It began innocently enough: a sudden calling to climb a volcano. The first time this came up was in February 2012, and while I booked flights to Jakarta in transit for Yogyakarta to climb Mount Merapi, the gods thought me unready, and I could not get any realistic transportation set up for my onward journey. That is until end-December 2016: the volcano beckoned once more.
Which is how I found myself in end-January 2017, at 2200, waiting in the lobby of the Phoenix Hotel Yogyakarta with a Dutch-French family for our transportation to basecamp. We were travellers with a purpose: climbing Mount Merapi
The ride to basecamp was relatively uneventful. There we were, 6 travellers and 1 driver in a large minivan, attempting to get some shut eye during the 2 hour drive. I knew I could not sleep despite my best attempts. No bed in my 5 star hotel could have made me rest, nor did the winding drive up, along narrow village lanes, potholed roads, sharp turns and steep ascents, prove conducive.
By 0015, we were at the trekking agency’s rest stop (more like a residence doubling as a storefront), where we met others of our party (to a total of 12 hikers), and were given light refreshments for the hike up. Some were well prepared, with hiking poles and all-weather parkas. One bloke was in shorts and a hoodie. Little would we know what will transpire.
As others pondered about their tea, downing coffee to keep them awake or comment about the drizzle outside, all I could think about was the contingency if I needed to eliminate up on the volcano.
By 0030, we set off, walking from our agency’s facilities straight up along a tarmac road. Within 100m, we encountered another group, and 1km up the road, we reached the start of the hike: ‘New Selo’. Here we saw other hikers. One was a lone hiker, will full camping gear. Another a group of friends who were huddled around having a meal amidst the darkness.
Soon enough, we set off: the proper path up beckoned. I shall not lie, it was a bit steep, between 35-40*. The path was paved with cement blocks for half the hike, with the rough surface and embedded grooves providing added grip, which was much welcomed. After about 45 minutes of hiking up, we reached the first check-point.
It was here where we had a taste of what was coming. The wind picked up, and you could see the cloud-line where you stood. After 15 minutes of rest as our team came up, we embarked on the next stage, which only got more interesting.
The wind gradually picked up, and we were truly in the clouds. Drizzle, and then sleet rain, lashed about us. The wind started to howl as the temperature gradually got colder. At each step, a lose stone got me cautious. At each boulder, my grip held on against a mossy surface. It did not help that the sleet rain and my body heat started to fog my spectacles up.
All I could do was keep pace with the lead guide and the two girls in front. My headlamp was not as useful on my forehead as it was in my hand, helping me see ahead much clearly despite not optimizing its use as a ‘head-lamp.’ With the wind bellowing and the sleet rain annoying, I zipped up my warm cycling jacket all the way to the top, thankful I wore triathlon compression socks underneath my chinos.
By the second check-point, the wind was at full force. We spotted tents around us, the fabric fluttering in the wind. One by one we streamed in to the check-point, each utilizing our individual pride to look brave. Save for the Dutch-French family (a fit father, a sociable mother and an energetic son), the rest of us were solo travellers. We smiled, we small-talked, we each in our own way tried to motivate the other without showing fear, dread or hinting at self-doubt.
And then my fears came about: I needed to use the toilet. To take a leak in the darkness, on a volcano with the winds howling around you, is no easy feat. However, I can now proudly say that I saw my urine steam up as I was taking a leak halfway up Mount Merapi. It was that cold.
We were making good time. By 0300, we went forth towards check-point three, dodging the tents and support ropes of the campsites around us. It was from here that the great gods of the volcanoes decided to demonstrate their power. The winds got ever stronger, pushing me sideways as I sought out footings against the trail before me. I held my hydration pack straps firmly to prevent them from fluttering about and annoying me, while keeping a firm focus on the lead guide before me.
Soon enough, the rocks were in a position that you had to scramble on all four, more rock-climbing than hiking. The sleet rain picked up again, as did the wind, growing ever fiercer. My gloves were of no utility, now being drenched and clearly designed more for a cool English autumn night than a growing mountain-top tempest.
