We sat shivering and damp in the fog, sheltered from the wind behind a rock somewhere near the top of Gunung Merapi. “You know, of all the scenarios I imagined for this trip…this is absolutely the worst case.” That was Ben, the only Australian in our group. “So this is terrible for you?” I asked. “Well…if it weren’t so steep, and dark. And wet, cold, windy and foggy. Then I suppose this would be a decent experience.”
Personally, I can imagine several scenarios worse than the one we found ourselves in at 5am. For example, we had not encountered tigers, a torrential downpour, or hot lava. However, I too had not counted on the unrelenting grade or the thick fog and wind.
Ben was uneasy the moment we stepped out of the van, and soon told us he felt he had been misinformed about the nature of our outing. He strives to avoid both discomfort and adventure. I’m not quite sure what he expected out of hiking a giant volcano in the middle of the night. But to his credit Ben voiced only a few complaints and they were generally hilarious.
Nearly 3000 meters tall, Gunung Merapi dominates the northern horizon of Yogyakarta. People here often say that it is the most active volcano in Indonesia, or in Asia, or sometimes the world. ‘Most active’ is a little vague, but its fearsome reputation is well deserved. The Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program agrees that Merapi is at least “one of the most active volcanoes” in the country.
The tallest mountain I’ve climbed is Mount Stuart, and Merapi is similar to Stuart in both absolute height and prominence. Merapi is 102 meters taller than Stuart and less prominent by a few hundred meters. Of course unlike Merapi, Stuart likes to sit in the non-smoking section.
Just over a year ago, Merapi had its most violent eruption since 1872. That eruption is the most recent entry on a list kept by the Smithsonian of the largest eruptions in recent history. Specifically, it’s a list of “known Holocene eruptions” with a Volcano Explosivity Index (VEI) of 4 or greater (scale from 1 to 7). The Holocene period started about 12,000 years ago. There are less than 700 known large eruptions (I counted about 660) on the list, and Merapi is credited with 4 of them.
Spoiler alert: We didn’t make it to the top of Merapi. It was disappointing, but the really good news is that Merapi did not treat us to a reprise of November 2010 while we were on its slopes.
I’ve been planning to climb Merapi since arrival in Yogya, the only question was how. My backup plan was to go alone and hire a local guide, but I preferred to be with a larger group for safety and fun. I learned that Ryan and Jessica, an American couple who I met at Wisma Bahasa, were interested. They also “knew guy”. Alfonso, an Indonesian working in Yogyakarta, had climbed the mountain about 10 times before. He agreed to be our car rental agent, driver, and guide. Joined by Ben as well two others, Steve (American) and Efrata (Indonesian, another friend of Ryan’s), we left from Yogyakarta at 7pm on Friday evening.
The trail starts in Selo, a really nice village nestled between the twin volcanoes Merapi and Merbabu at an elevation of around 1700 meters. Merbabu is actually a bit taller than Merapi (it breaks the 3000 meter mark), but Merapi is a far more popular climb because of its reputation and perhaps because Merbabu cannot be seen from Yogyakarta (even though it’s taller, it is hidden behind Merapi).
The drive to Selo takes a bit more than two hours, but car induced nausea for some in our group (thankfully not me) meant we took plenty of stops and got there around 10:30pm. The goal was to be at the top by 5:00 or so and watch the sun rise. When we got to Selo, we hunkered down in a very basic waiting room at the start of the trail with tea and instant noodles. We didn’t leave until almost one in the morning, but none of us were able to nap.
I had meant to buy long hiking pants earlier that day, but my extended outing near Borobudur meant I had slept until it was time to leave for Merapi. So, I was a bit chilly in shorts as we waited. It was not the best idea to hike in shorts since it can get pretty cold on top of the mountain at night, generally around 50F, but even so it’s not like hiking in the mountains back home. I knew I would be warm while I was moving, and even if I got cold waiting at the top, it would get warm when the sun came up. A strong hiker can make it up in just two and a half or three hours, so help was not too far away if something went seriously wrong. Plus I had a jacket, hat, gloves, and a rain poncho.
It was steep and we had two fewer lights than people, but the hiking went smoothly. The path was very well trodden, so much that loose dirt on the hard packed path made traction poor in places (think Manastash Ridge). We were cold waiting around before we started but quickly removed layers once we got moving. Though it was dark, we could tell we were passing through terraced farmland on the lower parts of the mountain. In some places, tall grass encroached on the trail, and everywhere there was evidence of extreme rainfall. Some sections of trail featured deep, narrow channels carved from the dirt.
We were hemmed in by thick fog for the entire ascent. It was damp and cold, and the wind grew stronger the higher we went. Soon it was really blowing hard, even by Ellensburg standards. We were often sprayed by water from above. I think it was condensation from trees being shaken loose by the wind, but it may have been light rain.
We had been told that while most of the climb is straightforward, the final 200 meters to the top is not. A very steep section of loose volcanic scree makes the final ascent ‘two steps forward, one step back’ and potentially dangerous. So, we knew from the start that we may not want to attempt this final bit. Our main goal was to reach the bottom of the scree slope to watch the sun rise. Once there we could assess the situation and perhaps go the final distance.
We should have waited another hour to depart. Our group moved quickly so in order to avoid arriving at the exposed upper part of the mountain too early, we hunkered down about 2/3 of the way up and waited for an hour.
We continued on, but that wait was a turning point in group morale. As we rose above the treeline and neared the base of that final slope, the wind became downright ferocious. We took shelter behind a large rock and discussed options. The sun was due to rise, but we could only detect only the slightest brightening of the fog. This was the point that Ben put in his two cents and let us know we were living out his worst case scenario. It seemed unlikely that the fog would lift, and he was in favor of heading back. Others, including myself, wanted to push on, but I knew that even if we made it to the base of that final slope, I probably wouldn’t try it in this weather. I was ready for more, but wouldn’t be heartbroken to turn around since we probably wouldn’t go all the way today.
We nearly decided to turn around, and even got a photo to commemorate the highest point on our foggy hike.
However, more discussion followed. The Indonesian contingent, Alfonso and Efrata, had not been able to follow our English debate and argued vehemently to continue when we told them we were turning around. Swayed by their insistence, we all went a bit further, but soon decided to split into two groups. Most continued on, while Ben and Steve headed down to wait for us at the bottom. Just 15 minutes after we split up, those who continued made it to the shoulder below the final slope. Incredibly, the fog cleared up momentarily and we got a really awesome view to the west. This view was not consistant, but I got a few photos during a brief break in the clouds.
Staying up all night on a mountain takes it out of you, and everyone was completely exhausted when we got down. Alfonso was a champion and drove us home. Towards the end of the ride he was getting tired and surfed radio stations for music to stay awake. His choices? First ABBA, then “Endless Love”. Wouldn’t have worked for me, but he seemed energized.
We arrived in Yogya about 1pm on Saturday. I stumbled back to Homestay Heru and slept for 13 hours.
All in all, not even close to the worst case scenario for me. I’m already thinking about heading back to try Merbabu before I leave Yogya.