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Climbing Sacred, Secretive Peaks

There are many stories about Rinjani that I am forbidden to tell you because I will be cursed.

We are huddled behind a sandstone formation at the edge of the volcano’s ridgeline, bracing ourselves briefly from the bitter wind and blinding dust. I am rubbing my hands together and blowing warm air into them to reduce the numbing. Though it is 3 a.m. at around 11,500 feet, I have my Buff pulled up around my nose and my sunglasses over my eyes. We are surrounded by opaque wisps of cloud formations and can eerily only see five feet in front of us. The “Saturday 14er”-esque group has dispersed among the 2 km of ridgeline, making it seem as if Edi and I are the only ones making the final haul to the summit. I hadn’t accounted for the cold – coming from dry Colorado one does not consider the tropical effect of fog seeping underneath your skin. I am shaking, and Edi and I have meandered our way into a conversation of history, folklore, and politics. Where do you think the god is? He turns to me blankly and inquisitively. Edi takes a break from his complex tales of the mountain’s history, geological formation, and cultural significance to breach subtly on the religious connotations of the mountain. There is a secret on top of Rinjani that no human can understand. It is filled with genies. I come to the mountain each time to meditate and find understanding. Do you meditate? 

Rinjani is a secretive mountain, he shares. We are careful to climb her. 

The day before, we gained over 6,000 feet of elevation in about 5.5 miles and crested seven consecutive smaller mountains. After pulling our sliding feet up 65-degree angles in the sinking mixture of ash, dirt, and tree branches, I was ready to summit Rinjani. I had flown from Colorado for the chance to climb this “breath-taking” volcanic ridge and experience Indonesia. I had done a little research before entering into the national park and coming to its village, Sembalun. I knew that the country was 98% Muslim, but I did not know all the sub-genres of local religions that mixed and synchronized with Islam. In short: everything Edi was outlining was novel to me. I wished, up at 12,000 feet, that I had brought my notebook, phone, or something to record all the details he recounted.

If you write about this place, you have to email me, but be careful what you share. 

What secrets do we breach from mountains?

What do metaphysics have to do with climbing?

Who reserves the right: pilgrims or climbers?

These were all the questions circling my head as we breached the summit, floating amongst the vapor like we were not supposed to be there.

Gunung Rinjani is the second highest volcano and the fifth tallest mountain in Indonesia, climbing to 3,726 meters. Located in the Rinjani National Park, which sprawls across 41,000 hectares, it is part of the “Ring Of Fire.” Its name etymologically stems from a Javanese term for “God.” Within the mountain sits Sengara Anak (Child of the Sea), a crescent shaped sulfur lake about 6 km wide that surrounds a new volcano formed by eruptions within the caldera, Gunung Baru (New Mountain), which recently erupted on August 1, 2016. History has it that in 1257 a massive eruption of Rinjani vomited nearly 40 km of stone and dust into the air and collapsed a section of the mountain, creating a caldera and Sengara Anak Lake.

A concise and consecutive history of Gunung Rinjani is difficult to find, especially translated into the English language. Ecological and scientific reports are common on the volcano’s activity, geological formation, and ecological make up, but finding a history or explanation of the mountain’s cultural and religious significance requires substantial digging through strange Internet links.

I am thankful for Edi who, in follow up emails, shared with me more of the mountain’s significance by translating from Indonesian to English the ancient book of Babad Lombok, written in the traditional Kawi language on palm tree with the title “Jatiswara.” Rinjani’s religious significance is so secretive that Edi was turned away by a public figure in the village when asked to tell the story of Rinjani as a point of reference. We will keep the secret of Rinjani and even the hardest of winds will not shake us. 

Suddenly, I am feeling torn in even my attempt to elucidate, explain, or write about the significance of Rinjani. I was allowed to climb the peak but to put it into English seems to be a different story. Do I have a right to tell Rinjnai’s story?

Lombok is an island of Indonesia located in Nusa Tenggara and west of Bali that was originally inhabited with the Sasak ethnic group. The philosophy of Lombok’s Sasak people is that “honesty is a good jewel” and the ancestors of the group strove to teach honesty to their children as the keepers of local wisdom.  The Sasak people believe that Rinjani is the queen of genies all over the world and holds the secret of the invisible kingdom and is the mosque of a genie. The Balinese Hindus come to Sengara Anak each year for pekelan where jewelry is thrown into the lake as an offering.

