High altitude volcano hiking with my kids

posted in: Nature, Survival | 0

How often do you go on a holiday without really experiencing the destination you visit?

You can easily spend an entire week or two doing nothing at a nice resort and when you get home you can hardly distinguish the days from each other. It can be really nice of course but we sometimes forget the opportunity waiting for us right outside our door. You already payed for the trip and you’re in a new and interesting place. So what’s stopping you? I have sort of made it a habit finding adventures to pursue on these types of holidays. Sometimes I bring my kids and sometimes I don’t.

This summer I went to Tenerife with my family. A place swarmed by tourists. Despite the unpleasant sound of it, it’s a very convenient way to travel when you have kids because they are entertained most of the time and you get to spend a lot of time together without the hassle of taking care of everyday duties.

My eldest son really wanted to go scuba diving and I had my mind set on hiking Mount Teide. So this year we set two days aside for other activities. We didn’t realize how tough those two days would become though. Especially for my kids.

On August 5th. we were set to do the hike on Teide. The day before I had booked diving lessons for my kids which was a bit of a challenge because of the difference in atmospheric pressure they would experience. My youngest son wasn’t old enough to do scuba diving so he only took part in the snorkeling lessons the first part of the day. The afternoon was set aside for scuba diving.

It was a long and exhausting day for my kids. And as soon as we got into the minibus that was to take us across the island and back to our resort they both fell asleep. Spending a whole day in the ocean with strong current and sunshine just exhausts you and the next day would turn out to become even tougher.

The plan for Teide
Teide is the third largest volcano in the world and at 3,718 masl it is the highest point in Spain. Our plan was to go to the top by cable car and hike from there to Pico Viejo (The Old Peak) and back. Pico Viejo is another volcano part of the Teide volcanic complex. It is also the second highest peak of Tenerife standing 3,135 masl. I had talked to a guide who told me she had hiked halfway to Pico Viejo and that it was an easy trail.

I had filled my backpack with plenty of water and some survival food such as m&m’s, biscuits and some dried fruit. Although the climate is subtropical near the coasts, the inland climate is dominated by the prevailing northeast trade winds. So apart from carrying extra clothes to keep us warm, we also brought some light weight rain gear. Not so much to protect us against the rain but as a protection against the sun and the wind. As always I brought a firesteel, a knife, a first aid kit and a survival blanket. With this gear I feel fairly confident that I’m able to cope with most unforeseen situations.

Leaving for Teide
I had rented a car and I was recommended by a local to take the route to Teide through the Moon Forest (Paisaje Lunar). Let me forward this recommendation to all of you considering taking this trip. It is an amazing place. The views over the Atlantic Ocean and the volcanic landscape is out of this world.
This place is home to the Canarian Island Pine ( Pinus canariensis). An endemic species to this region. This evergreen stands up to 30-40 meters high. And on rare occasions up to 60 meters! It has needles up to 30 cm long enabling it to capture the moist of the northeast trade winds. This is also why you only see the tree in the higher grounds of the Canary Islands. It is both one of the most drought-tolerant pines in the world as well as one of the most fire resistant conifers. It has a beautiful light green colour which makes the whole scenery in the Moon Forest (Paisaje Lunar) extremely beautiful.

We got out of the car on several occasions in order to explore the area. Our ticket for the cable car wasn’t until 1:30 in the afternoon. So we had plenty of time for other adventures.

When we finally reached the cable car it was delayed so we had to wait another hour to get to the top. The sun was really hot and we already felt the low air pressure even at 2,356 masl. We were very excited when we finally boarded the cable car and the trip to the top was extremely beautiful. From here you can see the whole Las Cañadas caldera, the mother of all the craters at Teide which is the result of a major collapse of the magma chamber underneath Teide 160.000-220.000 years ago. It is quite intimidating to see the size of it.

Hitting the trail
When you get off the cable car at the top you’re struck by heavy winds so we soon put on our shell layers. We then had to figure out in which direction to go to reach Pico Viejo. The ascent with the cable car is very fast covering nearly 1.200 height meters in just 8 minutes, so I could easily feel the effect of the thin air as we started to walk. Nothing dramatic but I could feel my breath being a lot heavier. Luckily my kids were completely unaffected.

The first part of the trail is really easy. It is basically a path paved with rocks until some hundred meters down where you enter trail no. 9. There is a small lookout there but we just kept going. Since we had been delayed from the start we were on a bit of a time schedule to make it to Pico Viejo and back in time. The last cable car down from Teide leaves at 7 in the evening during summer. I had estimated the trip to take between three and a half to four hours in total leaving us with only little time for the unforeseen.

