Friday, 7 August 2015

The El Teide Tour: an offering to the mighty volcano

El Teide is an active volcano in the South of Tenerife, a Spanish island off the West coast of Morocco. It has been over a hundred years since the last serious eruption, and in the meantime the island has become a major tourist destination. This tour, taking a small group of us to the summit, was organised by Anaga Experience and the trip took place in the height of Summer when the peak is clear of snow and the mountain generally considered less dangerous.

Our tour started at around 2AM with a lonely drive through the deserted streets of Santa Cruz de Tenerife to assemble our group. Blurry from lack of sleep we, that is Cao our guide, Andrew a participant in the 'expanded tourism' week, and I, tapped away to the music and watched the palm trees thin out to be replaced with dry bushes and cacti as we hit the highway and sped out of the city. We had spent the previous afternoon preparing for the trip, buying boots, food and torches, checking routes, regulations and sunrise times. We were pretty well prepared, or so we thought. 

The car cut along the highway to the South of the island and pulled up in an anonymous carpark. We picked up the forth member of our party, headed out into the night once more and drove up the winding approach roads to El Teide, continually climbing as we drew closer. We came to a halt in another anonymous car park where the cool mountain air signalled a change in altitude and climate. We were already over 2000 meters above sea level. We piled out and walked eagerly along the broad gently inclined path under the light of an almost full moon. This was easy.

As we continued, the path became more broken and on either side of it large shadowy forms loomed out of the darkness. One such was a huge boulder taller than me which we figured must have been fired out of El Teide during an eruption. It was moments like this that made me stop and realise we were not going up just another mountain but were ascending a colossal volcano. Another such moment was when the path took us over vast piles of black volcanic ash. Passing us in the opposite direction, from time to time, were groups descending. It was too dark to take a photo of them but I remember the troubled looks on their faces. There were at least two family groups on aborted missions with children cold and tired stumbling wearily behind dad. We passed into the shadow side of the mountain and had to use torches to guide our way. Sometimes the path was indistinct and other times I had to use my hands to help myself over rocks and to scramble up scree slopes. The way was becoming increasingly difficult. We finally reached the remote Refugio Altavista as the first light of dawn crept over the blanket of clouds. The refuge was locked but we saw a man inside who was able to use the coffee machine for us and hand much welcomed warm drinks through the window. 

The breaking light was spectacular but I was strangely indifferent to it. Of course it was great to look down over the island but as I was looking at it I was also thinking about how hard this ascent had been so far and what was waiting for us still higher up. We should really have stopped here a while, had breakfast and gotten a little acclimatised to the thin air but we were on a tight schedule. We had given ourselves less than five hours, much of which was in darkness, to complete a route which should, in normal conditions, take five and a half hours. After no more than ten minutes, we hit the trail once more.

A few days earlier we had paid an 'Expanded Tourism' visit to the resort Los Christianos, which was nothing short of surreal. It is a beach resort favoured by the British where English breakfasts abandon and lads from Sheffield covered in tattoos down cider and blacks at 10AM to get the day started in the way it's destined to continue. The place funnels you from bar to beach and back to bar with an uncanny efficiency and, after squandering a day there, I finally started to understand what a conventional Tenerife package holiday looks like. I found it hard to reconcile the fact that if I looked up from my one euro beer I could see an incredible landscape looming above the holiday apartments and yet the tourists around me seemed perfectly content to remain in this little Britain with year round sun and not for a moment seriously consider stepping outside the bubble. This gave me the idea of making some sort of performance on the way up El Teide.  

There came a point where the conversation died down altogether, the head dropped and the body just kept on marching relentlessly on. The walk was increasingly taking its toll on us and we all later said there were many moments when the mind wanted to walk in one direction but the body just kept moving in another. These dizzy moments are one thing standing up from a chair a little too quickly but on a mountain path, with treacherous drops to the side, they are something altogether more scary. The air was becoming noticeably thin and after each 20 second surge of energy would come a short pause to regain the breath. During one such stop the camera came out: I wear a lunatic grin while one of my companions wears a ragged gaze and the other drifts momentarily into sleep. 

