Hiking Piton des Neiges – A Lovely Disaster

Reunion Island is a hiker’s paradise, and its highest peak is Piton des Neiges at 3069 meters. It is considered the highest point in the Indian Ocean and is often called the roof of Reunion. While the name suggests this extinct volcano must be covered in snow, Piton des Neiges, actually, almost never has snow despite towering above 3000m. So, hiking Piton des Neiges is just your regular run-of-the-mill 3000-meter volcano…or so I thought.

Hiking to the summit of Piton des Neiges in Reunion Island
Summit of Piton des Neiges

To Spend the Night or Not To Spend the Night

David, my boyfriend at the time, and I arrived in Cilaos wanting to explore one of the most beautiful parts of Reunion Island. Cilaos is a hikers’ dream, it has everything from day hikes to multi-day treks with varying levels of difficulty. We did not have any specific plans, other than to hike Piton des Neiges so we did some day hikes to warm up our legs after the long flight from Paris.

We rented an apartment in Cilaos, and we were welcomed by a middle-aged couple that was from the area. They showed us the apartment and began explaining the area.

“Oh, excuse me for just a minute, we have another couple arriving,” said Marie. “Ok, so you want to hike Piton des Neiges?” said her husband, Jean-Luc.  “Yes, we thought we could spend the night at the cabin unless you have a tent we can rent?” He confidently replied, “No need to spend the night you can hike Piton des Neiges in one day. You just need to start hiking at 2 am, and it’s 4 hours up and 4 hours down.”

In the back of my mind, I knew my boyfriend and I were slow hikers. We liked to take our time, and this hike had a 1700m change in elevation, which is a lot in one day. It seemed ambitious to pursue this challenge, but he reassured us that he had hiked it so many times and he was confident we would succeed. I thought ok, perfect, we can try, but we agreed we should start at midnight.

The next two days, we did shorter hikes to prepare our legs and scoped out the first part of the hike. Hiking at night is always dangerous, so we wanted to know the start of the trail beforehand.

Hiking in Darkness

Cave Dufour Refuge while hiking Piton des Neiges in Reunion Island
Cave Dufour Refuge

“Beep, Beep, Beep,” the sound of the alarm was supposed to wake me from my deep slumber, yet I was wide awake. I had night hikes, and I never sleep well the night before. We had prepared our bags from the day before, so we just rolled out of bed and started hiking.

It was dark, which I guess it’s not much a surprise, but the darkness seemed more intense and it was impossible to anything, even in the light of the moon. We continued walking, and after an hour we reached the start of the hike.

Onwards and upwards we hiked. Even with our powerful headlamps, it was difficult to see anything clearly. The ground was uneven, and there were steps randomly placed at various sections of the trail. At one moment we reached a point where we need to crawl upwards. The ground was slippery and we could see the edge that appeared to drop off into a large abyss. It was terrifying.

“Let’s turn around. It’s not safe. We can come back and do it during the day.” I said. My boyfriend insisted, “no we have to get to the top.” So, we continued. Eventually, the sun started to peek through the horizon…but we were far from the summit. We checked the maps.me, and it looked like it would be much easier once we reached the hut.

The Summit

Hiking to the summit of Piton des Neiges in Reunion Island
Summit of Piton des Neiges

We finally reached the refuge. Exhausted, but relieved. We were nearly there, just a little bit left…or so I thought.

We paused at the refuge to eat a snack, drink some water, and check the remainder of the trail. During our break, I started to be a bit achy and more exhausted than I should be for a hike at this elevation. I figured it was nothing, and we continued.

The next part was the rockfall. On maps.me it looked simple and easy. However, it was just one huge rock after another. This was no longer hiking, but climbing from one boulder to the next. Jumping up then down with short flat parts in between. We were, actually, significantly further than I had anticipated. We lugged on, zig-zagging along the path…for hours.
Eventually, the rocks became smaller, and the path turned to hard sand/dirt. It looked like we were, finally, almost there. A huge sigh of relief on both of our faces, but by this time I started to feel ill. My body ached, my head hurt, and I had a sore throat. I tried not to panic. The air was cold, and at 3000m the air is dry. I continued to drink water, but I feared I had the flu.

