Climbing a mountain, step by step

A black-and-white photograph featuring a view of Mount Agung in Bali.
A black-and-white photograph featuring a view of Mount Agung in Bali. PHOTO: ONE EAST ARTSPACE

It seemed so nice on paper. An overnight trek up Mount Agung to watch the sun rise from the highest peak in Bali.

Six hours up and six hours down sounded tough enough to be a memorable part of an otherwise idle beach holiday, but compact enough - no camping outdoors - to be casual.

On the way to the start point, the driver from the trekking company told us how Mount Agung was sacred to the Balinese and that to finish the trek, we had to stay humble and ask, quietly in our hearts, permission from the "Mother" to traverse her terrain.

"How cute and quaint you Balinese are!" said the condescending smile I projected in response.

Ten hours later, legs trembling and shoes filled with slippery black volcanic sand, I burst into tears and beseeched Mother Agung for the strength to survive.

The catalyst for this breakdown was our guide announcing that we still had at least four hours to go on a practically vertical path. We had already been struggling down the mountain for what seemed like a lifetime.

Almost the entire Agung trek is in steep, untamed jungle. The punishing terrain is what makes it harder than other more famous climbs such as Kinabalu or Rinjani. Those treks take longer but over gentler, undulating terrain. Up Mount Agung, it was so steep that I had to use my hands and feet, channelling Gollum from The Lord Of The Rings.

It was the hardest thing I'd ever done, but we reached the top. The sunrise was moving and belittling, meeting our mammoth effort with a reminder of our insignificance.

This should have been the climax, the peak. We had applied ourselves and been rewarded. In any proper movie, we would exchange looks of wonder and delight and the credits would play.

Instead, after breakfast, we had to go back down. Already exhausted, we were faced with six hours more of arduous, tedious activity that had no reward at the end - except its cessation.

That it was now bright outside and we could see clearly the consequences of any misstep compounded our misery. My guide thought it helpful to point out where he had once hiked up to retrieve the body of a woman who had tumbled to her death.

The hours eked by as we slipped and slid down like we were wrenching them from God's fingers. I hated everyone - my boyfriend, the guide, the Indonesian authorities for failing to build proper trek infrastructure (the Chinese would have constructed a cable car line ).

What I hated most was how there was no end in sight, just wild jungle and precipitous drops to more wild jungle.

The guide would say that we were at a height of 2,300m, and something like an hour would pass, and then he would say we were at 2,250m. I didn't know why he wanted to lie to us, but he was obviously lying.

Perhaps sensing my delirious rage, he stopped replying when I asked him "how long more?" and instead parried with the question "Are you okay?" - delivered in an irritatingly calm tone.

Whenever I slipped, stopped or gave a huge sigh of despair and asked how long more, he would say: "Are you okay?"

At some point, I started saying "No!" shamelessly, like a tantrum-throwing toddler.

To which he would reply, "Step by step."

This was infuriating. I had to know what I was working towards to do the work.

If I couldn't see the end point, I couldn't so much as take another step. If I could see it, I would get a second wind and reach there in record time. It was what my brain needed to push past the wall we had reached.

But that wasn't the kind of reasoning that my guide understood or lived by. Mother Agung wasn't something to be conquered. To him, there was only one path out and only one option - to keep going.

So what was the point in knowing how long more? Nothing mattered but the moment, in which one step followed another.

The volcano was on his side. We kept going for so long that I stopped raging, stopped asking, and fell into some sort of rock-bottom where my mind was blank and my feet moved mechanically forward.

I stopped fantasising about the moment it would come to an end. I stopped thinking about the hotel bath and the bed. I stopped looking forward to sitting down in a chair.

The thing about some challenges is that they can be overcome only when you no longer care about the victory.

The thing about willpower is that you don't need a huge amount to meet a huge obstacle. Sometimes you just need enough for one step forward.

Step by step. And then it was done.

rchang@sph.com.sg