(aka Mt Misery)
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: January 3, 2013
The true summit of Mt Liamuiga, 5:43pm
Left: The secret entrance Right: campsite
Left: The trail Right: The end of the machete route
The true summit of Mt Liamiuga
More pictures here: http://mitoc.mit.edu/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=340535
Mt Liamuiga (3,793ft) – Roof of St Kitts and Nevis
The True Summit
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
January 3, 2013
8:30am – 8:30pm
“Why take the risk?” the man asked as we finished describing our situation to him. Matthew and I had just staggered out of the jungle onto a random road on the northeastern side of St Kitts Island. It was well after dark, and we were on the opposite side of the island as we intended to be. For the past 12 hours we’d been bushwacking through the rainforest of Mt Liamuiga, trying to climb to the highest point in the country of St Kitts and Nevis. All we wanted now was a ride back to our rental car on the other side of the island, some dry clothes, and some way to clean our lacerated hands, arms, and legs. The razor grass and ferns had certainly not been friendly to us today.
The man raised an interesting point. All mountaineers accept some level of risk – that’s part of what makes climbing mountains exciting. Our level of acceptable risk in climbing Mt Liamuiga just happened to be higher than his level. He thought we should have hired a guide to hold our hand on the way up and lower the risk to zero, but we felt that would take all the fun out of climbing the mountain.
“Look – there’s a van coming! Flag him down to give you a ride back to St Paul’s,” he exclaimed before we could respond. We quickly threw our muddy packs in the van, hopped inside, and took off into the night.
AL’S RENTAL CAR
The journey began 24 hours earlier, when our flight from St Lucia touched down in Basseterre, St Kitts on Wednesday evening. We’d just finished climbing Mt Gimie, the highest mountain in St Lucia, that morning, and were eager to bag another country highpoint for the trip.
With only one small carryon backpack apiece we quickly bypassed the checked-baggage line and went directly to customs.
“Hello, welcome to St Kitts. What is your business on the island?” the custom agent asked us.
“We’re climbing Mt Liamuiga, the highest point in the country,” I responded. “We’ll be here two nights and we’re staying at the Marriott Hotel.”
Two thirds of what I said was truthful, and luckily the customs agent wasn’t suspicious about the hotel part. Customs agents generally need to fill in a little box with an address of where you’re staying, and they don’t know what to do if you tell them you’ll just find some woods to camp in. As we’d learned the hard way on a trip to St Vincent the previous year, the whole process runs a lot more smoothly if we just gave the agent a hotel address that he could write in his little box, even though we had no intention of staying in a hotel.
“Ok, enjoy your stay,” the agent said, stamping our passports and waving us through.
We rushed outside and immediately saw a man holding an Ezee Car Rental sign.
“Matthew?” he asked as we approached.
“Yes, that’s me,” Matthew replied.
We had been extremely lucky to arrange this car rental. This particular week happened to be Carnival on the island of St Kitts, and every single car rental agency we’d called weeks earlier had been completely booked. A rental car was essential to making our summit plans work with only one full day on the ground, though. The day before flying to St Kitts we tried one last time calling up rental agencies and got lucky – a tourist had decided to leave early and had returned a car to Ezee car rental, and this car was waiting for us now.
“Come with me, I’ll drive you to the police station to get your drivers permit, then to my house to pick up the car,” Al, the rental owner told us. We threw our bags inside and Al started driving.
“Where are you staying tonight?” Al asked.
“Um, we’ll look for a good place in the woods to camp near St Paul’s at the base of Mt Liamuiga,” I responded. I could easily lie to a customs agent about sleeping in a hotel, but it felt wrong lying to Al when we’d be using his car on the island.
“Camping? No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Al responded. “Not with my car.”
“Is St Kitts not a safe country?” Matthew asked.
“No St Kitts is safe,” Al responded, somewhat defensively. “But…You just never know what kind of people are out there. If you’re going to camp you need to talk to the St Paul’s police and park at the police station so you can be sure the car is safe.”
