On the Shoulders of Giants: Mount Agung

In a special 3-part series, Choo Ruizhi writes about his experiences climbing 4 different volcanoes.
Here is Part 1 on Mount Agung, a group of volcanoes located in Bali, Indonesia

At the summit of Mount Agung
At the summit of Mount Agung

On the last day of USP freshmen orientation camp last year, 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.

No amount of research, however, really prepares you for the shock of seeing a sky crystal with a million stars as the scent of 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, nor does it 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.

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, and 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.

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Watching the sunrise

Occasionally (and mercifully) you are allowed breaks, as our two mountain guides make fragrant, simple offerings of flowers and incense. 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.

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 a metaphor – it is a disturbingly immediate reality as the winds try to pry 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 now, towering above you, and a sky whose million eyes are closing by the thousands. Dawn is breaking; blue is spilling into an ebony sky, and you realize the summit (which after hours of endless climbing has turned into a laughable fiction) is in sight.

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Breathtaking view while ascending

The path narrows as it rises, and already you can see the end. With a stark clarity you realize you are near, if not metres, from the top of an island, from walking in bright cold blue air upon clouds slowly being baked golden by a rising sun.

Ahead of you your friends have stopped – they are waving and shouting: there, where they stand, 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: and its bright radiant yolk has spilled onto herds of passing clouds. 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, as great placid herds of clouds wander past, their pristine cream plumage dyed cinnamon by a waking 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.

No, we did not conquer Agung. We were simply lucky enough to climb atop its formidable shoulders.

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.

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