This week's post is a throwback to our November trek up Gunung Agung... guest post by the lovely Eileen with peanut gallery commentary and internet linkage by yours truly!
At 9,888 feet, Mount Agung is the highest point on Bali and local lore holds that the mountain is the central axis of the universe. Seeing as old Gunung Agung is kind of a big deal, we decided that we must see for ourselves what all of the hullabaloo is about.
Six of us met our guides, a sibling duo named Wayan and Ketut (editor's note: practically everyone on Bali is named Wayan, Made, or Ketut, which are traditional Balinese names given based on birth order... not very different from my mom calling us numbers 1-4), at the trailhead at 2:00 AM (ed. note: we were all a bit bleary eyed despite going to bed a 9 pm). There are two routes to the summit of the mountain – we chose the shorter route that starts from Pura Pasar Agung, near Selat. This route is only passable in the dry season and takes about four hours to ascend, even under ideal weather conditions.
At 2:03 AM, we commenced an immediately challenging scramble up a muddy trail and through a dark and humid eucalyptus and giant fern forest. It was two steps forward, one step back kind of going for several pitch black hours as we made our way through the forest and to the treeline.
The first part of the descent was so challenging, what with the almost vertical slosh up a muddy mountainside covered in treacherous roots and thorny surprises (from the base of the giant fern trees), that we ended up losing one of our party right above treeline and another shortly after. It seems that prior climbers had lost precious cargo along the way as well—the trail wasn’t well-marked in terms of signage, but if you followed the cigarette, candy wrapper and even the occasional flip flop debris, you could easily find your way to the summit without a guide.
Shortly after the treeline, Wayan turned to the panting pack of bule bule behind him to issue the warning “this is where it gets steep.” Given that we’d spent the past few hours either on hands and knees or pitched forward, trying desperately to fight gravity, this was disconcerting news.
But we persevered and followed closely and quietly (except for the panting) behind Wayan, occasionally stopping to take a look around and soak in the Balinese night sky and the open expansion of the vertiginous volcano slope.
Somewhere along the way, two more of our party of six dropped behind, choosing to enjoy the hike and slow down their pace rather than attempt to finish the remainder of the ascent in time for sunrise. Wayan led the remaining two of us in a mad dash up the side of Mt Agung right as the sun started to peek through the dense fog that enveloped the mountain’s summit.
Our time at the summit was short-lived, but incredible. Following a brief peek into the volcano crater and an offering to the shrine nestled on Mt Agung’s rim, we wrapped ourselves in all available jackets and ponchos and squatted at the base of a boulder for a breakfast of warm tea and cookies that Wayan had hauled up the mountain.
Just as we started our descent, we spotted Tim’s head popping up from a bend in the trail. Shortly after our reunion with Tim, Jenny appeared on the horizon with her arms victoriously raised. Both had somehow managed to persist in solo-scaling the volcano in spite of the challenging conditions:
After allowing Jenny and Tim a breather and a snack, we continued our descent, the remainder of which was a mix of awe-inspiring views across the island and groan-inducing pain (we had a few turned ankles and old knee injuries to contend with. Note to self, next time bring a walking stick).
Shortly before reaching treeline, we encountered Chrissy, who had spent the night wedged between two rocks as she tried to overcome an intense case of inner-ear infection induced vertigo (note to self #2: this hike is best attempted when you’re in peak physical condition).
Once we were back in the shelter of the forest, the daylight exposed all manner of wonderful sights that we had missed the night before, including wild strawberries, flowers, fiddlehead ferns, and vertical drops on both sides of the narrow and slippery trail (note to self #3 – limited visibility can be a blessing. I’m not sure we would have made it past the initial part of the trail if we had known how treacherous the path was) (ed. note: I actually fell down one of these vertical drops, finding myself with my head 6 inches below the trail, facing a muddy wall of vines and the outstretched hand of the 90-lb Ketut as my exit strategy... I made it back up to the trail, but it was not pretty and my pants are no longer functional, having ripped from knee to crotch during the endeavor).
By far the most surreal and delightful part of the descent was the ephemeral sound of the gamelan from the Hindu temple, Pura Besakih, on the slope of the mountain. The combination of sunlight filtering in through the fern and eucalyptus canopy and sound of that gamelan helped us transcend exhaustion, knee pain, and all manner of physical complaints to finish the hike in high spirits.
We reunited with Meg at the trail-head; she’d passed the night with Ketut along the treeline, sensibly enjoying a fire (and a great cup of hot coffee, grown by Wayan and Ketut's mother at their home on the slopes of the volcano), and descended (ed. note: slid on my ass) shortly after sunrise.
Following a sweaty photo op and some perfunctory stretching, we piled our stinky selves back into Made’s (our driver and all-around great guide) car and headed back to our villa, which promised a warm meal, showers, a pool, and a terrific view the same slopes of Gunung Agung that we’d just trekked the night before.