Meeting the Monster
Guadeloupe’s La Soufrière is one of the world’s most scientifically important and volatile volcanoes. Tamara Thiessen hikes up for a closer look
It was 3.45am, and roosters were crowing into a balmy Guadeloupean night. A group of French hikers were grasping coffee mugs under a diaphanous moon and smiling widely, despite the ungodly hour. “Mais non, we’re happy,” they insisted. “It’s going to be chouette… super.” Yes, it was – for we were off to climb La Soufrière, Guadeloupe’s active volcano.
Despite its name, Basse-Terre (‘low land’) – Guadeloupe’s largest island – boasts impressive peaks. And none more so than 1,467m-high La Soufrière (‘sulphur outlet’), a conical stratovolcano, formed from alternating layers of lava and ash, at the heart of the Parc National de Guadeloupe. It is a Peléan volcano, which erupts in nuées ardentes (a French term meaning ‘glowing clouds’), releasing not lava but a fast-moving, incandescent and destructive pyroclastic flow.
Guadeloupe’s big, steaming chimney last erupted between 1976 and 1977, when 70,000 people were evacuated from island capital Basse-Terre. The eruption saw a crack open in the summit dome, a series of steam and ash outbursts, and spews of ash deposited up to 7km away. Fortunately there were no deaths, but there was plenty of mess, and the ash plunged the commune of Saint-Claude into darkness.
Despite La Soufrière’s explosive history, the half-day walk on its flanks attracts plenty of hikers – including me. It’s a two-hour drive to the trailhead from the seaside resorts of neighbouring Grande-Terre island, and weather conditions tend to be better in the mornings, before clouds crown the summit. Hence the very early start. I hit the road at 5am, one of a carload of yawning but excited trekkers.
Beautiful but deadly
Soufrière’s gas-spouting antics could be clearly seen as we approached the town of Saint-Claude, near the edge of the national park. Here, people live in terrifyingly close proximity to this monster. They might take some reassurance from the fact that La Soufrière is one of the most closely watched volcanoes in the world. Indeed, it has become a focus of international research aimed at better predicting future eruptions, especially since 1992, when its activity began to increase. Hundreds of sensors on the summit record its deformations, microseisms (small earthquakes) and temperature.
Céline Dessert, director of Guadeloupe’s Volcanology and Seismology Observatory, calls La Soufrière a “volcanic laboratory”. Indeed, volcanologists from all over the world met in Paris last year to discuss the volcano. There’s a great deal of scientific interest in active stratovolcanoes such as Martinique’s Mount Pelée, the USA’s Mount St Helens and Italy’s Mount Etna. These are among the world’s most picturesque yet most deadly volcanoes, and Guadeloupe’s resident beast is among the most recent to erupt.
And we’re off…
Pulling into the car park, already the Parc National’s natural wonders were on show. The tropical forests enveloping La Soufrière are part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, home to around 300 species of tree. Here, the massive trunks of 25m-plus Sloanea caribaea trees, commonly known as acomat boucan, spread out in elephant-skin-like folds.
“Now we’re going to tackle the volcano,” said Patricia, our geologist guide. “I hope you’re all wearing good sneakers.” At 950m above sea level, Les Bains Jaunes – named for the warm sulphur pools nearby – is the starting point for the hike. From here it takes about 3.5 hours of solid walking to get to the top and back, with an elevation gain of just over 500m. You need to allow at least five hours with refuelling and rest breaks.
The walk was once easier – until the former trailhead, a parking area called Savane à Mulets (1,142m), became inaccessible by road after a 2004 earthquake. The quake had a seismic effect on tourism, with hiker numbers plummeting as a result. However, thousands of people still attempt the climb each year, undeterred by its ‘Difficult’ rating and the dozens of tremors recorded here annually. In truth, it’s a relatively achievable hike for anyone with reasonable fitness levels and some determination.
The first stretch proved to be fairly easy going. We followed a cobblestone path through splendidly lush ferns and fronds, breaking gradually into narrow, winding steps. At a signposted fork in the path we pursued the Pas du Roy (Steps of the King) Trail through dense rainforest. Lianas slithered up towering trees, and spidery white Hillia parasitica and spiky red Pitcairnia bifrons flowers dotted the undergrowth.
“It’s like a massive botanical garden,” said one of my trek-mates, plucking a leaf from a velvety plant and taking a sniff. “I thought it was mint but it’s not,” he reported, bemused. Our guide couldn’t identify it, either – perhaps no surprise: the park contains over 800 species of plant.
The going became a little more strenuous as we walked up and down through rocky terrain. Then the trail widened into a small gravel road, and the rounded dome of the smouldering volcano came into full view. We’d arrived at Savane à Mulets, the old trailhead, on a vast plateau below Soufrière. Up here the landscape was less forest, more lush expanses of roly-poly vegetation, with moss-green lumps and bumps as far as the eye could see.
We had a quick read of the interpretive panels in the old car park before picking up the Chemin des Dames (Ladies’ Path), approaching the summit from the west. Soon this became a more serious rocky ascent, rewarded with increasingly dramatic views down over the coastal plains and across the Caribbean Sea, taking in the Îles des Saintes, Marie-Galante and Dominica.
