It was June 2015 and my friend Johana and I were travelling around Indonesia and determined to visit Bali’s neighbouring island, Lombok, and climb the famous Mount Rinjani.
It’s Indonesia’s second highest volcano (almost 4000m) and I had heard about its stunning lake in the crater and the amazing views. It was a 3-day trek; one day to reach the crater, another to conquer the summit and descend to the lake in the crater, and the third to descend back to sea level from the other side of the mountain.
The beginning of the adventure
Johana was worried the trek would be too exhausting for our inexistent fitness levels.
“It’s a really easy trek, and the view is fabulous”, said the tour agent in Gili T convincingly pointing at his photo album. “Look, this is me in the summit. And me in the hot springs. The porters will look after you and you will be happy to have seen it. Believe me”.
“But we have no gear to trek or climb mountains”, pointed out Johana.
Very true, my worn out flip flops didn’t seem at all appropriate. The guy promised to rent us trekking shoes and coats for 5$ a day, so off we went.
We took a boat from Gili T to Lombok at 5.30am, and upon arrival someone shouted our names from the crowd and we followed. We were urged onto a cidomo; a tiny, wobbly carriage pulled by cute little donkeys and taken to Sembalum, one of the villages at the foot of the volcano.
From Sembalum to the crater
We were given a banana pancake and a cup of tea for breakfast along with two pairs of old worn out sneakers of random sizes and with holes in their soles.
“This must be a joke! Are these really going to be our trekking shoes?” I thought out loud.
The coats were also ragged, and mine was so large that I literally felt like in a sack of potatoes. As we later found out, they all belonged to the guy from the agency who sold us the tour.
The first day we would trek for a minimum of 8h and ascend 1.600m. There where four resting points named POS 1 to 4. The first part didn’t seem too challenging, it was only a slight ascension, but the scorching sun made us suffocate. Shortly after our departure, we were covered in sweat and dust and I could already hear Johana whining:
“It’s bloody hot. I can’t stand this sun! How did I let you convince me to do this?”
I didn’t reply. I was worried my friend would hate this experience and it would be all my fault.
The true heros of Mount Rinjani
When we reached POS 1, we saw the porters for the first time. Until then, it had never really occurred to us that someone had to take our food, drinks and camp gear for the next three days.
These porters were in their early twenties, some of them even teenagers, little thin local boys from the neighbouring villages. But boy they were strong! They carried all our stuff in bundles on each side of a wooden stick, perched over one of their scarred shoulders. The loads were 50kg each. We tried to grab one and couldn’t even lift it, let alone climb for hours under the sun and in flip flops.
We joined our group at POS 2 which consisted of seven people; a French couple, two Swiss girls and three German lads. The first four were proper trekking pros, they had the latest tech boots, walking sticks and all sorts of trekking gadgets. Some of them had been to the Himalayas and other arduous treks, whereas for Johana and me, this was just our first one.
The struggle begins…
Suddenly I realised how unprepared we were. The slope got steeper after lunch, and our hamstrings weaker. My glutes were burning and I started getting cramps in my legs and we still had four hours ahead.
“I don’t think I can go up any further. What a torture, I thought we were supposed to be on holiday”, said Johana with disdain. “And all this for a picture”.
Although I was partly sharing her feelings, I tried to stay positive:
“Well, it’s not really for the picture, imagine that summit symbolises everything we want in life. Our goals and our dreams. As in life, we will be challenged and we will struggle; we will be tired and tempted to quit, but if we overcome the obstacles and reach that peak, we can consider this like training for anything else we want to achieve in life”.
Johana thought about this for a while, and perhaps it was just my impression, but I’d swear she seemed to walk faster and with more determination after this.
The first breakthrough
By the time we reached POS 3, we had long lost sight of our group and we were inevitably walking slower at every step, and demanding breaks more frequently. Our guide Anton had sent the porters up with the rest of the group so that he could stay behind with us, and I was amazed at how patient and cheerful he was; constantly motivating us when he saw we started to slack.
The peak looked so close, yet no matter how much we walked we never seemed to get any closer.
And this is when it happened. I’m not sure exactly why, but suddenly we both sat down and broke down crying. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and I still can’t really explain it. It felt like a mixture of physical exhaustion, impotence and regret.
