“At one stage I turn around and spot Gros Piton and Petit Piton. I could swear they’re taunting me. I taunt back: I’ve conquered you already, Gros Piton. Give me a little time until I can feel my legs again and I’ll be climbing Petit Piton too!”
I feel like some kind of Indiana Jones intrepidly making my way through the jungle. We’re only a couple of minutes into the hike and I’m already feeling the burn. I’d love to enjoy the scenery but after the third stumble over a tree root I decided that it’s probably better to watch my feet.
I’m in St. Lucia and am doing one of the island’s musts: the Grand Piton hike. Located on the western side of St. Lucia, just south of the town of Soufrière, lays two of the island’s most iconic sights: Gros Piton and Petit Piton.
The Pitons of St. Lucia are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also inspired the design of the country’s national flag. They’re like imposing sentinels watching over Pitons Bay and can be seen on almost any tourist brochure of the island, often with an invitation that makes it sound much easier than it is: ‘Climb Pitons St. Lucia!’
While both Pitons can be climbed, you need special permission to climb the smaller of the two, Petit Piton. It’s true what they say about dynamite coming in small packages, since Petit Piton St. Lucia is steeper and much more challenging. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it can in fact be dangerous.
Most visitors to the island opt for a Gros Piton hike tour instead. The Gros Piton nature trail is much more manageable and can be done in about four hours, give or take. While the mountain is higher, 2,619 feet to be exact, the incline is more gradual and you don’t need to be an experienced mountaineer to get to the top.
I’m now beginning to wonder what on earth I was thinking. Why didn’t I just choose a day on the beach instead of opting to hike Gros Piton? This may be a hike but an easy one it clearly isn’t going to be. I’m really grateful for all those hours that I went to the gym and actually did a work-out.
The first part wasn’t that hard: The gently sloping path started at the interpretive centre in Fond Gens Libre, where my tour guide arranged one of the Gros Piton nature trail guides for us, and soon the beautiful landscape made way for the jungle we’re now finding ourselves in. It’s really just because our pace is so fast that I know I’m not quite as fit as I’d have liked to be. But before we set out, the guide showed me on a scale model of the mountain what our route would be like and I know that soon the Gros Piton elevation is going to increase quite rapidly and the fun and games will be over.
We round a bend and suddenly I know why I’ve decided on this Gros Piton hike: Through a break in the vegetation I catch a glimpse of the ocean and then I can also see the summit of this mountain we’re on! Our guide waits patiently while my companions and I take some pictures and try to spot the birds we can hear in the trees. I wonder if anyone can tell that I’m really just using my camera as an excuse to catch my breath.
We continue on. Up and up we go, me still trying not to trip over loose rocks or tree roots. Even though we set out early, it’s hot. Very hot. I’m glad I listened to everyone who told me I should bring enough water. Besides, at the rate I’m drinking it, the weight I’m carrying in my small backpack is quickly becoming less of a problem.
At one point the trees clear again and I see Petit Piton up ahead in the distance. Everyone oohs and aahs and have their cameras at the ready. The guide tells us that this is the halfway mark. The what? Yes, unfortunately I heard correctly: We’re not there yet! Not nearly! We take a break and I dig out a banana and a granola bar from my backpack.
Time to reapply the sunscreen again too. I chat to both the trail guide, a member of the Gros Piton tour guides association, and the guide from my tour company. They’ve both done this hike hundreds of times and tell me that many hikers, about half in fact, decide that this is where they throw in the towel. No shame in turning back then, I guess, but I’m determined to make it to the top, even if it means I’ll never walk again afterwards.
We set off again and I can now see why, even though this part is shorter in distance, it takes about the same amount of time to cover as the first part. This is grueling! Most of the trail consists of steps, many of them not much more than boulders, and in places I need to scramble and grab whatever’s close at hand so that I won’t fall over. I’ve heard about the thorn-covered vines known as the Devil’s walking stick that I shouldn’t grab. Right now I don’t care if one of these babies crosses my path, though.
All I can think of is how my thighs are on fire, and not in a good way. I open my mouth to start saying something and then realize just in time that I was about to ask like a whiny child: Are we almost there yet?
And finally we are. I made it and it feels as if I’m standing on top of the world. Except that I can’t see much. There’s so much vegetation that it’s completely blocking any kind of view I might have had. We climb down a little and reach a small platform. This is what I’ve come for: The view is incredible! The landscape of St. Lucia unfolds below me in all its fine greenery. Soufrière looks like a tiny little toy town.
I spot Vieux Fort in the distance and because it’s a clear day, I can even see Saint Vincent across the blue ocean. Climbing Gros Piton in St. Lucia may just have been the most difficult, most rewarding thing I’ve ever done – the best experience of my life but one I never want to have again.
I sip on the Piton beer that I’ve dragged up here because it’s the thing to do when you climb either Piton mountains in St. Lucia and then it’s time for the return trip. I’m elated since it’s all downhill from here but make no mistake: Easy it’s not. The path is a little slippery at times and I’m glad that my boots have a good tread. Apparently you can do the Gros Piton tours in sneakers too but I prefer the ankle support my lightweight boots give me. If I twist my ankle here, the guide will have to carry me down and I like him too much to put him through that.
Finally we’re back at the interpretive centre. We say our thanks and goodbyes and then it’s off to Sulphur Springs to soak in the volcanically heated, mineral-rich mud on this trip arranged for us by the friendly locals of Real St. Lucia Tours. At one stage I turn around and spot Gros Piton and Petit Piton. I could swear they’re taunting me. I taunt back: I’ve conquered you already, Gros Piton. Give me a little time until I can feel my legs again and I’ll be climbing Petit Piton too!
Kelly & Matt