Peak Time in the Pitons

"Look at them babies," says James McMahon. My friend squints at the twin peaks of the Pitons rising a half-mile up from the sea. "The eternal plume blowing off Everest... " he intones in a faux documentary baritone, taking a swig of Piton beer. He's an avid armchair consumer of alpine tales, and I can see the wheels in his brain whirring. "Let's climb 'em, by God!"

I have been to Nepal, and on a clear day there the world's highest mountain mesmerizes, a giant white pyramid dominating every thought. Though 15 times smaller and covered in green, St. Lucia's Pitons captivate in just the same way.

No matter where you are in southern St. Lucia, there they are, two forested cones standing alone. They grace brochures and advertisements and bottles of local beer. Resorts boast of their Pitons view. Yachts moor off their flanks. The ancient Caribs and Arawaks worshiped them. Escaped slaves hid on them in the 1700s, and St. Lucia's anticolonial brigands used them as signal towers a century after that. Sitting on the beach or walking through the town of Soufriére you find yourself staring at them. You can't help yourself; they are geographic magnets insistently tugging at you.

"C'mon," James says, tracing a route in the air with his finger. "We can go right up there." He's right, and suddenly I don't want to just look at them anymore. I want to stand on them. Especially the narrower, steeper of the two, Petit Piton, whose last 300 feet, above a small, flat shoulder, appear from below to be a rocky cliff face. With a peak like that within sight, who can be content with lounging on a beach?

And so the next day at 6:30 a.m. we are plunging into the forest, our knapsacks filled with sandwiches, mangoes, bananas, and bottles of water. Ahead on the narrow trail is Paul Herman, aka "Meno," our local guide. He is 37, with an almond-shaped face - a former St. Lucian soccer star with powerful thighs that remind me of the legs of a cricket. On his feet are the cheap plastic sandals known as jellies. He refers to himself in the third person.

"Meno climbs the Pitons with jellies," he says, laughing at my fancy hiking boots. As a kid he hunted wild goats here with his father; now he seems to know every nook and cranny.

Despite their names, the ancient volcanic spires of Petit Piton and Gros Piton are about the same height (2,438 and 2,619 feet, respectively) and stand about a half-mile apart, as the hummingbird flies. Gros Piton is wide at the base and gently sloping, with no visible rock faces; an easy trail leads right to the top, or so the guidebooks say. Petit Piton is a different beast: a narrow, rocky spike requiring ropes and recommended only for serious "mountaineers," according to my guidebook. Naturally enough, impelled by fantasies of Himalayan adventures, we choose Petit Piton for our first assault.

Despite the early hour, it is hot. Roosters crow. A cow lows long and deep. Dogs bark. The smell of smoke wafts by, and suddenly the trail turns straight up the fall line.

"The climb is not easy, but even the Petit Piton is afraid of Meno," says our guide, bounding up a natural ladder of rocks and tree roots.

Up we climb, up, up, up, the trail carpeted in slippery yellow and brown leaves one moment, bare rock the next. It is as steep as an attic stairway - and as tricky as one that's missing every other stair. Sweat drips into my eyes. A bananaquit chirps, and Meno responds with a perfect mimic. The trail gets steeper, and we emerge into shafts of sunlight. Behind us, the rolling hills of St. Lucia drop away. Over my left shoulder are rooftops, pillars of smoke, and puffy gray clouds; over my right is cobalt ocean and blue sky. Orchids cling to trees. The trail turns, traverses the fall line for 50 yards, then climbs straight up again, past red gommier trees. Meno grabs a piece of peeling rust-colored bark.

"We call these 'tourist trees,'" he says, "red and peeling and very soft. Just like tourists!" he giggles.

After a hard hour we mount a flat clearing: the shoulder. A cool breeze rustles the trees. Ahead and below is the sea, and silence. No more roosters or dogs or cows, I note. We are three-quarters of the way up, and now the Piton rises nearly vertical. My legs are quivering. James is covered with dust and sweat.

"Bye, bye, elevator," says Meno. "Now the hard work begins."

We plunge into green bush, make a short traverse on a foot-wide trail that clings to steep mountainside, and arrive at the rock face. I lean into the hill. One misstep and down I'd go, 1,000 feet.

"Okay," says Meno, "Watch Meno." He finds a handhold, places his left foot high in a crack, bounds up, grabs another handhold, hauls himself up to a precarious platform ten feet above me. It's not so easy when I try it, and as I struggle to grip the rock, I make the mistake of looking down. Vertigo rocks my head and stomach. What if I slip and....

"Don't look down, mon," Meno shouts, as I refocus and clamber up to him. Overhead is even more rock and a frayed ten-foot length of fixed rope.

