Left foot, right foot.
These words were the only thought that I would allow inside my brain.
Left foot, right foot.
This is the only thought keeping me from collapsing to the side of the gravely path, like so many others we had already passed by.
Left foot, right foot.
These words were the only thing keeping me moving forward, and I was clinging on to them with everything I had left.
Left foot, right foot.
As my foot goes down this time, I hit a patch of loose dusty gravel and slide back the 8 steps to where I had begun.
I didn’t, couldn’t really, lift my head to see the small amount of distance I’d lost. All I could do was continue to move my feet in some attempt at forward progress. That, and allow my mental vocabulary to expand by one more word…
It probably didn’t help that I really did not get much sleep the night before. And really, how could I have? We had camped at 8,600 feet, which my lungs hadn’t fully adjusted to, and it was freezing cold.
Also lodged in my brain was the fact that we had to be up at 2am to begin summiting Rinjani. 2am! This sounded crazy when first explained, but spend even a few hours at this altitude and you quickly understand. As soon as the sun comes up, things get hot. Really really bright and hot. Not quite the conditions you want when climbing 3,700 feet in only a few hours.
So I was not surprised when my tent started to shake in the middle of the night and a voice whispered, “Time to go”.
I exited to inky blackness, with only the groups’ individual headlamps to offer any glimpse of the world around us. We were greeted with hot coffee and a fried egg sandwich – delicious, but both had to be forced down this early in the morning.
As our guide Sup walked us through the three-part path that lied ahead, he pointed out into the distance to where only a string of seemingly vertical lights could be seen. That’s where we were headed if we wanted to summit Rinjani.
That 1st section was absolutely soul crushing, and probably the worst in what could best be described as a trail of regret. It got steep almost immediately and the ground beneath remained loose and dusty the entire time. Roots, rocks, and any other debris within reach quickly became used as climbing aids.
By the time we cleared section 1, I was already wiped out. My legs felt more sloppy than sturdy and I’m pretty sure I had breathed in enough dust to cover a baseball diamond. Thankfully Sup had brought along a few extra paper facemasks, so I quickly applied mine. While definitely an improvement, a thick layer of condensation formed around my face that immediately cooled in the frigid air.
Mercifully, the 2nd section of summiting Rinjani was much flatter and firmer. The previous challenges though had been replaced by powerful and deafening gusts of wind that were more than capable of blowing an unfocused hiker off the side.
In this context, deathly winds are a marked improvement over near vertical climbing through loose dirt. Still, maximum concentration was required in order to compensate against a strong upcoming gust. Between this and the fact that we were still physically drained, it’s safe to say that this section was the worst.
This brings us to the 3rd and final section, which could best be described as an evil mutant hybrid of the previous two. It was steep, the surface was shin deep dusty gravel, and the winds were beyond howling. This was far and away the worst part of summiting Rinjani.
The sun hadn’t quite peaked yet, but a glimmer of light could be seen in the distance, providing the faintest of visibility.
It was around this time that we began to see collapsed hikers on the sides of the path. Some huddled behind giant rocks to shield themselves from the wind; others slumped in the dirt with their heads in their hands; others collapsed completely on the ground, passed out from exhaustion.
It was a frightening sight, but looking at the path ahead, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t look like the better of my options.
The final 30 minutes of us summiting Rinjani felt like 30 hours. We slipped, we slid, we dug in, we carried each other. But we made it.
Holy shit. After everything it took to get to this point, the view was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The layer of clouds, the surrounding islands of Indonesia, the curvature of the earth even…
This was breathtaking, in every sense of the word.
I’d love to say that I was really able to take in and meditate on this amazing sight, but my moment of zen was quickly broken as soon as I realized that now we had to make our way back down.
Believe it or not, descending an active volcano is about as festive as making your way up. The only bonus is that you have a bit of additional support from your good friend gravity. So when you get moving, you REALLY get moving and your dead leg muscles aren’t going to be of much help stopping you.
By the time we made it back down to camp, I was wrecked. My legs, my back, my arms, my lungs… Everything was done. The three of us collapsed on one of the tarps and just thanked the stars that it was over. We were done summiting Rinjani and could now bask in the glory.
Wrong. Before we could feel too good about the situation, Sup crouched down and reminded us that the day wasn’t quite over. It was after all only 9am, and we still needed to pack everything up and hike to the other side of the rim, where we’d camp out for one more night.
Ha! That sounded like terrible idea. Who had signed up for that? We had? Ohhhhhh…
Surely seeing the terror in our eyes, Sup compromised. Instead, we could hike down to the lake and enjoy the hot springs. Then hike back the way we came and just spend the night in the same spot again.
Did someone say hot springs…?
Yeah, that sounded pretty good to us. And really, I had arrived with the main goal of summiting Rinjani, which I had already done. Everything after that was icing on the cake, and we already felt that our cake had been sufficiently iced.
It took only a couple hours of hiking downhill to get to the hot spring, which was a pretty amazing spot. Created by Rinjani’s natural mineral deposits and warmed via the volcano’s active core, it was so conveniently formed that it almost didn’t feel real.
What was also unfortunately very real was the amount of garbage that was scattered everywhere. This is something that we encountered all throughout the trail and, even though the National Park requires that everyone cleans their own waste, there just aren’t enough rangers to enforce this. As a result, you can’t go more than a few feet without walking over or into empty water bottles, food containers, or even used toilet paper. Gross.
Again, minimal environmental impact is a major pillar of Rudy Trekker’s business, and it was apparent throughout the whole trip. Our porters consistently packaged up all of the group’s waste, so while the food bags were getting smaller, the trash bags were filling up.
When I asked Sup if most of this trash was from other foreign hikers, he surprisingly shook his head.
“Almost all of this is from the local people. They do not care about their own backyard being so dirty.”
You could really see it in his face that this behavior affected him, and when he referred to Rinjani as his backyard, he wasn’t kidding around. It turns out Sup had been working these types of climbs since he was 14, which isn’t such a rare thing in this area of Lombok. Now 28, he works just about every day – going up then coming down; going up then coming down – for 9 months out of the year. He was even mid-climb when his son was born, and didn’t find out about this until he had descended 2 days later.
His son’s name? Rinja, after the volcano.
It didn’t take us long to make our way back up to the camp, where I promptly passed out with zero issues. The next morning we quickly packed everything up and set off down the path we had worked so hard to climb only 2 days earlier. It was much easier this time, and the thought of a hot shower and soft bed had our feet practically lifting off of the ground.
Before we really even had time to catch our breath, we were back at the entrance, where vans were waiting to whisk us to Rudy Trekker’s base camp.
Not too long before, all I had wanted was for this seemingly dreadful experience to be over. Now that it was, all I wanted was just a bit more time with everyone. More time for storytelling and laughing at each others jokes. More time with Sup and hearing about his day-to-day life.
But no, we were all headed in different directions with different goals in mind. Which is just as well I guess.
We had already climbed to the peak of a mountain together. How much higher can you get?
If you haven’t already checked it out, don’t miss Part 1 of the story here!