It’s 2:00am and the clatter of groggy people moving around half asleep fills the air. I hear the word coffee whispered multiple times, and then a bright flashlight shines into my cozy tent. It’s time to get up. I put on all of the clothes I brought with me, and it’s still freezing. I can feel the cold reaching down to my core and tickling my bones. With my headlamp on, I glance around the dark crater rim. Today, about a hundred other tourists and I will try to summit Mt. Rinjani.
Mt. Rinjani is an active volcano on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. It stands at 12,224 feet, making it the second highest volcano in the country. This morning, we will hopefully ascend the remaining 3,370 feet before sunrise; a feat not everyone manages to accomplish. This trek was described to me by both friends and strangers as, “one of the most challenging treks” they’d ever done. Although everyone mentioned it was extremely difficult, I had never actually bothered to ask why. What I do know is that the summit is broken into three parts, which as far as I can tell, can best be described as shitty, not so shitty, and really shitty.
It’s pitch black, and all I can see are the feet of the person in front of me. I stare at them for so long that I begin to think that they are my own feet seconds from now. I just need to get to where that person is. It’s a strategy that helps my mind focus on a small goal rather than the big picture. As soon as I look up, it fails. I can see headlamps floating above me. The lights form a clear path going straight up into the sky. Immediately, I regret checking how far I have to go, as it seems to stretch on forever.
I start to climb the first major stretch and feel like I’m not getting anywhere. The entire ground is volcanic ash. As soon as I take a step, my foot slides down so far that I’m actually moving backward. There’s no resistance, and my legs begin to ache fiercely. I’m on an elliptical made out of dust. The person ahead of me unintentionally kicks the ash into my face, and I can barely breathe even with a scarf over my mouth. My eyes struggle to see as the fog of dust churns through the air. I pause to catch my breath and look away from the herd of tourists. Up in the sky, I can see almost every star. Even if I don’t summit, it was worth getting up just for this.
About a year ago, I decided to be the ultimate cliché and made a bucket list. For some reason, I wanted to summit a mountain. I’ve never done a long hike, and I’ve absolutely never trekked before. Still, it made the list. Maybe it was the influence of beautiful Instagram photos or the lure of boosting my own ego. Maybe I’ve watched too many movies or heard too many stories about people sheading a tear at the summit. Maybe, I just wanted to know if I was strong enough to do it.
My train of thought is interrupted when a girl in my group looses her footing on a boulder, and she begins to slide over the edge. Her hand manages to get a grip on the sharp rocks, stopping her from plummeting below. Everything is so dark that there’s no way to know how far she’d actually fall. Her feet flail, as her boyfriend scream for help while holding onto one wrist, unable to pull her up. A guide grabs her other hand and pulls her back to safety, tears streaming down her face. She only sits for a few moments before getting back up and moving forward.
After what feels like (and might actually be) hours, I notice there are only a few more lights floating above me. I’ve finally reached the top of the first section. As soon as my head peers over the edge, I see a new path of headlamps bobbing up and down in the darkness. They form a line going fairly straight and with little incline. I begin to walk slowly, thankful for the opportunity to catch my breath.
It only takes a few seconds to realize that something is off. There is no ground to my left or right. I’m on a narrow path surrounded by pure blackness. As if the world simply disappears. The wind picks up, and I immediately feel unsteady. It whips across my face so severely that it feels like a million little razors leaving scars on my skin. At the same time, it’s as though the temperature has dropped another 20 degrees. My guide, Adi, walks behind me, and I hope that if the wind were to carry me over the edge, he’d catch me.
The flat area was a much-needed break, which ends all too soon. In front of me, I can see a smattering of headlamps going high up into the distance and shrinking so small that they begin to blend in with the stars. The sun is starting to illuminate the sky near the horizon, and I wonder if I’ll make it to the summit in time to see the sunrise. As we begin to walk, I notice the volcanic ash is even deeper than before, only now it has gravel mixed in. It’s nearly impossible to take a step. Every time I try, I fall forward onto my hands and knees struggling to remain upright. This trek could easily be used as some kind of cruel and unusual punishment.
My group moves steadily ahead of me, and I can’t keep up. Every so often, they stop to give me a chance to catch them, but it’s too difficult. I feel deflated as I sit there struggling to move, so I tell them to go on without me. After a quick rest, I see another group that has a nice slow pace, and I fall in line behind the guide, staring at his feet. I begin to count my steps. “Just take five steps closer to the summit,” I tell myself. One. Two. Three. I pause and take a deep breath. Four. Five. Then I start over. I get into the same groove as the guide, and soon I’ve caught up with my group.
