LOMBOK: "We were cooking breakfast that morning, just after 6am, when the ground shook," said 31-year-old Sahnan as he recalled the moment a 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck Lombok on Jul 29, 2018.
Sahnan had been one of around 600 people stranded at Mount Rinjani's famous crater lake, Segara Anak or Child of the Sea, because of fog and heavy clouds.
“It didn’t occur to us that there was an earthquake. We heard a rumbling sound and it was only then that we realised an earthquake was happening. It was chaos after that,” he told CNA.
“We calmed down after the first jolt, but then there was a stronger aftershock that scared us more, because it caused even more rocks to tumble down from all sides of the lake. I felt like the world was ending and we were all so scared,” he said.
More climbers became trapped at the summit due to consequent landslides, bringing the total number of those stranded to 1,226.
One Malaysian climber was killed after she was crushed by a pillar at her homestay located several kilometres away from the base camp.
Rescue operations to bring climbers back to safety lasted days.
Sahnan is a porter for those climbing Mount Rinjani - a job he has been doing for four years.
He has the back-breaking task of carrying logistical supplies for climbers to the top of the mountain, preparing their meals along the way and pitching their tents to ensure they get a good night’s sleep.
The weight of supplies for the CNA group was slightly more than 32kg - half of what Sahnan said he was used to carrying as a youth working in the fields, helping his family.
READ: "From high season to absolutely nothing" - Indonesian quake devastates tourism
THE MIGHTY MOUNTAIN
At 3,627 metres high, Mount Rinjani is Indonesia’s second highest volcano and one of two top destinations for tourists in Lombok.
It is sacred to the local Sasak people and the Hindus from Bali, and its summit attracted an estimated 80,000 climbers in 2017 prior to the earthquake because of spectacular sunsets and sunrises, volcanic lakes, hot springs as well as panoramic views of the neighbouring islands of Bali and Sumbawa.
A trip to the summit and back takes around three days and two nights, and the trek to the top is arduous.
During peak tourist seasons prior to the earthquake, it was not uncommon to see the various checkpoints and base camps flooded with colourful tents, with people streaming up and down the mountain trails.
On this visit, the mountain was mostly silent, save for very few tourists.
Indonesia is home to 68 active volcanoes - Mount Rinjani is one of them. Despite this, there is no nationwide, standard operating procedure in place for mountain climbers.
After the earthquake, the Mount Rinjani National Park Agency closed the hiking trails.
Routes to Rinjani’s crater lake and summit were cut off due to the landslides and remain sealed today because of rocks from the landslides, which have blocked the paths.
Porters CNA spoke to said they did not know when visitors would be able to venture onto those paths again as it was now "up to nature" to clear the way.
On Aug 5, a bigger quake hit parts of Lombok, killing more than 500 people and displacing more than 100,000 in North Lombok, the hardest-hit regency.
Tourism in Lombok, Indonesia’s second-biggest tourist destination after Bali, was left in tatters.
For porters like Sahnan, the shutdown meant that he had to find an alternative source of income and he turned to labouring in the fields, working under a farmer. He earned US$3.50 for every 100kg of harvest, far off from the US$17.50 he was making per day as a porter.
Officials on the other hand were convening and overhauling the existing system during the shutdown, to re-open the park better prepared.
Head of the Mount Rinjani National Park Agency, Sudiyono, told CNA that July’s earthquake taught a valuable lesson.
“It taught us how to deal with an earthquake (whose) position is at the top of the mountain. This is an extraordinary experience for us and we are thankful to God that all parties helped us in the evacuation process,” said Sudiyono.
READ: "There are so many earthquakes, it is normal for us" - Lombok villagers on life with frequent aftershocks
“After the quakes we could not immediately carry out surveys because first of all, the community was still traumatised – all the guides, all the porters, who used to take us up the mountain, they were still traumatised, so we waited for stability.
"After that, we tried to conduct surveys and there were still aftershocks so we decided to take some time and improve our management,” Sudiyono explained.
In June this year, authorities finally reopened Mount Rinjani to visitors again, nearly one year after the closure.
This time around, things are different – there is a standard operating procedure now for climbers, created by the park agency.
The agency worked together with The Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation (PVMBG) to map out potentially dangerous areas, to determine which ones pose moderate danger to climbers and which are safe.
“We have also made simple signs on the mountain so that people know (which direction to go in.) At the moment climbers still cannot go to the summit or the crater lake and we have stopped them with signs that we have placed there,” said Sudiyono.
Paint has also been used to indicate varying levels of safety: Green and white for safe routes and red for danger. Red paint also advises climbers passing by to speed up and discourages them from staying in the spot for too long.
Areas painted yellow tell climbers that they can stop to take pictures of the view, but they cannot camp out on the location. CNA saw the paint on trails, trees, rocks and stones.
“We still haven’t been able to build physical forms of disaster mitigation on the ground as we’ve just reopened the park again this year, said Sudiyono.
“In the future, we hope to prepare for disaster mitigation for example by building a helipad, or we hope there will be a type of bunker, not just for matters of dealing with disasters, but for our officers who are not tourists so that there is a structure which is safe for them since they spend at least three days on the ground,” he shared.
According to Sudiyono, every SOP for climbing has different specifications for different locations. In terms of topography and duration of the climb, these are factored into each location’s SOP and each location must have its own SOP.
“We have created (Rinjani’s SOP) so that its characteristics pertain to us,” he said.
Changes in access have also accompanied the park’s reopening. Authorities now use an e-ticketing system and have enforced a quota.
Climbers are required to buy tickets online, priced at US$0.35 for locals and US$10 for foreigners. Their movements will be closely monitored, with only between 100 and 150 hikers allowed on each trail at any one time, on four available trails a day.
The tickets they purchase will have a time limit and travellers have to check in when they begin a climb and check out when the climb concludes.
“If they don’t report and exceed the time limit, visitors will have to pay for the extra days. It is also an indication for us that there is a problem for them. Because they could either be on the mountain taking more time or having an incident,” Sudiyono told CNA.
Climbers are also forbidden from leaving behind trash and are required to participate in clean-up efforts.
Data was also collected before the earthquake. However, everything was handwritten, making it difficult to track down data quickly.The process is now computerised.
“It used to be very difficult for us to detect and calculate quickly just how many visitors are from the US or from Thailand, but with this application we can do it quickly and data collection is more accurate. We even note down the weight of climbers in the event of an evacuation,” he said.
Porters like Sahnan have welcomed the new rules and tighter safety measures. Porters, guides and trekking organisers have been consolidated, and now have their own associations, formed by the park agency.
There are 95 trekking organisers and around 1,600 porters and guides, who have been classified according to their territories and regencies, simplifying communications between the agency and the relevant parties.
They must all be registered with the agency so that they are accountable for their guests. The agency also provided training for porters prior to reopening the park.
“We were trained by being told what to do. For example, what techniques we need on the mountain in the event of eruptions, earthquakes, strong winds, so we were taught how to overcome them. It made us more confident because we were trained in a group there, making us no longer afraid,” Sahnan said.
Climbers are slowly trickling back, as officials in charge of Mount Rinjani hope that what they are doing in Lombok can be used as a reference for Indonesia’s many other mighty mountains.