The Symbol of St. Lucia
If you have ever looked up a picture of the Caribbean Island St. Lucia, you most likely saw the iconic Piton Mountains on it. These are the two cone-shaped peaks, covered in lush tropical vegetation, that rise abruptly from the Caribbean Sea.
The Piton Mountains are the symbol of St. Lucia, and a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are often defined as being volcanic plugs. In other words, volcanoes that cooled and closed off a long, long time ago.
Petit Piton on My Mind
Petit Piton is the smaller of the two peaks, but it is much steeper than Gros Piton. While most tourists hike up to the top of Gros Piton as it is more accessible, a small number of visitors venture the climb up Petit Piton. I was one of those people who decided that my St. Lucia vacation would be incomplete if I didn’t attempt to conquer the pointy peak of Petit Piton.
From the very first day I stepped foot on the island, I started asking for information on how to do that. I knew from all I had read that I would need to hire a local guide to take me up because the trail was treacherous and difficult to follow. I found very quickly that our resort, along with many others, would not give any information to visitors about the hike up Petit Piton. They considered it very dangerous, and presumably, a liability issue.
The Unfortunate Petit Piton Hiker
The concierge at our resort tried to discourage me by telling me a story about a tourist who tried to climb up Petit Piton but slipped off the steep rock. By sheer stroke of luck, his vest caught onto a tree branch, and he didn’t fall down to his death. He waited to be rescued for two days, hanging from the tree without food or water. Even though other hikers had heard his cries for help, the island didn’t have the resources to rescue him right away. Since there were no helicopters in St. Lucia, authorities had to request and wait for one to arrive from the nearby island of Martinique. When the rescue team finally came, the man was airlifted off Petit Piton safely. It was just pure luck he survived! As a side note, I came to find out later that the tourist in question tried to hike up the mountain all by himself, and did not bother hiring a local guide. He apparently got lost because the trail was hard to follow, and attempted to climb a section of the rock that was too steep.
Fear and Fascination
As I listened to the story, I remember feeling horrified but at the same time even more fascinated by this incredible peak. I don’t know what it is about my mind that doesn’t quite work the same way most normal minds do. The more someone tells me not to do something because it is too hard or too dangerous, the more I want to give it a try! I really love a good challenge, but I am never careless. I always approach Mother Nature with the utmost respect she deserves. This is why I needed to find a local guide, someone with experience, who knew the trail and the mountain well. So, the question was how and where ! Who could I ask for information?
In Search of a Petit Piton Guide
As it often works out in life, when you really want something and you don’t give up pursuing it, the answers and opportunities finally come to you. So here is how it happened!
On one of our days in St. Lucia my husband and I made plans to go hike to the top of Gros Piton, the one that most people climb. We left our daughters in our amazing resort daycare, and drove to the trailhead. It was located in a small, picturesque village, called Fond Gens Libre, which means “Valley of the Free People.”
Abigail, Our Gros Piton Guide
As soon as we parked our car, we were approached by a lovely Lucian lady named Abigail. She introduced herself as one of the Gros Pitons guides, and said she would be taking us up the mountain. I immediately struck up a conversation with her, and couldn’t help but inquire about hiking Petit Piton. I asked Abigail if she also took people there. She said she didn’t but her uncle who lived in the little village of Fond Gens Libre did. He was apparently one of the local Lucian Petit Piton guides. As we were walking through the village, Abigail pointed at a funny looking sign hanging from a wooden pole. It had the name of her uncle, who went by Mervin The Mountain Goat, and his phone number. It also showed a funny picture of the cone-shaped Piton, with a dark-skinned man on top holding a rope and pulling a lighter-skinned tourist up the mountain. The darker man on top represented Mervin The Mountain Goat of course, and I thought it was so refreshingly hilarious!
