Sunday, February 8, 2015

A complete guide to climbing Semeru - an active volcano

They say pictures say a thousand words, videos probably ten thousand. Here's a video journal of my entire hike.

Below, I’m writing a detailed description of my hike to Mount Semeru in Indonesia. I looked for information on the hike before going. Much of it is there, but spread across articles. Hopefully, you’ll find most of the info you need here. Whatever I’m writing is for those planning to go on their own – no porter, no guide, no tour agent. If you take these, you should read the article to prepare yourself nonetheless.

There are 3 main sections: 1) My first hand experience, 2) Info about Semeru, 3) Info about the hike.

My first hand experience

We set out for Semeru, 4 twenty-somethings from Singapore, with a decent level of fitness. We had no doubt we would be able to conquer it. We were prepared with the right equipment, enough food and water supplies and very high spirits. In fact, we were so confident that we decided not to hire any porter/guide (a decision I don’t regret).

Wouldn’t it be cool to wake up in the morning and just take a walk to the caldera? It is!

Mistake #1: We decided to stay at Cemoro Lawang because it was just at the edge of the caldera (sea of volcanic sand). Wouldn’t it be cool to wake up in the morning and just take a walk to the caldera? It is! What we didn’t realise is that Semeru is on the opposite end of the caldera. To reach the starting point (Ranu Pane), we had to take a 100+ km round around the caldera. So we did what any sensible person would do.
We went THROUGH the caldera!! Stupid decision. You can hardly walk in that ash, let alone drive a simple hatchback car in it. It was like Dubai’s desert safari, only less glamorous with the car getting stuck every now and then. At the end it, we saw proper road and were so relieved. But as we were about to get onto the road, we got stuck in the sand, real bad this time. We tried everything - reversing, pushing the car; nothing worked. In the end, it was one guy’s obsession with Topgear that saved us. He remembered that the easiest way to get a car out of sand is to keep a stone in front (what?!) of the tires to provide it friction. Lo and behold, it worked!

Lesson learnt: DON’T take a car through the caldera.

We reached Ranu Pane, got our permits, put the car in parking (there is an authorized parking there), hogged on Maggie Goreng (last proper meal), stocked our food and water and start the journey. The initial hike is easy - 10.5 km to Lake Kumbolo; pretty but pretty uneventful. This changes the moment you reach Lake Kumbolo though.

The scenery is breathtaking. You can see the clouds moving over the lake, sometimes even approaching you. Straight out of a movie. I imagined Pirates walking over the lake towards me as the clouds would disburse (Pirates of the Caribbean sigh). We set up camp here along with some 50 other people (surprisingly, a lot), half of whom were just there to camp, and were going to return from that point. We finished our dinner consisting of soup, bread and beans before dark and snuck into the tent. This is going to be a cold night, VERY cold night. Don’t be fooled by the relatively low altitude; the winds from the lake can easily take temperatures subzero. With much reluctance (and much more urgency), I came out of tent to pee around 11pm. And looked up. And can never forget that scene. It was my first time camping far from civilization, and the sky was astounding. I did not know there are so many stars in the sky. It was obscene. One of us even saw a shooting star.

Attempt to capture the night sky
Beautiful sunrise at Lake Kumbolo

Sunrise at Lake Kumbolo is perfect for landscapes, timelapses and pretty much everything you want to try with the camera. The unique view of the lake, the clearing and surrounding mountains makes for a picturesque site. (Ok, I think I’ve said it too many time, I’ll move on)

Mistake #2: We took a large can of ham and a few cans of some beans we had never eaten before. Both turned out to be bad. Also, the ham could not be resealed. We ended up throwing all of these and – We were short of food! Very bad situation to be in. We started rationing food – “Lets have 3 slices of bread, 2 slices of cheese, and 1 packet of soup for breakfast” and so on…We even kept an emergency stock. Btw, the lake water is drinkable, but advisable only with water purification tablets.