My kids were full of energy and anticipation. The trail was quite extreme but also a lot of fun. There were places where you could hardly call it a trail. You basically just made your way down the volcanic rocks. At the same time you clearly get the feeling of being on a volcano because of the solidified lava streams that you see in many places. You also have to be careful not to go off the trail and walk into the gulf in some places.

The hike is amazing. You feel like you’re on a different planet. Raised above the clouds with the crater of Pico Viejo in front of you and the islands La Gomera, El Hierro and La Palma engulfed in clouds in the horizon you feel like you are in the middle of a Star Wars universe. As we descended from Pico Teide the landscape suddenly changed from black lave streams to a pumice desert. It is basically a flat plateau with a stabil surface between the two volcanoes. It’s a very barren environment but extremely beautiful with the clouds underneath you.

At this point we had walked for an hour and a half and we still had quite a distance to go. We were in the pumice desert right between the two peaks. My eldest son was full of energy and he started running through the desert towards Pico Viejo. My youngest son however was starting to feel the effect of the hike and the thin air. He was becoming a bit discouraged. We were on our way up Pico Viejo when he couldn’t hold it anymore. He didn’t want to continue. I tried to motivate him and tell him we almost made it to the top but it was a struggle and he wasn’t happy until we finally stood on the edge of the crater. I told him that no matter how hard it felt he now officially made it to the top and no one could ever take that away from him. I knew of course that the hardest part of the hike was still to come. The ascend back to Pico Teide. We sat down to have a break as well as some food and water. We also built a small cairn as a celebration of our success.

The way back
Knowing that the last cable car off the mountain would leave in just two and a half hours, we had to get going. I took us 2 hours to reach Pico Viejo from Teide and the way back would be a lot harder. As we started walking we passed the first and only plants on our hike. We also saw a grasshopper or survival food as I choose to call it. It must have moved for me to discover it because it was so well camouflaged that it’s hard to see it even in the photo. My youngest son was still not completely happy although he just had a break. Little did it help that we were on a time schedule. He was really brave though and just kept going.

The first part of the hike back was easy. We first went down Pico Viejo and then through the pumice desert. As we entered the black lava streams and started the ascend to Teide my youngest son really started to fall apart. He had been really brave through the whole trip but now he was tired. We had a short break eating a couple of m&m’s and taking a sip of water. We had to move on but he was talking about having a break all the time. Motivating him was a fine balance between encouragement and explaining the situation to him in a gentle way. I didn’t want to pressure him so I just stroke up conversations with him and allowed him to walk in front of us. It can be really demotivating if you’re in the back of a group when you’re tired. It emphasizes your feeling of being weak and you are more likely to give up.

We still had a long way to go but now he demanded a break every 100 meters until he finally refused to move on. He wanted me to call for a helicopter to come and get us off the mountain. I gently told him it wasn’t possible and that we would have to spend the night on the mountain if we didn’t get back to the cable car in time. At this point we were only about half way up Teide and I was considering how to make a shelter from the survival blanket that I brought. My biggest concern wasn’t staying on the mountain in itself, it was spending the night in the high altitude because it also means prolonged exposure to low-oxygen air. My youngest son had been crying for the last 100 meters up the mountain now and his big brother was getting frustrated with him. Then suddenly he said something to me that ended up motivating himself in a way that I hadn’t succeeded in: “I think mom will become afraid if we don’t make it back today”.

We were all really tired at this point. My motivation was keeping my kids safe and getting us off the mountain of course. I wasn’t worried at any time. I was actually still enjoying the trip and I think it was a valuable lesson for my kids to experience how much they’re capable of when it really counts. But we only had one hour left until the cable car closed. We still had a break every 50-100 meters and our tempo wasn’t increasing but my youngest sons determination had changed. He knew we had to make it to the cable car. On the way out the trail didn’t seem as long as it did now. Then suddenly I saw something a bit further up the mountain. It was the lookout that we had passed on our way out. Just the motivation we all needed. Seeing the lookout wasn’t the same as reaching it though. It turned out to be quite a climb until we finally reached it. When we got there I saw the sign that I missed on our way out. It said “Difficulty: Extreme. This trail may be difficult to follow because of the weather and the state of the terrain. This trail requires great physical exertion. Be extremely careful”. It turned out the guide who told me the trail was an easy one had probably not gone further than this point.

We now had 40 minutes left until the last cable car was leaving. Although the trail was now much easier to walk it was still uphill and we were tired. About twenty minutes later we were at the cable car and it turned out we caught the second last departure from the top that day. It was amazing to stand there among all the other people knowing that we had just made it through the toughest hike of our life. Everyone else was looking sporty with short sleeves, caps and clean shoes, but not us. We were covered in dirt from head to toe, our faces were sun burned and we were still wearing our shell layers. But we never felt better.



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