weather; wind speeds had dropped to zero on my own summit attempt.
But the day was far from over; still ahead lay at least six more hours of gruelling footwork. Already battered after the summit climb, I winced at the pain in every step, nursing multiple blisters on my left foot and a swollen toe on my right. Three long hours got us down to the crater lake for a lunch break, before picking our way across landslides, fallen pine trees, and scrambling up rock faces towards the second campsite at Pelawangan Senaru, on the far side of the crater rim.
We awoke to the sound of the wind howling around our tent, in time for one last sunrise on the mountain before the final leg down to Senaru. The pines gave way to a moss-laden rainforest draped in mist, and we were soon enveloped in the sounds of tropical birds and unseen creatures. Suddenly our leader stopped, eyeing movement in the undergrowth. “Babi.” Jen whispered. He had spotted a wild boar, but it swiftly disappeared before we could get a closer look. Then it was back to navigating an endless maze of tree roots, until we finally emerged, exhausted and broken, from the forest.
“It’s over,” Jen smiled as we rested under the shelter of a pavilion, dangling our weary feet above the ground. That may have been true for us, but I was keenly aware that it was a daily reality for so many of the men in this village. Over the past three days we had developed an immense respect for the local Sasak who made our trek – and so many others – possible.
Time and time again, I marvelled at the superhuman strength of the porters young and old, who carried sleeping bags, folded tents, cooking utensils, food and drink for all three days – whole pineapples, bananas, bags of rice, vegetables and fried chicken – in two rattan baskets on a bamboo pole slung over the shoulders. Wearing only flip-flops for their feet, they moved at great speed between the campsites, forging ahead and setting up long before our arrival. Unbelievably, there was room for small luxuries including foldout chairs and a mat for food and sunbathing, even a toilet tent. When I asked Jen why he and the porters didn’t have one, he laughed it off. “Only for tourists!”
Jen, too, had his own story to tell. A 21-year-old straight from high school, he had recently finished his first year of guiding, leading groups twice a week and reaching the summit at least 50 times. In his own words, he had taken over from his father when he became too old to guide. “All the guides and many porters come from my village, [Senaru].” He spoke in quiet, measured pride. “My grandfather opened the trails.”
But Jen had dreams of breaking free. When asked why he became a guide, Jen explained that even after university, there were few opportunities on Lombok. “Next year I will go to East Kalimantan, to look for a better job,” he told us candidly. “Being a trekking guide on Rinjani… it’s very hard.”