Lombok, A Rinjani Ascent

Lombok, A Rinjani Ascent


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It was 3am at 3000m above sea level and we had just been woken from our restless sleep by our guide. We were all feeling nervous from the anticipation of the climb ahead. A quick cup of tea and a muesli bar and we were off. Except for by brother Phil. I could see he was visibly upset. The cameraman was filming everything. Phil looked into the lens and told the world that he had to pull out. Holding back tears he explained that he just didn’t have any energy left and that he felt ashamed. He walked off and retired to his tent.

The summit of Gunung Rinjani stands at 3726m on the island of Lombok, Indonesia . The mountain itself is part of a series of massifs that form an enormous volcanic calderas. Lying within this calderas is a new semi active volcano, Gunung Baru. Forming a crescent around this new cone is Segara Anak which is a fresh water lake home to a multitude of Carp.

Our expedition began in a small village on the northern slopes of Rinjani. From our guest house we could see Rinjani’s summit and its long, angular ridge line. For all of us it was an imposing site. We were all climbing for various reasons. Some needed an adventure, others a challenge, while I was here filming the struggle the nine other trekkers would undertake to reach Rinjani’s summit. My brother Phil needed an adventure. He had a one year old at home and a pregnant wife with his second, so I guess (though I never have asked him) he needed something for himself, to relive a bygone day when he felt more important and to some extent his own person.

The first day from Senaru is a long and at times grueling climb through lush rain and cloud forests. Grey Macaques and Ebony monkeys swung through the forests canopy, pausing occasionally to spy on their unusual biped cousins below. Buttress roots gauged there way across the worn path frequently forming steps that were just a little higher than a natural stride. After 6 hours we had reached base camp three which stands approximately 500 vertical metres below the volcano’s rim. It was a difficult climb. Phil rested in his tent for most of the afternoon complaining of feeling weary and having sore knees.

By dinner time we were all starving so we scoffed the Nasi Goreng down with gusto. Phil took one mouth full and quickly ran off to the bushes to vomit. Repeatedly. Very loudly. It was like some enormous beast growling in the bushes. I went to comfort him and soon realised that we were standing in amongst a thicket of Stinging Nettle; an extremely painful weed that can takes days to clear up. Phil was oblivious to this as he was concentrating on his vomiting bear impersonation. I slowly backed us out of harms way and took Phil to his tent. In the moment of illness, of stomach cramps and sweating brows he mumbled to me that he couldn’t go on and that he wanted to head back to Senaru. I asked him to sleep on it and we would reassess it in the morning.

My restless sleep was broken by the sweet chirping of morning birds. I exited my tent to film the morning sites and sounds. The porters were already busying themselves with breakfast preparations while the trekker’s tents moaned, groaned and vibrated like enormous purple beetles. I slid into Phil’s tent to see how he was. Physically he remained weak and sore, but the feeling of defeat had waned and he was prepared to go on and see how he would do.

Another difficult climb awaited us, but we could see the rim of the crater and our spirits rose with every metre closer to it. Until midday, the air around Rinjani remains crystal clear and as we climbed we would pause to look behind us to see the awesome volcanoes of Bali rise from the sea. Then all of a sudden, that rock and grass that we had been looking at beneath our feet for the last two days fell away into one of the world’s most amazing gaping holes. The horizon flung itself 8 km from us as we walked up to the rim, witness to Segara Anak and Gunung Baru rising from its depths.

But more impressive than that was the summit of Gunung Rinjani. From our vantage point we could see what we had to do to get to the summit. We could see the camp site by the lake and the steep climb to base camp 4 on the other side of the calderas. And finally we could see the intimidating ridge climb all the way to the summit. From here we wondered how on earth we were going to get there. God knows what Phil was thinking. This would have been the last chance for him to turn around, as by the time we had reached the lake’s shore he would have been half way between the two towns that could offer him safety. I didn’t tell him this. He picked up his pack and led the expedition down the inside of the calderas to our camp for the night.

By the time we reached the lake camp several other trekkers started to feel the pain. One had a nasty fall on his way down though he escaped any real injuries. Others who were full of humour and spirit two days prior were more introspective, while another dehydrated himself and found himself vomiting uncontrollably. Phil remained composed, mustering all he had to continue the climb, wasting no energy on swimming or talking terribly much. The camp site itself was ideally perched on the top a small 5m cliff that over looked the lake and the tranquil scene before it. By mid afternoon the lake itself was hardly visible though we were only metres from it. The warmed low lands had shot cooler air up the valley into the lake, forming giant cloud banks that whirled and danced across the water in a mystical rhythm. The summit we had been eyeing off all day also vanished, so we all retired to some nearby thermal hot pools to soak our weary bodies. By dinner our spirits had lifted. We all slept well that night 2200m above sea level on the shores of our volcanic lake.

The following morning began exactly the same as the previous one. Birds chirped, porters prepared and tents moaned and groaned. But you couldn’t help feeling happy and excited waking up to banana pancakes, a hot cup of tea and a view rarely rivaled. The air was fresh and clean and our bodies felt like they were acclimatizing to the outdoor life. We rested until lunch, waiting for the clouds to come in before attempting to climb up the other side of the calderas to base camp 4. Without the clouds and the subsequent breeze, the climb would be stifling hot and almost unbearable. Phil started to feel better. He was holding his food down and after a massage from one of the other trekkers, his muscles and knees felt slightly better. He led out of camp once again, this time just carrying a day pack to conserve energy for the summit climb. Four others had passed their laden backpacks onto the porters as they too were still feeling the strain of the last few days. We filmed their bodies move up the slope, disappearing into the swift cloud banks like silhouetted spirits.

