Climbing Merapi, Again

Takut hujan,” I said. “It was already really slippery. It’ll probably be even more awful if it’s wet.” And yet somehow I ended up at the base of Merapi anyway.

Actually, I know exactly how it happened. I allowed myself to be talked into it by Sophia and a Shansi alum. Buoyed along by reassurances that we wouldn’t go if the weather looked bad, I agreed, got on a train to Solo, got in a car to Selo, and stood in the parking lot of New Selo—the beginning of the trail—looking at Merbabu as dusk approached.

The whole thing felt slightly surreal.

When I was still new here, I climbed Merapi with Sara and some of our other friends who happened to be in town. It was, to put it mildly, incredibly hard. I tried to communicate this to Sophia, talking about physical and mental fatigue, talking about crawling up the side of the mountain. I did not do a very good job. During that hike, I found some quiet corner of my brain in which to cower, and consequently my descriptions were something along the lines of, “It was really hard. I fell down every seven steps while I was going back down.”

Last time, though, when I’d gotten off the mountain, I knew that I’d be back. I hadn’t quite made it to the top (mental fatigue, I’m telling you) and a thing like that will hang over your head if you’re not careful. Still, I’d never imagined that take number two would be during rainy season.

We found a place to stay—three single beds laid out in a row a la Madeline and a stylized mandi—found a guide, and rented head lamps. Then it started to rain. Our guide assured us that it would stop raining by 1:00, the designated start time for the hike. I wasn’t so sure about that. It was the constant sort of rain that happens sometimes, not a torrential downpour, which meant that it could last all night. I went to sleep with the confidence that it would still be raining when I woke up.

Jolted out of a REM cycle by a knock at the door, I found that it had stopped raining. There was nothing for it. We were climbing the mountain. I wrapped my scarf around my head, fixed the head lamp on top of it, and tried not to think too much.

As I remembered so vividly, my lungs instantly informed me that they are not good at holding large- or even medium-sized quantities of oxygen. You get lightheaded playing the flute, they said. What are you thinking trying to climb a volcano?

But I was ready for that. I kept my eyes on the circle of light from my head lamp and kept putting one foot in front of the other. Surprisingly, things were better. Part of this was because we were going slower than the last time, but I think a lot of it was also because I’d already done it once. It was going to be awful and there was no changing that. My brain, knowing this for a fact, just moved past it.

As I said, we were going slower, so we didn’t make it quite to the top. Instead we sat for a while on a ridge, shivering in the wind and waiting for the sun to come up. Our guide laid out a tarp and took a nap. I felt great. I’d have liked to make it to the top, but the group wasn’t going to make it and this fellowship wasn’t going to break.

The journey down—the part I’d probably been dreading the most—also turned out to be fine. I fell down only two or three times. This, I think, was not due to my walking ability having suddenly become amazing. It actually had more to do with the fact that it was rainy season. Everything was slightly damp. Not damp enough to be slippery, but damp enough to keep dust down. Little piles of rocks hardly ever caused me problems. I never once had to use my scarf to cover my mouth.

Merapi, keep this up and I’ll be back more than once.

5 thoughts on “Climbing Merapi, Again

  1. Wow Zoe – you are quite the experienced climber now – and no word on Merapi rumbling going on – any puffs of smoke? I heard today that the new Shansi director is touring to meet all reps. Have you met him?
    Great photos and a (literally) breath-taking description!

    • There was some smoke, though you couldn’t really tell in my pictures. If Merapi continues to follow its schedule, it will probably erupt next year, but I’ll hopefully be out of town by then.

      The new director is touring around, but he hasn’t come here yet. April, maybe.

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