Life and death on Mt. Rinjani – in memory of Max (Ng Yin Teck)

On my trip to Mount Rinjani in Lombok, which at 3,726 meters is the second highest mountain in Indonesia, I experienced how thin the line is between life and death.

On Mt. Rinjani
On Mt. Rinjani

It’s been a year ago now that I was on top of Mt. Rinjani. It feels like it was today in the morning…my heart rate is up, it has been a long walk from there for the past year. Just a few of you know what happened on Mt. Rinjani. Today I want to share my experience so that hopefully nobody else ever needs to go through it again.

On 7th November 2016 I started a 3-day hiking trip to the top of Mt. Rinjani. Some of my friends had suggested to do the tour as they had been there about 2 years earlier. They told me that it was one of the best experiences of their lives. The spectacular thing about Mt. Rinjani is that at approximately 2,000 meters above sea level it contains the crater lake Segara Anak and also some hot springs. Within the crater is another little volcano named Gunung Baru Jari which last erupted on 29th September 2016. Every year the routes are officially closed from December to March because the routes are even more dangerous when wet. Also, due to the last eruption, the Rinjani National Park and the routes to climb had been officially closed indefinitely but tourists are not informed about it by the trekking tour companies.

The 3-day-tour up on Mt. Rinjani is usually organized into different parts:

1st day: hiking and climbing from the starting point in Sembarun (600 m) up to the base camp on the rim (2,600 m) starting at 8 am and getting to the base camp at 4 pm including rest stops.

2nd day: Getting up at 2 am and start walking with just a head lamp to get to the peak for sunrise at 6 am, then go back to base camp, walk down to the lake before going up to the rim again. Around 11 hours of non-stop walking that day!

3rd day: Watching the sunrise at the rim before starting a 7-hour hike down to Senaru.

It sounds exhausting and that is an understatement. A girl I spoke to who had already done it, told me that when she reached the top she cried from both exhaustion and happiness. I decided to except the challenge and to find out about my own limits. Little did I know that I would end up experiencing my limits in another way…

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1st day

I met for the first time with my trekking partner in Senaru. A smiling, happy and laughing 24-year-old, called Max from Malaysia. He was very excited. He had come just for the 3-day-trekking tour to Lombok. Before we left we had to fill out a paper with our names and passport numbers in case of an emergency. So, at that point, I found out that his real name wasn’t Max but Ng Yin Teck. I asked about his name and he explained to me that it has several meanings and one of them was “protection”. We then met our porter Bayan who would be carrying most of the weight up to the mountain including our tents, sleeping bags, food, cooking gear etc. (total weight guessed by Max and I of about 40 kg). On the back of a pick-up truck we got driven from Senaru to our starting point in Sembarun. On the way, our guide Anan joined us. Max spotted the peak of Mt. Rinjani far away in the blue sky and we looked at each other holding back a smile knowing what sacrifice and muscle pain was in front of us. Our group consisted of just Max and I as paying customers plus Anan and Bayan but along the way we passed a pick-up truck with a group of seven people which we would get to know later on. Then at our starting point, we also met another group of three people: a girl Nao and two German guys Christian and Mathias.

Max and I pointing to the peak of Mt. Rinjani, 1st day
Max and I pointing to the peak of Mt. Rinjani, 1st day

During those three days of trekking I must have said 20 times or more to Bayan and Anan “Thank you so much for everything!”. Without them it would have been so much harder to climb that mountain if it would have been possible at all…During the coming three days I talked a lot to Anan and I learned a few words to say to Bayan as well, but the communication due to language barriers was way harder. I learned about their life as guides and porters. My feelings towards their work are very mixed. I feel very sorry for them that they have to carry this much weight up and down the mountain two times per week but understand that the current alternative is even worse. Anan has climbed up and down Mt. Rinjani more than 300 times until today.

But this was not the only thing what impressed me about those two… they climb that mountain in flip-flops! At first, they explained it was because they are used to it and it is easier, but after a while I found out, it was really because they can’t afford shoes… To climb the peak of Mt. Rinjani you are confronted with lava stones which hurt and are very hard to climb. For that day, Anan carries special shoes he shares with another guide.

On our second stop we met the 7 people group I already saw on the pick-up truck: Noemi, Albert, Juliana, Hannah, Philip, Nicolas and Florian. Their guide was named Lyon. It was interesting how different the group dynamic was and that although each group started off hiking on its own we usually ended up crossing paths again for a little chat or laughter.