Lesson learnt: Take tried and tested food. It will be quite a waste if you have to return without climbing the peak due to shortage of food.

Monuments commemorating hikers/scientists who had died while hiking

At Lake Kumbolo (and few other places through the hike), you would find small stone monuments commemorating hikers/scientists who had died while hiking there. We had a heated debate on whether these signs should be placed on the route. One side argued that such signs would discourage hikers consistently on their way to the mountain, while the other side argued that the loved ones of the departed have the right to pay homage and warn the hikers of the danger ahead. After half hour, we agreed to disagree, each convinced of his view.

Mistake #3: It was 10am (time to leave from Lake Kumbolo) but we figured that it is a 3 hour journey and instead of chlling at next camp (which would potentially be colder), we might as well rest at Lake Kumbolo. So we left at 1pm instead, because of which we didn’t get enough sleep/acclimatization at base camp and things got ugly during the summit climb (more on that later).

Lesson learnt: Leave Lake Kumbolo by 10am and try to get 7-8 hours of sleep at Kalimati.

There’s a folklore among locals about the short ascent right after Lake Kumbolo (pictured above). It is said that those who climb this section without stopping and without looking back would be able to make a wish upon reaching the top. I decided that I would make a wish to reach the Semeru peak. 

The slope after Lake Kumbolo

I took this whole wish thing so seriously, I dashed to the top with all my energy, reached, threw my bag down and then threw myself down on the floor, completely exhausted. And then forgot to make a wish. FORGOT TO MAKE A WISH! What a waste :|

On the other side is the beautiful grassland called Oro-Oro-Ombo. Other blog posts suggest this place is filled with beautiful flowers such as Edelweiss but I guess it was dried up in October. It still looked majestic. I fancied an encounter with Simba from lion king. Or at least a deer. Sadly, none happened.

Oro Oro Ombo

After Oro-Oro-Ombo, 2.5 hours of mundane walking brought us to the final camp – Kalimati, the base camp of Semeru. We considered setting up the camp in the shaky visitor room, but decided against it for the fear of the roof collapsing. It was 4pm and the place was getting cold and cloudy. A quick meal and we went to sleep.

Mistake #4: Partly due to excitement of climbing Semeru and largely due to the uneven ground, I could not get much sleep at Kalimati, maybe 3-4 hours, which was completely inadequate!

Lesson learnt: Get a sleeping mat if you have trouble sleeping on uneven ground. It is essential to get good rest in Kalimati, because of what lies ahead.

There were some 8 groups or so camping at Kalimati that evening. Everyone wanted to reach the summit precisely at sunrise. Not earlier, not later. Any earlier, and you would freeze due to cold. Any later and you would miss the spectacular sunrise from the peak. Despite our ego (read confidence), we somehow took the wise decision to leave at 10:30pm, which gave us 6+ hours to climb. We were the second group to start climbing that night. We promised each other we’ll be the first to reach the peak.

So it begins.

The last leg of Semeru hike. Also called Summit Attack. We were going to gain an elevation of 950m in next 5-6 hours on a slope of 45 to 70 degrees inclination walking on extremely slippery volcanic gravel. That’s tough by any hiking standards.

Mistake #5: Not preparing for AMS (commonly known as altitude sickness). AMS usually doesn’t hit at these altitudes, so while we were aware of it, we did not bring any medication for it. As soon as we started the Summit Attack, one of us started feeling nauseous and got a headache. All AMS signs were there. He started contemplating whether to continue. The other 2 guys plainly told him – “upto you, man.” I found that pretty rude. I thought we should be more supportive and encourage him to continue. After all, he has put in so much effort until this point. He decided to turn back since we were not too far from base camp yet.

Lesson learnt: Be prepared for AMS. At least know what to do if you experience it and how to continue.

Only after about an hour I realized that the guys were right in letting him decide. If he was not feeling well, there’s no way he would have made it to the top. And if we had pushed him then, he would have returned by now, only it would be worse because he had to go back longer – he might get lost, his health might become worse etc. Remember the basic rule of climbing a mountain. Know when to return!

