Primates of the Caribbean: Climbing St. Lucia’s Pitons
If you read most big-city publications’ reviews of 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” you came away with the impression that Johnny Depp’s latest outing into bad dress and crappy grammar was the greatest thing since sliced bread. This, I can assure you, is not the case. Mr. Depp’s film does little to advance the Caribbean region as a cultural hub, a safe destination or even a good time for sailors. This is a shame, because it is all three – especially the genuinely lovely Windward Islands.The Windward Islands are a volcanic chain, arching from Venezuela in the south to the Leeward Islands and the Greater Antilles in the north. The islands are mostly former French and British colonies, some of which still retain ties to European motherlands. Recently, I visited one particularly pretty island in this chain: St. Lucia.For anyone from Colorado, St. Lucia is gob-smackingly pretty for the simple fact that it’s wildly three-dimensional. Florida and the Bahamas are appealing for their sandy beaches and clear blue waters, but if you want sheer sheerness, St. Lucia and the Windwards can’t be beat.The Pitons of St. Lucia are possibly the most famous of all the Windward Islands’ mountains, primarily due to their shape. Twin, perfectly-shaped conical spires, they appear regularly in Caribbean brochures and high-dollar travel magazines, and in a weird way, they’re not unlike the twin humps of the Maroon Bells.The mountains themselves are about two miles apart, separated by a small valley and a bay. Gros Piton is the taller of the two; it sticks 2,620 feet out of the ocean and culminates in a round but highly overgrown summit. Petit Piton is steeper, rockier and though only 160 feet shorter than Gros Piton, more appealing. You can hike up Gros Piton whereas you’ve got to climb quite a bit of rock (and a quite a few tree roots) to get up the Petit Piton.My family and I visited St. Lucia last winter and found the place more delightful and more scenic than any locale depicted in Depp’s ridiculous film.After arriving at the airport in the capital city of Castries in the middle of the night, my parents, wife and children grabbed the sole (though mostly asleep) cabbie and directed him to a hotel on the northern tip of the 30-mile-long island where we had a room waiting, the Hotel Capri. The hotel, we soon learned, was sort of an informal hangout for Europeans and Brits wanting to experience some of the local flavor – things like “jump-ups” (street parties) and Caribbean yoga. We bumbled in around 1 a.m. with loads of luggage and were met – much to the delight of my Commonwealth-bred parents and me – with huge mugs of tea. Andrew Davies, the hotel’s owner, was a young Brit who (after apparently making enough in the London stock exchange) had traded ticker tape-watching for linen washing and had established the Hotel Capri in the former Taiwanese embassy. (OK, why Taiwan had an embassy in St. Lucia is beyond me, but when you book yourself in, ask Andrew.)We slept soundly, then awoke to a gorgeous view across the northern shores of St. Lucia and a full English breakfast, with huge pots of tea and many types of baked goods that readily accepted marmalade as a sweetener. Clearly, if you’re of Commonwealth lineage, there are solid arguments for traveling to former British colonies, a decent cup of tea being at the top of my list.The subsequent day (because that’s how days seem to come about) was spent in a taxi riding to the bottom end of the island, where the Pitons are located. There, we found lodging in a gorgeous, rambling hotel called Stonefield Estate, unpacked our bags and prepared for an assault on the Pitons … or, at least, I did. My parents, wife and children had little interest in scaling these lumps of earth crust, but being of the earth-lump-climbing mind-set, I was ready to go.I went up the Gros Piton first. At a tiny village called Fond Gens Libre (“Valley of the Free People”), I found my government guide, a tiny woman named Merle, and we set off on a trail through n see St. Lucia on page C19– continued from page C16the jungle. The ascent was pretty straightforward – a bit like hiking Pyramid Peak – and culminated in lovely views across the island. I returned to Stonefield Estate and signed up for an ascent of the Petit Piton at the hotel reception desk. It was hauntingly similar to the way you’d sign up for a Disneyland theme park, but the ascent was not.Climbing the Petit Piton was much more enjoyable than climbing the Gros. Pulling up on roots and boulders resembled the easy sections of the Red Brick climbing wall, but a lot more fun. Sections of roots were interspersed with sections of rock, many of which were equipped with fixed ropes. In fact, there were loads of ropes on the Petit Piton, a few strangely dangling from tree limbs. There was one spot where we (two adventurous lawyers from Alabama and I) swung from one rope to another in a sort of “George of the Jungle” maneuver. Weirdly, I reckon all us tourist-types could have just scrambled across, but our “guide,” a Rastafarian named Jah-I, insisted we swing. (The ropes were in remarkably good condition and had been placed by a Florida firefighter the previous year.)The trickiest part of the ascent was a weird, low-angled oversized crack about 40 feet tall, which would’ve been a lot harder without the fixed rope. Indeed, I was hard-pressed to imagine how one might’ve climbed it in the rain, had it been raining. I guess we would’ve climbed the spiny plants. Or each other’s backs.The descent was straightforward, but a good rain shower made us use the ropes more than I would have expected.Back at the Stonefield Estate, we settled in for a leisurely bout of tea drinking and marmalade absorption that lasted roughly four days – and included trips to the nearby beach – until we were ready to head home.I’d recommend Piton climbing to any reader looking to combine a snorkeling vacation with some healthy aerobic mountainside exercise. I’d even recommend it to the folks at Disneyworld – inventors of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride – who are always looking for new ways to separate visitors from their hard-earned dollars.Cameron M. “Cam” Burns is a Basalt-based writer whose His latest book, Postcards from the Trailer Park: The Secret Lives of Climbers, will be published by Lyons Press this fall.
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