Big Bad Mount Bromo and the glorious futility of hindsight

The most unexpected days of your life start with you munching your way through a cup of wet Indonesian coffee grounds while flicking ants off semi-stale white bread. That we now know.

Invariably you then hop on the back of a passing motorbike and ask the driver to take you up to an unnamed roadside settlement in the East Javanese mountain region of Wonotoro. I say mountain, but I’m underselling it cause actually it’s a volcano. Actually it’s a system of five volcanoes sitting in one giant ancient caldera in arguably the wildest patch of the circum-Pacific Ring of Fire. We’re only interested in one of them though and it’s the one that’s blown its top off boiled egg style and is currently belching out all sorts of fun gases: Mount Bromo.

Small villages straddling both sides of a steep winding road punctuate the forested hillsides all the way up the mountain. The little Honda’s engine sounds like it might give out before the next bend, but it’s a journey it’s done a thousand times and after I hop off it’ll probably manage a thousand more. I drop my pack in a homestay about a 40-minute hike from Cemoro Lawang – the town at the top of the road right on the edge of the Tengger Caldera and the starting point for most treks to Bromo – and immediately set off for the crater. There’s some useful signage on the hike up that lets you know you’re headed in the right general direction.

volcano sign

Getting to Bromo from Cemoro Lawang involves locating the edge of the town, finding the right gap in the foliage (spoiler: it’s behind the very ugly statue of a dude on a horse) zig-zagging your way down into the greater caldera and crossing an unworldly volcanic wasteland known as the Sea of Sand. As expected this is mostly sand but there’s also some squishy black tar stuff that you can get your feet good and stuck into if that’s your thing. Then it’s up, up, up the side of the Bromo Caldera via something somebody many seismic events ago probably intended to be a staircase. Honestly it’s a breeze.

sea of sand

At the top you take one step forward and you’re right on the edge of the Bromo crater. Despite the whole diminishing returns on amazement phenomenon that every traveller will be familiar with, I remain stunned each time I look into a volcano. And this one is no different. It’s impossible not to be truly awed by its massiveness, by how far down the hole is, by the steam billowing out of it from the centre of the earth. It’s big. It’s so fucking big. I tried to stop myself imagining what it would be like to roll an ankle up there and tumble uncontrollably down into that gaping great boiling hole, but once you’re thinking about it, you’re thinking about it. Shudder and add it to the list of things to avoid.

Happily, there’s a barrier. For about twenty meters along the rim is a tourist-friendly park-sanctioned “viewing area” where the masses are protected from the inferno below by some rudimentary yet solid-looking concrete fencing. I was glad it was there. At that point the volcano was so freshly intimidating I couldn’t believe that people supposedly walked beyond the reassuring end of this wonderful piece of construction around the rest of the crater rim. But I’d read on the internet that they do, so it must be a thing.

bromo hole.jpg

Never one to not at least think about doing a thing, I slunk along to where the barrier ended and did a robust visual survey of the would-be path. It wasn’t any different from what I was standing on and, being sober and perfectly capable of walking without falling over, I was aware that I wasn’t actually using the barrier to stop me from falling into the volcano. So I took a few steps. Naturally, after those couple of steps had turned out fine, the next thirty suddenly seemed attainable. Maybe I could even do that uphill section! Gosh, this volcano rim really is my oyster. Oh look, somebody else is coming too, fabulous. Volcano adventures for everybody.

At the top of the first small peak it got a bit windy. I took a lot of photographs and smiled a whole bunch because I was on a volcano and that always makes me happy, at which point I saw that the lady who had started following me had turned back and that I was alone again out on the rim. Clearly circumnavigating this bad boy wasn’t actually something people did or people would be doing it. Cool then, time to go home.

erica on bromo

The lady thanked me when I passed her on the way down. Her name was Erica and she gave me a high five “for being ballsy” and told me she’d never have gone near the unbarricaded section if she hadn’t seen me do it first. I’ll take that.

At the bottom, before going back across the Sea of Sand, I stopped for a snack and sat looking up at Bromo and all the people up top. Nobody went anywhere near the end of the barrier for a while, and then a bunch of people I vaguely recognised as some Italians I’d passed on the way up broke away from the rest of the mob and headed out on to the rim. They were in a group – safety in numbers and all that – and seemed to be walking with purpose. Fuck, these guys are going to go for it. Fomo hit hard.

Dilemma: I’d been up Mount Bromo and looked down into its smoking crater, I’d walked further round the rim than anybody I’d seen that day, and I’d inspired a stranger to venture out of her comfort zone. Surely that was enough for a day out?

Alas, no. It’s a familiar struggle between what life-preserving common sense I do somewhere possess and a hazardous combination of the desire test the limits of what I’m capable of and the fear of the inevitable regret of leaving an undertaking even partially unfinished. The fear of not being the most baddass girl on the hill – or at least the most baddass version of myself – that day. The hazardous combination wins every time.

Besides, I’d seen the trail and it was easy. Yep the sides were steep and there was a steaming volcanic orifice at the bottom but it was wide enough that there was decent margin for error, and my main concern at that point was getting all the way around before the sun went down, and the possibility that it might be a bit windy at the top of the peaks.

