Climbing Mount Rinjani was an adventure that tested my endurance, strength, and fear in multiple ways. This was one challenging climb, and, besides the awesomeness of the volcano, what made it even more challenging as well as nerve racking was the lack of information we had. I’ll explain.
Mount Rinjani is the second tallest volcano in Indonesia (the first is in Papua), at 12,224 feet, and is located on Lombok, a main island in Indonesia, in the region of Nusa Tenggara. It is part of the same Ring of Fire that forms that volcanoes in New Zealand. On the Gili Islands, Mount Rinjani trekking is marketed everywhere, which gives off the impression that this is a scenic hike for everyone. When I sat down at the travel agent hut on Gili Air to buy a tour, they were very eager to sell it to me (of course), but, and not surprisingly, there was no information about the hike itself. No personal questions about how fit you are, medical conditions, etc. This contrasts with New Zealand for instance, where I had to answer an entire medical questionnaire to take a two-hour hike through Franz Joseph Glacier, and that’s a country where you can’t even sue! The guys selling me the ticket spoke very little English as well, so the whole process was confusing. What I knew was, I bought a 3-day 2-night trip; tents, sleeping bags, and food would be provided; and I needed to meet someone at the travel agent hut at 7:30am the following morning.
The next morning, I arrive at the hut, and met one of the guys. He took me to the beach where the ferries come, and led me to the boat to take me to the island of Lombok. He had my ferry ticket already, and gave it to the person collecting tickets. This is when a communication breakdown happened: I had no idea who I was meeting or what I was doing when I got to Lombok, so I said, “Will I be meeting someone on Lombok?”.
He smiled at me and said, “Yes, Lombok”.
“I know, but who will I be meeting?”.
He stared at me like a deer in headlights. Then just motioned me to get on the boat, and said “yes yes”.
Me - “Uhhh, no, WHO?”
The fact that it was early morning and I hadn’t eaten anything added to my irritation. The guy collecting tickets mocked me “HOO HOO”. Then, an English speaking guy, in an attempt to make himself feel helpful, said “these guys don’t speak English well, where do you want to go? This boat is going to Lombok”. Ummm, thanks captain obvious, I thought.
I got on the boat and hoped for the best.
Sure enough, when I hopped off the boat on Lombok, I heard my name called, and there was a guy there to meet me. Perhaps I should just trust these guys a bit more and not ask so many questions…
The guy led me to a cafe, where there were four others also going to Mount Rinjani. We piled into a car, and drove for about an hour north east into the jungle, and arrived at a restaurant hotel. At the restaurant, we had some coffee and got to know each other a bit. I was reminded of the beginning of the movie Everest, when everyone gets to know each other, and they know they are about to share in a crazy experience.
We all packed a small bag of supplies for three days – clothes, a light weight coat, poncho, head lamp, hat, and towel, and left our big bags at the restaurant.
There were only three of us now (two of the others from the bus were doing a different trip), a girl from England named Dani and a guy from France named Hugo. We were then directed to jump into the back of a pickup truck, and the truck took off. The base of the mountain must be close I naively thought. I mean, if we were going to travel any significant distance, we wouldn’t ride in the back of a pickup, right? Totally wrong. The three of us sat with our back leaning against the cabin. The ride was like a backwards roller-coaster through the jungle, and making it worse, the heat of the metal truck bed burnt and the ridges in the metal hurt. When was the ride going to be over we all wanted to know.
About an hour later, the truck finally arrived at a trail and we all hopped out. Our trek was beginning. We were directed to a man – ostensibly our guide. The man carried a long wooden pole on his shoulder with bags dangling on each end – our supplies.
The beginning of the hike was fun. We gained elevation quickly, and we started to see some fantastic views. We were hiking through thick vegetation in hot and humid weather that was in the high 80s. My clothes quickly became drenched with sweat, and my back was hot and sore from carrying my backpack. Scenes from Vietnam war movies popped into my head, and I imagined how difficult it would have been to hike through this climate in full army gear and supplies.
