"I don't know," I said, "I don't have any plans."
"Well you do now; we're doing Gimie."
A wave of excitement and dread passed over me. For those of you who don't know, Mt. Gimie is the tallest mountain in St. Lucia. In the beginning I was gung ho about tackling Gimie and the Pitons, but it had been ages since I hiked and let's just say I wasn't in the fittest of forms… Gimie is known to be a tough, long, grueling hike. Other Peace Corps Volunteers had told tales of getting stuck out in the dark and stumbling through the blackness for hours, even past midnight, before they reached "civilization" again. But I LOVE adventure and challenge. I couldn't pass this up.
Sunday morning at 6:00am my alarm startled me out of a slumber I DID NOT want to end. I rolled out of bed, crammed some cereal in my mouth, gathered my "gear," and headed out. My "gear" was not much to speak of… I didn't bring that much with me in my 2 bags for 2 years. I was wearing a tank top, moisture wick shirt, hiking pants, and an old pair of tennis shoes. When I say old, I mean ancient. These guys had been with me since high school. I also had a small lumbar daypack… crammed full with water, food, first aid kit, and rain coat.
I was the last to arrive at the square in town, which is unusual. Typically Lucians, especially these guys, are way late. So we hopped in the vehicles and began the 1-hour drive down to Soufriere where we would turn inland to get to the trailhead. Now, Lenn had originally told me that the group would be 10 strong at most, but by the time the cars were parked and everyone was out we were a healthy 29…. 29?… 29 people! Have any of you ever tried to hike with 29 people!? Give it a try some day and let me know how it goes. A few guys took charge and decided it would be smart to divide the group into 4 subgroups so as to keep track of everybody, but the moment we started up the trail, the groups became futile. We started moving at around 10:00am. Gimie is estimated to take about 8 hours to hike. Two hours to the base, two hours up the mountain, and then reverse it to get down. Do the math in your head. The Caribbean goes dark at around 6:00pm… so from the very beginning we were pushing the limits.
The old dirt road quickly turned into a skinny, bush entangled, MUDDY trail. Our shoes were sinking into the mud and making a nice "sshhhhloock!" as we attempted to move forward. I quickly realized that a number of folks in the group were NOT hikers. Just ten minutes in, one of the girls, in what I dubbed the "sissy" group, had given her pack to one of the guys. This was a GREAT sign. The trail took us around steep hills. So, often the ground dropped away from us on one side and rose up to meet us on the other. We had about a foot wide path to work with. This girl was so afraid of falling down a hill that she plastered herself to the upper hillside and was trying to walk at the same time. She and her other sissy friends also began to complain, "this is not what I signed up for; I just didn't think this is how it would be." I have a pretty good sense of humor, even when things go all wrong, but not with complainers and sissies… this was gonna be a long day…
The trail to the base of the mountain was no easy breeze. We climbed up and down, slid all over the place, got rained on, and crossed several little creeks before we got to "the base". This took us about 3 hours. Keep this in mind because we have to come back to this trail later. The first part of the ascent was pretty steep; I'll describe it as a muddy stair climb. We moved at the pace of the sissy girls. I'll be honest; at that point, I was getting tired and was thankful for an excuse to go at a slower pace.
Along the way Lenn found a tarantula and stayed by the trail to "pet" it. From this point onward I suffered from the creepy crawlies…
About halfway up, we reached a ridge that took us to the last leg of the climb. Here, the sissy girls gave up and sat down to wait for us to summit. The last section I will describe as straight up. Oh, and don't forget it was MUDDY. Before long I was literally crawling on my hands and knees, utterly exhausted. My arms were covered in mud; my pants were covered in mud; my hands were covered in mud. I even had mud on my face. Twenty minutes from the summit, my left shoe made a funny noise. I looked down to see the sole separating from my shoe. When I say sole, I'm not talking about that little rubber flap with tread on it; I'm talking about the whole thick piece of rubber that SHOULD stay glued to the bottom of what is nothing more than a nylon bootie… At that point, however, there was nothing much I could do about it, so I just kept going.
