Even though our alarm clock is set at a shockingly early 3:30 a.m., I am so excited that I wake up five minutes before it goes off. Today is a big day! After dressing fast in my technical outdoor gear and warm jacket, I grab my headlight and toss my backpack over my shoulder. I gulp down a coffee before heading out: after last night’s gargantuan dinner in a traditional Réunion fashion with home-grown lentils of Cilaos, a chicken cari and a few delicious rhums arrangés (infused rums) this is the most I can ingest for the moment!
I breathe the chill air of night and stare a moment at the infinity of stars amongst the Milky Way. Straight in front of me a half moon shines on the razor-sharp ridge line of the mountains of the Cirque of Cilaos that seemed to have been drawn by a Disney cartoonist. Pluto’s head dominates in the distance connected to the 3 vertical rocks called the 3 Salazes by the spine of the dragon. In a few hours, if all goes well, we will be petting Pluto on its head before a 50-meter free-hanging abseil down its nose to conclude an epic adventure that no more than 10 people a year attempt.
“We are going to pace ourselves hiking up to reach the ridge line at sunrise”, our mountain guide Olivier tells us as he is distributing harnesses and ropes to carry in our backpacks on the parking lot at the trailhead along the D242 road. It is 3:50 a.m. when we switch on our headlights and start hiking up along the GR R1 hiking trail towards the emblematic 3 Salazes. Toads jump at the last moment at every step I take making way for our small group. The sweet smell of the omnipresent Ginger Lily perfumes the air.
After a paced 45 minutes of continuous walking uphill, we leave the trodden GR behind to progress along a narrower trail that turns into a scramble. Still in total darkness we climb up the steep track.
The colour of the sky starts changing and with it the forest awakens. An orchestra of birds overpowers the stridulation of crickets. The sun is rising at the moment we reach the ridge line. It is no time to stop yet to take in the views as Olivier commands us to keep going. Without any hesitation we follow him: after summiting the Maïdo Peak a few days ago, he has our full trust. He knows the mountains like no other and passionately guides mountain enthusiasts in this trip that no other guide does. The ridge line gets narrower and the sound of birds is soon overpowered by “Ahws” and “wows” as we peep into the Mafate amphitheater for this first time at sunrise. The one-kilometer high ramparts that were created by the collapse of the Piton de Neige volcano 3 million years ago are majestic. Far from here we spot the Maïdo Peak and directly below us the village of Marla, only accessible on foot or by helicopter.
We snap a few shots but have no time to waste as today’s adventure is a long and demanding one. We gear up in our harnesses, get rid of our jackets as the first rays of sun are already keeping us warm, put our helmets on, and secure each other on a rope connected to Olivier. Our ridgeline scramble towards the island’s most emblematic rocks – the 3 Salazes – starts. Like high wire walkers balancing between the Cirque de Cilaos to our left and the Cirque de Mafate to our right, we are making progress carefully on the unstable volcanic rock.
At the foot of the 3 Salazes, the three monoliths weirdly rising up straight from the razor-sharp ridge line, Olivier explains: “From here we will need to climb”. As one of us secures him, he elegantly makes his way up the first rock, passing the ropes in carabiners he is installing in anchor points. Olivier knows the drill and while going up smoothly points to us to firm holds for our hands and feet. It does not look too complicated until we attempt the same! With two sheer vertical drops below our feet on the Cilaos side and on the Mafate side, climbing up is not for the faint hearted! After a vertical climb of about twelve meters we sit down and gasp for air: one in order to catch our breath but more importantly to take in this literally breath-taking 360-degree view on two of the three cirques of Reunion. It is 8 o’clock in the morning and the Cirques are in full sunlight. Cilaos is waking up and the widespread mountain city must be getting busy around its weekend market. On the other side, the small settlements – or islets – of Mafate seem to still be quiet. For us, the real adventure is only about to start!
