One morning in Sanur, Bali I met a fellow traveler who had just come from Yogyakarta in central Java. She spoke very highly of the experience and its culture, but in particular the sunrise hike of a nearby volcano. 6 hours later, I had bought a plane ticket. I would be there in 60 hours.
When I got to Yogyakarta I had my eyes set on this one experience, the sunrise hike of Mt. Merapi. I knew that Yogya was a diverse, culturally vibrant city with plenty to offer, but I didn’t want to leave before I did that hike. It was harder to set up than I anticipated as it’s a tour that only happens when there’s a few participants. I never knew until a few hours beforehand whether or not my single traveler self would be able to jump onto one, which wasn’t very convenient since my Couchsurfing host had plenty of night activities for me to join.
On my last day I was able to get another traveler to join me, a Wisconsinite named Daniel who had spent the last 6 months teaching English in another part of Java. During this whole time, I was the first American he’d met in Indonesia. His friend had done this climb and deemed it “the hardest thing she’s ever done in her life” – and this was before a recent eruption covered the top in ashy debris and made the climb even more difficult – so he figured he had to do it.
Our adventure started at 10pm, when we began the 2 hour drive to the base. Once there we were dropped off in a strange dilapidated mountain home to wait for our guide. It reminded me of what I imagined a halfway house for drug transport might look like. It was sketchy and cold and empty except for some chairs, and I waited there for an hour, getting progressively colder and wondering what I had gotten myself into. All the clothes I own are comically inept for any sort of non-tropical weather – the only sleeves I own is one hoodie (for those cold AC buses), and I only have one pair of pants and one pair of closed-toe shoes, all of which I was wearing. However I did bring a flashlight - unlike Daniel who, in addition to not having proper clothes, did not have a light. He got by following mine or the guide’s. Between the two of us we were pretty unprepared for the hike.
Mt. Merapi is the most active volcano in a country full of them, and one of the most dangerous in the world. It regularly erupts every few years, the last time being in 2010. Whenever I thought about it I got a little nervous, although it didn’t seem to bother the village full of people who made their home at the base. Their homes stood good chances to be destroyed with every eruption, and they often would be. But the ground here is very fertile so while they wait for the next one they use it to farm a variety of crops. It’s hard to believe that people live like that, but no one there seemed to find it remarkable.
A local farmer at the base. All the ones I saw doing this kind of laborious work were women.
At 1am our guide showed up and we began what would be a very long, very steep, upward climb. There was no step that wasn’t a significant ascent, although the rapid heart rate increase meant that coldness was no longer an issue. Daniel and I kept up a brisk pace, neither of us wanting to slow down the other. After 3.5 long, dark, dusty hours, we made it to our highest stopping point. This was where we would take a long break and time the rest of the climb to coincide with the sunrise. The rest of the climb would be chilly and windy, so we would wait here for an hour until it was time to climb on. We had made excellent time, so in our generous allotted rest period everyone practically froze as our heart rate returned to normal.
When it was time to thaw our frozen limbs, we were given two choices: 1) climb to the highest plateau, where most groups stop, and watch the sunrise from there, or 2) climb all the way to the summit of the volcano. According to our guide, the latter choice was very steep, very dangerous. Daniel and I looked at each other and shrugged, sure why not? We would at least give it a shot.
The plateau in the morning light - we reached it when it was still dark. You can see part of the climb to the summit behind it.
By this time our group and a group of Germans had caught up with each other and they too agreed they wanted to give it a shot. They were tall and fit and equipped with proper hiking gear, which made Daniel and my own casual clothes look even more inadequate. However when we reached the plateau the Germans took one look at the rest of the climb and decided that they were happy where they were. We figured, how hard could it be? It was almost the 4th of July and the rare occurrence of hanging out with another American was inspiring pieces of patriotic sentiment. Of course we could do it. As Americans we were obligated to conquer any challenges that came our way. Those Germans didn’t know what they were missing.
Like many patriots who had come before us, we forgot about the actual risks of this climb as the thrill of the challenge overtook common sense. We started climbing through the loose boulders and over the jagged rocks, kind of painful and awkward but we were handling it. It was really once we got closer to the top that the ohhhhshit fear started to set in. It was an ugly and sudden realization that one misstep could kill me, all of my 26 years snuffed out in one second. We clambered awkwardly over shifting ashy sand dunes where each step would cause an avalanche of more sand and sometimes larger rocks. We started the climb up the 60-degree rock face, making sure to triple check each hold and ledge before resting our weight on it since most of it was incredibly shaky. All talk ceased as we focused all of our concentration on not dying; turning back at this point was no longer an option. Luckily both of us had rock climbing experience, without which I honestly don’t know if I would have made it. Seriously, it was scary.
It probably didn’t help that these were my “rock climbing shoes”:
Apparently it’s actually not unusual for people to die doing this climb, a fact which I was grateful to learn only after we had scaled it. Our guide was happy to regale us with stories of people getting hit by loose rocks or carelessly taking a photo and then falling to their death on Mt. Merapi.
One errant step…
Slowly but surely we ascended the summit. I reached the top and looked down, a rolling ocean of cloud below me, the sunrise peeking over the horizon. I turned behind me to the rim of the volcano, taking in the otherworldly rock formations that formed around it. The paralyzing fear of the last hour was immediately forgotten, replaced by genuine wonder and awe. Smoke was blowing out of the crater and I climbed to the very edge of the rim to peer in. I put my head over and felt some of the smoke brush my face, my brain freaking out on me, unable to process that I was LOOKING INTO AN ACTIVE VOLCANO. Not just any active volcano, but one of the most active in the world. I’ve seen images and drawn pictures of volcanoes all my life, but I never thought I’d be staring the smoky crater of one right in the face. It was an utterly humbling experience and, taken with the incredible landscape and the ordeal we’d just been through (and the lack of sleep), I was basically reduced to a stammering ball of clichéd wonder reminiscent of someone’s first time on shrooms.
To be fair, even now thinking back to that morning still fills me with amazement. Mentally, I was in a space that is hard to describe other than it being as close to a spiritual experience as I’ve ever had; I was pretty high on life. I was so appreciative of the brilliance of the world and of life in general, and felt extremely lucky and grateful to be able to experience it like this. I was going end this paragraph by saying that experiences like this are why I travel but really, experiences like this are what I live for.
My climbing partner Daniel navigating the rim, the volcano crater blowing out smoke next to him.
Looking into the crater itself.
Our unflappable guide, looking like the hero he is.
My view during the descent. Those other peaks are also volcanoes, but not nearly as active.
You can see the valleys and canyons left over from previous eruptions’ lava flows.
More lava trails.