The Scree & Sunrise of Gunung Agung

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August 25th 2008
Published: September 9th 2008
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Day 5: Gunung Agung

It’s pitch black. My knees ache. My legs are loose, wobbling with each unstable step. This is not helping in the least bit. The scree beneath my feet, the chalky volcanic rock, crumbles with the slightest pressure. I grip a flashlight in my mouth with clenched jaws and take a large step over an ice-less crevasse, then reach out for the boulder opposite, quickly feeling for handholds. Up ahead, as a streak of light breaks the horizon, there is a tussle. Irregular noises catch my attention as a chorus of stone ring down the mountainside. A voice sounds alarm. Someone has gone down. I quickly pull the light from my teeth and look into the darkness.

It isn’t long after dinner when Laura & I are in bed that I find myself rising again. It is midnight. I rollover, throw off the sheets, and step onto the balcony. Above, the sky is clear for the first time in days. Stars dance. Their gaseous movements twitch and sparkle like a giant punch bowl of chilled champagne.

I wince. More than half of me wants rain—lots of rain. I want a storm to blow in so I have the excuse to retreat back into the bed next to that hot naked body. I don’t want to get dressed, or shoulder my pack and prepare for the ardor ahead. No. This is not very enticing.

I look back into the room at the white silhouette beneath the sheets. Laura is sound asleep. Damn, I wish I was joining her upon our drifting cloud.

But the night sky is clear. Gorgeous, in fact. So I dress, slipping on my boardshorts, pulling synthetic layers over my head and cinching a pair of Keens to my feet. Perfect attire for a volcanic ascent.

Gunung Agung—Bali’s highest peak at 3142m (10,308ft), a sacred volcanic abode for the gods that last spit its fire upon the lesser humanity back in 1963. To be exact, it was March 17th when the smoke and ash turned to searing lava, killing more than 1000 Balinese. The volcano is revered among the locals. It has a spirit of its own, they say, and carries an energy deep and profound. Even cows can feel it, apparently sacrificing themselves into the 700m cauldron at will. Respect…

With a 12AM wakeup call, five of us from Laura DeFreitas’ yoga retreat leave the cool confines of our rooms and meet a fellow Yankee by the name of Karen out on the streets of Ubud. Karen is a true Yank. She comes from New York and has a quick wit to fire and sharp mouth to follow. At her first sight of the mountain at the end of our two-hour drive to the trailhead beginning at Pura Pasar Agung, she exclaims, “Shit, that’s one mofo!”

Respect. Gunung Agung is a mofo, and I keep this thought to myself. Local legend tells of tigers and jaguars descending from the jungled slopes, claiming the lives of victims who showed ignorance to the mount’s powers. Hmm… Balinese tigers. I swallow hard as we begin the ascent, climbing steep temple steps before entering a slick dirt trail as dark as an ebony flame.

It is a slow pace for us yogis. Despite the early morn, our joints feel loose, our muscles warm, bones stable and flexible. An erratic line of flashlights cast a menagerie of drunken spotlights on the foliage surrounding. Large green leaves, stringy vines, and stiff trunks leading to a tall canopy envelop us as we climb, one foot in front of the other. Before too long, the canopy disappears and the ground flora turns arid like a hillside in Mojave Desert. We move above the treeline and witness the vast spectrum of land and sky.

Our guide informs us of a little tall tale. On a sacred day, the priests and guides of the mountain wrapped imaginary yellow tape around the whole mound in respect to the gods and spirits. Gunung Agung was closed off, shut down to the tourist trap it induces (one that I was inevitably caught in). It was to be a day of offerings and religious duties at the temple, giving thanks and praise among other things. Climbers were turned back, asked to stay away and not climb the trail. The mountain would be back another day.

But of course, mankind is indifferent to others’ needs. An Italian came along. He wanted to climb. I mean, shit, I can relate. He didn’t wake up at midnight and drive so many hours for nothing! But the local priests wouldn’t have it. No one was going to take him up at any cost. There was too much danger on the slopes. They all advised the man to turn back.

The Italian did not listen. He heard only his own head clamoring away inside his ridge body. So he climbed, a solo ascent of Gunung. The morning passed. The sun rose, the winds howled and the clouds hovered in the skies. Soon it was noon, next came evening, and before the climber returned it was dark again. Days passed. The wife worried. The search team lost patience. And eventually with days gone by, the helicopter was called off. However, there were remnants. One day, a party found his jacket and one of his possessions—a flashlight or a shoe with laces undone. The locals shrugged, for they each knew the inevitable outcome to a man who disrespects the mountain.

Damn, I was happy we were out of the trees. On the open slope with dry brush and rocky ground, footing is more predictable, tigers less conceivable. So we climb upward, stopping to catch our breath, drink to rehydrate and gaze at the southern island below.

