I’m standing on top of Ijen Volcano in Indonesia hoping that this surreal, pandora-like landscape will not only make me look cool on Instagram but also give me some sort of clarity.
So I’m staring at the sun come up thinking, I would now like an answer to the question that is often in the forefront of my mind please. The question is a simple one – what future do I want to create for myself?
But when you’ve lost touch of yourself in a sea of open tabs and lucrative detours then the answer is not that simple.
As the clouds clear to reveal the turquoise lake below, any sort of insight is smothered by the need to capture this moment and… well… look cool on Instagram.
But there’s another reason why I’m not getting the inspiration I came for. It’s because this place was too easy to get to (well not that easy, a 3 hour night hike through the jungle) and if there’s anything I know well it’s that struggle creates meaning.
For example, when flying many people prefer the aisle seat even though the view from an airplane window can be incredibly beautiful at times. But let’s say they hiked five days for that view. Then it all of a sudden becomes the most wonderful thing they’ve ever seen.
So I know what I need – a real adventure.
I’ve been editing Reality TV the last four months, I’m so freaking hungry for it. And it’s all good because I’m about to get it in the form of a four day trek to the summit of Mt. Rinjani, Lombok.
What you’re looking at is Lake Segara Anak (child of the sea), a 4.4 square mile lake inside the crater of a 12,200 ft (3700 m) Volcano. And yes, that’s another Volcano in the middle of the lake. Really? Yes, really.
Just a quick break down of the mission:
7:00 am hike 7 hours to the top of the crater / 8 miles (13 km) / 5000 ft (1525 m) elevation gain
2:00 am hike 4 hours to the summit for sunrise / 4 miles (6.5 km) / 3600 ft (1,100 m) elevation gain
8:00 am hike 5 hours to the bottom of the lake / 7 miles (11 km) / 5600 ft (1700 m) elevation drop
9:00 am hike 3 hours to a different spot on top of the crater / 3 miles (4.8 km) / 2000 ft (610 m) elevation gain
1:00 pm hike 2 hours towards the base of the mountain / 2.5 miles (4 km) / 1000 ft (305 m) elevation drop
9:00 am hike 2 hours to the base of the mountain / 2.5 miles (4 km) / 1000 ft (305 m) elevation drop
I can’t wait!
I thought Mt. Bromo in Java would be a nice warm up but I’m quickly learning that it’s a bit of a tourist trap.
The problem isn’t so much that people are asking me to take their photos (thanks selfie sticks), it’s that they want me in the photos. I’m a nice guy of course so I agree but I’m plotting out an escape plan.
I see a narrow path alongside the edge of the crater and without any hesitation, I head in that direction. There’s no one there except a German couple who tell me to be very careful if I attempt to walk all the way around the crater.
An hour later I understand what they’re talking about.
The path is uncomfortably narrow and one side is a 60 degree slope ending in what I thought was lava but it’s just boring old sulfur. Either way I wanted an adventure and I’m definitely getting one.
But the experience isn’t really the moment of clarity I was hoping for. Too much focus on keeping myself in the manageable risk zone and not going too far. I mean what’s up with the ground here?? It pretty much falls apart when you step on it. I have no idea what I’m doing in Volcano land. I need a guide.
It’s 5:30 am when Hamdi, the Reza Trekkers Rinjani guide knocks on my door yelling, “Are you ready for this?” Still half asleep and not really sure what’s happening I instinctively respond, “Hell ya I’m ready!” Then I realize I’m not ready at all and I’m late.
Three hours of intense hiking in and out of clouds later, I’m noticing that the porters are zooming past me. Which is pretty impressive considering that they’re barefoot and carrying 85 pounds (39 kg) of supplies.
For real, I’m a bit baffled by this especially because some parts of the trail are borderline rock climbing. Hamdi tells me that he used to be a porter and on the first day of the job he cried. I think he was joking but maybe not.
He says they wear flip flops and sometimes hike barefoot because shoes are too heavy. Hmm… interesting. After my third fall of the day on the crumbling volcanic rock, I asked Hamdi if they ever slip. He gets all serious and looks at me straight in the eyes saying, “No, porters never fall.”
On hour five I'm covered in sweat, my legs are shaking and I start to wonder, “Why am I doing this?!” Then I turn the corner for a new incredible view.
Oh ya, that’s why.
I don’t want to make it seem like this is some superhuman trek. Actually anyone fit can do this. But I will say that some parts are pretty grueling or what one local called Indonesian torture.
We finally make it to the crater rim where Alto, our porter, hands me a plate of fried bananas covered in chocolate and cheese.
As I take a bite out of this unexpectedly delicious Indonesian delicacy, I feel connected to my six year old self who insisted on putting chocolate spread on top of every meal.
The clouds clear just in time to reveal a sunset so magical that I forget all about the mental struggle I had to endure to get there.
I pass out for a couple hours before my alarm goes off at 1:30 am for one of those, where the hell am I, wake up moments. I unzip the tent to see countless stars not only above my head but also straight in front of me. I remember that I’m 8000 ft high on the edge of a Volcano crater in Indonesia.
I strap on my trusty Forsake kicks and follow Hamdi into the darkness.
Three hours of zombie-like hiking later we reach the final mile which is an extremely steep, sand-like dirt ridge, 12,000 ft above normal, breathable air.
