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Climbing the Killer Prince -- Merapi Volcano of Java, Part 1

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This is the first installment in a three-part series of dispatches from Mount Merapi in Indonesia. Read Part 2 here.

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Cracking open on October 26, 2010, Indonesia's Mount Merapi began a series of eruptions that to date have claimed over 320 lives, and displaced over 100,000.

Before this latest deadly outburst I set out with my friend, Dr. George Fuller, to climb the 2511-meter-high "Fire Mountain." Climbing volcanoes is never a matter of conquest. The success of a climb, the maintenance of health and of one's very existence, is at the mountain's caprice. There is no way to humble nature's dissilient brat. You may visit its domain at your own invitation, but you leave only if it so wills.

To get to the skirt of Merapi we took the first-class Parahiyangan train to the cool highlands city of Bandung, the capital of West Java, and headquarters for the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia. At the station we could see a tangle of volcanic peaks to the north and south, a reminder that wherever one scans a horizon in Java one is likely to see a volcano.

We then boarded the "People's Train," the all-third-class Cepat, for the ten-hour trundle to the city of Yogyakarta, the site of the first great empire in mid-Java, an empire that may have been obliterated by Merapi. Along the way we witnessed from the open window all the fecundity that has made Java at once so agriculturally rich and so overcrowded. While volcanic ejecta in many parts of the world is acidic, in Java it is chemically basic, rich in soluble plant nutrients, such a calcium, magnesium, nitrogen and phosphorus. For millennia this rich ash deposit has blanketed the island and turned it into a rioting garden. At the turn of the 19th century Java was known as "the granary of the East." Paradoxically the numbers of people packing the island in recent times have led to food shortages, and now the island is one of the largest importers of rice in the world.

It wasn't really apparent as the old train clacked along that Java was a ten-man life raft carrying a load of hundred. Most of what we saw was bucolic, delectably scenic, and was added evidence to the cases made for calling the place paradise. In fact, I could forgive the lurid descriptions and sensational superlatives used to portray the island in literature and brochures. Indeed, I could second them. It was the monsoon, and the landscape seemed drunk with color, in a fertile, festive mood, as though adorned for a gala. We passed lines of tall tamarind and waringen trees, areca palms fluttering softly as ostrich plumes, and blazing Madagascar flame trees in splendid blossom. Apricot-colored boys astride smooth gray water buffaloes wallowed in the ooze of the sawah (wet rice) paddies; the slim, bent figures of working women in conical hats made them look like ambulating toadstools. Veronese greens shot through with diffused sunlight hung over topaz-colored streams. The truncated pyramids of power-blue volcanoes scratched the sky, looking like fine engravings.

Arriving in the sultanate of Yogyakarta we caught a glimpse of the cloud-diademed peak of Merapi, just 25 kilometers away. Perhaps a quarter of a million have died in volcanic eruptions and the aftermaths in Java in the last two centuries. Devastation, death, ruined crops and subsequent famine are common on the island, which has more volcanoes than any other. Merapi holds the grim record for fatal eruptions.

Every year Merapi stirs in some fashion. Sometimes it spews fiery clouds of gases into the air and overflows with streams of bubbling molten rock, driving wild pigs into the lower jungles, turning rivers miles away into cocoa-colored torrents and devastating lush tropical terrain. Other years, Merapi only shudders and settles down. Currently, the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia estimates, Merapi threatens two million people.

In 1006, Merapi delivered a paroxysm that decimated the Hindu Kingdom of Mataram and buried the grand Buddhist temple of Borobudur, an edifice carved from the lava of previous Merapi eruptions. One of the world's greatest ancient monuments, Borobudur was the largest in Southeast Asia at the time. It was built sometime between 778 and 842 A.D., during the Sailendra Dynasty -- 300 years before Cambodia's Angkor Wat, and 400 years before work had begun on the great European cathedrals.

