Touching the sky in the Canary Islands

  • Article by: MELANIE RADZICKI MCMANUS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2013 - 9:42 AM

At Spain’s Teide National Park, on the Canary Island of Tenerife, hikers (and cable-car riders) can reach the clouds atop a dormant volcano.

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Mount Teide draws climbers eager to conquer its path of volcanic rocks, making Spain’s Teide National Park a popular spot. It is on Tenerife, one of the seven Canary Islands.

Photo: DESIREE MARTIN • AFP/GettyImages ,

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Jorge slowly unfurled his index finger and pointed to the dashboard. The van’s thermometer showed 5 degrees Celsius. I didn’t know the formula for converting Celsius to Fahrenheit, but I knew that it was chilly. And that it had been much warmer 30 minutes ago when Jorge, my chauffeur for the day, picked me up at my seaside hotel on Tenerife, one of the seven Canary Islands.

The finger was pointing again. The thermometer read 4 degrees. A small smile threatened to break across Jorge’s face. When he spotted a thin rime of ice coating the road a few minutes later, he couldn’t hold it in. “Hielo! Hielo! (Ice! Ice!)” he said with a big grin. Then he fumbled for his cellphone, held it up to the dashboard and snapped a photo of the thermometer’s latest proclamation: -1 Celsius.

All right, all right, I got it. I was going to have a cold climb up Mount Teide (pronounced TAY day). Most hikers tackle the mountain in summer, when temps are moderate. I was here in November, when the air takes on an unpleasant chill. “But I live in the Upper Midwest; I can handle the cold,” I thought.

Then I remembered my house was perched a mere 984 feet above sea level. We’d be starting our climb of Teide at 7,825 feet, not stopping until we summited a full 12,195 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t know if I was wearing enough layers, or if my footwear choice (running shoes) was a wise one. But as Jorge’s van lurched up the winding road, it was too late to worry about that.

Formed 30 million years ago by underwater volcanoes that belched up mountains of molten lava, rock and ash, the Canary Islands sit about 60 miles from the border between Morocco and Western Sahara, but are a part of Spain. Tenerife is the largest island in the archipelago, and home to Teide National Park. One of the most visited national parks in the world, it owes its popularity largely to its star attraction, Mount Teide.

The dormant volcano, which last erupted in 1909, towers above the island.

No one knows when people began to climb “the Teide,” as locals call it. But my guide, Pedro Adán, said it was sometime after the Spanish took over the islands in the late 15th century. “They were conquistadors and explorers, you know?” he said, shrugging into his backpack at the tiny base camp parking lot where Jorge had deposited me.

Unlike the conquistadors, the typical park visitor doesn’t climb the rugged, sometimes steep 6 miles up Teide. Instead, tourists usually peer at her majestic peak from the safety of a tour bus, or take the teleférico (cable car) partway up her flank, where they can disembark to stroll amid jumbled, inky piles of old volcanic rock and gaze down at barren stretches, reminiscent of a moonscape, flowing from her base.

But whether visitors ride in a lumbering tour bus or swaying cable car, or stand al fresco on a tiny footpath carved into her side, they come to pay homage to the Teide.

Starting out

Winds swirled fiercely around Pedro and me as we began our climb from the base of neighboring Montaña Blanca. The path was wide and even, and the ascent, gentle. This was the tough climb I was worried about? The winds were more challenging than the terrain.

We wound around the back of Montaña Blanca, which mercifully led us out of the wind. As we crunched along the gravel trail, Pedro pointed out the sights. There was the north flank of Las Cañadas, a neighboring peak, off to our right. These giant boulders? Volcanic bombs. Teide coughed up small basalt chunks during her eruptions, which rolled down her sides, picking up girth from the molten lava. By the time they hit the bottom, they were enormous. “It’s just like rolling a snowball,” Pedro said.

About 3 miles into our hike, we reached the saddle between Montaña Blanca and Teide. We’d climbed a mere 1,000 feet.

“I think of this beginning section as a warm-up,” said Pedro. “Now the real climb begins.”

“Bring it on,” I thought bravely.

Time to climb

The change in terrain was dramatic. Now our path was a narrow, rocky scramble. My heart started hammering and I began to sweat as Pedro and I carefully climbed the treacherous path. My trekking poles, useful on the first stretch, were now a hindrance, often getting stuck in the small crevices between the jumble of rocks that comprised our path. Soon my quadriceps were screaming from the strain of the never-ending steep steps. Yet our progress was steady.

I looked over at Pedro, and found him huddled over his cellphone. He’d been texting our entire climb, it seemed. As if reading my thoughts, he suddenly turned and said, “Sorry that I’ve been texting. But my boss was worried you’d have trouble with the climb, and he keeps checking in to see how you’re doing. I told him to stop worrying about it, because you’re doing just fine.”

Too many people sign up for the climb through a third party, he explained, and don’t realize how strenuous it is. Then they’re upset and frustrated once they start. Some give up. Not me. I was determined to reach the top.

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