I sat alone in the corner of the airport, stringing together ideas and lines on my trekking map which I had strewn across the table of the coffee shop. I had quite spontaneously decided to come to the party island of Tenerife on a solo hiking holiday, and as I sat quietly in the departure lounge, adorning hiking clothes and a woolly hat, I began to question the sanity of my decision. My uncertainties were exacerbated by the cheery rowdy groups of friends surrounding mewho had already started their boozy beach holiday here in the departure lounge. I was absolutely determined to break the stereotype and discover the true inner beauty of the island!
Before I know it, a whole week has passed, and now I find myself stepping out into the night beneath a brilliant sky laden with a million stars and a dazzling full moon. I breathe in the cold, fresh air as I walk past the eerie and chaotic rock formations that make up the Roques de Garcia. I go to take out my headtorch, but realise that I don’t need it, because the moonlight is illuminating the world around me. I go to put in my earphones, then decide I don’t need those either; I just want to be immersed in the moment, just me in the night.
It's 2am and I am on my way up Picodel Teide, a massive volcano that dominates the central part of the island. At 3717m tall, it is the highest mountain in all of Spain, including the mainland ranges in the Pyrenees and Sierra Nevada. The majority of people access the volcano via a cable car which runs to 3555m, but to climb the final section to the crater requires a permit issued by the national park. These are very limited in number and were allocated long before I even considered my holiday. An alternative option is to hike up to a mountain refuge, then access the summit at sunrise before the area becomes monitored. Again, the spaces in the refuge are in high demand and are allocated months in advance. And so I decided my only option was to begin from the base in the middle of the night and hike all the way up to the summit before sunrise.
As I hike higher and higher, the landscape around me changes and I feel like I am walking on Mars. All around me are “Teide eggs”, giant boulders made from lava, which I learn have formed when a lump of solidified lava rolls over the still molten surface, gathering layers of lava, just like a snowball. They loom above me up to twenty feet tall, otherworldly giants who appear out of nowhere and greet me silently in the night. The trail becomes uneven and scrambly, yet the light of the moon remains more than enough. It is positioned directly above me, forming a shadow only under my feet, offering the perfect illumination. Suddenly my heart leaps as a bright light flashes across the sky before my eyes, and I realise it’s a shooting star. The landscape and night feel alive.
As I walk along, I reflect on the past week and I marvel at the fact that this island has surpassed my expectations in every dimension. Every day I have discovered trails of immense variety and interest, amassing over ten thousand vertical metres and nearly two hundred kilometres. The journeys have taken me from desolate arid volcanic landscapesto lush tropical rainforests. I’ve never been anywhere in the world like this! And yet it remains exceptionally quiet as a trekking destination and many days I didn’t meet another soul.
I make a small diversion to visit the summit of Pico Viejo 3135m which isconsidered the second highest mountain on the island. It feels nice to reach a summit, yet the imposing silhouette of Teide looms high above and I relish the fact I still get to spend more hours walking in the peace of this dark and beautiful night. After so many hours of silence I suddenly hear voices and spot a headtorch in the distance and realise I am about to meet the first people making their morning ascent from the refuge on the other side of the mountain. As I scramble towards the summit of the volcano, there is a strong smell of sulphur and the site of rising mist from the crater. Teide is an active volcano which most recently erupted a little over a century ago, and although I knew this, I am still surprised by quite how alive the volcano feels!
It is very cold on the summit with a wind chill of about -10ºC. I am well wrapped up but there is a while to wait until sunrise and it is much colder staying still. I realise that there is a steam outlet very close to me, and I huddle up beside it. I am amazed by what I feel; steam as hot as that which comes from a boiled kettle, pouring out continuously into the cold night, warming me to the core.
The anticipation is immense. There is a cloud inversion a thousand meters below, andan orangey red glow all along the horizon burning brighter and brighter with every passing second. Then suddenly it appears, the tip of a burning ball of fire pops its head into view. It soars upwards with a speed that surprises me, a perfect circle of furious and beautiful fire rising gracefully into the morning sky, gifting us all with another new day. But the light show is only just beginning. The rays of light from the rising sun cast downwards, illuminating the cloud inversion beneath. For as far as the eye can see, I witness a magnificent display of oranges and pinks bouncing off an endless blanket of clouds and it is truly spectacular.
As I begin walking down the volcano, I feel refreshed and invigorated from the dawn of a new day. My body associates the sunrise with waking up, and the efforts of last nights hike are quickly forgotten as I feel energised for the day ahead. I love the special feeling of witnessing one day merging into the next, a reminder that life runs along continuously, not in broken stutters of daytime between our interludes of sleep.
I arrive back at the car, parked outside a hotel and café where hundreds of tourists now sit drinking coffees and freshly squeezed orange juice, basking in the beauty of the volcanic landscape. I blend into the crowds and queue up to order some food, my hungry tummy craving some calories. They only seem offered in the form of sugary snacks, so I settle on a donut and a cookie. I relax at a table outside on the decking. My three jumpers and down jacket have long since been shed, and I sit in my tshirt feeling warm and content. I look up at the two peaks I have just climbed which now look so different in the daylight, an incredible palette of lava derived colours compared to the dark shadows of the night. My attention is caught by another tall and prominent peak which stands across the plateau, Guajara 2718m, the third highest peak on the island. During my planning I had entertained a fleeting notion that it would be cool to complete the trilogy in a day, and now I feel a bubble of excitement as this idea returns to capture my imagination. Before I know it, I have munched down the last of my cookie, swung on my rucksack, and find myself approaching the lower slopes of Guajara.
There is something addictive about mountains. The peaks and ridges shout down enticingly, filling us with an inexplicable desire to go and stand up there - maybe just to discover what it feels like.Maybe to experience the joy of overcoming a challenge. Maybe just to witness spectacular views and see the world from a new perspective. Or maybe, as George Mallory said, just because it’s there!