At some point during the night someone strapped a pair of lead boots to my feet. Either that or I’ve just stepped into quicksand. My legs are moving as though some ethereal being has hit slo-mo on life’s remote. My lungs are heaving and my face is icy, yet I can feel sweat trickling down my back – surely this is a dream.
I suck deeply on the tube leading to the life-giving liquid in my rucksack. Nothing happens. That’s impossible; I filled the 2 litre water bottle a couple of hours previously at the refuge. Further inspection reveals the water has frozen solid. It’s only a 500 metre ascent from the refuge to the summit; it should be easy. But it’s starting to look as though the race to reach it in time to watch the sun come up is going to be closer to the wire than I imagined. I reach out a hand to steady myself against a rock and immediately withdraw it with a pathetic yelp. The rock is hot. This is getting ridiculous.
The route to Mount Teide that leads from the road dissecting Teide National Park on Tenerife is somewhat of a walkers’ highway. It’s late October and although the temperatures are probably around 10C it feels much warmer. Any exertion requires stripping down to T-shirts. With cloud fingers spilling over a crater wall like an overfilled cauldron, it’s a spectacular and relatively gentle start to a route that will end 3718 metres above sea level atop Spain’s highest mountain and the third tallest volcano on the planet, Mount Teide.
The landscape often described as other-worldly lives up to its tag. An uneven terrain of copper and saffron hues undulates gently towards the base of the mountain. Melted rock lies in ropey layers on ruddy slopes. It’s a harsh and violent landscape that is mesmerizing and beautiful.
As the path meanders towards the Estancia de los Ingleses we pass huge black balls of rock, pyroclastic bombs known as Teide’s eggs that had been violently expelled from the kingdom of the devil inside the mountain.
Now it Gets Difficult
At the Estancia de los Ingleses a path leads straight up between two basaltic lava streams. It’s not rope and crampons steep, but it does test the thighs and slippery picon underfoot saps the energy. At somewhere around the 2,500 metre mark, this is exactly where altitude sickness can kick in. We take it easy, stopping often to drink water. It gives us time to absorb the epic natural canvas unfolding below. This is nature gone mad, an explosively abstract volcanic scene. By this point there is just us, a few lizards and the occasional rabbit staying well away from hunters 1000 metres below.
The altitude makes progress difficult. Muscles don’t feel particularly tired but it’s almost impossible not to gasp continuously; our bloodstreams desperately seeking oxygen in the thin air. By the time we emerge at the Refugio Altavista at the Estancia de los Alemanes each step is laboured. The refuge is an extremely welcome sight for sore legs that were becoming mutinous and a peeling wooden bench acts as throne from which to rest and survey a chaotic landscape where lava ruled supreme.
As the sun leaves Mount Teide’s slopes it takes any warmth with it. The temperature plummets to below freezing. Inside the refuge a huge fireplace promises warmth. But a gruff ‘the fire is only lit when it gets really cold’ from the refuge’s caretaker dashes any hope of cosiness. Really cold means -7C. The thermometer in the refuge shows -4C.
There is a handful of climbers from various countries sharing the refuge with us. Just as we’re starting get to know one another over dinner of sandwiches, the caretaker indicates it’s time to retire to the communal bunks. It’s 9pm and we have to rise at 4.30am to make the summit for sunrise. Three hours to climb 500 metres seems generous.
Although the bunks are surprisingly cosy and both Andy and I are exhausted, sleep remains a stranger. For almost 7 hours we lie quietly in complete darkness waiting for the command to rouse for the final climb.
Dawn on Top of the World
The view that greets us as we leave the refuge is the stuff of dreams. Up here the night sky is within touching distance. I could reach out and grab any one of a million twinkling jewels. Shooting stars streak across the skies every few seconds. It is a vision which in itself would make the climb worthwhile… which is just as well as we might not be going any further. Like an idiot I’ve forgotten to bring a decent torch. All I have is a tiny Maglite. There’s no way we can reach the summit with only it to show the way.
A small group of German climbers have head torches that would illuminate a football pitch, we decide to stick to them like limpets in the hope we can steal some of their light. It works. But they’re younger and fitter than us and the effort of keeping up takes its toll. As we climb upwards the going becomes more difficult and by the time we reach the hot rock, heavy limbs are on the point of refusing to go on. But we force ourselves to take a few more steps, squeezing between rocks that emanate heat and sulphurous fumes; the stars are beginning to fade.
We huff and puff for a few more steps before emerging through a gap in the soft pink rock to find there’s no more mountain in front of us. We’re at the summit of Mount Teide.
Frozen, exhausted and elated we take our rocky seats to watch a dawn performance above the clouds on the top of the world. It is an experience that is quite simply divine.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+