4am Dance Party, and Other Wonders of Climbing Mount Agung

It’s 3:30am, and I am lying on the dirt somewhere on a trail on Mount Agung far above Bali. Jimmy is snoring, and so is Pudu. We have been lying this way for maybe an hour. The wind through the darkness comes in spurts; I know the leaves are moving because I see the stars shift places in the sky through the leaves. Then the night goes silent again.

People talk about deafening silence, but I have never known what they mean until now. Laying here, shivering in the cold (despite two shirts, a jacket and long socks), the silence is so still that I can’t hear anything. My ears are ringing, and I can only guess that they are filling in for the sound of nothing. The occasional wind – and snoring – are the only noises I can identify. No bird-calls, no mosquito buzzes, no nothing. Just absolute quiet.

We started walking this trail at 11:30pm. We had hired a guide, Pudu, to take us up to the top of Mount Agung, Bali’s holiest – and highest – mountain. The walk, we had heard, was steep and arduous, but we were advised it was worth it to be at the top for sunrise. There, weather willing, we could look all the way across Bali – and, if lucky, other islands in the Indonesian archipelago.

Mt Agung (Photo source http://cipura-info.blogspot.com/2011/07/mount-agung.html )

Pudu has been walking this trail for 13 years. His most recent trip had been two nights earlier, he said, where he had led a group of 60-70 year old Japanese men who had taken nearly 12 hours to reach the summit. The average climb takes 5-7 hours, which demands a midnight start, since the sun rises a bit before 6am.

This was my first nighttime hike, and I was a bit creeped out by the idea, especially treading as we were on Bali’s most revered place. Malawi is the only other country I have ever been where there is a climb-able sacred mountain inhabited by spirits. And in Malawi, no person in their right mind would climb Sapitwa’s peak in the dark. Everyone – locals and azungu alike – knows the myriad stories of climbers (especially foreigners) disappearing mysteriously under strange circumstances. Once you hear the details, it’s hard to roundly scoff at the idea of strange forces afoot. I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say, I wasn’t too keen on tempting a similar fate on Mount Agung.

Nevertheless, once we started walking, I was surprised at how natural it felt. There was nothing to see but the moving hole of light created by my headlamp, and the sense of darkness all around. I found it strangely meditative to move in this way. No distractions, no stimuli. Just breath and silence.

After about two hours walking, at 7500ft of elevation according to my Garmin, Pudu stopped and said he was worried. We had started at about 3800ft and we would summit the volcano crater rim at just over 10,000ft. Not very high, but high enough to be quite cold and windy at night. We were moving far too quickly, he said. At this pace, we would reach the summit in less than four hours, two hours before sunrise.

Jimmy and Pudu settling down for a nap.

So he proposed a nap. Which is how I found myself lying on the dirt in the black night, with snoring men just above and beside me. Eventually, I got so cold I had to start walking up and down the trail to keep warm. Jimmy woke up and joined me for a stay-warm-dance party, which included belting out YMCA and The Hustle while boogeying down next to a fallen tree. Finally, Pudu woke up (how he chose to pass on our dance party I cannot know – certainly the musical choices can’t be faulted) and we started walking again. It was 4am.

At about 5am, a little light appeared in the sky, and we passed a temple where guides and other walkers on pilgrimages stop to offer prayers to the mountain. From here, the trail begins to climb over lava rock, much of it laid down during the volcano’s last violent eruption in 1963. If the climb up to this point had been stair-steep, now it became a ladder. Sometimes we stopped every 20 steps or so to get a breath.

Yep. Up.

About 15 minutes above the temple, with the light in the sky, we could see the top of the crater rim. We headed straight up at what felt like – and turned out to be – about a 45-degree angle slope to the top over hardened lava. The trail had disappeared. Clouds were rolling in quickly from the east, obscuring the sunrise and the view below, but behind us was an amazing view of Bali – Mount Batur (where we had mountain biked the week before) to the ocean, punctuated by stunning green valleys of tropical trees, plants and rice fields. The view was mind-blowing, and humbling as all get-out.

Mt Batur from the top of the Mount Agung crater

Kudu was right – it was cold at the summit, and scarily windy, and after a quick breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, Pocari Sweat (Indonesia’s tasty answer to Gatorade), and chocolate-filled bread eaten inside a lava field crevasse, we started the arduous way back down. I was amazed to check my Garmin and discover that we had walked less than 4 miles in over 6000 feet to the top. (As a comparison, Pikes Peak climbs about 7500 ft in 13 miles – which is steep enough, with an average 11% grade.) This made the trek back down much harder than the climb up. On the steepest, rockiest sections, my Nike Frees gave me just about enough traction to squat down and simply slide straight down the trail without careening forward onto my face. About twelve times, my feet simply slipped out from underneath me, and I became ever so thankful for well-placed roots and branches that served as handholds.

Pura Besakih

We finished our walk with more than 250 stairs that led down to Pura Besakih, the most famous temple in Bali, sitting as it does at the foot of Mount Agung. In the early morning light (it was only 8:30am by this time), the many pagodas and gates of the temple were stunning. Our guide gave us an abbreviated history lesson about the temple, and I smiled and nodded and tried to not fall over in happy exhaustion.

Then I drank a beer. Jimmy and Kudu drank cokes. And as we parted ways, I think it’s safe to say that we all counted our many blessings.

Is that holy water in your hand there, Hayes?