In 2013, I went searching for giants on the Island of the Gods.
My Outdoor Adventure Club (ODAC) teacher in junior college had once defined an expedition as “a challenging journey with difficult objectives that are adventurous in nature and rich in learning”. It had taken weeks and hours staring at emails, but 5 friends and I were now all set to climb 4 mountains in 7 days, on a journey that would take us across Bali and its eastern neighbour, Lombok.
After a two-hour flight, followed by a three-hour road journey, you arrive at the foot of Mount Agung, the tallest volcano in Bali.
If you look up Mount Agung on the Internet, it will tell you that Agung is three kilometres high, and is an active volcano with a history of eruptions. Also, the highest temple in Bali, Pura Besakih, is located on its mighty slopes. (‘Agung’ translates into ‘Grandfather’ in Bahasa, which in itself an interesting choice of name for the most significant landmark on an island where Balinese is widely spoken too.)
No amount of research, however, really prepares you for the shock of seeing a sky crystal with a million stars, as the cloying incense bathes you gently, reverent and humbled, in a temple at midnight. And that was only the beginning of the climb.
Scaling this giant is not a technical challenge. Mount Grandfather does not require any special mountain-climbing equipment. All you need is audacity and mental endurance to do so. Preferably lots of it, of course, but it is doable. Stubborn, steadfast, patient fortitude. (Bit like life, really.)
Agung begins clothed in vegetation. Beginning at midnight, the first few hours (it takes a total average of six) of the ascent takes place in near-total darkness. You follow the torchlight of the friend in front of you. A small, bobbing glow. You pray this electric will-o-the-wisp knows its way. Your immediate vision is limited to the few metres your own headlamp can offer. It is tough going, as your body struggles to adapt to the steep gradient, and you fight the panic of having your senses so limited.
Occasionally (and mercifully) you are allowed breaks, as our two mountain guides make fragrant, simple offerings of flowers and incense to the mountain spirits. You literally thank the gods for such small mercies…but then just a few minutes later off you go again: there is a sunrise to catch, and you do not know how long or how difficult the uphill path ahead is; moreover, sitting for too long makes it extremely hard (and painful on overtaxed, cooled muscles) to start and warm up again. The midnight chill is also no laughing matter – certainly not when strong winds have started to blow, and your sweat has cooled dramatically.
As you edge higher up Agung’s massive flanks, its greenery unravels, and soon it isn’t tree roots that you are worried about tripping over, but loose rocks. The quiet whistling in your ears has grown into a deep, roaring crescendo: without the protective shielding of vegetation the wind is now blowing with a vengeance. At certain points you are shoved unceremoniously by its brute force. Up on Agung’s exposed sides, ‘force of nature’ is not the metaphor of an excitable poet – it is a disturbingly immediate reality. The winds seem bent on prying you from the rock.
With the wind though, comes a dawning light: gradually you realize it isn’t complete darkness you are struggling against – you can see Agung’s jagged brow now, towering above you. The velvet firmament’s million eyes are closing by the thousands. Dawn is breaking; blue is spilling subtly into an ebony sky, and you realise the summit (which after hours of endless climbing has turned into a laughable fiction) is in sight.
The path narrows as it rises, and already you think you can see the end. With a stark clarity it strikes you that you are standing on the crown of an immensely vast and unimaginably old Being. You are walking in cold blue air; upon clouds being baked golden by a waking sun.
Ahead of you your friends have stopped – they are waving and shouting: here, here is the summit! After so many grueling hours, drenched in sweat, then lashed by icy, merciless winds, there is the summit. You stagger the last few meters up, amid cheers of huanyin, or ‘welcome’ (our customary ‘summit song’), and then:
You breathe. Gasp.
Laid out before you are clouds. Clouds, and all of Creation. Morning has broken; its bright radiant yolk has spilled exuberantly onto the blanket of wool covering all of Bali. After the wild buffeting winds the summit is quiet.
For a moment, if you listen, you can hear the planet spinning smooth on its axis; you can hear the Universe unfolding as it should. Great placid herds of clouds wander past, their cream plumage dyed cinnamon by a rousing sun.
Amid the jubilation of summiting Mount Agung you spend a minute in silence, humbled to be in the presence of something so indescribably beautiful and immense.
At that point, our guides, having heard of our itinerary, points into the distance. It is a clear morning, and we are high above the cloudline. We follow his finger: across kilometres, into the tentative future – and there. Watching us from across the Lombok Strait, a remote titan upon her island throne: Mount Rinjani.
It would be two more mountains and a momentous crossing of a Strait, before we would reach that venerable giant.
An earlier version of this article was first published in The Cinnamon Roll in 2013, intended as the first in a three-part series about mountains. Because I am never consistent with these things if people don’t chase and yell at me…readers of The Cinnamon Roll have only ever read Part One. You can read it here. I intend to eventually finish this “series” before i graduate next year. And then, there are the stories of the 5 or 6 mountains I have climbed in the intervening years to tell of too…