Blue Mountain

We just arrived back to Bull Savannah after a three day adventure to scale the highest peak on the island, Blue Mountain. The entire trip took three days and is something people do when they are here for an extended period of time, or visiting for what travel books call “adventure tourism.” This entry deviates from this blog’s usual theme of searching for a more fulfilling calling in life and is little more than a travelogue about our trip.

Part I – Getting There

Jamaica’s Blue Mountain is best known for the coffee bearing its name. Perhaps lesser known is that a popular attraction is hiking to the top of Jamaica’s highest peak. Going further, a popular adventure is to begin the hike around 2:00 a.m. so as to reach the top before sunrise. That is just what I, and five friends, set out to do on a Friday afternoon.

At 11:00 a.m. on Friday I, along with the other two volunteers here with me, Aaron and Jason, hopped in a truck with Emmett, a civil engineer here for a few months helping the diocese with some structural analysis of churches, schools, orphanages, etc. We drive the 45 minutes to Mandeville, the biggest city in the middle of the island, to meet with Margaret and Larry. She is here working with Catholic Relief Services, and he works for an aluminum company involved in mining bauxite, an ore used for aluminum production. It is abundant on the island.

Our group was split among two trucks following the main road to Kingston. We had an older Nissan that has seen plenty of miles, and a newer Toyota that looked better equipped to handle some; of the islands worse back roads. Mandeville sits on a plateau in the middle of the island and as you head east toward Kingston, the descent takes you through towns with names such as Porus and Clarendon Park. Eventually things flatten out as you pass through May Pen and head toward Spanish Town, which is much more low lying and, in some places, somewhat marshy. From there you cruise into Kingston on part of the Highway 2000 project, an infrastructure initiative to connect Kingston with the island’s larger cities. We saw our destination in the distance the entire ride. The Blue Mountains sit on the eastern edge of the island and almost isolate the northeast and easternmost parts. The mountains loom like giants looking down over the capital.

It took almost three hours to reach the outskirts of Kingston. We might have arrived a bit sooner had it not been for a traffic stop. The police here set up a check point and examine drivers and cars, presumably looking for drugs or other such materials. It is not at all uncommon for them to also shake motorists down for money. Police officers in developing countries are often paid miserable salaries on which they cannot support their families. This is one way they try to solve that problem. However, when they saw the trucks were registered to the Catholic Diocese of Mandeville, they waived us onward without any hassle. Apparently, harassing the church – and diplomats – is bad for business.

We crawled into Kingston on a four-lane road on to which almost all traffic funnels. As you inch along, you are continually approached by various street vendors with water, food, cell phone credit, and cell phone charging adapters for your car. Parts of the ride are also lined with collections of shelters composed of corrugated tin walls and roofs, punctuated with clotheslines sagging with tattered clothes, and junked cars being overgrown by grass. It was a reminder of a general tendency to find a city’s poor on its outermost edge. For all of our resources, we, as a species, simply cannot seem to muster the will to effectively do something about this.

Our trip continued through the streets of Kingston, a capital city that, unlike more modern cities, was not planned with regard to its streets. Traffic was thick and slightly chaotic, though predictable and formalized overall. Driving rules here were instituted by the English during colonial rule and have largely persisted. It has been explained to me that in neighboring Hispañola, home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, rules for driving are almost non-existent.

There is no grid to speak of in Kingston, and, unless you know your way around, it is very easy to become lost. We entered from the west and, upon reaching a T-intersection, had to travel quite a ways south before coming back up through the city and out to its east end. The main artery we followed, Old Hope Road snaked through the city and took us past office buildings, strip malls, and some neighborhoods. Inching eastward, the Blue Mountains sprang up as we turned a corner and made our way the foothills. Looking up, I saw homes dotting the mountainside up to some impressive elevations. Knowing how roads and other infrastructure can be lacking in certain places, I wondered how people managed their day to day up there.

We eventually took a fork in the road, which narrowed further thereafter, and continued as it hugged the Hope River. The Gordon Town Road snaked through the lower parts of the mountain range toward, you guessed it, Gordon Town. It was not uncommon to approach a tight turn, slow down to look for oncoming traffic, and, having found it, negotiate the turn the way movers navigate a couch through a tight stairwell or doorway. At times I looked out the window down to the riverbank and wondered if surviving the drive to Blue Mountain – or at least the trail head – should not also be classified as adventure tourism in itself.

We continued for about 40 minutes, all the while on what felt like a constant ten degree angle. We popped over the top of this initial mountain and began descending the other side. Towns such as Paraiso and Guava Ridge popped up out of nowhere and we used them to check in with locals to ensure we were headed in the right direction. In exchange for directions, we gave a lift to those needing to get to the next town.

