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The Initiation: Lessons From a Mountain

While Mt. Agung was threatening to erupt in Bali a fellow traveler suggested hiking up Mt. Rinjani, the volcano on the island next door towering to 12,224’. It sounded intriguing however I wasn’t in shape for such a hike and was not sure I wanted to invest the time in preparing for it. I was very indecisive until I jogged around a tiny island nearby as the sun was rising. The mountain was perfectly silhouetted and magnificent. I looked at the peak at a distance away and knew I wanted to be there at the same time looking back at the little island I was currently standing on.

I researched some tour companies online that looked good but couldn’t get clear communication with any of them. Instead I found a travel booth with a nice big map of the mountain. I confirmed they were the same company as one I had found online that was rated well. They promised me they would provide good hiking equipment, cater to my food allergies with a nourishing diet, and give me a nice private room the night before the trek as displayed in the photo they showed me.

The travel agent got me on a ferry over to the island with mt. Rinjani and gave me a private tour of the port town while we waited for my van. I got in the front seat of the van and met some other young excited adults ready to hike up Mt. Rinjani.

As we were driving to the base of the mountain one guy noticed a laminated card in the back seat, pulled it out and worriedly shared with us, “I hope this isn’t the name of our tour company. I read about them online and people complained of running out of food, water, and tent space so some people had to sleep outside.” That wasn’t the actual name of the company any of us had booked with but I asked the driver and sure enough that was the name of the company that would take us on our trek.

At the town by the volcano’s base our driver drove

onto the property of our hotel. It looked ok from the outside with lots of plants around. Then they let me know I would be sharing a room with one of the guys I just met. I hesitantly walked up to the room. The door handle was broken, there were ants crawling on the floor, nothing on the bright green walls and walls in need of a paint job, a single blanket on the bed with Tigger and Winnie the Pooh on it, and a disgusting bathroom with no running water. We couldn’t find any running water at the place to brush our teeth or take a shower before we were about to go on a three day trek in the woods.

Three of us couldn’t get out of there any faster. Luckily we found a room, which happened to be at the nicest hotel I stayed at the entire trip. It had views of the mountains and an infinity pool reflecting the sky and trees. They brought us arrival cocktails with heart shaped watermelon slices. And the bathroom had this little knob on the toilet that when turned would spray water all across the bathroom into the tub like a volcano erupting.

After seeing the tour company's hotel we were concerned the online complaints may be true and hit the town in order to stock ourselves for the trip. We bought enough food and water to prepare for the apocalypse and weigh our packs down to make it an even more challenging hike. I did not find much that I wasn’t allergic to so I crossed my fingers all would be well.

We walked by one of the other tour companies and they had this nice greeting area with all sorts of hiking supplies and clothes for their trekkers to borrow. At our run-down hotel a guy showed up on a motorcycle and all he had for equipment for me were giant ski gloves and a dinky plastic headlamp. I had been warned a hiking pole was necessary for this hike, yet they didn’t have any for me. With Bali being so hot I wasn’t prepared for the cold weather expected at high elevation. I did find a hat to buy in the small country town. But then I had to settle for running the risk of ruining my favorite yoga pants and designer sweater that hangs like a shawl instead of zipping or buttoning closed.

A couple hours later in the morning than the other tour companies get going a driver showed up at the run-down hotel with a small truck and told us to hop in the back with our packs. We went down the road and picked up a few more people ending up with twelve people and our packs in the back of the truck. It was a bumpy hour and a half ride to the trailhead banging our bottoms and backs and falling all over each other while scrunched in a little ball. It was a great bonding experience for our first meeting together!

We weren’t really sure who our tour guide and porters were. We often stopped at splits in the trail wondering which way to go. Fairly quickly a different Indonesian guy would walk by and point in one direction. We had no choice but to trust and follow the finger. My group of trekkers quickly started complaining about our tour company and guide who some had met the night before while he seemed drunk.

I soon realized this wasn’t a nice and easy trail like the ones I am used to in U.S. with smooth switchback trails and gradual inclines. Generally we just walked straight up the slope even if it meant short bouts of rock climbing. The rock climbing scared me a bit, especially since we all walked at different speeds and I was often alone.

Between the elevation and intensity of the hike after a few hours my legs were so fatigued I wondered if they would collapse underneath me with each step. It was hard for everyone. Chanting the “Enlightened Warrior” attitudes from a training I went to was a welcome motivator for all on the mountain.

I knew I didn’t have adequate physical training and it was going to continue to be hard. I have been working on creating better communication with my body so I asked it if it wanted to keep going. It seemed like an excited child exclaiming, “Yes.” My body didn’t care that it was hard and painful. It was more focused on the fun of the experience, the challenge to overcome what seems impossible, and the desire to see the sun rise at the top. That was one of the first big lessons for me on the mountain.

We made it to the first tent site just before sunset. We watched as many tents were being put up around us and wondered which ones were ours and if we would have enough. Finally a porter came up the mountain and pointed his finger towards a couple red tents. Once again we figured we should follow him. We had lost one tent due to someone needing to turn back yet we divided the group and just fit inside our tents.

As others were going into their tents to sleep for the early morning rise our dinner was being served. I decided to skip eating dinner so late and give myself more time to sleep, or try to sleep. Sleeping really didn’t happen with the cold, hard, smelly tent while sleeping next to strangers. At 2am we heard a cheery voice outside of our tent say, “Coffee! Tea! Cookie!” And then we saw a hand reaching into our tent holding a biscuit.

