Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A hike to the peak of Mount Salak

At home and abroad, I lead a fairly sedentary lifestyle, often balking at the chance to do really strenuous things. So when I do put myself to the test, the aches and pains linger long afterward. So it is that three days after undertaking perhaps the most physically demanding thing I've ever done, I'm still moving like an old man shuffling toward a bus. Here's how it happened.

Java Lava's a group of adventurous mountain and volcano climbers, mostly expats, that arranges hikes in different parts of Indonesia.

A few weeks back it started promoting a day hike up Mt Salak, about two hours out of Jakarta, near Bogor. The circular told us it was five hours up and three hours down, 1,400 metres vertical - from the 800m start to the 2,200m peak - and a price was provided for children. But it did warn "some parts are steep" and "if you don't know what climbing 1,400m means, perhaps this hike isn't for you". In retrospect, I should have heeded the warning.

Mt Salak has long been of interest to hikers, but hit the headlines a few months back as the site where a Russian Sukhoi plane crashed in May this year while on a demonstration flight for potential Indonesian buyers. At the time, it took a day or two for rescuers to get to the site, given its remoteness.

Anyhow, I flicked the information on the hike to people around the office, and attracted four others - three Americans and an Australian - to join me. We were five of about 35 people who were on the list of participants.

So we headed off from Jakarta at about 4:30am on Saturday, on the toll road for about an hour then navigating dilapidated streets between villages. It was becoming clear that we'd miss the 6am designated start time, so I had SMS contact with the organizer, who said they'd wait a little while for us. In the end, we got there at about 6:30am, and saw a few cars and drivers, who indicated that the hikers had already left.

We headed up the main path, and saw the scattered paper that Java Lava uses to mark its trail, so we knew we were heading the right way. The hike starts on a fairly shallow slope, although the path is little more than a thin trail, with lots of foliage either side and the occasional loose bit of earth. After half an hour or so we caught the next-last group of Java Lava hikers - three teachers from Britain working at the British International School and a German banker friend - who seemed of a similar fitness and attitude to us, so stuck with them for a while. We also happened to bump into a pair of well-equipped German couple in their 50s, who despite trekking poles and boots, were moving at a snail's pace.

After about two hours we passed a slightly ambiguous intersection, and opted to go down what looked to be the wider and more-established of the paths. That trail, though, became increasingly thinner and difficult to walk. Along the path we met two fit Australian hikers coming back the other way, and they explained that this was in fact the side path to a waterfall, and it we wanted the path to continue up the mountain, we needed to return to the intersection and head the other way. Given it was still early in the day, we decided to push on a bit further to try to get to the waterfall - which ultimately we couldn't because the path became too damp - and then returned to the main trail.

With plenty of sweat and mud on us, we continued heading up the mountain. The path become progressively steeper and within an hour or so seemed to slope at 20-30 degrees, with plenty of stones and trees. Essentially it meant that each step was a fair bit higher than the one that proceeded it, with little straight flat-ground walking. Our group was flagging a bit, and I was really struggling to keep pace. I'd only catch them when they periodically stopped for a rest. Then after we headed off again, I quickly fell behind. The walk was so strenuous that I had to stop to take big gasps of breath after each decent-size upward step - given how many their were, that made for slow climbing.

So up we went like this for several hours. By about 11:30am, we passed the first of the Java Lava hikers in the group heading down the mountain. One mentioned that they'd got word - via mobile phone, presumably, which worked intermittently on the mountain - that police were waiting at the start/end point of the climb, and were upset because the group didn't have the necessary permit the climb. Right.

We slowly pushed on, and met a couple of extremely fit Europeans with sophisticated trekking poles who were bounding down the mountain. They estimated that we were about 40 minutes from the top, which was reassuring. Then 20 minutes later we passed another Australian hiker, who estimated that we were - wait for it - about 40 minutes from the top.

We groaned in disbelief, but continued upward, slightly buoyed by the reassurance that the view at the top was impressive. We plodded on, a few steps forward, a large step up, and stopping to catch breath. At this point, my drinking water was going fast. I'd packed a 2 litre bottle for the trek up, and a 1 litre bottle for the return journey; I was close to finishing the first one but was reluctant to start on the second one so early. So I decided to just stay parched for a while.

As we plodded on, the path disappeared to almost nothing, forcing us to push aside branches and clamber up rocks. Then finally the dappled sunlight of the lower reaches turned into a hotter and more consistent shine as the trees become fewer and thinner. With great relief, we made it to the top, at about 1pm.

