What safe means

Posted in Travel at 16:30 by RjZ

The night before, we had seen flyers on the wall of the hostel announcing guided trips to see a live volcano. Leave at 12:00am to reach the summit in time for sunrise, snack included–all for around $17. Sounded great! A lovely hike to rim of a volcano. I even considered wearing my sandals, but at the last minute thought, in spite of the heat, I ought to put on the boots I had brought all that way.

I was even more excited when we had driven to a cabin a few thousand feet up to the start of the hike up the 9,550 foot mountain. We didn’t know it was a 9500 foot mountain though or where our starting point was. For all we knew, we’d driven to the peak like one does on a visit to Mt. Evans. I was happy–it was the first time I’d been cool since arriving in Indonesia. My t-shirt was a strong contrast to the locals dressed like Himalayan sherpas in the dead of winter even though it was probably a balmy 75°F. We helped make peanut butter sandwiches and were handed flashlights and off we went.

About every hour or so the group would break apart as folks turned back. It was difficult hiking and I was out of shape. The flashlights were hardly bright enough against the sharp, black volcanic rock and the trail was often steep enough to require both hands even though one was occupied with the nearly useless light. Somehow I managed to stay with the lead group. Françoise and I were the only inexperienced hikers. In addition to our two Indonesian guides I remember an Austrian and a Dutchmen, both mountaineers, who’d done extensive hiking and climbing.

Dawn started to break and in the dim light we could make out the rim of the volcano. At this point it was each for his own as we raced the sun to the top. But it was incredibly steep and I was pouring sweat. By the time I arrived at the top, last, I was already feeling terrible from dehydration. Then the shivering began. It was cold at the top and I had only a soaking cotton t-shirt to protect me from the wind.

I peered, my teeth chattering uncontrollably, into the crater and could barely see lava glowing down there. All around the peak were steam vents and while the rest of our small group enjoyed the sunrise I huddled in different vents trying to warm up. It wasn’t working because while the steam would warm me, as soon as I left, the wind would rip all the heat away through evaporative cooling of my wet clothes. Finally the Austrian came to my rescue with the simple offering of an extra dry t-shirt. I changed into it and within minutes my teeth finally stopped the chattering they started one half hour ago when I arrived at the top. That was a valuable lesson I haven’t forgotten-extra dry clothes can save you from hypothermia!

We started our hike down and as soon as we were off the scree slope that was our last push for the peak an hour ago, our guides started dragging us faster and faster. It was a blur returning to the start, but I remember two things. One is one guide taking Françoise by the hand and literally dragging her as fast as he could go down the trail. Her feet really seemed to touch the ground only occasionally. Second were women, looking about 40 years old, probably only 20 but weathered by hard work, walking around the mountain with large bundles of sticks on their heads gathered as firewood. The guides had already amazed me with their torn sneakers or just flip-flops. These women were completely barefoot. Meanwhile my new hiking boots were nearly shredded by the sharp rock.

We made it back, completely exhausted. Only about 8 of the forty people who’d signed up for the trip that day had even made it to the top of the mountain. When I had read that flyer the night before I had imagined a beautiful amble through the tropical cloud forest to look over the railing at the glowing lava deep in the crater. I imagined a trip to the Grand Canyon with grand parents. No one mentioned the strenuous hike in the dark or suggested sturdy shoes, extra water and a wind-breaker! Still, we were excited to have survived another adventure.

Five days later, 25 November, 1994, we were exploring a temple on the island of Bali about 1000 miles away when I saw the headline of a newspaper being read by a bored temple guide. “34 blahblah Gunung Merapi” “100s blah blahblah blah” Gunung is the Indonesian word for mountain. I asked the guide what the headlines said. “34 killed in Mt. Merapi Eruption. Hundreds wounded and thousands homeless.” We were stunned. Isn’t that the mountain that we had just climbed five days ago? We’re we just staring into the tiny lava stream down in the crater? Hadn’t I just tried desperately to warm up in the steam vents? Doesn’t that mean that there were probably people climbing it today as well? The eruption was at 10:15 in the morning so they probably didn’t number among the dead, but that might explain why the guides had high-tailed it off the mountain.

