The Grand Pitons

The Gros Piton Ascent
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Jalousie beach
Up You Go: Gros Piton, as seen from Jalousie Beach (image courtesy, Saint Lucia Tourism)

Climbers are advised to pre-arrange a guide, and during a weekend outing, Lucianus Denis was idling in the dusty parking lot, waiting for his climbers—two other sure-footed souls in addition to myself. Denis, whose long dreadlocks dangle like extra appendages, comes from the Piton base town of Fond Gens Libre, which in Creole translates to "Valley of the Free Black Community of People." About 110 people in 35 households live here, their simple, squat homes landscaped with palm and fruit trees. Denis led us to the interpretive center, where we were told of surprises up ahead: The climb is four miles round trip and should take four hours—and many liters of water—to complete. (Denis boasted that he has finished the climb in half the time and has scaled it multiple times in one day—never doubt the power of skinny legs.) On the way to the Gros Piton Nature Trail, we passed another couple, their faces salted with sweat.

"It's not hard," puffed the female of the pair, her face tomato red.

"It just takes a long time."

The climb is divided into segments, to make it less intimidating.

The first part requires 25 minutes of leisurely climbing along a gradually increasing incline. The trail is clearly laid out, though rocks and roots can trip distracted hoofers and glimpses of cool ocean tempt the overheated. The hot afternoon sun shot rays through the lacy canopy, creating a steamy greenhouse effect.

At the first lookout, Denis paused, took a gulp of water, then pointed at the bright white sands of Anse L'Ivonge, where the first Caribbean community lived on the island of La Pointe. As we gingerly ascended the trail, sometimes scrambling on all fours, Denis entertained with his life stories—some tragic (his absent father, an unfaithful girlfriend), others inspirational (his self-sustaining, introspective life). Thirty minutes later, we were students of Rastafarianism.

We decompressed at the halfway point, relaxing with forever views of the Caribbean. Saint Vincent lay to the south and Petit Piton was asserting its presence up ahead. The farther we climbed, the deeper we burrowed into mountain jungle. The forest grew more primordial, our bodies brushing past massive fronds that could double as ladies' fans. For the final jaunt, the trail turned into a steep staircase more suitable for a ten-foot-tall man.

My legs fell into a military rhythm—knees up, knees down, up, down. Denis's dialogue never faltered, but my breath did. StairMaster has never been so cruel.

The 300-year-old mango tree was one of the sweetest sights of the uphill journey, even though it was bare. From that beloved tree, the summit was only 20 minutes away, through elfin woodland foreSaint When we reached the pinnacle, shrouded in cloud forestland, we took a breather on rocks and logs that cradled like patio furniture. Our eyes scanned the southern end of the island, from the patchwork of rooftops to the endless chop of the ocean. The western vista embraced a sliver of Martinique, Mount Gimnie (at 3,117 feet, the isle's highest mountain), and the beckoning Petit Piton. The sun was quickly dropping, so Denis cut our views short.

The trip down was brutal on the knees, and as twilight loomed, the shadows darkened to the point of obscurity. Denis snapped on his cell phone, using its faint light to lead the way. Four hours, plus or minus, and we were back on flat land.

To celebrate our mastery of the mountain, we swung into a nearby bar in Fond Gens Libre. As we raised our Piton beer in triumph, I glanced at the diminutive pair of Pitons wrapped around the bottle. False advertising, indeed.

Access and Resources
To locate a licensed guide for both hikes, contact the Saint Lucia Tourist Board for information at 800.4.ST.LUCIA, Or, contact the park service directly at 758.468.5648 or 5645 for general questions on the pitons, and 758.287.4848 to reach the chairman of guide association, who can pair people with a guide.

A globetrotter and travel writer, Andrea Sachs contributes frequently to the Washington Post.

Published: 19 Jan 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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