“Ok we’ll do that,” Matthew responded quickly. Matthew apparently had no qualms with being slightly dishonest to Al.
We soon pulled into the Basseterre police station and walked inside to get the drivers permit. It was only 8:35pm and the station was supposed to be open until 9pm, but nobody was around. Apparently they had decided to leave early today. Such is the norm in the Caribbean.
Al didn’t seem too surprised. Matthew and I were kind of expecting something like this to happen. Everything had gone exactly according to plan over the past 4 days – Mt Scenery on Saba Island, Morne Diablotins on Dominica, and Mt Gimie on St Lucia had zero setbacks. We were due for a major setback soon and we knew it. Now it looked like we’d have to wait overnight in Basseterre until the station decided to open sometime Thursday morning, and at best be climbing Mt Liamuiga by Thursday afternoon. That didn’t bode well for actually reaching the summit.
We all quietly walked back to Al’s car and sat inside.
“So…What’s the plan?” Matthew asked as Al started the car.
“I don’t know.” Al responded. He backed up and started to exit the parking lot, but we were blocked by a huge float from a carnival parade that was driving down the street. We waited in the car for a few minutes, then Matthew looked back at the police station.
“Hey, there’s someone there now!” he said.
Al turned off the car and we jumped out, running over to the station. We gladly handed over the $24 for a St Kitts drivers permit, and loaded back up into the car. We then drove to Al’s house and started filling out the rental paperwork. Something seemed a little bit sketchy about Al’s operation. All the transaction had to be in cash, including a $200 deposit for damages to the car. And the whole operation was based out of Al’s house.
“Now this car is brand new with no scratches, and I expect you to return it that way,” Al warned us.
With that we took off into the night.
THE SECRET ENTRANCE
Matthew was behind the wheel this time, looking to log a few more hours of left-side driving to his résumé. I had done all the left-side driving on our previous Caribbean trip, and the previous November in New Zealand, but Matthew was a little rusty, having only driven one time on the left side nine months ago in Dominica. Basseterre provided a rough introduction – the streets were still clearing out from a carnival parade and hundreds of people were trying to exit. Cars were bumper-to-bumper with people darting across the roads and overflowing off the sidewalks.
Luckily we managed to squeeze in behind a police car that was going down a closed street, and exited the chaos with no damage to the car. We headed west from Basseterre and continued driving clockwise around the island. There’s really only one main road that loops around St Kitts, so it was hard to get lost.
In the town of New Guinea we spied a corner general store that looked open, so I jumped out and grabbed handfuls of whatever food I could find. The pickings were pretty slim, but we’d brought no food with us and would eat whatever we could find. I returned to the car with several bags of cookies, chips, and other assorted junk food which would provide sustenance for our climb the next day.
At St Paul’s I whipped out the GPS and changed into serious navigation mode. Now it’s important to know a little background about why we chose to start our climb from St Paul’s. If you do a google search for Mt Liamuiga you’ll find tons of websites of people claiming to have climbed to the very summit of the mountain. Delving deeper into the websites you’ll realize that all of these people merely hiked to the crater rim, 1000ft lower than the true summit. The trail basically everyone takes, what I’ll call the tourist trail, starts from somewhere near St Paul’s and ends at the crater rim. Unfortunately almost everyone takes a guide up the tourist trail, and no reports actually describe how to get to the trailhead. Tourists just meet their guides in town and the guides do all the navigation to get them to the rim.
Matthew and I found references to the existence of a trail to the true summit, but couldn’t find where it actually started. I emailed the only person I could find who claimed to have hiked this trail, but he did it with a guide and had no idea where the trail was. What he did remember was that he had to ask at least 10 guides before he found one who actually knew the way to the summit. But he couldn’t remember the guide’s name.