Mistake #6 (questionably): Not taking a guide. 15 minutes into the Summit Attack, we got lost. And that’s after we had a GPS watch with a trail pre-loaded into it. It was night, there was nobody around, and the path is so confusing at this part it is really easy to get lost. It’s quite ridiculous now that we think about it. First, we lost a man, then we got lost, all within 15 minutes.

Off trail, we just continued in the general direction of the trail on the watch. Honestly, I don’t know where we would have ended up if not for the GPS. We joined the trail an hour or two into it. I was beginning to panic. An hour into the hike, the mountain unleashed itself upon us.

The ‘path’ is just endless loose pebbles, formed from previous lava flows. The vegetation is scarce, which means nothing to hold and pull yourself up with. Slope is anywhere between 40 and 70 degrees. All this is manageable, if not for the ground which is impossible to get a good footing on. You keep one foot one foot ahead and slip back most of it. Moreover, if you are walking behind someone, the entire ground would be slipping due to the person walking.

Dig. Step. Slip. Repeat. 

You dig into the ground with your hiking pole 2-3 feet ahead of you (a sharp blow should land the pole 1 feet deep or so). Pull yourself with your hands towards the pole. You take 1 step, slip back most of it, repeat this until you reach your pole (3-4 steps). Then repeat the entire process. At times, you would also use your free hand to get a grip on the ground. It became especially tricky and risky at the turns which were pretty steep with a vertical drop.

Screenshot of summit attack from GoPro video (above)

Every 5 min or so, you would want to take a mini break. Problem is - you can’t just stop anywhere you feel like. I tried stopping once and slipped down a few meters. That was quite a waste. You have to push on until the next big rock, hope that it is stable and sit on it with your pole in ground for safety. If you’re unsuspectingly sitting on one and it gives way beneath you, you’ll go down like nobody’s business. We tested each rock before sitting. Some close calls as the rocks gave way and tumbled down (phew). I don’t have any pictures/video of this part because excuse me, I was busy holding on to my dear life!

My personal ordeal

I’ll come right out and say it. You don’t want to be the weak link. Nobody wants to be the weak link. Right from the planning stage of this trip, I realized I’m average in terms of fitness among the guys who were going. I didn’t want to be the guy who slowed everyone down. I found some respite in 2 guys who were about the same as me. One of them backed out before the trip and another returned due to AMS. Leaving me with these 2 dumbbell-heads. This pressure was always on and I realized I was slowing them down. I hadn’t slept enough at base camp and about 2.5 hours into the summit attack, the effects were showing. At about 3100m (just under halfway), I decided to not continue further. I was completely exhausted, sleepy and very cold. I was not even halfway and everything was only going to get worse. “I would conquer it the next time”, I decided.

The decision to stop was easy, but I didn’t know what to do after that. No way I could go down that mountain in dark, it was too risky. One wrong step and you could be looking at a drop of tens of meters. I figured my best bet was to wait it out where I was until sunrise, and then go up/down based on how I was feeling. Ten minutes in, I realized the problem with this plan. Once you stop hiking, and start resting, the cold starts to get to you. I did not have enough warm clothes. The only way to survive the cold was to keep walking, and take breaks no longer than 7-8 minutes. I was in a very bad situation; I could not go up, down or stay.

What I did next earned me the nickname of ‘the guy who naps during ascents’. I was so sleepy that I fell, slipped a little, dug all 4 limbs into the ground, stabilized, and feel asleep. I SLEPT RIGHT THERE. It must have looked pretty awkward, sleeping at a slope of 45 degrees, hands and legs into the ground. After world’s shortest power nap (maybe 2 minutes), I woke up to the sound of stones passing by near my face. One of us had decided to move on, and as he went up, the stones were slipping down from his steps. I slipped down a little and quickly got up. I figured that I had to keep moving to get through the night, and if I’m moving, I may as well move up. It’s ok if I don’t reach the top. An energy gel and some isotonic drink later, another friend and I continued walking up.

