How We Almost Died Hiking Mt. Ijen at 2 AM
“Beep, Beep, Beep.”
I groggily hit the off button on my phone’s alarm.
Time to wake up.
Brenden and I put on our hiking boots and headlamps. Stuffed a banana into our mouths, threw on our helmets, and hopped on the bike.
We’re off. We drove in the middle of the night, headed towards Mt. Ijen or Kawah Ijen, the most active sulfur mine in Indonesia.
Through our travels in Indonesia, a young hiker told us about Ijen. How you could hike into the blown caldera, meander through sulfur mines, witness the largest acidic blue lake in Asia, and capture sulfuric blue flames with your own eyes.
We were star struck. Ijen, home to not only one of the last sulfur mines in the world is also a photographer’s heaven. The volcano is known for the blue flames, or the blue fire that fills the caldera when the sulfur gas spontaneously ignites. We were sold. We wanted to capture that moment.
Hiking up Kawah Ijen was now on our bucket list.
The night finally arrived, and we drove through the Javanese jungle, scaling a volcano at 11:30 PM at night.
The incline up to base camp was quite steep. Despite driving on a semi-automatic bike, there was a moment when we were in first gear, full throttle, and Brenden had to use his feet to get us up the hill.
With both of us on one bike, we barely made it up to base camp. But we did it.
At Paltuding Trekking Base Camp, we were at 1,700 feet in elevation. Compared to the hot and humid weather down at sea level, the volcano’s base was brisk. My feet and ears were chilly. I quickly threw on my headband and bought a pair of socks from a vendor selling warm gear for unprepared travelers.
Brenden rented ventilation masks for the hike into the caldera. Sulfur gas is very poisonous and damaging to our airways. Inhaling even tiny amounts of gas can cause persistent bronchoconstriction, wheezing, and coughing. We wanted to protect our pretty pink lungs as much as we could, so we rented the masks and were off.
We started the summit up to the rim of the volcano.
After 20 minutes of hiking, I was out of breath, tired, and my heart was beating out my chest.
My body was in shock. At 12:30 AM I’m typically fast asleep dreaming, not climbing a volcano. The hike was steep — a 17 degree incline with a 1,000-meter elevation gain in one hour.
It was going to be a long hike.
We hiked for an hour, taking small intermittent breaks for me to catch my breath.
It’s 40°F outside, yet my body was on fire. I stripped down to my base layer and took off my socks. My body was steaming in the frigid air as I stood and looked at the view from the trail. We could see the small city of Banyuwangi lit up with soft orange lights. The town was fast asleep, the moon was bright, and the stars were shining. It was picturesque, to say the least.
We were almost to the ridge. A faint smell of rotten eggs tingles my nose. It was sulfur. We’re close.
The smell of sulfur was overwhelming. Strangely, I enjoyed the scent, it reminded me of burnt matches.
A sign welcomed us to the ridge of Mt. Ijen. We did it, climbed to the very top. Around 2 AM we were at the top of an active volcano, at 2,300 meters above the sea. Dead tired and sweaty.
In the pitch dark with our headlamps we searched for the trail down into the caldera. We stumbled across a sign that says, “Visitors do not enter the Caldera. Caution. Toxic Sulfur Gas.”
We threw on our ventilation masks and headed down the trail anyways.
The trail down was treacherous, to say the least. It’s rocky and steep with no handrails or markers. We’re guided only by the tiny light from headlamps, navigating down the rocky staircase with only intuition and educated guesses.
Around halfway down the caldera, we came across a miner.
We knew Ijen was infamous for its sulfur mine which employs impoverished Indonesian men to collect sulfur crystals. Miners start their work when hikers do, making two trips up the volcano and down the caldera every night before it gets too hot in the day. Every load, the miners carry approximately 120-200 pounds of sulfur in bamboo baskets up the jagged caldera wall. They get paid roughly $12 a day for their work.
Though we knew about the conditions, we see the miner, then the 10 others climbing with vast baskets of heavy sulfur. Our hearts broke.
A miner stopped us. He was selling his sulfur. He had cute molded sulfur turtles and rabbits each for 5,000 IDR (approximately $0.35). I gave him 150,000 IDR, picked a turtle, and told him to keep the change.
We’ve made it down to the base. Huge plumes of yellow smoke gushed out of geysers. Sulfur shards littered the ground.
It was time to wait and see the blue flames. We’re excited!
Blue fire comes from the ignition and combustion of sulfur gas. Little did we know the conditions need to be just right with no wind and hot internal temperatures in the vents.
We saw a blue flame - it was the size of a lighter. A little disappointing and not what we expected. We came on the day with less than ideal conditions.
We started to meander our way through the sulfur mines, heading back to the rocky wall to climb to the ridge for sunrise.
In an instant, the wind shifted and moved an enormous plume of gas. We’re surrounded by thick yellow sulfur. Even with our masks on, Brenden and I start choking and hacking violently. I began dry heaving on the verge of being sick.
The smoke stung our eyes, we teared up and were squinting. We couldn't see.
We’re suffocating, and we’re blind. We turned right and left and couldn't see a way out of the smoke. We moved forward and backward to move into only more smoke.
We’re on our knees, our eye’s bloodshot and barely open. Taking in small sips of air, coughing up our lungs. A thought runs through my head, we’re going to die of suffocation.
Brenden grabbed my arm, lifted me up and quickly pulled me. I ran behind him, hand in hand, blind. He was trying to save us. We're scared.
In the next second, we burst from the smoke into a clearing. Fresh air at last! We sat near the edge of the caldera, as far away from the mines as possible. Coughing and recovering our breath. Slowing down our heart rate. Rinsing our eyes out with water.
We sat for some time. Reviving, we watched the miners. They don’t wear masks, and some don’t wear shoes. We watched them enter in the plumes of smoke for sometimes up to 10 minutes. We heard violent coughing intermittently.
I sat amazed at these men, who in conditions I almost died in, are working while shaving years and years off their lives in near minutes from inhaling gas without protection.
It was time to hike back up the caldera to catch the sunrise at the ridge. The caldera was packed with people, hoards of tourists in groups taking pictures with miners, indulging in poverty tourism. The tiny trail became even more treacherous as people pass another on inches of the ledge.
We took our time getting to the top, but we made it safely. Just in time to watch the sun rise over the mountain ridge and tiny Bayuwangi. Mt. Ijen turned into stunning scenery filled with pink and golden purple light. The sunrise shed light on what was previously pitch black. The caldera lit up in a steel white grey with massive clouds of Easter yellow smoke bursting from the center. The gorgeous pastel baby blue acid lake slowly unveiled from the dark, reflecting the sunrise.
We sat again, watching the light and the scenery slowly change. We observed in silence, admiring how the sun shed light on the fragile beauty of our lives. We reminisced on our incredible adventure together from hiking up Ijen in the middle of the night and almost dying in a cloud of sulfur smoke. To watching the miners, feeling their plight, and wishing we could do more to help.
To thinking, if we had the chance, we would do it all over again.