Grenada

Mount Saint Catherine - 840m

Eric and Matthew Gilbertson

Date: March 23, 2012

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Grenada - Mount St Catherine (840m)

Grenada - Mount Saint Catherine (840m)
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
7:30am -4:30pm March 23

“Excuse me, what is the address of your hotel?” the Grenadan immigration officer repeated, looking quizzically down at our immigration card. We had no plans to pay just to sleep in Grenada, so had just written “airport” in the address box on the immigration card. We figured that was better than writing “the woods,” which was where we were planning to sleep. Apparently that had turned up some red flags – nobody shows up to a Caribbean island without the intent of sleeping in a hotel.

“We’re just planning to stay in the country for less a day – enough time to climb Mount Saint Catherine and drive straight back to the airport,” Matthew replied. “We probably won’t even have time to sleep.”
We both knew we would most likely end up sleeping at the trailhead of Mount Saint Catherine, but thought that might sound even more suspicious because camping might not technically be allowed. Maybe this story would sound better.

The officer turned around to talk to his supervisor, probably saying something like “wait, are they allowed to do that? what do I write in the address box?”

Then he turned back around, stamped our passports, and handed them back to us.

“Yes, I’ve climbed Mt St Catherine also,” he started. “You should start at the small town of Paraclete. You should hire a guide there because they know the way. You can see the whole island from the summit!”

We thanked him and headed out to pick up a rental car. It was 8am, and we had a full 25 hours before our flight the next morning to St Vincent. I had reserved a car with Archie’s Rentals, and we soon found Archie himself just outside the terminal.

“Hello, welcome to Grenada,” he said giving me a warm handshake.
I gave him my name and started filling out all the paperwork.
“Now we’ll have to take a short trip to the police office first so you can get a local driving permit,” he said when I had finished. Matthew and I smiled – we had done our research on this part of the trip.

“I have an international drivers permit,” I replied, whipping out the permit triumphantly. “Will that work?”

We had invested an hour back in Boston earlier that week to bike over to the AAA office downtown and pay the $15 for an “International Drivers Permit,” that was supposedly applicable in over 150 countries, including Grenada.

“Yes, that’s just fine,” he replied. “Some people don’t accept that, but I’ve looked at the written law and it’s allowed here. Just show that to the police if they pull you over.”
Yes! We’d just saved ourselves at least an hour of hassle in Grenada – definitely worth the hassle back in Boston.

“The keys are in the ignition of that car across the street,” he said pointing.

“Wow, you couldn’t get by leaving the keys in the car in Boston,” Matthew said.

“Well, I bet you’ll find every parked car in Grenada unlocked with the keys in the ignition,” Archie replied. “It’s such a small island; you wouldn’t get too far stealing a car.”

Our car was a green Suzuki Escudo 4WD jeep – perfect for the roughest roads we might encounter. As in Trinidad the steering wheel was on the right side of the car, so that meant driving would be on the left. I took over driving again since I’d already had so much practice, and since Matthew was the expert at using our new GPS.

The fuel tank this time literally read sub-empty, so after we pulled out of the airport we quickly stopped at the nearest gas station. For some reason they didn’t accept VISA here, and we hadn’t bothered to get any EC (Eastern Caribbean dollars, the standard currency around there). Luckily, though, they did accept US dollars, and that got us a full tank. Gas here was more on the order of $5 per gallon, so definitely not subsidized by Venezuela.

It’s a good thing I’d had a warmup day driving in Trinidad, because the roads in Grenada are terrifying. As if driving on the left isn’t scary enough, there are blind turns every couple hundred feet, and the roads are just barely wide enough for two cars to squeeze by each other. And instead of shoulders they have water drainage ditches on the sides that you don’t want to get too close to. To make matters worse, we were heading against all the rush hour traffic heading into St George, so every blind turn had an oncoming car whizzing in from the opposite direction.