Decision made.

I pass Erica again on the way back up and tell her I’m going to go all the way round. She tells me about some guy she just spoke to who told her he came here earlier from an adjacent caldera, the rim of which intersects this one about halfway round. Apparently you can see green from there. I love green.

When I reach the top of the crater again, the Italians have turned back. They didn’t even go as far as I went the first time.

Should I have turned back there? No, I don’t need a bunch of Italians. I never needed a bunch of Italians, they were just the excuse I gave myself for climbing back up the volcano and doing what I knew I wanted to do all along. Plus, Adjacent Caldera Guy has done at least half of this rim and lived to tell the tale and all of this was more justification than I ever needed.

On familiar territory, I set off power walking this damn thing like it was part of my daily commute. I was going to make it round before sunset no problem. It was easy. I was truly in my element. Selfies were taken. Morale was high. And Adjacent Caldera Guy was right, the view from the intersection of the craters was magnificent – alien volcanic landscapes as far as you can see, solidified lava streams, and a carpet of green tree-covered hills that appeared out of nowhere like the Great Valley in the end scene of the Land Before Time.

green bromo

From there, the “path” got narrower so gradually I barely noticed, but at the same time a sort of humped ridge of rock developed between where I was walking and the volcano-side edge of the caldera. This actually made me feel safer than I was when I was on the wider, ridge-less path, and everything was all well and good right up until that ridge switched sides on me.

With the ridge on the other side of where I was walking I still had about ten inches of path to work with, but there was then nothing between me and the steep drop down into the volcano, which wasn’t ideal. That was the first point on the adventure that I thought “ok this is a bit sketchy”.

spot the path.jpg

Should I have turned back there? Well, I was trying to beat the sunset and was well over half of the way around. It had been an easy walk up until this point and chances were this bit was just an anomaly. It seemed safer to do the shorter section I had left than go back and risk being out alone on the edge of a volcano in the dark. So I pushed on, leaning away from the crater as I went and using the ridge as a sort of stunted, humpy hand rail.

Shit then escalated pretty quickly. The thing that I’m not going to call a path any more began sloping downwards towards the volcano hole and it suddenly got all gritty and gravelly to the extent that a foot-slip towards lava death became a very real possibility. Then the walkable section disappeared altogether and I was left straddling this ridge with no flat surface whatsoever.

Doubts were beginning to creep in about the sanity of this mission which meant it was probably a good time to take a breather. I dangled one leg over each side of the ridge and sat back to appreciate what were some of the best views I’d ever seen. The jagged rim of the Bromo crater I was perched on, taller Mount Bartok just behind, the rim of the Tengger Caldera encircling them both, a ridge of mountains behind that, and to the right the giant Mount Semeru smouldering in the distance. To a volcano nerd this was paradise and after a week rushing around Java, I needed this. The rare opportunity to feel truly alone on an island of 140 million people. I stretched my legs out and looked out at the landscape of my dreams, wishing only that I had more snacks.

Bromo Legs

Mentally refreshed and pressing forwards along the ridge with renewed vigour, I found that I could walk upright it if I angled my feet properly and balanced real carefully. But (as is the trend with this volcano and I really should have foreseen) again this surface started getting good and crumbly and when the inevitable foot slip happened (and after my heart rate returned to normal) I figured it was time to bring more body parts in to play. You need your feet, you need your hands, you need your shins, you need your thighs and you need (and I don’t even remember using it but the scratches I found later confirmed it) your ass.

Should I have turned back there?  I knew how tricky the stuff I’d just been through was, and I didn’t want to do it again in the opposite direction. The gamble that what lay ahead was even slightly less bad was one I was willing to take, and the idea that it might be worse didn’t even cross my mind. Like it could possibly be worse. So I pushed on.

There’s three things I should probably have mentioned about this volcano already. One, it’s super volatile. Two, 2019 has been a particularly active year for ash emissions. Three, it erupted exactly 22 days before I found myself straddling its crater. This trifecta, combined with a steady north-easterly prevailing wind, presented the ultimate parting gift from Bromo; a thirty meter stretch of the caldera rim consisting purely of ultra-fine compacted ash.

ash man

Oh man this was so much worse. It may have been steep and a bit crumbly before, but there was rock there and it was solid. Rock was a friend, you could cling to it and it would support you. Now, the ground was the consistency of cornflour and every time I put any weight on it, whole layers of it disintegrated beneath me then billowed back up in the wind, surrounding me in a thick cloud of the stuff. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. The margin for error was so slim, each time I stabilised myself in a new spot long enough to regain visibility and breathability felt like a miracle… and then I had to do it again.

Progress was tortuously slow. All I wanted to do was get off that volcano and I had to do it six inches at a time, sticking my face inside my t-shirt every ten seconds to wait for the latest ash cloud I’d created to disperse sufficiently that I could try to take another step/crawl/lunge/leap of faith and hope that the “ground” I landed on would support my weight. And sometimes it didn’t. Which meant I had to take the next forward movement truly blind and from a starting point of uncontrolled slipping. And you can’t let yourself slip for more than a second because it’s so steep there’s no coming back from that (volcano hole @ bottom).

