Climbing Mount Rinjani: A Test Of Will

F@#! If you wanted to know how Frodo felt climbing Mount Doom, then head out to Mount Rinjani in Lombok, Indonesia. No matter how I tried to zen myself the last 1.5 hours of the climb to the summit, I secretly vowed to disown my friend who said “Mount Rinjani – it’s okay, a little tough, but okay”. You might think I am exaggerating, but I am not.

The only thing that got me to the summit of Mount Rinjani last week was accountability – accountability to myself and to my climbing partner whom I dragged out of the city with promises of a breezy walk up a hill. So here’s my take of the real Rinjani for you. This post might turn out to be a long read, but I hope to keep it easy (no promises now!).

Some facts. Mount Rinjani is the second tallest active volcano in Indonesia rising to 3,726m, famed for its 50km2 crescent-shaped caldera lake and natural hot springs, Segara Anak. Rinjani National Park rich with flora and fauna is closed for 6 months of the year during the wet season, and attracts climbers from all over April through November when it is open. A sacred mountain to the Hindus, Mount Rinjani recently erupted last year in 2016 with no immediate threats.

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Mount Rinjani with Tiu Kelep Waterfalls in foreground. Taken at Senaru.

After a week of blissful diving at Nusa Lembongan, Bali – see Nusa Penida: Magic Manta Moments and Nusa Lembongan: The Devil Cries Here, I headed out by fast boat to the island of Lombok for my summit to Mount Rinjani. The ride takes approx. 2 hours from Jungut Batu Beach to the harbor of Senggigi, Lombok, and is not easy with large swells and windows closed – read: rocky boat, hot, humid, lack of air, nausea. I slept most of the way in my attempt to ignore the unpleasantness.

At Senggigi jetty, I was met by the driver of the trekking company I signed up with. After stopping for a quick lunch somewhere near Nipah Beach and a two-hour drive, we got to Pondok Senaru where we were putting up the night. There are several routes up to Mount Rinjani, the two most popular of which is either via Sembalun or Senaru. We had opted for a 3D 2N trek via the Sembalun route which starts at a higher elevation of 1,156m and ending in the village of Senaru. Had we started from Senaru, we would start at 601m with a longer walk up steeper hills to the crater rim. We were staying at Senaru for convenience as most of the Rinjani porters lived in this village.

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Loading up at Senaru

At 8am the next morning, we dropped our travel bags for storage with the trekking company, and took only our small backpacks. The tents, food and equipment were loaded and left with the porters who jumped into the car with us to Sembalun, an hour away. After signing in at the park entrance, our guide Wan led us to through a small village to begin our walk up through open savannah fields with the sun tormenting us.

Despite having arrived late last night from Bangkok, my climbing buddy was full of energy and enthusiasm that morning. She walked briskly ahead whilst Wan watched us from behind. The line of climbers was long but eventually everyone dispersed according to their pace. Our objective that day was to get to our campsite at the crater rim at 2,600m in time for tea.

 

The first part of the walk to Pos One (1,300m) and Pos Two (1,500m) was relatively easy and took us about 2 hours. At Pos Two, we stopped for a quick lunch, keeping watch for the macaques that eyed our food.

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Walking grasslands and rolling hills

The hike to Pos Three (1,800m) and Pos Extra (2,000m) were steeper with heavier ups and downs but still manageable by my standards. The ascent up to the crater rim posed some challenges for me with its steep gradient as I started adjusting to the higher altitude. Under the guise of taking pictures, I made more frequent stops as my friend pushed on.

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Beer awaits at Plawangan Sembalun

When I finally got to base camp Plawangan Sembalun at 2,638m at 4pm, I was so ready for a bottle of Bintang to calm me down.

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Camping at Crater Rim
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Sunset at Crater Rim

The views at the crater rim was magnificent, to say the least. We were literally above the clouds, and the peak of Mount Rinjani was in clear sight. This would be our goal in the morning. The temperature having dropped drastically to single digit C, we put on our jackets, waited for the sun to set, alternately sipping ginger tea and beer with our gulai ayam (or chicken curry).

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Above the clouds at Crater Rim

Lights out at 8pm. Lights on at 2.00am. Shoes on 2.15am. Poles up 2.30am. Now this is the part where the silent expletives started and I began to question our journey.

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Volcanic scree all the way up to the peak

With our headlights on, we started our 4km climb in the cold darkness through gravel, rocks and boulders. Under advisement from Wan, we had put on our fleece, windbreakers and gloves, shoved some energy bars and chocolate into our pockets and tightened our hoodies. Still the cold crept in although we were obviously sweating from the difficult workout we were getting. After about three hours, we hit the ridge of the mountain and began our final ascent to the summit. We were already exhausted when our feet met with loose volcanic scree that negated every step we took. With every two steps up, we slid down one, sometimes two.

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Sunrise on the way up to the peak

By 6am, the sun started rising, and I kept thinking I had already missed the sunrise at the summit, so what else is there. Well, there was my friend. She did not travel all the way just to turn back, and frankly neither did I. Seeing my frustration, Wan who had been quiet all this time proved real encouragement, spurring me on with how close we were to the summit. My friend was visibly cold, stopping for water, rest and pictures. We plodded along in silence.

What does one do when one has nothing but a mountain to climb? I did the only thing I knew in such circumstances. I prayed, I chanted, I blanked out. One chant, one step forward. One chant, one step forward.

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We are here!

At 7.30am, we arrived at the summit of Mount Rinjani. Climbers were slumped at the peak, taking a rest whilst the more energetic were jumping around with glee posing for pictures.

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Me, my shadow and the view from Mt. Rinjani summit

I loathe using too many words to describe what only your own eyes could appreciate alongside the gamut of emotions accompanying such an achievement. So here is one – AMAZEMENT. Simple as that.

Spent, we gazed upon the ethereal space atop Mount Rinjani for only a short time. Having seen others descend the peak, we knew it would tough getting back. I will not belabour the journey down, except to say that one should be prepared to get themselves rather dirty as the volcanic ash kicks up relentlessly as you glide down. If you are skier, you may be able to handle the sloping floors of the ridge better, pretending the scree were snow. I was down in a jiff trying to get away from the blazing sun as quickly as I could.

As we walked back into the camp and reading each other’s mind, my friend and I agreed to skip the hot springs and the hike back to Senaru and to head down as soon as we could to Sembalun and onward to the clear turquoise waters of Gili Islands. We deserved it.

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Plawangan campsite covered by fog

 

Nature can be a beast. After we came down, the weather took a turn and hid the upper crust of Mount Rinjani in clouds. The next morning as we looked back at Sembalun, we were grateful for having summited earlier as there would be no rewarding views at the summit for the climbers today.

Will I be back to Rinjani? Undoubtedly yes! And I’m making a list of things to remember when climbing Mount Rinjani.