by Andrea Montgomery
Last month it was declared a World Heritage site by Unesco and last week, for the first time, I decided to take the cable car trip to within 200 metres of the summit.
Thus I duly joined the sweltering ranks of day trippers queuing for tickets and finally (and nervously; vertigo being something of a family trait) boarded the cable car. Less than 10 minutes and 1200 metres later I was walking from the La Rambleta station to the mirador overlooking Pico Viejo, an altitude headache tightening around my temples and La Gomera, Gran Canaria,
It was all very different from the last time I’d found myself at 3,500 metres above sea level on top of the mountain which, to Tenerife’s earliest known settlers, the Guanche, was where the devil lived and where the earth held up the sky…
It was November then, still hot on the beaches at the coast. I’d begun the climb from the bottom of Montaña Blanca at an altitude of 2200 metres at around and had enjoyed the relative solitude and kaleidoscopic panorama as I traversed for over an hour before beginning the ascent to the Refuge.
I’d never walked at altitude before and despite accounts of its effects from a friend who’d climbed Kilimanjaro, I still wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of the debilitation its effects would have on my lungs and muscles. By the time I reached the Refuge 2 hours later, I could barely put one foot in front of the other. As I sat on a bench outside the wooden building and watched the sun going down, the temperature plummeted from 13°C to -1°C in under an hour; I hadn’t been this cold since I left the UK over two years before.
There was little in the way of furnishings in the Refuge and even less in the way of home comforts. But a large open fireplace had held my attention for the past 5 degree drop on the thermometer pinned inside the front door, and as the sun turned the landscape perma-glow orange, I ventured to ask the man in charge what time he intended lighting the fire.
He looked at the thermometer and replied: “It’s not cold enough for a fire tonight.” I laughed, certain that his statement had been intended as a joke. It wasn’t. “We don’t light the fire unless it gets to -7°C “he said. I stared at the thermometer, willing it to drop further, but it faltered at -4°C and stayed there.
In a dormitory shared with 14 strangers, it was ‘lights out’ at and so began one of the longest nights of my life. Despite exhaustion, the altitude and my aching limbs prevented me from even the remotest inclination to sleep and for 6 hours I lay with my eyes wide open in icy silence. Every attempt at shifting into a comfortable position created a cacophony of squeaks and creaks that resounded around the dorm’. For the life of me, I have no idea how many of those people actually managed to sleep that night, but as not a single sound emerged from any one of them, I’m guessing they were all doing the same thing I was…miming death.
At I stepped out of the Refuge to begin the final ascent to the summit and I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face; the term ‘pitch black’ had just been re-invented for me. Stumbling around on the loose stones searching for anything that might reasonably pass for a path in the paltry light of a wholly inadequate torch, I finally latched onto a German group who had GPS and seemed to know where they were heading.
My legs were still exhausted from the climb the day before, it was freezing cold, my fingers were numb despite the thermal gloves, my face and ears were stinging and my lungs were snatching at oxygen in the thin air.
Stopping frequently to rest, I gazed open mouthed at the vast expanse of star-saturated sky above us; an African sky; a jewelled, black velvet cloak engulfing the mountain, flashes of light streaking small sections every few minutes as shooting stars fleetingly showed their journey across the black canvas.
The 500 metre ascent took two hours, every step a mental and physical test of stamina. As the peak came within reach in the grey half light of dawn’s beginning, clouds of yellow sulphur rose from fumeroles in the rock’s surface, clogging my mouth and throat. Pushing off a rock to reach the summit, my hand scorched through my glove; I pulled away quickly, suddenly reminded that I was on top of a volcano.
On the summit, I let my rucksack fall to the ground and climbed up onto a boulder; finally I’d made it, I was standing with the Gods where the earth held up the sky.
Cloud floated all around like a halo of foaming sea and the horizon burned pink, then orange as the sun rose. The lower peaks floated in the cloud like a school of hump back whales riding the white surf; beyond the circle of cloud, the lights of the south coast and the neighbouring
I bit into my last piece of chocolate, it nearly broke my teeth it was so hard. When I’d swallowed it I needed a drink but the water in my flask had frozen to ice; I had a six hour, 9 kilometre descent ahead of me, my fingers were numb and my feet and legs were screaming; that’s when I resolved to use the cable car next time I came up here.
If the only reason you're coming to
However, if when your holiday's over, you want to go home with more than just a tan, then let 'Island Drives' show you the real Tenerife and you'll also take back the sounds, sights, tastes and memories of a truly fascinating island.
The refuge offers basic accomodation to those wishing to spend the night on the mountain before climbing to the summit to witness the dawn.
Provided you return from the summit before the first cable car at 9.00 am, you don't need a permit to reach the summit when you stay at the refuge.
Recently re-furbished, the refuge has just re-opened for business. The cost of a night's stay is €20 per person and booking is essential: (0034) 922 010 440.
As the new price to go with the new look has almost doubled, let's hope it's enough to buy some more firewood!
Looking at the night sky in the crater is like gazing upon a sea of sparkling jewels. If you don't fancy doing it the hard way, there's always the option of taking a guided VIP romantic tour.
Not everybody is comfortable driving abroad. If you don't want to miss out on this wonderful landscape, try an organised trip instead.