Indonesia was one of my first exotic trips. I was living in Germany at the time and had traveled throughout Europe but this was the first time to some place most would call the third world. This was a wake-up call to the different rules there. I had already been surprised by the un-warned ruggedness of the trip but now, the term “Active Volcano” took on a whole new, more accurate, meaning. In the states, if you can visit something at all, it’s pretty safe. When you get there there will be signs warning you of the dangers of splinters and vertigo and a huge barrier protecting you from falling into whatever it is and blocking your view at the same time. Meanwhile, here in Indonesia we’d paid a few dollars to have some young people hand us broken flashlights and show us the way, in the dark up 5000 feet of hiking to look into what we now understood was a dangerous, explosive bomb waiting to explode.

This experience wasn’t the last time I’d be amazed and amused by what the rest of the world thinks is safe. I don’t know whether it’s because they don’t care, their legal systems are less litigious or people are more responsible (which I doubt for even if they were, irresponsible people travel to those places too). I rather enjoy both versions too. I like the feeling in America that if I’m allowed to do it, it’s most likely safe and that roller coaster ride or overlook probably won’t collapse while I am enjoying it. I also enjoy actually getting to look over the edge of a waterfall or into a volcano even if I am risking a Darwin award for my actions. Either way, I can’t help noticing that other Americans expect this level of safety (I know I did). They seem to stop thinking about what is safe or wise to do and figure someone else is thinking about it for them. If I were forced to choose between these philosophies I’d have to go with the one that creates more Darwin awards and better views because it actually encourages people to think for themselves. I may pay for that someday though.


  1. tim rohrer said,

    October 28, 2005 at 9:36

    Welcome to mountain climbing the way it used to be; when men were men and the marmots ran scared. No seriously, climbing in the third world is a really different experience; though you can find a few remote enough peaks here in Colorado where you have to take a similar level of responsibility. But most of our mountains are overrun with people, trails, signposts and the like. But volcanoes don’t just up and explode very often–that part of your trip was statistically very safe–even if it did happen to explode 5 days later. I personally doubt the Indonesians were in a hurry to get off the volcano because they believed it was going to explode–most Indonesians I met seemed to have a superstitious dislike of lingering on mountain-tops, believing that they were the province of the gods and not for people.

    Probably the point that resonates most with me is the not be willing to put on your boots and then getting chilled and dehydrated. Having climbed several volcanoes in Central America (though we skipped out on those volcano climbs in Indonesia), I know all too well that when you are in a tropical clime it is just damn near impossible to think far enough ahead to imagine how cold and far the trek will be.

    It is an easy mistake to make…but wasn’t it really yours for hiking it without proper gear and planning? I’m not sure that this is ever really a mostly *social* responsibility–isn’t mountain climbing an activity with inherent risks? Sure, here in the States you might get rescued because we have more infrastructure; while in Indonesia you might get a Darwin award, but the guides who brought you up and down do it every other day or so and it is routine for those individuals. (Not to mention they probably would have carried you down if you had gotten hypothermia.)

    But I don’t think you should hang this one on our litigious nature–I just think we can afford the community infrastructure and choose to do so. 120 years ago it was very different here; if you read the early history of Colorado recreational climbing, it was really in the 1920s that the community invested in the infrastructure (first mountain rescue group training, trail-building at Chataqua and Rocky Mountain National Park and so on). Then, in the 30s the CCC did an amazing amount of infrastructure work all throughout the national forests that pretty much defines what we enjoy today.


  2. Traveling Hypothesis » You already know how this will end said,

    March 25, 2006 at 13:29

    [...] When you read about me getting ripped off in Morocco, seeing the blown out remnants of the cafe in which I’d had dinner two nights running in Cairo, or hear about the volcano that blew it’s top five days after I visited it? You can relax. Nothing happened. My story really won’t get any more exciting than that. [...]

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