The Azores: Pico - Our Top 10 - Overnight Camp on Top of Pico
Things learnt: take your time, its quite strenuous
Walk/Camp: Sunset and sunrise on the mountain of Pico
As we want to stay overnight on top of the volcano, we take the afternoon ferry from Horta (Faial) to Madalena (Pico).
After stocking up supplies of water in the local supermarket, we jump in a taxi that takes us to the start of the hike up the mountain.
The sky is almost entirely clear and during the whole hike up we have a wonderful view over Pico and Faial islands. The path up - and there is only one safe path - starts halfway up the mountain at 1200m. Following a reasonably well defined track, indicated every 100m by pole markers, it takes 4 hours to get to the top. It can be done quicker which the guide books indicate, though if you have the time you should take it and enjoy the views and the experience. It is quite strenuous as the path winds its way around the mountain and gradually gets steeper and more slippery the further you rise.
Once you reach the altitude where the bush land ends, there are only moss and tiny patches of heather, which are blooming in a soft pink in August and send out a very strong odour. The ground itself turns more and more into gravel the higher we get, so we mostly take two steps forward, followed by one backward.
When we finally arrive at the rim of the crater, it is already 8pm and the sun has begun to set. The first look over the edge of the crater is breathtaking. We look over a wall of rock and all we see is Little Pico, a cone of about 100m height which sits at the eastern end of the crater.
Every day since our arrival in May we have looked at this cone and thought of the day when we'd be climbing it. Now that we have finally made it up, it seems totally unreal.
There are many cairns and stonewalls, built by previous climbers/walkers to provide protection from the elements, which reign in their full force up here. I actually thought we'd have the volcano to ourselves, but we notice that one tent has already been pitched, and by sunrise the next morning we notice just how many people have stayed overnight.
After a few minutes looking for a suitable place to camp in this fascinating landscape, we finally roll out our sleeping bags, and look to find a spot to see the sunset. The crater itself is not very deep but towards the west it is surrounded by a high cliff, so we have to walk the length of the crater to get a suitable view. We are not disappointed.
By now, clouds have moved in to form a solid mass below us. It feels like sitting on the roof of the world, and the setting sun paints everything around us in amazing, ever changing colors. It is one of those moments that makes you appreciate life, and which provides pure and sheer elation, satisfaction and relaxation.
With the sun gone, it also gets cooler very quickly. In the afternoon, the temperature was around 25*C, but now it sinks down to about 10*C.
After confirming the weather before we left for this trip, we had decided not to carry up a tent and therefore we can now appreciate the sky above us. The night is crystal clear and full of stars, as many as I haven't seen for a long time. And there we are - Darren, Sean and I - about to sleep on a volcano on our sleeping mats, all snuggled up in our sleeping bags with a tarp around us, with nothing but the starry sky above us and 2351m altitude air around us.
It is a night of shooting stars. The first one we see must be a big meteorite. It comes as a big, very bright light which glows and then disappears within a few seconds. A few shooting stars and satellites later we see another one. This one also starts as a bright light which gets weaker and weaker but it does not disappear and for a while we can follow a weak light racing across the night sky. After our return we will try to find out on the internet whether someone else has seen the first, big one, but apart from us nobody seems to have noticed or found it worth mentioning. Maybe we are the only ones able to see them as we are lying above the clouds and are so much closer to the sky.
The rest of the night passes quietly, not to say deadly quiet. Every time I wake up - which is about every hour - all I see is starry sky. The most amazing thing for me though is this absolute silence. In Horta, we always have to keep our window shut at night because of the cars rattling over the cobbled street; up here I expected to hear at least the hissing of the fumaroles. Mount Pico is only a dormant volcano and I had heard that there are openings in the crater from which hot air streams out, invisible, but hot enough to burn yourself in it if you put your hand over the hole. However, there is nothing, simply nothing at all, apart from the strong odour of the heather which at this point I still think to be the odour of the hot air streaming from the fumaroles. In the end I am glad about this total silence, because I do not feel entirely comfortable sleeping above a boiling pot which could explode again anytime. We found the seismographic station in the crater earlier on which surely would have given out warnings in case of a possible eruption but you never know, right!? I think, the last time Pico erupted was in the 1700s but it is also the western most volcano of Pico island and volcanos over here have the habit to erupt from east to west. I just don't know whether they also follow a pattern in terms of how frequent they erupt.
However, the next morning comes and we are still here and alive. When we finally manage to peel ourselves out of the sleeping bags at 7am, we stumble to the opposite end of the crater in order to watch the approaching sunrise. Again, the clouds form a solid layer below us which only brakes shortly to reveal both coastlines of the island and the lights of a village down by the sea.
The sunrise is just as colorful as the sunset, and it brings with it a very welcome warmth. It was quite cold at night and neither Sean nor I have brought enough warm clothes, even though I had brought my thick socks and even gloves to the Azores, simply for this trip. As we were hoping, the clouds begin to disperse and allow us a view over all 5 of the central islands.
By the time we are ready to move on, the first tourists of the day reach the top, and together we climb the Little Pico to the true summit. This is tricky and not recommended for everyone as it is much steeper and involves more climbing than hiking. Although not 100% clear, the view that awaits us is fantastic. We can see the majority of Faial and the whole of Sao Jorge and that is spectacular enough.
Sitting on top of Little Pico, we see a fumarole with steam rising from it only a few meters below us. This is the only visible sign that this volcano is still active but it makes us think a little more about how daring it is to sleep in a crater. Unfortunately, it is not long before my vertigo kicks in and after a only 5 minutes on top we slowly slide back down to the main crater 100 meters below.
By now, time has passed 10 o'clock; the temperature has risen quickly and all of a sudden flies turn up everywhere around us - time to go! So we put on our packs and from now on it is only downhill for the next 3 hours.
The descent is a lot worse than the ascent. We constantly slip on the volcanic grit and by halfway down, our legs have turned into disco legs. How Sean could ever even contemplate walking all the way down to Madalena at sea level I don't understand. Thankfully, back at the bottom of the path we all agree to take a taxi back to the ferry. Not a single step would we walk further (although Sean is going to change is mind on this in a few months time). Our feet are boiling and in need of a soak in the cool seas. How anyone can do this trip more than once a month is difficult to understand. Two days later, we still cannot walk normally because of all those sore muscles. But apparently, some mountain guides even go up Pico in winter to do some skiing in the crater...
Ever since our return we only saw the tip of Mount Pico clear of clouds once, but it is as if we've never been up there. A completely different world and one that we hope we can one day return to.
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