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A major eruption in 1672 caused an estimated 3000 deaths. A convulsion in 1930 killed more than 1,000. In my lifetime, a 1954 explosion killed several hundred villagers, and in late 1973 another blast sent streams of hot water, mud and ash through villages and killed a score more. In 1979 Merapi let loose a load of magma in a spectacular show of pyroclastic fireworks and killed 149 people in the mountain village of Dieng, 2000 meters up the volcano's side. And in 1984 another eruption killed 200 people with a nuee ardente (glowing cloud), a 300-kilometer-an-hour cloud of incandescent fragments and gas that roared down the mountain. Just days later there were ominous stirrings from the Balinese volcano Gunung Agung. To appease the gods, Indonesia's president Soeharto and his ministers took part in a ceremony at Bali in which 80 animals were sacrificed. Agung did not erupt.

But Merapi didn't hear, or listen to, the entreaties. A 1994 eruption claimed another 60 people. And a blast in 2006 killed two more.

On Java, where volcanology is an ancient art, there is a lore that helps deal with the brooding power of volcanoes, and there are as many rituals as eruptions. Near the "Prince of Volcanoes," some, upon feeling the first tremors of a quickening, run and shout "We are alive!" We are alive!" in a state of great agitation. This because, according to local legend, the island of Java emerged from the ocean on the back of a turtle, which is eager to return to the water, but may not do so while it continues to be inhabited by men. From time to time the terrapin tries to find out whether his time has come by shaking himself and causing an eruption; it is then most urgent to convince him that the islanders are still very much alive; otherwise he'll take the plunge and drown them all. Other villagers believe that with the first fiery exhalations they must go toward the volcano rather than away. And they never point at a fire cloud, lest it come toward them. Many pray and offer sacrifices.

The villagers of Kaliurang, at the base of Merapi, believe that by watching how the corn grows, or the snakes slither, or the birds fly, they can predict the volcano's temperament. Such beliefs are troublesome to volcanologists, whose scientific findings they challenge. On the other hand, nobody can prove the mystical beliefs and ceremonies don't work. "I even believe some myself," said a volcanologist at the Plawangan seismological station. "I talk to the mountain and I think it hears me."

The dispatches of death and ruin notwithstanding, people continue to live on Merapi's slopes because the soil is so rich and the climate so cool. When the mountain's utterances crack foundations of houses and topple trees, the villagers simply rebuild and replant.

Most of the mountains of Java are what volcanologist call "composite volcanoes": cone-shaped peaks of explosive material, as distinct from the broader, less geometrically shaped "effusive volcanoes," such as those in Hawaii, that emit mainly lava, relatively slowly. Merapi is the most closely watched volcano in the Ring of Fire. In recent years volcanologists wearing asbestos suits would routinely lower into the crater to take temperatures of water and gases. The rest of the time they sat in tiny shacks equipped with seismographs and hotlines to headquarters in Yogyakarta, while villagers would make rice offerings and toss tonics of herbs and spices into the crater to ease the spirit's stomach.

Since remembrance, an annual feast has been held around the crater, with shadow puppetry, trance dancing and drum beating. For extra measure, the hereditary sultan to the old city of Yogyakarta -- God incarnate to his subjects -- would offer snippets of his fingernails and hair along with a ceremonial silk robe for his faithful to deposit each year on his birthday at a sacred stone near the mountain's summit.

The time of year of our arrival, January, when the rains are heavy and frequent, volcanologists cannot see Merapi's peak through the gray skeins of mist that envelope its upper reaches. "You can only feel him," said one Indonesian scientist. "I have to trust my instruments and my instincts. You have to know the mountain. It is a living thing."

One man who breathes the same air as Merapi but who doesn't feel he will ever really know the mountain is Daddy Gondosuwandanash, the outfitter we retained to help organize our little off-season expedition to Merapi's summit. Fearing for our safety, Daddy recruited four Indonesians to accompany us: Taufik, an avid outdoorsman; Gareng, a mountaineer from Jakarta; Susilo, a respected local climber; and Sandra, a 23-year-old music major at the Yogja Art Institute who boasted he had been up Merapi "countless times." Of our Indonesian partners only Taufik spoke fluent English, and George and I were sorry students of Bahasa.

