Where You Take Two Steps Forward and Slip One Step Behind
In a nutshell, that’s what climbing up to the summit of the volcanic mountain of Mount Rinjani is. A feat no less than challenging but one that rewards you with awe-inspiring vistas, if you have the determination to keep marching forth.
It’s easy to get carried away by the mundanity of everyday life. Even easier to work up a list of excuses to convince yourself why right now isn’t the right time.
But, it had been several months since my last summit and the mountains were calling. A trekker from Sweden I had met on Mt Kinabalu last year happened to mention Rinjani. I’d been eyeballing the active volcano at 3726 m since.
Most good things come in small packages
When my earnest attempts at persuading overbusy friends to join me had resulted in futility, I asked my 10-year-old son, just for fun, “I’m going on the mountains. You wanna tag along?” In a heartbeat he answered in the affirmative, excitedly accepting my insincere offer. So I thought to myself, “Why not?”
That would be his maiden trek. Hadn’t imagined it in my wildest dreams. Within 4 weeks of settling on each other as travel companions, we kicked off our 5-day adventure.
Jamal from Reza Trekker had made all the arrangements. All that was left to do was to walk, from 1150 m up to 3726 m and then down to 601 m, all in a span of 3 days and 2 nights.
Day 1: On cloud nine
Entering the national park from Sembalun Gate (1150 m) presents one with brilliant geography.
As the savanna turned into a rocky uneven landscape, we were at the same level as the clouds. No wonder then that a break for freshly prepared lunch at 1800 m was a surrealistic experience.
Indonesia is largely a Muslim country. It was the month of Ramadan at the time, and Amak, our mountain guide, was observing the fasting month, even while on the trek. I haven’t met a man in my life with more dedication to his work, devotion to his faith, and all-in-a-days-work attitude than this man. In his shoes, I wouldn’t have lasted the first 100 metres.
Day 1: A walk in the park
The most intriguing thing about Gunung Rinjani is that its topography changes every so often. One moment your feet are sinking into volcanic ashes, a half hour later you are trudging over a sea of rocks and a few minutes past you are walking in a jungle of trees.
The last stretch of the first day was a prolonged 3-hour steep climb largely meandering through intertwined tree roots and rocks, tough even for seasoned trekkers. Everyone, including the porters, knew only small steps could take them far on such ruggedness. Rayan, my little guy, fell down a few times. No pain, no gain. I was only too glad he didn’t ask to be piggybacked.
Day 1: Keep calm, sit back and enjoy
Finally, we made it to our final pit stop for the day, Sembalun Crater Rim. At 2639 m, the views from this vantage point were nothing short of breathtaking. Looking down from the edge of the mountain, you could see Segara Anak, a caldera lake with beautiful blue waters at a surface elevation of 2008 m and a depth of about 200 m at its deepest. We would be able to touch its water soon.
Meanwhile, our chefs had a hot drink and snacks ready for us as we soaked up the allure of the enchanting Rinjani and its surroundings, something we had come to believe we were deserving of after the strenuous 8-hour hike.
Night 1: It’s not a race; you don’t have to finish it
No sooner does the sun set than it gets chilly at that altitude. All you want to do then is stay warm in your sleeping bag inside your tent. You lose your appetite because noshing requires getting up and peeling the sleeping bag off you. Sleep, however, comes difficult because of anxiety.
Drifting in and out of slumber, at around midnight, when Rayan had done enough debating with himself, he tapped me and asked, “Mommy, would I be letting you down if I didn’t go all the way to the top? I’m scared.”
I’d half-expected that moment. “You know what? You have already surpassed all my expectations by making it this far. Stay put in the tent. I’ll see you when I’m back after sunrise,” I answered.
It’s not a race. You don’t have to finish it.
Day 2: Beating the sun to rise
At 2:15 am, with Rayan in the company of Andy and Kendur at the campsite, Amak and I geared up with our headlamps, water and camera, ready to set out on the three-and-a-half-hour gruelling ascent to the summit. Two minutes into the hike I packed my camera into the bag. It was clear from the get-go that in that pitch-dark blackness there was only one thing to focus on — the next step. Some moments will have to remain captured in the mind.
