How to Climb Mount Rinjani Without a Guide

How to Climb Mount Rinjani Without a Guide

A Practical Guide to climbing Lombok’s Mount Rinjani alone


Mount Rinjani, Near the summit

You can stare at the serrated crater of Mount Rinjani (Lombok, Indonesia) from one of the neighboring islands, with your feet up and a bintang in hand, and imagine just how high it must have been before it blew its top in 1257 AD. You can also imagine the scale of said 13th century eruption and consider that it had a hand in heralding that era’s ‘little ice age’ (it was, in fact, the most powerful eruption of the past 2000 years).

That, or you can load up 50 lbs of gear and trudge up the edge of the crater on blistered feet, wondering why on God’s green earth you didn’t bring a guide. I assure you that one is going to be far more memorable.

12,000 feet, for those familiar with the greater mountains in the Asia and elsewhere, doesn’t seem like much. It’s not high enough to make you sick or really take the wind out of your lungs, much less bring on a case of HAPE. This attitude put Phil, a good friend, and myself at the base of Mount Rinjani on Lombok, Indonesia, with no guide or support but from our own skinny legs. It couldn’t be that hard, and the insistence on using a guide must come from the pleas of novices unfamiliar with the mountains, right?

Mount rinjani, from the rim

Think again, little guys, because roughly 10,500 feet of Rinjani’s 12,244 is gained over the course of 2 days. As it happens, 2 vertical miles with a pack the size of a small child is damn hard.

Lombok has couple of arrival ports, and you’ll come in from one of the two: Bali or the airport. Wherever you touch down, your first interaction with Lombok Indonesians will likely involve haggling for transportation. You can choose Semabalun or Senaru to begin the Rinjani foray.

Senaru is quite a drive and formal transportation services aren’t cheap. You’re better off haggling. Besides, if you’re not using a guide then why charter formal transportation?

500,000 rupiah is the price we paid for two people, roughly 17 dollars per head. Once the ride commenced, we asked our driver how long it would take to arrive. He said three hours. After roughly an hour, we asked again. The answer? 3 hours. Another hour passed and we chanced posing the same question. He said we would arrive in roughly 3 hours. This final answer rang the truest.

Which brings to light a curious phenomenon with regards to Lombokians; they are especially adept at pretending to understand what you say, no matter what it is, and usually answering in the affirmative. Though your results may vary, it is best to pose questions that require an answer that isn’t simply yes or no. You’ll catch them in the act that way.

Bringing your own supplies means stocking up on food. You’ll need to tell your driver to stop at a supermarket before the villages, because village stockpiles are insufficient. Buy your driver lunch and he’ll stop and even help you pick out the right supplies. If you’re bringing a stove (my prayers are with you) then get dehydrated goods to save on weight. If you’re not, avoid canned vegetables and other watery goods. Your skinny legs will thank you. Peanut butter and nutella go far; beef jerky nails your protein; bread gets smushed but does the job fine, albeit densely.

Another note: everyone in Indonesia seems to have a friend that can make what you want to happen actually happen. Going to Flores? My buddy has a boat. Komodo tour? Sure, he’s also a guide. Rent gear? You can dig around my neighbor’s garage. Such was the case when we asked about tents at our hotel, Rudy Trekker (overpriced, but a good location. Wi-fi didn’t work, such is the case in many of the lodges in Senaru).

We met up with an astute fellow outside his house and bargained for tents and bags. He caved at 250,000 rupiah for 2 tents, 2 sleeping bags, and two sleeping pads for three days between the 2 of us. This set us back a hearty 8 dollars a piece. My wallet was smiling.

Tents, Mount Rinjani
Non-rental tents barely visible from the final precipice before the summit ridge

It was time to pack. Clothing, emergency gear, food, and lots of water went into the bag. After weighing his own, Phil declared that it felt good to have something so heavy on his back. I wasn’t as optimistic.

After chartering a ride for 200,000 rupiah to the base of the trail we started up the dirt hills towards the entrance. In five minutes we’d reached the gate to the park. Our bodies were already in protest. Phil had taken a sweat bath and my glutes were starting to spasm.

The Indonesians at the gate gave us a look that bordered on horror. We’d expected a few laughs, and a gentle ribbing about what we were in for without a guide. Now, as we actually spoke to them, a different attitude emerged. The worker making entry logs for the park spoke up.

“Why are you guys doing this, man?”

There was fatherly concern in his voice. It must be iterated that this was not a man who was paid to care, or paid much at all, or who had any sort of motive for keeping us out. Phil and I looked at each other askance, as we didn’t have a sufficient answer. Pride? Challenge? Fun? The reflections in the workers’ eyes forced us to take a moment to contemplate our own mortality, which we must have regarded with nonchalance, because we bought the tickets (310,000 Rupiah per person).