Our plan was to hike up Merapi from Selo, a village on the northern flanks, and then traverse the summit caldera, and descend to the southern-side village of Kinahrejo, where Daddy would shuttle around and meet us with his van. With a midnight start, we hoped to arrive at the summit for a dawn view, and then head down for an early-afternoon arrival in Kinahrejo. If all went as planned, after a long day we would be back at the hotel in Yogyakarta for cocktails and a scheduled hotel-lobby gamelan performance.

We bumped to the end of the road in Selo around nine at night, and as there were no commercial lodgings, we arranged to catch a few hours' sleep on the floor of the home of Kepala Desa, the head of the village. Around 11 pm the Indonesians started to stir, but it was pouring rain, and I was tired and shivering with the cold, so I made the excuse we couldn't leave in such conditions as it would ruin my camera. That stole another hour's sleep, until the rain let up some, at midnight. The Indonesians insisted we get going, or we would miss the crowning dawn. I put new batteries in my camera, checked my flashlight, pulled on my poncho, and stepped outside into a chilling drizzle. Before we headed up the trail, Daddy called together the six hikers for a moment of silent prayer, a special supplication to the gods of Merapi, and then handed a walkie-talkie to Taufik, and told me to be sure we called the van every hour on the hour. He handed a first-aid kit to Gareng, and a map and some extra supplies to Susilo.

The trail was wet and slippery, switchbacking upward through a tangle of ferns, lianas, epiphytes and cassias. It seemed for every ten steps I'd slide back two. Sandra had quickly taken the lead, hiking with an elastic gait and the free carriage of the head that seems peculiar to people who spend much of their time in the mountains. I struggled to stay close behind Sandra's steps, and George trailed me by a few meters. Behind George -- nobody. When we had been on the trail just 30 minutes we looked back to see no flashlights, and we heard no noise from the other three Indonesians. We stopped and called down the hill; no answer. Sandra indicated that we should stay put, and he bounded back down the trail in search of our missing party. George and I waited long minutes in the mizzly darkness, and finally Sandra reappeared, alone, slogging back up the trail. He gestured that Taufik had fallen sick and the others had taken him back to Selo.

That left three: one Indonesian, who spoke little English, and two orang blandas, white foreigners, who spoke less Indonesian. We now had no radio, no cell service, no first aid, no map, and only a snack's worth of food. We decided to go for it.

After a couple hours we lost the thin, overgrown serpentine trail, and Sandra had us traversing the slope at a low angle that seemed to be taking us into a quagmire of rainforest. Looking up I could see the silhouette of a ridge just a couple hundred meters directly above us. "Sandra, let's go straight up," I pointed, but he didn't respond. George and I dutifully followed Sandra for another 20 minutes, but when we bogged down in the foliage I again beseeched a more direct route. Sandra shrugged, so I set out on a beeline for the ridge top, with George right behind. It wasn't easy; I had to bushwhack, using my arms as machetes. But the progress was real, and after a quarter hour I pulled myself onto the ridge -- and was hit by a convoy of winds that tried to knock me back down. I walked, above the tree line, balancing on a narrow ridge that dropped into unknown depths on two sides. George joined me a few minutes later, and not far behind was Sandra, who again took the lead. It was 3:30 am, and we negotiated the ridge with our bodies bent low to the ground to avoid being blown off. The wind was gothic, brutal, and got worse as we got higher. Finally, Sandra called time out and had us seek shelter a few meters down off the ridge behind a protective boulder, where we would wait until daybreak.

Using their ponchos as one-man tents George and Sandra managed to catch some sleep behind the boulder. I could hear their snores. But I was too cold for sleep. I spent 45 minutes doing jumping jacks, waiting for the first blush of daylight.

It came, around 4:30, but it wasn't the day we'd hoped for. There was no effulgent light and overpowering radiance of color. Instead, first light produced a thick, cold fog that wrapped like a wet sarong. Visibility was about one meter. For all I could tell I was I swimming in a colossal cup of chilled cream soup, the most distinct sight being the blurred fingers of my extended hand.

