Teide: Tenerife's sleeping dragon

Gorgeous scenery, massive views and a smouldering ascent of the third tallest volcano in the world: welcome to Tenerife, adventurer-style.

Words and Photographs Ben Weeks

Sunrise at 3718m on the summit of a volcano. Now be honest – this isn’t the view you picture when you think of Tenerife, is it?

If you thought Tenerife was all inebriated tourists staggering from bar to beach to bar with a straw donkey under one arm and football-shirt stencilled sunburn marks across their torso bellowing ‘Viva España’, welcome to the club. Turns out, though, we were wrong. Well, mostly. There are resorts that pride themselves on offering a slice of distinctly British culture with better weather, but that’s but a tiny part of this Canarian island. A far bigger chunk is the ruddy great volcano that sticks out the middle of it.

Teide tipple. The volcano's image adorns a beer bottle.

Teide tipple. The volcano's image adorns a beer bottle.

At 3718m tall, Mt Teide is Spain’s loftiest peak and the highest point above sea-level of all the Atlantic islands. And that’s not the whole story. Teide’s base lies some 3800m below sea-level on the Atlantic floor. Its total bottom-to-top measurement of some 7500 metres makes it the third tallest volcano on the planet, with only the Hawaiian peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa besting it. When a 2-mile-high lump of rock sits in the middle of a 50-mile-wide island, it’s going to get noticed. The earliest settlers on Tenerife – the Guanches – believed that Pico del Teide held up the sky. Maps from the 14th and 15th centuries refer to the island as Isla del Infierno in reference to Teide’s volcanic nature. And today its image is everywhere. Teide’s likeness is painted on café walls, printed on beer bottle labels and incorporated into the island’s coat of arms. And, for any climber of mountains, bagger of peaks or walker of hills, to see it is to want to stand on the top it.

Looking up at Teide from the volcanic sculptures of the Roques de Garcia.  

Looking up at Teide from the volcanic sculptures of the Roques de Garcia.

 

The conversation with my brother had gone a little like this: “Do you fancy coming to Tenerife to climb a 3700m volcano which may or may not be active?” A short pause. Sounds of frenetic packing and travel documents being retrieved from drawers, then: “When do we leave?” For anybody with an adventurous nature, the lure of climbing a real-life volcano is irresistible. And, in truth, Teide isn’t entirely active. The last eruption of any kind was back in 1909 and while it can’t be written off as extinct, Teide’s going through a dormant period at the moment and poses no immediate threat. At least, that’s the current thinking. While volcanology can be a little vague in its predictions, the hordes of tourists who take the teleferico up Teide every year don’t seem overly worried about it.

Of course, the cable car ascent doesn’t appeal to everybody; why would you want to pass over a landscape like this in a glass box when you can explore it so much better on foot? As we drove up ever-tightening roads towards the epicentre of the Teide National Park, the volcanicity of Tenerife soon became unignorable. Teide itself is in view from almost anywhere on the island, but as you progress higher and further inland you leave the forests and painted villages behind and enter another world. It’s an alien landscape. Red and black rock, spewed out from a succession of vast earth-forming eruptions, covers the rugged terrain. It is at once both ancient and disturbingly new. And if you think the extra-terrestrial comparisons are an exaggeration, know this: scientists use the area for testing instruments to be sent to Mars.

Gallotia galloti – the Tenerife lizard

Gallotia galloti – the Tenerife lizard

Signs protect the fragile landscape - and the visitors to it.

Signs protect the fragile landscape - and the visitors to it.

We left our hired hatchback in a roadside car park in Valle de las Piedras Arrancadas (the appropriately titled Valley of the Broken Stones) and headed into the strangeness. Lizards scampered among the rock and desiccated vegetation in surroundings that could easily pass for Martian, or lunar, or any number of strange worlds from the original Star Trek series. At 2300m the starting point for the climb up Teide is almost a kilometre above any ground in the UK. The air is noticeably drier and cooler than the coastal atmosphere, and large signs warn of the dangers of high mountain terrain. A wide 4x4 track winds around the contours, rising gently as it slithers up Teide’s slopes. This ribbon of crushed pumice took us past enormous marbles of volcanic rock and below the solidified lava flows that pour out from Teide’s summit, dark and intimidating against the pale ochre surroundings. At 2700m it splits into two pedestrian-only paths. A short outand- back to the left takes you to the summit of Montaña Blanca, a subsidiary mound and former lava-belching vent that’s barely higher than the ground linking it to Teide. To the right a rough, narrow track leads steeply towards the top of the volcano.


Great balls of fire...

Great balls of fire...

These large, round boulders of volcanic rock are everywhere on the lower slopes of Teide. Known as Teide eggs (a far more pleasant phrase than their scientific name: accretion balls), they formed on steeper slopes when pieces of solidified lava rolled over the still-molten surface, gathering layers in the same way as a snowball grows as it rolls. Some of these rolling balls of lava overtook the flow from which they spawned, ending up spread out across the pale pumice landscape where you find them now.


It is the nature of mountains that they provide their most difficult challenges when we are least prepared for them. In the case of Teide, the steepest, most arduous section of the climb comes above 3000m when the increasingly thin air starts to niggle. Our pace slowed, our steps shortened, and the frequency of photo stops increased. The rocks that cover Teide’s sides are fascinating. From the sharp, jet-black polished finish of the chunks of obsidian that can be spotted glinting in the sun, to the fragile glass-sponge structure of the pumice that covers most of the mountain, it’s unlike anything you’ll find in the UK hills. But the almost air-light quality of the pumice also makes it odd to walk on. It shifts and squirms underfoot, sliding and scattering when it should be still and firm. It requires concentration to remain sure-footed.