The climb from the crater rim to the peak, largely above treeline, is divided into 3 equally long sections. The first section, a moderate climb, is about 45–50 degrees steep. The second section is an easy albeit long walk. It’s the third section, however, that gets the better of you. It’s here when you question yourself with every step if you can make it to the next step. A 1-km long segment at a roughly 40-degree incline, this part is made of volcanic soil and loose stones. With every two steps that you take forward, you slip back one step. It’s out of your control.
The last stretch wasn’t without incidents. I skidded a few times. There were people falling all around. One in particular took a sudden fall on her rear and slid down a distance that set her back quite a few minutes of climb time.
I was moving at a pace of about 15 metres a minute. Couldn’t have moved faster if I wanted to. There were some who tried to hurry but realized all too soon they were out of luck. A fellow trekker from France kept collapsing every few minutes out of breathlessness. Some sports are not about speed and stamina. They are about stability and steadiness.
That continued for a long 60-over minutes. I kept asking Amak, “How much more?” He would answer, “Just a little bit more”, “Almost there”, “About 20 minutes more”, etc. Towards the end, I literally started counting the seconds. Just when I felt I had no energy left, the moment of exhilaration arrived.
Descent, not my favourite part of any trek, was not too bad on this particular occasion. You could slide down like a kid. I had a little accident on the way and hurt a finger and both little toes. Aside from that I enjoyed the ride down.
Day 2: Changing focus
Once back at the campsite, there was no time to waste. After nursing my wounds and picking up Rayan, we left for the next 8 hours of hiking — first, a very steep and slippery climb down to Lake Segara Anak (2008 m) and then a climb up to the other edge of the crater to Senaru Crater Rim (2641 m).
However, climbing down was tough. I barely managed to crawl owing to my injured toes. I had already popped 4 panadols and changed the plasters thrice in 3 hours. My toenails were a dead mess and would eventually fall off a month later.
With the excruciating pain dominating my mind, even Lake Anak in all its splendour didn’t seem as exciting. The original plan was to swim in it but I felt the water was too cold for my taste. So, we decided to make a detour to the nearby hot springs to soak our feet. The hot springs didn’t impress me much either. I thought the villagers dwelling in that area had altered the surroundings, making the attraction unappealing. I was in a sullen mood. As I think of it now, I regret letting my enthusiasm give way to lacklustreness.
I realized 2 nights later while browsing through my photo gallery that I had been so consumed by the pain I had completely missed the opportunity to appreciate the beauty on the way.
Day 2: Sometimes you are ahead and at other times other people are ahead
It was past 3 pm when we began our climb up to the campsite through a maze of tree roots in the thick forest. The ground was slippery from the showers a few hours ago and the denseness of the jungle blocked sunlight from reaching us.
We were all exhausted. Amak was worn out, too. We tried to convince him to end his fast but he was staunch and broke it only as dusk fell.
Our porters, who had long reached the campsite, had set up the tents and made preparations for dinner. But, we were nowhere in sight. Worried for our safety, Andy came looking for us with his torch. He found us scrambling our way up a boulder. Seeing another familiar face boosted our spirit and helped us cover the remaining hour-long distance faster.
Once at the campsite, Rayan and I took our shoes off, went straight into the tent, slipped into our sleeping bags and crashed without bothering to even remove our socks or jackets. We woke up only as the sun rose once again.
Day 3: Today is a new day
“You didn’t eat anything last night. You don’t like my food?” asked Andy. “Sorry, Andy. We were just too tired,” I replied.
But as the new day dawned, I began to look on the remainder of the journey with renewed energy.
Realization had finally sunk in that we had achieved quite a feat. My little dude had shown great camaraderie making me glad I had asked him to join me. It wouldn’t have been half as fun without him.
All’s well that ends well. And just like that, we were at the end of a journey of several miles that began with a single step!
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” — John Muir
Travel is important not just because it exposes you to newer places, people, climes, cultures and cuisines but because it gives you an opportunity for introspection.
When you reflect upon your journey, you observe there isn’t a book or a blog that can teach you things you would get to learn first-hand from experiencing them.
For me, my 5-day trip drove one particular message home — “Better an ‘oops’ than a ‘what if’”. Two steps forward and you might slip one or several steps behind. But, as long as you keep going, the vistas will be yours to enjoy.
If there is a mountain you have been willing to scale, remember what Nike says — JUST DO IT.