Mount Rinjani- With my head in the clouds

During this trip overseas, we’ve managed to get a few really decent hikes in; way more than expected. After spending a day exploring a national park unassisted in Cambodia, and traversing down dry waterfalls with nothing more than a poxy rope to hang onto, I didn’t think it would get much tougher than that. Then we spent 3 days in the forests of Northern Thailand, staying with a local Karen tribe and living off the land which again, was a physical and mental challenge. Then we took on Tongariro Alpine crossing in New Zealand; our first experience of an active volcano. Tongarero was certainly a battle at points, but the absolutely breathtaking views throughout made it totally worth it. Then finally, we climbed Mount Batur in Bali at 4am for an in incredible view of the sunrise. That’s pretty much the totality of our hiking experience really: we’ve both really loved the trips we’ve done and both agree they’ve probably been the most rewarding and gratifying excursions we’ve done during this year away: I’d probably go as far as saying they’ve all been some of the best experiences on this trip!

So after seeing a few mates post about Rinjani, I couldn’t really pass on his this opportunity, but as most people seem to, I massively underestimated the task at hand!

I’d like to think of myself as a pretty active person. Over the past 5 years I’ve got really into running. Since my first 5k back in 2012 I’ve now completed over 15 half marathons, a marathon (which ended up being an ultra marathon: long story), then progressed my love for running to obstacle races! Again I’ve probably completed over a dozen of these in the past couple of years now, taking on some of toughest courses in the UK in some pretty challenging conditions (like the depth of a northern winter for example on a course filled with freezing water). The point I’m trying to make is I’m pretty active, I like a challenge, I don’t give up easily, and I hate failure.

Rinjani without a doubt pushed me harder and closer to my breaking point than any race, challenge, or actually, anything else I’ve ever done! Let me tell you the story. To add to this, our tour company was pretty shit, and actually really screwed us over makings things infinitely more difficult. Read on for the full story.

Rinjani is the second highest volcano on the Indonesian ring of fire, with a summit at 3726m. The volcano has formed a massive Caldera, and quite uniquely still has the original volcano visible from the centre. Rinjani last erupted just over a year ago, but wasn’t anything major fortunately. Still, it’s a bloody active volcano! From most reviews I’ve read, people seem to consistently say it’s VERY tough, or use language similar to brutal/it will break you/extreme test of your mental and physical strength/just don’t do it. After some of the treks we’ve done so far in some pretty extreme conditions, I thought I’d be okay, and kind of brushed off most of the comments.

Sounds perfect right! I thought so…

So I signed up, got the first boat across to Lombok from Gili T, got picked up in a horse and cart and taken to the HQ, met some of my other climbing buddies, got in a cab, got taken to another HQ closer to the start point, jumped onto the black of a flatbed truck, driven to the start, and off we went for a couple of days of hiking. During this three part journey, it became very clear that our group consisted of different skill sets, abilities, knowledge of the task at hand, and confidence. This was all fine, it’s so rare to have a group all at the same level of ability, so we persevered in a group, with our guide and porters. These guys need a special mention. I’m actually questioning if they are human! The porters are employed to carry the gear, food, water, sleeping arrangements (tents, sleeping bags, etc) up Rinjani for the groups. On average each guy was probably carrying around 20-30kg of stuff in two baskets at the end of a bamboo rod. To make matters worse the were doing this either in sandals or barefoot, up a fecking volcano! Sadly these guys didn’t really speak a word of English, as I would have loved some tips from them as they casually trotted up the mountain without missing a step, but it wasn’t meant to be. Unfortunately for us too, our one guide only spoke very basic broken English, so our general level of conversation with the guys in charge was, to be frank, shit. Oh well, we followed them up the mountain at different speeds, all meeting up again at the various stopping points on route. 

As you’d expect from a hike that increases in elevation over 3km, the landscapes we crossed varied greatly. We started trekking though a small forest Area, opening up into glorious agricultural land backed with undulating mountains, followed by huge rolling hills like something you’d expect from a Tolkein novel, huge steep inclines wrapped around volcanic streams, steep inclines with only tree roots anchoring the ground together, then finishing off with just gravel. 

Oh the bloody gravel.

 The two steps forward/one step back gravel. The gravel that filled your shoes within seconds, buried your feet to ankle depth within seconds, send you flying at shallow points, and absolutely zapped all energy you have in your tank for the rest of the hike. And that was all before the end of day one!

So, after six hours of hiking, part of our group made it to base camp on the crater rim, overlooking the caldera. Sadly our group had split up due to differing speeds up the mountain. My small group made it to basecamp first, followed by other members of the group about two hours later. We actually found out our groups had merged with another, doubling the size to 10 climbers. Once we all arrived and got chatting, it sounded like we’d all had very different experiences so far on the climb. One fellow climber turned up around 8pm, accepting she wouldn’t making it to the summit, but feeling hugely satisfied with her achievement for getting to the basecamp, two others made their way up basically on their own after their guides left then, two others struggled the whole way, and the final climber again, pretty much did the lot on their own. Sadly it was very apparent the company we all booked with hadn’t really planned for climbers needing additional support, encouragement, or hadn’t even considered people going at different speeds. 

