HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Climbing Rinjani: Summit and Descent

We woke up at 2, had a light meal, and readied for the final stretch to the summit. Our guide estimated it would take about four hours to get to the top, hopefully just in time for sunrise. The Belgian couple in our group had decided to keep sleeping and skip the summit, as they were already happy with what they had seen, while the Dutch couple had reservations but decided to go for it. It was calm at the campsite, and the sky a clear vault full of brilliant stars. I felt warm in my layers but knew it would be colder once we got onto the ridge leading to the summit.

Sure enough, as soon as we headed up above the tents the wind returned. The going was fairly easy at first, though the path was nothing more than ashy dust, which got kicked up by the few dozen trekkers going towards the top and reduced visibility even more (if possible) in the inky black night. The Dutch couple was struggling and stopping far too often, so they told me and the two British girls to go ahead while they stayed back with the guide. This was fine with us, as stopping so much made it hard to maintain a rhythm or keep your body temperature up. It was also impossible to get lost, as the path was obvious and illuminated by the headlamps of other climbers.

We trudged on through the dust, with nothing to see except the patch of ground lit up by our torches and the distant lights of towns around the island far below. The early stretches of the trail had been cut through rocks that were taller than us, providing shelter from the wind, but after an hour or so the rocks fell away, leaving us completely exposed. At some point the dirt transitioned to extremely loose scree and the angle of ascent increased, and this is where the climbing became hellish. The loose rocks gave way any time you put weight down, meaning that for every step you took, you slid back half the distance you had just covered. Between the awful footing, cutting wind and ever-present dust, things were turning ugly.

We had been making good progress, steadily passing slower groups, but this bogged down everybody. More frequent breaks to rest burning calves became necessary, and any rock that broke the wind became a blessing. My hands and face were cold, but my torso was steaming thanks to the exertion, although anytime we stopped my sweat turned cold in a hurry. The summit was silhouetted against the bright stars, but it didn't seem to be getting any closer, though we were obviously covering some distance.  

After roughly an hour of this I noticed that the sky was beginning to brighten to the east. It was almost imperceptible, but sunrise was coming. We could also tell that the summit was near; our timing looked like it would be perfect. A final wall of rocks just below the peak gave us one last pause from the wind, and we stomped onto the summit as a band of orange and yellow stretched across the eastern horizon. I couldn't completely feel my hands thanks to my thin gloves, snot was running down my face and my legs were on fire, but we had made it to the summit! (Among the first people there that day, actually.) 12,224 feet above sea level, and this was easily the tallest mountain (and only volcano) I've ever climbed. The bulk of the climbing hadn't been too difficult for me, but that last stretch was a nightmare, and I felt a great sense of accomplishment to be at the top.

We caught our breath and looked east, only to be winded again by the breathtaking view.
Once there was enough light I got a picture with one of the signs indicating the height of the peak.
The dramatic geology around the summit spoke of a violent history, and also looked like an excellent stand-in for Mars.
Finally, the sun peaked above the clouds and rose quickly, illuminating Lombok and the waters around it. The wind still packed a punch, but every minute brought stronger rays.
Then, while everyone was staring at the sun, I turned around exclaimed at the incredible view behind us: a shadow of the peak had been cast across the caldera and stretched all the way to the horizon, in something of an alternative cover to Dark Side of the Moon, if Pink Floyd were more outdoorsy. This was one of the most surreal natural images I had ever seen. This also provided a sense of just how far we had climbed, as we had been on the shore of the lake less than 24 hours earlier.
We hung around the peak for about 30 minutes, just taking everything in, until we decided it was too cold and began the descent back to camp.

While the dusty scree of the summit ridge had made for a brutal climb, going down it was a completely different story: we were able to run/slide down the whole thing, kicking up huge clouds of fine dirt along the way and flying past people who were still going up. Now that the sun was out we were also able to see what we had climbed up past: steep slopes feel away from either side of the path, and one would be in serious trouble if they were to slip or trip off the trail. We reached the tents in just an hour and were nice and toasty, rendering most of the cold-weather clothing useless for the rest of the day.

After resting for a bit and feasting on banana pancakes we packed up and took off for the descent down the rest of the volcano towards the village of Sembalun. The sun was burning strong in a mostly clear sky, and the frigid temperatures of the summit were a distant memory. The dusty trail, bone-dry since Lombok was in the middle of the dry season, made for filthy, at times choking, trekking. I tied a bandana around my face and we trudged on as our clothes and exposed skin became caked in a layer of earth.

After lunch the terrain transitioned from pine-filled highlands to a long, sloping savanna of shoulder-high grass. The heat rose as we got closer to sea level, and the last two hours of hiking baked us. Just before reaching Sembalun we re-entered the jungle, where troops of black monkeys swung through the trees. Finally, after 25 km (15.5 miles) of trekking over three days, we reached the end of the trail. I was hot, exhausted and utterly filthy, but it had all been absolutely worth it. The scenery of Rinjani is simply staggering, leaving me with sights and moments that I will certainly never forget. This trip couldn't have gotten off to a better, more epic start.
We were given a ride back to the guesthouse in Senaru, where I finally had a chance to get a glimpse of myself in a mirror: I looked like Alice Cooper, with dirt caked around my eyes and mouth, hair so crusty I could barely run a hand through it. I cleaned what I could in the sink but it was soon time to hop into a van and head to Bangsal, a town on the coast where boats to the Gili Islands depart from. After an amazing four days on Lombok, it was time to head to a completely different destination.

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