Hiking Merapi

This past weekend, I climbed a volcano.

As I may have mentioned before, there’s a volcano fairly close to me that (when it’s not erupting) some of the more adventurous tourists like to climb. This weekend, some of the Princeton in Asia fellows decided it was our time so, with much less planning than I would have liked, we headed out.

The trip began at ten at night when a car came to pick us up and drive us to the village that was to be a starting point. The driver had a hard time finding us, so I awkwardly offered to talk to him in Indonesian if I needed to. Awkwardly because I’d only just met the girl who was talking to him and her Indonesian could have been much better than mine.

In the end, it didn’t matter. We went out to the main street to meet the driver.

We got into the village around midnight and were greeted with tea and uncertain instructions about how long we’d have to wait. We also encountered several Europeans who, it turned out, would be making the climb with us.

After another round of tea (that many declined, fearing a lack of toilets on the summit) we set out. The first part of the hike was along a paved road. At first, I thought I’d be able to amuse myself by looking at the scenery and thinking deep thoughts. However, it quickly became clear that I still have a very small lung capacity and that I’m very out of shape. By the time we got to our first resting point, all I could do was listen to the sounds of my own labored breathing and feel the breeze chill my sweat.

The rest of the climb got a little better, not because it was any easier but because I got very good at occupying my brain with easy tasks like singing The Nutcracker or saying nonsense sentences in Indonesian. I did not do much observing of the scenery, though I did occasionally glance up at the stars. Happily enough, it turns out that I can still see Orion from here, although he’s tilted at a very funny angle.

The goal of the first part of the climb was to reach what our guides referred to as a plateau. From there, we were told, we could watch the sun rise or, if the weather was good, we could try to make the summit. That, I figured, didn’t sound so bad. It would just be more climbing.

And that assumption, I discovered as soon as I saw Merapi’s summit looming in front of us, was completely wrong. It was going to be a lot harder.

I confess that the first thing I did was whine, “It’s so steep!” But then, not one to be left behind, I followed the rest of my group.

At this point, we’d reconfigured a little. It was now our guide, Sara, two of the Princeton in Asia girls, one of the Europeans, and myself. There were other groups also attempting the summit, but they’d left a little before us.

Our guide, striking a stoic pose as the sun comes up.

Almost immediately, the slope before us became practically vertical. It was also covered with a thick layer of ash and sand that seemed to go on forever. Every step I took, I would slide back, almost to the beginning. And, of course, my hiking boots immediately filled up with the stuff.

Meanwhile, our guide was singing Indonesian songs to himself.

Here you can see our footprints through the sand/ash combo.

We left behind the two Princeton in Asia girls there, bringing our group down to a party of four. The four of us made it out of the ashy mess and perched on some rocks to await the sunrise.

It’s at this point that I feel my prose becomes ineffective. I can’t describe to you how it feels to be sitting halfway up the cone of a volcano, looking out at clouds surrounding the tops of other volcanoes. I can’t describe to you how it feels to be juggling a backpack trying to pull out a notebook so that you can write down all the good vocab words your guide is using, knowing that if you drop the backpack it’s going to fall off the mountain and you might not get it back. And the photos don’t do it justice; they just don’t.

Once the sun had risen, we decided to make for the very top—twenty more minutes our guide said. Thankfully, at this point we were out of the ash. Instead, we were climbing on rocks, which meant making sure that any rock you put a hand or foot on was stable before you rested your weight on it.

I was more definitely the slowest, partially because I’m sure I’m the most out of shape, but also because I was thinking too much, looking at each little fall of pebbles and trying to overlay a map in my head telling me how to avoid each of them.

I told the other three to go on ahead and proceeded to make my slow way up the summit, stopping when I needed to. During one of these rests, several of the Europeans passed me on their way down. “You’re only twenty minutes away!” they said.

I laughed, thinking back to my time in Nicaragua when everything was going to happen in twenty minutes or so. Then I started climbing again.