Ziki, who drove me through the traditional villages on the back of his motorbike also attempted to tell me the stories of Sembalun, its many hills, and Rinjani. Through translation and jet lag, the stories got muddled and drifted away like the clouds escaping into the lush green hills. Everywhere I turned, attempts to understand, or even see, Rinjani evaded me. Everywhere I turned was a shroud, like the thick white fog that hovered along the ridgeline.

Why this need to climb Rinjani? Why this compulsion to write about it? Whose toes were I stepping on? What god was I accidently disrespecting?

We will keep the secret of Rinjani and even the hardest of winds will not shake us.


To separate the strands of the ethical question of climbing sacred peaks, one asks: who’s climbing and how are they climbing?

The goal here is not necessarily to make a judgment as to which mountains Westerner’s should or should not be allowed to climb. I am only a novice mountaineer and nowhere near an expert in cross-cultural relations or foreign tourism policy. This notion of “eco-tourism,” which includes adventure sports and activities, is one that scholars have written numerous books on from public policy, philosophical, and sociological perspectives. The goal is to merely set up a conversation and loft a question that seems pertinent to our global “peak-bagging.” This question is wrapped up in the tenuous strings of cultural respect and cross-cultural communication between the East and West that is particularly fraught with polarizing notions of individualism, communal ownership, and spirituality. Here, there is no “black-and-white.” Here there are “yes,” “no,” and “but” that require explanation, consideration, and compassion.

The question of who is climbing these mountains and why boils down to the topic of adventure tourism. For the most part, sacred mountains are scared specifically for their vastness and technical difficulty. In many cases, these mountains require extremely technical climbing or mountaineering skillsets that are only possessed by the most dedicated climbers. There is a distinction between commercializing sacred mountains and exoticizing them for Western tourists versus the few skilled climbers who could manage climbing the peaks in question.

There is a distinction between a professional crew of climbers, working in tandem with local government and guides for permission and information to make an ascent of one of these peaks possible, and the growing idea of “eco-tourism” that often involves installing fixed ropes, trampling ridgelines, strewing trash along the way, relying on porters and guides, and any other modifications to make a difficult mountain easily attainable. While some may argue for open accessibility, others argue that certain ecological realms must be protected from overcrowding. Many ecological scholars and environmentalists argue that in our search for new experiences, some mountains should remain wild and unpredictable.

Alongside the ecological is the economic: are we forcing countries to open up these areas using our political sway or are countries willingly opening up these mountains for their own economic benefit? There is something insidious and complicated about taking an impoverished country and creating a servile tourist economy dependent on Western developers. Bhutan is one country that has successfully avoided this. Opening themselves up to tourism, rather than just aid workers, government officials, and teachers, around 40 years ago, visitors must contract their trip through a local Bhutanese tour operator and pay visa fees. This keeps Western developers and companies at bay while vitalizing Bhutan’s economy and job market. Eco-tourism can be a great economic boost for a country or village, provided that the money is funneling back into the guides, porters, and local operators rather than the pocket of large “adventure” conglomerates. Rinjani National Park requires an entrance fee from foreign visitors and (mostly) requires tourists to climb with local guides and porters, ensuring employment and revenue back into the island. While many are capable of completing the hike on their own, and many Indonesians complete the trek without guides, the policy of guides ensures some level of economic gain that also encourages tourism. As I was shuttled around by Ziki, he urged that I must come back and bring all my friends to see the magnificent Rinjani. He would personally take us up the peak.

Aside from economic balance, the problem of foreign policy is at the heart of this issue, namely the sovereignty of nations and people groups and their right to choose to not allow tourists or visitors access to their land. This balance of foreign policy, ecological effect, and economic issues has been negotiated differently in case studies in Nepal, India, and Tibet.

