Nearly one year after the monumental eruption that blanketed Yogyakarta in a sea of ash, displaced thousands and claimed 353 lives, Mount Merapi is safe to climb again.
The Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Center (PVMBG) returned the volcano’s activity status to “normal” on Sept. 15, for the first time since the disaster, allowing would-be mountaineers to return to the 2968-meter-high peak to asses the damage.
Those who wish to climb the volcano ought to keep in mind that “safe” should be considered a relative term, and the condition of your legs should be considered to determine if they are up for the challenge of the steep, rocky and at times quite slippery ascent.
Exodus: Excited hikers depart for the all-night climb up Mount Merapi’s slopes.Photo By JP/Tyler Gniewotta
We arrived at the base camp in Selo at 6 p.m., a few hours behind the scheduled time, so any hope of reaching the summit during daylight hours was left behind on the breathtaking roads curving through the valleys and hillsides covered in rice fields on the two-hour journey from Yogyakarta.
Transportation to and from the base of the mountain can be arranged in Yogyakarta, as well as any tent rentals or gear that may be needed to complete the trek. One useful point to keep in mind is that every kilogram in your pack will seem as if it has tripled in weight with every step you take on the journey to the top, so pack lightly to avoid ditching any unessential items on the journey up.
After one last hot drink in the cool and misty weather of the base camp, where you can also park your motorbike and get advice on the climb, we began the ascent to the mountain a short 100 meters up the road from the base camp.
The grueling first section seems to go on forever. While it is not difficult per se, the long, mildly inclined, straight and seemingly never-ending entry point to the mythical mountain plays tricks on the mind, for each time you think you are making progress, a flicker of light from a flashlight shines up ahead reassuring you that you are, in fact, nowhere near the end.
Sunrise: Dawn breaks over the mountain. Photo By JP/Tyler Gniewotta
Many climbers will opt to hire a guide at the base camp. The trail is well worn and easily visible during daylight hours, but a common way to fully appreciate the beauty of the mountain is to depart at midnight and climb through the night so you arrive at the summit just in time to see the sunrise over the mountaintops in the region.
We, however, chose otherwise. After about one hour of climbing under the black starlit sky, attempting to decipher if what we were walking on was the correct path, or rather, a small animal trail, it was official … we were lost.
Eerie: Merapi’s black volcanic rock bears no vegetation, creating an eerie feeling that can only be described as a combination of how one may envision a hell on earth or the surface of the moon. Photo By JP/Tyler Gniewotta
The “detour” took us through some rather interesting terrain, from climbing through thorny shrubbery and dried up riverbeds to reaching the base of a cliff only to turn around and try another “path”. It was, in hindsight, a good way to see the vegetation the aptly named “Mountain of Fire” has to offer.
Finally, after four hours of being lost and aimlessly continuing in a general uphill direction, we spotted some flashlights shining in the distance and a few eager hikers pointed us in the direction of the summit and informed us we had another two hours to reach the campground.
At this point a proper hiking trail was a welcome addition to the worn out soles of our feet, cut up arms and legs and tarnished egos, but still by no means was it a walk in the park.
The journey is expected to take three to four hours depending on your level of fitness, and if you manage to stay on the correct path.
Two hours later, after climbing through out-of-the-ordinary weather and fire-beaten terrain barely visible through the darkness, we began the short descent to the camping area and attempted to search out a suitable rock-free location for the tents.
The summit: When the almost 3000-meter-high summit is reached, all the pain and negative thoughts of the climb vanish from the mind. Photo By JP/Tyler Gniewotta
Pasar Bubra is the name given to the flat area 150 meters short of the crater where campers can be found making their homes for the night. It is a desolate moonlit landscape to say the least. The black volcanic rock bears no vegetation, creating an eerie feeling that can only adequately be described as a combination of how one may envision a hell on earth and the surface of the moon.
Six in the morning came around rather quickly, but the three hours of frigid sleep are quickly forgotten when your freshly awoken head creeps out of the tent and you can begin to fully appreciate the landscape you stumbled upon in the darkness a few short hours before.
An ocean of clouds covers the horizon, interrupted only briefly by the peaks of the other mountains in the landscape popping through the cloud line like glaciers in the frigid arctic waters, including Mt. Merbabu, which appears to be only a stones throw away.
After a quick cold breakfast due to the lack of firewood amongst the dried up lava, you can begin the final ascent to the peak of Merapi, whether your legs are up to the challenge or not.
Final ascent: The climb at sunrise to Merapi’s peak is the least forgiving part of the journey, for rocks slide away easily under your feet. Photo By JP/Tyler Gniewotta
Despite a mildly renewed freshness from the few hours of precious sleep, the final section is the least forgiving of the whole climb. The rocks slide away easily under your feet, and with every three steps taken towards the peak, you cannot help but feel you have also slid back two.
However, when the almost 3000-meter-high summit is reached, all the pain and negative thoughts of the climb vanish from the mind much faster than they appeared.
The steam emitted from the crater creates an elegant backdrop to the blue sky and black rock. It is an excellent place to relax and reflect upon the journey up, enjoy the view and prepare yourself physically and emotionally for the inevitable climb back down.
Journeying back down the mountain brings with it a new adventure and an opportunity to explore the surroundings again for the first time, this time with daylight on your side. The vegetation slowly increases with every step you take, exposing exotic flowers and trees that can only be found in a near uninhabitable environment such as this.
The journey is not easy, but nor is it forgettable. Being one of the most active volcanoes is the world, Mount Merapi will never present itself as being “safe” to climb, but the satisfaction of climbing the volcano, whether held internally or shared with your friends, is unequaled.
— Photos By JP/Tyler Gniewotta