Gunung Agung

The most memorable hikes aren’t always the ones that are finished.  Though Facetwitteragram isn’t short on trekking pole thrusts at summits or teary-eyed monument hugs, there’s more to making a lifelong memory in the outdoors than just doing the whole thing from end to end or bottom to top.

I recently had such an experience, far away from home, in Indonesia.

Gunung Agung (Mt. Agung) is one of more than 120 active volcanoes that punctuate the 15,500+island archipelago nation of Indonesia.   A stratovolcano, Agung currently stands at 9,944ft and is ranked 87th on Eberhard Jurgalski’s Top 100 World Summits list.  Looming high above the rice and coffee plantations it surrounds, Agung is the defining geographical centerpiece of eastern Bali.

Agung last erupted in 1963, killing nearly 2,000 people through pyroclastic flows and lahars.

This trip began as many summit attempts on Agung do; in the middle of the night.  This is done mainly because the best views from Agung are reportedly in the early hours of the morning just after sunrise.  Also, as Agung is just 8 degrees below the equator it can get quite hot up there.

Now, a skeptical person would say that the officially recommended night hike keeps the guides in business, but I’m going to say that unless you’re familiar with the mountain, hiring a guide is a very good idea.  10,000 feet (OK, 9,944, but close enough) isn’t often a nice place for weather, wherever you are, and stories abound of hikers getting disoriented and meeting their doom on the slopes of Agung, though actual published accounts are very difficult to find.  In fact, it’s hard to find much on hiking Agung, period, though Peakbagger has an interesting account.  Being as it was my first trip to Bali, I wasn’t about to rock the boat and hired a driver and guide for the very fine price of 1,000,000 IDR ($85 USD).  It was the first time I’d spent a million of anything on anything.  Not too shabby.

I set my alarm for midnight, but was easily wide awake by 11pm, getting amped for the climb and quietly listening to nighttime jungle sounds, which sound a good deal nicer than snow and sleet hitting our house in Maine as it has been doing all winter long!  I grabbed my pack, said goodbye to the wife, and plodded 5 minutes down the road from our bungalow to an outdoor warung (restaurant) where my driver was waiting.  We drove a hour and a half through sleeping villages, he talking about politics and tourism and me just gazing out the window at the increasingly unfriendly landscape.  At some point it started to rain and the wind got serious.  We dodged a few blow downs in the road, which began to climb quite dramatically until reaching a small parking lot.

It was 2AM, pitch black night with gale force winds and a light stinging rain.  We were on the mountain.  The driver left me at the lot with my guide for the remainder of the evening, a young fellow named Dana (pronounced Dah Nah) who makes three guided trips to the summit each week and looked the part: skinny and lean.  Without so much as saying hello, he handed me a headlamp and we were off.

The first part of the climb was a set of I don’t know how many hundreds of stairs that connects the parking lot with the Pura Besakih, the holiest Hindu temple on the island that is perched on the southern slope of Agung.  I saw none of the temple in the middle of the night and would see just shadows of it on my return due to heavy fog.  We stopped briefly while Dana made an offering at the temple and chatted with another guide.  Then it was time for the real climb.  Dana took me along the left side of the temple, along a narrow concrete walkway, then straight into a dense forest along a well-worn and somewhat gullied trail.

We went straight up through the darkness.  The path to the top gains about 6,300ft and reportedly takes between three and four hours, depending, obviously, on the fitness of the climber.  There were almost no flat spots, so with Dana’s headlamp constantly bobbing above me, I threw it into low gear and ground my way along.

The first half or so of the climb was through progressively thinning forest.  I picked off three small black leaches when we were climbing through the densest part of the forest.   The treadway was a mix of clay and solid dirt and we frequently had to negotiate networks of tree roots crossing the trail exposed by years of climbers slowy eroding the path.  The wind and rain did not abate.  We stopped 1/3 of the way up for snacks and a 20,000 rupiah offering to the Mountain.

Obviously I was soaking wet.  I had not expected to climb anything when I came out here with my wife to attend a wedding and therefore had only summer clothes and a fleece for the climb.  This was sufficient while we were under tree cover, but as we climbed and I became progressively exposed to the cooler air.  We were also out of tree cover, so we felt to full force of the wind, which was MIGHTY, to say the least.   It was the kind of wind that could shower you with stinging bits of water and whip it right off you at the same time.  Dana gave me a poncho and I put on my fleece jacket.  Warmth, for a while.

We were now clamoring over rock that was slick and blackened by the rain and night.  Still going straight up.  We made slow, tedious progress.  I was not in the best shape, but was confident we’d make it and Dana was a patient guide, offering a hand from time to time and warning me about all of the dangerous spots.

60 minutes from the top we passed a group of hikers who were tending to two of their companions.  One was not going to go further and was going to wait with his friend behind a sheltered slab of rock while the others reached the summit and came back.  He was dressed out in a Mylar blanket and looked as comfortable as could be in such a place.  I gave him some of my water.

30 minutes from the top and with wind and rain blasts non-abating, we spied a group of white lights bobbing down the route from above us.  Another party, but surely they couldn’t have summited already?  It was still dark!  We climbed, they descended, and we met for a pow-wow.  Two Balinese and four Swiss; young guys all in their 20s and looking quite fit.  They had turned back due to dangerous conditions up ahead.  The high winds and rain, they decided, made a summit attempt too risky.  My wobbly 36-year old legs and mushy belly were no match for their level of fitness, so I decided that if it was too dangerous for them, it was too dangerous for me, so we turned back.

There is a certain level of pride that guides have in getting their clients to their destination.  Though this was certainly nothing on the level of Into Thin Air, I could tell that Dana was initially disappointed with my decision.  So as we got ready to turn around and descend, I told him that I thought he was a good guide and that I had had a great time up here on the mountain with him.  It didn’t matter that we didn’t summit.   His mood was better after this and we hiked down with the Swiss-Bali party.  I ruined my knees for the next several days in the process.

Back at the temple, I took a quick photo of Dana, tipped him and said goodbye, then woke my driver and we drove back to my bungalow.  I made it just in time for a breakfast of banana pancakes with honey, fresh fruit, and Bali coffee.

Thanks for the memories, Dana!

I’ve only got a few pictures of this trip; we were shrouded in fog and darkness most of the time.  In fact, I actually saw very little of the mountain, but I’ve got some good memories from this one.  The exoticness of it all, the midnight hike, Hindu offerings along the way, my quads on fire, feeling the sheer force of wind and rain on the side of a tropical volcano…well…the whole thing makes for lasting memories.  Though a summit would have been really cool, and I think I felt regret for a few short moments the next day, the problems that caused us to abort the climb make for just as good, if not better stories than if I had gotten to the top without any trouble.  And that’s pretty satisfying.

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