By Matt Fournaris
It all began on my descent from Bali into Yogyakarta airport in January. I stared out the window of the plane at a sea of clouds, noticing one mountain peak in the distance that stood taller than every other mountain I could see. Since the moment I landed, the only thing on my mind was finding a way to get on top of this incredible mountain–Mount Merapi– the most active volcano in Indonesia. Only four months prior to my arrival, Mount Agung on the island of Bali erupted, making me fear whether I would be allowed to study in Indonesia.
My reason for coming to Jogya was to carry out the religion portion of my study abroad experience with SIT. When I found out there would be a short window of free time I knew climbing Mount Merapi was what I had to do. No matter where I am in the world, finding ways to push myself in unforgiving circumstances has been a passion of mine. The Indonesian people consider Mount Merapi ia holy mountain. Before climbing it we were warned by locals to be considerate of the gods and excuse ourselves for saying or doing anything inappropriate on the mountain.
After a couple of days speaking to locals, and gaining some knowledge of the area, this crazy thought of climbing Mount Merapi seemed possible. I assembled a small group of avid hikers from my study abroad group and our first challenge was finding suitable gear to do the climb. In a tropical country and the wet season, it could pour rain our entire hike. We also needed cold weather gear due to the drastic temperature change from hot to cold at the summit.
Once we had all of our gear lined up from a local outfitter, we could finally focus on the trip. We decided to do the hike without a guide since we did extensive research on the area and felt confident enough to do so. We left our homestay on Friday, March 2nd at 4:00 p.m. to take a three-hour car ride to the basecamp in a village called New Selo. On our way there, we drove through the worst rainstorm we had encountered during our stay.
While downpours are common in tropical Indonesia, it typically does not last very long. But there seemed no end in sight for this storm. We began to question our decisions and plans to hike through the night under a full moon. When we finally made it to the basecamp at 7:00 p.m., the rain had stopped and there was a blanket of thick fog.
As we began our hike, the mountain let us know we were in for a long two days. We found ourselves following an extremely steep, narrow, and barely noticeable trail through the jungle. Rain had eroded much of the trail, making it very difficult to navigate. About two hours into the hike, one of the two headlamps we were able to get our hands on died. Moonlight was still hidden under the cloud ceiling so we reached the second camp at 11:00 p.m., extremely behind schedule. The plan was to make it to the fourth camp where we would attempt to set up a tent and sleep a few hours before making the summit push in the morning.
Around 2:00 a.m., we finally made it out of the jungle and broke the cloud ceiling at around 7,000 feet. The moon was shining bright, and you could see everything for miles like it was daytime. In front of us was our first view of Mount Merapi’s summit. we watched the sulfur fumes billow from the crater in the distance. As we stood on the lunar landscape of Merapi, we looked out in the distance and watched the most incredible lightning storm happen below us. It was a moment in my life when I felt how small my presence as a human being was in comparison to the rest of the world.
At this point we realized there was no chance of making it to camp four, so we decided to go all in and try to reach the summit before sunrise. We made the final push on our hands and knees up the crater at 4:00 a.m. As we stood on the near vertical and exposed face of the volcano, the inevitable happened. It went from 100 percent clear visibility, to being completely socked in within minutes. We had to stay in place because one wrong move in this zone could have been life threatening. After a long 45 minutes, the clouds rolled over and we saw the summit right in front of us. It was still so close, yet so far. We finally summitted at 5:52 a.m. just before the sun came up.
There there was no wind. The clouds were rolling over the nearby mountains, yet you could still hear a pin drop. It was so calm at such a high elevation.
After 35 hours of no sleep, and nearly 10,000 feet later, we made it back to base camp. This was the most physically demanding yet rewarding experience I have ever had. Hiking this mountain with other students who were strangers not long before made for a memory we will all share the rest of our lives. It was so calm at such a high elevation.
After 35 hours of no sleep, and nearly 10,000 feet later, we made it back to base camp. This was the most physically demanding yet rewarding experience I have ever had. Hiking this mountain with other students who were strangers not long before made for a memory we will all share the rest of our lives. It has also made me gain a deep respect for landscapes so far from my homeland.