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Gros Piton
Pitons Management Area-Unesco World Heritage Site, St Lucia

     Towering nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, the majestic peak of Gros Piton, along with its twin peak Petit Piton, dominates the western coast of St Lucia. The lush green slopes of these pyramid shaped icons rise abruptly from the sapphire blue waters of the Caribbean, filling the adventurous traveler with wanderlust. In fact, the first time we saw photographs of these spectacular landmarks we made up our minds to climb at least one, if not both of the peaks. Upon researching the climbs, we discovered that only Gros Piton (2,619 feet), the taller of the two volcanic mountains, is sanctioned by the government as a legal climb. Therefore, we headed for St Lucia in hopes of reaching the summit of Gros Piton.

     Beyond their aesthetic appeal, the Pitons offer an opportunity, quite literally, for high adventure. Petit Piton (2,461 feet) is much steeper than Gros Piton is, and although it is discouraged, people do climb to the summit. Gros Piton is more accessible for hikers, though it is a steep ascent nonetheless. You will need to start your hike in the coolness of early morning to ensure that you are back down by nightfall, as the climb can take anywhere from three to six hours one-way. The interpretive center in the town of Fond Gens Libre, where you pay your fees and obtain a required guide, is your first stop.

     Situated at the foot of Gros Piton is the community of Fond Gens Libre, whose name means “valley of the free people.” This small, old settlement dates back to the 1700’s, and during the slave rebellion of 1748, Brigands, or black freedom fighters, used the Gros Piton area as a secure haven, and many of their descendents still live in the town and serve as hiking guides. As you drive the dirt road that leads to the town, you will appreciate how inaccessible the area must have been, and still is to this day. Along the way, you will pass through magnificent stands of cocoa, banana, and coconut, maneuver your car around a myriad of bumps and potholes, and ford two streams, before reaching the sign that marks your arrival.

     At the interpretive center, we were greeted by Eva and Jimmy who graciously welcomed us to Fond Gens Libre. Jimmy, a representative of Gros Piton Tours, then used a model of the mountain to describe how we would approach the summit, pointing out the different highlights along the way. He also provides a fascinating history lesson, detailing the life of the people who used Gros Piton as a refuge. Afterwards, he introduced us to our guide, Lucianus Denis. Lucianus, Lucian for short, is a Rastafarian with an easy-going and witty personality, and his companionship as a guide was a highlight of the hike. Just before heading out to the trail, Eva collected our fee of $25.00 USD per person, these fees go towards protecting the trails and help to pay the salary of the guides.

     The trail starts out relatively easy, gradually climbing higher up the piton. After a brief jaunt through a forested area, where Lucian pointed out a plant he called the tree of life, the canopy opens up to views of Gros Piton. Here we passed a man carrying a machete, a common garden implement on St Lucia, and balancing a large bag on his head. Everyone on the island of St Lucia, including the stranger we met on the trail, was very friendly and open. They are always willing to offer a smile.

     We hiked further down the path until we came to a spur trail, where hidden in the dry coastal forest there sits a small cave that was once used by the brigands as a hideout. The cave, a mere alcove in a large rock, once provided a hiding place for the runaways—the ceiling is still blackened from the smoke of their cooking fires.

     Leaving the cave behind, we rejoined the main trail and continued towards the summit. Soon thereafter, a break in the trees provided us with our first views of the Caribbean—magnificent!

     From this point on the trail really starts to climb. Lucian led the way, setting a slow and deliberate pace. We were now hiking over loose rock, which required concentration to prevent spraining an ankle. Flat areas were quickly becoming few and far between, but onward we climbed. Honestly, even though the trail was steep and rocky, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected it to be, at least so far.

     I looked down at my watch, noting that we were now one hour into the hike, and according to Lucian, the halfway point was just ahead.

     After a few moments of catching our breath, we stood in awe at the sight before us. Petite Piton was directly ahead, rising abruptly out of the sea. Just barely visible in the distance was Martinique. The spire of Petite Piton seemed almost close enough to touch, and even if the trail would have ended there, the hike would have been spectacular, but other great views were still to come.

     The second half of the climb was much more difficult, but still quite doable, thanks to steps that were built into the trail—there was even a railing at one particularly exposed section. Every so often, Pick and I would stop and take a drink of water, but Lucian never touched a drop. On a comical side note, I have to mention that Lucian carried his water up the mountain in an old rum bottle—classic! The climbing was intense, and sometimes it was more like scrambling then hiking, but step by step, we moved closer to our goal.

     As you near the top, if you can take your mind off your heavy breathing, you will notice that the vegetation around you is changing significantly. All four vegetation types, from dry coastal forest to cloud forest or elfin woodland, exist on Gros Piton, and the higher you go, the lusher the flora becomes. The rich volcanic soil provides for stunning tropical vegetation, which in turn provides shelter for birds and even mongoose.

     When you reach the top of Gros Piton it comes as a bit of a surprise, just when you have resigned yourself to the never-ending climb, it ends. The summit is actually very large with dense foliage all around, including a tall canopy that obscures your view. Once on the top, Lucian guided us east to an open area in the trail to the first of two viewpoints. This vantage point affords views south to Vieux Fort and out across the Atlantic Ocean to the island of St Vincent. In addition, you can see many settlements far below, tucked away in the thick stands of coconut palms.

     The second viewpoint is reached by heading north on a spur trail, complete with wooden ladders, that leads to excellent views of Petit Piton. The ladders are, seriously, one of the coolest parts of the entire hike; they make you feel like you are on a major trek through the jungle. Not to be outdone, the view of Petit Piton and the Caribbean Sea is fantastic!

     It had taken us two hours to reach the summit, a respectable time, and the return journey took just about as long—timing in at one and a half hours, for a total hiking time of three and half hours. The descent is drastically steep, so steep that I wondered how in the heck we managed to climb up as fast as we did. The loose rocks along the trail are notorious for causing your feet to slide out from under you on the way down, but don’t worry, there is an endless supply of trees to grab onto for support.

     Back at the halfway point, we stopped to take in the views once again. The light had changed since our first time past, giving Petit Piton a whole new appearance. As the three of us rested on the rocks and the comfy bench, we talked about our climbing experiences and exchanged addresses. Pick asked Lucian, who had his dreadlocks tucked in a hat, how long his hair actually was, to which he cheerfully replied, “Would you like to see?” He then proceeded to take off his hat, allowing his dreads to cascade down around his shoulders. It was really cool to see how proud he was of his dreadlocked mane, which had taken him ten years to grow. We had brought an extra Natural Born Hikers’ Buff on the hike to give to our guide, and now we knew it would definitely be a useful gift.

     As you near the top, if you can take your mind off your heavy breathing, you will notice that the vegetation around you is changing significantly. All four vegetation types, from dry coastal forest to cloud forest or elfin woodland, exist on Gros Piton, and the higher you go, the lusher the flora becomes. The rich volcanic soil provides for stunning tropical vegetation, which in turn provides shelter for birds and even mongoose.

     When you reach the top of Gros Piton it comes as a bit of a surprise, just when you have resigned yourself to the never-ending climb, it ends. The summit is actually very large with dense foliage all around, including a tall canopy that obscures your view. Once on the top, Lucian guided us east to an open area in the trail to the first of two viewpoints. This vantage point affords views south to Vieux Fort and out across the Atlantic Ocean to the island of St Vincent. In addition, you can see many settlements far below, tucked away in the thick stands of coconut palms.

     Note: The photos in the last gallery were taken at various locations around St Lucia.

 
 
 
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