Satellite images were no help because in all satellite images from multiple sources Mt Liamuiga was completely covered in clouds. Contacting the tourism office was no help because they assumed the tourist trail went to the true summit, which it did not. The final element revealing how difficult it would be to get to the summit was a forum post on lonely planet from 2009. The person asked the same question I’d been asking – has anyone out there been to the true summit of Mt Liamuiga and can tell how to get there? There have been no responses to that post in the last four years.
When planning the logistics of our Caribbean Highpoint adventure we had to make a critical decision: the flights worked out such that for one of St Lucia or St Kitts we could only have 24 hours on the ground to make the climb. With so many unknown variables about St Kitts we wisely chose to give ourselves 36 hours on the ground there and shift the shorter day to St Lucia.
With a full day to climb the mountain, we decided the option with the highest chance of success would be to hike up the tourist trail and bushwhack through the jungle to the true summit. Even if we’d wanted to hire a guide it was unlikely we’d find one who knew the way to the true summit in our limited time on the island. And, more importantly, we were fundamentally opposed to hiring a guide.
Several days before the trip Matthew discovered the GPS coordinates of the trailhead for the tourist trail as of 2008, and we pieced together via satellite images which dirt roads would lead to this trailhead. Unfortunately the trail had been rerouted in 2010, but we decided to follow the old trail anyway since this trailhead was the only one we knew the location of.
With all this research under our belts we expertly pulled the car onto a random, unmarked, rough dirt road on the outskirts of St Paul’s at 9:47pm and started driving uphill. Needless to say, we had no intention of parking at the police station tonight as we had told Al.
Matthew cruised slowly up the road, being extra careful not to add any new scratches to Al’s car. Gradually the road got less rough as we drove through open fields, until we reached a sign for Kittitian Hills Estate, followed by a large red sign warning “Danger Construction Site - Authorized Personnel Only.”
There was a gravel pulloff here, and we pulled the car over and out of sight of the road. It was clear now why the trail had been re-routed in 2010. There were a bunch of houses being built here and the future owners didn’t want hikers driving through their front yards. But nobody was living there yet, and the construction workers were long-since done for the day, so we figured we could quietly pass through the site and nobody would care. Even if someone found our car it was parked before the big red sign so wasn’t technically violating any laws.
We packed up our belongings in our backpacks, locked the car, and started walking up the road. We soon reached a big locked gate, which we crawled under and continued into the construction site. At least ten or twenty fancy new houses were already halfway built, and this would indeed be an awesome place to live. We actually took shelter in one of the houses when it started to rain, but continued hiking after donning rain jackets.
After walking for half an hour we exited the construction site into the woods and found the remains of the old trail. We hiked up a little ways until we found a flat spot in the woods, where we pitched our tent and went to sleep for the night.
It rained on and off all night, but by 8am the pattering on our rainfly had stopped and we reluctantly crawled out of the tent. The previous morning in St Lucia we’d gotten up at 3am in order to get up and down Mt Gimie in time to catch our early afternoon flight, and we were still trying to recover some sleep this morning.
It was unclear how difficult the bushwacking would be to get to Mt Liamuiga today, but we knew the summit was only 0.75 miles line-of-sight from the top of the tourist trail. Even in the densest woods that should take at most an hour or two, so we ought to be able to tag the summit and backtrack back to the campsite easily before dark, we reasoned. So we stashed our tent and all extra gear in the woods with the intention of retrieving them by mid afternoon, then driving around touring the island with our remaining time. If only it had been that easy…
With light packs we started up the trail at 8:30am, and soon reached the intersection with the new rerouted trail. We had no idea where the new official trailhead was, but were relieved to know that we’d be following a well-maintained path the rest of the way to the crater rim. We maintained a decent pace up the trail and by 9am caught up to a group of four tourists being led up by a local guide. They were moving agonizingly slowly, and we basically ran by them up the steep trail, exchanging only brief “Hellos.”
“Leave some for us at the top!” the guide joked to us. That would be our last human contact for a long time.