After hiking uphill for about 2.5 miles, we came to a little concrete structure where people were sitting and eating. An Indonesian about 5’5” with a round face and goofy smile came up and said “Hi, I’m your guide”. Oh, so the other guy we were walking with was just the porter, not our guide – another surprise! Our guide’s name was Ishmael. Ishmael gave us some soup and rice for lunch. When we were eating, Ishmael said he was continuing up the trail and he’d meet us up there. I assumed this meant he was walking up a few hundred yards…
We began hiking again, and the trail got much steeper. We were walking for what seemed like ages, and, guess what! No sign of Ishmael. How far did this guy go?
The trail seemed to go on forever, and there were no flat breaks – it was all constant uphill. I usually think I’m good at hiking, but I was getting exhausted. My two hiking companions seemed to just keep on going without taking a break, so for as long as I could I resisted being the one to ask to stop. But, alas, I caved. How could they keep going? I thought. Well, it turns out Dani was formerly a competitive downhill skier and most recently a ski instructor at Mont Blanc in France, and a bicycle tour guide for the Tour de France route…so maybe that makes it explainable. And the French guy? I don’t know how he had so much endurance.
As I was hiking and my legs were burning, I thought about the factors that go into performance in strength tests. I concluded that there are two. The first is, not surprisingly, strength. The second is tolerance of fatigue. Someone who is very strong but has low fatigue tolerance might perform just as well as someone who is weak but has high fatigue tolerance. I like to believe I have high scores in both. However, whether it was strength, fatigue tolerance, or both, I was behind my companions. I tried to contain my frustration.
After a grueling two hours, and finally came to an area where we saw tents. This was our camping spot for the night. Just beyond the tents was an incredible view of the lake that is in the middle of the mountain range, and the volcano is in the middle of the lake. At some point, we found Ishmael too, who had walked all the way up, and just expected us to do the same.
The sun began to set, and we saw a spectacular sunset over the mountain. The mountains behind the lake became silhouetted and magnified the orange and red of the sun.
When the sun finally went down, we ate some dinner and went to sleep – we had an early wake up the next morning – 2am – to hike to the summit in time for sunrise.
2am the next morning – porters woke us up and provided some biscuits and tea. At about 2:30am, we began our hike. I had heard the hike would take 3 hours, but I couldn’t imagine it would be more difficult than the hike to base camp. Again, I was being naïve.
In the glow of the moon, we began the hike, which started with a steep incline on loose volcanic gravel that was at least a foot deep. Consequently, every step forward came with a half step back, a tiring process that rapidly gets you dusty and your sneakers filled with gravel. Prior eruptions had also created waist and shoulder high curvy corridors, carved out by lava, which we were walking through as well.
In the beginning of the hike, the queue of summit-attempters was dense, but after about an hour, as people hiked at different speeds, the queue was spread out, and people walked in threes, twos, and alone. The temperature also became increasingly cold. Fortunately, I had a jacket, hat, and long pants on, yet gloves would have helped too. As we hiked upwards into the dark abyss and across loose volcanic gravel, the dim of the moon provided just enough light to make out massive drops on either side of the path. I discovered the “path” we were on was where both slopes of the mountain met.
At one point, others had dropped behind, and I found myself alone in the middle of an open pass. The wind created a deep bellowing that increased as I got higher, in what seemed like an ominous warning from the mountain itself. A combination of thinning frigid air, endless drops into darkness, screaming mountain wind, and burning sore legs challenged my desire and courage to go on.
Yet luckily, I walked up to a group of three – one French guy and two guys from Holland – who I joined. One had an altimeter, and he was giving us our altitude. “We are at 2,844 meters, and we started at 1,800 meters, I think the summit is 3,726 meters, so we gotta be close”. I repeated the math in my head and tried to remember the height of the mountain and the elevation of base camp to calculate what percent of the hike we had left, but I couldn’t think clearly.
We then saw some folks coming down. “You guys going down?” one of the guys asked.
“Yea, it’s too cold for us”.