During our lunch break Max and I were watching the monkeys, enjoying the scenery, talking about our lives and making a bit fun of a Chinese group next to us. We joked that they were “glamour trekking” as they got a 3-course menu, chairs to sit on (not just a blanket) and two guides for the 4 of them plus 4 porters. Usually there is one porter for two people carrying the things. During that lunch break one of the Chinese guys asked where the toilet was and the guide showed him the bushes around us. The Chinese looked pretty shocked as they didn’t expect that answer…Since that moment whenever Max, Anan or I had to go to the toilet, we said that we are off to our “5-star-toilet”! ^^ We had lots of fun and laughed so much together.

At one stop Max pulled out his spray bottle again and sprayed his legs. He looked funny with his shiny legs. Since then his nickname was “Shiny armor”. Earlier I always thought it would be sunscreen but when he offered it to me, I got to know that it was pain killer spray. I didn’t want to use it. Max told me that it was his first time in his life ever trekking up a mountain! As I already knew from my friends that this is a pretty tough walk, I asked him why in the world he would pick such a difficult route for his first attempt?! He told me: “All my friends are asking me why I am trekking at all. They prefer to go to a shopping center…but I want to live my life, I want to challenge myself and do something special. I chose Mt. Rinjani because it is a very special mountain with the second volcano within the first volcano, with the beautiful view on the lake and going fishing. I want to be able to tell myself, I did it, I can do this! I don’t want to regret one day that I didn’t do that. I want to be able to tell my children and grandchildren what I have done in my life.” I literally wrote his words down while he said it to me as I had already planned to write a post about Mt. Rinjani that day, one year ago.

The beautiful scenery from the base camp above the clouds with the lake peeking out and the sun going down slowly, 1st day
The beautiful scenery from the base camp above the clouds with the lake peeking out and the sun going down slowly, 1st day

We enjoyed the view from the rim above the clouds and looking on the lake with a stunning sunset. Watching this scenery, we ate our dinner and went to bed early as we knew we had to get up at 2 am and start walking again. In the tent, I used wet tissues to remove as much dust, sunscreen and sweat as possible. I took off my socks and started cleaning one foot and the comparison of the clean and dirty foot was impressive! I asked Max if he had already cleaned his feet and he told me: “No, I prefer not to look at them and not to take off my socks until tomorrow at the hot springs where I can put on new clean socks.” That sounded reasonable and so we went to bed, Max with his dirty socks on.

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2nd day

The next morning, we woke up because of all the people moving and talking, while preparing for their ascent to the peak. Max said that he didn’t sleep well, he looked tired but still excited to go up. We had some crackers and hot tea, put on our clothes and started walking in the middle of the night. You can only see as far as your lamp light projects. So, in case you have a good climbing partner you just focus on his/her feet and try to walk the same route. Max was tired and not so fast that morning so Anan told me to go ahead in order to catch the sunrise up on the peak. I knew that Nao and Christian were a bit in front of me so I started walking faster until I joined with them. The three of us walked a long path together and encouraged one another.

Sunrise at Mt. Rinjani with the lava stones and the cruel gradient of the mountain, 2nd day
Sunrise at Mt. Rinjani with the lava stones and the cruel gradient of the mountain, 2nd day

Beautiful view down to the lake with the shadow of Mt. Rinjani projected onto the clouds during sunrise, 2nd day
Beautiful view down to the lake with the shadow of Mt. Rinjani projected onto the clouds during sunrise, 2nd day

During my ascent, I passed by a couple of people and always encouraged them to keep on going. One of them was Fabian who thanked me a couple of times afterwards.

The exhausted people I passed by during my ascent on the way up to the peak. You can see how narrow the way is and how long and difficult it is to get up there
The exhausted people I passed by during my ascent on the way up to the peak. You can see how narrow the way is and how long and difficult it is to get up there

Due to complete exposure to the wind it is sooo cold up on the summit that you don’t want to be up there for too long. About 5 min down from the summit are big rocks where you can hide from the wind and get a bit warmer and wait if you need to.

I stood on the top of the world, peak Rinjani, with such a beautiful view I will never forget! The mountains around me, the lake and the other volcano below me, the ocean glittering in the sunlight, the view until Bali, Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Penida…I went through a couple of remembrances at those islands, the wind in my hair, the freedom above everything, everything seems so small and easy, the happiness being able to stand there, having the time and the physical ability to climb that mountain and to enjoy it. Just amazing and not possible to buy anywhere…I was so incredible happy.

