Death defying climb of Bali’s highest point for a very special cause

Mount Agung Image Supplied by:

by Gary Coleman

Recently I travelled to Bali and climbed Mount Agung, an active volcano, Bali’s highest point at 3,140m. It is the most holiest place in Bali and the location of the holiest and highest temple Besakif, the mother temple.

After a setback of two volcanic eruptions, a pandemic and an overzealous Australian border security officer, I finally made it to the top of Mount Agung. What an achievement!

The trek was in memory of my sister Pauline who died from bowel cancer aged 55. In 2015, myself (then 55) and my 21-year-old son Ben decided to train hard in an effort to conquer our first mountain together, dubbed “the lava challenge”.

In the process, we aimed to raise awareness for bowel cancer and funds for the WA Cancer Council through family and friends’ donations. The added challenge for us was the fact we both have a fear of heights. Mine is a healthy fear whereas Ben’s is almost a phobia. This was reiterated last year when we both raised funds for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of WA as a family friend suffers from the debilitating disease. We abseiled down the side of Perth’s tallest building Central Park which was petrifying and another story for another day.

Gary’s climb of Mount Agung was in memory of his sister Pauline who died of bowel cancer

In 2015 the Bali volcano erupted and wreaked havoc with Bali’s tourism industry and thwarted our plans to conquer the sleeping giant as it awoke, spewing ash everywhere. As we were unable to fly to Bali, our airline carrier offered us a compromise to fly to Darwin or Hawaii. We chose the latter and we did a few treks there which were not especially challenging.

The following year, as a family we decided to try Bali again as the mountain was sleeping and booked an Easter holiday break when myself and Ben would attempt the challenge. But Australian border security had other ideas when Ben’s boarding pass was found to be incorrectly printed with my name.

After many problems, Ben was forced to remain at home and the climb didn’t happen. We next thought of climbing in 2017 but the volcano erupted again causing worldwide chaos, then the pandemic happened.

Fast forward to June 2023 when myself and wife Julie decided to go to Bali for most of the month where we would celebrate her birthday and our wedding anniversary and explore the real Bali.

At 63, I still had climbing Mount Agung in the back of my mind or had I left it too late? I usually keep myself reasonably fit doing Perth fun runs which had been postponed during the pandemic. I did do the HBF run for a reason on its return this year but injured a calf muscle.

On arrival in Bali, we discovered the governor had decreed a sweeping ban on all climbing and hiking on the island’s 22 mountains, effective immediately. But not many locals knew of the ban and I saw a window of opportunity and booked a trekking guide for the climb, seeing it as the last chance to honour my sister and donate to such a worthy charity.

Unfortunately, son Ben, who had committed himself to climb with me previously, was unable to join me as he was moving to Thailand to train and compete as a Muay Thai fighter. I was picked up at my guesthouse by my driver at 11pm and driven to Besakihat at the foot of Mount Agung. Yes, the climb is in the dark.

Because I had no real intention of climbing on the trip to Bali, I was ill equipped with no proper climbing shoes and had to buy a cheap pair of track pants as it was cold in the highlands. 

Guides take a minimum of two climbers up the mountain; I paid double and was greeted in the car park by my guide, a fresh-faced 15-year-old who could not speak English. I was handed a trekking pole, a head lamp and a pair of gloves and off we went without a word of induction on our six-hour climb.

What could go wrong, my first 3000m mountain climb with a non-English speaking teenager, dodgy calf muscles and in the dark?

To reach the starting point of the assent, we first had to climb 150 steps to the mother temple where my guide lit some incense and said a few prayers, hopefully for us both. The climb started behind the temple with a narrow steep track through the jungle, my guide taking off like a rabbit, setting a cracking pace.

People are advised to wear a jumper, long pants and a rain jacket as the weather can change quickly but I soon discovered that you sweat a lot. At the halfway point, we stopped for a rest and I was down to my tee-shirt but I was soon shivering in the cold atmosphere so on went the jumper and jacket again.

This was the main rest spot on the ascent and where my young fire-loving guide built a big bonfire to dry the wet clothes on our back which was a godsend, also allowing other guides and climbers to catch us up.

Gary and his guide

I turned around and looked into the darkness across Bali, all the way to the twinkling lights of the city and towns and said: “holy sh…t” It was a terrifying moment and a reminder of how high we were climbing.

After about 20 minutes, we set off again with the terrain getting steeper at about 70 degrees, more arduous with smooth rock and solidified lava. It was tough going with rough and steep terrain, steeping over crevasses and navigating like a mountain goat knowing that one slight deviation off the path and it was over crevasses and a ravine to a certain death.

After six grueling hours we made it to the summit which was the scariest bit of all, perched on rocks in about a three square metre area with seven guides and thirteen climbers. As the sun rose I could now see and realised the precariousness of our location with sheer drops all around and a volcanic crater.

Now for the bit I was dreading, the four-hour climb down the mountain in hot daylight, seeing the dangerous hazards and extreme height. It was very slippery with climbers losing their footing which I did on many occasions, suffering bruising or cracking my lower ribs.

Luckily, my guide caught me as I was falling forward, almost face-planting the side of the mountain. I did enjoy the celebratory, hard-earned Bintang beer at the bottom after ten hours of so many emotions, nervous anxiety, fear, adrenalin rush, adulation and physical challenges.

I would not recommend this climb to family or friends as it is dangerous with no safety provisions at all. Climbers need to be fit, tuned in, disciplined and a little crazy. Many climbers don’t make it to the top but simply turn around after realising the degree of difficulty and they are the wise ones.

Unfortunately, many people have died over the years during the climb, usually on the way down, veering off the designated track. This happened as recently as February this year and two people perished last year.

But I’m delighted to have completed the challenge safely. And oh, what a buzz!

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