Into the abyss
The last stretch was a solid climb up the curvaceous mount. The trail narrowed, becoming a dusty path of zigzagging switchbacks through a higher-altitude array of tree ferns and multicoloured sphagnum. We tackled a series of steep ascents, partly via some wooden stairs, then a scramble up the loose rocks of the Faujas landslide, caused by an eruption in 1798. Some hikers clambered on all fours to make the going easier.
Finally we approached La Grande Faille, a cleft that splits the volcano in two on its northern face, leading up to the summit. It’s a dangerous zone due to the oozing carbon dioxide, though fumes haven’t deterred the thriving green and orange lichens.
As the summit trail levelled out, a signpost declared: ‘La Découverte 1,467m’. We’d made it to the top. Clouds started to roll in, though fortunately nothing too menacing – we still had a few more earthy mounds to negotiate before we could see right into the bowels of the misty, vaporous monster itself.
Fenced in by a low rope, we peered into the void, a smoking narrow ravine falling off abruptly through dusty soil. Amid splotches of yellow-stained rock, sulphurous gases hissed and smoked like an overheated motor. The top of the plateau was pocked with numerous fumaroles, steam vents releasing gases from the volcano. The air was thick and smelt of rotten egg. Some people started to cough, and eyes began to stream.
“The fumaroles’ activity has increased in recent years,” Patricia told us, as withered plants nearby testified. This is precisely why La Soufrière is being so closely watched. Volcanologists from around the world are monitoring it in the hope of gaining a better understanding of how such volcanoes tick, in order to better predict their behaviour, and hopefully prevent future disasters.
“Another major aim is to enable Guadeloupe, and other volcanic regions of the world, to live better with volcanoes,” Patricia said. “Despite recent strides in our knowledge of La Soufrière’s inner functioning, many mysteries and uncertainties remain. What we really hope to discover is the decisive processes that trigger large explosive eruptions. But that’s no small ask.”
I gazed down into the deep, steamy abyss once more, and wondered just what powers lay beneath…
NEED TO KNOW
Professional guides run individual and group trips up La Soufrière. The national park website (www.guadeloupe-parcnational.fr) is in French only, though it has some downloadable English documents. www.la-soufriere.com is a great source for francophones. English-language visitors should see www.visitguadeloupe.co.uk and www.guadeloupe-islands.com. It is also possible to hike La Soufrière independently. Take a windbreaker and plenty of water and snacks, and check the forecast before climbing.
4 more hot hikes
Stroll up some of the Caribbean’s most impressive volcanic peaks
1 Morne Diablotin, Dominica
Though you might not be game for the whole 185km Waitukubuli National Trail, which crosses the entire island and requires a fortnight to complete, Dominica has plenty of other hikes to choose from. Summit baggers will be drawn to the ascent of 1,446m Morne Diablotin, the second-highest mountain in the Lesser Antilles (after La Soufrière), also located in a national park. Although volcanic, Diablotin has not erupted for around 30,000 years. The five- to six-hour return hike, with an 868m elevation gain, rewards with stupendous views, lush rainforest and cloud forest, and amazing birdlife including endemic parrots.
2 Mount Pelée, Martinique
You might be tentative about this walk – not just because it’s difficult. Mount Pelée, named after the Hawaiian goddess of fire, can lay claim to the deadliest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. In May 1902 the semi-active volcano erupted, wiping out the town of St-Pierre and killing nearly all its 30,000 residents. Nonetheless, this is the walk to do when in Martinique. The 1,395m peak can be tackled along several paths. The shortest is the 6km-return Aileron Trail, starting out at 820m altitude and taking around 4.5 hours there and back. Along the way there are fantastic views to the Caribbean and Atlantic coasts, a steep stroll down into the crater and back up to the ‘Cone of 1902’, and gentle scrambles around several other peaks near the summit.
3 Mount Liamuiga, St Kitts
The ascent of this 1,210m volcanic peak, which crowns a swathe of rainforest in the island’s central north, is a tough hike requiring good fitness levels and climbing confidence. It certainly lives up to its name: Liamuiga is a Kalinago word meaning ‘fertile isle’. The four- to five-hour adventure, starting from the village of St Paul’s, ascends amid massive mango, papaya and ficus trees before winding up on the rim of a gaping 300m-deep crater, then continuing up to the summit. Wild orchids and green vervet monkey sightings are also possible.
4 Gros Piton, St Lucia
The ‘Big Peak’ is the highest of St Lucia’s two iconic, pointy mountains, soaring 786m out of the sea on the island’s west coast. At the southern end of Pitons Bay, the World Heritage-listed Gros and Petit Pitons are volcanic plugs linked by the Piton Mitan ridge. In order to climb you must hire an official park guide at either the trailhead or the Interpretive Centre in the community of Fond Gens Libre. The four-hour return trek is easily accessed but not so easy to complete – about 80% of those who attempt it succeed. But the views are worth the effort.