On a paradise island in the Caribbean, there lies a deceivingly tricky peak that makes for a gruelling climb. In a risky and adrenaline-filled struggle to the top, Kia Abdullah scales Nevis Peak, Saint Kitts & Nevis.
Tell a local you’re climbing Nevis Peak without a guide and they’ll first laugh in your face and, second, warn you off such a foolish endeavour. “No chance,” they’ll say with a cluck of the tongue and a foreboding tone. Apparently, it cannot be done alone. If your curiosity leads you online, you’ll likely find a slew of reviews warning you away. One – written by an Ironman contestant no less – describes the climb as “treacherous”; others insist that you must take a guide.
On the surface, Nevis Island’s 3,232ft volcano looks much like a rolling hill – hardly a daunting prospect – and thus one evening I mentioned the idea to my prospective climbing partner, Peter. He, a relatively experienced climber, was clearly worried about taking responsibility for me so I quickly reeled off my credentials – jumping out of a plane without breaking a sweat, zip-lining across America’s longest circuit, hiking the ruins at Beng Mealea – and managed to convince him that I could take care of myself.
And so we set off the next morning, innocently telling the receptionist and later the cab driver that we were “just going to trek the first 15 minutes”. You know, “just to see what it’s like”. Our driver, Leroy, left us at the footpath, advising us to wait for a guide. “We’ll be okay,” I said, sunnily waving him off. I glanced at my watch. It was 9.30 and I was keen to get going. Within 15 minutes, things turned scary. Parts of the trail were practically vertical and we had to hoist ourselves up using ropes that had been rigged to help climbers. On a dry day, perhaps it would have been fine, but it had rained all night and most of the morning. Everything was wet and slippery. Peter tried to manage my expectations from the very beginning, warning me that we probably wouldn’t summit in this weather. I was determined to, but as we climbed higher the trail became more dangerous. At certain points, a single misstep would have had us dropping off an edge. Trees grew on the side of the trail, offering a sense of security, but giving way to nothing but air. Every step, every grip for support had to be considered. An hour in, there was a downpour. Finding shelter beneath a tree, we spotted a guide descending with two tourists. One of them looked at us bleakly: “Turn back. Turn back now.” I offered a nervous smile. “Is it that bad?” He nodded glumly. Peter and I spoke little for the next 15 minutes. When the rain subsided, we set off again, making slow and squelching progress. It was when we came to a cluster of sheer rocks that Peter turned to me and said, “I’m not sure this is a good idea”. He explained that there was no grip anywhere; that even if we made it past this section, there was no way to come back down. For the first time that morning, I considered turning back but asked with hope: “Could we at least try?” I could tell he was worried but, like me, couldn’t quite face the sting of failure and so we continued onwards, grabbing at roots and rock face where we could. It was halfway up that section – at a complete loss for footing – that I experienced deep, heart-racing fear for the first time in my life. Jumping out of a plane had been a piece of cake – this was real fear. I clung to a root, desperately trying to reach the edge of a rock with my foot. Eventually, I decided that I had to jump. In that airborne moment, my head felt red and heavy, spinning with disbelief. I landed on rock unsteadily and grappled to secure myself. With ragged breaths, I went onwards until finally we were past the most treacherous parts. I tried to focus on summiting but one thought weighed on my mind: how were we going to get down? Two hours in, our energy waned. We had planned to summit by now and had no idea how much farther we had to go. We agreed to give it half an hour more and then give up. At several points, I lost sight of Peter and had to shout out for him to stop while I caught up. It was nearly midday when I heard an ominous crashing sound. I shouted after him but heard no response. I tried again. Nothing. The third time, I practically screamed his name. I genuinely started to panic. Had he fallen off an edge somewhere? I clambered in his wake as rapidly as I could, shouting his name. He appeared at the edge of an opening high above me, a wide grin on his face. “We made it.” Crying out in relief, I rushed up to the clearing and collapsed. The view was just a haze of cloud, but it didn’t dampen the moment. We had made it. We sat for 20 minutes and signed the scrappy guestbook. After some customary pictures, we considered our descent. No rushing and no complacency, we agreed. We would take it nice and slow. Surprisingly, it was far, far easier going down. Without gravity to fight, I did much of it sitting and sliding down the trail and – bar one erroneous detour – the journey back was relatively smooth. When we returned to the hotel, the staff were convinced of our tale only after they saw the pictures. A few days later, as we left Montpelier Plantation Inn, Jackie – a British expat who had worked there for years – shook my hand. “I’ll remember you,” she told me. “I’ll remember what you did.” “I will too, Jackie,” I said with a smile. “I will too.”