As an afterthought, I think all those things ultimately translate to one: fear. I saw my friend suffering too and I started to doubt if this trip had really been the best choice, and if we would even make it to the end.
We sat there for a few minutes, contemplating the countryside below us, refusing to move. Then Anton said, “We need to reach the campsite before sunset and it’s getting late. Come on, give me your backpack. I will take it for you and I will sing a song to cheer you up”.
This slapped me round the face like a bucket of icy water. Seeing this boy set off singing, smiling and carrying my backpack on top of the 20 litres of water and a bunch of other stuff he had, made me break through.
I suddenly felt ridiculous and pathetic. What the hell was all the fuss about? We got ourselves into this adventure by our own choice, and these boys had to make a living by pulling silly tourists like us and their provisions to the top, for a pitiably small salary, day after day. And not only they weren’t complaining; they were even laughing and singing!
“Ok, Eva. Time to get the hell up,” I thought to myself, and suddenly a new wave of energy flowed into my body and both of us started climbing behind him.
We reached the campsite almost before sunset and collapsed on the floor to stretch out our muscles. I couldn’t believe it, we had made it through the first day! I felt so happy and relieved. Everybody else was already there; the porters had set up our tents, as well as their own where they lit a stove and were preparing our dinner. It was really cold by now, so they invited us in and made us hot tea.
A cultural exchange
Only our guide Anton spoke English, with everyone else we communicated via mimics, sounds and signs. We helped them chop vegetables for our dinner and they sang songs while we watched the sun set over the crater. It was really a magical moment.
Our guide told us about his childhood, about how his parents were unable to raise him and how he was brought up by his mother’s friend. He had never been to school and he had never left the tiny island of Lombok. Never even crossed over to the neighbouring Gilis or Bali.
He had been doing this job for two years already, six days a week. We asked him how this was possible, and he replied that as hard as this job may be, he much rather make an honest living climbing Rinjani rather than turning to other low life alternatives.
Time seemed to stop while he narrated about his life – a life so different to ours and so touching that it made Johana and me silently drop another tear in that tent.
The plan for those who intended on conquering the summit was to wake up at 2am, and climb the remaining 1.100m high peak for 4 hours in the dark, in order to reach the top by sunrise.
“You don’t have to go”, Anton told us. “You can sleep in and we will be back by 9 or 10am”.
After consulting it with Johana, we both agreed that we had to go. Our body was aching everywhere but we wouldn’t feel good about ourselves if we didn’t give it our best shot.
Climbing to the summit
At 2am we set off, it was pitch black and the only lights were our torches and the stars. This climb was much steeper than the rest, and the lava gave way under our feet, making clouds of dust raise from the ground and making it very hard to breathe. Sand and stones filtered through the holes in my shoes making it very uncomfortable to walk, and to top it up, I started sweating heavily and soon enough my t-shirt and coat were completely drenched.
After the first 500m our side of the mountain became exposed to a very strong, icy wind. My wet clothes began to freeze and I started shivering violently.
Warriors fight until the end
It was time for another breakthrough, Johana fell on her knees out of impotence. She wanted to turn back, but it was not wise to descend in the dark alone.
The cold cut through my bones and I was no longer able to talk. My teeth were chattering and my lips turned blue. I couldn’t feel my hands or feet. It was zero degrees, and I was soaked and frozen with no gloves, scarf or hat in that horrible wind.
The porter took Johana by the hand and pulled her up. He was determined to push her to the top. She recomposed herself and started cheering at me: “Come on Eva you can do it too!”
They soon disappeared at a fast pace and I was left behind with Anton. We climbed some more but about 100m from the summit my legs stopped responding and I collapsed. My whole body was shaking; I was literally on the verge of hypothermia. Anton gave me his scarf and gloves and rubbed me all over trying to warm me up.
We found shelter in a small cave on the mountain side with another couple from Java and all cuddled together trying to stay warm. He said we better wait for sunrise in the shelter, there were only 30 minutes left and then it would get warmer. I was so frustrated to have lost Johana and to be so close from the summit, yet not on top of it to watch that sunrise together.
The light at the end of the tunnel
That half hour seemed to go on forever, but when the sun finally came out, it was like spring winning over winter. Anton said: “Look, what a beautiful view, let me take a picture of you. Smile!”.