There’s that thought again – “Why!?”
But as painful as this is, I feel like some force has me hooked and is slowly reeling me up towards the peak.
Every couple of steps I look up at the Milky Way which is as visible as one of those long exposure photographs. I do a 360 while staring up at the sky, desperately trying to take it all in. I do this often while traveling – frantically scan the landscape as if I’m trying to catch a last glimpse before it disappears.
Then I realize that everything around me isn’t going anywhere and it’s me who will be disappearing. Hopefully after a long life but just in case it doesn’t work out that way, I’ll go happy because of experiences like this.
I’m actually thankful for this unsettling notion that there’s an end creeping up in the horizon. After all it’s this awareness that’s pulling me up the mountain.
It fuels this wild, one way ticket lifestyle of world and potential exploration. It reminds me to choose experiences over possessions, failure over regret and uncertainty over comfort.
In the exact moment the sun shows it’s first spec of light, we reach the summit. The Pyramid shaped shadow of Rinjani in the horizon stands next to Mt. Batur in Bali and the Gili Islands.
The sunrise is over way too fast just like my 20s and it’s already time to begin the long journey down to the crater lake. I take the first step without having to ask myself, “Why?!”
Did someone slip a molly in my cheese banana? Because I’m feeling way too giddy right now considering it’s a five hour journey, 5600 ft down. And wait, is that a monkey??
We descend further and further into an enchanted fairyland that I thought only existed in Disney movies.
On the other side of that grass hill, I'm surprised to see a waterfall with hot spring pools on the bottom. Hamdi, that sneaky man, didn’t even tell me where he was taking me. I take a full shower with shampoo and soap under the waterfall. Whatever, I like to be clean, don’t judge!
We walk to a secluded spot on the lake where Alto has already set up the tents and is now fishing for our dinner.
The clouds are covering the Volcano but Hamdi tells me that it’s about 500 ft (150 m) away. He says that a year ago he was at this spot when it erupted.
He couldn’t hike out because there was too much ash so overnight he got the lava show of a lifetime. I told him I wish I could have seen that and he said, “No you don’t. I cried.” Joking again? I’m really not sure.
As the sun sets we have Ikan Goreng (deep fried crispy fish) for dinner which tastes even better than the fancy Bali food I had a week earlier.
At 7 am I unzip my tent to see that the clouds have cleared and the Volcano is right in front of my face. Hamdi hands me a cup of Lombok coffee, I put on some Bon Iver and sink into some sort of trance-like euphoria.
My mind clears. As if a massive delete button was hit on all the unworthy thoughts that dominate my thinking. In this emptiness, something is brewing. Slowly expanding into what I came here for – answers!
For the past couple years I’ve been on a mission to catch up to this 2.0 version of myself that creates the incredible work I know I’m capable of. I know because I’ve caught him before and he elevated me to new heights in record time. Giving me a taste of success and then disappearing.
But in this moment, I can feel him here. I get hit with a flood of ideas for creative pursuits and an unshakable belief in my ability to see them through. I pull out my journal and try to write them all down.
This leads to an important realization. In order to align with this higher self, I have to stop chasing and instead create an environment where he’d want to live.
I think of it as having a good signal. Four bars means that my mind is fully open to possibilities, I work in a peak state with maximum enjoyment. One bar means I’m going to need a lot of coffee just to produce something that I don’t really care about and I doubt anyone else will.
For example, I know that adventures which push me physically and mentally give a certain energy that running on a treadmill in LA fitness just doesn’t create.
As I write down other conditions that could trigger a good signal, I feel an urge to shut my brain down and go for a morning swim in the lake.
After all, I’m not chasing anything right now. I feel content. I’ve arrived somewhere.
After spending some quality time with Lake Segara Anak, we hike up to the top of the crater and then down into the jungle.
I follow Alto on a detour to find a water pipe so we can refill our bottles. We finally find a thin pipe that runs for miles from a river up top to a small village below where it provides clean water for one hundred houses.
He detaches the tube to fill up the bottles and before attaching it back, I take another shower. I make a bold decision to not use shampoo today. Crazy I know but what can I say, I’m living on the edge.
Surrounded by curious monkeys, we set up the tents then have ramen for dinner. I go inside to relax but accidentally doze off and sleep like a baby until the morning.
We wake up early and complete the trek with an easy two hour hike down to the base of the mountain. I say goodbye to Alto and Hamdi who are still making fun of my ridiculous shower needs.
Feeling accomplished, I make my way to the south of Lombok where I can do nothing on the beach for a couple days.
If any part of you is intrigued by doing a trek like this then you should absolutely book a ticket right now. Just be careful because if you’re anything like me, your automatic excuse generator might kick in saying things like – I’m not fit enough, too old, can’t sleep in tents, scared of heights, not now maybe next year… etc. etc.
If this happens, try telling this voice, “Sorry buddy. I’m gonna go ahead and do this one anyways.” It’ll make one more desperate attempt to stop you, “Wait! What about altitude sickness??” Just hit him with a calm, cool, “Nope. Sorry.”
Why? Because sometimes it feels like you become as tall as the mountains you choose to climb.
P.S. Whenever life's craziness causes anxiety, I just think of the Rinjani porters and I feel okay again. I used to think of my greatest accomplishments but this works much better.