I took it slowly, with Matthew expertly navigating through all the unmarked roads until we made it out of the city and started climbing into the jungle. Mount St Catherine was on the opposite side of the island, so we’d get to see most of the country while driving there.

It started raining as we passed through the Grand Etang Forest reserve, and then we dropped back down to the metropolis of Grenville. Grenada doesn’t actually seem that touristy for a Caribbean island: we didn’t see a single other white person (“gringo”, as we called them down there), and I didn’t see any hotels. Maybe we were just in the non-touristy part of the island. I suppose most tourists head for the beaches while we were heading as far from a beach as possible in Grenada.

We turned northwest at Grenville, passing through the unmarked towns of Paradise, Mt Horne, and finally Paraclete. Of course no roads were labeled but Matthew expertly kept us in the right direction.

Shortly after Paraclete the road turned to two concrete ruts with a gap in the middle. This was where the people in the trip reports we’d read had parked their cars and started walking, but we had a secret weapon – four-wheel-drive. I continued up cautiously as the road got steeper and steeper, until at one point I had the pedal to the metal on the accelerator but the car wouldn’t budge.

“Wait, try flicking this lever from 2WD to 4WD-H,” Matthew suggested.

I flicked the lever, and presto! The car started moving again! We kept chugging along slowly up the road as it leveled out, and then started climbing even more steeply. I was a little worried because the concrete was covered in wet moss in places, but thought the 4WD could still handle it.
Eventually even this road got so steep that, with pedal to the metal on the accelerator we still weren’t budging.

“We really need it in 4WD-L,” Matthew noted, since we were currently in 4WD-H for high gear. But the lever wouldn’t budge anymore. There were operating directions next to the lever, but they were in Japanese so not very helpful. I think they said we needed to switch into park before we could change gears again, but the jeep was already so precarious on that steep slippery road that we didn’t dare put it into park. We decided we could take the hit and walk the rest of the way from there.

I backed down and tried to find a place to do a 3-point turn, but as my wheels edged over into the dirt shoulder the whole jeep started slipping down the mountain. I hurriedly turned the wheel hard so we’d slip back onto the concrete, and luckily the wheels caught once they got off the dirt.

We drove back down to the base of the steep part and parked the jeep on the side.

“Get your game face on – it’s hiking time now,” Matthew said. We threw a rain jacket and some water in our backpacks and started up the road. This road would get us to the top of Mount Hope, and from there a trail would lead along a ridge to the summit of Mt St Catherine.

Lucky for us there was actually some information online about Mt St Catherine (unlike Cerro del Aripo in Trinidad), and we were pretty sure we were heading in the right direction. After 10 minutes we reached the end of the road at the huge cell-phone towers on top of Mt Hope. We then started looking around for the start of the trail. I almost started down something that kind of looked like a trail, but then Matthew whipped out a trip report he’d found online that actually had a picture of the start.

“That’s definitely not it,” he said, looking at the picture. “I bet it’s behind that shed over there though.”

We walked over to the shed and it exactly matched the picture from the report! Well, it was grey instead of blue, but the paint probably had just worn off over the years. Behind the shed was a trail that looked like it had been freshly cleared of vegetation – yes!

Every report we’d read of Mt St Catherine warned of thick vegetation and unimaginable amounts of mud, but maybe we’d gotten lucky and the trail had improved since then? We’d brought zip-off pants and optimistically started out in shorts, since apparently the vegetation was all cleared. However, that soon changed when we reached a piece of orange surveyor tape that said “End.” Now the nice little trail turned into more of a bushwack, with plants hanging over from both sides so that you couldn’t really see your feet. The trail was extremely muddy, as expected, but the worst part was actually one particularly evil and unfortunately abundant species of plant – razor grass.

We don’t have razor grass up in New England but I’m sure you can guess what it is. It’s a grass stalk that’s basically an extruded triangle or prism that’s razor sharp on all edges. And it’s not just sharp like your average corn stalk – razor grass will slice through your skin no matter which direction you contact it in. If you follow this trail definitely bring a machete and Kevlar gloves, or be prepared with lots of bandaids back at the trailhead.