Where most groups summit the first rock, zip line from there to the second one, descend and take the same way back (an iconic adventure of in the Réunion Island!) we push even further as the three of us, still secured to each other, continue along the ridge line. Clearly the path is hardly ever trodden. With Olivier being the only guide taking mountain enthusiasts here with a maximum of two people at a time for safety reasons, not many people wander past the already difficult-to-access accessible 3 Salazes. As we are walking along the spine of the dragon, it is a mix of hiking and scrambling, carefully checking each stone as the volcanic rock comes off way too easily.
This spiky dragon challenges us! A tricky 5c passage with an overhang makes us sweat. Back in full rock climbing mode, Olivier carefully secures and monitors us on our way up. Once stable on the top slab, we let the adrenalin flow while admiring the stunning landscape at our feet. Looking back at what we have already covered along the ridge line, we can hardly guess a trail and the remaining section does not look any more obvious.
We keep pushing, holding everything we can to keep our balance, tree branches, stones, high grass,… as we scramble on an inexistent path higher and higher along the dragon spine. On the distant summits, a few small clouds are coming in. Olivier maintains the pace. He knows how fast they pack and grow bigger…
A good two hours later we reach the highest point: the cranium of Pluto. It is time to make it down as the horizon gets cloudier and cloudier. I read the excitement mixed with a strong focus in Olivier’s eyes while he sets up the ropes for the first of a total of four abseils down.
We lower ourselves one by one from Pluto’s forehead, amongst shrub and small trees shaped by the wind. The landing is soft and smooth on a grassy slope with sufficient branches to hold onto before pulling back the ropes and preparing them for the next 50 meters down. This time it is a tricky landing where we are stopped by a wobbly tree which roots provide the only flat preventing us from falling into Cilaos hundreds of meters down. As Olivier is advancing along the ridge line now half covered by clouds, there is barely room for both of us to stand, hugging dearly the small tree. For the last stretch before reaching Pluto’s nose, we are back in our high wire walker postures, balancing delicately on the fragile soil that tends to crumble underneath our feet on the border between both Cirques.
The third abseil is just a formality before the dramatic free-hanging abseil. After securing ourselves to an anchor point, we listen to Olivier’s instructions and see him disappear below the overhang in the clouds. Paying attention to the slightest noise, after a few minutes, we hear something and feel less pressure on the rope. It is our turn. Disconnecting my carabiners from the anchor point, I check the ropes and hang in my harness. With the ropes between my legs and my hands below the descender, I start by moving my feet along the cliff to keep my legs at a straight angle with my upper body. Soon, the cliff disappears below my feet and I am simply free hanging. Closing my hand on the ropes helps me control my rate of descent. I am torn between taking my time to enjoy the moment and taking in the view, and feeling the adrenaline by abseiling down fast these last 50 meters. I try to make the most of both and end up in the cloud where I meet Olivier with a huge smile!
Our adventure is almost over. We just have a few more kilometers to cover most likely in the rain. As I am keeping an eye on the end of the rope to guess Marcella abseiling down, I am re-living the day: hiking by night, discovering one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen by reaching the ridge-line at the break of dawn, dominating the Cirques after rock climbing up the 3 Salazes, taming the spine of the dragon, petting Pluto, climbing and scrambling his cranium, balancing its 15-centimeter wide ridge line for the climax: abseiling down its 50-meter long nose, free-hanging! What an adventure!
Claire & Marcella
- No previous rock climbing experience is needed to venture on the 3 Salazes. Two options are open: the classic (up the 3 Salazes and back down) or the Integral (describe in this article). One has to overcome a 6a+ difficulty to pass that can be lowered to 5c thanks to a few ladders on the Integral.
- For non rock climbers, these scales grade the toughest passage along a climb and start at 3a to end at 9c+ with 3 letters (a, b, c) and a “+” that can be added to denote the difficulty. To get an equivalent gradation based on where you are from, refer to this website.
- To live this rock climbing adventure for which you need a mountain guide, get in touch with Adventures Reunion. FYI, text and photos in this article are based on the Integral route.
- To fully rest before and relax after this adrenaline-packed adventure, we recommend you to stay at the Tsilaosa Hotel, a comfortable 4-star hotel in Cilaos a short drive from the starting point.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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