The walker's route up Teide crosses old lava flows.

The walker's route up Teide crosses old lava flows.

By comparison, the solid rock of the frozen lava flows, whose billowing curves hint at a fluid past, made for far easier going. The track zigzagged back and forth across the dark rolling mountain side, and shortly the gradient began to ease and the terrain levelled out. But this was not the top. The Refugio de Altavista is a long, single-storey building that wouldn’t look entirely out of place in a suburban cul-de-sac. Aesthetics aside, it serves a useful, if not essential, purpose. With ascent taking approximately 5½ hours and descent roughly 4, you could be up and down Teide in a little over 9 hours. But this would give you precious little time to enjoy the summit, and you’d likely have to share it with the scores of visitors who have journeyed up by cable car. Plus there’s the paperwork. To access the mountain above the upper teleferico station at 3555m requires a pre-booked permit. These are free, but limited in number and allocated to specific time slots. The refuge offers a way to bypass all this.

Stay the night at the Refugio de Altavista and you can make a before-dawn raid on the summit. Not only is a permit unnecessary before 9am, but the opportunity to see the sun rise at 3718m doesn’t come along that often. Plus, the refuge itself is in a fairly spectacular setting. Sitting at 3260m on the eastern slopes of Teide, it faces out over the volcanic landscape below. In the distance, vast cliffs rise from the lava-strewn floor. As we sat watching the sunset shadow of Teide stretch out over Las Cañadas del Teide towards the neighbouring island of Gran Canaria, it suddenly became apparent what we were looking at. The cliffs are part of a wall that stretches for some 17km and forms the outer rim of an enormous crater that Teide itself is just a pimple on. This is the remnant of the tumultuous shifting of land and magma that gave birth to Tenerife millennia ago. It’s a geological wonder of enormous dimensions.

From the lava terrace of the Refugio de Altavista the enormous caldera of Los Cañadas del Teide is unmistakeable.

From the lava terrace of the Refugio de Altavista the enormous caldera of Los Cañadas del Teide is unmistakeable.

A few words of advice about the refuge, though. Firstly, while it has fully functioning taps and sinks (and a reasonably wellequipped kitchen), you’ll need to boil the water before consuming it as it’s otherwise not safe to drink. Secondly, the limited food and drink you can get there comes from a couple of vending machines, which only take coins and are a rather expensive source of chocolate bars and crisps. And, thirdly, as with most refuges and bunkhouses, the dorms are cramped, busy and invariably noisy. If you plan on sleeping at all, take earplugs.

The Milky Way streaks the crystal-clear night sky above the refuge.

The Milky Way streaks the crystal-clear night sky above the refuge.

We slept very little, and by 5.30am we had left the refuge and were heading up the mountain in darkness. Pools of light from our headtorches illuminated the obvious track ahead, while above us the Milky Way hung from the blackness, its clarity undiluted by the artificial illumination and hazy air that swamp the coastal towns. Tenerife may be on the same latitude as parts of the Sahara Desert, but at 6am in the morning some 3500m above sea-level, it’s bloody freezing. As we plodded slowly up the final 150 metres to the summit, icy blasts heavy with the acrid scent of sulphur cut through multiple layers, the wind chill taking the ambient air temperature of 2 deg C to well below zero. Towards the top, chains anchored into the rock led the way, continuing until there was no more ‘up’ left.

Most mountains have neighbours, and being surrounded by other summits can detract from the sense of elevation. This is not something Teide has to worry about. The peaks poking through the clouds on the neighbouring islands are both distant and lesser in stature. For as far as the eye can see, nothing even comes close to challenging Teide. As the sun broke the horizon, the long, triangular shadow of the volcano stabbed westwards and, with nothing else to fall on, fell on the sky. Plumes of steam caught the light as they wafted from vents in the rock stained yellow by sulphur. We held our hands out, warming them in Teide’s own geothermal heating. Somewhere, over 3.5 kilometres below us, people were still asleep. Some would be waking soon and considering which beachfront café to source their hangover-curing full English from. We wouldn’t have swapped our place for theirs for all the gold in Spain.

Steam from sulphur vents clouds the cold morning air.

Steam from sulphur vents clouds the cold morning air.

You see the man in these photos? He's my brother; a chartered accountant from the flatlands of East Anglia. And yet he stood on the lip of a volcano’s crater on an island 180 miles off the coast of west Africa watching the sun rise over the Atlantic. Which goes to show: maybe everything we think we know about accountants is wrong. And just maybe everything you thought you knew about Tenerife is wrong too. There’s only one way to find out – go there and see it for yourself.


Teide toolkit

The best time to visit Teide is in the summer months. From November to March the upper slopes can be thick with snow, and the elevation means that it can be very cold at the summit all year round. The Tenerife Tourism Corporation (www.webtenerife.co.uk) put Trail up in Hotel Rural in the town of Los Realejos. An immaculately restored and typically Canarian 17th century home, this small, relaxed and incredibly friendly hotel is a stunning base from which to explore the walking country of northern Tenerife, and it’s about as far removed from the brash coastal complexes as you could wish for. What’s more, at the time of going to press twin or double rooms were available for just £50 per night. Visit the hotel’s website at www.hotelrurallosrealejos.com More information about the refuge, including prices and availability, can be found at www.telefericoteide.com/altavista.