Climbing Merapi unguided

Our Adventure on the Fire Mountain

Climbing the active volcano Merapi is an incredible adventure, especially if you decide to climb the true summit. The volcano lies in Central Java directly north of Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Java (not to be confused with the other Merapi next to the Ijen Crater in East Java). Merapi offers one of the most amazing hikes in Indonesia and it can be done self-guided in one day by anyone with basic fitness.

Eva waving the Indonesian flag on the summit of Merapi

Eva waving the Indonesian flag on the summit of Merapi

Riding to Selo

We – that is Eva, Jill and I – did this hike without a guide starting from Yogya. We rented scooters and cruised to Selo, a town on the north side of Merapi and the starting point of the adventure. Some people split the climb into two days and camp on the way up. But since we didn’t have a tent we wanted to do it in one day. Views are usually only good in the morning (it gets super hazy during the day), and so the plan was to get to Selo in the early evening, sleep for a while and then get up at 2am in the morning for a full moon climb of Merapi's summit at 2968m. However, we needed a lot longer for the 60km ride from Yogya than we thought: going uphill on medium quality roads with scooters just takes some time. Nothing too difficult, but we ended up arriving in Selo at 10:30pm (admittedly, we did stop at Special Sambal for quite a huge dinner on the way up – the food there is just insanely good). We hadn’t arranged any place to stay for the night but there are a few basic accommodations and we quickly found a guy who gave us a cheap room in his house. 

Note: I have added Amazon links of the gear we used on the trip, in case you are interested or planning one yourself. If you buy something I get a small percentage, but you will not be charged more. This helps me to keep the website going.
Mount Merbabu at sunrise; the starting point Selo can be seen on the bottom right

Mount Merbabu at sunrise; the starting point Selo can be seen on the bottom right

Starting the Full Moon Ascent of Merapi

Most people start the hike at 1am to have enough time to reach the summit for sunrise (at about 5:45am in August). We were confident we could do it a little faster and started at 2am. This way we also hoped to avoid some annoying locals who are rumored to wait at the trailhead at the normal starting time to pressure people into taking a guide by telling them that it is forbidden and dangerous to climb Merapi without a guide. Do not believe any of those lies, just ignore them and keep going! So we get up at 2am after 2,5 hours of sleep and start hiking up the road leading to the trailhead. For navigation you can totally rely on the free offline app “maps.me”. It has lead me on many mountain adventures and displays the Merapi trail with a dazzling accuracy. When we arrive at the dark trailhead at 2:20am we try to be super quiet and get on the trail as fast as possible. We are lucky, nobody is there to hassle us. Under the light of the full moon we follow the trail through plantations. After some time, we come into a forest and the trail gets steeper. It is important to bring a headlamp because even at full moon it is pretty dark under the trees. The path starts branching out into a network of interrelated dirt paths, but I think for the most part it doesn’t matter which one you take as long as you go up (if you want to be sure, just stick to the one on maps.me).

Moonlight Views and Sunrise over Java

Once the trees start to thin, the views of the moonlit landscape around us is unbelievable. We can see at least six volcanos all around us and the lights of Indonesia’s most populated island below us.

Java has over 140 million inhabitants, the most populated island in the world

Java has over 140 million inhabitants, the most populated island in the world

At about 5am we arrive at a little plateau before the last summit push. Since the light before sunrise is usually the best for photography/time lapses, and this place is already an excellent view point we decide to stay here to watch the sunrise. It is quite cold and windy up here, so it is advisable to bring a good wind jacket and the warmest layers you have available.

Eva and Jill waiting for those warm sunrays

Eva and Jill waiting for those warm sunrays

I cannot believe how awesome the view around us is and so I start running around taking pictures in every direction. Since you need long exposures to shoot during blue hour and due to the strong wind, a solid tripod is important for shooting here. I love my camera for hikes like this, because it is lightweight and compact but it still performs very well in dark conditions. As the sun rises, the volcano cone turns fiery red.

Merapi's impressive cone at sunrise

Merapi's impressive cone at sunrise

Climbing Merapi's Crater Rim

Our frozen bodies start to warm up and we continue to the summit. This is the steepest part and in the loose scree you slide back one step for every two steps you take.

Endurance training for Jill and Eva

Endurance training for Jill and Eva

About twenty minutes after sunrise it is already really hot. A few people on a guided tour pass us on their way down, slipping repeatedly on the lose rocks. Finally, we get into a more solid section and top out on the crater rim. The view into the deep, steaming crater below is unreal – we are looking at the most active volcano in a country with 76 active volcanos. You can see the ocean, Yogyacarta and many volcanos in every direction.

Climbing Merapi's True Summit

This place on the crater rim is what everybody treats as the summit. But looking along the crater rim to the west we can see that it rises higher, so this is a false summit. I had read before that during one of the most recent eruptions the crater had changed, and a spectacular needle now forms the true summit of Merapi. The true summit cannot be reached, the article said. We decide to climb along the crater ridge to have a look at it. Once we get closer to it on the thin and exposed ridge, we see it and it does look surreal: A single pillar protruding vertically from the crater ridge, directly above the steaming crater. I really want to climb this thing, but it looks kind of sketchy and you fall more than 100 meters on all sides, if you slip. Slowly I start to test the hand and foot holds. I inch higher and higher on the sharp volcanic rock.

The true summit cannot be reached, they said...

The true summit cannot be reached, they said...

Finally, with one last big pull I reach the top – I did it! Once I stand up on the narrow needle my heart starts pumping hard, one wrong step and it is over. Only air and volcanic steam around me – how incredible is the true summit of Merapi!?

Trying to calm down on the summit pillar of Merapi with some meditation

Trying to calm down on the summit pillar of Merapi with some meditation

The Descent

Climbing down is always harder, but after two scary minutes I am safe on the crater ridge again, my hands shivering from the adrenalin. We climb back to the false summit and start the long hike down. As we descend it gets hotter and hotter and at the bottom we are back at a tropical 30°C, the usual Indonesian climate.

At the foot of Merapi it is getting greener again

At the foot of Merapi it is getting greener again

Visit of Prambanan on the Way Back

On the way back to Yogya we decide to visit the fascinating Hindu temple ruins of Prambanan. We make it there just in time for sunset, which gives the place a magical mood. Merapi, our conquered summit, is catching the last sunrays in the background.

Climbing Merapi was an amazing experience. It is allowed to climb Merapi without a guide and it is really easy, so don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. The true summit is out of this world, but a little more difficult, so be careful if you try it.

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The Hindu temple Prambanan after sunrise

The Hindu temple Prambanan after sunrise

Full Gallery of our Climb of Merapi

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