Travel Story It's a long way to the top of Agung

Photo of Bonita Grima

A gruelling climb up Bali’s highest summit presents valuable life lessons.

I’m no expert when it comes to climbing mountains. I’m not even very experienced. But from the few climbs I’ve done and especially on my most recent, there are some tips and practices I’ve been taught by the pros and some I’ve learnt myself that not only helped me on the mountain but got me thinking about how they might be applied off the mountain, in everyday life.

Mt Agung or Gunung Agung is a volcano that towers over the landscape of Karangasem Regency in the Indonesian island of Bali, rising to more than 3000m above sea level. 

For the Balinese Hindu population it is a sacred and holy mountain, the home of the gods and is believed to be the “centre or navel of the world”.

I guess I would have to agree as my encounter with the mountain did prompt some navel gazing of my own and provide a somewhat spiritual experience. I found it to be a mountain of illusions and obstacles, both internal and external and one thing was for certain, it definitely tested me!

Our group of eight set off from the Pura Besakih or “mother temple” which is located on the south-western slopes of Agung and is considered to be the most important temple complex in Bali. 

Departing at 11pm we began our climb through thick forest in the dark with our three local guides and one of the temple dogs that had decided to tag along in the hope of obtaining some of our food.

Making our way up the mountain, our headlamps provided our only light on the path, which was probably a good thing in hindsight because it prevented us from seeing the sometimes sheer drop on either side of the narrow ridge we were walking along. Our Balinese guides were our real “eyes” though with their expert knowledge and help.

A lot of the climb consisted of trudging up steep sections, trying to find footholds on sometimes slippery slopes and scrambling up and over boulders and rocks. I battled with overheating and an upset stomach during the first few hours but felt better as we left the forest behind and increased our altitude to the cooler, drier and more barren environment above. 

Towards the top the battle became maintaining that comfortable temperature; taking layers off and then putting them on again as we alternated between walking and resting. Pain in my Achilles tendons and calves, fighting physical and mental fatigue as the sleep deprivation really kicked in as well as dealing with the disappointment of encountering a series of false summits were also some of the more challenging aspects of the climb. 

Needless to say, the little temple dog that had been a source of amusement and comfort had abandoned us hours ago.

It took seven and a half hours for us to reach the real summit with food, water and rest stops along the way and as we walked along that final ridge of solidified lava, the exhilaration, sense of accomplishment and camaraderie, made it all worth it. 

We were lucky to have limited cloud cover that morning and the views below and stunning sunrise took our collective breath away. Looking east, I was amazed I was able to see clearly in the distance, the peak of Mt Rinjani on the island of Lombok, rising up out of the cloud in a pastel painted sky. We took an hour to celebrate over a much-appreciated cup of the best instant coffee I have ever tasted and by taking a few dozen selfies before commencing our descent.

And if we had thought the trip up was hard, the journey back down the mountain was a nine-hour experience I would describe as gruelling and bonding — moments of doubt, determination and delirium broken up with a little hilarity.

The overall trek time for the group from start to finish was 17 hours.

These are some of the things that got me through:

Be prepared, travel light

Pack the right gear into your backpack and only the things you really need and that are essential for the trek. Conditions and climate can change quickly on the mountain so it’s important to dress appropriately.

 Layers are good because they allow you to adjust to the changing temperature. Clothing should be sweat-wicking and cotton should be avoided.

A typical packing list might contain; thermal top and bottom, fleece, rain and windproof jacket and pants, gaiters, a down or wool jacket, gloves, beanie/hat, hiking socks, hiking boots, head torch, spare batteries, three litres of water, enough food or energy snacks for the hike, walking pole/s, a few plastic and zip-lock bags, lip balm, sunscreen, basic first-aid kit and camera/phone. 

Things such as books, alcohol, make-up or your favourite stuffed toy are probably not the best use of space in your pack.

 Avoid unnecessary items or luxuries that weigh you down.

As in any journey, whether it be on a hike or in life, it’s important to have a little foresight and be as prepared as you can be for unexpected and uncomfortable situations ... stop and think about the tools you’re carrying and “reassess your gear” every now and then.

As well as physical lightness, it’s also good to travel with a lightness of being and a clear mind. 

Finding your centre of calm before any trip and quietening the mind can help you focus and deal with hardships that may arise as you go. Excess baggage, ego and negative thought patterns are destructive so dump what you don’t need to carry for a safe, happy journey.

Travel at your own pace

Go at a speed that suits you. Being overly cautious and overthinking each step can make you mistrust your boots and footing, just as going too fast to try to keep up with others or get it over and done with quicker can make you trip and hurt yourself.

I found coming down harder than going up because you need to find a balance and momentum that’s right for you. That’s OK. There’s no right or wrong: trust where your feet and heart want to take you. 

Find your tribe

Sometimes when you are travelling, you fall in step with others who are going at your pace. 

Surrounding yourself with positive, like-minded people who share in your values and attitudes about life is important and if you can help each other out physically and mentally, it can only add to the experience and to everyone’s enjoyment.

I personally found laughter to be the best medicine when faced with some of the more tricky sections of the descent, mainly during the times when I just wanted to quit or didn’t think I had it in me to continue. Some that I kept pace with within our little group were particularly good at buoying others up with their kindness and comic relief.

What I found funny was the number of cigarette breaks our guides took along the way. I was horrified and humbled to discover these guys made a living for themselves and their family by going up and down Agung’s slopes an unbelievable average of three times a week!

As one of our guides said, (as he casually rolled himself yet another cigarette) “it’s good to laugh. When it gets hard and your mind say no, you can’t do it, (it’s) important to not be too serious. You need to laugh to keep going”.

Believe you can

Sometimes in life you are pushed to a point where you think you can’t go on.

I found the best thing to do at these times was to take each step as it came and to just keep putting one foot in front of the other because you know if you keep doing that, you can’t help but reach your destination eventually. 

Sometimes our guides would trick us into thinking we had less to go than we really did.

I believe they did this because they knew that if they told us the truth then mentally we might just have given up.

There always seemed to be more of the path around every corner you thought was the last and it truly felt as if we would never get off that mountain.

Giving yourself permission to take little breaks and celebrate the simple things that are available to you or on offer at times of hardship and stress can make all the difference.

Happiness for me was a squashed banana that I found at the bottom of my pack when I thought I had run out of food! 

I was probably bordering on delirium at that point, having gone 33 hours without sleep and an hour away from the finish line but in that little moment of discovery I was truly happy.

When we were finally down and had completed the trek and I was able to collapse into the car on the way back to Ubud, a wave of wonderment came over me about what we had just done. 

There is a sense of achievement and that you are stronger somehow and more capable than you had thought yourself only a few days earlier.

On the mountain you swear you will never do this again but, like childbirth, within a few days you are already dreaming up the next adventure.

This is because you know anything that’s worth anything in this life doesn’t come easy and that the most beautiful and extraordinary views wait at the end of the most difficult paths.

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