Piton des Neiges – 10,075ft
Highpoint of Reunion Island
August 6, 2016
I was flying from Mauritius to Madagascar, and it just so happened that the cheapest flight had a 12-hour night layover in Reunion Island. Reunion is an overseas dependency of France, so isn’t really its own country. But it has a pretty interesting highpoint – a 10,000ft mountain that occasionally sees snow (hence the name).
I wasn’t sure in advance that I really wanted to climb Piton des Neiges, though. My layover was from about 8pm to 8am, and I’d read the mountain typically takes 2 days to climb. It was about a 2 hour drive from the airport to the trailhead, so given travel time, plus buffer time I’d need to catch my morning flight and get through customs, I figured I’d really only have about 6 or 7 hours to devote to the mountain. Also, I’d have to climb completely at night, with no sleep.
As I was waiting in the airport in Mauritius, I took advantage of the free wifi and did a little more research on the mountain. It looked awefully fun, and how often does one find oneself in Reunion anyways? I’d probably regret missing a golden opportunity if I wasted my time on the island just sleeping in some hotel.
I quickly loaded some maps on my phone, and resolved to try my best to climb the mountain. I’d have to set a strict turnaround time to make sure to return in time for my next flight, but it was worth it to try for the summit.
One minor problem was that I didn’t have any socks. I’d checked all my mountaineering gear (from climbing in Russia) and had thrown my socks in with it. I was just wearing flip flops, but for some reason had put my hiking boots in my carry-on bag. It would be a miserable hike without socks, and I couldn’t access my checked bag because I technically just had a layover in Reunion. Luckily there was a Ralph Lauren clothing store in the airport, and I picked up a fancy pair of dress socks for the occasion.
I landed in St Denis on the northen part of the Island on Saturday evening, and quickly made it through customs. I picked up some Euros at an ATM, then went to the Enterprise car rental booth to pick up a car.
The roads in Reunion were in excellent condition, just like interstates in the US. I drove counter clockwise around the island ring road until I reached Saint Louis, where I turned inland. I was navigating with a free app maps.me on my phone, which did an excellent job of taking me toward Cilaos. As I got farther inland the road got windier and windier. There were literally hundreds of hairpin turns! Luckily I was the only car on the road.
By 10:30pm I arrived at Cilaos, which is a town literally inside the caldera of an extinct volcano. The road actually had to go through a tunnel to get into the Caldera to access the town!
I soon found the trailhead just above town, and parked next to a few other cars in the lot. I didn’t waste
any time, so quickly scarfed down some food, threw some water and snacks in a pack, and started walking.
The trail was a very steep staircase leading up into the jungle, but I was feeling energized and quickly jogged up. I think doing mountaineering expeditions for the past two months in Canada, Mongolia, and Russia had
left me in good enough shape to not get tired out. I was soon hot enough that I started hiking shirtless.
The sign at the trailhead gave time estimates to different parts on the trail, and I noticed that I was cutting those times in half or in thirds as I climbed. It was looking good that I might summit.
After around 1.5 hours I crested the crater rim and broke out above treeline. The trail gradually descended to a small hut, which is where most people spend the night. I think the normal strategy is to hike up to the hut one day, then start really early to make it to the top for sunrise the next day, then hike back to the trailhead.
I quickly bypassed the hut and started ascending the trail. It was harder to find my way at night when
there was no tunnel through the trees to follow. The trail was extremely rocky, and indistinguishable from the surroundings at night except for an occasional white line painted on the rocks.
I walked and jogged up the trail, and finally stopped to take my first break. I realized then that it was actually quite cold up near 9000ft, probably in the mid 40s, and I soon had to put my shirt back on.
By 1:30am I finally crested the last rise in the trail and was at the summit. Unfortunately there wasn’t a very good view at night, but I could see some lights from the towns down below. There was a huge cliff on one side of the summit that I made sure to stay away from, and a big summit cairn that I hid behind to get out of the wind.
It appeared I would actually have enough time to get back to my flight, if I took the same or less time to descend. So, after a short snack I started jogging back down the mountain.
I eventually go back to the crater rim, and then walked back down below treeline. By this time I passed a few other people ascending. They were probably trying to see sunrise from the summit. I do wish I could have seen sunrise, but it wasn’t really in the cards for this trip.
By 3:30am I was back at the car, for a round trip time of 4 hours 45 minutes. That’s a far cry from the 2
days I’d read it should take! I was still feeling energized, so immediately started driving back to the airport. It was hard to stay awake at that hour, but I constantly munched on food and that worked pretty well.
Around 5am I found a gas station that was open and topped off the tank, then I arrived at the airport around 5:30am. I was pretty early for my flight, but dropped off the rental car and went inside the airport to take a nap. It was a successful and action-packed layover, and I needed to rest up for my next adventure trying to climb the highpoint of Madagascar.