Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

November 10, 2010

Tenerife Mt. Teide Summit 12 mi. 11 Nov 2010

Never one to pass up a challenge, I spent the first few days of our vacation in Tenerife looking longingly up at Mt. Teide and hoping to get to the top of it. The hills in the UK, while rugged, aren’t very high in elevation, and in contrast Mt. Teide loomed over us sunbathers down on the beach, from a height of 12,198 ft. It’s the highest mountain in Spain, even through the Canary Islands are somewhat south of the mainland proper, indeed off the coast of Morrocco. I wanted to stand on top of it, and see the ocean in every direction.

It is possible to drive the road up to about 8,000 feet and then from there take a cable car almost to the top, but that’s what tourists in flip-flops do. I wanted to earn my way to the top. Unfortunately, there is a quota on how many people are allowed to climb the trail above the cable car to the summit each day. Slots for the quota can be reserved here http://www.reservasparquesnacionales.es/real/ParquesNac/index.aspx, but I didn’t get online soon enough to get a good time slot. So, my only option to get up to the summit under my own steam, was to be past the checkpoint before 9 a.m. when the first cable car brings up the rangers.

From the trailhead, it is a 6 mile hike with about 4500 vertical feet to the summit. Given that the park employees estimate that it should take about 5 hours to make the climb, I figured I could do it in about 3. Then I gave myself an extra hour of leeway, just in case! So I got up really early in the morning, drove my car 40 miles, from our hotel on the beach in Playa Las Americas, up into the 6 mile-wide volcanic crater that is the old volcano of Mt. Teide, to begin the climb. Did I mention that it was still full dark? Sunrise in November at that latitude doesn’t arrive until after 7 in the morning, and I have never experienced such a dark, quiet night as I felt in the crater of Teide. There was no moon, and the stars were covering the sky as I have never seen before. Given that I inside a crater, on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic, I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise to see a lot of stars. But what I hadn’t expected was the quiet. There was not a sound to be heard, no cars or people or birds or wind. The crunch of my shoes on the volcanic rocks were the only disruptions in a dark moonscape where even cactus couldn’t grow.

Luckily the trail was wide and easy to follow, and gently sloping up for the first 3 miles. Then it got steeper and rocky, as the bulk of Mt. Teide looming over me started to blot out a good portion of the starry skies. The constant warmth of the beach was gone, and at that elevation I figured it was close to freezing already. I was wearing all the warm layers I had brought along on vacation, including (luckily) hat and gloves, and steadily working my way up the mountain. The elevation gains dramatically slowed my pace, but after a few hours I found myself welcoming the sunrise from the high slopes of the volcano, with the summit not far above me. There is a small mountain refuge on the mountain, where hikers can reserve a bunk, to break up the hike into two days. I had passed the refuge a few minutes before, and now could see a group of people on the summit for the actual sunrise, who had probably slept at the refuge and woken up early for the final short section of trail. But by the time I had slowly wheezed my way up to the thin air at the summit, all of these hikers had made their way down already, and I had the summit all to myself. I was amazed to see the gigantic triangular shadow of the mountain, reflected on the clouds. It was very cold on the summit, with my thin gloves, although a few sulfur steam vents gave an occasional puff of warm air.

I didn’t stay long, but started heading back down the trails. It had taken just about 3 hours to climb up the trail, and I was slowed as well on the decent by the rough trail, rapid switchbacks, and loose rocks. Finally I was back down past the halfway point on a road that was more like a jeep-trail than a hiking trail, which made it easy to run back to my car at the trailhead.
It took me about 5 hours for the round-trip, over 12 miles, which is only about half the speed I manage in lower elevations. It was a quick descent in the car back down to sea-level and the hotel, at which point I started to understand that a drastic elevation change coupled with considerable exertion, might not have been such a good idea. Ouch, the headache hit me a few minutes later…the delayed effects of altitude sickness. Oops. I spent the rest of the day moving my head as little as possible. By later that evening, I was feeling somewhat better, so perhaps the great views from the summit justified my suffering later on….

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