What It's Really Like To Climb A Volcano

I can’t tell you why “hike a volcano” was on my bucket list. I just remember thinking (while in Guatemala and seeing a volcano in the distance), “I want to go climb that thing!” So when I learned Bali had a volcano, Mount Batur, you could hike in the dark to watch the sunrise, I was sold.

Our driver and tour guide from Bali Eco Cycling picked us up at 2:15 A.M. and as we crept quietly out of the compound, I couldn’t help but wonder what our security guard was thinking as these two western girls snuck off in the night with locals.

In the back seat of the van, Ruth and I tried to sleep as we rattled along the road. After what I guess was about two hours, our little group poured out of the van and started walking. Flashlights in hand, we could only see the people ahead and behind us (also donning flashlights).

After about 20 minutes of an only slight incline, I saw it. It was a string of lights floating in the distance. If I didn’t know Mount Batur was blocking the sky in front of me, I would have thought they were stars. Instead I quickly asked our guide to assure me they were not the flashlights of other hikers on the trail in front of us.  He assured me the vertical line of bobbing lights were just that.

And so, it got hard!

It turns out that it’s incredibly difficult to climb a mountain/volcano when you can’t anticipate what’s up ahead. Slopes of ash are impossible to gain footing on and the lava rock grips your shoes in a really funny, almost velcro like way. (Have you ever used a pumice stone? Imagine a mountain made of it and then try telling me I’m making up excuses.)

My inner monologue quickly began to sound like the following...

“What was I thinking? Why on Earth would I think this would be fun? This is fun! This is not fun!”

“I don’t want to do this anymore. My bucket list only says “hike a volcano.” It doesn’t say I have to make it to the top. But I want to make it to the top! I do want to do this. I could rest for a while and finish hiking it after the sun rises…”

“I should have hired a helicopter to drop me at the top and “hiked” back down. That would count as “hiking a volcano”, right? Then I could check “ride in a helicopter” off my list too.”

“There’s nothing on my list about hiking the volcano in the dark… I should rest and climb the rest later. But I don’t want to miss the sunrise. I will be so mad if I did all of this and had to watch the sunrise from halfway up the volcano. Imagine how lame that story will be to tell.”

“But why did I want to do this? Because it’s awesome. It’s going to be awesome. How can something so exhausting and difficult be awesome? So much of life is exhausting and difficult but it’s still awesome! That’s sort of what makes life awesome. Hmmm… I should write about this….”

And then, I saw it. The top!  There was a group congregating at a small shack that looked out across the lake, in the direction of other volcanos, like Mount Agung, and the rising sun. We’d done it! We’d made it to the top. Quickly we made our way to the edge and got comfortable, ready to watch the sunrise.

And then....The guides came over and pointed out a summit to our left (another straight up slope) and told us we were still about “15 minutes from the top”.  Worried about their slow pokes, they offered to bring breakfast down to where we were. Exhausted (and honestly a little irritated), I demanded (despite what the voices in my head were saying) that we would be continuing on. I was not going to quit after coming so far.

And so, fifteen minutes later and almost exactly six years after seeing that first volcano in Guatemala, I made it to the top. And there I stood in the middle of Indonesia, watching the sunrise, surrounded by wild monkeys, drinking hot tea and eating eggs that had just been hardboiled in the volcano’s steam. There, I was, in a place most people don’t even know exists, let alone will ever see, simply because I chose to dream, face the challenge head on, and keep climbing (even in the dark).

Looking back, the experience was incredibly symbolic of the journey each of us must take to pursue our dreams. We think we want something but when faced with doing the work, making the sacrifices, and enduring the struggles, we begin to question and doubt ourselves and whether we deserve our dreams.

But in reality, summiting your dreams requires all of that. It requires setting all your best intentions, planning, and preparing then setting out in the dark and climbing, pushing through and even, at times, crawling. But if we are willing to stick it out, we get the chance to stand where most never will.