Mervin the Mountain Goat
After we completed the hike up to the top of Gros Piton and returned back to the village, Abigail introduced me to her uncle. Mervin The Mountain Goat was a short, very fit Lucian man who looked younger than his age of 43 years. He was soft spoken, very friendly, and of course was happy to take me up Petit Piton. He drove away any doubts I may have had by encouraging me, and assuring that he would keep me safe. Luckily, my hubby gave me his blessings, and I made a deal with Mervin. We agreed that he would come pick me up from the hotel around 6:00 am the next morning, take me up the mountain, and drive me back to the hotel after, all for 140 US dollars. As we parted, I remember feeling a mixture of nervousness and great excitement.
Unfortunately…or perhaps fortunately, the next morning it was a little rainy, so we had to postpone the hike by one day. It actually worked out quite well because I really needed that extra time to give my body a rest after hiking up to the top of Gros Piton.
Getting to the Petit Piton Trailhead
When the long awaited morning finally came, I got up around 5:30 am and filled the bladder of my backpack with cold water. Mervin had instructed me to carry about 3 liters or so to stay well hydrated. I considered packing my heavy Nikon camera, with its massive 18-300 mm lens, but I gave up on the idea. I figured it might be in the way; after all, I had a pretty good phone camera on me already. I put on my bulky hiking boots, and went downstairs to the dining area of our resort. There, I picked up a couple of sandwiches, one for me, and one for Mervin. I sat in the lobby, and had not waited for more than five minutes when The Mountain Goat showed up. He greeted me with a big smile, and made sure I had enough water. Then, we got in his car, and were on our way to conquer the fear-instilling but awe-inspiring Petit Piton!
Mervin drove for awhile on the main road that goes around the entire island, and at one point he took a turn onto another rather narrow and steep road. He explained this was the way to get to Sugar Beach, a beautiful white sandy beach that lay right in between the two Piton Mountains. This same road would also take us near the start of the Petit Piton trail. Sure enough, after not too much longer we arrived.
At the Foot of Petit Piton
Mervin parked in a small, dirt-covered parking area, and we came out of the car. I looked up as I was getting ready to put on my backpack, and there it was! Petit Piton with its pointy peak reaching straight up for the sky, as steep and tall as ever. I couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to climb up there, but I was looking forward to finding out!
Mervin and I got our backpacks on and started walking. We stopped by a small booth near the parking area where an elderly local woman and a younger guy were selling souvenirs and refreshments. They also collected 5 US dollars from me for the maintenance of the ropes along the Petit Piton trail. Yes, I had read that the second half of the climb to the top was assisted by ropes which helped you up the steeper sections. I only hoped my upper body strength would be enough to get me up there.
Beginning of the Trail
Mervin and I waved at the lady and the younger guy, and started walking. The trail started as an innocent narrow path with quite a few smaller and larger rocks dispersed throughout. For the first couple of minutes it was an easy, pleasant ascent in a lush tropical forest.
This however didn’t last for long. It was almost as if we hit a wall. At once, the path became a lot steeper, and a lot more difficult to follow. We started climbing pretty much straight up; there was no zigzagging around the mountain. The rocks became larger, and soon after I had to start using my hands to hold onto roots and rocks in order to pull myself up the steep trail.
Mervin was truly a Mountain Goat. He easily hopped from one stone to another without breaking a sweat. He was very easy going and encouraging, and didn’t mind at all to wait for me when I needed to take a break. I tried not to stop too much, but from time to time I just really needed to catch my breath. The trail was so steep, it required the use of my whole body and strength. I quickly realized that for a hike like this one, my measly self-guided training at the gym was far from sufficient.
A Side Note on Fitness
Now, don’t get me wrong! I care a great deal about diet and exercise, and I enjoy going to the gym, where I train regularly! I even take pride in my fitness level when it comes to endurance, strength, and form. Running on the treadmill and lifting weights however did not help me all that much when it came to hiking this particular trail. What I really should have done but hadn’t, was train on the Stair Master. I should have done stair climbing with skipping every other step, perhaps while carrying three liters of water on my back. I concluded this would have been the best Petit Piton exercise simulation.
