Gus, our guide, gathered everyone around him and debriefed us on what we’d need to do to reach the summit.
At 1:30 a.m., we would wake up and have a small snack of toast with pineapple jam to eat before making our ascent to the summit, over 3,700 meters above sea level. We’d need to carry flashlights, water, and a jacket. The sun rose at 6:00 a.m., so we’d have to keep a strong and steady pace to make it in time.
A little after 1:30 a.m., Gus came and shook our tents as a first wake-up call. I wiped my eyes and sat up, surprised that I managed to sleep at all. I slowly unzipped the tent and crawled out from warmth into frigid darkness. The porters handed out snacks and tea to warm our bellies before the journey.
Already, the flashlights of trekkers dotted the trail up to the summit, their lights ascending to join the stars in the sky.
Gus prepped us for what to expect, telling us that while the first 2/3 of the hike is steep, the last 1/3 is the hardest. The end of the summit trail consisted entirely of deep ash. When you took one step forward, you often slid two steps back.
“And remember,” Gus emphasized this point he already told us the evening before, “if you fall off the side of the crater – the lights go out.”
This time, the phrase didn’t seem as funny.
I checked the clock and grabbed Gus by the elbow.
“We need to leave now,” I urged.
I slung my camera around my neck, stuffed an extra lens in one jacket pocket and a hot bottle of water in the other to act as a personal heater. I decided against bringing my backpack – I didn’t want any extra weight on my shoulders and needed to be as light as possible.
Gus led the front of the group and Dana carried the back. We formed one line and marched past other tents filled with tour groups preparing to dash for the summit. We wiped the sand from our eyes and didn’t say a word, starting the trek in a state of sleep-deprived exhaustion. Many campers stayed behind, bundled in their sleeping bags, content with watching the sunrise from the rim of the crater.
After twenty minutes of hiking, our group spread out, with me and Gus up at the front. We stopped to wait for the others, but were only passed by strangers.
The wait made me chilly and anxious. We waited for five more minutes and then kept walking.
The air was thick with dust and ash kicked up by the trekkers in front of us, like smoke. My lungs burned from the chill, the particles, and from exertion. There was nothing to focus on but the footsteps ahead illuminated by my headlamp.
Small talk was hard to do but essential for killing the time. I asked Gus about his love life.
“When I walk with beautiful Japanese girls or Chinese girls, I don’t feel tired. I could walk forever,” Gus mused.
His eyes grazed over my body.
“With you, I feel very tired,” he panted.
We looked up at the lights ahead and one by one, we started overtaking them. Guides wrapped themselves in blankets and slept on the side of the trail. Gus told me that some guides make excuses for why they need to turn back and don’t summit with their guests – a dangerous and lazy practice. If trekkers injure themselves, they’ll have to go back with another company’s guide, leaving that guide’s group unsupervised.
One hour clocked by and my legs burned. We stopped every few minutes to catch our breath, but we were gaining speed. Still, I was paranoid about not hitting the summit in time for sunrise.
“Let’s not stop for long,” I urged.
“I think we’re going to do it. You can do it!” Gus replied whenever I expressed doubt.
After two hours of trudging through thick gravel and dirt, we made it to the beginning of the most hellish bit – the steep incline of pure ash.
I flashed my headlamp down each side of the ridge. Yep, if you fall, it’s only the void you’ll be greeting.
Ash flooded into my shoes and the edges of my pants, filling every crevice like sand in a sieve. I waved for Gus to keep a little ways away, hinting for him to give me some distance while I struggled through the final push.
Every few meters, I noticed a slight drop in temperature. My clothes were soaked with sweat under my jacket, leeching the heat from my body.
The sky started to turn from black to maroon. Would we make it in time? Flashlights from tens of people lined the ridge below me. Would they? I focused only on the small spotlight that beamed from my forehead onto the gravel ahead of me.
Step by step, I will get there.
I can’t stop moving. I can’t stop moving. I can’t stop moving.
I cycled through a series of mantras that focused on making small, consistent progression.
After a little under two hours, Gus and I overtook nearly everyone who attempted the summit that day, catching up to the front of the pack.
At 5:10 a.m., we made it to the summit of Mt. Rinjani while it was still dark, one full hour before sunrise. Gus showed me his watch and I giggled hysterically, feeling a bit foolish for pushing myself so hard. He laughed and we gave one another a celebratory fist bump.
Without walking, my body temperature dropped quickly and I started shivering. Gus and I crouched behind a rock for the last hour, sheltering ourselves from the wind while chomping on Beng Bengs, my favorite Indonesian candy bar. I asked him what he loved about guiding and why he does it.
“Many people cry when they reach the top. They didn’t think they could do it. That makes me feel really good… Maybe someday I’ll have my own trekking company, or my own restaurant.” He mused, “Would you come back to Lombok and visit me? Eat at my restaurant?”
“Yeah, I would,” I answered.
“What? You don’t even know me, and I don’t know you. Maybe I don’t want you to visit me?” Gus laughed.
Nothing like getting insulted at 2,500 meters and again at 3,700 meters above sea level.
The chocolate boosted my metabolism and stillness returned to my skin.
Once the sky brightened just enough to illuminate the trail, Gus and I walked and perched ourselves onto a ledge to watch the sunrise.
The sun rose over the horizon and I felt the earth take a gigantic breath, bringing life into the world. The sky burned from soft pink to fiery orange. Blood and warmth returned to my fingertips and toes. Everyone around us stood in stunned silence. The Gili Islands, Bali, and the crater lake emerged from the darkness. Clouds blanketed the air ahead.
The sight and immense feeling of awe was worth every moment of self-doubt, every drop of sweat, and every blister. I looked down at my body – the vessel that I’ve spent an entire lifetime criticizing – and felt grateful. My legs, my heart, and my brain gave me the power to stand on the summit of Mt. Rinjani.
I only felt bliss.
An hour before, this entire group of people felt pain as they struggled up an unforgiving mountain. Now, the level of joy and excitement was palpable. Trekkers laughed, waved flags from their home country, and smiled for pictures with a surreal backdrop.
I joined in on the exhilaration and grabbed an Indonesian flag, waving it back and forth over the crater.
A few other members from my group made it to the top shortly after us, enjoying the sweet reward that comes with Type 2 Fun. One of my friends beamed, “Don’t wait for me to go down – I’m going to take my time up here, enjoying this view!”
I don’t know how long we stood on the top of Mt. Rinjani, but I was hesitant to leave. Before I turned back to camp, I willed my brain to imprint the view forever into my memory. We walked down slowly, unraveling every step we’d taken to the top as if it were a stray yarn on a beloved sweater.
Disclosure: I was offered a media rate from Green Rinjani. Had they not accepted my media proposal, I would have gladly paid full price as this is truly the only company I felt comfortable trekking with after researching nearly all others. As always, all opinions are my own.