The climb up the final part of the summit.

I didn’t quite make it to the top. Surprisingly, my legs—which had complained during the first part of the hike—had stopped hurting, but I was tired in other ways. Mentally, the constant puzzle of where to put my feet next and which rock to grab next had gotten to be a bit much. I had also made the mistake of taking a good hard look back down the summit and had no idea how I was going to descend. Working against gravity was one thing. Working with gravity just seemed like a very good way to start falling and never stop.

I’m told that I was only a little way from the top (twenty minutes or so!), but I’m happy with what I accomplished. When I started the trip, I certainly didn’t envision anything so trying. Looking back on it, the memories already seem surreal. I climbed a volcano. A volcano.

It’s hard to get an idea of how steep the way down was, but if you look carefully, you can see tiny people kicking up a dust cloud and they might give you some idea.

Going down was as hard as I’d imagined and then some. It’s a perennial problem, my thinking too much, and so of course on the way down I was thinking very deeply about falling and thus went slowly, making every effort not to lose my balance. Luckily, my guide was very nice and climbed all the way down the summit with me. He also let me carry on a conversation with him in my broken Indonesian and—even better—responded slowly enough that I could actually understand him.

A view of the summit as seen from the plateau.

Once I’d finally reached the plateau and dumped all the rocks out of my shoes, we started the much longer—and much harder—part of the descent. Going up, I was able to distract myself with other thoughts and just put one foot in front of the other. Going down, I was faced with a never-ending dirt path. A never-ending, unstable dirt path.

The way down. At this point I was naively thinking, Oh, this isn’t so bad.

I quickly lost track of the number of times that I slipped and fell and soon my focus narrowed to just the footprints on the path: trying to recognize where people had stepped before me and trying to figure out whether or not those people had slipped.

What this photo fails to capture is how steep the path was as well as how dusty. But please appreciate the fact that my hiking boots have changed color.

During my more positive moments, I likened myself to Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, tracking orcs. During my more negative moments, I wondered why I had decided any of this would be a good idea.

But of course I knew why. When I was younger, I checked out books from the library about volcanoes. Actually climbing a volcano was amazing beyond words, and this is a volcano that I’ll be living with for the next two years. Of course, I also don’t think I’ll be going back any time soon, but maybe a year from now the memories will have faded sufficiently and I’ll try it again.


10 thoughts on “Hiking Merapi

  1. The best, most tiring, poorly planned adventure ever. Give me 6 months, maybe I’ll get some time off and come up with another crazy plan.

  2. Zoe, I told you, you need to cut the cigs back to 2 packs a day. That’ll get you your lung capacity back.
    Also, if you want an interesting mental challenge, try translating and singing Stars in a foreign language.

  3. The summit of Gunung Merapi is about 2950 meters (9700 feet). By comparison to Yogya at about 200 meters, the air at the top would be noticeably thinner when trying to hike. Lawu (to the East) and Merbabu (to the North) are even higher. Did you see them? The peak in the picture at sunrise is might be Lawu.

    Do you know how high you climbed from the village? It must have been well over 1000 meters. That is an impressive hike!

  4. Zoë,

    I admire you for taking that on. I know how much work it is to hike up and down a mountain. We did a lot of that in the Sawtooth Mountains. But, I never had to hang on to rocks or walk through ash. Much later, I visited Mt st. Helens but it was icy cold and I did not try to hike.

    I am waiting to hear when you dance on that volcano.


    Aunt Myrtle

  5. Zoe – Your Dad gave me the link to your blog and the first post I read is all about climbing a volcano. Pretty neat stuff. Keep exploring. Next time try running up the volcano.
    Mr. Carafice

    • Haha, yes, maybe next time I will run up, or at least run down, like all the locals who passed me with big bales of brush on their heads.

  6. Zoe,
    Thomas just read this to me and can I say we are in awe!! Great work and what a wonderful experience.
    Merry Christmas!
    Love Grandma and Thomas

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