Shortly after we hit the trail with all our gear on, my designer blue sweater hanging out from under my magenta windbreaker, ski gloves, three quarter length baggy pants over my yoga leggings, and headlamp. Luckily, or unluckily, one of the ladies who did have a hiking pole decided not to go to the top and gave me hers.

It was pitch black with lots of stars in the sky and a narrow trail on a narrow ledge. The ground was either covered with dusty dirt or little rocks that acted like quicksand; two steps forward and one step back from sliding downhill.

Very quickly a couple of our faster hikers shot ahead. I decided not to try and keep up with them and instead slowed down to walk with the people behind me. This morning because of the risk of easily falling off the cliff edge I didn’t want to walk alone. Yet as our elevation increased the group got slower and slower. I looked to the sky guessing when the sun would rise and to the peak guessing how long it would take. Determined to take the risk I shot ahead on my own to increase my chances of making it to the top in time for sunrise.

Shortly my headlamp started to fade until it completely went out. The trail got more slippery and my hiking pole kept getting shorter.

I had a lot of time to walk alone and contemplate. I kept noticing the pain in my body and disbelief I could make it to the top. I started recalling when I used to lead people up Mt. Whitney in California, which is even taller than Mt. Rinjani, and how invincible I felt. It seemed as if I was holding myself back because of PTSD from when I had health issues in the past. So I determined I would ask myself what my mindset was like before I started having health challenges. I allowed myself to feel the same sense of confidence in all the cells of my body. As soon as I did that my speed increased and my body hurt less. That became my second lesson; embody the mindset of when you were successful in the past during all current endeavors.

I kept my eyes ahead towards where I was going chanting my warrior attitudes. I passed person after person always thinking the top is near yet never quite getting there. But eventually I did with tears in my eyes for overcoming the challenge that I thought was insurmountable. I had made it in time to watch the sun rise just as I had desired and it was beautiful.

Yet the hike was not over. I still had to make it down without sliding off the edge. While it was another long day of hiking, the scenery was beautiful and we got to dip in both the cool lake and the very hot hot springs inside the crater. I found out one of the girls did not make it to the top because she was alone and too scared. So that day I stayed with her as we hit each rock climbing segment or narrow ledge.

Once we finally figured out who our guide was, during the breaks I overhead a couple members of our group yelling at our guide for their disappointment in how badly he was taking care of us. He left us alone on the trail a lot without checking on us or telling us to form a buddy system. They did not prepare food to suit my allergies no matter how many times I reminded them before the trip so I ate a lot of eggs and rice. And they did run out of bottled water and tried to give us unfiltered spring water. I preferred to ration my water and drink less than put myself at risk of parasites after my experience with Montezuma’s Revenge in Mexico. Hiking poles broke, tents didn’t close properly, and our sleeping equipment was dirty.

That night a few of us were sitting on a mat outside huddled under a sleeping bag looking at the stars. I was craving a more heart centered connection with others as I didn’t feel that was happening much for me with the other trekkers, especially since I had been hiking alone a lot.

Just after that thought passed I discovered I was sitting next to our tour guide. I found out he was only twenty-three years old and had never been trained on the job except by the angry clients who didn’t seem reasonable to him. At night the guide and porters did not even have enough room to lay flat on the ground underneath their tarp. They didn’t have a tent, sleeping pads, nor warm clothes and enough sleeping bags. He said he cried through the night because he was so cold and uncomfortable. Since my tent was next to their tarp that night I can verify that was true.

Realizing that he may not see things the way the trekkers in my group did I lovingly explained what we desired to make it a better experience for us. He seemed like he was listening and shared personal things about himself and his dreams.

The next morning I woke up to him standing outside my tent with a big smile on his face holding a stick forward for me to use as a hiking pole. He had wrapped some plastic around the top of it to protect my hand. Then he stayed with me the entire day so I did not need to walk alone when I was a different speed than the rest of the group. He continued to share more about his hopes and dreams in life and I continued to share ideas and encouragement to fulfill that. It felt to be a very heart centered interaction, just as I had desired. I shared with the group how supportive he was being and one screeched, “Too little too late!”

At our final rest break for the day we realized that may be the last time we see the porters so that was a good time to tip them. Most of the group did not want to even bother. Interestingly I had enough separate bills of the local currency to individually pay each porter. I walked up to each man, thanked him, and looked into his eyes for the first time. I could barely finish before tears started to stream out of my eyes with both appreciation and the shame that I had not even tried to acknowledge or connect with them before that moment. Despite all of our complaints and possibly being lied to by the travel agent, with the equipment and training those men were given, they carried heavy loads in flips flops or barefoot, they set up camp, took down camp, made all our food, and cleaned up after us with less sleep and comforts than we had. One of the men was about seventy years old yet never stopped smiling nor showed signs of being tired.

Once again I learned some huge lessons; Connection and support can come from surprising places when approaching someone in the appropriate way, even from those who seem so different. And we feel more joy when we look at the whole picture and focus on the positive side.

A friend who had hiked up Mt. Rinjani said it was known as The Initiation. It definitely felt like an initiation into greater wisdom, understanding, and connection for me.

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