There are depths of thousands of miles which are hidden from our inquiry. The only tidings we have from those unfathomable regions are by means of volcanoes, those burning mountains that seem to discharge their materials from the lowest abysses of the earth.
— Oliver Goldsmith
It was early January of 2013 and fresh from my success from climbing Mount Kinabalu i immediately started looking out for my next climb. By now i was more confident of climbing mountains and i knew that it was not a passing fad. My interest was real. I started scouring the internet for another mountain to climb. After some initial surveys i zeroed in on climbing Mount Kerinci.
Mt. Kerinci, standing at 3,805m is the highest active volcano in Indonesia and the highest peak in the island of Sumatra. It lies along the belt of the “Pacific Ring of Fire“, the world’s highest concentration of volcanoes. To this day, it still spews out toxic sulphuric gases with occasional mini eruptions. In fact, there was a mini eruption on the day of the summit which i will explain later.
Check this video out to see Kerinci’s eruption in 2009.
The plan was to again do it with minimal impact to my working life. Kerinci is not located in a very touristy spot. To get to the mountain you will need to travel 7 hours from the airport at Padang, the Capital of West Sumatra. There were not a lot of agencies doing Kerinci trips as it is not so popular. Those that did do had pre-planned packages spanning 5-7 days with a lot of sight seeing thrown in. This did not fit my requirement of doing it fast. So, i reached out to the internet to search on TripAdvisor. Thankfully, there were a lot of very good reviews of this one guide, Mr. Endatno Een (+62 852 66 266 992 and email: email@example.com).
Endatno is a farmer in the village of Kersik Tuo, located at the foot of the mountain. He is also a certified guide to take people up Kerinci. So, i got in touch with him and he readily agreed. I liked the guy from the get go as he spoke good English and was again very responsive and we both liked Rock music (this i came to know much later during our climb). He had mentioned that he was part of a rock band in his previous life before becoming a farmer and a guide. The price was fixed and i had to make my flight and hotel reservation plans in Padang.
The climb was to be over a period of 3 days from 14th Feb 2013 to 18th Feb 2013. I was to leave Singapore on the night of the 14th and then arrive back on the 18th leaving me 3 days to climb the mountain.
Having had a nasty experience with Kinabalu with regards to my fitness level, i did manage to put in some serious training. So, i was a lot more confident this time and a lot less ignorant.
14th February 2013
Took a night flight on SilkAir to reach Padang. It is an hours flight from Singapore and before you know it, you land in Padang. The airport is relatively small and with very little traffic. I got a Visa On Arrival at the airport which is something like 50 USD. Once outside, Een and his driver friend was waiting for me in his vehicle. We immediately started to Kersik Tuo. He had a nice little home stay, a room in his house converted to allow up to 2-3 people to stay before the climb. So we boarded the van and were on our way. We stopped at a local eatery where we all had dinner. After a 7 hour drive through the night, we came to his house at Kersik Tuo at about 6am. We could see the mountain and a gentle stream of smoke coming out from the summit crater. The photo above was taken in the morning just before sun rise.
The plan was to start the trek in the morning at 10am. So after some tea, i took a hot shower from a bucket of hot water provided by Een and i hit the bed and was sound asleep.
15th February 2013
We woke up at around 9am and had breakfast that was made by his wife at home. It consisted of omelet, bread, soup and some local delicacy whose name i cannot remember. After a hot cup of local coffee, we got ready to leave for the climb. For lunch, there were boiled eggs, banana, snacks, juice and potatoes. Two bikes arrived at the door step and we got onto it and made our way to the starting point of the trek. The bike ride is about 10 minutes from his house and passed through rice and tea plantations.
After a 10 minute ride, the bikes detoured from the main road and we traveled on a gravel path for another 5 minutes before we got down and began the journey by foot. This was the starting point.
The trek, unlike Kinabalu, is completely in the wild. It is through a very thick jungle. There are places which are muddy and your shoes get sucked into the mud making walking very hard. Some places, you literally had to scramble over muddy verticals, holding branches and trees for leverage.
Along the way, there are some dilapidated shelters, numbered POS 1 to 3, where you can rest before continuing the climb. Maintenance of the shelters is completely absent. There is no sign of any governance on the mountain considering that is is within a national park – The Kerinci Seblat National Park.
Een mentioned that if we were lucky, we could spot some rare species of animals and birds. He was quite knowledgeable in the different species of plants and animals. He was even able to mimic some of the sounds of the birds and animals. We weren’t so lucky afterall.