Finally, the summit! We had reached the end, and we had the place to ourselves. We were supposed to have wonderful views, but it was 10 am and the clouds had started to cover everything below. At this point, I was not really interested in the pictures, but just to be finally at the top. I was feeling worse than ever, and my throat was now hurting a lot!

Beautiful Flower while hiking Piton des Neiges in Reunion Island
Beautiful Flowers During the Hike

The wind was rather strong at the top, and we took a break behind a large boulder. We both felt like we could just sleep right there, but my boyfriend had another plan. As we sat there, exhausted, he explained why he had insisted we finish the hike, and asked me to marry him.

It was my dream come true. Granted by that point, a fever had set in, I had chills and I was sweating at the same time, and my throat was on fire, but it was the happiest moment of my life.

The Descent

View of Cilaos while hiking Piton des Neiges in Reunion Island
View of Cilaos

The descent was not as bad as the ascent because we could actually see where we were going. But by the time we had made it back to the refuge, my fever was quite bad. I felt weak and I knew we had a long way down. I always carry ibuprofen and acetaminophen with me for emergencies, and, without this, I am not sure I would have made it down.

Now in the light, it was clear that the darkness had made certain parts appear worse than they actually were. There were several points where the trail was very close to a cliff edge, but it was much easier to manage in daylight. Partway through the descent, we had started to run out of water, and I was quite lightheaded. Luckily, there were clean water sources along the way, and we were able to fill up a few times. Additionally, it started to rain, which is not uncommon, and some parts of the path became slippery in certain areas. While it slowed us down, fortunately, it was only a light drizzle.

Finally, after 17 hours we finally arrived back at our apartment.

The next day we met up with Marie and she asked us how about hiking Piton des Neiges. We said we did it in one day and it took about 17 hours. She looked stunned and asked why would we ever attempt to do that hike in one day. We had mentioned her husband, Jean-Luc, said it was possible. She laughed and said he hikes Piton des Neiges weekly so for him it is possible, but for visitors, it is best to spend the night…lesson learned!

Summary of Hiking Piton des Neiges

After hiking Piton des Neiges, I slept for about 2 days. I was quite ill, and hiking with a fever did not really help. I look back on this hike and I can only laugh. My, now, husband and I were both in shape and more than ready for the hike, but a series of things went wrong that made the hike more difficult. Perhaps we could have researched hiking Piton des Neiges in more detail? Apparently, not many people hike Piton des Neiges in one day, so maybe we can turn this into an accomplishment?

Tips for Hiking Piton des Neiges

1. Consider spending the night. It is a long hike, with a large change in elevation. You can camp near the start of the hike as well to save time.

2. Bring waterproof clothing. It rains year-round in the afternoon. Sometimes it is a light drizzle, and other times it is a torrential downpour.

3. Bring a lot of water. When you reach the refuge there is no source of water.

4. You can camp at the refuge. The refuge is often completely booked, and the only option is to camp near the refuge.

5. Use a very strong headlamp if you plan on hiking in the dark. The path is completely covered by trees, and there is no light from the moon.

Read About My Other Adventures

Hope you enjoyed my post on hiking Piton des Neiges in Reunion Island. Here are some of my other hiking adventures that you might find interesting.

Jen Ciesielski
Jen Ciesielski

Jen Ciesielski is the creator of Dabbling in Jet Lag. She has lived abroad for over ten years, traveled to more than 50 countries, and speaks French and English fluently. Her areas of expertise include moving abroad, learning languages, and travel planning. Originally from the United States, she now lives in France, where she has been for more than six years. She has also traveled extensively around the country. She shares her experiences as an expat living in France and helps thousands of people plan their trips every month.

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