At this point in the walk we had all had to confront the very real possibility that we might not make it to the top. With these moments of doubt came questions about the whole endeavour, such as, "why am I even doing this?" This, in retrospect, is excellent and helped make what was a simple physical trek into something with a deeper psychological and even spiritual dimension. Theme parks like Euro Disney or World Park just doesn't go there, they remain fun, or ironic, distractions. El Teide, however, demanded body and soul to do some real work.  

The actual experience of taking this walk was visually not so much like these images. I spent much more of my time continually scanning the ground one meter in front of me than I did looking out over the gradually expanding horizons. As I was often at the front, however, I had a chance, now and then, to stop and look up at this otherworldly landscape. The ridge of mountains in the background, I learnt, was the edge of the old crater. When I stopped to imagine how large this would make the old crater it was just staggering and impossible to fully take on board. 

I had to make my performance stops brief as we were walking against the clock and besides, it was not so easy to hold it together and make a performance, while at the same time making this ascent. I settled into a holy tourist routine inspired by a conversation I had had about holy theatre over beans and egg in Los Christianos the other day. This basically turned into making an offering to the mountain. I had heard that such practices existed in the past and goats had regularly been given to the volcano, which was sometimes regarded as a god. My offering was something more valuable to the British tourist, namely beer, which I poured onto the ground in circles around me. 

The summit is at 3718 meters, the final 100 meters of which are the most difficult: it was steeper than most other parts, we were tired and the heart was beating quickly after each effort to push even ten steps higher. Having the goal in sight up ahead of me, however, made it clear what had to be done, so, it was a matter of swinging my long legs and hauling myself up there. We assembled on the rocks and ended up looking like something from a bad movie.

Up on the windy summit the air was not only at its thinnest, it was also supplemented with thick sulphur smelling gases that I could see literally rising up from the ground below me. This activity made it clear to me that although volcano might be sleeping it will surely reawaken some time in the future. Up here, the footpath and entire mountain itself seemed to disappear, the only rocks visible were stained yellow and brown from the earth's guttural burping. I picked my way over them to get a view over the island but was too giddy to really take anything in.

More easy to understand was the simple fact that we made it. We took an obligatory photo to prove it so.

I was expecting there to be other people at the summit but it turned out to be just us. I had read that the crater was a very sensitive site so I did not pour beer down the old girl's neck but instead saved the last one for myself. I have come to regard the performance as a kind of inverted Nietzsche routine: Thus Sprach Trevor. I did not tell El Teide about football transfer deals or celebrity sleaze stories, I simply had a quiet beer, which was quite enough. Given the effort of the walk, my actions had to be quiet, quick and help spur me on. As with the Allenheads Fell walk of last year, a beer at the end does just that!

As the morning took hold, the crowds started to trickle up via the cable car and their entrance was the cue for our exit. I thought walking down would have been a good idea but that was just the adrenaline speaking and fortunately the rest of the group saw better sense. Once I had stopped for a minute I realised I too was really tired and the cable car was a magnificent way to glide back down. Indeed, I was so tired and in a hurry to descend that I took no pictures while descending but listened instead to the tourists who had already been up, seen it, done it and were now heading back to Los Christianos in time for lunch. A few minutes later, spat out onto a warm car park, we waited for the car that would next take us to the surrounding national park. The landscape here was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. Blue and orange rocks arranged in patters that got me imaging this wilderness as the devil's playground.

 And here is a view of El Teide itself. 

And it was underneath it where we made another group photo. Compared to the previous one when we were balanced on the summit looking somewhat dishevelled, we look a good deal more relaxed here. By this time we had already started to talk about the walk and turn episodes of it into stories. It is astonishing how quickly that happens. We were here performing for the camera, a phone on a selfie stick, and our role was clear: the heroes returned from the mountain expedition, playing it cool.

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