I can honestly say that this part of the trek alone was more difficult than any of the others I’d done previously, and we weren’t even a third of the way in. By basecamp, we’d spent 6 hours hiking upwards non stop, in the scorching heat of midday sun (’twas a hot ass day, with very few clouds in the sky), across some incredibly tough terrains (at points effectively climbing up the terrain, not hiking), and reaching an elevation of 2500m; so a mile of elevation gained in that six hour stint. The pure elation we all felt when arriving at basecamp made us all forget about the challenges we’d just faced though. Our porters made up our camp right on the edge of the rim, with some truly breathtaking views across the caldera lake, with the sun setting behind another summit of the caldera. I’ve said this a lot on this trip, but this sunset was pretty magical, offering us a wonderful array of pinky red hues as the sun dipped below the mountains, and finally beyond the horizon. My group (Felipe and Pablo from Chile, and Hanz from Germany) all enjoyed a cheeky bintang to reward our speedy efforts alongside this beautiful sunset, it was definitely a well earned beer! To finish off evening, our porters made us an awesome vegetable curry, which we obviously all wolfed down within minutes of being handed to us, before getting an early night. 

The next day, we were due up at 2am, to make the summit for sunset. We’d been warned by fellow climbers that the next day was even tougher, with sections over 60degrees in angle, horrific terrain, and oh yeah, it was PITCH BLACK! Needless to say we were all somewhat apprehensive about this. By bed time, two of our ten strong group accepted they wouldn’t make it so decided to stay in bed (probably very wise). At 230 the following day we set off on the next leg to the summit, and almost immediately hit a whole new level of tough. 

From probably 20 minutes in, we were greeted by the thick gravel again, but this time mixed with an incredibly steep climb through volcanic valleys crumbling at the lightest touch (no holding onto anything for us then). Previously these terrains greeted us independently, but combining them was just bloody horrible! Any morale or energy we had was almost immediately sucked from our bodies as we battled up the terrain for over an hour. To add to this, the ground in places had fully caved in from previous wet periods, resulting in ankle destroying breaks in the ground. I lost my feet down some of these on a number of occasions, and felt pretty lucky to not seriously injure myself (good thing too, we’d have been royally screwed if we had broken anything). To top this off, the only light source we had was the moon, which fortunately was pretty much full, and bloody bright. Sadly our guide only had one head torch for the whole group (useful eh). Surprisingly, I don’t have many photos of this section, but imagine trying to ski uphill in the pitch black, and not fall over boulders, huge roots extending out the ground, whilst being super short of breath. Yeah. That.

Parts of the climb in these sections at points was again actual climbing, requiring full extensions of legs to actually get up; obviously quite tough on the ol’legs after the other parts of the climb. This terrain continued for well over a couple of hours until we hit the edge of the vegetation growth. Now, the real fun started. 

At this point I think I started to get some of the symptoms of altitude sickness. We’d ascended about 500m In the past two hours, with another 700m to go before sunset to the summit. My energy levels just went through the floor, I had a stonking headache, my limbs ached (including my arms which I’d barely used), and I’m pretty sure I got to a point of chatting total bollocks to my fellow climbers (now joined by Julia, an awesome Ukrainian lass with a scary amount of energy, totally full of positivity who really kept me going from this point on). From now on, the hike looked like this.
So, let me try and explain this succinctly. For the next 700m, the climb was only gravel and rock, at least 50degree incline, with high (and freezing) winds battering us on the volcano edge, with literally a 2 foot margIn of error either side of us at points. Seriously, there were areas where a slip to the left would have sent us down the mountain, and to the right into the caldera; nice eh? The terrain was so tough going up I had to stop every 10-20 steps to catch my breath, slipping down at least a step every time, making this even harder. On so many occasions, I honestly thought I couldn’t do it, I’d never make it to the top. I persevered with huge thanks to Pablo and Julia (the group had yet again divided with Felipe and Yahn storming ahead). Looking up was a terrible idea; every time I thought I was closer the summit appeared to be even further away! On so many occasions I thought we’d made it, only to discover there was another point beyond what we could see. As you can imagine this was ugly demoralising and utterly crippling. After probably another two hours of climbing barely 400 metres, we hit a new point, with huge lumps of stone surrounding us, we were nearly there. One final push, and I hit the summit!
You’d think hitting the summit would result in an immediate sense of euphoria and elation. I think at the time I just felt freezing cold, exhausted, and generally a bit confused. We arrived just before sunrise, maybe by ten minutes. It didn’t really dawn on me that I’d done it until the sun actually started to rise in the distance. At that point, I felt totally overwhelmed. Looking down across the huge landscape I’d just climbed filled me with emotion I don’t think I’d ever felt before. I wish I’d filmed it or taken more photos, but I was so cold I couldn’t really use my hands. No joke guys, take gloves with you! The temperature at the summit was barely above zero, and after the best part of 9 months not enduring anything below about 15 Celsius, it felt fucking cold!
So after probably 30 minutes at the summit, we all agreed it was too bloody cold, and decided to descend. Now for anyone who’s done anything like this, you’ll know going down is a full blown quad burner. This was something else though. We spent probably an hour quasi-boot skiing down the main point of the summit, trying our best to not stack it and roll the best part of 500m down a volcano. It wasn’t easy, we all stacked it at least a dozen times, but managed to stop and take photos at some pretty mind blowing views as we descended towards the cloud line. I honestly think some of the views as we climbed down were more impressive, purely down to the change in hue we experienced over the horizon. We spent a good two hours descending the coarse terrain, passing monkeys, sharp cliff edges, vertigo fuelling drops, and some crazy volcanic terrain before getting back to the basecamp. We were obviously overjoyed,and then found out we were the first back, a mere (apparently) 7’hours after setting off, arriving back to a cloud filled camp where we could barely see three for in front of us, and slowly saturating any hair on our bodies with cloud based rain. 