15 minutes after I started, miracle happened. The rocks started becoming bigger, hence making them less slippery and easier to walk on. It’s as if Lord Meru was showing mercy. I thanked Him and pushed on. By now, we had left treeline and the views had already become spectacular. We were climbing this lonely mountain, and everything, for as far as eyes could see, was below us. Felt pretty cool. I strapped my GoPro at this point, and most of the footage you see in the video above is from this.

About 50m from the peak, we saw the first light of dawn - a new hope. We dashed the rest of the way. I saw the first ray of sun about 10 meters below the peak. Ah what the hell, I’m just gonna say I saw it from the peak. We shared an epic high five upon reaching the peak, and soaked in the glory of having conquered the mountain.

Sunrise at Semeru peak
The Semeru peak

Unfortunately, the hike wasn’t done yet as the best view of volcano is a few ridges walk from the peak. Ridge walking was scary but we decided to take a leap of faith and went close to the volcano mouth. The sulphur in the air was strong, and frankly, I was a little disappointed with the volcano. I was expecting massive and dangerous explosions but the ones we saw were small. Guess it was a period of reduced activity.

The Semeru volcano

The view from the peak was pretty good, but if you ask me whether it was worth it, I would say not. If you are there just for the view, go to Bromo or Kinabalu. You would get 80% the view for 30% the effort. Semeru should not be climbed for the beauty of the mountain, or the excitement of seeing an active volcano. Semeru should be climbed to conquer Semeru, to finish that treacherous climb, to be able to look into the face of the volcano.

I must dedicate at least 1 paragraph to this friend of mine who decided to stick with me throughout the ascent (risking his own ascent), just so I don’t give up. You might think that hiking is a pretty individual activity, and you just need strength to do difficult things. I thought so too. Until that day, when I realized perseverance is as important as physical strength to conquer tricky mountains. I would not have made it if not for his constant encouragement, telling me things like “we are making good progress”, “he is as tired as me” (I knew he was lying but it was reassuring). Now I know why there are so few solo ascents. Kudos to those who do it though, for they are truly the strongest at heart.

Info about Semeru

Location: South East Asia --> Indonesia --> Java (biggest island by population) --> East Java province --> Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park

Also known as: Meru, Mahameru (the Great Mountain). Meru, Semeru & Mahameru are names from Hindu & Buddhist mythology.

Height: 3676m or 12060 feet

Volcano eruption: Best part about Semeru is that it is quite predictable and the rewards upon reaching the peak are almost guaranteed. It erupts every once 10-20 minutes. Don’t be scared though. These eruptions are small eruptions, spewing just dust, ash and rocks.

Mountain or Volcano? : Semeru volcano is located a couple of hundred feet below the peak of the mountain. Requires walking over ridges to get close to it. The mountain is also known as Mount Semeru.

Is the volcano safe? : Mostly yes. If the volcanic activity reaches a dangerous level, permits are not issued to hikers. Last time this happened was in April 2014. That being said, the volcano is very active and unpredictable things can happen. People have died on top of the mountain before. Like any volcano, there is certain risk in Semeru. But the risk is very very minimal. My advice – Call and ask the national park information center few days before going. They have the updated information on volcanic activity.

Misc info:  Ranu Pane is the last place where you would find mobile network. There is no mobile reception on the hiking track except wait-for-it THE PEAK!!! Yes, there is mobile reception at the peak. Still beats me why. If anyone knows more, please post in comments.

