El Teide - the highest peak in Spain

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Thu 1 Jan 2015 16:44
Out late one night in Las Galletas we got talking to a very old gentleman who has lived all his life on the slopes of El Teide (meaning the Devil in the language of the Guanche, the original inhabitants). He told us a very curious story; if you climb El Teide at dawn and inhale the putrid stench of a particular fumarole, you will become tremendously strong. He then described the location of the fumarole. We laughed but he assured us it was true, we soon made our excuses and returned to Caramor. 

Sunday morning we were standing at the bus stop by 8 am on our way to climb El Teide. We changed buses in Los Cristianos and at 11:30 arrived at the Montaña Blanca car park (2,348m), the start of our walk up the highest peak in 'Spain'.

Franco above the Montaña Blanca car park with the old crater walls in the background

The first part of the route is a track which winds gradually up the north flank. We were finding it difficult to breathe because of the altitude. We stopped for lunch and sheltered from the wind behind a 'lavaball'. These large boulders are formed when a rock falls through lava and grows bigger and bigger as it rolls, just like a molten snowball.

Franco at our lunch stop in front of a 'lavaball' with Montaña Blanca and lava flow in background

The caldera of the ancient volcano which fell into the sea millions of years ago, El Teide grew up within it

The track comes to an end and the second part of the route continues up a narrow path, the original route up El Teide. The upper reaches were covered in frozen snow. We arrived early afternoon at the Altavista Refuge (3,265m) where we had booked to spend the night.

The refuge is similar in size and style to some of the Alpine huts though differs in some fundamental ways; when the conditions get really bad, the refuge is locked! (precisely when it would be most needed), there is no welcoming guardian offering coffee and cake, instead CCTV in every room (we have never seen CCTV anywhere else in Spain), the toilets and kitchen are locked until 5pm and the dorms until 7pm. There are a couple of automatic dispensers in the entrance lounge; bad coffee from one and very expensive water from the other, three Euros for half a litre is verging on the criminal, particularly as the kitchen water is not drinkable and it is crucial to drink plenty at altitude.

Eventually at 5pm the guardian appeared, I had been speculating on whether he would walk up the way we had come or down from the téléphérique station but I was wrong on both counts, he had been there all along, hiding in his office. To be fair he was a nice guy but seemed to find all these people paying Euro 25 to stay at his refuge rather intrusive. The kitchen equipment included one electric kettle, one microwave and one hob with three rings, with fifty hungry people all wanting to cook, a new sport 'speed-cooking' was soon developed.

The mix of trekkers was German, Spanish, English-speaking and a family who said nothing. One of the English speakers had a delightful Edinburgh accent, Franco said to her "you are from Scotland!" She answered "how do you know? I'm Polish but I've lived in Edinburgh for ten years" ... and she thought she had learnt English!

There was a group of four hardy Spaniards wearing shorts. It turned out they had come to Tenerife for a sunshine holiday and hadn't been planning to go up El Teide at all. One of them, José loves organising trips, every year he plans a holiday and invites his friends to join him, each year a different group go away together, some meeting for the first time.

The first night spent at altitude is never easy, I woke up at 1am with a splitting headache which I was lucky to cure by drinking a gallon of water (boiled tap water, distinctly sulphurous). The following morning several people were looking the worse for wear. Franco felt well enough in the morning but developed a bad headache and felt nauseous later in the day.

At 5:30 am many alarm clocks went off - waking us all, but only the most dedicated actually got up, they were hoping to reach the summit before sunrise, the others simply rolled over. 

There is a téléphérique which carries thousands of people up the mountain every day but stops 170m below the summit, the path to the crater is tightly regulated by the National Park authorities to prevent environmental damage, a permit is required which has to be booked at least a month in advance, the alternative is to get there before 9am. Our plan was to set off as soon as it was light enough to see where we were stepping and hopefully we would make the summit path before 9am.

We got up at 6, earlier than planned but we were both wide awake and set off at 7:15. The path was covered in icy snow making progress slow as we had to scramble up over boulders rather than walk along the icy path. The amount of snow and ice this season is exceptional for Tenerife.

Looking east at dawn

Franco ice trekking

We arrived at the summit path with plenty of time to spare and passed the 'sunrisers' coming back down, a few looked close to hyperthermia. Towards the top we passed José and two of his companions heading back down in good spirits (the third had decided not to go, too cold in shorts; he had a point!).

The smell of sulphur was powerful and nauseating and many more fumaroles were active than when I went up in October. We found the fumarole, it was warm ... maybe a little too warm!

Kath sitting on a fumarole

Kath walking through fumarole stinking steam

Franco in front El Teide's crater

It was cold at the summit of El Teide at 3,718m.

Kath at summit of El Teide in front of the crater, Teno mountains in the background

We arrived back at the cable car station just as the staff were closing the path we had come up on because it was too icy. We quickly made our way along the paved path to the Mirador de Pico Viejo as the first load of sightseers erupted out of the téléphérique cabin.

From the mirador the path disappears completely for a fifty metre section to discourage people from straying too far from the station, it then heads steeply down towards the Pico Viejo crater, very rough at times over lava and boulders.

Kath crossing a lava field

The Pico Viejo crater used to contain a lava lake which drained away in 1798 when the 'nostrils' of Teide erupted lower down the slope. The most recent eruption was in 1909.

Pico Viejo from higher up on El Teide

The 'nostrils' of Teide which erupted in 1798

Pico Viejo and the 'nostrils' of Teide from the road

The path weaves down through volcanic ash and dust and eventually meets the road to Los Gigantes, from here we had a 3km walk back to the main bus route. We got to the bus stop in good time only to be told that although the bus stops there on the way up in the morning, it doesn't stop there on the way down in the afternoon (there is only one bus a day) and that we would have to walk the six kilometres to El Parador Nacional from where the bus would depart at 4pm - impossible in 45 minutes.

We decided to stay put and cajole the bus into stopping, meanwhile we tried hitch-hiking. We didn't have sleeping bags and once the sun set it would get very cold, neither of us fancied a night up on the high plateau.

We were lucky and it wasn't long before a car stopped, fifteen minutes before the bus was due. The driver, a keen trekker from near Hanover, Germany, is a regular visitor to the Canary Islands who has summited most of the highest peaks in South America. He had set off that morning at 4:30 from the plateau and had passed us on the icy stretch above the refuge, we then caught up with him near the Pico Viejo crater from where he had descended back to El Parador while we had continued down the Pico Viejo flank. He recognised us because he had been impressed we had taken the longer route, we were impressed he had done El Teide in a day! Once in the car we recognised him from his very bright yellow trousers. He very kindly took all the way to the Los Cristianos bus station.

It turns out the fanciful story the old man in Las Galletas told us is true, whether the effects turn out to be permanent will have to be seen.

Franco demonstrating his newly found strength lifting an extremely heavy pumice rock