I rousted Sandra and George and insisted we get moving. Sandra packed away his flashlight and again took the lead as we continued to wind up the meager ridge, and then onto the upper cone for the final pitch.

The scree slope was steep, a 35 percent grade, and the lava rocks loose and sharp, so we had to crawl on the final assault. We forged a chevron route, twisting between hissing vents of steam, sulfur pots, and car-sized rocks poised to roll. The higher we got, the deeper into Hell we seemed to descend.

Then, after a diagonal detour around an overhanging cliff, I stepped onto a basaltic bench and reached up to nothingness. There was no place higher to go. We were astride the caldera rim, 2911 meters above the sea, 200 meters above a Dantean crater we couldn't see. We were on the ridge of the world's most dangerous volcano, and, even though enshrouded by a mother-of-pearl haze, it was a heady moment. It felt like one of those juvenile flashes when, on a dare, we'd run across a long, high railroad bridge with the distant rumblings of an approaching train at our backs. To mix some overheated metaphors, we were standing on a barrel of gunpowder, playing with fire, and marching up the cannon's mouth. We were defying Merapi, and gambling on being allowed to get away with it, even though Merapi held all the cards.

It was about 7:30, and we took a few minutes to pose for our version of classic Himalayan summit shots, arms raised in victory, 8,000 meter-peaks shimmering in the background. Except our version replaced the peaks with London pea soup and the ice axes with a flashlights.

The wind was still whipping, however, and sulfur fumes were stinging nostrils, so it was time to continue our trek. The intended route was to cross the lip of the caldera north to south, through fields of fumaroles, to a point where we could descent to Kinahrejo. But as we tried to navigate through the smoke and steam we found ourselves engulfed by a miasmic gas and had to retreat, retching. Sandra tried several times to pierce this veil, but each time he fell back because of the noxious fumes. Frustrated, he led us back down the brow of the mountain about 200 meters, and we tried a traverse that dead-ended at a sheer ravine created by a recent eruption. Sandra had us scramble back to the top for another try though the fumarole passage, but again, when we got into the thick of it, we were practically overcome. With throats seizing, eyes blinded, we stumbled back from the brink of asphyxiation. Before the climb we were told of a couple of young Frenchmen who tried this caldera crossing without a guide. They apparently passed out from the toxic gases, fell into the crater oven, where the temperature is often more than 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, and were instantly cremated.

Not thrilled with the prospect of such an end, George and I pulled Sandra back from yet another try at the poison path. Sandra was becoming anxious, and next he led us down into the actual caldera as a route to the opposite side, but it, as well, proved unfeasible when it simply became too steep. For an hour Sandra led us on a wild goose chase, up and down and all over the precipitous, muttering rim of Merapi.

Finally, George lost his temper and yelled to Sandra that we had to give up and head back to Selo, even if Daddy would be waiting on the other side of the mountain. George's outburst only fueled Sandra's determination to find the passage, and he took off again into the sulfur haze. But after a few brittle steps he broke through a layer of burnt-yellow crust and fell into a solfatara, a cauldron of bubbling mud. With a scream that could be understood in any language Sandra jumped back, waving his arms in some danse macabre, and fell into my arms. He had second-degree burns on both his hands and above his shoe on his right foot.

I pulled out my spare pair of socks from my pocket, and wrapped his hands. Even though George was a medical doctor, we were helpless to do more without any first-aid supplies. We were woefully short of all supplies, but in fact the style of our little climbing adventure was inadvertently in keeping with Reinhold Messner's "fair means," the 1980s style of scaling peaks with no support -- carrying just what can be packed on one's back.

Our effort contrasted dramatically with such earlier ascents as an 1836 collecting expedition by the Dutch naturalist Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn, who had on his equipment list a paper supply to dry collected plants, cases of writing and drafting materials, containers to store the plants, glass sheets to press them, hammers, a gun, tents, a barometer, thermometer, measuring tape, ten sacks of rice and other food supplies, fifteen flasks of local arak, and a supply of opium ample for the 30 porters. The lead guide, an old hermit with a long, gray beard, refused to move unless fed the remedial opium.

Continue reading in Part 2.