“How much is left?”
“So much, like 100% more”
That can’t be right I thought. We had been hiking for so long. Our group found a rock face that was about 8 feet high, which provided some shelter from the wind, and we decided to take a break. It was just 4am and sunrises was 5:30am.
After about 20 minutes we moved on. I looked up and still saw what looked like an endless incline into darkness. The cold and wind was only getting fiercer. As we hiked, our group became dispersed, and I again found myself hiking solo. One step at a time I told myself. I began taking repeated breaks by turning around and sitting on the gravel incline. While this provided a needed respite, the view looking away from the mountain was sensational and intimidating. I don’t think I could walk down now even if I wanted I thought.
I continued this start-stop hiking pattern for the next hour or so. At what must have been around 5:15am, I saw a crack of light from around the mountain – sunrise! The light provided motivation and assurance that I would complete this hike. The temperature also got warmer and the wind calmed down. The summit was getting closer.
I reached the summit at 5:49am in the morning. The view from the summit was breathtaking, and I was euphoric. I had summited Rinjani.
The summit is 12,224 feet, 94% of the altitude at which I skydived in New Zealand (13,000 feet). The sky was mostly clear except for some clouds below. From the summit, there is a complete view of the volcanic crater in the center of the lake. Beyond the mountains looking west, Rinjani cast a pyramid shadow in the clouds. Just to the left of the shadow, a dim outline of mount Agung in Bali can be seen. In the center of the shadow, you can see the three Gili Islands. This is one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen.
The walk down turned out to be easier than I expected. I found I could get down the mountain pretty well with controlled slides on the gravel. Here are some of the views coming down the mountain (click on the images below).
When we made it to base camp, the porters had breakfast prepared for us. It was only around 9:30 and we still had an entire day of hiking left.
Following breakfast, we hiked down the inside of the mountain to the lake. Again, this felt like a never ending hike. At least it was downhill this time. Somehow, the porters do this hike in flip flops.
When we made it to the lake, we ate lunch and then went to some natural hot springs. These springs were extremely hot! I put my feet in while two others went all the way in.
Following the hot springs, we hiked back up the west side of the mountain to our base camp for the night. Again – another 3-hour hike that seemed endless. This one had multiple 90 degree vertical climbs, as well as awesome views of the lake and crater.
We made it to base camp at around 5pm, just before dusk. The porters had pitched tents for us, and the group went to sleep around 9pm.
The following morning, we did our final hike down the west side of the mountain. Ishmael told us “two hours to base camp one where we’ll eat lunch, then one hour to the end of the trail”. Ishmael took off as I finished breakfast with Hugo. The two of us then took off together down the trail. After about two hours, we came to a clearing where people were eating lunch. Finally, we made it to lunch! I thought. I saw Ishmael there, and he motioned to keep going “about an hour left to the lunch spot” he said. Oh, so this wasn’t the spot.
We took off again, and, after about an hour, we were still on the path. Where was the stopping point? We passed two hikers going the opposite direction, and they told us it was about 15 minutes’ walk. After about 15 minutes we got to a clearing with people, but didn’t see anyone from our group nor our porters. Is this the place? We hung out for about 15 minutes, but still didn’t see anyone from our group, and we knew about 5 people from our group were ahead of us. So we figured we didn’t get to base camp one yet, and we continued on.
We walked for at least another half hour, when doubt set in. Ishmael said we would only walk for two hours, but it’s been at least three hours, and no sign of base camp one! Was it at the prior place? Where’s everyone else?
This was a theme throughout the trip. Ishmael would motion us to go on, give us a time estimate that didn’t pair with reality, and we’d wonder if we were in the right place.
Alas, we did make it to base camp one, where the others were waiting. We ate our final lunch, and it was about a 30-minute walk to the end of the trail.
This was a fantastic and challenging 3-day 2-night hike. However, more information about the hike would have been helpful, and porters and a guide that spoke better English would have made us all feel safer. I recommend this hike to others, just know what you are getting into!