It was right around this point that I was utterly convinced I was about to die there and then. In a cloud of sulphuric ash on a crumbling knife-edge ridge a hundred feet above a steaming caldera.

The certainty that your life is about to end has a way of momentarily dissociating you from reality. Because being this close to dying’s not the sort of thing that happens to you in actual life. Dying happens to other people. It happens in movies and on the news and in dreams. Like, this is literally the sort of shit I do in my dreams except in when I’m dreaming I’m on a Ducati Scrambler and have a very different relationship with gravity.

In reminding myself that this was most definitely not a dream, the reality of the situation enveloped me like a cold hug. Girl, this is real life. And you’ve fucked it. True fear followed in all of its paralysing, soul-crushing glory. And not just the fear of death. Fear of the endless fall into the middle of the earth and what that would be like. Fear that nobody would ever find my body or even know where I’d gone that day. Fear of becoming a statistic – another naive traveller who thought she could hold her own against a force of nature. Ha, how embarrassing would that be?!

It turns out that the feeling of abject terror doesn’t last all that long. Good, because it’s not hugely useful beyond triggering a fight or flight reaction and neither of those would have helped much at that precise moment. What remained was a new kind of mental clarity. That I was in this, and that I had to get myself out of it.

Should I have turned back there? Well that would actually have been rather nice but having already displaced half of the traversable surface area of this godforsaken ash ridge, I really couldn’t. Doing a one eighty degree turn here was not something I even wanted to think about having to do and also I was so close to the end with so much adrenaline coursing through my body I could probably have quantum leaped there if it really came down to it. So I pushed on.

I could see the people in the Safe Zone. They were so close but I’d never felt so isolated. We weren’t in the same world. I wondered what I must look like to them. A girl in lime green shorts half dragging half flinging herself along the sketchiest part of the volcano rim, kicking up and disappearing into a huge cloud of ash every two minutes. Could they tell that I was one misplaced knee away from an uncontrolled freefall into the crater? Or was I clearly just another free-spirited madwoman out enjoying a super fun adventure?

Either way, reaching solid rock at the end of the Ash Zone was a relief I can’t even begin to describe. Somehow I’d made it. The final ten meters of the rim was my victory lap, premature maybe given that the only improvement was that the ground wasn’t giving way, but I strutted myself back to where it all began feeling like I’d just won every single medal at the Volcano Olympics.

Walking back into the Safe Zone with all the tourists was weird. In terms of physical yardage and hours on the clock I’d never been that far away from all this, but by every other measure it was eons. I felt like I’d just returned from a long haul stint on Mars and that I was seeing other people for the first time in years. And they had no idea.

What happened to you, did you fall?”,  an Irish accent dragged me back to reality. I stared at her for a disconcerting number of seconds not knowing where to begin answering her  before laughing out something like “ha thankfully, no”.

Somebody else asked me if I wanted a wet wipe for my face and then if he could take a photo of me. I took a wipe and asked to see the photo. I was covered from head to foot in ash. My face was beyond chimney sweep dirty. I had ash up my nose, ash on my teeth, ash coating my eyelashes and ash on my actual eyeballs.

Physically exhausted, I took a motorbike back across the sea of sand and up a dirt road to Cemoro Lawang, then, as the sun was about to start setting, took off on foot back down the mountain to my homestay, taking in stunning agricultural landscapes in golden hour light, buzzed like you wouldn’t believe on the radical concept of being alive and reflecting on what the hell it was I’d just done and how I managed to get myself into that situation.

I’d set out for what I thought was going to be an easy hike, and in steady increments it turned into a legitimate shitshow that was very close to ending terribly. In pushing on at each critical juncture ego and raw stubbornness played a part for sure, as well as naivety about what lay ahead, but when I think back to how I felt when I first set eyes on the crater –  awed into wary restraint by its magnitude and gradient and how easily it could kill you – the contrast with what I was willing to take on not even two hours later was huge. The process of human emboldenment is fascinating. Is it the frog the boiling water thing? Is it an adrenaline thing? Are we less afraid of unexperienced dangers than experienced ones?

Whatever the reason, it was an experience that can never be recreated, truly organic in its stupidity. To go out there deliberately seeking that kind of experience would be beyond reckless. I live for adventure but live is the key word there and believe it or not I don’t have a death wish. If I’d had any idea how dangerous it was going to be I absolutely would have stayed in the safe area with everybody else. I was ignorant.

And I am damn grateful for that ignorance because looking back, it’s truly one of the most awesome things I’ve done.

With hindsight, there were many obvious points at which I should have turned back and gone home. But thankfully hindsight has zero influence on the actual decision making process. I won’t do it again, but I’m very glad I did it.

Here’s a video of the jaunt. It doesn’t have the super sketchy bits in it because i needed all body parts to cling to the rock/ash but you’ll get the gist:

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