Fabian and his wife Martina arrived on the peak, he took some pictures of me on the top to return the favor of me encouraging him along the way while I was waiting for Max and Anan to get to the top.

Enjoying the view on top of Mt. Rinjani, 2nd day, photo by Fabian
Enjoying the view on top of Mt. Rinjani, 2nd day, photo by Fabian

After about 30 minutes waiting on the peak I started to get very cold and decided to try to locate Max and Anan. I started to go down the mountain and found them climbing up slowly about 15 min down from the peak. Max was exhausted but determined to climb the peak so Anan and I helped him up the mountain. About 20 min later we reached the peak and I could see in Max’s face with his huge smile that he was as happy about his success as I was. Finally, we could take pictures of my group, all three of us on the top of Mt. Rinjani – the perfect feeling after so many exhausting hours of hiking up this mountain!

Max, Anan and I at the peak of Mt. Rinjani, 2nd day (Featured Image)

Anan even brought his sleeping bag with him to keep himself warm as he doesn’t have a rain or wind jacket but just this jumper he always wears. Later on I shared my gloves with him.

We didn’t stay too long on the top as we were already running late on schedule for that day. We still had to hike to the lake and the hot springs before reaching the rim on the other side of Mt. Rinjani by sunset. It would have been a crazy day of about 11 hours hiking: 3 hours up to the peak from the base camp, 2 hours down back to the base camp, 3 hours to the lake and another 3 hours up to the rim.

Max was already tired at that stage as he had not slept very well and it was very difficult for him to climb to the peak. We went down the mountain slowly as his muscles hurt, he used his pain killing spray a lot and he was a bit afraid of the heights…

Anan’s shoes which he just lends from his friend for going up to the peak, broke that day. I asked him if he will buy himself new shoes although I nearly guessed the answer. He told me “No, I can’t afford new shoes now. I will have to go up to the peak in flip-flops for now.” I had a discussion with Anan that it will be impossible to go up and down that peak in flip-flops with those stones! I knew he wouldn’t have another choice without the money. So, later on I gave him money to buy himself proper shoes which he did. Since I left Indonesia Anan has already gone up that mountain uncountable times in his new shoes.

Finally, we reached the Base Camp again were we got breakfast after around 6 hours of hiking (it took us longer to go up and down the peak than expected). Anan and I asked Max several times if he really wanted to continue with the tour as we could see how exhausted and in how much muscle pain he was…however, Max insisted on completing the 3-day-tour and so we started our way down to the lake. We could walk just slowly but with every step we took, our little group went further down to the lake. After around 3,5 hours we reached the beautiful clear water of Segara Anak (“Child of the sea”).

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The incident

Me in the murky water of the hot springs Aik Kalak, last photo Max ever took, 2nd day
Me in the murky water of the hot springs Aik Kalak, last photo Max ever took, 2nd day

We sat down at a campsite near the lake to prepare lunch. During the lunch preparation Bayan brought Max and me down to the hot springs Aik Kalak which is a walk of about 15 min down from the lake, to take a shower, relax those muscles and enjoy the beauty of the scenery and our accomplishments of that day. Finally, Max’s used socks came off as he brought new clean socks with him to use after the refreshing water of the hot springs.
Bayan said to us: “Hati-hati!” before he went back up to help Anan. I explained to Max the meaning of those words: “Be careful!” Max and I were the only ones at the hot springs and were excited to take a bath after all those days of walking, sweat and sunscreen mixed with dirt. We agreed that I would go into the water first and Max would stay outside to take some pictures of me and afterwards I would go out and take some pictures of him. So, I went into the water which was pretty hot (about 42°C) because of the erupted volcano.

I swam next to the waterfall. The water came down pretty strong…after a bit I could feel my heart rate going up like in the sauna and decided to swim back so that my body can cool down. Swimming on my way back I saw Max with his goggles coming slowly into the water making his way over the slippery stones. I said to him: “Hati-hati, Max! Be careful there!” They were the very last words Max ever heard in his life.

As I swam away from the waterfall, Max swam towards it and half way our paths crossed. As Max used his goggles he dived under the dark water. When I reached the stones, and looked towards the water I couldn’t see Max anymore. First, I thought he would be diving somewhere in the water. Then I thought he would be behind the waterfall. Then I started to feel uncomfortable not to know where Max was. I shouted his name and swam to the waterfall to have a better look behind it. He was not there…I couldn’t see him anywhere in the water as the water was very dark – so dark that I could see less than 10 cm below the surface.