We finally arrived at Mavis Bank, a type of last outpost before heading into the heart of the mountains. seemed to pop up out of nowhere and every once in a while, when we checked with locals to ensure we were headed in the right direction, a few of them would ask for a lift to the next town in exchange. Having plenty of room in the back of our trucks we obliged and pressed on towards a small town named Mavis Bank. We stopped at the police station and consolidated to one vehicle. According to those in our group who have made this trip before, the older Nissan was no match for what lay ahead.

A bridge carrying a water pipe over the Yallas River at the base of the Blue Mountains.

With the cab full of four people and two riding in the bed with our gear, we began a descent into a deep valley. There at the bottom we crossed the Yallahs River. Dusk had a firm grip on the landscape, and everything was dimly lit as we crossed a concrete slab of a bridge. From there we began a 40 minute ascent that, at times, felt like the we were on a slow roller coaster climb. Gravity pulled me to the back of my seat as we slowly bounced along a road that, at times, was no more than a dirt road with grooves and ditches carved by significant rain runoff. Equally amusing was that we met with oncoming traffic. I do not know how the Honda Civic or Toyota Minibus we passed survives these roads without needing a new transmission every month, but somehow, they make it work. We also came across many a vehicle that found its final resting place along the side of this path as well as a few natives leading donkeys in the night to which Aaron quipped, “Hey Mark, watch your ass on this road.” Timely advice.

The dining hall at the Whitfield bunk house.

Shortly after 7:00 p.m. we arrived at Whitfield Hall, a small bunk house that sits in a clearing on

The stories (or songs) this piano could probably tell.

a ridge in the Blue Mountains. The building has changed little since its construction in the 18th century and continues functioning as a coffee farm. The inside is paneled in wood from the ceiling down to the creaky floor planks (also made of wood) and there is a noticeable smoke stain on the ceiling above the mouth of a wide open fireplace. With large, worn leather chairs, books stacked on shelves built into the walls, and photographs dating back to a time before the house was a tourist destination, walking through the house is like stepping back in time. Were it not for the dim electric light, you would think you have momentarily stepped back in time.

Our lodging included a dinner with baked chicken, rice and peas, and fruit juice, which we ate in a quarter of the time it took to prepare and arrive. After taking in a bit more history in the house, we fired up kerosene lamps, stocked up on water, and made our way down to a separate bunk house just down the road. The main bunk house was booked with folks we would be hiking with in just a few hours. It was a preview of what was to come. Not only was there no outside lighting, the place is still densely covered in trees, which had the effect of darkness looming and ready to envelop you completely. In five short hours, we would be back out there facing the darkness again.

Part II – The Climb

Our 2:00 a.m. came very quickly and the six of us groggily climbed out of bed and prepared for the hike. We started the hike in the middle of the night so as to summit around 5:30 a.m., just in time to see the sun rise over the easternmost edge of the island. The hike, which is around six miles, is an approximately 3,000 foot gain in elevation. Completing it in just under four hours would mean moving fast and driving hard.

We made our way back to the bunkhouse and met with the other group. They arrived from Montego Bay and planned to camp at the mountain top for a night. Having done this hike before, they knew the way to the trailhead. Before going to bed we arranged for Vinny, an old Jamaican man with a long gray beard and ultra-thick Jamaican patois accent, to have some coffee ready for us before we started. He woke after hearing us talk for. Bit and told us the coffee “soon come.” That could have meant five minutes, but more likely meant thirty. We forewent the coffee.

Armed with flashlights and clad in rather light clothing, (it was around 70 degrees when we started) we started up a series of switchbacks they call “Jacob’s Ladder.” There are 11 zig-zags in total and they are fiercely steep. Around the fifth switchback I began questioning my ability to complete the climb, at least in the time we had given ourselves to see the sunrise. I had not prepared for this at all. My aerobic capacity was close to zero and my knees began hinting that I should have stretched a lot more than I did. The narrow trail was gravely and riddled with deep puddles. It would have been a soggy hike were it not for the flashlights and some quick maneuvering.

We finished the switchbacks in just under an hour, which included a 10-minute rest halfway through. at time we noticed the hike was especially strenuous for a member of our team. We divided her gear, of which I took my fair share. It turned out to be a blessing and a curse. The added weight, distributed properly, helped me stand more upright as we pressed on. However, it did nothing to help my knees, which had picked an awful time to finally show the wear and tear that came from a long career as a distance runner (which I have not kept up in any fashion since my last state meet in high school.)

After the switchbacks, the path dove into some heavy jungle and narrowed further. At times the jungle canopy cleared to a black, velvety night sky blanketed with stars that looked like a million diamonds. We tried to rest in areas with some amount of clearing so as to take it all in. Those times we could see the sky, we saw various constellations, which helped determine which side of the mountain we were on and in which direction we were headed.

