Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, La Soufriere - 1234m/4049ft
After already successfully standing on the highest point of Barbados, The next stop on this multi-country high point Caribbean adventure was Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to climb their countries highest mountain, La Soufriere. I flew the short distance from Barbados to Saint Vincent on LIAT, only taking around 45 minutes. Once I had landed and gone through the usual landing card and passport control routine, I bypassed the baggage carousel with my hand luggage, headed through customs and into the small arrivals area where my Airbnb host was already waiting. I walked over and introduced myself as I had recognised her photo from the Airbnb website. We were soon on our way making the short drive to her nearby home via a local shop where I picked up some food and drink in preparation for the climb the following day.
I had decided to stay at a guest house near to the airport for two nights rather than head towards the capital city of Kingstown as the airport is situated on the main road that runs along the east coast of the Island passing near to the start of my planned route up La Soufriere.
The guest house is located just the other side of the airport near to the coast but of course, we needed to drive around and past the end of the runway before coming back on ourselves. By this point I was glad I had pre-arranged to be picked up as the following day was going to be a tough one for sure, so the more energy I preserved the better.
The guest house was perfect, It had a large terrace, Sea and beach views but more importantly a large modern guest room for myself. After having a refreshing drink and chatting to the host for a while, She was South African and her husband Ken was a fellow Brit. I spent that afternoon wandering around the nearby beaches before heading back to the hotel to start planning how I was actually going to get to the trailhead 28km away. After an hour or so relaxing in my room, Ken knocked on my door as he had been at work earlier to say hello and check everything was okay. I had read in the in-room folder that not only did the hosts offer airport pickup/dropoff that I had used they also offered the same service to the ferry port 30km away. The price was quite cheap so I raised the possibility of a left to the trailhead the following morning and I would be happy to pay in excess of the 30km journey they offered to the ferry port albeit in totally the opposite direction and up onto the slopes of the Volcano.
He said he would ask his wife If she would be available and get back to me as he would be working in the morning. He returned with his wife with good news, She was free and able to take me to the trailhead at around 07:00. I agreed and paid her there and then to secure the deal. After a good nights sleep, I woke up around 06:00 to repack my back with only the essential things that I would require to get me to the top of La Soufriere and back. Although I was still yet to figure out a way back to the guest house later that day and decided I would just figure that out at the time. I headed around to the front of the house just before 07:00 and spotted Gwen waiting for me. I jumped into her 4×4 and we set off for the hours drive to the trailhead. The driving in the Caribbean is a bit manic with cars cutting each other up and on often the wrong side of the road when heading around corners. Thankfully Gwen was very experienced and used to these conditions and said “Idiot” several times when the situation definitely warranted it, Her South African accent made it quite amusing.
We went past a few coastal towns and villages before reaching Georgetown which seemed quite dilapidated with many colourful yet derelict buildings, Such a shame really as the beachside location really is idyllic. She was unsure where to go from there but I had looked into the way that morning and new when to turn off. We headed down the narrow road which started to get steep before it finally turning into a track seemingly in the middle of nowhere on a mountainside surrounded by dense vegetation. Gwen seemed a little concerned with the thought of having to retrace the way back alone but I said it didn’t matter which route she took back down as they all lead to the main road. We continued on slowly for several kilometres up the steep narrow track before finally reaching the trailhead at 390m. I jumped out and thanked her for the lift. I could tell she was thinking, “You must be mad” before hastily making her retreat back down the track.
I was now at the start of the La Soufriere trail, The trail itself only reaches the crater rim of the Volcano at around 960m on the Windward side of the Island before heading around the crater and heading down towards the other side of the island. Bizarrely, I noticed that all tourist agencies and guides online that I could find advertise this as being the highest point in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. That simply isn’t the case at all. The true highest point lies just over 2km away, That makes it sound quite straightforward but I knew from other peoples accounts that it was going to be anything but straightforward. The trail headed straight into dense forests with fantastic sounds being heard above from all directions. The route was easy enough to follow in most places and I felt as if I was making good time. It was warm humid but had become quite overcast and misty as I climbed higher. The wind started blowing the trees up ahead and I heard the dreaded sound of heavy rain making its way quickly towards me. I quickly positioned myself under a wide-leafed tree as I hadn’t time to even get my waterproof jacket out, It was too late and the tree provided little help, I was soaked!
I wasn’t too concerned as the rain was pleasantly warm and when the sun came out I would be dry in no time. I continued on, the track now had a small torrent of water flowing down it making some of the rocks slippery. The trees soon started to thin out and were replaced by thick bushes and long grasses (including the sharp razor-like grass). I then crossed a boulder-strewn river without any problems as the large rocks made it straightforward although it would certainly be a different proposition if the river was in spate or after a storm. As I continued uphill several bands of rain and mist passed over each giving a significant downpour. This though was different to the heavy rain earlier as one band of rain would have warm rain but a few minutes later the rain would become very heavy and freezing cold. The last section of the track to the caldera had become rocky with the visibility dropping significantly.
The last few steps to the crater rim were quite tentative ones as all I could see ahead was where the land suddenly dropped away in front of me. The higher reaches of La Soufriere are often shrouded in clouds but I had seen more than enough photos taken in more favourable weather to know that the caldera I was on the very edge of was a big one. It’s around 1.5km wide with a 250m drop from where I was standing down to the crater floor, It last erupted in 1979.
