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Picking the right day to climb La Soufrière is important.
On our first visit to the volcano, we were there on an average day. The wind was very strong, and the fog restricted visibility to a couple of hundred meters. Although at the bottom of the volcano it was clear and hot, at the craters it was chilly and damp. We had no sense of the entirety of the crest -- it was not visible.
On our next visit, the top of the mountain was entirely covered in clouds. We could not see even half way up. We left without hesitation. But the third trip we made to La Soufrière was the charm. An incredibly cloudless day. The parking area was filled beyond overflowing with cars and tour buses. We had to park some distance away and walk to the parking lot and then onto the path leading around and up the mountain. It was clear the entire way.
We started about 10:00 am and began a leisurely climb up the slope. The first half hour or so of the path is never steep and winds around the side of the volcano. It is always rough, gravelly, and irregular: there are holes, rocks, and washed out areas which we climbed into, over, or around as we walked up the path. Some people made the trip in sandals, but we wore ankle- high sport shoes (not "official" hiking shoes, but they gave good support and traction).
We traversed about 270 degrees around the mountain, climbing steadily as
we went. There were fissures, sphagnum moss, and panoramic views of
the island to claim our attention as we huffed and puffed our way, and we
paused for photographs and drinks of water as we went. Although the sun
was shining brightly, the evidence of the usual cloud cover was every
where in the plants along the path -- moss, ferns, lichens, and other
water- loving plants lined the way.
Eventually, we got to a sign telling us that there was another half hour to the top, and the path ceased to round the mountain and began to ascend straight up the side. Fortunately, the sign was wrong. It was only another ten minutes before we entered the extinct crater at the top of La Soufrière. We could see steam rising from one of the two active craters, and we went there first.
The top of La Soufrière is like another planet. It is covered in small plants and large rock formations of improbable shape. The smell of sulfur is everywhere. At this first crater, the steam rose peacefully, sometimes drifting over the plain and obscuring our first view of the entire top of La Soufrière. We explored the area and then walked up a little further to the more active vent. Steam rushed out under great pressure and with a loud roar, making talking difficult. Depending on where the wind blew the steam, we could see all around the island or we could see hardly a hundred meters.
We walked to the opposite side of the crest and found a spot where we
were in the sun. We had brought a Torment d'Amore from Les Saintes for
each of us and some trail mix, which we washed down with water. We
explored the bizarre rock formations, climbing some or just walking and
looking, until the clouds began to drift in again and cover the peak.
We began the climb down, quickly descending below the clouds and into the
sun. As we began our circumnavigation of the volcano, we admired the
views of Basse Terre, the Caribbean, and the islands of Les Saintes that
were spread out below us.
We reached our car and drove into the town of St. Claude for lunch, reaching the center of town about 2:30 pm.
If you decide to climb the volcano, be aware that you must be prepared to
try again another day. Weather is the deciding factor in whether the climb
will be worthwhile. If the mountain is totally fogged in, the climb will be
unpleasant and viewless. We spent about 55 minutes on the climb up, but
we dawdled and admired the views. Others were quicker. We would
recommend that you wear appropriate shoes for a climb on the path
described and that you bring water, snacks, and a windbreaker or other
warm clothing for the top of the volcano, which is always cool, sometimes
cold. If you are lucky enough to have a totally clear day, the views from
the top are remarkable, and the top itself is another world. If the weather
is not clear at the top, but you have no clouds around the sides of the
mountain, make the climb. It is not likely to be better, and the views as
you climb are breathtaking. You will still enjoy hiking around in the
craters at the top, even if you cannot be sure just where you are.
For additional information on this volcano, visit the Web page of
Observatoire de la Soufrière.
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