I shouted his name over and over again but there was no reply. I don’t know how long I was searching for Max alone before I went up to get Anan…maybe 5 minutes but it felt like hours…With panic, crying, shouting Max’s and Anan’s names, shaking and barefoot I made my way up to the lake running as fast as I could…I don’t know how long it took me to get back up there…maybe 6 minutes as I was running but it felt like the path would never end…

I finally reached the lake where Anan was preparing lunch and when he saw me he immediately knew something was very wrong… ”Anan, I don’t know what happened but Max disappeared in the hot springs!” Anan ran down to the hot springs but Max was not visible…the dark water had taken him. You couldn’t see anything except for the dark water and the waterfalls and hear the sound of harsh water splashing down the stones. When I ran back down to the hot springs I cried, shouted and my whole world stopped – as a doctor I knew it was too late but my heart didn’t want to know the truth.

Already a year has passed by since that day and I repeatedly go over those minutes at the hot springs sooo many times in my mind. It still comes back to me both during the days while I am awake or at night when I am sleeping and I still don’t know what happened…the last time I saw Max alive was when we passed each other, him diving and me swimming in the hot springs. I never heard him scream, nor splashing with water…nothing, just nothing… Probably I will never know what has happened. Maybe the heat of the water, maybe his muscles gave out, maybe dangerous currents under the water with the strong waterfall, maybe he hit his head, maybe a heart attack, maybe he just passed out, maybe something poisonous was in the water…
I don’t know…

An Indonesian girl arrived at the hot springs while we were there searching for Max and told us that just 6 months earlier, on the 8th May 2016, the Indonesian woman called Ike Susesta Adelia, 26 years old, died in the exact same hot springs. When she died several people where at the hot springs and 5 women, including Ika got in trouble due to currents in the water. Four women got rescued but for Ika any help came too late. They couldn’t find her in the dark water and she drowned.

Max died on the day 6 months later on the 8th November 2016 at around 12:30 pm in the water of Aik Kalak – reason unknown.

Since then the two Indonesian men, one called Taufik Budi Prasetiyo, 23 years old, drowned in the water of Aik Kalak on 24th April 2017 at around 10 am and Wayan Suta Asmarajaya, 45 years old, died on 18th June 2017 drowning in the crater lake Segara Anak.

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The world stops

Even though that my world seemed to stop, somehow it just went on around me. I felt disconnected from everything and didn’t know how and if I ever will be part of life again. I felt numb and in a big blur. It felt unreal and still, I had to remind me I somehow was alive, was I? Sometimes I wasn’t sure about it… From that moment on, I needed support from the outside. The people didn’t really have to do anything…they just had to be there with me, so that I wasn’t alone. The first ones who helped me were the group of seven people. I am very grateful that they decided to stay and not continued their trip as planned.

When somebody dies, there are so many things you need to consider which I didn’t even know before. I just never thought about it. It gets even more difficult if somebody dies in the middle of a mountain without any phone connection or anything, at least one-day trip hiking away from the next village. We had to find cell phone connection to reach out to the embassy and to get some help. Some porters were sent up to the mountain to help carrying Max’s body out of the mountain. We were in the middle of nowhere and just hiking normally would have taken us 10 hours straight walking – not considering carrying a dead body off that mountain…The group of seven decided to stay at the camp near the lake for the night. They organized everything for me – a tent, something to eat, to drink and somewhere to sleep. Without them I would have forgotten all of it, I guess…

Late that evening just in the small light of flickering flashlights they carried Max’s dead body from the hot springs up to the campsite near the lake. It was dangerous to bring him up there without any daylight…I feared that some of the guides or porters could take a wrong step and fall. At the camp, we tried to eat, tried to drink something and tried to sleep. It was difficult for me to swallow, I couldn’t eat or drink much even though my last meal was the breakfast with Max in the morning…in the morning he was still alive…
Incredible how life can end in a second without any warning.

That night I didn’t sleep at all. I got up and out of the tent several times, to check on Max’s body, look at the sky full of stars, watch the quiet lake. Standing in the cold air freezing and thinking to myself how lucky I was that I can still feel being cold, can still think and can still feel tired and hungry. I knew it could have been me as well…I was in the water before Max…The line between life and death – so incredible thin.

The next day started. It feels so unreal when you think about it that the world just keeps on turning even though for yourself it feels like everything stops.

3rd day – evacuation

We waited until 7 am for the six porters to arrive who had started walking at 2 am that night. Considering that it was pitch dark, very early in the morning, it is incredible and crazy what they did. They walked 5 hours during the night to cover the ground every other person would have needed 10 hours in daylight.