The night sky as we ascended the mountain. (Photo: Emmett McClintock)

Around 4:30 a.m. we reached the halfway point on the trail, a place called Portland Gap. It was sizeable clearing bathed in moonlight. The full moon was an incredible asset on the hike, allowing us to cover large stretches without using our flashlights. With sunrise just over an hour away, it appeared we might not make our summit goal. We still had three miles and plenty of elevation to cover, though apparently the steepest pat was behind us. We pressed on from Portland Gap and dove into a spookier part of the trail. The tree cover was especially thick, which worsened visibility, and the trail become especially rocky and slippery. At times we inched close to an edge that, with the wrong footing, would have led to a steep tumble down an embankment.

Still, we pressed on as quickly as we could trying to accomplish our sunrise mission. This part of the hike was slightly flatter than before and therefore moved a little more quickly. Shortly before 5:00 a.m., however, we hit the final steep push before the summit. It felt like we encountered a 90-degree wall. There was a lot of grabbing of hands to pull people up and over portions of the trail, only to be met with another vertical obstacle of equal difficulty. It quickly became clear to me that I would have to choose between the sunrise and helping those struggling with the hike. I chose the latter and let myself feel the anger and disappointment for a few minutes. I then decided to feel something different: happy that (God willing) I will see a few more sunrises in my life, and helping members of my group reach their goal of completing the hike. (I do love supporting people trying to accomplish their goals.) After all, no one gets left behind!

Almost at the summit, racing against the sunrise.

As we continued to rise, so did the sun. I could see on the horizon clouds going through phases of orange and red; and mountain ridges gaining more and more definition. The stars that accompanied our hike were slowly disappearing as the sky gave way to blue. We no longer needed our flashlights and could see the path leading to the opening in the trees that lead to the summit’s clearing. Our goal stood above us the way a parent stands over their toddler asking, “Do you want to come up here?” We forged into the final push and by this time, my right knee was in serious pain. I aggravated my IT band badly. Every time I put weight on it and pushed myself up the trail, a searing pain shot through the sides of my knee. The final 500 feet were a bit agonizing.

We followed the path around a corner, which put us on an exposed side of the mountain and whoosh! A surprise gust of wind pressed my sweat-drenched clothes against my skin, and I gasped as if I had just been doused with ice water. Shaking it off and proceeding the final 50 feet, I walked through the break in the ring of trees atop the mountain and found myself on top of Blue Mountain with the sun barely ten degrees off the east horizon.

6:34 a.m. Success!

Part III – The Mountain Top, the Descent, and the Return Home

The mountaintop clearing was wide with myriad spots to take in the panoramic views of the island. The north horizon was hazy but at its furthest edge I could see a bit of the Cuban coast. The rest of the John Crow mountain range lay eastward with the Caribbean Sea sitting just beyond. The south vista was almost nothing but Caribbean water, shimmering as the sun continued its rapid ascent. The western view was almost the entire island, and we could see the plateau where Mandeville sits. The colors and shadows changed quickly. The sun rises and sets more quickly the closer you are to the equator. I tried to capture as many shifts in color and scenery as I could. Thank goodness for digital cameras – the film is free.

The view looking north with Cuba at the very edge of the horizon.

But I also tried to slow down and enjoy the moment. I looked down on an island that, for the most part, was entirely asleep while our team scrambled to its highest point in the darkest hours of the night. Many of them might still be sleeping. I envied them and considered ducking into the small, rundown, concrete hut someone built at the summit. It is covered in graffiti and one wall shows the remnants of past fires lit for extra warmth or possibly cooking. I decided to put off a nap and kept looking at the scenery around and below us with the same silent awe of my fellow hikers. We said very little as we watched the ongoing sunrise. I suspect we all had similar thoughts about the grandeur around us, but nature’s wonder is often beyond words and speaking can often diminish the moment.

My hiking companions, taking in the westward view. (L to R: Emmett, Larry, Margaret, Jason, and Aaron)

The light continued shifting rapidly for about 45 minutes. Once the light stabilized, I surrendered and popped into the small hut to change into the dry clothes I was advised to bring. The constant wind combined with a soaked shirt made my teeth chatter loud enough for my friends to hear. I propped myself against the wall and slept for 40 minutes only to wake up with a very stiff and aching right knee. A few years ago, I could have accomplished this feat effortlessly, thinking nothing of my physical limits. Not anymore.

The sun, lighting up the east-southeast corner of the island.

In total we spent about three and half hours on top of Blue Mountain. The temperature rose steadily, and the sun fully dried the wet clothing we hung on branches and spread on bushes. Getting warmer, and in need of a real meal, we decided to begin the descent. The walk back was considerably easier – gravity was on our side! What had been dark, slippery, and perilous just a few hours ago was now well lit, dry, and easy to navigate. By this time, though, I had to keep my right leg straight and swing it out to the side and around to the front of me instead of bending my knee and placing too much weight on it. It was an awkward solution but it worked.