At around 1pm, we stopped at a POS 2 and had our lunch. Then we continued with the journey till we reached a camping site (Shelter 2) at around 3,000m. The site was like a clearing on the side of the mountain. It was very badly maintained by locals who trash the place with plastic bottles and wrappers.
By the time we reached the camp at Shelter 3, it had started to rain and we quickly setup the tent and huddled inside. I also had a headache due to the altitude i suppose. Too tired to eat, i just had a coffee and popped an aspirin. The guide did cook a nice noodle soup but i simply refused to eat. He became worried about my health and occasionally called out to me in the night to make sure i was ok. I simply responded with a nod and an occasional grunt. We were to get up at 1am and begin the climb to the summit. I guess that he was not sure if i was able to make it the next morning. My sleep was rather disturbed by the headache and the rattling of the rain on the tent. This was the first time i had ever camped on the mountain in a tent. So, it was all new to me and i did have trouble getting to sleep in the beginning. Anyway, sometime in the night the rain had stopped and i fell asleep.
16th February 2013
At 1 am, the guide tried to wake me up, but i refused to move and was pretty snug in the sleeping bag. He asked me if i was ok and if i wanted to make the summit. I nodded in the affirmative. My headache was gone by then and i was just too comfortable in the sleeping bag. So, i asked him if we could delay the departure by another hour or two. He agreed to that. So, i was back to sleep.
At 2.30am, he woke me up again and asked if i was ready to go. I got up and reluctantly said yes. With that, he began to make some coffee and noodles. I told him to drop the noodle and just make that coffee. He tried to coax me to have something to eat before we begin the journey. But i did not feel like eating. So, i just insisted on him giving me that coffee. After the coffee, we were ready with our clothing and shoes on. And we were on or way by 3am.
Kerinci is an active stratovolcano and it was still emitting smoke during our climb. Due to its frequent eruptions, the mountain is covered with ash, loose gravel and rocks. This makes getting a grip on the mountain slopes very hard causing your feet to slide down each time you apply pressure to take the next step. Meaning, its like 2 steps forward and 1 step back.
These pictures were taken on the way down in broad daylight. You can’t see the terrain in the night during your climb. The terrain looks more like that of Mars rather than Earth. Its barren and there is absolutely no sign of vegetation. The ground’s color is a mixture of yellow and red caused by the different gases emitted by the volcano. Such a beautiful sight.
On that specific night, we were the only people on the mountain and so, there was no company, no fellow travelers. Only me and Een making our way to the top. In the darkness, you cannot see the summit with its sulfur smoke effusing from the crater.
On the way, we stopped at another camping site, slightly higher than our site. However, this site was quite exposed as compared to ours, which was shielded by the trees. We rested to grab some snacks and soon we were on our way again. Soon, the vegetation gave way to pure gravel and rocks. It was a hard climb to the top.
As we set out to the summit, we felt the earth shake slightly and a faint grumble, like that of a sofa being moved on the floor above. It lasted for a very short duration and then everything went silent. The guide didn’t think much of it and we continued our journey up the steep slope, climbing and sliding at the same time. It was a tedious effort. By this time the sun had arisen and we were not yet on the summit.
Then suddenly a thick white smoke of what looked like a cloud layer hit our face. As i drew some of the smoke into my lungs i realized it was not smoke but hot, concentrated sulphur. The smell was unbearable and immediately i started to choke. We were climbing against the wind and it was blowing the sulphur right into our face. The guide was a couple of steps ahead of me and he mentioned that we are just a few steps away from the summit. However, the smoke was too much to bear and i just turned around and sat down. Still, it did not help, with every breath, i was taking in these toxic fumes and my mind went blank. I just sat there for a couple of seconds which seemed like hours, trying to figure out what to do. Immediately, i simply started going down the slope sitting and sliding because i knew that just 1 minute or so before i could not smell the sulphur. So, by going down, i can move away from the zone where the wind was blowing the sulphur.
By this time Een realized that i was not following him and he immediately came down to me and told me to follow him. He was to circumvent the crater and move away from the direction in which the wind was blowing. I crawled for awhile till i felt that the smoke was no longer in my face. Then i got up and walked behind the guide. Within a minute or so, my guide shouted “Summit”.
I did not believe him till i saw that i could not go any further and i was facing the depths of the crater with white smoke bellowing up. The crater, 300m below could not be seen as it was spewing out white smoke. On a normal day, you could see the crater with its volcanic lava bubbling. But on that day, there was a minor eruption that caused the crater to spew out more gas than normal. That explained the tremor and grumbling noise that i had heard while climbing up the mountain.