Matthew and I soon put the pant bottoms on to save our legs, but there was nothing we could do about our hands and they got pretty badly cut. We pushed on, though, and eventually the path left the razor grass and went back into the trees. The mud was pretty annoying – any time the trail descended or ascended we would inevitably slip onto our butts, and when the trail was flat the mud collected in large shoe-sucking pools.

We caught glimpses through the clouds of Mt St Catherine and kept pushing on until, at 11:45am we punched through the trees and reached the summit. There was a modest cell-phone tower on top with an electronics room underneath that was humming with the noise of radio traffic. It must have been a repeater station. It seemed weird that all that infrastructure would be on the summit with no road access. More surprising is that workers have to go up there pretty often for maintenance and the trail is still in terrible condition.

One non-fleshy casualty of the razor grass was Matthew’s pants – they developed a huge rip in the thigh area that threatened to trip him if his knee poked through on the way down. Somehow he found a canvas bag stuck in a tree near the summit and fashioned a patch out of that (you’ll have to see the pictures of that)

I imagined seeing the whole island from the summit, but we were socked in with clouds so couldn’t really see anything. I found some rocks to juggle, and we snapped a few pictures before heading back down.

The return was just as difficult, but this time we knew what razor grass looked like and were able to cautiously avoid most of it. We staggered out from behind the shed by 1:30pm, covered from ankle to thigh in mud and bloodied all over our arms and hands from the razor grass. There was actually a truck now on the top of the road with a few workers off-loading something. They said hello, but didn’t seem interested in talking further so we walked back down to our jeep.

We had originally planned to just camp at the base of the trail, but the hike took much less time than we anticipated.

“Why don’t we just drive back to the airport and try to hop on an earlier flight to St Vincent?” Matthew suggested. That actually made a lot of sense – we had only given ourselves 11 hours on the ground in St Vincent if we left the next day as planned, but that was a pretty slim safety margin if La Soufriere had any tricks up its sleeve (which in fact it did, as we would find out).

I agreed, so we retraced our route through Paraclete, Grenville, and back to St George, arriving at the airport at 4:30pm. I parked the car in Archie’s lot and we walked inside to see what was available.

“We have a 9pm flight tonight to St Vincent,” the LIAT representative told us. “And, well, the 3:15pm flight today still hasn’t left so if you’re quick you might be able to get on that one.”

“Absolutely!” we both replied. It was a $50 change fee, but definitely worth it to increase our chances of success on St Vincent. I ran back to the car to pack up our bags, while Matthew took care of paying for the new tickets. As instructed by Archie I just left the keys in the ignition and walked away back to the counter.

Even though we each just had a small backpack, which had made it with no questions on carry-on for the previous two flights, this time the ticket agent said each bag could be a maximum of 15 pounds or would need to be checked. We absolutely didn’t want to check anything for fear of it getting lost and delaying us, but were also in a hurry and were willing to do whatever the LIAT people said. They weighed Matthew’s bag and said it was too heavy (20 pounds), so had to check it. I secretly took a food bag out of my backpack and hid it out of sight before I put my pack on the scale. It came in at exactly 15 pounds – ha.

Matthew quickly removed a few valuables from his pack, gave the agents the backpack, and we rushed over to security. We got through just in time to catch the flight to St Vincent.

I bet not too many tourists are satisfied with a mere 9-hour layover in Grenada, but we accomplished our goal of climbing the highest mountain, and even got to see a large portion of the island by driving around.

We were two-for-two so far with Trinidad and Grenada, and everything had gone exactly as planned. That wouldn’t be the case for St Vincent, though, as we would soon find out…

If you want a GPS track of the climb email
matthewg@mit.edu
egilbert@mit.edu

 

 

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