Getting to the Ropes
As we continued climbing, Mervin kept giving me excellent tips. He would point to roots or stones to hold onto in order to pull myself up to even steeper heights. Finally, Mervin stopped at a certain spot, and said that we had just completed one quarter of the hike. He pointed the view behind us, and that helped me remember exactly why I was doing all this. We could see the small village of Soufriere in the distance, tucked away among lush green hills, and lined by the deep turquoise blue water of the Caribbean Sea on one side. It was an absolutely magnificent yet very peaceful sight!
After we took about a five-minute break, we continued our epic quest toward the sky. The trail was not easy to follow, but Mervin knew every tree, root, and stone. He continued helping me with tips on how to get past some of the really steep sections. We did see a couple of short ropes attached to roots or branches that were there to provide extra help. Mervin however said that the actual rope section of the climb was still up ahead. After we advanced a little further, Mervin stopped, looked back at me with a calm smile, and said that we were finally there. Then, I saw it!
First Major Rope
A thick rope was hanging down along a near vertical rock, approximately 20 to 25 feet tall.
As I looked up, I could only wonder how this would even be possible. Mervin asked if I was ready to start up the rope, and even though I had no idea how, I confirmed with confidence. He went first, and as he was climbing and pulling himself up, he showed me exactly where to place my feet, and how to take each step. I followed his advice, and slowly made my way to the top of the rock.
It was by no means easy, but it was truly a lot of fun.
The Cloud and The Rainbow
As we climbed higher, and higher, we encountered more ropes. Some were easier, others harder, but with Mervin’s guidance, they were all attainable.
The higher up we went, the more damp and slippery the rocks became. Mervin said it meant we were getting closer to the top. He also added that we had passed the middle of the trail sometime back before the first big rope section. We continued to pull ourselves up, holding onto roots, branches, and more ropes. I did not bring gloves, but perhaps it would have been a good idea as the palms of my hands were starting to get a little sore. It was, however, a small price to pay for such an amazing experience.
About three quarters of the way up, we felt a light drizzle of rain, and experienced some light haze. We were caught for a few minutes in a passing cloud! After it went away, the sun appeared again, and we observed a magnificent rainbow, which arose from the surface of the Caribbean Sea. It was absolutely stunning!
The Rabbit Hole
We enjoyed this masterpiece of Nature for a few moments, and then continued up the trail. I was definitely getting tired, and my muscles were a little shaky, but I was more determined than ever. We were so close now! Just as my spirits were running high, we faced the final challenge, The Rabbit Hole. As the name suggests, this was a steep, narrow opening between rocks, with a rope hanging through it. It was more or less like a chimney minus the soot, and we had to somehow slither through it, if we were to see the top of Petit Piton.
Mervin took off his backpack and threw it on the rock above. The opening was just too narrow to accommodate a person with a backpack. Mervin skillfully made his way through the hole, and when he was through, he asked me to toss my backpack up to him. I took one swing, and threw my backpack up towards Mervin like a pro. He caught it, and then started giving me tips on how to contort my body in order to successfully get through The Rabbit Hole. I tried to follow everything he said, and even though my ascent was not at all pretty, I managed to somehow make it to the top of this insane chimney challenge. Mervin was ready to celebrate my success. We were only a few short ropes away from the top! I could hardly contain my excitement to finally see what many consider one of the most breathtaking vistas in the Caribbean and possibly the world.
Petit Piton Summit – Small Meadow With a View
After we took the final few steps, we found ourselves on a small and perfectly flat patch of grass. We were the only representatives of the human race around. As we stood there in this triumphant moment of glory, a funny thought popped into my head out of nowhere. I started contemplating the number of cows that could comfortably graze on this teeny meadow…3, maybe 4… I don’t know, perhaps it was the prolonged adrenaline rush combined with the fatigue that were starting to get to my head…
Consumed by thoughts about grazing cows, I forgot for a moment that we were surrounded by near vertical drop offs. Then, Mervin called me to one side to show me a good spot to take a picture. At that moment, I began realizing what was around us. It was a panorama of a lifetime!
