© TONY PERROTTET
On the succulent green island of St Lucia, the two great spires known as the PitonsLe Gros, fat, and Le Petit, skinnyloom large in every sense. Rising in sheer walls from the waters of the Caribbean, they dominate the rugged coast of the island as completely as the Eiffel Tower does Paris or Harbor Bridge, Sydney. They also turn up on every postcard, bar painting, T-shirt and even every beer label on the island. (The local brew? Piton). Travel-brochure writers have spent months of their lives leafing through their thesauruses for the metaphor juste to describe them. ("Green breasts"? "Dunce caps"? The island's Nobel laureate Derek Walcott settled for "horns"). The Carib Indians once worshipped the Pitons even more zealously than St Lucians do today, offering up the occasional human sacrifice to their majesty in rituals that sound straight from King Kong.
However you look at it, they are a mythic presence. Mythicbut rather aloof and distant. Objects to be admired from afar.
Then, on a recent visit, I heard it was technically possibleif not exactly recommendedto climb the most extreme of the pair, the Petit Piton. (Its partner, the Gros, is slightly taller but not so steep, so has a path that is far less treacherous to climb). Guidebooks were not encouraging. One mentioned that several foreigners had "fallen off the mountain" and met a grisly end, prompting the St Lucian government to ban climbing for a while. Another stressed that one should definitely not try it after rain, because of falling rocks. Still, I found myself spending hours gazing at the Petit Piton's sides through a telephoto lens, trying to identify a path up its sheer, 740-meter high walls.
It seemed impossibleuntil I met a St Lucian guide named Alexander hanging around the main plaza of Soufrière village, at the base of the Piton. A towering, gangly Rasta, whose hair flopped about like a head of black spinach, he offered to show me the way up the spire, for a fee.
"I have climbed the Petit Piton 300 times," Alexander boasted. "That is why they call me Alexander the Great!"
"I hear several climbers have died en route," I ventured, airily. "You know... when it rains."
"Propaganda!" Alexander bellowed. "Damn government lies!"
"Nobody has died?"
"Not with Alexander!" he thundered. "I am the best guide! I have never lost a tourist! Even this one fat pig I took, a no-dick American. He takes six hours to climb the Piton. I have to push him up by the ass, but even he reaches the top! Besides," he added confidently, "it will not rain."
This was all most reassuring. I signed up immediately. For a mere $100, he promised to meet me at dawn the next day. Alexander the Great was the guide for me.
* * *
I woke up before dawn, listening to the rain pelting down outside. As the sky began to clear, I felt like a commando going off on a raid, unable to worm out of the climb without losing face.
Alexander turned up on time, wearing regulation shorts and flip-flops. "To show I am a professional," he guffawed, waving a bare foot in the air. As we set off in a beaten-up taxi, he slumped into his seat and stared out from behind dark sunglasses with a beatific smile that suggested a serious intake of local herbs.
Ten minutes later, as the sun was turning the sky pale, we got out by an unmarked roadway. Alexander marched into the forestand immediately lost the trail. This was not a good sign.
"I grew up with the Petit Piton," he offered, as if to deflect suspicion. "When I was a boy, I used to race my brother all the way up and all the way down! I always won! Alexander the Great!"
Finally, he found the route. "I am the best guide in St Lucia!" he declared triumphantly, before bounding upwards.
Alexander's childhood memory of climbing as a race had obviously persisted. Soon we found the "toes" of the mountain, as the first great boulders are called, and Alexander started the ascent at breakneck speed. The route was steep and muddy, the hand-holds twisted roots, but to my immense relief the path upwards was fairly clearly definedjust as well, since Alexander's concept of guiding turned out to be disappearing up ahead and yelling out occasionally: "Okay, mon?"
A couple of times I was only semi-okay. The first, I took a wrong turn beneath a rock. Luckily, Alexander actually noticed ("Don't go that way! You'll end up in the sea!"). The second time, a step gave way beneath my feet and crashed downwards, downwards, downwards, dragging foliage with it for about twenty seconds before thudding to rest. I would have followed it, had I not clutched a vine that turned out to be covered in thorns.
"That is why we call the vine 'the devil's walking stick'," Alexander helpfully yelled out, as I examined my bloody hand.
"Catchy name," I replied grimly.
By this time, the sweat was pouring from me in rivers, and the trail was getting steeper; climbing it was more or less like going up a ladder made of roots and vines. At one ledge, there was a view out over the sparkling sea, and I paused to catch my breath. It was only 8 a.m., and the tropical sun was already searing.
"Come on!" Alexander yelled from ahead.
"What's the hurry?" I yelled back. This was no decathlon, I tried to explain; we were supposedly doing this for pleasure.
"Take your time," he roared. "Let's go!" And he headed off at an even faster pace.
Now we came to the trickier parts of the climb. The local guides had installed a few half-gnawed ropes, so climbers could pull themselves up the bare and exposed rocks. One minute, I was squeezing through a narrow crevice in the rock, the next shimmy in tendon-twisting fashion up a natural tunnel; then I was inching along a crumbling, slippery ledge. It paid not to look down.
I was nearly half-dead when I spotted Alexander ahead, looking a bit green himself.
"Where are we?" I wheezed. "The belly-button? The neck?"
Alexander jabbed his own sweating face. "No! The nose! Let's go!"
And it was true. Ten minutes later, I emerged gasping from the greenery onto the blindingly sunny summit. We'd clawed our way 740 meters straight upand it felt like three times that.
Alexander was already there, holding up his arms to the blue sky and letting out a prayer.
"Rastafari! I give thanks for the dawn! I give thanks for the sun! I give thanks for the sea! I give thanks for the air!"
Even as I sucked on my water bottle from a foetal position, I could admire the spectacle of St Lucia sprawling far belowa string of jagged green claws squeezed unnaturally together.
Alexander looked at his watch: "One hour, five minutes. My record is one hour."
"You mean we could have gone slower?"
"Why would we? Don't you want to be fit? Let's go!"
We were off again. Of course, going down a steep mountain is more grueling in its own way than going up, turning the knees to jelly. I was hanging onto vines for support like some drunken Tarzan. Alexander, by now, was in unusual good humour, regaling me with tales of New Year's Eve, when all the Rasta guides from Soufrière gather on the Piton summit to smoke the good weed, drink the Strong rum and share tales of the various no-dicks who hadn't finished the climb.
And then we were down, knees knocking, on the road near the Piton's base. Our taxi lift wasn't there.
"Damn, mon. It's only 10.30. I told that boy to meet us here at noon."
"Jesus Christ," I shouted. "Why didn't we just take it slower? You know, take in the scenery? Breathe the sea air?"
Alexander looked at me as if I was mad. "I give thanks to my Lord that I'm down off that mountain. Don't you give thanks?"
As we trudged off down the two-mile road to town, I shrugged.
"Yeah, sure. I give thanks."
"That's good," he replied, "'cos you always got to give thanks after climbing the Piton."