Mt. Everest, Nepal

Everest is the salivating “Eldorado” for many mountaineers. To reach the summit is a daunting feat that requires months of preparation, conditioning, and acclimation, not to mention thousands of dollars. Some might argue that those who are completed these things have “earned” the right to climb Everest. As the popularity of climbing Everest has increased in the past few decades, the trek no longer resembles a feat of technical skill but a luxury accessed through money and the usage of guides and porters. Safety and environmental impact have become impending issues for the mountain, leading Nepalese tourism officials to ban novice climbers and consider even stricter limits last fall. Nepal has banned climbers who have not previously summited at least one 6,500 m peak and has attempted to mandate that climbers carry out extra garbage that lines the ascent.

CNN reports that, at the very least, 219 people have died attempting Everest between 1922 and 2010, not including the 17 killed in the April earthquake, and the bans are an attempt to balance safety, environmental impact, and tourism in a country that receives around $508 million dollars a year from climbers. Paul Hart wrote for The Telegraph on the balance of this sacred peak and its touristic destruction: “the world’s highest peak and an object of religious significance to Nepalese people could become an open cesspit is a sad indictment of how commercialization is destroying the environment of the mountains.” Author Graham Hoyland commented that Everest is now a “McDonald’s” experience rather than a wilderness one; an experience that has become increasingly overcrowded and dirty, lined with trash and bodies left in open graves. This is followed by whether these professional sherpas who guide people along the way are fairly compensated for putting their own lives at risk.

Mt. Kanchenjunga, India

A more primitive, wild climb, Mt. Kanchenjunga’s dangerous north-east side has been ascended by only three teams, but, after a revolt from local Buddhists in 2001, the mountain was shut off indefinitely from climbers. The mountain sits at 28,208ft on the border of Nepal and India. The Sikkimese view the mountain as deity and the home of other deities, watched over by a legendary yeti.

Spurring the controversy and eventual closure was the state’s decision to allow an Austrian team led by Willie Bauer to ascend the face for $20,000, though the team stopped 10 meters short of the actual summit out of respect. Public outcry was particularly vitriolic and accused officials of “selling out” in the name of tourism and Western money. It is reported that only K-2 is harder than Kanchenjunga, which remains closed indefinitely, even as India is lessening its grip on its peaks and opening up more “virgin” peaks to international climbers.

Mt. Kailash, Tibet

Mount Kailash in Tibet might be the most religiously significant and taboo mountain that climbers have sought out. Sitting at 22,000 feet, Kailash is considered sacred to four different religious and a site for a religious pilgrimage that circles the peak. Located in a remote section of western Tibet, no mode of public transport reaches the peak and requires treacherous travel. Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism all speak of Kailash at the center and birthplace of the world, an integral part of the mythic ancient Asian narrative.

In 2001, the Telegraph reports that Spanish mountaineer, Jesus Martinez Novas, received permission to climb the pantheon peak from the Chinese government but eventually called off the project because of negative responses. Even Reinhold Messner was persuaded against the ascent in 1985 because of the mountains religious significance. The negative response focused on the sacred descration of the peak and the fear that the ascent might open up Kailash to commercial ventures. Kailash, the mythical source of the Ganges is not considered to be a very challenging ascent but is one that remains to be conquered. Considered to be the home of Shiva and Parvati in Hinduism, many pilgrims climb over Lipu Lekh Pass to complete a 32-mile hike around the peak. Deference against the climb has continued since, as both local government and climbers agree to leave the gods alone.

Even when the complicated ecological, economic, and political strands are untangled and these sacred peaks become open to climbers, the question of how to go about climbing these peaks rests upon respect of differing worldviews and effective cross-cultural communication.

What is ineffective cross-cultural communication and respect? A case from Malaysia may provide a helpful example of what not to do. In the summer of 2015, several European and North American tourists posed naked on top of Malaysia’s sacred Mount Kinabalu, deeply offending the local people and the Malaysian government. When chided for stripping in a sacred place, the tourists responded by cussing out the local guide. Kinablu is considered as a site where the dead go to rest and annual rituals are enacted to keep climbers safe. Five tourists were barred from leaving the country as the state decided whether or not to press charges. Shortly after, a 5.9 earthquake struck the peak, killing a dozen people, and many officials blamed the tourists for displeasing the spirits.

