Friday, June 17, 2016

Conquering Mt. Pelee

Mt. Pelee:  At a height of 4,583' sits at the top of Martinique and as we've sailed by on the western side of the island appears charming with it's lovely sloping green approaches, much of it farmed on the rich volcanic soil, gently sweeping down from the heights.  Little fishing villages with black sand beaches nestle along the shoreline at inlets created by rivers that tumble down from above, and gravel quarries create a micro industry like little ants labouring away on the lower plains where ash and mud run down to the sea.

What we don't see from this approach is the rugged uninhabited northern side of the ruptured landscape.  Deep canyons and craggy spires charting, and charted by, the course of rushing torrents of water.  Flooding from massive rainfalls at the peak makes this an inhospitable landscape that has wisely been left to nature.

We have watched Pelee and it's moods over our last few visits to Martinique, always tempted to tackle the peak but knowing that conditions must be right or we would be miserable.  Winds at the top are constantly howling, added to cold and wet and it would be unpleasant to say the least.  So, patiently we have watched and our patience has paid off as we were treated to two days of light cloud shrouding the top, quite often breaking to provide a peek at the peak.  This was it, we were reaching for the top!

Given the height of this mountain, we were definitely not hiking up all the way from the bottom.  There is a wonderful trail system across the peak and the best place to start was at the car rental agency in St. Pierre!  It's low season in the islands now, so why not?

We drove up the southern slope of Mt. Pelee, through the town of Morne-Rouge and up to the 1st Refuge which lies at about 2,600' where we then carried on up the mountain on foot.  Here began the real adventure.

The northern tip of Martinique is dominated by Mt. Pelee.  We took the eastern approach.  The western is currently closed and the northern from Grand Riviere requires a guide and two days!

The hike took us up the slope, over the dome and around the old caldera.
After reading of the explosion of Pelee in 1902 which completely wiped out St. Pierre and approximately 30,000 inhabitants, I can't help but be reminded of Pompeii.  I'm putting my complete trust in the volcanologists who say that there will be months of warning before Pelee blows again, so putting thoughts of instantaneous destruction to the back of my mind we headed off.

The first steps of many - and look, you can see the peak above!

The lower part of the trail is well set up with many steps to help prevent erosion.
We passed quite a few groups descending from their hikes to the top and after a number of  bonjours, we heard people ahead of us chatting in English.  Turns out that just about the whole anchorage of St. Pierre was on the mountain that day and we met a number of fellow cruisers:  Planet Waves, Jewel of the Sea, Neko and 'Mud Fog Cove' - sorry that's not their real name but their hailing port is on the side of the boat so that's what we call them.

We joined the group and trundled higher and higher sometimes in the cloud and sometimes sunshine.

Group photo of everyone on the mountain at this point, including this charming dad who had pulled his kids out of school for the day for a bit of exploration.  The little girl climbed the mountain barefoot so she wouldn't mess up her shoes!

That's where we're heading - one of the domes at the top of the mountain, momentarily clear of cloud.

Looking back down the spine of the slope and the trail we had climbed.

All very atmospheric and we're seeing lots of beautiful alpine growth at this level.

The growth is delicate and multi-coloured with tiny little flowers and fronds.

It's also lush and wet with moss growing on the tree ferns and completely soaked from the clouds that keep drifting by.
At the point on the trail where the upper loop begins is the 2nd Refuge.  These refuges are places that would provide shelter in a pinch and one can imagine that the weather could turn very nasty up here very quickly.  The refuges however, are damp, mouldy, concrete huts with leaky tin roofs and muddy stinky floors - not a place I would want to have to hang around for very long!  At the 2nd Refuge we split from our newly formed party and climbed down an incredibly steep track into the caldera and then back up to the top of the 1902 dome.

Before climbing down we checked out the track on the opposing slope.  This turned out to be hand and foot work all the way up.

3rd Refuge (hut) just below the summit.  Here we're on the dome formed after the massive 1902 eruption.  There is another dome from the 1929 eruption and one higher peak called Le Chinois.  We didn't hike to the top of Le Chinois since we still had quite a distance around the caldera and didn't know how tough it would be.

Le Chinois behind us - still smiling :-)

The rugged northern view - hard to tell from this picture just how rugged it is.  No habitation out there.

The variety of alpine growth is stunning.

There is a trail to the west that leads down to the village of Le Precheur.

However, due to washouts it is currently closed.  Glad we didn't plan our day to come up that way.

More surprising and beautiful alpine vegetation.

As we walked back down the section of the path below the 2nd Refuge, this little  Green Throated Carib hummingbird led the way, stopping every little bit to make sure we were following.  He was so bold he let me move right in close to get his picture on my phone - no zoom lens here!

Click on the picture to see more detail.

One final view - this one to the south west and if we had binoculars we could pick out Mowzer at anchor on the coast at St. Pierre.
We returned back to the parking lot to find the group we had met on the mountainside enjoying a cold beer and debating the best way to get back to St. Pierre.  They had taken the bus to Morne Rouge and walked up from there.  Apparently buses were no longer running (it was now 4pm) but I'm getting lots of practice with my French now and we were able to arrange a taxi for the group of six (they just couldn't all fit in our tiny little car.)

The hike took us over five hours and while we could have done it faster, we thoroughly enjoyed stopping and watching the view or the tiny flora while up on top of the mountain.  Remember too that we didn't climb Le Chinois and if we'd done that it would have probably added another hour to our time up there.  The hike is tougher than La Souffriere on Guadeloupe but perhaps not quite so dramatic as there are no vents on Pelee.  Two days after doing the hike, my calves were quite tender from the descent.

We finished up our day's adventure with a drive further through the rain forest around Fonds-St-Denis and Henry happily even found a road-side waterfall to show me.  He had promised one at the beginning of the day but I was super happy this one didn't involve too much of a walk since my legs were pretty tired after Pelee.

Henry proudly shows off The Gendarme Falls.