It took me ten months, windy roads through Ajoupa-Bouillon and heavy second gear in our ’97 Opel Astra up Morne Rouge to finally hike Mount Pelée. That’s right, I climbed the third deadliest volcano on Earth—which sounds way more exceptional when put that way.
On May 8, 1902, a pyroclastic eruption (a current of hot gas and rock) sped towards Saint-Pierre and within minutes destroyed the city and killed 30,000 people. There have only been two volcanic eruptions resulting in more casualties, both in Indonesia in the 19th century. Two more eruptions occurred that year: on May 20, obliterating what was left of Saint-Pierre and on August 30, extending farther east, killing about 1,000 more people in Morne Rouge, Ajoupa-Bouillon, and Basse-Pointe.
There are four different hikes to the top of this active volcano; one of the more common ones, La Grande Savane, starts in Le Prêcheur and takes about two hours. We decided not to do this one since my partner had done it twice already and too many people had told me the destination was better than the journey. After some more reading, I found the Desiles hike the most interesting though slightly ambitious for someone who isn’t really into hiking—8 kilometres from Macouba and estimated to be four and a half hours, one-way.
We settled on the L’Aileron hike: four hours and five kilometers, the most practical and direct with interesting things to see and a varied (but tortuous) terrain. It would give us the opportunity to walk along the both the 1902 and 1929 craters composed of volcanic ash and hardened lava, as well as La Caldeira, a cauldron-like pit, or caldera, formed by the collapse of land during the plinian eruptions (columns of gas and ash extending into the stratosphere) of 1929.
Determined to hike no matter the weather, my partner and I arrived in cloudy Morne Rouge and prepared ourselves to make it to the top of Pelée. Just before 10 am we started up the mountain, climbing stairs and boulders. Within an hour we had made it to the 2nd Refuge, where the Desiles and L’Aileron paths meet. At that point, there is the option to descend into La Caldeira or to walk around it. We chose the steep descent, which I completed mostly on my butt. Unable to see more than a few metres ahead of me, the thick fog and gray skies gave the caldera a mysterious and slightly eerie mood. After a few hundred metres of rock climbing we had made it to the Cone of 1902. Too foggy, wet, and windy to feel safe continuing, we took a break before heading to the 3rd Refuge, where La Grande Savane path meets the path around La Caldeira and veers off up to the Cone of 1929. After twenty minutes of steep rock climbing we made it to 1,397m—the highest elevation on the island.
We sat at the edge of some boulders facing Le Prêcheur and waited for the clouds to dégage; when they did our hike was rewarded with clear views of Le Prêcheur, Saint-Pierre, and Le Carbet. An amusing phenomenon resulting from Mount Pelée’s caprice were the other hikers pulling out cameras or hurrying each other to get a picture during the split seconds of clarity. After a few tries, I forgot about the picture taking and decided to just enjoy the view. My legs started to tremble on the vertical descent from the peak, so we took the long but easy way home—around La Caldeira and back down Morne Aileron.
All in all, we spent about six hours doing the entire hike, including an hour for food breaks and cloud breaks. Sure, I wasn’t staring into a pit of molten lava, but I felt like I had flirted with death in the safest way possible. Plus, I got to see a part of Martinique you can’t find anywhere else. Of the 69 plant species endemic to Martinique, many are only found on the mountain. Furthermore, the last eruption from 1929-1932 (with no casualties) make the deposits and flora on Mount Pelée geologically the youngest part of Martinique. An interesting hike that I could be persuaded to do again—or maybe even the longer one starting in Macouba!