Counteractively, organizations like the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation have a strict code of ethics outlining the conduct that should accompany ascents. Article 4 IMCF’s “Mountain Code,” the ethics of climbing in foreign countries is outlined. The article encourages politeness, restraint, and the promotion of international relations. Climbers should develop an understanding of societal and religious customs, treating the host country with kindness and respect while strictly adhering to regulation put in place by the government. They also encourage researching history, language, and common phrases for increased communication. It points out the taboo nature of naked skin, avoiding embarrassing hosts, refraining from criticism, and work with social projects in host countries as a way of showing gratitude for the climb. Tolerance, it seems, is key.

We must admit that what clashes in this ethical consideration are sacred and secular worldviews: those who view spaces as religious versus those who may see the mountains as a “spiritual” experience but one solely based on the individual and detached from any sort of deity or higher power. Once we admit that, we can begin to piece out the competing feelings and ideologies that come into play and understand the frustration on both ends. This, however, requires compassion and a willingness to respect ideologies that differ from one’s own. There is certainly no honor in illegally climbing a mountain simply because one does not believe in the idea of scared spaces. This sacred/secular divide is deeper than just an argument over property rights and ownership of mountains. The case of Devil’s Tower, also known as Pte He Hota, in Wyoming highlights the tension of sacred spaces and climbing in the United States and highlights the continuing tension between natives and American climbers. A large molten rock sits at 5,112 feet on National Park Service Land and has long been regarded as a sacred site for over 20 native tribes who use it for rituals, vision quests, and funerals. After a dispute between tribes attempting to perform ceremonies and climbers, the National Park Service evoked a climbing ban for the month of June, the most season for rituals.

What seems like a reasonable ban and compromise still caused immense outrage in the climbing community who argued that their act was just as “spiritual.” Though the Constitution regards treatises with Native Americans as the supreme law of the land and Devil’s Tower falls under the “trespass agreement” signed with the United States government, climbers disgruntled by the ban argued that this decision was in violation of their rights. A judge affirmed that the ban was constitutional and enabled a more than fair balance between sacred and secular pursuits.

Perhaps a starting point in this debate is the commitment to climb with an attitude of respect and in a way that doesn’t overprivilege the West’s notion of property and conquering. In some cases, this can be as simple as a nod to the history of its peak and attempting to understand its significance. An example of this exists in the backyard of the Rocky Mountains: Mt. Blanca or Sisnaajini. Sisnaajini is the eastern boundary of Dinetah, traditionally considered the Navajo homeland, and makes up one part of the four sacred Navajo peaks. Navajo historian Harold Carey writes that the Navajo were given Blanca as a “starting point,” the north arrow on the map, in the direction of the sunrise as a way of determining a person’s mind and presence on earth. Blanca Peak is an interesting case of land use for recreationists, resources, and native preservation. A relatively remote trailhead makes it an entranceway for climbers into the range of Ellingwood and Little Bear but does not offer much access to older Navajo community members with a lack of motorized access and receives the least visitation of the sacred peaks. The rugged terrain and length of the climb make it a less contentious “sacred-secular” confrontation as opposed to other Navajo mountains. However, how many climbers are even cognizant of the peak’s sacred meaning and history?


We reached our destination, largely unbeknownst to the fellow trekkers because the fog hid the summit and gave the feeling of simply floating somewhere in the air. It was tempting to feel disappointment from the lack of a reward. We had offered of our bodies, but she was not accepting. Rinjani thought nothing of our effort. She scoffed at our longing for a picture. She forced disorientation, disconnectedness, but I will refrain from any metaphysical connotations about nature’s wisdom.

I guess Rinjani did not want to be seen today, I shrug towards Edi. I am balancing myself on the loose rocks and trying to avoid ash in my trail runners.

He stops, grabs my shoulder to force me to look back, and rubs his arms: you are giving me… He gestures to his arms and taps his fingers on top of them.


Yes, goosebumps!

 Edi is deep in thought, a walking meditation. He keeps muttering the phrase: she does not want to be seen. Coming on the heels of Edi’s first hike after the Ramadan season, I do not pry into the phrase’s religious significance but I can feel its weight.

What right do we have in the realm of the “sacred” and how might we go about negotiating that space in our desire for peaks and adventure?

Here, I will put Rinjnai to rest. I will not attempt to shed light on her mythical history or her resident genies. I will not attempt to get Edi into hot water with his village leader. I will not broach her mystery for the sake of my inquisitive nature. I was permitted to climb, view or not, and this was my reward.

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