Charcoal clouds swirled across an onyx moonscape of mud. Hanging around didn’t seem like a good idea.
Precious few things get me going at 04:30. Sunrises definitely aren’t one of them. I made that mistake once in Maui. Flip-flopped and freezing, I nearly broke my teeth chattering among a dreary mob of tired tourists. We waited atop Haleakala, the mother volcano, for the Pacific to turn up the heat.
Hunting or fishing trips, yes. Zombie attacks, sure, I’ll get up. The drill sergeants had a special knack for rousing me at 04:30 during Basic Training. So did my kung fu teacher in China. Pain can be a great motivator.
But today was different. I sprang to life before my phone could even sound the alarm. Climbing mountains is a joy, but climbing volcanoes — especially active ones — is reason enough to hold an obscene schedule. I don’t get on top of volcanoes often enough. Especially in a place as wild as this.
Gunung Marapi, my mission, towered 45 minutes away from the base town of Bukittinggi.
The Ranger Pause
West Sumatra’s chill morning air tasted of dampness clinging to green leaves.
Alone, nervous, and excited. That pretty well sums up my initial feelings as I took the first steps of many on the steep trail. My headtorch revealed shiny eyes in the trees.
The sun was just a pink rumor on the eastern side of Sumatra when I began. I hesitated only to transfer my knife to my pocket. Not that it would do any good if an orangutan decided to pull my arms off for entertainment. Peanuts, crackers, sardines…I had a lot of monkey bait in my bag along with four heavy liters of water.
But barring any monkey attacks, the plan was to climb 4-5 hours, reach the crater complex well before noon, enjoy lunch there, then leisurely come down. My driver would meet me 12 hours later at the rendezvous point. Hopefully. I even packed a plastic bag to collect trail rubbish on the way down. Little did I know, but more on that later.
I did my customary Ranger pause once well under the forest canopy. It was the best part of the morning.
Waiting with tarsier eyes in the growing light, I stood perfectly still. Barely blinking, breathing long tastes of jungle air.
The act of pausing before rambling into the bush dates way back. Doing so gives time to align your energy with the surroundings. There is no hard time limit. It’s probably not even science, but it works. You only start moving again once you make the ineffable transformation from outsider to resident. Somehow, you wait until you are accepted. Swallowed. Fear leaves; confidence and exhilaration rush in.
Learning the ambient soundtrack helps you to be less jumpy later. It also increases the chance of spotting wildlife. It may have saved me a serious knock to the noggin, too.
At exactly 07:00, a large bird roosting in a tree would throw a fit in front of me. The ruckus was just enough to make me to hesitate. It didn’t fit in with the morning so far. Just then, a torso-sized limb fell from the canopy and exploded to toothpicks in the center of the trail right in front of me.
Wooden shrapnel hit my legs. The shotgun boom made every man (me) and beast pay attention.
I thanked God and the bird for not allowing the limb to decrease my intelligence, then happily resumed hiking. The trepidation of trekking alone in low light was gone. The rainforest became a playground.
Gunung Marapi is a sizable volcano in West Sumatra, Indonesia. Just like its brother, Gunung Sinabung, in the north, it keeps geologists hopping. With lots of ashy burps and full-on eruptions, it’s a busy volcano. The last serious outburst was in 2014.
Marapi regularly blows just enough to scare the crap out of everyone in nearby Bukittinggi. That’s the thing about volcanoes. No one really knows for sure what’s cooking under the surface. Once they get started, it’s hard to tell when they’ll stop. Sometimes they don’t. Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra has been erupting perpetually since 2013.
I didn’t expect any fire from the “Mountain of Fire” today. But, sadly, it did claim a fatality and five injured by explosion in 1992. Others perished over the years from landslides in bad weather.
Although the elevation is only 2,891 meters (9,485 feet), I’d be gaining around 2,100 meters (6,940 feet) in under three miles.
Every meter would be earned by scrambling up muddy erosions and tangled roots. Precious ground would have to be gained meticulously, inch by inch, by clawing and cursing. Fingernails and grunts are the tools of the trade on this mountain, not axes or crampons.
I walked such a steep incline for so long, my feet seemed to be permanently angled 45 degrees toward my knees. The descent was worse. My hamstrings would be elongated ropes. My legs would be vulgar and Olympic. People would have to get used to me leaning toward them in a gravity-defeating angle as we spoke, much like a ski jumper does in the air.
Gunung Marapi is the second volcano I’ve climbed in Sumatra. It’s also the biggest.
In 2011, I climbed into the hellish crater of Gunung Sibayak in North Sumatra. The delightful chaos set the bar for all future volcanoes. The roar of sulfuric gas escaping sounded like a jet engine.
We launched fruit like mortars from the deadly vents. Water boiled beneath our boots. The ground vibrated.
Clearly, the mountain was ready to pop. Turns out, the many earthquakes felt the night before were Sibayak transferring some pressure over to its neighbor. Singabung unexpectedly blew two years later after being dormant for over 400 years. That’s one way to make a team of geologists spit out their coffee in unison.
The bumbling drone of thirsty bees working their flowers. Monkey hoots and howls from near-distant treetops. Wind stirring through towering bamboo groves. Birds having a dispute of some sort. The slurp of mud claiming my shoes.
