Blue Mountain Peak – 7,402ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: January 5, 2013
In front of us was a fairly wide river, and only the remains of an old concrete bridge that had probably washed away decades ago. There was another dirt road on the other side, but it was unclear how we would get there. We were deep in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, trying to climb Blue Mountain Peak, the country highpoint. The only way around this river was to drive three hours all the way back to Kingston, and go around a different way. But what was to say another bridge wouldn’t similarly be washed out? We could walk from here, but that would add a painful 10 miles to our hike. I pulled over to the side to think things over.
Soon I heard some Reggae music blasting and a low-riding Toyota corolla full of Jamaicans appeared around the corner. Without even slowing down the car cruised right into the river and then emerged unscathed on the other side.
“If he can do that, so can we,” Matthew said. “We’ve got an extra six inches of clearance over that guy so it should be no problem.”
Indeed, we had heard the roads would be pretty rough in this part of Jamaica and came prepared with a 4WD Suzuki XL7. I pulled back into the road, cruised through the river, and emerged safely on the other side.
“No problem!” I said. “If that’s the worst Jamaica can through at us then we have nothing to worry about.”
Matthew and I were in the Caribbean for winter break and had just gotten off successful ascents of the country highpoints of the Netherlands (Saba Island), Dominica, St Lucia, and St Kitts and Nevis. On Friday morning we landed in Kingston, Jamaica, dirty and cut-up from an epic struggle to the summit of Mt Liamuiga the previous day, but ready for the next mountain. We picked up our trusty 4WD Suzuki XL7 at the Zoom rental counter and thus started the next leg of our Caribbean adventure.
I took the wheel this time, since I was more accustomed to left-side driving than Matthew and was more excited about driving on rough roads. With the AC at full blast to combat the 90-degree January heat we cruised out of the airport and into downtown Kingston.
Matthew expertly navigated as I drove through the crazy traffic-clogged streets. We stopped briefly at a grocery store to resupply and then headed north on B1. I soon turned east on Gordon Town Road and began getting a taste of true rural Jamaica. Most turns were blind turns, and the road was only 1.5-lanes wide as it weaved precariously along cliff edges. Luckily it was paved, though still full of potholes. At several towns local people with shovels were trying to fill the potholes with dirt, though this would only be a temporary solution.
We followed the roller-coaster road for another hour before taking a lunch break just outside Mavis Bank. I was amazed such a large town could exist so far up in the hills when anyone who entered the town had to have come on the same roads we just drove on.
Outside of Mavis Bank we ran into our first river-crossing obstacle, but made it safely across to the other side. This river roughly marked the boundary between bad road and terrible road. Only the toughest vehicle could proceed any farther. Luckily I was behind the wheel of such a vehicle.
We passed through the small village of Hagley Gap and then entered into true 4WD terrain. The road cut steeply up the mountain at a 20% grade, and then became deeply rutted out and rocky as it wove up Blue Mountain Peak. There were still small houses along the sides, but the only vehicles parked at the houses were motor bikes and tough Landrover Defenders. We eventually reached another small village, Penlyne Castle, and the road grade finally relented. I continued east and passed a few hostels that must have catered to hikers. Past the last hostel we met the scariest stretch of road: half the road had slid off the side of the mountain and what remained was only barely wide enough for one car to squeeze by. And that section was slightly leaning off the mountain.
Matthew got out in front and directed while I slowly inched my way forward. He then hopped in and we kept driving. Eventually we reached a super-steep 180-degree turn that we didn’t dare attempt, and parked the car there on the side of the road.
We just happened to be outside the gate of a coffee plantation, and the security guard came out to see what the commotion was.
“Hi, is it okay if we park here?” Matthew asked. “We’re climbing Blue Mountain Peak this evening, and we’ll be out by tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, no problem mon,” the guard replied. “Nobody drives up here anyways.”
We started packing up and the guard, “Junior,” hung around talking to us. He looked like he had a pretty lonely job guarding this gate all day long when hardly anyone ever ventures up here, so he was eager to have someone to talk to. We gave him some extra fruit as we ate a snack, and then headed up the road on foot.
By now the sun started setting, and we agreed the car definitely couldn’t have made it much farther up the mountain. Soon we passed the last coffee plantation gate and the road turned into an honest trail. We hiked up the trail for about an hour until we reached Portland Gap, and flat area with picnic tables, tentsites, and even primitive cabins. We didn’t see anyone else around and started looking for a good tentsite when it suddenly started raining. It was then an easy decision to investigate the cabins.
We poked our heads in one cabin, and decided it was an excellent place to sleep. The cabin was one big room, with no lights or anything, just a floor. In the corner was a pile of old foam pads people must use to sleep on.
We were travelling light to be able to take everything just as carryon luggage, and had thus only brought thin liners instead of actual sleeping bags. This worked perfectly for all the other countries when we’d camped close to sea level, but it was actually pretty chilly up here close to 5000ft. I put on all my layers and sandwiched myself between a couple of the old pads, and this got me warm enough to make it through the night.
In the morning the rain stopped and we started hiking around 9am. The trail was very well-maintained and wove gradually up the mountain. We hiked up for a couple hours and by noon reached the summit. Unfortunately the top was in the clouds. A huge metal pyramid marked the true summit, and we climbed to the top hoping for a view, but without luck.
It was actually pretty chilly up there above 7000ft, a sharp contrast to the 90-degree heat down in Kingston. We found an old building near the summit, but it had been ransacked by vandals and wasn’t in any shape to provide a good night’s sleep.
“I thought we read there was an entrance fee to the park, but I didn’t see any signs that said we had to pay anything,” Matthew said.
“Well don’t complain about that, maybe we just got lucky,” I replied. Just then we heard the sound of an engine, and a man on a motorbike rounded the corner. He stopped when he reached us.
“Hello, I’m with the Blue Mountain Park. How many days were you in the park?” he asked.
“We just spent one night,” Matthew replied.
“That’ll be 20USD each,” the man said.
That sounded a lot higher than any price we’d read online, but we got out our money and paid him anyways. With a wave he cruised up the mountain and we continued down.
Back at the car we met Junior still guarding the gate. We told him about the park fee and he assured us we’d overpaid and that the guy on the motorbike had pocketed the extra. There was nothing we could do about it, and he hadn’t taken our summit from us, so we didn’t worry.
I got back behind the wheel and with a final wave to our friend Junior headed back down the mountain. The road to Hagley Gap was just as scary in this direction, because the car would often skid on the extremely steep dirt sections. We safely made it down, and then had a decision to make. It was only noon, and we didn’t fly out until the next morning. That left plenty of time to see more of Jamaica.
“Looks like we can turn left here and take a different way to the coast, and see something new,” Matthew said.
“Let’s do it,” I replied.
The roads were still extremely rough, but a notch better than the section from Hagley Gap to Junior’s guard house. We drove through the small villages of Trinity Ville and Hillside, trusting our GPS satellite images to guide us on the turns. After a few hours we finally popped back out on the ocean. Here we turned east following the coast until the road cut inland at Golden Grove. Our map showed a picture of a viewpoint and a lighthouse off to the east, so we cut through some sugar cane plantations on backroads and eventually reached the ocean again.
We found an incredible campsite next to the crashing waves with no other buildings in site. I think this was the easternmost point of Jamaica.
In the morning we drove back along the coast to Kingston to catch a flight to our next country highpoint: Mt Alvernia in the Bahamas.