The 360-Degree Panorama
On one side we could see the charming village of Soufriere with velvety green hills all around. On another side was the endless Caribbean Sea with its dark turquoise waters, speckled with white boats and yachts of different sizes. Yet on another side was His Majesty, Gros Piton, rising straight up from the water, and scraping the clouds with its pointy tip.
It was a view so overwhelming that it wreaked havoc throughout my whole body. My knees were starting to give way to weakness, a ball settled in my throat, and my entire skin was covered in goosebumps. As I was trying to assimilate the immensity of this panorama, I completely forgot about my sore muscles, scratched arms, and calloused palms. It totally didn’t matter that a wound I had on my leg was bleeding, and I was completely covered in dirt and sweat. All of this was a very small price to pay for the reward we got! Trying to capture it all in pictures was utterly impossible, but we snapped and snapped with our phone cameras in every possible direction.
I noticed that Mervin was just about as excited as I was to be up there, and was taking almost as many photos as me. Sure, it was a scene of infinite beauty, but he had seen it many times over the twenty some years he had been working as a guide. I asked him if he was always this excited to come back to the top. He smiled and said that even though he took clients up Petit Piton several times per week, most of them never make it all the way to the top. He guesstimated that about 90 percent of people give up by about half way up. So, even though he has started the hike countless times, he only sees the view at the top once in a rare while. I don’t mean to toot my own horn here, but suddenly I felt that much more accomplished!
Descending Back Down
After some time, we decided it was probably time to head back down. I looked one last time at the endless panorama, and as we walked across the tiny meadow, I noticed a wood carving of Jesus leaning against some low bushes. While I am not really a religious person, I thought this was truly an appropriate spot for such a special artwork.
We made our way to the trail again, and started the journey back down. On the way up, it had occurred to me that returning back to the ground would be a rather insane crusade. To my surprise, it wasn’t quite as absurd as I had imagined. Mervin encouraged me to stay low to the rock, and even sit on my behind and slide down some of the steeper areas. I did not hesitate, and followed his advice. By this point, there wasn’t a clean spot on my body, and any sense of vanity had completely evaporated. As we continued to make our way down, I kept noticing that my bulky and expensive hiking boots were slipping quite a bit. Mervin suggested that light, rock climbing shoes might actually work better for Petit Piton.
Despite my fatigued and shaky leg muscles, Mervin and I descended at a very good pace. At some point, we did meet a couple more groups of hikers. The first group was of a bunch of self-assured invincible youngsters who had decided they didn’t need a local guide. The second group was an American family with a teenage son walking quietly, and a teenage daughter who was whining in desperation. They had a Lucian guide.
Back on the Ground
After these chance encounters, it wasn’t much longer until we reached the final rocky section of the trail. Just like that we were done; we had completed the hike to the top of Petit Piton and back. We chatted for a few minutes with the elderly lady and the young guy at the concessions stand near the bottom of the trail, and headed toward Mervin’s car. He had wisely brought a change of clothes for himself, and a seat liner for his clients (like me) who hadn’t thought of bringing a clean shirt or pants. When we were ready to go, we got in the car, and Mervin drove me back to the hotel. When we arrived, I paid and tipped the man for giving me this incredible adventure. As we said our goodbyes, I promised that I would come back to St. Lucia, and give Mervin a call for another Petit Piton expedition.
I looked at the clock, and saw it was 11:45, nearly lunchtime. I estimated that it took us about 3 hours and 20 minutes from the start of the trail to the top, and back down. It was not a long hike, but every minute of it required the participation of every muscle in my body.
Journey of a Lifetime
I went into the hotel, and saw my husband and kids coming down the hallway. Their reaction was one of disbelief and astonishment. Hubby put his arms around me and quipped, “Why honey, you look like you’ve been to Hell and back!” I hadn’t really closely inspected how I looked, but I sure felt like I had been to Hell and back! When you think about it really, I had sort of gone through Hell so I could take a short glimpse of Heaven; one journey that will never be forgotten, one journey of a lifetime!
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