If you visit Nevis, you really can’t avoid Nevis Peak. This 3,232-foot, (mostly) dormant volcano is visible from everywhere, and your eye is constantly drawn to the weather playing around the summit, which occasionally clears long enough that you can appreciate its well-defined caldera and imagine the explosive forces that must have been at work when the volcano last erupted perhaps a hundred thousand years ago.
Travelers with a sense of adventure may sense the mountain beckoning with the promise of amazing views while begging the very logical question: how hard is it to get up there? Especially from sea level, Nevis Peak looks awfully steep in places, not to mentioned covered in thick jungle. Looks, I can tell you, are not deceiving in this instance. If you’re considering hiking to the top of Nevis Peak, forget it. However, if you want to climb Nevis Peak, you’re in for a rugged, muddy, but ultimately rewarding half-day adventure.
Your Nevis hotel may or may not want to arrange for you to scale the highest peak and most prominent landscape feature on the island. This is due to concerns about liability, as is the case at the Four Seasons resort where we stayed. These worries are not unfounded, and while you may be able to summit this peak on your own, I’d highly recommend hiring a guide like Kervin Liburd from Sunrise Tours, a family business that’s been leading visitors up the mountain for decades and also has done much work maintaining and improving the trail (such as it is).
We set out from the Four Seasons at 7:30 a.m. for the half-hour cab ride to rendezvous with Kervin; in typical Caribbean style, the meeting point was at a rural crossroads bar, but there would be no drinking on this day -- at least not before or during this strenuous outing.
A short drive up into the hills above the village of Gingerland brought us to the trailhead at Peak Heaven, a local historic site where escaping slaves once met up before stealing away to mountain hideaways. The trail itself is unmarked, just a grassy track leading uphill, so the need for a guide becomes immediately apparent.
Starting at around 1,200 feet above sea level, the first half-mile or so is a pretty mild stroll, at first through sun-drenched countryside where Kervin points out a variety of fruit trees and flowering plants, which tend to grow in startlingly outsized fashion compared to the same species back home. Small birds flitting along the trail are instead revealed to be local bats, which remain active even in the daytime as the trail gets ever shadier as we head into the jungle. Green monkeys are heard, but not seen; however, we get a nice look at a large red-necked pigeon that flaps noisily away at our approach.
Kervin describes the trail to the top of Nevis Peak as “ropes and roots,” and we soon discover that this is no exaggeration. Our slightly up-and-down footpath quickly descends into a sharp-sided gully, which we initially believe that we will follow uphill. But no.
Instead, Kervin directs us to a steep path ascending the other side of the v-shaped trench, where we discover the first guide ropes of many we will be using this morning.
We had been warned that climbing Nevis Peak would be a dirty business; what was perhaps less clear was just how much of this ascent would be essentially climbing up steep, wet, muddy hillsides, some with very little pitch at all. Hand over hand, pushing up with legs or pulling up by grabbing exposed tree roots, trunks, sturdy vines, or ancient-looking guide ropes, we forge onward -- or rather, upward.
It’s really a lot of fun, though it helps if you at least have a little regular exercise in your normal weekly routine. You will get a full-body workout, and it’s sure a lot more interesting than hitting the gym while you’re on vacation.
Over the course of the morning (it takes about two hours up and two hours down), more than 2,000 vertical feet, and several miles, flat spots are few and far between -- usually just a few precious steps to give you a chance to catch your breath, drink some water (bring plenty, and a backpack to carry it in), and perhaps glimpse a view through the jungle canopy and clouds before starting up again.
At what Kervin tells us is the halfway point, we look out and see a brief but beautiful patch of open sky with the Nevisian landscape and the Caribbean Sea already falling impressively away below us. Lingering over the view for a few minutes turns out to be a good idea, since it’s the last one we’ll have owing to some cloudy weather.
The rest of the journey to the summit is pretty much more of the same; from here on in we literally climb to the top of Nevis Peak, with only a sudden break in the foliage announcing that we’ve reached the top. We’re mostly left to imagine what the view from up here would look like; peering over the edge of a small, flat clearing we can see a steep drop in front of us and perhaps the shattered remains of the volcanic caldera to the left, now filled with clouds rather than lava. Kervin says on a sunnier day we’d be looking down on Charlestown; today, we content ourselves with signing the guest book stored in a heavy box and taking some celebratory photos in front of a small St. Kitts and Nevis flag.
I’d like to tell you it was all downhill after this, but that would be a lie, both literally and figuratively. Retracing our steps was more like rappelling back down the mountain, with occasional periods of scootching along on your bottom or lowering yourself from handhold to handhold. Certainly no easier than the way up -- just hard in a different fashion.
None of which is meant to discourage you from giving the Nevis Peak climb a try if you feel up to the challenge. It’s no walk in the park, but if you’re looking for a polar opposite experience from, say, a typical day at the Four Seasons, this is it. Line up Kervin or one of his crew for $40 (per person) and you’ll have the chance to accomplish a climb that relatively few visitors attempt, and hopefully enjoy some spectacular views that you can only get by putting in a little hard work. Although we didn’t get the latter reward ourselves, the sense of accomplishment was undeniable, and the rum drinks later by the pool especially well earned.