I’m slipping and stumbling up a slope. It’s only a few hours after midnight and I’m hiking in complete darkness, the path illuminated by nothing more than our flashlights. I trip over a rock and nearly fall on my face before an arm shoots out and pulls me upright. I mumble an embarrassed ‘thank you’ to our Balinese guide, who’s spent the better part of the last kilometre preventing me from breaking various limbs or falling off the side of the volcano we’re climbing.
In the blackness, I can’t tell how far up we are or how much farther we need to go. In many ways, that uncertainty is a relief. I only have this moment, one foot in front of the other, the sight of darkness, the feeling of sweat on my back under my pack, and the sound of people breathing as we form a single line up the narrow switchbacks.
We’re headed to the top of Gunung Batur. The sunrise trek is a popular hike for tourists to Bali, and as soon as I heard about it, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stand atop an ancient volcano and watch the sun come up over the sea. On my first morning in Bali, I had signed up for the next available trek with no research into how long it would take to reach the summit, how high we’d go, or how difficult it would be.
The weird thing is I’m actually scared of heights. This would be a pretty unremarkable phobia, except I’m also obsessed with mountain climbing. I blame it on travel. In my hometown of Toronto, I can’t step on the glass floor of our famed CN Tower because the grip of fear is too intense. Looking out the window of a friend’s high-rise condo gives me vertigo. But stick me in a foreign country, and suddenly there’s no such thing as too high — at least not when there’s a peak there waiting to be climbed.
I’m by no means a professional mountaineer, but if there is a trail winding its way up any sort of hill/cliff/volcano/mountain, I want to be on it, working my sweaty self toward the top. It’s that desire to keep moving higher that’s led me to hike volcanoes in Iceland, mountains in the Andes, and a Sleeping Giant in Canada. (It’s also what’s led me to have an obsession with all things Mount Everest, although I have sufficient healthy doubt in my skills to go that far.)
Travel companions have cursed me for waking them up at 2am so we could watch the sunrise from 1,700 metres or insisting that Machu Picchu isn’t worth seeing if it doesn’t take four days of climbing to reach it. No train for this girl.
Now, full disclosure: climbing Mt Batur is really not that tough. It’s just challenging enough to make your muscles scream for a few hours — but then, before it becomes unbearable, you’ve reached the top. And that’s maybe why I’m so addicted to mountain trails. Athleticism has never been my forte, but this steady movement of moving up, step by slow step, is a middle ground where athletic prowess comes second place to sheer desire and determination. You don’t have to be Sir Edmund Hillary to find a spot where it feels like the world is at your feet. You don’t have to hang from the Dawn Wall to know that you’re doing something beyond the ordinary. You’re just moving and making your way to the top as best you can, and when the view opens up, it feels like it’s there just for you.
At sunrise, the sky turns from black to inky blue to pink and orange. With the light, we can see how far we’ve climbed. I’m sitting on a stone ledge overlooking the village rooftops, sipping coffee and eating a sticky bun. My feet are dangling into the air and the expanse of the valley stretches before me. I can see the faint outline of the island of Lombok in the distance. I’m high, high up with nothing to stop me from falling and my phobia is nowhere to be found.
Across the valley there’s an even higher volcano: Gunung Agung, the most sacred mountain and highest point on the island. Hikers regularly make a similar sunrise trek up Agung, and it takes eight hours to reach the 3,000-metre summit. Our guide notices my eyes flicking up along the slopes and eyeing the peak high above our perch, and asks me if I’d like to tackle it while I’m here in Bali. He recognises my obsession. He knows: I’m tired and sore but there are still higher hills to climb.
Want to see Mt Batur in the flesh? Get your climb on with Intrepid’s Beautiful Bali adventure.