Mount Agung — a volcano standing 3031 meters (9,944 feet), the highest point in Bali. Mount Agung — a 6 hour hike up to the summit (and 6 hours down), begun in the dead of midnight to see the sunrise at 6 AM. Mount Agony — a trail that went mercilessly straight up from the start. A trail of scrambling for purchase on pebbles and gravel, clawing hands into muddy embankments, hauling up lava rock on all fours.
I’ve never undergone a more physically brutal experience. This hike pushed me to my very limits in the first hour, and then it was just sheer force of will to not turn back (apparently 40% of hikers never make it to the summit). Climbing the mountain in the pitch-blackness, I faced demons in my mind and my body.
Going up, it was dread and worry. How am I going to possibly achieve this? It required me to change my mind about how terrible things were. Almost to make a game of of the pain, counting my steps in varying rhythms and making up inane lyrics:
- 4/4: Rock, bush, gra-vel / judge, slam, ga-vel
- 3/4: I’m waltzing I’m, waltzing I’m, dancing with the, mountain I’m…
- 6/8: Kill me I’m dying and, bury my ashes please, kill me I’m dying and…
And the fuel to fight this fight? Apparently, the Balinese love Chocolate. The food we were provided was just…chocolate. Chocolate cookies, chocolate wafers, chocolate bars, chocolate croissant, even chocolate-covered fried bananas. I’ve never had so many simple carbohydrates in my life. It was idiotic — it gave me a burst of energy for 15 minutes and then a drop into even worse lethargy. By four hours in, my body was begging for anything substantial — trail mix, a raw piece of fruit, a hamburger…
The hour-long campfire rest we took below the final push to summit was a gift and a curse. Almost immediately, I dropped into sleep and dreamed of a jury pronouncing me guilty for the crime of failing to learn from my mistakes…like in that movie with Meryl Streep and the other guy.
Waking up far more exhausted and bleary than I was before, we begun the final push. My climbing partner Amar got nauseous; I threw encouragement I did not feel his way. The sky began to lighten — a feeling of panic! I was going to miss the sunrise after all my long journey through Mordor! I tried to focus on my breathing; the air was thin; I couldn’t get an even exhale and inhale.
And then — the moon appeared — A crescent smile rising over the dark apex towering above me. Rising effortlessly, balloon-like. A jolt of energy coursed through me. I bounded upwards toward the moon like it was a homing beacon, and 45 minutes later, I had reached the top of the mountain.
The summit was the most breathtaking moment I’ve ever experienced, seeing the whole island and the sun and sky at once and my few brave fellow travelers all overwhelmed in awe.
The climb was a battle not to reach the top of a physical mountain, but to push through my limiting beliefs. I go to the gym and lift enough weights to feel like I’ve woken up my muscles; I do not push them till they are trembling. This made me tremble.
I achieved a moment of elation and enlightenment, and I let myself feel gratitude that I was able to work to get a glimpse into the visual wonder of the world.
The reward for surviving the climb was a descent through hell — far more difficult than the rise. I had to relive and re-encounter in the harsh light of day the fears I thought I’d surmounted. Whoever carved this trail straight-up and down, sans switchbacks, was a lunatic. The distant memory of the surface — my base, my home, my escape from the alternate reality I was living on this god-forsaken mountain. I honestly forgot I even had to go down. Someone air-lift me down please! Call in the copters! I did the work and achieved my goal! My fuel tank is empty! I am out of chocolate! Get me out of this discomfort and give me a treat (beer and barbecue please) because I earned it!
There was no way not to fall again and again the whole way down. My sleep-deprived ass was slipping on pebbles and gravel with a sheer drop to death on either side. I tumbled maybe 15 times, including earning a bad scrape up my left arm.
I blamed my shoes; they didn’t have enough traction! I cursed this descent as near impossible…if I slide one more time I fucking quit (and then what?! not like I had any choice but to keep going!). I watched the Balinese guides, carrying packs for heavier than mine, roller-scate their way down, rolling their eyes as I tumbled down another lava-carved chute.
When I finally saw the parking lot, I somehow burst into a sprint. I involuntarily started screaming. Screaming! This is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get it!!
I am so glad I did it; I don’t think I will ever do it again. They advertise this sucker as ‘challenging.’ It is extreme. If you want to face the extreme in yourself, do this hike.
But here is the real rub. Looking at these words above I have just typed to show how much work it was and how much I suffered to get through it…yes, it is a part of who I am to want to describe in true details how intense an experience can be (warning!) and what I went through. To not sugar coat it or ignore what my mind went through. I know I am a very intense person! Most things that go through my mind are coated in fire. But…at the end of the day, do I want to spend my time recounting how much I can talk about pain? And let us not forget — I’m talking about ‘hardship’ afforded by privilege — the resources to hire guides, purchase supplies, and embark on adventure purely for the adventure. Compared to the suffering of 99% in this world who don’t elect to climb mountains as a tourist, it is embarrassing to even describe it thus.
So instead, I want this story to be about the power of discipline. When I started writing it, I was only thinking of engaging ways to describe the hardship. But the greatest discovery was speechless wonder at the top — words can’t even come close! So, I can choose to use the words I’ve got to inject hope, and positivity, and the power of discipline to get there and back down.
So I learned discipline — with a tangible goal. I, for one, am pretty aimless when I don’t have a definitive goal. That is something I am working on!
Mount Agung. Mount Discipline. Mount Heart. Mount Patient. Mount Challenge.
I will always feel things intensely, and both rage and revel in it. It is a gift! And it’s just who I am. It is who I will be when I find a loving partner. Disciplined, intense, and full of Joy! And hopefully over time…maybe less intense about everything.
I can spend my energy making things sparkle a bit more and encourage others to climb the damn mountain even though it will make you face pain!
Now I think of my scar as a battle-wound, a little temporary tattoo of what I went through and what I can commit to. My body feels bruised but my heart and mind are open, and I’ve been up 36 hours so now I go to sleep and die, thank you! See you later!