The guide picks you up one hour before midnight. He does not need to know where you are staying because the small village of Pura Besakih has only one guest house. The guide speaks broken English, and patiently waits for your final preparations before departure. With a smile, he sets off. Immediately, you are struggling to keep up in the pitch black. He ventures off the rural roads into the fields, “So the dogs won’t attack us,” he explains. This is first time you are glad you have hired a guide.
The concept was to climb for almost seven hours in pure darkness to reach the summit of the highest mountain in Bali so we could watch the sun rise over Indonesia. The ordeal actually starts around nine o’clock at night, when the village locals help dress you in traditional Hindu apparel: a sarong around your waist, traditional jacket and scarf around your head.
You climb the 2,000 volcanic steps to the temple where you ask for a safe journey up the mountain. All Balinese mountains are sacred to the locals, and to climb them you must show respect by praying at the temple first. This mountain side temple is truly outstanding. Climbing up the side of the volcano, it is over 2,000 years old, and survived the volcano’s last eruption in 1963 virtually unscathed while all the surrounding villages were demolished.
There are three distinctive sections to this to this 10,300 foot peak called Mount Agung. The first part of the climb is through dense jungle. The route does not switch back and forth; it extends straight up the face of the mountain. This leaves you not only trekking, but actually climbing up and over steep crumbling ledges. With a flash light in one hand, you make sure the tree roots you are grabbing as holds are not snakes or the large black spiders you saw hiding under your bed an hour ago.
As the trees start spreading out, another environment begins to emerge. The guide stops for a water break and carves everyone a huge walking stick with his machete. As you begin to travel above the timberline, the air gets thin and cold and the ground turns into volcanic gravel. With every step you take, your foot slips deep into the gravel and sinks partially back down the mountain. It is like climbing up an endless sand dune, with large volcanic rocks in your shoes, and volcanic dust clouds like deathly auras around your body. You just wince and try to believe in the Hindu blessings that catalyzed the whole trip. After about two hours of this you reach your final and most dangerous trial.
Barren, windswept, volcanic lava, this summit section is so steep that most of the time you are scrambling on all fours like a monkey. It is still pitch dark, but your survival instincts alert you to the fact that a slip on this section of the mountain would be a certain broken limb, or worse. It starts to get cold, and your sweat drenched beach clothes only make it worse in the harsh summit gales. You start thinking about your family and your nice warm couch.
Then a certain excitement starts to build within you. The ground is so steep that you know the summit can not be far, and at this point the delirium from climbing for five hours on no sleep is starting to take effect. You realize that you are actually going to make it; you will conquer a ten thousand foot mountain. With adrenaline pumping, you scurry up the last few feet, and reach the summit, still in complete darkness. You can see the distant lights of Kuta and the stars feel close enough to grasp– a true sense of victory.
You can see the whole island and the surrounding ocean, as the black turns to blue, the volcanic crater on the top is revealed. Coveting any available warmth, everyone is huddled together watching the blues turn purple then deep red, orange, and yellow. The odyssey that brought you here seems distant as the rising sun yields the clouds now far below you. The whole sunrise takes about twenty minutes, and after its completion you come to the painful realization that you are more tired than you have ever been. You are freezing, sore and weak, and on the top of a 10,000 foot active volcano.
The trip down is ridiculously hard. The summit section that you scrambled up on hands and knees now requires you to walk down leaning backwards at such an absurd angle that you mimic a limbo dancer. Your water is running low and food is a long lost memory, but you push downwards into the avalanching ash, and through the now monkey infested jungle.
The jungle is a lot more comforting during the day. There are brilliant red ferns, and towering trees and vines. The urge to lie down and nap in the foliage becomes the dominating thought in your mind, but you know you must keep up with the guide who simply runs down the mountain without a backward glance. After thinking repetitively that you are finished, that this next step will be your last, the thirteen hour ordeal comes to an end, and you have reached the top of the Hindu temple in which you paid respects to the mountain. One last journey down two thousand steps and you are done.