I was so drained of energy that I immediately slumped prone in the dirt and didn't move for about 20 minutes. Then when I did move, it was only to take some gulps from my second bottle of water and force myself to eat some of the fruit I'd packed. Despite not having eaten all day, I had no appetite - my major physiological focus was getting the air and breaks I needed.

So we took photos and wandered around the peak. Sadly, the haze had set in, so the view wasn't great. We could see the peak of one of the nearby mountains, and vague outlines of unclear things in other directions, but we were too late for the good stuff. At this stage the four-person British-German group were the only others there - the all-the-gear-no-idea German couple from earlier had clearly given up, and all the others had hit the top and turned back.

By about 1:50pm, we decided it was time to head down. Going downhill is not quite a tough as going uphill, but it's still pretty challenging when it's steep. For each step you need to think about whether the ground is firm enough to hold you, what you can hold onto the side, where you'll put your other foot if you feel unstable... it's mentally as well as physically draining. It didn't help that I was hiking without a stick or high-ankled boots, which meant that I was feeling the vibrating impact of each step ripple right through my body.

We stopped every 15 minutes of so for a brief rest, and then pushed on. It was arduous and repetitive, and completely exhausting. By mid-afternoon, we thought we had things under control, and started working out how we'd deal with the police waiting at the entrance, whose existence we had now been told about by a few hikers along the way. As foreigners, none of us particularly wanted to deal with Indonesian police at great length.

On the way down we did a fair bit of slipping and sliding, accumulating a large number of scratches, bruises and minor humiliations, but enjoyed the reassurance of thinking we were in the home stretch.

By about 5pm, the sun was sitting low in the sky and we were all tired and close to the end of our water supplies. We tried to quicken the pace slightly to get out before dark - none of us had torches (we didn't think we'd need them) and had only mobile phones as a source of light once the sun set. We also opted to forgo our quarter-hourly breaks.

But by about 6pm, it was dark and I was exhausted. We came together as a group, and decided we couldn't take it any more. So we slumped by the side of the path, and called for help. I called Yudi, our group's driver, and told him that we needed help - we were about a half-hour from the end and needed torches and cold drinks. I also spoke to one of the Java Lava organisers who had left the site, and he promised to relay the message to their person who was still at the base camp. So there we waited, the five in our group soon joined by the four in the British-German group. Three of the nine decided they would persevere to the end despite the darkness, using the light of their phones to guide the way, and then help with getting the rest of us out once they were in the clear.

So six of us waited on the side of the path as the temperature rapidly cooled. We shared whatever water we had left, and tried to keep morale up - talking about how things could have been worse, what we'd do once we were finally out of there - but we were sufficiently tired that rest seemed like a wise option. One of the Brits had brought a whistle with her, which she blew periodically to let the "rescuers" know where we were.

After about an hour, they arrived. David, a no-nonsense Australian from Java Lava ("Ari, you'll need to get off your arse...") and Yudi, our erstwhile driver who had jumped into action to come to save us. Drinks and torches were also in abundance. After gently chiding us for not bringing enough of either of those two clearly-precious commodities, David led the way along the path out of the mountain. The hour rest, and the reassurance that we were in the home stretch, made the final part of the walk easier than that that had come before it, even though we were doing it by torchlight, with a bit of help from the near-full moon.

David explained that the number of police had dwindled - they'd got sick of waiting for us - but there was still one officer there. It turns out that the mountain is supposed to be off-limits to climbers at the moment because parts of the crashed Sukhoi plane are still on the mountain, and the safety investigation is ongoing. I suspect the police are particularly worried about the Russians - or people acting on their behalf - trying to remove evidence, because the stakes are pretty high in the air safety investigation: if the plane is found to be at fault, it will be a major blow for the country's aircraft manufacturing.

So the police were right to be concerned, but absurdly the entrance we had used to the mountain, an established starting point for climbers, had no signage at all indicating to us that the site was off limits or that a permit was required. Not sure how we were supposed to know there was an issue.

An hour or so after we were met by the rescuers, we finally made it back to the base - it was now about 8pm - to be met by a couple of drivers, a member of the British group who'd dropped out hours earlier, a few Java Lava people, and a local police officer. The officer declared that he needed to take a group photo of us, and that we would need to provide identification so that photos could be taken of them. It's still not clear what's being done with that information, but I'm confident there won't be any further problems.

So we said our farewells, jumped in the car, and headed along the rickety road to the toll road headed to Jakarta. We stopped at a little stall on the side of the street for cold drinks and beer, drunk those and fell asleep.

Not sure that mountain climbing is really for me. But as the Japanese say of Mt Fuji, that anybody would be a fool not to climb it once, but a fool to do so twice, the Indonesians could well say of Mt Salak.