Info about the hike

How to get there

Most hikers fly to Surabaya airport [Hyperlink] from where you can rent a car for 3-4 days (eg - Toyota Avanza 7 seater for ~50 USD a day). You could also take public transport/taxi. It may be a good idea to stay somewhere for the night before the hike. Leave your car at the proper parking in Ranu Pane.
Where to stay: 3 options: 1. Ranu Pane (village where hike starts) – best option; 2. Cemoro Lawang (base of Mount Bromo, good hotels, primarily for Bromo crowd); 3. Malang town
Route info:
Section 1: Ranu Pane (2100m) to Lake Kumbolo (2400m) – 10.5 km long – takes average 5 hours.
Section 2: Lake Kumbolo (2400m) to Kalimati (2700m) – 4.5 km long – takes average 3+ hours.
Section 3: Kamimati (2700m) to Semeru peak (3676m) – 4-5km – takes average 6 hours.

Possible itineraries

3 days – most common:
Day 1 : Reach Ranu Pane in morning, have lunch and leave by noon. Reach Lake Kumbolo before it gets dark (5:30pm). Setup camp. Have dinner. Sleep.
Day 2 : Wake up to a beautiful sunrise at 5am. Have breakfast. Sunbathe. Have early lunch and leave for Kalimati by 10am. Reach Kalimati by 2, setup camp and try to get 7-8 hours of sleep before summit attack at night. Leave for summit between 10pm & midnight.
Day 3 : 4:30am – reach Summit just in time for sunrise. Enjoy the sun once it is up. Leave by 10am, as the wind direction changes after that, and you’ll get a lot of sulphur from the volcano at the peak, which can be dangerous. Reach Kalimati by noon. Reach Lake Kumbolo by 3pm. Reach Ranu Pane by night. Some people choose to stay another night at Lake Kumbolo, which can help if you’re tired, and don’t want to walk another 10.5km on the same day.

2 days – for the daring:
Day 1 : Leave from Ranu Pane around 7am, reach Lake Kumbolo by noon. Have lunch. Leave for Kalimati. Reach Kalimati by 4-5pm. Sleep for 5-6 hours. Leave for summit between 10pm & midnight.
Day 2 (same as Day 3 above)

How to prepare

  • Good backpack. I can’t emphasize this enough. Backpack is what tires you the most throughout the hike. Get a backpack with good load distribution.
  • Tent & Sleeping bag. There is 1 shelter each at Lake Kumbolo and Kalimati, but it is very dirty. You have to carry your own tent and sleeping bag.
  • Warm clothes. Nights get VERY cold throughout the route to Semeru (Lake Kumbolo & Kalimati). Make sure you have enough warm clothes. Temperatures can drop to -6 degree Celcius easily, which, with the wind chill can feel upto -10. It can get pleasantly warm during the day (especially while walking), so wear clothes in layers (as with any hike).
  • Water. Take at least 6 liters of water and/or isotonic drinks with you. You can also use the water from Lake Kumbolo (with purification tablets).
  • Food. Bring typical hiking food – dry fruits, chocolates, bread, cheese, soup powders, baked beans etc. Some people bring butane/solid fuel based stoves to heat food/water. That’s another good option, but do consider the weight.
  • Altitude sickness medicine. One of the members of our group experienced altitude sickness and couldn’t do the Summit attack. Sadly, months of preparation went to waste. Don’ let this happen to you. Get medicines for AMS [Hyperlink].
  • Hiking pole. This will be your best friend during summit attack. Get a sturdy one. It would go through a lot.
  • Bandana/mask. During summit attack, a LOT of volcanic ash flies around. You would do better by not inhaling all of that. A mask of some sort is a must.
  • Headlamp. If you’re doing Summit Attack at night. Don’t even think about a handheld torch; you’ll need both your hands to climb.
  • Health cert & passport photocopy. Required for permit at Ranu Pane)
  • Day pack. Unless you are an avid hiker and want to push yourself to humanity’s limits, you would typically leave your backpack in your tent at Kalimati for summit attack. Take a small day pack for food, water etc
  • Hiking shoes, Backpack rain cover, waterproof clothing, Gaiters (in case of rain), toilet paper, energy bars/gels (if you wish to), basic medicines