They strapped Max’s body to a long bamboo stick and started walking. Always 2 people were carrying him, one in the front and one in the back. They had a system with 3 people in the front and 3 at the back which always rotated or at critical parts were carrying all together. I carried most of the water for all nine of us (Anan, Bayan, the 6 porters and me). At least during the time that we still had water. They learned one word in English that day: “water” as they had to ask me for it frequently. As our original group was just four people we basically only had water and food for four people to share amongst nine now. Eventually, we ran out of water and food. So, after a while we showed signs of dehydration, lack of food and fatigue.

However, most of the time I didn’t speak at all as I just could talk basic things in English to Anan but I knew he had other things in mind than talking to me that day…the other 7 people didn’t understand me and so we just communicated with mimic and gestures. I had a lot of time to think…about me, my life, my family, my friends.

The mountain itself, especially from the base camp to the top and also from the lake up to the rim is anything else than easy…it is a dangerous climb where a thoughtless, false footstep could cost you your life. I was not able to concentrate that day and I was shaking, sometimes panicking and pretty sure I would lose my life up on that mountain as well…people who know me would shake their heads now as they never would describe me as a quitter or weak personality. But that mountain and it’s “ways” is unsafe for everybody…and climbing it up to the rim with a dead body on your shoulders is even more unsafe. When it started raining, the stones got more slippery and the porters took off their slippery flip-flops to find more hold barefoot. At the end of the trip several feet were bloody.

Porters carrying Max’s body barefoot, 3rd day
Porters carrying Max’s body barefoot, 3rd day

The porters didn’t have anything to protect them from the rain other than just their normal clothes so I started making kind of “rain jackets” out of plastic bags we carried with us. They were freezing, tired due to lack of sleep, shivering and exhausted from the difficult and heavy walk so I shared all my clothes with them.

During one of the rest stops, I asked around how much the porters got for this great effort they did. In total for starting to walk up the mountain at 2 am and coming back late at around midnight, risking their lives with dehydration, not enough food, carrying a dead body for hours in the rain and through darkness they got 500.000 IDR (around 34 €). A lot of us would not even think of working for an hour doing that kind of job…

After 6 pm it got dark and except for the poor lights of the flickering flashlights you couldn’t see anything in the forest on the mountain. I walked in front of the porters searching for the way and then turning around to tell and show them difficult steps, holes, branches in the way, etc. At around 8 pm after walking for 2 hours in the darkness, falling down several times, stepping in deep water holes, soaking wet shoes, I told Anan that I couldn’t walk anymore…I was tired, every step I took was uncontrolled and I didn’t have any energy to go further. Anan found the right words to describe my status: “Julie, you are walking as if you are completely drunk.” I couldn’t concentrate on my steps anymore and I felt like sleep walking. Anan had to help me walk for the rest of the 3 hours. He encouraged me to get off that mountain with every step we took. I tried to encourage myself by telling me that I am lucky that at least I still could walk on my own…in the end I came safely back from the mountain. When I think back of the conditions I was in, I am still amazed that I am alive today.

Remember, love and live your life

It was a horrible experience, a long walk, a walk full of pain from the inside and outside. It will take me time to process all those memories. Time I have, but I know a lot of people in this world don’t have time to process. Like Anan, for him life has to go on, he needs to earn money for himself and his family. So, his life goes on walking up and down Mt. Rinjani as he doesn’t have any other possibility.

In case you are planning on going to Mt. Rinjani, please be careful. Those paths are not made for unexperienced climbers, nor for situations with rain or a lot of wind. Ask for Anan and Bayan and give them a big hug from me and leave a jacket or a trouser or whatever you can spare for them. They always need it! Be careful hiking and be careful in the water, please! Hati-hati!
I know that my life goes on but it is still hard to believe. I really appreciate all the support I received on the mountain and afterwards. I am grateful to all the people I have met, my friends, my family who support me along the way.

I want to encourage everyone to take a moment, remember Max’s smile, remember your own deceased loved once.
Take a moment to think of what YOU want in your life and if you are working towards that goal right now. If not, please change your life. Because it can end in a second. Life is too short and too valuable to waist it. Do more of what you love. Always live here and now – don’t wait for tomorrow.

On our earth, we experience too many deaths because of all kind of different reasons. So, use your life to find your inner happiness and share it with as many people as you can!

Remember smiling Max
Remember smiling Max

In memories of the smiling and happy Max (Ng Yin Teck).