"Meno doesn't like this rope," he says, scooting up the rocks. "One day, another guide brought an older lady up here and she fell off this old rope. Broke her leg, and a helicopter had to rescue her. But Meno is a good guide." Twenty feet up he opens his pack, takes out his own coil of new purple climbing rope, ties it to a tree, and drops it down to me.

James and I haul ourselves up, and scoot after Meno. With the help of a sturdy fixed rope, we climb a 15-foot section of bare rock, then squeeze up and through a Stonehenge of huge boulders that Meno calls the "limbo hole." The trail eases. "Nothing will stop us now!" Meno shouts. A moment later, emerging from green brush onto a dry, windswept plateau circled by stunted bay trees and huge yucca, we're there. The world is ours. Looking north, the brown-green hills rise like the work of a giant mole. From up here Soufri¿re, a hot, close chaos of jumbled streets, appears as a tidy village of red and blue roofs. To the southeast, the hills flatten to the aqua Atlantic, and Gros Piton looms close enough to glide to. To the west there's nothing but empty blue, the horizon blending with the sky in a watercolor haze.

What happens next is interesting. James, Meno, and I each find a spot to sit. By ourselves. No one says a word. In the steady wind on the hillside, thousands of rustling leaves sound like waves breaking softly on a beach. Bananaquits chirp and hector each other. An orange butterfly appears over the crest, wobbles in the wind, and then drops off the other side. "Kee, keee," comes the high-pitched cry of a pair of chicken hawks cruising the mountain's flanks.

Nothing lasts forever. "Look at those clouds," Meno says, breaking the silence after nearly an hour. To the north we can see billowy clusters of black heading our way. "If they come," Meno says, "we'll have a hard time getting down."

Reluctantly, we head back. With gravity on our side it seems easier. That is, until my legs become more jellylike with every step, and a hot midday wind rises up the mountain. With every downward step it gets hotter. I slip, gashing my thigh before I can grab a root to stop my slide. And I'm out of water, having gulped nearly two liters during the climb. By the time I stumble out of the bush onto the road, I can barely walk. The summit seems a distant dream. And when James staggers out behind me, he's crazy with thirst.

Diving into the sea has never felt so good or so deserved, and we spend the afternoon lounging on the sand. But the beach seems banal now, and those Pitons are still there, still beckoning, and I'm already nostalgic for the beauty and quiet of that hour on the summit.

"You ready for Gros Piton?" I ask James. He looks at me, turns to the peaks, studies the romantic silhouette on his beer bottle label, and nods.

The next day we park the car in the village of Fond Gens Libres and hike stiffly in, past two black pigs tethered in a yard and chickens skittering underfoot.

"My legs are killing me," James says as a mongoose races into the bush. Indeed, my own thighs feel as if someone has beaten them with a hammer.

Two years ago this village of 20 houses at the base of Gros Piton built a wooden nature center; to climb the peak, you have to hire a local guide there.

Murray Charles, whose craggy face and jet black goatee give him the look of a wood carving, carries a machete and a two-way radio as he leads the way. Conventional wisdom says that after the rigors of the Petit Piton we should be underwhelmed by this climb, and the first 45 minutes on a gently sloping path around the base are easy; my legs loosen nicely. But then the trail hits the seaward side and turns into a 1,000-foot staircase straight up the mountainside. I'm quickly exhausted. My legs burn, still spent from Petit Piton. Each stair is painful. My heart thumps; my thighs whimper.

Still, it's worth every step. Gros Piton is greener, and the easier (well, easier if I weren't already wiped out) hike up is perfect for pausing and listening to the silence. As I stand absolutely still, waiting for James and Murray to catch up, a gecko climbs down the limb of a tree, flicks his tongue out, and eats a bug. A leaf falls. Birds chirp, and the long woo, woo, woooo of something big calls high above me.

I continue up, each burning step a meditative mantra. Step, rest, step, rest, step - I suddenly pity all those folks relaxing with their mango daiquiris down below at the water's edge while we mount the shoulders of the island for a fresh look around.

Near the top I emerge into a riotous, fecund jungle. Clusters of vines dangle like a Rastafarian's hair. Giant tree roots covered with velvety green moss are entangled on the rocky ground. Trees drip with huge epiphytes, their leaves five feet long. Red heliconia flowers dot the green. A tiny Antillean crested hummingbird whirs at arm's reach.

A few more steps and, two hours after starting, I reach the top, a boulder field surrounded by thick green trees and bushes that obscure the view in all directions, except to the southeast. I peel off my soaking shirt, find a hot rock, and, as I wait for James and Murray, sit alone and in silence at the top of the world, gazing across St. Lucia and the Atlantic Ocean. My legs are killing me, and I wonder how I'll get down. But for the second time in as many days, everything looks new again.