St. Lucia‘s Gros Piton towers 2,619 feet above sea level. I climbed it twice in four days because I dig a bit of masochism mixed into my vacations. Jokes aside, I like to be challenged mentally and physically, and what better way to do that than to climb a mountain in a whole other country? Full disclosure: I technically climbed it one and a half times, but that would have made for a clunky title. That said, for a novice hiker, it was a solid accomplishment.

The majestic Gros Piton and the slightly smaller Petit Piton are some of the most photographed subjects in the Caribbean. They are splashed across T-shirts and shot glasses in souvenir shops, and are prominently featured in St. Lucia’s tourism material. According to All About St. Lucia, “the mountains look much further apart when seen from the south, but when seen from the north, they appear as near identical twins nestled close together.”

The thing is, some St. Lucians regard The Pitons in much the same way the French do the Eiffel Tower. They recognize the landmark status, but they probably aren’t forking out money to climb them as tourists do. I wanted to conquer both in one trip, but Petit Piton would have to wait. It’s almost all vertical and entails pulling yourself up with ropes. Not everybody has that kind of upper body strength, including yours truly. The bulk of my power is in my legs, thanks to me being a tower climber for six years.

Photo courtesy of Spencer Jones

It was a gorgeous Sunday morning when our guide Kayla met us at the hiking facility 600 feet above sea level. She took my friend and I to a room displaying a diorama of Gros Piton and colorful houses below it. The houses are part of Fond Gens Libre (Valley of The Free People), a settlement dating back to the 1700s.

Once we signed the necessary papers stating we would be responsible in the event of injury or death, the hike got underway. We passed through a park filled with lush flora before the incline became steep. There was a sign which read “difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations.”

But I couldn’t have conceived just how beautiful.

Gros Piton is advertised as a nature trail, but it’s a spicy one. My trekking pole helped me navigate uneven terrain and huge rocks, some of which were loose. As bullets of sweat formed on my forehead, I took small sips of water. My friend had to remind me to drink more or risk dehydration, headaches, and a host of unmentionables. Meanwhile, our guide was light on her feet. She all but sprinted ahead of us, only to slow down when she remembered she wasn’t alone.

The shining moment was around the 1,000 foot mark. There were fluffy clouds, cobalt waters and gentle breezes. At that point, Kayla strongly advised that we call it a day. It typically takes two hours to complete the ascent, but we stopped many times for photos. I wanted to press on, but decided to follow her advice.

Before we reached the bottom, I made up my mind that I was going to climb Gros Piton again in its entirety a few days later. My friend didn’t join me that second time–it was just me and my Rastafarian guide, Luciano.

St. Lucians are very proud of their culture, but he was the island’s biggest cheerleader. He was a native of Fond Gens Libre and his earliest memories as a child were that of Gros Piton. His thick locs were stacked under a colorful hat and his accent recalled Jamaican patois in places. He was 60, with the energy of someone decades younger. He enjoyed fishing, picking fruits from his own trees, and lighting up. Glitz and excess weren’t of interest to him. Having access to the basics was all he needed.

Photo courtesy of Spencer Jones

The last 45 minutes seemed to drag on forever. My shirt was totally soaked and I stepped aside for two other hikers to pass. Fog and rain set in, creating a Jurassic Park vibe without the dinosaurs.

There were moments when I wanted to stop. Moments of nausea and uncertainty. It was muggy as hell. But I reminded myself why I woke up so early that morning. So with that, I put one foot in front of the other until I finally reached the rocky peak. The fog hadn’t lifted enough to see St. Vincent, but honestly that was the least of my concerns. I let out a triumphant shout, sat on a boulder, and lifted my face to the misty rain. Luciano lit a spliff while I sent a text to my friend to let her know I had made it.

Getting down was a messy affair and I was not about to break my ankle. A few times, I sat on my backside and slid down the wet rocks as Luciano chatted some more about nature and family and how he avoided the news. I couldn’t blame him. When we were halfway down, the fog was gone, and a friendly vendor with cannabis and Piton beers greeted us. I passed on the weed, but I did buy a beer for myself and Luciano so we could toast to an awesome adventure.

The irritation I felt about not completing the climb on the first go was no more. The challenge made as many demands on my mind as it did my body, and I rose to it. It was the highlight of my trip and then some.

I look forward to what comes next in my mountain climbing journey.

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