A half hour later we reached the end of the trail at the crater rim. The jungle was engulfed in clouds, with no views across the crater to the summit. We began to realize why every single satellite image we’d found had the entire mountain obscured by clouds. Now came the critical decision that would determine the difference between agonizing defeat or easy success in the rest of the climb: do we traverse the crater rim clockwise or counter-clockwise?
THE BUSHWHACK BEGINS
We hadn’t really planned this far yet. We were kind of hoping we’d get a view from the rim and be able to assess which direction might actually go. What we did remember from the pictures we’d seen was that the summit was very cliffy on both sides, but perhaps slightly less cliffy going counter-clockwise. The best idea was probably to briefly check out each direction and pray that one had a user trail we could follow to the top.
Matthew started walking right at the crater rim towards the “Devil’s Thumb”, a big rock sticking up that we’d seen falsely mentioned in some reports as the “true summit.” Past the Devil’s Thumb I noticed a few cut branches in the woods. I ventured into the jungle to investigate, and the cut branches continued farther along the rim. It certainly wasn’t a trail, and probably would have been invisible to most tourists, but evidently someone had passed through the jungle here with a machete, following the crater rim. This was the user-trail we had suspected might exist.
“Bingo!” I yelled up to Matthew, “If this machete path leads all the way to the summit, we’ll be back by lunchtime!”
“Let’s go!” Matthew replied.
We didn’t even think twice about checking the other direction. This way had clearly been traveled before, so it must go to the summit, right? If you merely looked at the ground you wouldn’t be able to tell anyone had ever walked here, but most of the annoying branches between knee and head height were cut, so the going was easy. Matthew led the way into the jungle. We were both shirtless because of the jungle heat, and didn’t yet have to worry about getting cut up on branches.
It was super easy to follow this route, which stayed exactly on the crater rim. We were feeling better and better about our counter-clockwise decision. Why don’t more people take this route, we wondered.
After about 45 minutes we reached a small clearing in a knoll of ferns, which would have been a nice viewpoint if the mountain hadn’t been engulfed in clouds. According to our GPS we were about 2/3 of the way around the rim already, and should be to the summit in no time at our current speed. But the cut branches seemed to end at the clearing, and there was some weird object on a stick in the middle.
THE STAR WARS HELMET
“Huh? What’s a Storm Trooper helmet doing way up here?” I asked, walking up to the weird object on the stick.
“That’s a Boba Fett helmet, dufus,” Matthew corrected me. For some reason there was a helmet of the Star Wars Bounty Hunter perched on a stick in the middle of the clearing. And next to it was a croquet mallet. We were prepared to stumble across all sorts of strange things in the middle of the jungle, but somehow Star Wars helmets and croquet mallets hadn’t made our list. We put them on for some pictures, but then got on to the more serious business of finding the trail.
Apparently, as we discovered, the helmet and mallet signified the end of the machete path. Or, shall we say, the end of the easy stuff. The clearing was surrounded by dense ferns in all directions except the way we had entered. Since we didn’t have any machetes ourselves, the only option was to plunge into the ferns and continue to follow the crater rim. Matthew took the lead, pushing branches to the side, swimming on top, or crawling underneath to make progress. The way was marginally easier for me, though if Matthew got too far ahead it was nearly impossible to discern his path as the branches closed back in behind him.
Eventually the rim narrowed and we crawled up to a large rock outcrop. A cliff dropped sharply to the left, so we descended right to get around. As we dropped lower the dense, difficult ferns were replaced by open jungle and the bushwacking became considerably easier. We traversed around the base of rocks, then scrambled back up to the crater rim.
Here we encountered thick, chest-high bushes that we struggled to crawl on top of or power through. We sorely wished we’d brought machetes, but I don’t think the plane would have allowed those as personal carry-on items.
The rim steepened until we were climbing up using our hands, eventually reaching a small local maximum. Matthew whipped out the GPS.
“We’re only 300ft line-of-site from the summit!” he exclaimed. “It must be just on the other side of that last hill in front of us.”
“But that’s not just a little hill,” I observed. “There’s a 10-ft vertical cliff on the top, and it looks wet.”
We stared hard at the cliff as the clouds passed in and out. This was definitely the crux of the route. A very steep vegetated slope led up to the base of the vertical cliff. To the right and left of the slope were huge cliffs dropping into oblivion, one into the crater and one to the outside. A narrow bushy ridge connected us to the slope. The 10-ft cliff section by itself looked potentially doable, if it were dry and unexposed. But a fall there could be disastrous, especially given how remote we were. It was unclear if anyone else had ever even been here before, let alone climbed this cliff.
“I don’t know…” I said. “Looks sketchy.”
“Why don’t we at least get a closer look?” Matthew replied. “Maybe it has awesome handholds. I’ve been leading all morning, so it’s your turn.”
“Ok fine,” I replied, starting toward the cliff.
I carefully traversed the ridge and started toward the vegetated slope. What hadn’t been obvious from afar was that the slope had a 6ft-tall overhanging cliff on the bottom that was obscured by hanging branches. Unfortunately none of the branches would hold body weight to pull myself up. I looked up at the cliff, and it still looked like it might possibly go.
“I don’t know - why don’t you come over and look too?” I yelled over to Matthew.
Matthew came over and bravely balanced on a small root, and pulled himself over the first overhang. He then scrambled carefully up the vegetated slope to the base of the top cliff. The cliff was wet and mossy, and had a couple roots nearby that might hold body weight and might be able to get a climber over the top. When Matthew held his hand up he was within two ft of reaching over the lip of the cliff.
But a couple roots that might almost hold body weight seemed a bit too risky to trust, given our remote location and the exposure of the cliff. Moreover, we weren’t certain the route would get any easier after this cliff, and without a rope it would be extremely difficult to retreat if we made it past this cliff.
Matthew glanced longingly at the top of the cliff, just two tantalizing feet beyond his reach, then glanced behind him at the long drop into the jungle. “This isn’t worth it,” Matthew yelled down. “We’ll have to find another way.”
“Sounds good, come back down then,” I replied, relieved that I wouldn’t have to scramble up that sketchy cliff.
We retreated back across the narrow ridge and started descending right through more waist-high bushes. An enormous 100ft-tall rock wall loomed ominously above to our left, forcing us to traverse lower to find a safe route around. We tried to stay as close to the base of this cliff as possible, to minimize elevation lost, and this required what we like to call vertical bushwhacking. At times we needed to traverse near-vertical terrain, relying on holding fistfuls of bushes close to the roots. We carefully traversed and downclimbed until we could traverse no more. Two ridges visibly led up to the base of the cliff, with a steep gully in between. It was impossible to cross the gully at this elevation, so we decided to hike down the ridge to find a safe crossing.
Matthew led the way through the short bushes, the angle lessened and we thought we could descend into the gully. We dropped down left, and the bushes got thicker and taller. Then the slope steepened as we entered more trees, downclimbing and using our hands to prevent us from falling. All of a sudden Matthew disappeared.
“Oww! #@$%!” I heard a few seconds later.
“Are you okay?” I yelled down.
“Yeah, I’m ok. Just took a 10ft fall over this cliff but thankfully this root caught my leg. Be careful.” Matthew yelled back up.
I carefully downclimbed the cliff and met up with Matthew. We vowed to be much more careful. Injury here was not an option. The route looked equally cliffy below, so we tried traversing back up the gully. I led the way, but the farther I went the less safe the route became. I ventured back into vertical bushwacking territory, and saw an even larger cliff open up below me.
“This isn’t going to work,” I yelled back. “We need to climb back up to the ridge and try another route.”
We reluctantly backtracked all the way back to the top of the ridge, and followed the ridge farther down the mountain. Eventually we followed a less-steep descent toward the gully, and the bushes changed into trees and jungle. Walking through the open jungle was super easy, and we were certain we’d eventually reach the bottom of the gully – a small victory at least for the day.
I came to a point where I could actually see the bottom of the gully, but, as came as no surprise, it was guarded by a 15ft cliff. This one didn’t have any convenient roots or branches to downclimb, though. And in either direction the cliff became taller. We were stuck. It didn’t look possible to get into the gully here, and farther down it looked even more difficult. Farther up was no option either. We were starting to worry we might not make it up Mt Liamuiga after all.
“Let me take a look,” Matthew said as I walked away from the edge.
Matthew peered over, and thought it might be jumpable.
“You’re not allowed to get hurt, remember?” I warned. “Nobody’s going to help us way back here in the jungle.”
“I’ll be fine,” he replied. “Remember how we learned to take falls in soccer practice, where you roll to absorb the impact? I’ll just do that.”
Matthew threw his backpack down first, committing himself to descending, carefully lowered himself as low as possible on a nearby tree, then jumped.
“Easy peasy!” he yelled back up, after rolling on the ground unscathed.
I reluctantly followed, and also made the landing safely. From here we started climbing up the other side of the gully towards the next ridge, which was luckily not guarded by any more cliffs.
TOO MANY CLIFFS
The jungle closed in as we ascended until the bushwacking became difficult again. At the top of the ridge we turned left and ascended back up towards the monster rock wall defending the summit. At the end of the ridge we reached the rock wall again, and saw that it somehow kept extending around the mountain. Was the entire summit guarded by a ring of 100ft cliffs? It sure appeared that way.
We walked along the base of the cliff and stumbled across what could almost be construed as a path. Either that or a place where some rocks had fallen and killed the vegetation. Matthew tried to follow it downhill, but then it disappeared. I tried to follow it along the cliff, but it also disappeared. Maybe we were just so desperate to find the mysterious summit trail that we imagined this thing was a trail. It clearly wasn’t, unfortunately.
We continued along the base of the monster cliff, until we encountered more vertical bushwhack traversing. This sketchy bushwhacking was starting to get old, and we were starting to make backup plans.
“We could always just start bushwhacking down, and follow a drainage until we find civilization,” Matthew suggested. “We certainly can’t go back the way we came. We kind of burned that bridge when we jumped down that 15ft cliff.”
“We still have a few hours of light left,” I replied. “I think our safest bet is to assume a trail exists to the summit and find that trail. Then we can just follow it back to civilization and hitch-hike back to our car.”
“True,” Matthew replied. “In theory if we keep traversing around Mt Liamuiga we’re bound to hit the trail, if the trail indeed exists.”
We decided to backtrack from the vertical bushwhacking and try to find another way around. As before, we dropped down the ridge into the next gully, then bushwhacked up to the next ridge. Here the bushwhacking became horrendous. Thick, chin-high ferns clung together in a dense wall to halt our progress. When we tried to push through them our hands and bodies became lacerated. We finally decided to put our shirts and pant-bottoms on despite the heat, but it was too late to save us from innumerable scars. The most frustrating part was that we had no view at all of where we were going. The clouds were as thick as ever, and we were relying on the GPS to see where the true summit was.
Eventually we reached the top of this ridge (ridge number three for those counting). It was 5pm, one hour before sunset.
“Let’s follow this ridge up, and if we get cliffed out again then I give up.” Matthew said. “If we’re stuck bushwhacking in the dark our only option will be to descend as far as we can and hope to find civilization somehow. If we miss our flight tomorrow morning, then so be it. This is our last chance.”
I agreed, and we continued up the ridge with as much determination as we could muster. The bushwhacking was as difficult as ever, and Matthew bravely led the way. At 5:30pm Matthew disappeared in front of me and I heard a yell.
“Well what do we have here?! A trail! Now how do like them apples?” he exclaimed.
“Hallelujah!” I yelled back, stepping onto what was obviously a trail. Many more words of thanksgiving were dropped that probably shouldn’t be repeated in writing.
Trail was actually an overly gratuitous description of what we’d found. It was more of a muddy path that had branches cut from the sides, and was probably walked on only a few times a year. But it was infinitely easier than the bushwhacking we’d endured for the last eight hours, and almost certainly led to the summit.
We scrambled up the trail, climbing over small rock outcrops and even using a rope left tied to a tree at one point. Finally, at 6pm, just as twilight was setting in, we stepped onto the very summit of Mt Liamuiga. The summit was marked with a small St Kitts and Nevis flag and a little black mailbox.
I knelt down and kissed the ground, I was so happy to be there. Matthew collapsed onto the ground, taking the first real rest of the day.
We looked inside the mailbox, hoping to see a summit register, but unfortunately it was empty. I pulled out a bag of cookies and started scarfing them down. Somehow I’d forgotten to eat most of the day.
We didn’t want to stay long, though, since thick clouds were still rolling in and out, and it would be dark at any moment. We took summit pictures on each of our cameras (for redundancy in case one failed), grabbed a few summit rocks, and then started descending the trail. Now I turned my GPS on, so that we would each have GPS tracks of this trail. Our plan at this point was to take the trail to wherever it met a road, and hitch-hike back to our car from there. The GPS tracks we would generate would be extremely valuable to anyone who wanted to reach the summit without repeating our harrowing bushwhack adventure.
We felt like we had just merged from a small country road onto the German Autobahn. We were moving at least five times faster on this trail than when we were bushwacking, and didn’t even have to think about which direction to go. It was like being on cruise control.
Soon it got dark, though, and we had to break out the headlamps. The visibility was still pretty poor, since the light reflected off the thick fog, but we had no trouble following the trail. As we descended we entered a more wooded section of the jungle and dropped below the cloud layer, so our headlamps provided better visibility.
Lower on the mountain the jungle opened up and the trail actually became difficult to find. It had been easy when we just followed the open path through the dense bushes, but going through open trees it was much less obvious. Every few minutes we would lose the trail, then spread out trying to find it. Whoever found it got to be the next leader.
Eventually we reached a point where the trail was marked intermittently with yellow duct tape on the trees, and this made progress much more rapid. By around 8pm we reached the edge of a farmer’s field and the trail disappeared for good. We tried to follow an old road that showed up on our satellite images, but unfortunately that road disappeared and we were forced to bushwhack through the dense grass in the field. Alas, our GPS track is almost perfect, but future mountaineers will still be on their own to find an easy way to the edge of that field.
By 8:30pm we stumbled out of the field on to an honest paved road, and could finally rest easy that we were off the mountain. We flagged down a passing van and hopped inside.
“Could we get a ride to St Paul’s?” we asked the driver.
“Sure, that’ll be two dollars,” the driver replied. This type of van was the standard bus service for locals on the Island.
“Two dollars per person?” I asked.
“No, two dollars total,” he replied.
We gladly handed over the money and sat down for the 20-minute ride back to St Paul’s.
THE POLICE ENCOUNTER
From “downtown” St Paul’s we walked up to the random unmarked dirt road we had found the previous night, and continued up to our car. The car was exactly as we had left it, hidden from sight of the road and with no new scratches. Matthew unlocked the doors, and we quickly threw off our soaked shoes and changed into our comfortable crocs.
We both sat down and started eating any food we could find. Gradually our gazes reached down to our lacerated and dirty hands, arms, and legs. Those wounds would need some serious cleaning, or they might get infected.
“It pains me to say this, but I’d almost consider staying in a hotel tonight to clean our wounds,” Matthew ventured.
“I guess, but I have a firm price ceiling of $100,” I replied. “We could always wash up in a restaurant or gas station if it came to that.”
Matthew had written down the phone numbers of three hotels on the island, just in case, and started calling up. Marriott was $300, another one was $200, and the Sugar Bay hotel was $109.
“Ok fine, I’ll do $109,” I reluctantly agreed.
The hotel was back in Basseterre, as far away from our current location as possible on the island, but we nevertheless reserved the room. There was only one more point of business for the night – retrieving our tent and stashed gear from the trailhead.