As I was crawling up the last section with my shoe in pieces, the MAN in front of me (a grown MAN!) turned around and said in all seriousness, "We need to call St. Lucia helicopters to come get us. We're not gonna make it outta here." I clarified that this was a stupid thought and that no one was going to come rescue an uninjured MAN with food and water supplies who was simply dreading the fact that it was going to take us forever and a day to get out of there. He and the PCV behind me were pretty dehydrated at this point so I gave them both some electrolyte tablets that I had just happened to throw in my first aid kit. Oh, and speaking of dehydration, did I mention that one of the sissy girls abandoned two FULL water bottles earlier on the side of the trail because they got tired of carrying them?? I discussed this with Lenn and informed him that there should be a screening process for these things…
Finally we reached the top completely beat. Everyone just hit the ground with barely a word. Our view?? Nothing but a white cloud. We sat on a small grassy knoll looking into a white abyss. I hardly cared. I just reached in my pack for whatever nourishment I could find. It felt good to not move… but it was short-lived. It was about 3:00ish in the afternoon and Lenn started encouraging us to move back down. We really needed to get going if we were gonna beat sundown, but I somehow knew that beating sundown was just plain wishful thinking. As everyone was moving toward the trail, I sat down and attempted to tie the sole of my shoe on with my shoelace. It wasn't pretty, but I hoped it would help.
I was 2 from the back as I started the return journey. I made it about 10 feet before my right shoe sole ripped almost entirely off. It was dangling by the toe and looked more like a flip-flop needing repair than anything resembling a shoe. Exhaustion turned into hysteria, and I just started laughing. The guys behind me took pictures. I sat down and attempted to tie the right sole on with my shoelace, but looking at it I knew this was gonna be an interesting journey. Soon a layer of mud had formed between the detached sole and nylon slipper so that each time I took a step, my foot would slide out of the sole. It wasn't long before the entire sole was hanging only by the shoelace.
At this point I gave up on the idea of walking down the mountain, sat down, and started to slide like a small child. Surprisingly, the mud made for some GREAT slides. I was having so much fun sliding that I was giggling in fits. All the while I was cutting up with the 2 guys behind me, joking and laughing. We sang She'll be sliding around the mountain when she comes, made up rhymes about my dirty pants, and even coined the phrase, "save a shoe, ride a cheek." Our delirious state may have been equivalent to that of slight drunkenness.
The sliding continued all the way down the mountain. During this time, my right "nylon slipper" completely wore out on the bottom. I had the frame of a shoe around my foot and nothing but an increasingly holey sock between me and the great outdoors… lovely. I suppose I can be thankful that it was my shoe and not my pants! By the time we reached the creak at the base, I was caked in mud. Without hesitation I said, "Excuse me, I need to take a bath," and completely submerged my mud covered body in the water to scrub down.
We only made it a short distance beyond the base before darkness fell. The next 4 or 5 hours were spent slowly and meticulously stumbling our way through blackness with shared flashlights. The sissy girls seemed to freak out at the slightest challenges. Every time someone asked what time it was, I screamed, "I don't wanna know!! It doesn't matter!!" All we could do was put one foot in front of the other. It seemed as if we would never see the end of that trail.
On the way down the group naturally split into three sub-groups. The first group fled the scene and made it out before dark. My group, the second group, emerged at about 10:00pm-ish (this included a 1 hour wait for the last group just to make sure they were safe before continuing). The final group stumbled out of the wilderness no earlier that 11:00pm. That is over 12 hours of hiking!!! I couldn't even feel my feet anymore. Everything ached.
By the time our bus finally dropped me at my home, it was about 1:30. I threw everything on the porch, stripped down, and headed straight for the shower. I was SO thankful that the water was actually on!! I had to scrub several times and still couldn't get some of the dirt off. When I finally lay down to sleep, my bed felt amazing for all of 2 seconds and then every muscle touching anything began to hurt. Fortunately exhaustion brought quick, long slumber…