The lights in the distance seem closer, so I dare to ask the question, “How much further?” Surely, it can’t be that far. I can see the people standing at the top. “An hour. Maybe more.” My heart drops. There is no way I can make it another hour. We’ve already been trekking for almost three or four, and I’ve barely gone anywhere. I feel so utterly defeated that I plop down in the volcanic ash, and my landing forms a cloud of dust around me.
“How much further till our destination?” a girl asks her boyfriend in the distance.
“The destination is right here,” he replies profoundly.
The group goes ahead, but Adi stays behind with me. I’d told him the day before not to let me quit. I needed to make it to the summit. I knew before hand how tough this would be and that my mind would want to give up on me. What I hadn’t anticipated was the muscle I’d managed to pull on the inner part of my thigh. Every time I took a step, I felt a massive pain, which consumed my entire right leg. Add in the fact that each step sent me sliding backwards, and I wanted to give up more than anything.
My ego has always been able to drive me forward in tough times. Knowing I’d be writing about this in a blog made me feel like I had no choice but to summit. Writing a post titled How Not to Summit Mt. Rinjani didn’t sound so catchy. At this point, I was so exhausted that I literally said, “F*** the blog” in my head. I didn’t care what people thought. I’d live on the side of that volcano the rest of my life if I needed to. Surely, tourists and trekkers would take pity on me and provide me with water and protein bars to survive. But Adi had other plans. He wanted me to see the view from the summit, so he grabbed my hand and said “Come on. Let’s go.” It came out a little harsh, but had he said it any nicer I wouldn’t have listened.
The Final Assent
Thus began my final ascent, or what I like to call, “Adi dragging me up the mountain.” I began counting steps again. As time went on and the steps got harder, the count got shorter. I started to count to four. Eventually I was down to two. “One. Two. Two steps closer. One. Two. Two steps closer.” Two steps felt like a mile. We’d take about ten steps, and then take a thirty second break. Then, ten more. I needed a real break, so I sat down. I wanted to cry. My eyes began to tear up, but it was too much work. I had absolutely no energy left. I took a few deep breaths and thought to myself…
Do you want to give up?
Summiting a mountain is on your bucket list…
If you don’t finish it today, you will have to endure all of this again somewhere else. Do you really want to go through this hell again, or just suck it up for less than an hour?
Needless to say, I stood back up and went another twenty or so steps before collapsing again. F*** my bucket list. I didn’t care. I sat there a little longer, and then Adi grabbed my arm again, ready to drag me further. “Never try. Never know,” he said philosophically. I told him I needed a few more minutes. My heart was pounding. My chest was tight. My nose was running. I could barely breathe. I was shaking uncontrollably from the cold, and the wind was hitting my face at an uncanny speed. So, I sat unable to move or maybe just unwilling.
I took a few more deep breaths and my dads face popped into my mind. He was smiling. I’m going to be honest here and say that I’m not sure I buy into the whole heaven idea, but at that moment, I thought maybe he could see me. I was definitely high enough. That small thought gave me the final push I needed. I was going to make it to the top.
I grabbed Adi’s hand and began walking with him again. Sometimes behind him, being dragged. Sometimes next to him, pushing myself to go further. We caught up with the rest of the group who were surprised to see me, but happy I didn’t give up. We were each given some kind of Indonesian Kit Kat bar. It took me forever to open the wrapper and even longer to eat it. I can say this with confidence, I have never been too tired to eat, but in that moment I couldn’t even chew.
As a group, we began to work our way toward the summit. My legs were shaking with fatigue. It was as if someone had tied weights to them when I wasn’t looking. They started to give out, and I began falling forward almost every other step. I loathed the people with two ski poles who were passing me with ease. Adi gave me his walking stick for support. With Adi on one side and the walking stick on the other, I was almost able to get my footing. Even with both of those, it was excruciating. But now, I could see how close I was. Nothing was going to stop me from getting there and holding that little sign that said I made it. I had to summit.
I finally reached the top, and all I could do was sit. Adi took my camera and began to take a few photos of me holding the coveted summit sign. He then proceeded to take some photos of the volcano behind me, not wanting me to miss out. I continued to sit, unable to move even slightly. After several minutes, I had enough energy to turn myself around to see the view I’d fought so hard to witness, and it didn’t disappoint. It took what little breath I had left away.
The world in front of me was coated in pastels. Hues of pinks and blues bounced off of the soft fluffy clouds beneath me. A shadow of the volcano on the neighboring island pierced the otherwise spotless skyline. A million shades of brown volcanic ash appeared under the dancing rays of light. In the middle of it all, a lake so blue that I’d never seen the color in nature before. Tears filled my eyes, but this time they were happy. I’d made it to the top. It took every ounce of power I had and one very determined trekking guide, but I’d made it.
I received a discount in exchange for writing this post. Like always, the opinions expressed in this article are honest. Special thanks to Rinjani Trek Centre for organizing my climb.
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.