When the weather gets cold, the cold fly south. Well, this year we did. We went to Bali, an island paradise in the lovely South Pacific archipelago of Indonesia. This is where my husband and I did a night ascent of Mt Agung, the tallest mountain on Bali. Bali legend says that the Hindu god Pasupati split the spiritual axis of the universe (the mythical Mt Meru), and made Mt Agung from a fragment. It is a holy mountain for the Balinese and they have erected their most important temple, Besakih (Mother Temple) on the side of the mountain.
At 9944 feet (3031 M) Mt Agung is the highest point on Bali and the 5th highest mountain in Indonesia. There are several ways to summit this active volcano. The most challenging is the seven-hour ascent in the dark, beginning at the Mother Temple, or Pura Besakih, a Hindu temple on the flank of the mountain. I’d love to tell you that we selected this route, but we knew we would not be acclimated for a seven hour ascent (plus five hour descent) in 85 degree weather. We opted for the shorter route which leads to the other side of the crater (and therefore not the true summit, for you nit-pickers, it’s 100 feet short) but could be done in about four hours up and three hours down with time for a sunrise at the top. This route also has a spur that wraps around to the true summit, but experienced climbing is required. We opted for the direct, shortest route to a view from the top.
We left Pura Pasar Agung, the temple on the other side of the mountain from the Mother Temple, at about 2 AM and climbed steeply with headlamps cutting through the darkness. It’s essential to hire a guide for any of the climbs, as the night time ascent is not marked at all, and it is easy to wander off course in the rock fields. We used Amed Bali Tours and were very happy with their guide and their price. Ask for Wayan Botah. They were also convenient for us since we were staying in Amed. Drive times on Bali can be pretty ridiculous for the distance covered and a driver is well worth the missed hassle of car rental and navigation down thin mountain roads at night. Expect to pay up to $90 US per person for a guide and driver from your hotel regardless of where you are staying on the island.
Our guide Wayan is also a coffee farmer on the flank of Mt Agung, so he met us at the parking lot where our driver introduced us. We paused a moment and donned headlamps and backpacks, then Wayan wandered over to the steps of the temple and from the darkness we smelled incense and heard him chanting a prayer for a safe climb. Then we were off. Over 300 temple steps begin the climb. They are a warm up. A couple hours in, our guide let us know we had reached half way. We had come just over a mile, but had gained nearly 3000 feet of elevation. For reference, our local training challenger, Mailbox Peak, just off of I-90 is 4000 feet in 2.5 miles. Mt Agung doesn’t have switchbacks. It just goes straight up the side of the mountain, so don’t judge by mileage, but by elevation. This total climb is just short of 6000 feet elevation gained over 2.2 miles.
We managed to spot the elusive palm civet, or “luwak” as they call it, a raccoon-like nocturnal creature that is native to Bali. Monkeys live here as well and we passed scat on the trail, and remnants of their eating and foraging, but never saw any. The view back toward the city at night was pretty gorgeous though. We could even see Lombok across the strait in the distance. The stars were somewhat visible, though a light mist fell at times making the rock slippery. Wayan kept us entertained by telling us about being a coffee farmer and some of the history of the island.
Wayan marked the three-quarters point and we rested as he warned us about the steepest part of the trail coming next which continues to the top. At that moment it was a half hour before darkness would yield to the first pre-dawn light and we still had a full scramble across a quarter mile distance to go. We were 400 vertical meters (about 1200 feet) from the crater rim when I turned us around. It was a full scramble in the dark over slippery rock, and no ropes. It really could have used ropes. By my estimations it was a 5.6 or 5.7 ropeless climb in the dark. Going up wasn’t a problem, but I was concerned that especially if rains fell any harder that we wouldn’t be able to get back down off the black lava rock face without injury. So at 8700 feet we rested, thought it over and then descended to the nearest flat spot and waited for dawn. Wayan provided us with coffee and cookies as well as a special home made cake that his neighbor had baked. We were visited by adorable but very persistent mountain mice as we crunched our cookies.
Though we didn’t summit, the views after dawn were amazing. The sun caught the water of the rice paddies below and all of Bali slowly lit up as the hazy sun cut through the mist.
The descent was grueling due to the relentless incline, but once we were back down to the beginning, we rested and wandered around the temple in the daylight before heading back to Amed.