Hours passed in solitude as I crawled up the mountain. That isn’t just hyperbole. I often had my hands on the trail. Despite the exertion, crawling through the rainforest alone like a big happy spider was peaceful and pleasant. Unfortunately, there was one problem: I was practically hiking in a garbage dump.
I can honestly say that I’ve never hiked anywhere on this planet more blatantly, carelessly trashed. The trail up Gunung Marapi is worse than anything I saw in China, India, or elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Rubbish literally sticks to your feet. Bits of plastic have been ground into the dirt for years. I felt dirty just passing through. It’s the type of place where putting your hand on a rock yields the sticky corner from a sauce packet and a scrap of toilet paper.
Laboriously stooping in exhaustion, I filled a large bag with rubbish to pack out. My guesthouse in Bukittinggi offered a pretty cool initiative to do so. Thank you, Ling and Hello Guesthouse. But the bag I wearily filled didn’t even make a dent. A bulldozer wouldn’t make a dent. Marapi is going to have to blow all that filth sky high if it is ever to be cleared. Maybe a heavy rain of flaming water bottles will help people wise up.
My prized bag of trash was later seized by grinning rangers at the trailhead. It was then tossed onto a heaping pile of plastic to be burned that evening. Go figure.
I knew I was nearing the top when my trail deteriorated into a rugged lava field. Up ahead, black rock vanished into thick, bleached clouds. Ominous, indeed.
Three weary groups led by guides passed me on the way down. Sunrise suckers. All three guides asked me in Bahasa if I was alone. They were surprised when I said yes. Most grinned, but one called me Captain Jack Sparrow for some inexplicable reason. My hair?
I answered, “Saya tak punya kapal, tak punya perahu, bagimana saya bisa Jack Sparrow?” (I don’t have a ship or boat, how can I be Jack Sparrow?) He spat, bid me good luck, and led his group down.
With cold rain intensifying, I scrambled up shifting, sliding, falling, crumbling rock. Flashbacks from my scary experience in Nepal last year came flooding back. Dislodged rocks slammed into my unprotected ankles. The ground was slithering past me, gravity pulling it lower.
I was the only person or thing going upwards, or so it felt.
I’m not really sure why people work so hard to reach summits. More often than not, they’re dreadful places. Most are cold and cloudy. All are windy. A few wouldn’t think twice about trying to kill you.
I learned last year in Nepal, a “successful climb” isn’t about reaching the summit. A climb can’t be considered successful until all parties are safe and recounting the adventure in a warm place. Ideally over burgers. That’s a fact. Mountains are moody monsters. Himalayan ones and volcanoes are especially testy at times. Better to tread lightly, thank the mountain, then exit stage left as soon as possible.
I rarely feel a sense of victory on a summit. Instead, I feel as though an hourglass has been turned over by an all-powerful phantom hand. Lingering until the draining sand runs out is very foolish.
There will be plenty of time for celebrating nearer to sea level. With burgers. In this instance, hanging around the top wasn’t an option. Rain mingled with icy pellets. Blood thickened and fingers numbed.
I was completely alone on top.
Volcanoes can be a geological wonderland of curiosities, vents, lava formations, and boiling pools. Sibayak was. But Marapi looked more like the surface of the moon. A perfectly flat plane of fine black sand stretched in all directions. A dreary desert daring exploration. The dangerous mud pools and plugs had been thoughtfully surrounded with rocks by other climbers. Conspicuous yellow pellets of sulfur punctuated the sand.
The place stank.
There was an obligatory marker and an Indonesian flag. Also, as usual, a memorial stone to a climber who sadly perished there in 2015. I see those often. I think of him or her beginning the morning early and eager, just as I had done.
The contrast of sand and fog gave the place the look of black-and-white television static. It was all disorienting and otherworldly. Trying to scramble down the wrong side of the mountain would be a terrible mistake. I took a compass reading and began scratching arrows in the mud. I explored for about 15 minutes but eventually lost my nerve in the mist.
If anyone can figure out a way to be cold on the Equator (just a short distance to the north), I can. It’s an unfortunate talent. Most of my recent mountain adventures have taken place during freezing storms with no visibility: Mount Rogers (Virginia), Mount Rainier (Washington St), and Kala Pathar (Nepal) to name just a few. I was stupidly under geared for all of them. The same with Marapi today.
Cold rain had already saturated my shorts and shirt. Wind gusts made the smell of sulfur even more noxious. I felt dizzy. This would be a very inconvenient place to pass out. I envision some sort of a glorious volcanic death as my legacy one day, perhaps ridding the world of an enchanted ring. But not death by stinking. No, not like this.
I made a hasty exit. The decision was disappointing after nearly five hours of maximum effort to reach the top. I’m glad I left when I did. My legs buckled with each step. For 45 minutes, I clumsily slid and scratched my way off the top and back to the muddy trail below.
Descending was tougher than going up. Rain had washed out the trail. I fell twice. Once hard enough to bang my knee into stiffness. The second fall undid months of chiropractic effort. But as I got lower and temperatures warmed, I once again felt the forest embrace. Happiness washed over me. Coiled ferns, wildflowers, mushrooms, fluorescent pink plants — the place was a completely different world when compared to the nasty business on top.
There was peace. And sunshine.
I had my eyes open for snakes all day. I finally met a small one while picking up trash. I’ve no idea if it was dangerous or not. But a volcano in West Sumatra is no place to ponder herpetology. We both pleasantly went our separate ways.
Thank you, Sumatra, for one more adventure in the books.