Teide (12,198ft) – Highest Mountain in Spain
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
November 12, 2014
Our journey to the highest mountain in Spain started in a dimly lit internet café in a basement pool hall in Craiova, Romania in mid-October. I was on a month-long bicycle tour climbing mountains in Eastern Europe, and stopped to find my first internet access in a past few weeks. Matthew wanted to join me for a few country highpoints when I finished my bicycle tour, and it was time to buy some flights.
Our plan was to meet up in the Canary Islands first, to climb Teide, the Spain highpoint, then climb the Cyprus and Greece highpoints together. Unfortunately Teide has a lot of red tape, as I discovered in that internet café. There’s a cable car going almost to the top of the 12,198ft volcano, and it is extremely popular for tourists to take the cable car up then hike the last mile or so to the summit.
It’s so popular, in fact, that the park only gives a small number of permits per day to climb, and rangers are guarding all trails near the summit checking for permits. In fact, a permit only allows you to enter the summit zone for a specified 2-hour period!
Luckily for us there is now an online reservation system to reserve the permits, which are free. I checked the system and all permits for all hours were already booked for the next 4 weeks! The first available permit was for 3pm-5pm November 12. I went ahead and reserved this permit. That would be the day we climbed Teide, and we would have to make the flights work out.
Over the next few weeks I finished my bicycle tour in Greece, stashed my bike in a box and stored it in a hotel in Thessaloniki, then started making my way over to the Canary Islands. After a few stops to climb the Morocco highpoint and the Portugal highpoint in the Azores, I rendezvoused with Matthew on November 11 in the Canary Islands on Teneriffe Island.
We loaded into a rental car and headed west in search of a place to camp. It would have been convenient to start our hike immediately, but the permit constrained us to summit between 3pm and 5pm the next day, so there was no reason to hike up tonight.
We drove by amazing vistas on the coastline, with steep windy roads leading inland to our left. There were a surprising amount of cyclists on the roads, all decked out in skin-tight racing uniforms. This must be a popular place to train for big races, probably because of all the hills and nice weather.
Near the town of San Bernardo we found a trailhead leading up into the hills and started hiking up just at sunset. Unfortunately the terrain was all very steep, and we kept hiking farther and farther in search of a flat spot for our tent. We passed one amazing cave, but it was already claimed by two other campers. