Saint Lucia

Mount Gimie - 3,117 ft

Eric and Matthew Gilbertson

Date: January 2, 2013

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On January 1, 2013, we crossed a line. It wasn’t a tangible line like you might find on a soccer field or a highway or a country border—this line could not be straddled with two feet.
It was a line that we had never crossed, and had never wanted to cross, before. Not a socially-imposed line demarcating lawful from unlawful or good idea from bad idea, we had crossed those lines before in search of adventure. This line was a moral line. It was self-imposed and self-enforced, separating honor from shame, courage from cowardice.

On January 1, 2013, we hired a guide to help us climb a mountain. The location was the tiny Caribbean island nation of Saint Lucia (‘loo-shuh’), the objective was Mount Gimie (‘jimmy’), and our guide would be Mr. Smith Jean-Philip.

As Eric and I wound through the hills of rural St Lucia above the capital, Vieux Fort, in our rental car—a Mitsubishi Lancer GLX sedan—to the designated meeting point with Mr. Jean-Philip, we weren’t quite sure what to expect for tomorrow. This trip would be the first time we had ever hiked with a guide. Would he hike fast enough? Would he actually be there to meet us? Would he ask for any more money? Would he take us to the actual summit?

“Well we already agreed on $100 per person,” I said to Eric, “that’s what I negotiated when I talked with Smith on Skype a few weeks ago. I told him we were poor college students. And he knows our time constraints.”

“Yeah, it’s a shame that we’re required to hire a dang guide for this mountain,” Eric said, “there’d be so many fewer question marks if we were completely on our own.”

“Well we didn’t have any alternatives,” I said. “I Skyped the government phone number for the National Parks Service in Saint Lucia, and they said that you’re required by law to hire a guide. There’s not really any way we can argue with that, I guess; it was a government person I spoke with.”

“It just seems suspicious that they referred us directly to Smith,” Eric said. “It sounds like he’s an official government ranger.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” I said. According to the map, we’d arrive at the designated rendezvous point with Mr. Jean-Philip in less than ten minutes.

§§§§§§§§§§§§

PIRATED MOUTAINEERING IN THE CARIBBEAN: 2.0

It was New Year’s Day of 2013 and the commencement of another highpointing adventure in the Caribbean. On the menu for the next week were ascents of the highest points in four Caribbean Island countries: Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. Successful ascents of these four countries would put us at 18 of the 23 North American country high points, and put our goal of all 23 within reach within the next few years. We had knocked off the first five Caribbean country high points during Spring Break 2012: Trinidad/Tobago, Grenada, St Vincent & the Grenadines, Barbados, and Dominica, and now were back in the Caribbean for Round Two.

The schedule was aggressive and ambitious. The way the flights worked out, we would have about 24 hours on the ground in Saint Lucia before our next flight to Saint Kitts. Eric was already down in the Caribbean, having climbed the high points in Dominica and Netherlands (on the island Saba) over the previous two days. He had landed at Saint Lucia’s smaller, northern airport, Castries, that morning, and had an unexpected and undesired adventure acquiring the rental car.

As we had learned in Spring Break 2012, and would be further reinforced on this trip, things operate a little differently in the Caribbean. It turned out that the rental car agency with which Eric had booked online didn’t actually exist (luckily he hadn’t paid them any money). He went over to the only staffed rental car counter in the Castries airport and, after considerable hassle, the details of which I’ll spare the reader for the sake of brevity, ended up with quite possibly the only available rental car in the northern half of Saint Lucia. He then drove the hour or two south to Vieux Fort to pick me up once I landed from Atlanta.

SMITH JEAN-PHILIP

As soon as we hopped in the car, I gave Smith a call. We had spoken a month ago, as well as the previous week, via Skype, and had attempted to hammer out some of the details of the trip. The plan was to meet Smith that afternoon, camp somewhere near the Mount Gimie trailhead, start hiking early the next morning, and be off the mountain by noon so we could catch our 4pm flight out of Castries.

“Hey man, what’s up?” Smith answered in his friendly, laid-back Caribbean accent. (For the record, his first name is Smith, and last name is Jean-Philip.) “Did you guys make it to Saint Lucia?” he asked.
“Yep, just landed,” I said. “We’re in the car now. Where should we meet you?”
“Ok, drive on the main road to Fond Saint Jacques,” Smith responded, “after forty-five minutes you’ll see me on the side of the road.”
“Ok, great, can we start hiking early tomorrow, say 5am?”
“Relax, we’ll talk about it when you arrive. Miguel will be guiding you tomorrow, we’ll talk about it with him.”

Things were starting to make a little more sense now; it sounded like Smith was the agent and Miguel was the actual guide who would be hiking with us – the two of them had their own little guiding company.

We tried unsuccessfully to pick up some groceries along the way, but all of the stores were closed because it was New Year’s Day. “Well I guess we’ll have to rely on the food we brought,” Eric said, “I’m glad I brought some granola.”

Eric deftly maneuvered the now-familiar steering-wheel-on-the-right-sided car, typical of many of the Caribbean Island countries that we had visited so far. The roads were narrow and windy, but mercifully sparsely-trafficked due to the holiday. After fifty minutes, we still had not yet spotted Smith and I gave him a call.

“Yeah, you just passed us,” he said. “Turn around and drive back five minutes and you’ll see us.”
“Ok, will do,” I said.

We wondered how exactly he knew it was us. “There are still a decent number of cars on the road, how does he know which one is ours?” I said.
“Well there probably aren’t too many other white-skinned gringos like us on these roads,” Eric said. (We would later discover that the correct term for us was “honkies.”)

SMITH & MIGUEL, INC

Five minutes later, we rounded a corner and spotted two gentlemen waving from the side of the road: it was Smith and Miguel. They were both in their twenties, the same as us. “Hi, I’m Smith,” the taller gentleman said as we rolled down the window, “and this is Miguel, he’s going to take you up Mount Gimie tomorrow.”

“Ok, great,” we said, introducing ourselves.

Smith and Miguel hopped in the car. “I’ll show you where to go,” Smith said. He directed us up through the village of Fond Saint Jacques and into the rainforested countryside. The roads were steep and rough, but the Lancer managed without trouble. After thirty minutes, we arrived at a small neighborhood at intersection of three rough concrete roads. “My house is up there,” Smith said, “we’ll stay there tonight.” Five brightly-colored concrete houses were perched on the steep hillside and several more were under construction.

Smith said that he had lost his house and car to a landslide during a recent hurricane and had narrowly escaped with his life. The government was currently building new housing in areas less-susceptible to the ravages of hurricanes. All of the houses were perched on ten-foot tall concrete stilts, which evidently put them at less risk. It was a cute little outpost in the jungle, surrounded by palm trees.

We discussed with Miguel the agenda for the next day, including the early departure we needed to ensure we would make our afternoon flight. Miguel was on board for a 3:30 am start, and was confident that we would have plenty of time to spare. We were curious to see where the route started, as Google Maps indicated that the road continued for another couple of miles up the hill.

“Let’s drive up the hill,” Smith said, “so we can see where you’ll meet Miguel and what road you’ll take in the morning. We wound farther up the steep, single-lane road and hoped that we wouldn’t have to pass any other cars. Finally, after about two miles, the rough pavement turned to gravel. “The trail starts another twenty minutes up this road,” Smith said.

“I don’t know,” Eric said, “I’m not sure we’ll be able to get up this with our car.” Now, Eric and I have driven a considerable number of low-clearance rental cars up rough roads in our day, but this one just didn’t look possible. Maybe it’s just this one rough patch? Maybe the road gets better just around the bend? We had asked ourselves these questions before on other similar roads and had always arrived at the answers of “no” and “no,” respectively. Eric attempted the first fifty feet but we decided to retreat after it became clear that the car would bottom out. The hike would begin here.

CAMPING AT SMITH’S

We turned around, dropped off Miguel at his house in the tiny village of Migny, and proceeded back down to Smith’s house, where we would stay the night.

“Where can we set up the tent?” we asked Smith.

He pointed to a dusty, rocky area below the house. “You’ll have plenty of room there,” he said. This was obviously the first time that Smith had dealt with tenting clients, because it was about the roughest, rockiest, most un-tentable ground that you could find. But it was the only flat ground around, so we told him that it would work. We guessed that most of Smith’s clients probably stay in hotels in Vieux Fort and meet him in the morning.

As we were setting up the tent, Smith’s girlfriend invited us into the house and prepared some magnificent fresh orange juice for us from a couple of fresh oranges. Meanwhile, she, Smith, and a few friends chatted vociferously in Creole with each other. They said that all of the kids in Saint Lucia learn Creole as their first language, and learn English in school. It sounds similar to French, but we couldn’t pick out many words.

We retired to our tent and set our alarms for 3am, theoretically giving us six hours of sleep. In reality, however, a loud TV and a bit too much merriment upstairs kept us awake.

THE “NEED” FOR A GUIDE

“Man, it’s unfortunate that we’ve got to hire a guide for this trip,” I said as we lay on the rough ground in our thin sleeping bag liners, trying to sleep. “I wish we didn’t have to put up with all of this and that we could just hike the trail by ourselves. I’d rather just start hiking it now, I’m not getting any sleep anyhow.”

“Yeah, it adds a lot more uncertainty having a guide,” Eric said. “What are the chances that Miguel will actually be there at 3:30am? That’d be bad if he was late. But even if we did it by ourselves, it’d be tough to find where the trail starts, especially in the dark.”

Extensive research over the past few weeks in Boston had uncovered precious little information about Mount Gimie (a.k.a. “Morne” Gimie) or St Kitts’ Mount Liamuiga, which we would climb in a few days. The six or so reports that mentioned Mount Gimie gave ambiguous statements pertaining to guided trips. “You’ll need to hire a guide for Mt Gimie,” one said. Well, what does “need” actually mean? “Need” is really an ambiguous word. Is it required by law or does the author of the report just think it’s a good idea? If it’s a matter of being arrested or fined, we’ll listen to that. But if it’s just a suggestion, we’ll take it as that and hike it by ourselves.

In our opinion, there’s much more of a sense of thrill if you do all the research yourself and execute the climb based 100% on your own decisions, without having a guide. Perhaps things might go more smoothly if you hire a guide, but, in our opinion, there’s really a loss of satisfaction if someone else is holding your hand, telling you where to go, and making the important decisions. For us, hiring a guide has always been our last-resort tactic to get to the top. We had managed to avoid it in climbing all of the US state high points and in all of our country highpointing adventures thus far.

As we dug deeper, we came across more ambiguous terminology with respect to guides and Mount Gimie. You “must,” “should,” “had better,” “need to,” “have to,” hire a guide. What does that mean? Is it required? Who requires/enforces it?

To clarify this issue, a month before the trip I called up the Saint Lucia Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries with Skype and asked this question directly. Previously, Eric and I had dealt with trip planning and coordination mostly through Google, and occasional email when necessary. But over the years, we had learned that a well-placed phone call can often clear up important issues much more quickly.

Janice, the government official I spoke with, answered that you are required by law to hire an official guide, and subject to fine without one. Perhaps, we speculated, it’s their way of boosting the local economy or increasing tourist dollars. She gave me the number for Smith Jean-Philip, one such certified guide.

PLANNING

So I gave Smith a call. “Hey man, what’s up?” he said with a strong Caribbean/Creole accent.
“We’d like to climb Mount Gimie on January 2nd, and we heard that you’re a guide who could lead us to the top,” I said.
“Yeah man, I can help you,” he replied.
“Ok, great, we just have some tight time constraints I’d like to discuss. We’re wondering if we can start hiking really early in the morning on January 2nd, because we have an afternoon flight out of Vieux Fort.”
“What time do you arrive?”
“1pm on January 1st. We’ll have a rental car and will drive to meet you.”
“Great, sounds good man.”
“So how early can we start hiking? 4am?”
“How’s the weather in Boston,” he said, “is it cold?”
“Yep, it’s cold up here,” I said, looking outside at the December snow. “But is it OK if we start hiking at 4am?”
“Snow? Wow, I’d freeze to death! How many days are you in Saint Lucia?”
“Just one full day. Would we be able to start at 4am?”
“Wow, that’s not much time, man, very little time.”
“Would we be able to start that early?”
“Relax man, we’ll talk about it when you arrive.”

I was starting to get a bit impatient. I couldn’t tell if the Skype connection was bad, or if Smith had a problem communicating, or if it didn’t jive with the Caribbean style to plan things with one hour of resolution more than one day in advance, but I couldn’t get a straight answer from Smith about our start time. To maximize our chances of success and mitigate the uncertainty presented by a guide, Eric and I wanted to hammer out all of the details in advance. Eventually, however, when I got the sense that an early departure would probably work, I gave up trying to get a direct answer, and broached a different matter.

NEGOTIATING THE FEE

“How much will the trip cost?” I asked.
Smith thought for a moment. “300 dollars for both of you.”
“You mean 300 US dollars total, so $150 for each of us?” I had read that they often deal in USD in the Caribbean.
“Yeah.”
“Wow, that’s too much,” I said, my default answer to no matter whatever number he suggested. “We’re both poor college students and don’t have much money. I don’t think we could afford that. How about $150 total, so $75 per person?”
“Are you crazy? $300,” he answered indignantly. It didn’t sound like he would budge.
“Ok, how about $200 total, so $100 per person. That’s the most we can afford to spend.”
“He thought about it for a few seconds. “Ok, $200. But that’s very low, it’s usually a lot more.”
“Well thank you, Smith” I said, “we will each bring $100 in cash.”
“Ok man.”
“So, just to confirm, we’ll meet you in the evening on January 1st, then climb early in the morning on January 2nd, and the total is $200,” I said.
“Ok man, call me when you get to Saint Lucia,” Smith said, ambiguously dodging the question.
“All right, will do, see you in one month.”

Shortly before we had retired to the tent, I told Smith that we would pay him when we finished the hike the next day, and reminded him of the $200 that we had agreed upon. “You know, $200 isn’t really a fair price for two people,” he said, “it’s usually $300. Come on guys, I’m letting you stay at my house too, and people don’t usually do that.”

“$200 is the price we agreed upon,” I said firmly. We both stood there for a second, not sure what to say. I felt a bit worried because we hadn’t paid him yet, and there was so much uncertainty for tomorrow, that I didn’t want any bad blood between us to mess up our chances of success. I also wanted for us to make a good impression on Smith so that this could potentially set a precedent for future international clients like us. I probably should have stood my ground, but I decided to offer a compromise. “How about $200 and we’ll make a website for you? That could help to attract many more clients.”

Smith thought about it for a second. “Ok, $200 and a website, I like that,” he said. He began to settle down, and I could tell that he was satisfied. (Note: here is the link to Smith’s guiding website, which we created: http://climbgimie.wordpress.com/)

As we lay on the hard ground, trying to get to sleep, we realized that, despite the communication difficulties, so far everything had gone according to plan. We hoped for similar success in the morning, and drifted to sleep with the sound of reggae blasting through the jungle from somewhere in the distance.

ASCENT OF MORNE GIMIE

Four short hours later, our 3am alarms painfully jolted us awake. We quickly packed up the tent and scarfed down some granola bars before hopping in the car. After a ten-minute drive up the ultra-steep, unlit concrete road, we noticed a fellow emerge from the small dark roadside hut up ahead. Miguel. It was 3:30am exactly. He didn’t have a headlamp, but did have his rubber boots, backpack, and machete and was ready for action. “Awesome,” I said to Eric, “I’m glad to see that Miguel’s a man of his word.”

Miguel hopped in the car and we drove another five minutes up the dark road until the rough gravel began at the village of Migny. Time to start walking. We parked the car and proceeded by foot up the star-lit jungle path. Miguel was accustomed to hiking in the dark, but we let him borrow one of our spare headlamps.

“If you had a truck, we could drive up this road and we’d save about thirty minutes of walking,” Miguel said, “but that’s OK, we still have enough time. It’s thirty minutes to the hiking trail, and we’ll be at the top in four hours.”

As we would discover that morning, Miguel was also a man of precision. In the Smith & Miguel Guiding Services Company, Smith was the businessman and the coordinator, while Miguel was the man of action who actually led people to the top. Softspoken Miguel is no bragger, but we learned that this would be his 24th ascent of Mount Gimie. He knew exactly how long each section of the trail took for the average client and whenever we stopped for a break he gave us his estimate for our time to the summit. He frequently consulted his cell phone for the time and was probably one of the few people in the country who saw a clock more than once a day.

After thirty minutes of hiking up the dark, steep concrete road, we noticed a chain across an overgrown side road. “Ok, turn right here,” Miguel said. Silhouetted against the stars, the dark forms of two tall peaks loomed in the distance. We had finally laid eyes on Gimie. We followed closely behind Miguel as we walked through the tall, wet jungle grass of the overgrown field. Miguel had dressed appropriately, with rubber boots and blue jeans; our tennis shoes, meanwhile, were soaked within minutes.

At one point, we paused at the intersection with another trail. “This is the old trail up Mount Gimie,” Miguel said, pointing to the right. “It was washed away in a landslide during the hurricane a few years ago. So now we’ve cut a new trail.” We continued for another ten minutes before turning into the woods at a small pile of logs. “This is the new trail,” he said. “A few other guides and I made it and maintain it.”

PLUNGE INTO THE JUNGLE

We squeezed between a few trees and plunged into the jungle. The trail was scarcely wide enough for our shoulders, but certainly provided a much easier route through the woods than bushwhacking. “Wow,” I said quietly to Eric, “there’s absolutely no way that we would have found this on our own. No signs anywhere. I guess that’s one nice thing about having a guide.”

“Well after this, we’ll have the GPS track,” Eric said quietly, turning to me, “and then anyone could follow it to the top without a paying to hire a guide. Although that wouldn’t really be fair to Miguel, because he’s the one who maintains the trail.”

We began to descend steeply down a muddy, slippery slope, that eventually brought us to a river crossing. “We’ll rest here,” Miguel said. “Three more hours to the top.” Miguel scooped some water directly from the stream. “It’s OK to drink,” he told us.

We certainly believed him, I mean, here we were, high up in the pristine jungle of St Lucia, with perhaps not a single other person within the entire watershed. This was the type of water that you could bottle and sell in the US. But we never take chances with water; we’d heard too many horror stories of friends contracting Giardia from untreated water, and weren’t taking any chances. So we popped a few iodine pills and set our timers for 30 minutes.

THE REAL CLIMB

“Ready to go?” Miguel asked after we scarfed down some granola bars. “Now the real climb begins. You guys are fast, it’s probably only two more hours from here.”

We followed Miguel up a steep hillside. Twilight began to filter through the dense trees above us. In front, we could hear the occasional whack-whack of Miguel slicing through some recently-downed trees. In this type of jungle, we figured, a trail like this could probably be rendered invisible after just a few months of neglect.

As we ascended the steep, muddy trail, I consulted the GPS and realized that we were going to be at the top a lot sooner than expected. “Hey Miguel,” I said, “have you ever seen sunrise from the top?”

“Nope,” he said, “today might be the first.”

Finally, at 6:07am on January 2nd, 2013, after 127 minutes of hiking, the trail leveled out on a small grassy bald, and we stood on the summit of Saint Lucia. “Good work Miguel!” I said. We exchanged high fives all around. “I guess we’ll have to wait for sunrise, the GPS says it’ll rise in twenty-one minutes.”

SUNRISE FROM THE SUMMIT OF ST LUCIA

The lights of Vieux Fort glittered in the distance and the northern half of the island spread out before us. We realized that even though St Lucia is a tiny country, there’s still actually quite a bit of wilderness in the island’s interior. If you were dropped off in the middle of the island without a machete, it could take days to make your way out to the nearest road. As the cloudless sky grew brighter, clouds suddenly began to appear, obscuring the horizon. Sadly, the sunrise was hidden by clouds, but we still managed to capture some decent photos.

Miguel took the opportunity to chop back the summit grass, which he said had grown about a foot in the past few weeks. He unzipped his backpack to reveal a dozen oranges. “Remember the orange plantation we passed through this morning?” he asked. “These are from there.” He carefully butchered the oranges with a small knife and shared them with us. Needless to say, they were incredible.

We hung out on the top for a good 45 minutes before heading down. At this point, it was pretty obvious that we would have plenty of time to catch our afternoon flight. The forest was drenched with dew from the dawn clouds and we had to be careful not to knock the water off the trees that we grabbed. As we descended, Miguel took a little more time to chop out some fallen trees that we had crawled under earlier that morning. It was impressive to see him hack through six-inch trees with a nothing but machete.

During the descent we caught some spectacular views of Gros and Petit Pitons, two tall, picturesque triangular peaks situated on the south coast of the island. Farther down, when we encountered the stream, we took a quick side trip to a beautiful series of waterfalls. During the heat of the day, it would have made an excellent place for a swim.

FINISHED

By 9am, we were back at the car, for a roundtrip time of five hours. We dropped Miguel off at his house in Migny and handed him the $200 cash. It felt painful to pay that much money to climb one mountain, but at least it was supporting Miguel and his trail building efforts. We bid Miguel farewell and continued driving for one last visit with Smith.

Smith came to greet us as we pulled into his village in Fond Saint Jacques. “How was the climb?” he asked.

“Excellent!” I said. “We made it to the top for sunrise.”
“Great,” Smith replied. “Miguel called and told me that you paid him $200. You know, that’s really not a fair price, it should really be $300.”
“But we’re poor college students,” I replied, “and we already agreed on $200. And I’ll make you the website, remember?”
We could tell that he wasn’t satisfied, but that would have to suffice. “Ok, that’s good,” he said.

NORTHWARD

We bid farewell to Smith and headed north towards Castries, where our flight left in a few hours. After two hours of winding through the rugged countryside, we arrived in Castries and proceeded to the airport. Right next to the airport was your textbook white-sandy-aquamarine-palm-tree beach. “Well I guess we’re all the way down here in the Caribbean,” Eric said, “we might as well take a quick dip in the water.”

“Ok, sure, I guess we’ve got plenty of time, and ought to rinse off some of the jungle stench and filth before the flight,” I said. Even though we were in the southern Caribbean, it was January and the water was a bit chilly. After ten minutes, we were done. “Good enough,” I said to Eric, “I’m satisfied.”

We made our way to the airport to return the rental car. Turns out that we had had the car for 24 hours and 30 minutes, and inquired about waiving the second-day fee that we had originally planned on. “Isn’t there a 30 minute grace period?” Eric asked the woman at the counter.

“Yes, there is,” the woman at the rental counter said, “but since you’re returning the car after one day instead of two days, you’ll have to pay an early return fee of $15.”
“Are you kidding me?” Eric said. “We have to pay if we return he car early?” It was as if Smith had contacted the rental company and asked them to try to extract just a little more money from us. It seemed that she had just pulled that number out of thin air.

After twenty minutes of hassle involving calling managers and arguing, we managed to save $15 on the rental, and gladly said goodbye to the trusty Lancer. We sunk into the comfortable seats of the Castries Airport and breathed a big sigh of relief. We had accomplished all of our goals in Saint Lucia. We had summitted Mount Gimie and had safely made it to the airport. The next mode of transportation would not be under our control. The first leg of the trip was complete, and now it was onwards to Saint Kitts.

Email us (matthewg@alum.mit.edu, egilbert@alum.mit.edu) for the GPS/GPX track of the route up Mount Gimie. Note: here is the link to Smith’s guiding website, which we designed: http://climbgimie.wordpress.com/ .

 

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