I knew from this point I would have to improvise as the track continues around the caldera to the left but the highest point is on my right. I had some food and drink before making my way to the right over a few small hills still near to the crater rim. The rain kept on coming over in warm and cold bands but once you are wet through there’s not really a great deal wetter you can actually get. The only real concern I had at this point was for my phone and camera as they were getting drenched every time I checked my position on my phone or took a photo/video. With the weather still deteriorating leading to poor visibility while on the slippery mossy grass on the edge of a crater, I would certainly now be relying on my phone even more so to pinpoint my exact location. I had pre-planned a route in my research that I was aiming to follow with the aid of my always fantastic OsmAnd app which crucially includes contour lines.
The combination of rain, mossy grass and volcanic ash made the ground slippery in some areas so I had to be extra cautious of my footing. Upon reaching a peak at around 1070m I turned away from the caldera and descended 60m downhill heading around a smaller crater. The terrain became reasonably flat for a while but not surprisingly still soaking underfoot as I headed towards the most challenging part of the climb. Having looked at satellite photos and several maps, I knew I couldn’t just head straight up to the high point but I would need to find a way up onto the ridge and work my way across to the high point. I headed in the general direction of where I had planned to ascend onto the ridge beforehand but looking at the contours again paired with rain and poor visibility. I decided to continue further along now heading further away from the high point knowing it looked to be less steep.
After crossing a thankfully dry but boulder-filled river bed I started the arduous task of climbing the steep slope that I knew would lead me onto the ridge and I could from there head towards the summit. It was wet, slippery, steep and just to made it more interesting covered with sharp bladed grass. The only positive being that it was so steep I was able to use my hands as an extra point of contact and pull myself up or hold on if needed. Instead of heading straight up, I started crabbing to the right whenever it was possible. This helped make the climb slightly less steep and help me to be me further along when I finally made the ridge. It was physically exhausting but after a few breaks I had finally made the ridge and continued to head to my right finally towards the high point.
The ridge walking was certainly a lot more straightforward than the steep climb that I was already not looking forward to descending later. There were several false summits and some quite exposed sections but it was hard to tell how far down the drops were due to being shrouded in mist. I pressed on still soaked through along what I assumed was a faint animal trail as I very much doubt it would have been a man-made trail due to it being well off the La Soufriere trail and difficult at best to reach. I started climbing the first hill knowing from my map that the actual high point would be passed this last false summit. With the rain still belting down with that exhausted but adrenaline-filled excitement, I pushed on to the next summit the true highest point in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I quickly checked my GPS, It was soaked through and all I was doing by now was moving water around the screen. It confirmed I was on the highest point, Country high point 60. I dug out my camera as I had decided to wrap it in a carrier bag and place it in the middle of my rucksack to try not to get it even wetter. The case was soaked through, as was the camera and to make it even worse water was running off my hands onto it even though I was shielding the camera with my back to the rain. I was surprised and relieved to see the lens pop out as I turned it on as I have lost a few cameras over the years from being a lot less wet than that. I quickly took a photo and a video albeit turning out a bit blurry and put it back in my bag.
I could feel the rain running down my back, down my legs and actually filling up my boots. Having already having to pour them out a few times I saw no need in changing my socks even though my feet were getting sore. I didn’t wait around and set off back along the ridge with the plan of simply retracing my steps back to the trailhead. I made good time along the ridge and soon knew I would have to try and get back down to the river bed. It took a while but physically was a lot more straightforward. Adrenaline certainly helped and I could feel my arms painfully aching from holding on tight to aid my descent. It was a good feeling when I got back to the river bed, After a few chocolate bars, I continued back the way I had originally come up to up and around the small crater and back to the caldera where I met up with the La Soufriere path. It had certainly taken some effort and I can see why the tourist agencies don’t take people up there.
The trail now seemed like a relaxing and pleasant stroll in the park compared to earlier, The rain had now stopped and I descended back out of the clouds to be met with a lovely lush green coloured hillside. I can only imagine how fantastic the view would have been from either the caldera or the actual high point, Stunning I’m sure. I stopped for a while to check how my camera was holding up, try and dry it off on a spare t-shirt and managed to take a few more photos and a video even though water was still dripping out of it. I followed the track down and saw something ahead crossing the path. It was a crab. I was at 600m and a crab just walked across the path, How weird. It wasn’t much longer before I had made it back to the trailhead. Typically though the sun had been out for the last 30 minutes of the walk so I had already started to dry off by the time I got there. I sat on one of the benches and took the rest of my wet gear off and relaxed.
I knew I only had a 5km to walk to get to the main road where my plan was to flag down a bus to get to the airport. then a taxi from there to the guest house. With my boots dried out a bit and fresh albeit now already wet socks on I pushed on, Walking past several banana plantations and quite a few thankfully friendly men with machetes before reaching the main road. I turned right and started walking.. I didn’t see a bus for a good 30 minutes, but finally, after many odd looks and people asking me to come over and join them I spotted a bus stop with a bus there. I went over and said airport to him. The bus was empty and the driver just said to jump in. Instant comfort from sitting down, The bus filled up with local and the driver turned the reggae music up full. The bus by now was cramped but I was happy to be heading off. The driver was a complete nutter, 20 of us on board and the speed we were going, blind corners it was crazy. I looked on my map and noticed a 2 km side road before the airport that led around the runway to the guest house.. Perfect. I signalled to the driver to get off but wasn’t sure what the payment procedure was as I hadn’t. Another man slid the door and waved to say bye and the drove off. Good result, It certainly worked out well.
My feet were by now worse for wear with blisters and peeling skin from several hours of being soaked through, but I had finally made it back to the guest house where I could relax and focus on drying my camera, phone and clothes out and have a good sleep before an afternoon flight the following day to Trinidad and Tobago for my next country high point.