Amazing scenery awaited us on our descent.

For 90 minutes we followed the trail back to Portland Gap. It was interesting to see how the trail snaked around the mountainside. The tree canopy that blocked the full moon now provided a nice shade cover against the sun. We rested at the opening between the mountains and watched a fog slowly envelope the top of the mountain range. We felt lucky to have timed our exit so well. After a 20-minute rest, we kept going. Lunch and coffee was as much of a motivating factor on the way down as sunrise was to the ascent. As we continued, we were amazed at the severity of the drop offs and how close we had come to falling victim to them on the way up. We rounded corners on the trail that opened to expansive views of wide sloping mountainsides covered in coffee bushes.

A brief word about the coffee. Blue Mountain coffee is considered some of the best in the world because it grows on a mountain range exposed to extreme temperature and climate swings each day. The temperature can reach into the high 80s during the day and fall back to the 50s at night. In addition, the tropical environment provides plenty of rainfall. Fog and mist add to the beans’ conditioning. Lastly, the mountain soil is full of various minerals that seep into the beans and add to the flavor. Like Kona coffee in Hawaii, it is one of the benefits of growing beans on land cut by volcanoes. Coffee plantations exist as various elevations and the higher ones apparently produce the better coffee due to the more extreme swings in climate. The best of the best is not readily available in stores; however, I understand it is served when the government hosts dignitaries and other such important visitors.

Various coffee plantations along the mountainside.

The fall would have been as bad as I imiagined.

Soon we were back at the top of Jacob’s Ladder and traversed the switchbacks that exhausted us so early in the hike. After a total of three hours we arrived back to the starting point and the large bunkhouse. Seeing this centuries-old relic in daylight only underscored the feeling of having been transported back. The house is surrounded by a lawn with benches and rock-framed stairs that help the place melt into its surroundings as if it had been there since the mountains were formed.

Lunch was waiting for us upon our arrival. It was the same meal as the night before and we ate it in about a quarter of the time. The coffee flowed freely and was some of the best I have ever had. Afterward we went back to our cabin to clean up with semi-warm showers. Hot water – and water pressure – can be rare birds at that elevation – but we made do with what we had. We spent the rest of the day milling about the place, playing cards, and talking about the hike. At times we just sat quietly listening to the sounds of the woods around us until it was time for dinner and finally a much-needed night of deep sleep.

The clouds began to close in around us like a blanket as we made our way back.

We packed up the next morning and planned to begin the drive back after breakfast. However, “island time” once again clashed with our plans and we forewent the meal in favor of getting home at a decent time. We piled into the truck and made our way down the turbulent road. I sat in the truck bed with Emmett and after about five minutes we decided that standing while holding the roll bar for support was a better way to survive the bumps and dips. Locals waved and shouted to us in Patois as we slowly rolled by. The further down the mountain we went, the more of the entire range we could see. The sky was pocked with turkey vultures, or John Crows, as they are called here. (Hence the name of the mountain range.) I wanted to stay another day or two.

Whitefield Hall, a glimpse of a bygone era in the 21st century.

After an hour of creeping toward the valley sitting at the mountain base, we crossed back over the river and continued to Mavis Bank where we had left the older truck. Fully paved roads – no matter how thin – were a welcome change as we cruised back through Guava Ridge and Gordon Town. As we followed the road out of the foothills, we could see the eastern limit of Kingston getting closer. We finally crossed a point where the trees simply stopped and opened into the jam-packed capital. It almost mimicked our crossing from the jungle thicket to the clearing at the summit.

It took about 20 minutes to cross the city. Despite our early departure and it being a Sunday, there was still a considerable amount of traffic. But we were on the highway headed west and, once it came to its end (it does not span the entire island, unfortunately), we were back to two-lane roads that slowly ascended to Mandeville. From there we followed the route home to Bull Savannah, a route that has quickly become familiar to us. We unpacked and settled in. Before dinner, Fr. Anthony quietly motioned for us volunteers to follow him over to the church. We missed Mass, but he – ever in charge of our souls – would not let the sabbath pass without at least receiving communion. The remaining details would be addressed during confession at some other time. We returned to the house where dinner soon came and soon went, and I quickly retired to my room to beginning jotting all of this down while it is fresh in my memory.

I may have missed Mass this weekend, but I spent more time among God’s grandeur today than I typically spend in a pew. I was not in a church, but the mountains felt like a cathedral help up by towering trees with the surrounding peaks as adorning spires. I was not so high up as to touch the face of God but felt as renewed spiritually as I have in a long time. Not a bad way to spend a weekend.