Most of the group made good progress. The terrain was rough, rocky and steep. The buttress roots that zigzagged across the path only two days prior were replaced by small boulders that once again forced us to step upward with unusually long strides. We focused our filming on one of the other trekkers this day. He was really struggling and as we climbed higher, swore that he could see elephants walking up the path. He staggered into camp several hours after the first had arrived, utterly spent. What I didn’t know was that Phil was fighting his own battle. His stomach cramps returned and his knees were aching from the climb up. He remained determined but I sensed defeat. It wasn’t anything he said, as the words coming out of his mouth were positive. It was the way he looked at the mountain. In fact he had been looking at the summit like that for a couple of days as if to say “You’re a lot bigger than I thought you were”.

The feeling around the camp was high. We were the only ones at base camp, and on this narrow cliff edge we had amazing views of the lake and by now the setting sun over Bali . We were above the clouds. We were at the place that would take some of us to the summit. We were all a bit nervous.

That night, while sitting by the camp fire, I could hear Phil quietly crying in his tent. He started to feel ill again and his knees were aching from the days climb. There was little I could do except sit there. We were due to leave camp in 6 or 7 hours, so I suggested he get some rest and we’ll reassess how he feels at 3am.

Most of the group had retired for the night. I checked and double checked the camera gear for the climb. I didn’t want to go to my tent too early as I knew I would lay there for hours wondering if everything would be alright, if anyone would pullout, if anyone would get hurt. I slid into the tent I was sharing with Phil at about 9pm . This was late, usually it was around 7pm . I convinced myself I was tired and ready for sleep. Naturally I wasn’t, and I lay there until midnight wondering all those things I didn’t want to wonder.

This brings me back to the start of the story. I understood Phil’s reasoning. It was the right decision and a brave one at that. But I couldn’t help feeling disappointed and to a small degree, frustrated for him. He had come so far and so close to achieving a goal he had set, only to stop 800 vertical metres from it. I gave him a hug and then gathered the others together for our departure.

The moon was full and hung well aloft, illuminating the narrow path that led to the main ridge to the summit. This is a steep climb, made worse by the scree underfoot. Once the ridge was reached, the stronger climbers went ahead with their guide. I remained mid way between those at the front and the stragglers. Occasionally I set up the camera to film the thoughts of the climbers and to give an up date of events.

After two hours, we were at the base of the final and most grueling part of the ridge that leads straight to the summit. I looked back along the ridge to see small spots of light swaying from side to side then stopping. Sway. Stop. Sway. Stop. It was a rhythm familiar to me now. Several lights were well down the ridge. Their progress was excruciatingly slow. It was Gerrard and JJ. In a way I wished one of them would pull out. Not because I didn’t want them to succeed, but because I didn’t want Phil to be alone. I wanted to show him that it wasn’t just him, that the mountain can take its toll on anyone.

The sun was starting to illuminate the horizon. I could see its warm glow to the east still 30 or 40 minutes from revealing its true brilliance. It is this part of the climb that tests ones metal. The 40 degree pitch coupled with scree and scoria base makes climbing not only exhausting but tedious. 15 steps up, slide back five and then stop. This was the rhythm of this mountain climb. 15 steps and stop. I needed to get to the summit before sunrise so I pushed on ahead of the 5 last climbers.

It was 6am when I reached Rinjani’s summit. I shook hands with the others that had reached the top and congratulated them on their effort. This was the second time I had been standing here in the last nine months and for some reason I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as the first time. I guess that elation that I had done it wasn’t there but I felt as proud and satisfied as ever. Not only had I climbed to the summit, but I was the leader of my first expedition and I was filming for a documentary. These added pressures had made the summit just as satisfying as the first time.

I set up the camera and tripod just below the summit platform and filmed the rising sun over Sumbawa . It was incredible. I could see the world’s largest volcano; Tambora; to the east and the shadow cast by Rinjani’s mass on the horizon to the west. I filmed the lake and the swift clouds that rushed over the lip of the crater. Finally I filmed the battle still being waged on the mountain by JJ and Gerrard.

I remember one shot of the ridge line which showed JJ slowly plodding into the bottom left hand corner of the frame. He stopped and took in the view, then took ten more steps before stopping again. After another rest, he soldiered on stopping soon after and looking up along the ridge. He finally plodded out of the top right of frame. This shot took up 4 minutes of tape and the distance walked would be no more than 50 meters.

I pointed the camera towards a large boulder outcrop that dominates the top of the ridge line, just below the summit. From here it is an easy walk up to the top. Coming along this path was JJ and Gerrard, accompanied by Craig (a Personal Trainer) who had motivated them up the mountain. They were exhausted but absolutely thrilled with their achievement. After the mandatory summit shots and a rest, we all headed back down to base camp.

Phil was waiting for our return. I could see his disappointment. He told me that he had vomited just after we left camp and watched our head lamps bob up and down along the ridge line. While everyone else was exhausted, they all had a look of satisfaction. Phil wandered around camp aimlessly, quiet and depressed.

Our walk back to a small village on the eastern slope of Rinjani must have been agonisingly long for him. He walked quietly, answering questions briskly and never starting a conversation. I shared a room with him for the last few days before heading home. Phil remained tense and unresponsive to encouragement. He told me that this was the last trip he would do for years. He blamed his wife and fatherhood for this. I was getting frustrated with his continued melancholy but what could I say? I had to let it go.

* * *

Two weeks after our return, we were invited over to Phil’s for dinner. I wasn’t sure how to handle talking about Rinjani. Should I avoid the topic? The night went fine. We all talked about Rinjani openly. Phil’s spirit returned and we talked about the film and when it would be completed. He told me that he had a great idea for another film. Always interested I lent him my ear. He told me it would be about him and a mountain in Lombok . The film would be called “Unfinished Business”.

* * * * *

Published on 3/1/05

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