It is a beautiful sight. Standing above treeline on par with the clouds’ highways. In the morning in early darkness of predawn, the wind moans against the terrain. It sings a low choir of remorse. I hear loneliness, a loss of a loved one. I feel its desires to sweep away mortals, taking us off ground and into its constant stream of movement to be kept for company, for love. It is a hollow sound, desolate but calm like a siren trapped on a cliff. Above the melody, stars gaze upon our heads and a half moon rises over Gunung’s summit like the Northern Star.

We climb, stop, climb, stop. There are four of us feeling antsy. We want to move faster. We need a quicker pace in order to keep energized, in order to reach the summit before sunrise. So, the self-nominated four tag on with another passing guide who leads a French couple. We wish our two fellow climbers and elder guide a safe ascent and begin the scramble. Eventually we are a mere 300 meters from the top.

This is when it gets hairy. The terrain is steep. The rock is loose and unstable. The pathway undefined, indeterminable. In a way, it is a guessing game, and consumed by the dark it is often a stampede on all fours. I’m in the rear, shining a light ahead to help present the trail. Suddenly the rocks break free. The voices rise.

I rush around a large boulder and come to a small canyon of stone. A member of our group lays on the ground. Her back rests against her pack; her pack rests against the slope. It’s Abby, and with help, she slowly raises herself back on her feet. A flush of dizziness sweeps through her body. She reaches out for stabilization.

“I’m alright,” she affirms. “My handhold came loose.”

We look at where she points, following the line with our flashlights, and then trace them back down to the ground, measuring the five-foot freefall.

Abby’s shin is bashed and blood leaks from her ankles and foot. It is apparent her Chacos aren’t sufficient for mountain climbing.

“Take your time,” I remind her. “We’re in no rush. We’ll make it.” And smaller steps, I tell everyone. When climbing a hill, a knoll, a mountain, or a Stairmaster, the smaller the steps the better. Keeping the body’s center of gravity over the two feet is key to energy conservation and balance. There is no need to count up the
Higher ReflectionsHigher ReflectionsHigher Reflections

Hannah Kettler on top
number of splits on the tennis courts of the US Open.

We continue, inhaling and exhaling, dropping flashlights, retrieving them, replacing batteries while navigating an impassable terrain in pitch black. I think this is absurd at times. In the States or Europe, this degree of climbing would have us harnessed and roped in. We would be wearing hard hats and headlamps with requirements in regards to boot type. But this is Bali—Indonesia to be more specific in terms of safety measures. And before long, our guide drops us on the very pinnacle summit of all of Bali.

It is 6AM and we are the first to summit. At 6:30AM as our bones shiver, our muscles spasm and our teeth chatter, the sun makes its grandiose entry like a virtuoso walking on stage to the piano. It’s 10 degrees Celsius, feels more like -78. Our adopted guide shares his kopi dan pisang goreng (coffee and fried banana). We snap photographs. We gape at the beauty of such great heights. And then we descend like wild fire.

Four hours up, two hours down. Each of our knees are blowing out as we reach lower altitudes. Our thighs quake. Our
Panning The SpectrumPanning The SpectrumPanning The Spectrum

The top of Lombok just behind the crag
calves pinch us with a monkey wrench. We slip down the loose gradient and chase the clouds until eventually entering its blanket where the sun’s rays pierce through.

Back at the car we meet our other comrades. They’re safe and happy, content with their efforts. Karen whips out a homemade loaf of date and nut bread smothered with a cream cheese lemon curd. Holy shit, my taste buds explode greater then the ’63 eruption! However there are no deaths, only victories.

No, we did not conquer the great Gunung Agung. We gallantly convinced our minds we could do it, therein granting us a rite of passage by the spirits of the summit. So, with taste buds lavishing and stomachs churning, we commence our return and fall to sleeping. It is 9:30 on a Sunday morning.

To be continued...

Additional photos below
Photos: 17, Displayed: 17



Offerings of incense and flowers on the top of Bali
Summit PortSummit Port
Summit Port

Abbey, Hannah & Nathan

9th September 2008

Ah, memories...
I completed the same volcano journey eleven years ago, and I am grateful to you for helping me to relive some wonderful memories.
9th September 2008

man Cam those are some great pictures!!!!!!
11th September 2008

Love iT
Great pictures... makes me feel like Im on top of the mountain too!
28th September 2008

Your pics are great
I was surfing on the travel blog and found one of your pictures in Venice. Such a gorgeous picture. Enjoy your advanture Nazila Lajevardi.
14th December 2010
The Darkside of the Cauldron

Amazing picture!

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