It was 9:30pm by this point, and there were obviously no construction crews still working. We knew the road continued another half mile from our current location, and saving a half-mile of walking was invaluable to us at this stage of the day. We thus made the critical decision to drive past the “Authorized Personnel Only” sign to the locked gate, park the car, and start hiking up from there.
We hiked for about 15 minutes before finding our gear stashed exactly where we’d left it, then turned back down the road. At this point we were both hiking shirtless because it was so hot. As we rounded the last corner through the construction site I saw some peculiar blue flashing lights exactly where I remembered parking our car. Uh-oh.
We both instinctively turned off our headlamps to turn invisible, but the damage was already done. We had certainly been seen at this point, and besides, we needed to get back to the car. If it got towed we’d really be in trouble.
We calmly walked down to the car and approached the two police cars with the flashing lights. Three police officers were conferring around our car, and one turned around and pointed a huge flashlight right in our faces.
“Good evening officer,” Matthew started, “is there a problem?”
“We got a call from security about trespassers on the site,” the officer replied. “What are your names?”
“Matthew and Eric Gilbertson,” I replied. “We’ve been climbing Mt Liamuiga all day and are exhausted. We bushwacked for 10 hours and are really cut up,” I said, showing my hands and trying to earn some sympathy points.
“We read online that the trail started here,” Matthew added. “We forgot a bag at the trailhead this morning, and just ran up there tonight to retrieve it,” he finished, almost telling the truth. “We’ve just been here for 30 minutes and didn’t touch anything in the construction site.”
“Where are you staying tonight?” the officer asked sternly.
“The Sugar Bay Hotel in Basseterre,” I answered quickly. It was lucky we had just made that reservation, in case they decided to check. I suspect they would not have been too happy if we’d said we were planning to stealth camp again.
The police officers looked at each other, and seemed to agree that we were not a threat to the safety of the citizens of St Kitts and Nevis.
“Get in your car and we will escort you out of the site,” the officer said to us.
We quickly opened the car doors and started driving down. The police cars followed closely behind until we exited the dirt road. We then drove to the main road and started heading toward Basseterre.
The police encounter was unnerving enough, but we were even more worried that the police may have contacted Al, the car rental owner. After all his warnings against camping and against parking in sketchy locations, here we had gone and parked in a sketchy location, camped, and been caught by the police! During the encounter we’d had the strange sense that they were expecting the names we gave them, and that they must have contacted Al. We could only hope we could assuage his anger by returning his car unscathed and with extra fuel in the tank.
NO VICTORY DINNER
We reached Basseterre at 11pm and checked into the hotel. By this hour every single gas station, grocery store, restaurant, or other establishment that might sell food was long-since closed. We staggered into the room and had a meager victory dinner of a few crushed crackers and some soggy cookies. We’d have to save the celebration for another day.
We each took long showers trying to scrub every bit of dirt out of our wounds, and eventually made it to sleep around midnight.
Five hours later we got up, packed our bags, and started driving back to the airport.
THE CAR RETURN
We saw Al standing outside the airport, as we’d agreed, and we pulled up next to him.
“So, how was St Kitts?” Al asked.
We weren’t sure if he knew what happened, but we decided to tell the truth just in case he knew.
“We ended up camping out at the base of Mt Liamuiga and climbed it yesterday,” Matthew started. “Then we stayed in a hotel last night.” That was actually truthful.
“I got a lot of calls about you guys last night…” Al replied.
I gulped. Here it comes.
“Let’s take a look at the car,” he continued.
We walked around as he meticulously inspected every inch of the car. Then he got inside and turned it on to check the fuel. Luckily we had filled it extra full.
“Looks good, have a safe flight home,” he said.
“Thanks!” we replied.
Al drove the car away, and we both breathed huge sighs of relief. He knew exactly what had happened but, as we suspected, a clean car with a full tank of gas was adequate to make him happy.
We soon got on our plane and headed towards our next adventure – Blue Mountain Peak, the highest mountain in Jamaica.
Contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com) for the hard-earned GPX track of the trail to the summit.