We could not see the crater at all and i had to take photos in what looks like a complete white-out, but is actually sulphur smoke coming out of the crater. On the opposite side of the mountain, everything looked clear. The weather was great and the clouds were sparse. We could see the village down below at the base of the mountain.
After the high fives and the hugs, we sat there for 30 minutes taking photos and videos before coming down. The trek down was fast but quite risky as the loose gravel makes you slip and slide. Extra caution was need to prevent a fall. As we came down, we realized that we were walking along a pathway that was cut on the side of the mountain by lava flows from the previous eruption. The sides of the pathway were clearly cut and you could also see that the lava from the previous eruption froze in its tracks by either the cold or the rain. Layers upon layers of flow indicated that this is certainly an active mountain and the villagers and people living in the area are at the mercy of its eruptions.
On the way down, we met a few of the locals who were attempting to summit, but gave up as they thought it was a bit too dangerous. They were quite surprised to see us emerge from the summit with a big smile on our faces.
We reached our Shelter 2 at around 10am and had some snacks and coffee. Then we packed our bags and headed down to the village. The climb down was fast enough except for the occasional areas where you had to watch your step and make sure you don’t fall because of the mud. Towards the end of the trek, Een called his bikers to come and fetch us. By the time we were at the starting point at around 2pm, the bikers had arrived and we were on our way to Een’s home.
His wife had prepared a wonderful snack for us while we freshened up. The rest of the day i spent sitting in their porch enjoying the coffee and the children playing in the porch. I would have probably sat there for 3 hours without doing anything, reflecting on the experience that i had on the mountain. A thoroughly enjoyable and exhausting experience. But still, after all the physical and mental effort, i was as alive as if i had just woken up. Unable to sleep, my mind just kept drifting back to the summit, the sulphur and the barren land that i saw surrounding me. An unearthly experience.
At dinner, Een’s wife had cooked something not short of a feast with more than 7 dishes. I relished every bite of the food. As i and Een ate, he showed me some photos he had taken on Kerinci with the crater as well as some shots of the eruption on his previous trips. I requested him to send me some photos to which he kindly obliged. These photos are coutesy of Een and i an showing it here. I did not get to see the mouth of the crater due to all that smoke, but i was amazed to see it in these photos. Couldn’t imagine standing at the rim of an active volcano.
We got up at 6am in the morning to go back to Padang to check into the hotel. Since the check-in time was at 2pm and with a 7-8 hour journey, 6am seemed just about right to start the journey. It was still quite dark when we commenced our journey and as the initial dawn began to lighten the sky, we could see Kerinci, silently sitting there, spewing out smoke. The unnerving calmness shrouds the violent activity going on inside. A sense of excitement, achievement, fear and sadness encompass me as i leave the sleeping beauty to go back to civilization.
We stopped by at several places on the way to have breakfast as well as visit the Jambi Province Historical Museum, which was once the palace of the king of Jambi. We even met one of the king’s decendants who happens to live there.
After a long drive, we finally reached the hotel where i checked in. I had brought up the driver and Een to my room where we had some hot coffee. Soon we bid goodbyes and they were on their way to do their thing. I rested for the rest of the day without venturing out. Watching TV and finally having my cold beer.
The hotel organized a vehicle to pick me up and drop me off at the airport. As i was on my way, i missed Kerinci and wanted to see it one last time. But i knew being so far away, i will not be able to see it. But i was wrong.
On the flight, i could see Kerinci. Covered by clouds and the smoke, still making her presence felt. My eyes were fixated on her as we flew past her and she had disappeared from view. All the while, unable to believe that i was there, standing on the top. A deep sense of respect for the mountain overcame me as i flew back home.
Reflections on climbing Kerinci
- Kerinci is a fantastic mountain to climb. It requires a good level of stamina especially towards the summit climb. So fitness is a must.
- The temperature can be between 0 to 10 degrees on the summit. So, warm clothing is required.
- Shoes with good foothold is absolutely necessary. Mine was a trekking boot and it did the job very well.
- Being 3,800m, there is a possibility of suffering from high altitude sickness. So, due precautions need to be taken. Unlike Kinabalu, there are no proper support structures in place if in case assistance is needed. So, make sure that you are adequently prepared to abort and go down if you fall sick or unable to proceed forward.
- The sulphur smoke is really toxic and many cannot bear the thick pungent smell. Make sure you bring some high grade face masks if you still want to do the climb.
- Volcanic eruptions are sporadic and unpredictable. However, to err on the side of caution, try to get information on the volcanic activity of the mountain from the internet through reliable sources.