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In which I climb a mountain in Indonesia February 15, 2009

Posted by Jenny in hiking, travel, Uncategorized.
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Shadow of Agung at sunrise from summit

Shadow of Agung at sunrise from summit

It all started with the international coal market conference in Bali.

How could I fly halfway around the world without spending more than a few days there?  My boss, Gerard McCloskey, understood this and arranged things so that I could take a week of vacation after the conference.  This was in June 1995, and I was the U.S. editor of a Financial Times newsletter that covered the prices, the tonnages, and the ocean freights of people buying and selling coal around the world.

Through an small advertisement in the back of an outdoor magazine, I found an “adventure tour” group that specialized in Indonesia.  I talked on the phone to a very personable guy named Jim, based on the West Coast.  My first idea, of climbing Rindjani on the island of Lombok, didn’t turn out to be practical, but we decided that I could hook up with a group he was leading in Bali, and that I could climb Gunung Agung, the highest mountain on the island.  He might even climb it with me—he had never actually done that.

So I flew to Bali on one of those trans-Pacific flights in which you leave on a Thursday and get there on a Saturday, what with going against the grain of the time zones.  One of my biggest adventures occurred not long after I arrived, during a cocktail reception around the swimming pool of the luxurious conference hotel.  It is the only time in my life when I have nearly fainted.  I was standing in the hot humid dusk, holding a large gin-and-tonic in a damp paper napkin and feeling somewhat jet-lagged, when little black squares started marching across my field of vision and I had to sit down suddenly underneath a palm tree.  Fortunately, I didn’t completely pass out, and some friendly Australian coal producers hovered over me until I was able to stand up again.

After the three-day conference, I joined up with the adventure tour group at an interesting village not far from Denpasar.  I seem to remember that the buildings were all on stilts in a rice paddy.  Our group spent a few days walking across the countryside through the intricate greenness of rice paddy and jungle, and the whole group climbed an extinct volcano called Batur (5,633′), which has a large lake inside its cone.  We were led up to the crater rim by guides wearing rubber flip-flops and smoking cigarettes, but that doesn’t mean that it was easy, it only means that those guys were really amazing.  We stayed in a hotel that was pleasant except for the rats that galloped back and forth across the corrugated tin roof.

A couple of days after that, we came made our closest approach to the base of Gunung Agung.  It is now measured as 10,308 feet high, the elevation it settled at after a major eruption in 1963-64.  Jim, a graduate of Dartmouth who looked a lot like Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” decided he was not going to climb it with me, but he assigned a guide named Wayan Sukerta to lead me up the mountain.  We started from our hotel at 2:30 in the morning and drove to the trailhead at Besakih in impressively dense darkness.  The trail was easy to follow—each of us had a flashlight—and we made good progress for a few hours until we reached somewhere around the 7,000 or 8,000 foot elevation mark, when Wayan was overcome with an intense drowsiness and had to lie down to take a nap.  I didn’t hold it against him, as I knew from the past days that he was a responsible and likeable fellow.  But I didn’t feel sleepy myself, and I didn’t want to sit around waiting, so I continued up the lava slopes of the volcano by myself.

Our guides on Bali.  Wayan is at right.

Our guides on Bali. Wayan is at right.

At around the 9500 foot level, the sun started to rise, and I could now see clearly that I was on a surface that had once been entirely molten and now consisted of black fluid shapes that had frozen in time.  I was not far below the crater rim when Wayan rushed up from below, embarrassed that he had fallen victim to sleep.  We used hands and feet to climb up the last Class 3 section of hardened lava and reach the rim.  I think we may have been a little off-route.  The whole top smelled like sulfur.  We had come up the western side of the mountain, and as the sun rose, I saw the perfect triangular shadow of the mountain thrown across a thick fluffy undercast of cloud.  The sky’s blackness magically dissolved into the warm pinks and oranges that you see only in tropical air.

The lava flow seems frozen in time

The lava flow seems frozen in time

We got back down with no difficulty, and I took a long nap when I got back to the hotel.  I exchanged postcards with Wayan a couple of times after I got back home, and I still have his information in my address book.

The trip back from Bali was the longest airplane journey I have ever taken.  I left Denpasar midday, flew to Jakarta, missed a connection, got another flight to L.A. early the next morning, watched the sun rise, set, and rise again before I reached L.A. at what the clock said was a time before I had departed (due to the Alice-in-Wonderland workings of the international date line), flew from L.A. to Detroit and then to Boston.  It was a week before I recovered.

Gunung Agung

Gunung Agung

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