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Explorer, translator, soldier and spy 

Sir RIchard Burton (1864)


By the time he was forty years old, Richard Francis Burton had become famous for his travels in Africa and Asia. His best known exploit was undertaking, in disguise, the long journey with Muslim pilgrims to the sacred city of Mecca knowing that, if detected, he would have been torn to pieces by the mob, irrespective of the teachings of the Koran. To fully adhere to his Muslim disguise, in case of capture, Burton became circumcised – just a little snippet of information showing his attention to detail.

Burton’s command of various languages enabled him to translate the Kama Sutra and the Arabian Nights into English. On his travels he was seriously wounded, dangerously ill, sometimes failing in his quest but always active. His life story is fascinating but it is my mission to get him to the top of the peak of Mount Teide.

In 1861, at the age of 40, Burton joined the Foreign Service and was immediately sent as British Consul to Fernando Po, an island off Cameroon in West Africa. In this same year he had also married Isabel Arundell, much against the wishes of her parents who were devout Roman Catholics. It will surprise no-one that Burton was a self-confessed atheist. Isabel was ten years his junior and they had been engaged for many years. It was deemed by his employers that Fernando Po was too hostile an environment for Burton to take a wife and so they devised a plan to meet in Tenerife on his first leave. It was, in fact, on his second leave that they finally landed on the island.

In March 1863 they stood, hand in hand, at the top of Teide and one smoked a cigar whilst the other gave thanks to God. Both of them wrote about their experience. Burton published his thoughts in the book, “To the Gold Coast for Gold.”

The Chapter on the Expedition he called:- The Routine Ascent of Mount Atlas, the “Pike” of Tenerife.

“The trip was so far routine that we followed in the steps of all previous travellers, and so far not routine that we made it in March, when, according to all, the Mal Pais is impassable, and when furious winds threaten to sweep away intruders like dry leaves.”

Burton made it seem like a stroll in the park. Isabel had also kept a diary but was forbidden by him to publish it, dismissing her work as childish. Thankfully she kept her diaries and after he died in 1890, wrote her autobiography – The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton – which was published after her death in 1896. This is her story of the climb.

Saturday, March 21, 1863.–Of course we could not rest until we had “done” the Peak. We were in our saddles at nine. Our little caravan consisted of six persons and four animals–Richard and myself mounted on good horses, two mules laden with baggage, one guide, and three muleteers.

Obviously the first part of the climb is quite easy, as the horses and mules carry their charges to the Estación de los Inglesas (The English Station) (9,600ft) where they arrived 8 hours later. The struggle up the last few hundred feet shows them what lies in store.

We came to the mountain, and put our poor beasts to the steep ascent, breasting the red pumice bed and thick bands of detached black blocks of lava. The soil, in fact, consists of loose pumice stones sprinkled with lava and broken bits of obsidian. Our animals sank knee-deep, and slid back several yards; and we struggled upwards after this fashion for three-quarters of an hour, when we came to a little flat space on the right, with blocks of stone partially enclosing it, but open overhead and to one side. This was called the Estancia de los Ingleses.

Here they bivouac for the night.

At half-past three o’clock Manuel awoke us. At half-past four o’clock we commenced upon what seemed the same kind of thing as the last part of yesterday’s ride–steep, broken pumice, obsidian, and lava–only twenty times more difficult and steep, with an occasional rock-work or snowdrift. We were the first people who had ascended in winter since 1797; and even the guide did not exactly know what might happen for the snow.

After another treacherous ride in the dark the party arrived at the Estación de los Alemanes at the height of ten thousand five hundred feet.

Here we dismounted, and our third muleteer went down with the animals, while we, pike in hand, began the ascent of the Mal Pais, which is composed of immense blocks of lava; some as big as a cottage, and some as small as a football; some loose and rolling, others firm, with drifts of snow between, and piled up almost perpendicularly above you. It took me two hours, climbing on my hands and knees, with many rests. First I threw away my pike, then my outer coat, and gradually peeled, like the circus dancers do, until I absolutely arrived at the necessary blouse and petticoat. As there were no thieves, I dropped my things on the way as I climbed, and they served as so many landmarks on return. Every time we stopped to breathe I was obliged to fill my mouth with snow, and put snow on my head and forehead–the sun had blistered me so, and the air was keen.

Day was now breaking and the Burtons were able to see the horizon and the top of the cone also became visible. So too did the English lady in the “necessary blouse and petticoat”. But the climb continued.

Every ten minutes I was obliged to rest; and the guides, after each few moments’ rest, would urge me to climb just a little more–to which I had to manfully make up my mind, though I felt very much fatigued. At 6 a.m. the guides told us to turn round: a golden gleam was on the sea–the first of the sun; and gradually its edge appeared, and it rose majestically in pure golden glory; and we were hanging between heaven and earth–in solitude and silence–and were permitted to enjoy this beautiful moment.

At 6.45 a.m. they reached the base of the cone and after a little rest prepared themselves for the final part of the adventure.

Manuel (the principal guide) and Richard started, pike in hand. My muleteer took off his red sash, tied it round my waist, and took the other end over his shoulder, and with a pike in my hand we did the last hard work; and it was very hard after the Mal Pais. We had five hundred and twelve feet more to accomplish, and we took three-quarters of an hour. Richard helped me up to stand on the corona, the top stone, at 7.40 a.m. It is so narrow there is only room for one person to stand there at once. I stood there a minute or two.  I had reached the Peak. I was now, at the outside computation, twelve thousand three hundred feet high.

The guides had been a little anxious about this first winter attempt. They now told us it had been deemed impossible in Orotava to accomplish it; and as for the Señora, they had said, she could not even reach the second Estancia de los Ingleses, and lo, there she stood on the corona!

Standing on the corona, what did she see? – Nothing!

Unfortunately for us, the banks of clouds below were too thick for us to do more than obtain a view of the surrounding mountain-tops and country, and see the crater. The sea we could only behold at a great distance. We spent forty minutes at the top, examining the crater, and looking all around us; during the latter part of which operation, I am sorry to say, I fell fast asleep from sheer fatigue, and was aroused by Richard hallooing to me that my clothes were on fire, which, alas, was too true.

Isabel now sums it all up. The success has taken its toll but you can feel her pride and sense of achievement.

I did not experience any of the sensations described by most travellers on the Peak, such as sickness, pains in the head or inside, or faintness and difficulty of breathing, though the air was rare in the extreme. I found my brain clear and the air and height delightfully exhilarating, and could have travelled so for a month with much pleasure. The only inconvenience that I did experience was a sun that appeared to concentrate itself upon me as a focus and a piercing cold and severe wind besides, which combined to heat and yet freeze my head and face, until the latter became like a perfect mask of hard, red skin – likewise my lips and inside of my mouth. My hands, feet, and knees also were torn by the rocks, and I was a little bruised by sleeping on stones; but that was all; and my only difficulty about breathing proceeded from the labour of climbing on hands and feet, and had no connexion with the rarity of the atmosphere; and as we were, I believe, the first winter travellers living who had ascended at that season, we had an excellent opportunity of judging. My guide also told me that I was the only señora who had performed some feat or other; but I could not exactly understand what.

If you ask my opinion, I think it may have been something to do with a “necessary blouse and petticoat”.