Climbing Indonesia's Killer Volcano

Java's 'Mountain of Fire' has claimed thousands of lives, but that didn't stop me climbing up it...
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I climbed Java’s Mount Merapi – now designated a “decade volcano”, one of the world’s most active – in the summer of 1994. That November, it exploded, killing 64 people. Since then, further eruptions occurred in 2006 then again this week. These are the notes I made at the time about the experience.


Wed. 13th July

Got back down from Mt Merapi at about 10:10am. Climbing it was without a doubt the most physically gruelling thing I’ve ever done. Imagine training for the army and having to go through that kind of punishment every day!

Even though the local guide, Christian, took us through a sixty-minute briefing on the route for the night-time climb, the turnings at the bottom, up to the registration point at Kina Rejo village, were quite hard to find. Even to there, the going is fairly steep in places. After the village it gets steeper and steeper. Early on, there are a couple of level bits – after that, you continuously look forward to the next flat part; then you begin to pray for just a few feet of flatness, but it doesn’t happen. It’s not a winding, gradual ascent; it just goes more or less straight up never-endingly in front of your torchlight.

From Kina Rejo to the ‘bomb monument’ is about one-and-a-half hours. After fifty minutes my thighs were screaming with pain and every step was a supreme effort of willpower. At various points I felt alternately faint and tearful. Above us, billions of stars – I was still seeing stars when I looked down at the ground.  All of Christian’s warnings about watching out for snakes on the path meant nothing now. My only thought was the next step – and the possibility of giving up at the monument and turning back.

When we reached it, we rested for five or ten minutes but I was so drenched in sweat that sitting still meant turning very chilly. I went on, my legs renewed a bit.

From there to the black sand the path had subsided into a stumbling, uneven gully with vegetation close on either side. This went on for another three-quarters of an hour. I hung back with the two German guys, taking it steady, while Henry, the young British guy that Sue and I had hooked up with along with his partner Sarah on Bali two days earlier, raced ahead with the two Danish girls. (Sue and Sarah were sensibly fast asleep down in Kaliurang.) Just below the black sand we met a party of young Indonesian lads who were going for the top. They were at a little shelter crouching round a small fire but also swathed in balaclavas and gloves, feeling the cold a lot more than us Europeans. We rested a while with them, then they went ahead of us to tackle the black sand: about fifty metres of it – loose, scrabbling, boulder-strewn terrain, constantly slipping back down. Just beyond it, the Indonesians recamped to wait for daylight. I thought maybe they were preparing for Muslim prayer at dawn, and I think I heard their wailing from further up the mountain a bit later.

We’d heard the first volcanic activity from lower down, below the black sand, and it had been eerie, but spurred me on somewhat. Now only Rudie, the elder of the Germans, and I were hanging back: this was his second attempt at the summit in six days, previously having got as far as ‘the smoking rocks’. (He was fifty, with a glass eye!)

After fifty minutes my thighs were screaming with pain and every step was a supreme effort of willpower.

After the black sand, the going was extremely steep, almost vertical, rock-climbing and scrabbling for purchase on roots, branches and crevices. It was long and arduous – another three-quarters of an hour to the tree-line – but a great relief, after the relentless plodding up and up, to let your arms take some of the work from your legs and give the brain something precarious and problematic to concentrate on after the hours of hypnotic and mindless uphill ascent. In fact, this was my favourite part of the climb. I still kept having to stop for breath and apologise to Rudie, who was a pace behind me, but he said encouragingly, not at all, ‘slowly on’. Eventually, we caught up with the other German, whose name I never learned and who seemed determined but not quite agile enough to cope suavely with the tangles of roots one had to negotiate vertically.

When we got to the tree-line it was barely light at all, the body of the sun still beneath the horizon, certainly not light enough to see the falling stones we could hear on the bare rock that was all that remained ahead. Christian had warned us to wait at the tree-line until it was light. But the other, younger, eager climbers had gone on up the almost sheer rock-face above and were out of sight, in search of the sunrise viewing-point (which they never found).

I stopped at the tree-line to remove my jumper. The two Germans went ahead and were soon out of sight but still within earshot. I’d lost their route though, and started to improvise my own way up the rock. I got to the last available hand-hold of vegetation, about twenty feet up, and turned my head to look at the bands of colour on the eastern horizon.

That’s when it struck me that the ‘slope’ I was clinging to by the merest ledges and corners was like this / and I looked down at the plateau 7,500 feet below and thought ‘What the hell am I doing here? I’m not a mountaineer.’ I returned to the tree-line and waited.

I could hear rocks bouncing down from above and took shelter beneath a solid bulge, making occasional forays out to photograph a distant mountain rising out of the dawn mist. Then Henry was shouting down to find out where I was. I shouted out directions and he got back down to where I was waiting, having given in to vertigo somewhere on the rock-face above. By now, I was freezing and shivery and ready for a cigarette. After ten minutes or so, we heard one of the Danish girls coming back down. She caught up with us and the three of us set off back down through the trees.

It got light very quickly and the descent was the best part: fabulous scenery, incredibly varied and colourful vegetation, Alpine-like ravines and meadows on either side; beautiful bird life – small, bright-green creatures and something similar to a large-ish, long-beaked hummingbird, bright blue and scarlet. Going down took as long as going up, almost, but wasn’t nearly as tiring, though I for one was completely done in. Such a relief to get back down to each successive landmark. At some point, we passed the Indonesian lads, still doggedly heading for the summit.

Reaching Kaliurang at around ten-ish was one of the best feelings ever, especially when Henry and I ran, or rather limped, into Sue and Sarah taking a morning stroll to meet us on the village street. There’d been fantastic views back up to the smoking crater until the clouds closed in over it at 9am. About halfway down, we’d heard a strong eruption, and hoped the others were OK. It had been too still up there for them to make for the very top in case the sulphur clouds engulfed them with a change of wind direction, but we knew that Rudie, for one, was not going to give in.

We found out later that they reached just below the crater rim. Rudie apparently hung around up there half an hour longer than the other two who made it that far, but the sulphur and ash defeated even him in the end, which is a shame, because he’d already told us that there would not be a third time. Personally, though, I can’t bring myself to regret that I gave up where I did.

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