The hike to the crater of Papandayan starts at the end of a windy mountain road, and when we arrive at the trailhead the mountain is socked in. We got a late start from Bandung because our trip leader slept in after a late night out at the bar so it’s already mid-afternoon when we start the walk.

The group has increased by six, since we picked up five more tour participants in Jakarta, and Tom picked up an Indonesian tour assistant. We are crammed into a bus with barely enough seats for the passengers, let alone the luggage. The seats, which are sized for Indonesians, are about half the width of an average-sized European, Australian, or American. I am wedged into half an Indonesian seat, between the luggage and a large Australian. I can’t wait to get out after the three-hour drive up the mountain.

Papandayan venting
Papandayan venting

We hike up the road, or what’s left of it after the last eruption, and then take a trail to the active crater area. The 2001 eruption was a lateral blast that produced a pyroclastic flow like that of Mt. St. Helens. It knocked over trees and burnt the vegetation and devastated the landscape. In contrast to the other volcanoes we’ve seen, it was mostly old rock that was blown out of the vent, rather than fresh scoria and lava.

The rock is shot through with hydrothermal alteration, like that of an epithermal ore deposit. Feldspars are zapped to clay, the matrix is bleached to white, and iron oxide fills the cracks. Volcanic breccia is abundant. Where we do find fresh rock, it is a phenocryst-packed andesite. This volcanic system appears much juicier than volcanoes to the east, like Bromo. Doni explains that there is a big geothermal field on the other side of the mountain, which is being exploited for power.

Papandayan alteration
Papandayan alteration

We cross blocky pyroclastic rocks to a vent that is blowing and jetting like a drive-through car wash. We pick our way carefully up a hot water stream and peer through the mist into the throat of the volcano. Sulfur-encrusted rocks peer back. The roar is deafening.

The fog is rolling in, but higher up the mountain is another vent, which is supposed to be even better than this one. A steep talus of boulders and hot water springs must be crossed to get there. Tom starts out one way, then another, and finally finds a way up the crumbly bank. People are stumbling along after him in the fog.

Suddenly something clicks off inside me – I don’t want to go there.

“I’m heading back,” I announce to those around me, without further explanation.

I scramble back up the bouldery slope to the trail and the group disappears in the mist. If I need a rational excuse for my retreat, it’s that I have to pee…bad. I find a good-sized block of lava with a view of the mountain, or what there is to be seen of it through the fog.

I think back to a GSA Geotrip to southern Italy, where the volcanoes were a bit more obliging in giving us some action. A highlight of the trip was a climb to the newly formed crater of Mt. Etna, Sud-Ouest. After a long drive and several cable cars to the summit, we had a hike of a couple hours over barren scree to the crater. Fresh scoria littered the rim and acrid fumes scorched our throats.

Little Sud-Ouest, a relatively new crater, boomed and lazily tossed up a couple small bombs, but they landed safely in the pit. The trip leaders pointed to a small stone building that served as a “bomb shelter,” in case things really heated up. After a few minutes of taking pictures and collecting fresh scoria, it was time to go. Sud-Ouest was thought to be the sight of the next major eruption and the leaders wanted to spend as little time as possible at this dangerous location.

“Let’s get out of here,” they shouted. The group was quick to follow.

Except for Rosaly Lopes and I. We were the only women in the climbing party and after several hours on the barren slopes with no shelter or privacy, we finally saw our opportunity.

“No!” we shouted in unison, looking at each other with the grimace that only women waiting in a long line at the restroom could understand.

“What do you mean ‘No’?”, shouted back the Italian trip leaders with agitation.

“We’ve got to go!”

“Yes, let’s go!”

“No, we’ve got to…pee!”

They waved their arms in disgust and headed off into a fumarolic mist, muttering some expletives in Italian.

Business taken care of, Rosaly and I soon followed, lingering only long enough to pocket a few more specimens of very fresh scoria.

Back on Papandayan, with great relief, I wander around looking at altered rocks and taking pictures of scorched vegetation. Blackened branches reach like arms to the sky, as if begging for release from the pyroclastic flow. Green shoots are sprouting from the base of shrubs not completely incinerated.

As mist swirls around the charcoal branches, a black dog wanders up the trail, nose to the ground. It looks up at me, but doesn’t really see me, “looking but not looking.” I whistle, but the dog wanders on down the trail and disappears in the mist. Black branches, black dog…it’s ominous.

Papandayan vents
Papandayan vents

When I get back to the parking lot, some local boys are hanging around and we strike up a conversation. I’m curious about the plants here. The shrub coming back at the edge of the pyroclastic flow has blue edible berries, thick leathery leaves and looks like salal, which is common in the woods of western Washington. The boys tell me it is called suagi. A bright green plant with triangular leaves sprouts from the roots of burned out stumps – they call it pakistangkur.

A lacey fern grows under the suagi and they say it is paku anam. People make bracelets out of the rhizomes, which are thin hollow cylinders once the inner part is removed. They burnish them over a flame and carve decorative designs on them. The boys show off the bracelets on their wrists. They are very attractive and I want one. But the shop that sells them is already closed.

Doni and I have tea while waiting for the group to return. At dusk, about the time we are starting to worry, they come tromping down the trail.

“Was the climb too steep?” “Fumes causing problems?” “Afraid of ruining your camera?”

No…no…no. I offer no explanation. I’m not sure I can verbalize it. Fear of the volcano erupting was the least of my worries. The rationalization must be like those of journalists going into active war zones – this doesn’t apply to me. Yet, what made me turn back was something more visceral. Maybe it was the realization that it was up to me and me alone to make the call to go or not, aside from what others do or what the trip leader deems safe. Experience does not always chalk up to good judgment.

One’s limits are not always clear cut, they’re nebulous like the mist enveloping the volcanoes. Perhaps I’m going by feeling, like the villagers cutting grass for their cattle. Or maybe I’ve achieved wisdom and understanding, like the pastors on Sulawesi. Or maybe…I just had to pee.

Not long after our hike on Etna in 1997, Sud-Ouest did erupt ferociously, taking out the uppermost gondola we had ridden and sending cascades of lava down the mountain. It is now the center of activity.