After a little power nap I awoke to find out the rest of the group still weren’t back though, nearly 2 hours later. An hour later they emerged. These guys had been hiking for nearly 9 hours in total, and we’re obviously exhausted. 

Then everything went to shit.

In an indistinguishable level of broken English, our one guide decided to let us know because our group arrived back so late, we couldn’t do the next leg of our trip, apparently due to the time we were going to eventually set off. We were given two options; stay at basecamp, stuck on the cloud, waiting for the impending storm to unleash its fury all over us, or hike from basecamp to the hot pools (our next stop) and back: a total of 8 hours additional hiking minimum. As you can imagine, the mood in the camp at this point was one of pure deflation. Apparently the guys who came back later had also been told to turn around before the summit, then arrived to discover their tent dismantled, stuff just on the edge of the crater gathering a Lovely layer of dirt and dew. After an internal discussion with our group, we all agreed this was quickly turning into a shambolic situation, so we should just cut our losses and head back to the start. 

The porters were clearly not happy about this, so quickly packed everything up at camp, and set off down the mountain. We did our best to follow, but through cloud and rain, and down some pretty treacherous terrain we didn’t stand a chance. Within five minutes are group had divided again, the porters were long gone, and we worked our way down the mountain on our own.

Fortunately, and by pure chance, I’d tracked the whole hike on my garmin watch, which left a breadcrumb trail the whole way back! Once I discovered this the worries of our group were somewhat alleviated, but we were still concerned about the rest of our group following behind us (but no idea how far). The next hour consisted of a very wet hike though forest areas, along slippery and tree root laden land, down again some very steep slopes that were now akin to a mud run. Needless to say, it was again energy sapping! After a fairly hefty soaking we had another 5 hours at least of hiking, and around 1000m to descend. I think my speedy group must have just been on a pure adrenaline rush as we totally steamed through it, stopping a couple of times to eat a super healthy and balanced meal of Oreos and peanuts. I ended up taping everyone’s knees, as well as a group of Malaysian tourists on their way up; the descend had been tough on the old joints! After 5 arduous hours though, we made it to the flatlands: the end was in sight, but still no sign of our porters, or the rest of our group! Sadly, we managed to get lost right at the last point, had to hitch a lift on the back of a tomato truck into the local village, to try and find our company. I managed to get in touch with my home stay owner Rudi, who superb! They unleashed the fury on our tour operator and got them to sort their lives out and help us. After another 2 hours of total faff, we managed to get our hiking company to accept some level of responsibility for the pretty shambolic second day. They sent a flatbed to pick us up, another one followed for the rest of our group, and we headed back to HQ. After a further bit of discussion with the boss, I managed to get transport for all the climbers to their respective hotels and destinations, which included a private boat for me to get back to Gili T. By this point, all we really cared about was getting back safe, so that was good enough. 

So in total, we spent just short of 15 hours hiking, covering over 20 miles, ascending and descending over 2500m through. 

Looking back though. It was bloody awesome and so worth the pain. 
I feel such a huge sense of accomplishment from completing it, and in a great time, especially considering all the crap we endured. The classic phrase what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger has never felt so true to me. Our culture today is obsessively focussed on unrealistically positive expectations: not everything will be smooth sailing in everything you do, and not everything that’s good will be fun. But picking personal challenges, taking them on head first, and kicking those challenges square in the nuts is without question the best way to grow as a person. I feel that more than ever now. 

4 thoughts on “Mount Rinjani- With my head in the clouds

  1. Angie Sweeney

    OMG i really take my hat off to you Matt. I really don’t know how you achieved this. I was exhausted just reading the blog. Well done. You and Kelly must be really so very proud of your achievement, as we are


  2. Tricia Roy

    Wow – I can’t believe your ability to get theough it and then be able to recall it in such detail. What an accomplishment. I particularly enjoy your musings about how you are relating to ‘normal’ life


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