Climbing one of the most active volcanoes in the world…

Setting off at 10pm, we met our guide and his friend who had a car the would take us on the two hour drive to Selo. Since we did not go through a tourism company and being that we were in Indonesia, this seemed relatively normal. This feeling did not last long. Slowing down at every cross street, the driver tried to discern if it was the correct one. After a few street inspections, he threw the car in reverse satisfied that the chosen road would do. With a manual transmission and the steep road, stalling seemed inevitable. It seemed the driver did not realize that lower gears work better for steep climbs or perhaps he just wanted to see how low he could get the RPM’s to go before the vehicle would come to a complete stop. At some point during this windy and jerky drive Steve woke up and looked around.  Moments later the driver commented, “Go back to sleep boss.”  Thoughts of kidnapping and ransom flickered through my thoughts as the car struggled up small roads in the dark of night.

Eventually the car pulled into Selo, the small village at the base of the climb.  At this point the guide said we should rest at his friend’s house before we set out for the top of the volcano in a couple of hours. Masks adorn the walls around the couch were five men were riveted to Jaws III on TV. We took a seat and tea was served. Forty-five minutes later after unsuccessful attempts at sleep we were roused. The guide said that we could borrow flashlights from his friend. At our request the perplexed man poked around until he scrounged up one old flashlight for Steve and I to share. Our original English speaking "guide" had already settled into the comfort of the couch and indicated that the two youngest men in the room would now be our guides. This made me uneasy because our "salesman" gave us the impression he would personally take us up the volcano and the new guides were not well versed in English.

Merapi was obscured in darkness and clouds as we set out on the hike. Steep paved roads lead up to an abandoned radio station where we rested as the vigorous hike had no swtichbacks and was very fast paced. Later Steve mentioned to me that there would be no switchbacks…I thought he was joking, but he most certainly was not. As we went further along the path, we begin to ascend an even steeper route obscured by foliage. One guide lead the way and the other brought up the rear. A quick burst of Javanese startled us out of our silence and the rear guide rushed to the front and entering into an extended dialogue with the other guide. We turned around and examine a few paths before selecting the “right” one.  Keep in mind that the entire time we scrambled up different paths in a pseudo lost state, Steve and I shared a dim and slowly dying flashlight.  Slipping and struggling up the mountainside is a blast without the ability to see where you are going!
I feel as though I am in decent shape but found the climb arduous. Some of the difficulty can be attributed to the fact that Steve and I were sharing a flashlight, but for some reason this was not of concern to our guides. Breaks every 20-30 minutes were always appreciated, since we had no sleep and no food in our stomaches at this point. During these breaks, we would catch our breath and drink water while our guides would have a quick smoke.  Sometimes I think they would not even drink any water. These young men have certainly become accustomed to the heat and vigor of these climbs.

After two and half hours we stopped for another break. It was about 3 in the morning and we anticipated further climbing so the Steves pounded some Krating Daeng (Red Bull Syrup). The guides had their customary smoke and then began to build a fire. No words were exchanged in this process, but snoring alerted us to the fact that they had both quickly fallen asleep. At three in the morning, on one of the most active volcanoes in the world we must have looked quite confused to the sight of our guides peacefully dreaming on their small dirt beds next to the fire. Clearly we were not going anywhere so we decided to follow suit. Doing our best to overcome uncomfort and the caffeine buzz, we curled up on the sharp volcanic rocks and actually managed to catch a few winks of sleep.  Dirt naps on the side of a volcano behind a small rock protecting us from the whistling winds turned out to be quite refreshing. As the fire died out and the guides woke they asked, “Do you want to go to the last plateau or the top?” Clouds were rolling over the summit and safety was a concern. Usually a guide’s job is to recommend the best course of action, but in this instance and partially due to the language barrier the decision was entirely up to us. Without solid advice about the risks attempting the summit would entail, we opted to start with the second plateau.  Climbing over old lahar deposits, we made it to the second plateau as the sun rose.

Stunning views had waited for us as only now we could see the height we had climbed in the night. Far below us terraced fields quilted the land and Selo could be seen coming to life. The wind swept past us, pushing clouds over the summit. The scene was beautiful, but also cold and tiring. The ascent was difficult but the descent was even more demanding. Dewy grass covered some of the path with sand and gravel covering even more. I fell at least 24 times while Bouey and Steve seemed to have no problem. An hour and a half of sliding, jumping, and tumbling down Mt. Merapi we made it back to pavement. Villagers were making their way to plots halfway up the mountain, a routine they must do at least twice a week. We were greeted with curiosity but also smiles. The highlight of the journey occurred when we were only 200m away from the guide’s house. Selo students lined the courtyard of their school yelling “hello, hello” with the gusto and cuteness that only small children are capable of.  The country life seemed much healthier and it was unfortunate we could not spend more time here.

Climbing one of the most active volcanoes in the world did not turn out to be as we expected it but we came away with views that cameras cannot do justice to and smiles from the hospitality of our new friends. It is experiences like this that even though are extremely difficult and uncomfortable, end up presenting themselves in the most beautiful ways.  A climb up this mountain and a walk through Selo is worth the struggle upfront.