The Story of How I Decided To Summit An Active Volcano With No Training or Preparation Whatsoever

Gunung Merapi, which literally translated means mountain of fire, is one the biggest active volcanoes in Indonesia. Earlier this year I was feeling a little restless at work and had the bright idea to attempt to summit the Mountain of Fire with two ex-military guys.

For context, I’d been back in Jakarta for about a year and wanted to start hiking. One of the things on my bucket list is climbing Mt Rinjani in Lombok (which HG & DR did just last year), and I was looking for a few easier hikes to start training for it. Merapi sounded like a solid choice for a first serious hike as it was accessible from Jogja and could be completed in a day, i.e. without having to carry a ton of camping equipment around. The trek from basecamp to summit was supposed to take about 4.5 hours.

I can do that, I thought. I’ll be fine.

I definitely underestimated the Mountain of Fire. Let me just make this clear—Merapi is a beast of a hike. It’s not the distance, which is a manageable 3.4 kilometres from basecamp to the summit. It’s not the altitude, which is just under 3,000m above sea level. And it’s not the trail, which is a single meandering path up the mountain that’s actually quite well-marked. But the thing that I didn’t know was this: Merapi is insanely steep.

You know how even decently fit people find themselves a little out of breath after running up a flight of stairs? Imagine climbing up escalator steps for five hours—for some sections of the hike, it was more like two escalator steps at a time—and then imagine doing that with an extra 10 kilograms on your back. And all the while, you’re racing time to make it to the summit in time for the spectacular sunrise you’ve been promised.

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The hike is broken up into five sections. By taking the distance and dividing it by the estimated time it would take, you can tell that the section between Pos I and Pos II is the steepest and most difficult. That and the final scramble up to the summit itself, of course.

The other thing about hiking Merapi is that you have to start in the middle of the night, because during the day the active volcano emits more sulphurous gases. Full confession: this hike was only my second all-nighter ever. But as someone once said, adventure gets out of bed before the sun does!

(Okay, it was me. I said it.)

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Adventure gets out of bed before the sun does, but once the sun is up feel free to take naps. Stef took a nap out in the open, exposed to the winds at high altitude, which in hindsight was not the best idea. When he woke up 20 minutes later, his body’s core temperature had dropped and he had to put on extra layers, huddle in the carne, and drink hot tea to warm up again.

We started the hike at 1 am, and it was painfully steep from the get-go. Within 10 minutes I was gasping for breath and wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into. Of course it was no problem for my ex-military hiking companions, but I kept needing to pause for breath, and soon enough the three of us were trailing behind the rest of the group. Stef, seeing me struggling, offered to take my water pack and some of my extra weight. Still, it was tough going.

But there was no turning around, there was no going home, there was no sitting on a rock in the jungle by myself waiting 7 hours for everyone to go up and come back down. In a way, quitting simply wasn’t an option, and that kept me going, taking step after step after step. Eventually I relaxed into the rhythm, going at my own pace. I stopped worrying about trying to keep up with the pack, or making it to the summit by sunrise, and focused instead on just doing the hike (and surviving it).

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It was, in a way, oddly therapeutic.

Picture the scene: it’s 0200 or 0300 in the middle of the night—you’ve lost track of the time in your sleep-deprived haze—and you’re making your way slowly up the side of a volcano.

There are no lights for miles around, except for the torch strapped onto your forehead, cutting a swath of light through the darkness ahead. There’s a cool breeze every once in a while, rustling the leaves of the trees around you. Other than that, the only audible sounds are the scuff and step of hiking boots and the rhythm of your own laboured breathing.

At some point, the forest thins out and you catch a glimpse of the view.
It’s dark, of course, but you realize you’re standing near the edge of the mountain, with a steep drop-off. Below you is a scattered sea of lights, dimly lit and twinkling in the night.

You realize you’re looking down into the valley, into sleeping towns, and you realize how high up you are. That feeling—of standing on the edge of the world, of having made it this far up—made the aching in my legs fade.

That moment kept me moving, kept me reaching, kept me pushing myself.

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At about 05AM, we stopped by a little cave just below the Pasar Bubrah station. This far above the treeline, the ground was sparse and rocky, but just as steep. My body felt exhausted and one of the guys was starting to get cramps in his legs. We decided to stop at the cave to avoid aggravating our pre-existing injuries, and because although I had just enough energy left to make it to the summit, I didn’t know if I’d be able to get all the way back down the volcano after that.

The three of us swung our packs off our tired shoulders, drank lots of water, ate some snacks, and made ourselves comfortable while we waited for the sunrise.

We didn’t have long to wait. All around us, the endless darkness began to lift. The blackness became a grey, and then took on an orange tinge. Slowly the forms began to emerge—the blanket of clouds under us, the creases and ridges in the mountain.

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Our cameras were out and we began shooting. It was cold, the wind whipping around us as we stood exposed on the side of the mountain. My fingers grew numb and I got to the point where I put it away and just stood there, watching the sun come up, watching colours flood back into the landscape, watching our surreal, otherworldly surroundings come into view.

It made everything worth it, huddled there together above the clouds, with an amazing 270 degree panorama around us. The ache in our muscles dulled and stilled, and it felt all the better because the pounding ache reminded us that we’d earned it, in a sense.

Soon, our guide came back down the mountain to pick us up and head back down. We stumbled down the mountain with shaking jelly legs, using hands to scramble down the steep route, grabbing on to branches and rocks to take some weight and pressure off our legs. To be honest, it was a miracle that none of us fell head over heels on all the way down, but we made it in one piece.

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Climbing the Mountain of Fire was a long ordeal. We set off at 1 am, and didn’t get back down to base camp at 10 am. Is it crazy to say that in my mental calculations, I had only thought of it as a one-way journey? I had envisioned 4-5 hours of comfortable walking, and instead spent 9 hours pushing my physical limits on a difficult terrain on an incline that killed me. The next day I could hardly walk, and everything hurt.

But were there any regrets? None.

We fought gravity for four and a half hours, snatched 20 minutes of sleep in a little cave, soaked up a beautiful sunrise against striking mountains, and welcomed a new day from above the clouds.

The rest of that Jogja trip is another story to come. But until then, I urge you: Go climb your mountain! Go do something big and bold and outrageous. Go outside your comfort zone, but stay within your limits. I promise you won’t regret it.

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To more adventures and stories to tell,

SL. (@sofietyger)

 

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