Even smiling was excruciating. This was definitely the most painful sunrise of my life!
Anton said we had to wait for the group, but as soon as my limbs came back to life I decided I had to move so I started the descent on my own. The views were fantastic and there were tribes of monkeys and along the way.
Trading expectations for appreciation
When I reached the campsite, the group caught up with me.
“Pack your stuff, we need to get down to the lake in the crater by lunchtime, and it’s 4 hour steep descent”, said Anton.
“What?!?” This must have been another joke. But it wasn’t. Not only we had to get to the lake, but also to other side of the crater’s rim by sunset where the other campsite was located, so we were in for another 4 hours of steep climb after the lake.
The whole group was complaining, except those Swiss trekking freaks who kept urging us to move forward, not allowing a single moment of rest to catch our breaths!
Then a thought came to my mind. We were so busy struggling and whining that we weren’t appreciating enough the beauty around us. I decided to focus on that instead, concluding that we had already surpassed our limits a few times over the last day, so doing it again would not be an issue. The rest of the afternoon became substantially more enjoyable.
Hard work pays off
We reached the campsite by sunset and the sensation of accomplishment and relief was incredible.
“We did it, my friend”, Johana said, and we rewarded ourselves with dinner over that beautiful valley, as the sun went down and the stars came out. I’d never felt happier in my life.
The bottom line
I won’t go into the details of our third day trek, or the muscle ache the following morning, or any other funny anecdotes from the trip, because they are all irrelevant comparing to how powerful we felt after completing the second day.
For me, this is a story of personal growth, not really of conquering a volcano, but mainly of conquering ourselves and overcoming our own limits. I learnt more life lessons in those 3 days than I have in many years of existence.
I really recommend this trip to all adventurous travellers going to Indonesia, and here is the link to Oke Trekker, the best company providing tours of Rinjani, where Anton works as a guide. These were just some of my conclusions from that trip:
9 Lessons I Learnt From Climbing Rinjani
Our mind sets the limit, and when we think we have reached the limit, life smacks us in the face and shows us there is still room for achievement, an extra mile to go, an extra step to take, and we can always move our limit up.
Life is an eternal battle with oneself; we are our own best friend and our own worst enemy. The way we communicate with ourselves is crucial, we all have an internal dialogue streaming non-stop through our minds, so better make it an empowering one. It makes a huge difference constantly saying to yourself “I’m in pain, I can’t make it anymore”, or “Come on you champion, you can do it!” Your thoughts will materialise into your reality. Fact.
What you focus on also becomes your reality. If you choose to focus on how tired and achy you are, guess what? You will feel even more tired and achy. If instead you choose to focus on how beautiful the views around you are, then your tiredness won’t feel as intense.
What you put in, is what you take out. To be at the top requires persistence, determination and hard work! A lesson for life! Everybody claims to know this, but nobody wants to work! Nowadays everybody is looking for shortcuts. The reality is that on the road to success you will at some point have to dwell through ‘hard work boulevard’. One thing is hearing it, and another thing is living it. After this trip, we really got the message.
Sometimes you need to accept the fact that things don’t quite happen as you want them to. Letting go of things is necessary. Not conquering the summit frustrated me at the time but I didn’t let this make me feel any less of a champion. What matters here is that I tried my best.
That anything that doesn’t challenge you, doesn’t change you and when you conquer fear you feel empowered. Achievement builds confidence. And the toughest ventures are usually the most rewarding ones.
The times when you are closest to giving up are usually the times when you are also closest to succeeding. So don’t give up! Nothing tastes better than the sweet flavour of victory; knowing that you have set yourself a new standard.
Never pity yourself. We are all blessed to be alive, and if you cannot see your blessing remember how lucky you are – you don’t own all the problems in the world. Ironically in this story, those who led the toughest lives, were the strongest in spirit. The most cheerful and the ones who least complained. So be grateful!
Committing to excellence is a constant battle of pushing yourself, it’s tough but it’s something worth fighting for – if we only get one life we better not make it a mediocre one. The conclusion here is, that we create our destiny with the decisions we take, so if you are not willing to get off your ass and climb the mountain, nobody will do it for you!