By 0345, we were close but not quite in proximity to fourth check-point. Our guide told us we had to stop and seek shelter, as the wind was getting ever stronger and the cloud cover ever denser. Little did I realize this was where it was getting interesting.
We huddled up in our shelter: a make-shift cave, an old lava tube, where the sweet smell of incense guided our way. For an hour and a half, we sought shelter in our little hole. 10 of us, cold, wet, exhausted, wondering what we got ourselves in to. In the darkness, we attempted to get some rest. Some of us snacked on whatever we brought with us. Some of us changed clothes. I had a small flask of tea, which unsurprisingly in this weather, got cold.
Faced with our predicament, we tried to get some sleep. I barely managed a few brief moments of shut eye, but the cold inside and out, the damp and the sound of the howling wind outside was an ever constant distraction. The tips of my fingers felt numb, and a few among us tried whatever we could to stay warm. The family huddled up together in one mass. I shoved my fingers in to my warm cycling jacket. The two girls wrapped themselves as best they could in their all-weather gear. We looked like a miserable bunch, and we later shared that the thought of hypothermia was in our minds at that very moment.
By 0530, I quite literally saw the light. Curious, and in need of a leak, I went out. There, I saw a hauntingly beautiful sight: dawn breaking, lighting the sky in an eerie blue light. The wind ever present, but the drizzle now at a minimum. Having had a leak, I quickly rushed back in, took out my camera from my pack, questioned my sanity and went back out to brave the cold and wind for that ideal shot. I was not disappointed.
But then I noticed, our middle and tail-end guides were sleeping outside, in the cold. Granted, they were covered under cloth, with their feet exposed, but they rested soundly. I heard voices along the ridge, and I started to wonder: would we ever reach the top?
Shortly after, our guide told us of our options: commence our descent and call this a day, with the promise of warmth and an end to our travails, or brave the tempest, storm and wind to reach check-point four, with little in terms of picture quality and an assurance of gale-force winds, a steep ascent and dense cloud cover.
Naturally we picked the latter. Granted, we did question, and we did think of the former, but having braved all this, it made sense to go all the way. And go all the way we did: dodging the wind, navigating through paths in between boulders and skirting along support ropes and equipment of the campsites along the way.
The scene was of rugged beauty: a picture of desolate richness, a stunning garden of barrenness, of raw creation. At the plateau, by the fourth check-point, we were greeted with strong winds and dense cloud cover, as a monument stood in the middle: a hiker died as he attempted to take a picture a few years ago, and here is a reminder of how nature gives, and how nature takes away.
It was here I had to do what I set out to do all those years ago: I took out my hip flask, made a toast to all explorers before and all explorers who have yet to come, and drank to wanderlust. Did this failed summit attempt put me off? No: instead, it further cemented my resolve to climb even more peaks.
During our very quick 1.5 hour descent down the volcano, I contemplated on what had transpired. While we did not reach the top, my fellow hikers and I agreed that this experience, of being assaulted by strong winds, of seeing nothing but white clouds, of being stranded, cold, wet and exhausted in a lava tube, was something far more interesting than a simple and straightforward summit. Not an ideal travel experience, but an experience we would not trade for something else.
Agency: I used Kresna Travel as my agency to climb up Mount Merapi.
Preparation: Please get fit. I cannot stress this enough. My two weeks of cycling every day for 1 hour was barely enough. 3 in our party turned back at check point two, and 2 in our party backed away when we attempted check point four, citing exhaustion.
Bring: Water, a hydration pack is idea. Snacks, a power bar or individually wrapped chocolates will help you a long way.
Wear: Something warm and all-weather, preferably a windbreaker, and bring gloves. Do not be like me and wear chinos. The mother in the Dutch-French family thought me too well dressed in chinos as we were waiting for our ride
Time: It took us 4.5 hours to reach the plateau, including stops. It should take less than half of that for the descent. Do not ask how long it will take when you hike up: ignorance is bliss.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.