This is for anybody who’s ever told me that I don’t have the sense to know when to hold my tongue.
The following is the review I wanted to write for the Mount Batur Sunrise Trek I experienced in Bali in February 2020.
HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE.
Consider the question “What’s the worst way to climb a mountain?” Some might say, “At all.” As someone who enjoys climbing mountains, I would have considered Sisyphus’ burden to be the benchmark. An arduous and inescapable struggle with no purpose, to be repeated against one’s will for eternity.
I’ve now learned that it is perhaps worse to do it willingly, with a purpose and expectation that is denied throughout. For it to be your life’s wish, granted, but by a cursed monkey’s paw that brings with it cruel and ironic twists of fate.
I discovered this by climbing a popular peak in a tourist hotspot with over a hundred other people.
The 2am pick-up was completely understandable to catch the sun. That it was to facilitate an unadvertised 2:30am breakfast with a partnering company was only an issue with the benefit of hindsight.
From the carpark, the first hour of the walk is along a paved and not very steep road, the sort that you might have been able to drive along. As you part to the muddy embankments to allow other cars and motorbikes to pass, you wonder why your tour van had not simply driven to the mountain base as they had. At a more reasonable 4:30am, perhaps.
After this first needless trek, the paved road becomes a rocky path carved into the surrounding foliage. Any excitement from this is quelled by the immediate realisation that you will march the entire way in single file, behind everyone else, in the dark, inevitably at the pace of the slowest person. As you pause after every third step to maintain a safe distance from the person in front, you might begin to question firmly held beliefs about the harm of class streaming in schools.
The night may be incredibly clear, allowing a half moon to illuminate the darkness and guide you as countless generations before Edison were guided. But this quaint pleasure is undone by the torches given willy-nilly to every single climber. You may find yourself not using yours given the ample light provided by those either side of you.
You might reflect on the school camps you attended in primary school, where teachers demonstrated how leaving the torchlight off will allow your pupils to dilate and the light from more and more distant stars to reach your field of vision. You will wish everyone else had had such an opportunity as a child.
At each rest stop (which are constant and many) there is nowhere to look without being blinded by torchlight, waved carelessly about by fully grown adults who have failed to consider that the only courteous place to point a beam of light is at the ground.
The most wonderful of these adults are the avid climbers with headlamps, who casually glance your way out of curiosity, only to be immediately reminded of the torch they have strapped to their forehead by your wincing and defensive hand blocking. Its purpose — to shine upon anything they look directly at — is quickly forgotten.
At one of the final rest stops, your guide pauses briefly to pray at a shrine. Your Western guilt swells within you; you have already drafted the above ungracious complaints in your head, to be met with someone giving thanks for the little they possess. This of course does nothing to enhance your enjoyment of the journey, but merely worsens it with an extra layer of self flagellation.
Your guide will insist that your group stay together, but by racing ahead at your own pace, you will learn that this is a pointless instruction.
Close to the top, you will pass someone in their 70s being helped along on either side by a personal guide and a walking stick respectively. You’ll feel a brief admiration until you again turn on yourself for being so annoyed at how slow the trek has been. Perhaps now you know who was setting the pace. You arsehole.
After a three hour expedition that would in other circumstances take no more than 45 minutes, you will reach the top. As you pass through plumes of second hand smoke, you may wonder to yourself, “Who climbs a mountain to have a cigarette?” The realisation that it is most of the local tour guides will only worsen your spiralling guilt at the colonial condescension.
The wind blows briskly and yet the atmosphere is impossibly still. This will last mere seconds. As first light begins to illuminate the darkness, it literally dawns on you that are standing high above the clouds, looking down on the wooly sheets that blanket the town below. Then a phone will pierce through the stillness with its tinny expulsion of Hey Soul Sister by Train, blaring casually out of the pocket of another climber. It is a mercifully gentle introduction to the many noise pollutions that will soon follow and ruin any sense of wonder or escape you might have enjoyed from the view of nature’s majesty.
In the distance, you’ll notice some cunt has brought a fucking acoustic guitar.
As you sit there resting alone, contemplating your disappointment in the most stunning of settings, someone will approach you and offer to sell you a bracelet. Your colonial guilt and depression will spiral. Having just climbed a mountain — for fun — hating every second of it, you are greeted at the top by people who climb it every day in the hopes of making a few dollars from a tourist such as yourself. This once-in-a-lifetime holiday experience is their daily chore. This was your wish, granted by your monkey’s paw, but you must meet Sisyphus at the top. The ironic price you pay is to be plagued questioning who shoulders the greater burden.
They’re only $5. You buy one, to be left in peace by both the vendor and your own insufferable conscience.
The whirring noise from the first of five (5) drones will pierce the stillness just as the first rays of sun pierce the clouds. In the city from which you have tried to escape, such noise would blend into the background, but on a mountaintop, challenged only by the occasional whistles of both the birds and the wind, it is cacophonous. It doubles, then triples, then as the view you came to enjoy becomes more and more rapturous it erupts in a motorised chorus.
You will sit there taking photos, hoping they will not serve their usual purpose. Instead of conjuring vivid memories of the awful experience, you pray that it will be forgotten, and you will be left only with the pretty view.
Suddenly a voice will bellow, “FUCK THOSE THINGS!” You are slow to register, focussed instead on the scrambled egg sandwich provided by the tour. You turn to see a middle aged American man emphatically double down, pointing madly at the sky. “FUCK THOSE THINGS! YOU HAVE NO RESPECT FOR NATURE!”
Your conscience rears its ugly head inside yours once more. This guy’s telling it like it is! He’s saying what you were thinking, but seeing it made flesh makes you realise how ugly all your cynicism may be.
I am forever told that I am a cynic, too negative, too angry at the world, but I am swift to reject the suggestion when there’s method to the madness. This climb felt analogous to all my other worldly frustrations.
I’m usually the arsehole; but I don’t think I’m the arsehole first. We just have different standards for civility. If you think it’s rude for me to tell you you’re being a jerk, maybe don’t be a jerk in the first place? “So much for the tolerant left”, cry the supporters of mandatory detention. “Respect your leaders and elders”, demand the NRA lobbyists who sell weapons that slaughter schoolchildren. “Tsk tsk, the discourse, the discourse, calling me an idiot weakens your argument”, lament the flat-earthers.
I can’t be the one in the wrong 100% of the time; it’s statistically impossible. At some point the pricks with the drones have to consider that not everybody wanted to listen to their fucking propellors. So they either didn’t think about how anyone else might feel, or they did and decided they didn’t care. I’m never sure which I find worse.
Climbing a mountain should make you feel alive, but for me it was hell. A customised hell; a hell created by others, and a hell of my own making for trying to know what is “right” by listening to others. Surrounded by people I have never understood nor learnt to tolerate or like. I hate them. I can’t escape them. And I need them to live. They are my Hell. Hell Is Other People.
“Great tour! Nice guides, very friendly, small group makes it a fun climb coz you can chat in the van and share photos n stuff. Bit crowded on the way up but makes sense given how nice the view is haha. Maybe not ideal for the hardcore climbers but would recommend to everyone else”