El Teide and Pico Viejo

Canary Islands: Tenerife, Spain

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

The huge volcano of El Teide - at 3,718m the highest mountain in Spain, let alone the Canary Islands - dominates the Island of Tenerife, its peak serenely snow-capped in winter but more a looming presence than a thing of beauty for the rest of the year.

Teide's youth is extraordinary: a huge volcanic massif collapsed into the sea 150,000 years ago, leaving an abyss the southern rim of which is now the crescent-shaped line of thousand-foot cliffs around the Las Canadas caldera. Inside this hole grew what is now El Teide, spewing lava and rock at such a rate that it not only filled this hole but grew to stand over 2,000m above the lower Canadas flats and 1,000m above the rim-remains of its ancient predecessor. Along the way, the stately crater of Pico Viejo – itself 800m across – was elbowed aside by its fast-growing, all-consuming young cousin.

There are three main ways to climb El Teide, two of them via Montana Blanca, the pale-coloured 2750m excrescence from Teide's eastern flank, the third via the Pico Viejo to the south-west, a longer route, with something like 150m more altitude gain than the shorter of the two Montana Blanca routes, but more varied, with the fascination of the view down across the Pico Viejo.

We of course ended up doing it differently. The morning of our planned climb saw a bank of cloud sweeping across Las Canadas, enveloping our Parador breakfast, and we decided to abandon hope - we were told cloud was forecast for the next 3 days. But, as we drove off for the lower slopes, the cloud cleared and we shot back to the Teide cable car: we would at least get to the top while it was clear, then perhaps walk back down via the Pico Viejo - the Montana Blanca route was closed because of recent snow. We just beat the buses to the cable car, and emerged to a remarkable view across the vast lava fields of the Las Canadas caldera to the sea of clouds behind and below its southern rim. We had failed to get a permit for the final 150m trudge up the steep baby-cone atop the shoulders of the great volcano - long story involving a recent switch from a compulsory visit to Santa Cruz, 50km away, to internet booking that transpired to be booking 4 days hence. When we saw the dreary-looking final ascent, we didn't feel we were missing much. Instead, we walked round to the viewpoint overlooking the Pico Viejo - also miraculous, silhouetted against the trademark sea of clouds, and slipped past the notice telling us the Pico Viejo trail was closed due to recent snow.

The descent to Pico Viejo follows the rims of vast lava-rivers - reminiscent of the crust of rocks and detritus above the sides of glaciers - an arduous and very rough clamber down something like 470m of loose and jagged rock on fortunately well-made and marked paths. There were some mildly tricky little ice-slopes to cross - and we heard tell of a man losing several pints of blood after a slide on the day before our descent. The key was to remember to stop regularly to enjoy the drama of this huge black lava flow descending onto the plain of pale orange pumice that formed the shoulder below Pico Viejo, its final precipitous 20m foot stopping in mid-engulf of that undulating plain, across which, behind an archipelago of lava spires in this yellow sea, was the rim of Pico Viejo, complete with a frozen layer of the lava lake that once filled it.

We lunched on the sheltered slope below the crater - the wind was fierce and very cold on the top - marvelling at the view across La Canadas, which was now being gradually occupied by a slightly ominous bank of cloud. We scurried on - we still had something like 900 very rough and confused metres to get down. This also turned out to be superb, if tough, walking down wind-blown gravelly bottoms of the old lava flows, then over the rough barriers at their sides onto new fields of broken black boulders - lava flows sweeping over older flows - dropping off their steep extremities into patches of shrub in a (relatively) damper little depression. Fine views opened out through the clouds, then we were tramping across "rope lava", less viscous when flowing, so forming smaller runnels, crinkle-surfaced pools and very liquid looking overflows with an aura of cowpats. It often created long tunnels where a crust formed but lava continued to flow beneath, leaving extensive voids in its wake.

We reached the magnificent Roques de Garcia, highlighted by shafts of sun through the cloud, with some relief, and a few minutes later got to the roadhead, with worn joints but deep satisfaction. What a walk.

I am delighted we did this walk in reverse: the descent gave us much more time to enjoy the views and extraordinary scenery than if our noses had been pressed to the black rock we were labouring up.

Then a final extra trudge, which we could really have done without: a 50 minute plod up the road to retrieve our car from the station.

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