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The fascination of Teide 

At a height of about 3,700m Teide is the highest mountain in Spain. It sits in a geological depression called ‘Las Canadas,’ which is a gigantic, collapsed dome of rock. In fact Teide is not a single volcano but only the latest of several, some of which are buried under the present cone, while others, such as Pico Viejo, Pico Cabras and Montana Blanca, are still partly visible. Some vulcanologists (volcano specialists) have classed Teide as one of the major volcanoes on earth, ranking it alongside Fujiyama, Hekla, Kilimanjaro, Etna and Vesuvius. The view from the top is spectacular, Sabine Berthelot, a French naturalist who spent many years on Tenerife from the 1820’s onwards, estimated the diameter of the view from Teide to be about 300 miles.

Teide, meaning ‘the peak,’ was the native word for the volcano where, with its fumes, vapours, smoke, rumbles and occasional spouts of flame, the Guanches believed they would find Hell. Teide’s worst eruption in relatively recent history occurred in 1706, when lava from near the foot almost destroyed the town of Garachico with its thriving port and changed the shape of the coastline. Since then, subsidiary volcanoes around Teide have occasionally erupted; in 1798 Las Narices del Teide, just to the west and near to the summit of Pico Viejo (the Old Peak), emitted lava for the first time in ninety-two years, and most recently Chinyero, 11km to the west of Teide but no distance in geological terms, erupted in November 1909. A modern scientific study was made of this eruption and, since this was the age of photography, photographs of the erupting volcano were made into postcards.

In days long gone by Teide was often covered in snow, which gave it the appearance of a white pyramid. Perhaps this inspired mariners of prehistoric and classical times to bring back tales of the white pyramid at the edge of the earth, visible beyond the shipping routes, so giving rise to the legend of Atlantis and providing a prototype for the white stone clad pyramids on the west bank of the Nile, where the Egyptians took their dead to be buried and where we get the phrase “gone west” for someone or something that is no more.

Many people have been inspired to climb Teide. In 1791 an ascent was made by a British naval officer, Lt. Peter Rye, R.N., and botanist ‘Mr. Burton’. After obtaining a permit from the governor of the island, one day in April they set off. The local guides must have thought these Englishmen were mad and at one point during the ascent they wanted to return. The rarefied atmosphere took its effect, as the party ascended Mr. Burton experienced “oppression of the lungs” and Lt. Rye felt itching in his eyes and nostrils. After frequent rests and much tiring effort, which Rye described in detail, the party reached Teide’s peak, where, on the rim of crater, they experienced extremely cold temperatures and Rye described the crater itself as “this colossal prodigy of nature.”

On 17th June 1799 Alexander von Humboldt, the renowned scientist and explorer, and his companion Aime Bonpland, sailed into Santa Cruz harbour. From the deck of their ship they saw Teide, whose white pumice at the summit confused them into thinking it was covered in snow. As part of their stay on the island they wanted to climb the mountain, so straight away they went up to the Canadas. Setting off from their overnight camp at the foot of Teide on the 21st June they made it to the top, from where Humboldt observed, “fire and water rage below the surface … I noticed steam escaping all over the place.”

They returned to civilisation two days later, and Humboldt wrote, “I got back last night from a trip up the Peak. What a fantastic place! What a time we had! We climbed down some way into the crater, perhaps further than any previous scientific traveller. There isn’t much danger in the ascent, you just get rather done up by the head and cold; the sulphurous vapour burned holes in our clothes while our hands were frozen numb.”

Humboldt left with a fond impression of Tenerife, and the Orotava Valley in particular, about which he said, “I could almost weep at the prospect of leaving this place; I should be quite happy to settle here …”

Today he might have been pleased that Teide National Park is part of the municipality of Orotava, his favourite place on the island.

The experiences of a later scientific expedition to Teide were rather mixed. On 21st August 1845 members of the Spanish garrison of Tenerife set off from Puerto de la Cruz, then called Puerto de la Orotava, to make an ascent of El Teide. Part of the reason for this was to counterbalance the interest shown by other nationalities, mainly English, French and German, while the Spaniards themselves had done nothing. The party took temperatures at different altitudes, noted the vegetation, the phenomenon of localised cloud formation over the Orotava Valley, the lava flows, and the geology in general. The diary they kept was an hour-by-hour, almost a minute-by-minute account of their progress. They stopped at a spring for water and their first overnight rest was at a hamlet called Palo Blanco, from where they set off again at three the next morning. The rough stony surfaces over which they frequently walked were described as ‘pan de azucar’, or sugar bread, which sounds quite picturesque, but was probably not very pleasant to walk on. There were also loose rocks to be avoided. The group came across an ice cave that was harvested by locals. One resting place was called the ‘Estancia de los Ingleses,’ the dwelling of the English, which must have been like finding the old ‘Kilroy was here’ graffiti.

As they ascended, three of the party suffered from altitude sickness, breathing difficulty and weakness, however, the views compensated for that, but once past El Portillo, the Canadas were described as having a horrible aspect. On finally reaching the edge of the crater of Teide the aspect revealed was ‘frightful,’ the temperature there was 43o Fahrenheit (6o Centigrade), and inside could be seen columns of steam and sulphuric acid vapour. Again there was difficulty in breathing, however there were no lasting ill-effects, everyone arrived back at Puerto de la Cruz safe and sound and satisfied with their achievement.

A little over ten years later the description of an expedition made the lower slopes of Teide sound like a holiday camp. In 1856, Englishman Charles Piazzi Smith, Astronomer Royal for Scotland, with the aid of a grant of £500 made a scientific trip to Tenerife to make stellar observations. At first he and his colleagues – including his new bride, Jessie – set up camp with an astronomical telescope four miles south of Teide on Mount Guajara, but found that the dust interfered with the observations, so they moved to Alta Vista where they stayed for a month, during which time they took a day off to climb Teide.

The fascination for Teide is still there, and due to modern technology everything has changed. Travel is less heroic and less romantic, vast numbers of people can visit places that were formerly inaccessible. This has led to natural awe-inspiring wonders such as Mount Everest, and Teide, being regarded simply as adventure playgrounds. Today El Teide overlooks the tarmac road, hundreds of parked cars and buses, the restaurant at El Portillo, the Sanatorium, the Parador Hotel, and the cable car that almost reaches its peak. What would the explorers of old think about it all? And more so, how would the stone-age, goatskin-clad Guanches feel about the shattered myth of their former Hell?