Mount Rinjani summit shadow

Anybody who tells you that you’re not allowed to enter the park without a guide obviously hasn’t tried to do so. It’s not illegal, only ill-advised, and you’re fully allowed to make your own way up and around Rinjani.

But what if I get hurt? What can I do without a guide to help me?

The mountain’s porters are a bull-legged bunch of hard-men who regularly carry more weight than we ourselves had up and down the mountain in flip-flops. If you’re injured, and you’ve paid the park’s entrance fee, you’re entitled to a rescue. If it happens, it’ll be the porters carrying the litter with your person on it (this is information gleaned from a guide that we befriended during the trip). So, if you need to get out fast, you’ll be in good hands (or on good legs. Seriously, take a peek at porter calves and kick yourself for skipping leg day).

Let’s deal with poetics up front. Mount Rinjani boasts a startling array ecological diversity, along with some utterly alien scenery. You worm your way through the jungle, into a cloud forest where mist clings to precipitous cliff-sides and obscures those in front of and behind you, before finally reaching the smoking caldera fringed with aquamarine and sulphurous phosphorescence (sulphorescence?). The landscape rises and falls away in mirage and hillsides ring with savannah-green, their sparse trees bastions to the scale of the volcano’s slopes. Besides camaraderie, this is the most alluring aspect of the hike. It’s in constant flux, from summit to slopes to forest.

Mount Rinjani - Sembalun side
A view on the way up from Sembalun

Solitude seekers can write this one off. We encountered another band of trekkers at the first gazebo rest half a kilometer down the trail, and we would all work as each other’s shadows for the rest of the trip. We casually befriended them and their guide, a 19-year old Lombokian fluent in a variety of languages and cognizant of Rinjani’s every detail. He was to be our well of logistical support.

This brings to light another advantage of trekking alone: you’re afforded respect and admiration at every turn. When you’re guideless, every guide is your friend, and their clients take an interest (and probably place bets on whether you’ll make it). A solo venture thus becomes oddly sociable, with encouragement levied among all the difficulties faced. There’re troupes of people everywhere, but it’s a happy mountain. Unfortunately, the human presence is most strongly suggested by the heaps of garbage strewn about more public areas. The trail itself, however, is far cleaner (besides the occasional coil of toilet paper).

Choose a lunching spot replete with monkeys, if possible. We chanced upon a bout of passionate apish love-making while eating, resulting in jealous aggression from the alpha of the pack, only to see the same lovers convening in pleasure again behind a bush. It’s dinner and a show. They’re scared of people, unlike many other SE Asian monkeys, so you needn’t worry too much.

Hours of slogging will deposit you, once the trees finally abate, on the outer slopes of the rim. Here I encountered what can be passed off as a lesson of what NOT to do when trekking alone.

Mount Rinjani Crater Rim

There was a Bulgarian girl, confusedly darting her head around before engaging me in conversation. Her first question  was whether I had any iodine tablets. I did not. But did I have hydrogen peroxide? Here, too, she was out of luck. This soon gave way to questions about whether I thought her and her boyfriend had brought enough water – 7 liters between the two of them, for a 3 day bout. I told her it certainly wasn’t enough, and she hinted that I should be kind enough to give her some of my own; as another solo trekker, however, I had too much to lose, and would need every drop that I had brought. Without the trepidation I felt for her plight, I myself would have placed a bet.

The most important element of trekking alone is being prepared. Don’t expect to find water on the way, even if you have a filter (You can drink from the lake, but it won’t be pleasant). Don’t think that you’ll be able to get water off of porters or guides – the aforementioned couple said they’d tried to buy water from other parties and had failed. Bring at least 5 of the largest bottles you can find. This is what Phil and I brought (5 per person, that is), and it was only enough to get us to a little snack stand erected on the mountain before Sembalun.

Mt. Rinjani Campsite
Where you’ll camp should you bring a guide

Cresting the rim, one is finally afforded a view of Rinjani proper, that is, the active cone. To approach it and the lake one has to descend what is the most dangerous part of the trail. Phil and I had decided, even though darkness was falling, to make for a landmass jutting out about halfway down the mountain towards the lake. We’d named it Scotland for its golf-course greenery and prominence, and it seemed the perfect vista to escape the smut of the higher camp. Another benefit of going it alone is you’ll choose your camp – the crowded ones are always strewn with the most garbage.

Mount Rinjani, Scotland
Golf-green Peninsula, hereupon known as Scotland

My feet and knees were beginning to reject the exercise, conveniently at the steepest part of the descent. You’ll need hands and feet here to go down, and a headlamp if you’re doing it at  night. We roughed it and went by the light of the moon, with the biggest hazard being OTHER people’s headlamps. Take note; if someone isn’t used to using a lamp, they’re going to blind you with it. If anything, you should have a lamp so you can blind them back and compound the danger for everybody.

Scotland provided us a picturesque, mostly clean, and isolated camping spot. There was one other guided party nearer the trail than us, which we applauded as a good thing since they’d keep away marauders and monkeys.

Mount Rinjani, camping night one
As good a camp spot as one can ask for

A bad idea had been brewing in our heads as we awoke and descended to the lake. The active part of the volcano, and the peninsula that housed it, were off-limits for guided expeditions. Our guide friend from before had first told us that we weren’t allowed to set foot on it. When he deduced that we didn’t believe him (we’d ran into him and his group again at the lake), he decided to tell us that it would melt our shoes off our feet. But could we make it there?

“You’ll have to be like spiderman. Across the cliffs.” Shimmy some puny cliffs? Done.

Small volcano, Mount Rinjani
Our goal was to summit the smaller, active volcano

When he told another amateur guide our plan, that fellow displayed a look of horror more pointed than the guys at the gate had. The whole group seemed to be praying for us. It was sounding better and better. This is why we’d forsaken a guide. We left them all at the lake and started the shimmy…

..Which turned out to be a smidgen too dangerous. After Phil told me that I should un-strap my backpack so I could escape it if I fell into the water, cold reality set it above the boiling lake. Rinjani had rejected our hubris.

 

Rejected by small volcano
Post-rejection blues

The final climb to base camp is a terrific slog. Four hours, rollicking mist, and steep grade. We took the only unoccupied camp spot that wasn’t on the ridge which straddled the mountain’s two sides – a gracious protection from the wind, even if it was a few feet from a small hole in the ground with a little white flag poking out. Unfortunately, in the middle of the night we heard someone turn up to pay gastronomical respect to the flag, and our measly tent flap did little to hide us from the festivity.

Summit day saw us blasting past multiple parties up the ridge at 2:30 AM (Start no later than 3AM). There was a full moon, unobstructed against a pasty sky, and a caterpillar line of headlights up the trail to the summit ridge. It seems that you’ll be mandated to use a headlamp if you’re with certain guiding services, or this was the testimony of many of the folks we passed on the way up. The night was so bright, however, that we didn’t need one at all.

Most trip reports talk about the final highway of soot to the top – it’s not as bad as it’s made out to be. Step in other people’s steps and you won’t slide as down as far. Ash doesn’t blow everywhere, either. The effect of the wind is mild, and the effect of other people kicking it in your face is only exacerbated if you walk close behind them (though it’s hard not to sometimes).

Ashen highway - Mount Rinjani
Ashen highway

There was a cacophony of cold and tired people celebrating on the top. The view finally extended across the whole of Lombok, even stretching visually to Bali’s Mount Agung. We could see it smoking from the ridge, a subtle reminder that the thing had been scheduled to blow for the past two weeks, even forcing the evacuation of ten thousand people on Bali. My trip in had even been fraught with airplane window gazing, where my imagination turned myself and fellow passengers into screaming little appetizers as Agung’s magma morphed our plane into a big oven. Though my fears were unfounded, nothing leaves a thread of trepidation loose like the smoking cone of an active volcano, locked and loaded.

Mount Rinjani Summit
The summit

Descending on ash can be great fun. Lean back, dig your heels, and skate. The mountain will take you, and it will be easier on the knees and feet. Speaking of feet, be sure to bring fitted and well-worn boots. I made the harrowing mistake of taking a new pair, that fit a little too well, and now my feet were ready to burst with blisters. Every step gave fuel to a near interminable pain in my toes. This would limit my gait for the rest of the 13 mile descent, with all but the slowest of laggards on the mountain passing me on the way down.

Making it down quickly is the key to getting a cheap ride and good meal from Sembalun. We ate the last of our food stores and contemplated jumping into the crater before etching ourselves to the steep slopes and scurrying towards the village. To find the Sembalun trail, simply ask around; it’s by no means hidden, but still requires some searching.

The summit-descent day is an epithet to agony. We were complaining loudly and raucously at every turn to both one another and anyone else who would listen. Even so, the singular scenery kept whispering that the whole thing was worth it. The feeling of climbing a mountain without support, of really climbing it by and for yourself, does far more to send pain and weariness into retrograde than anything else. By the time you arrange a ride and get back to your hotel (if you’re alone, offer a guide 250,000 rupiah for a ride to Senaru with him and his crew at the end of the trail), the suffering has already been forgotten.


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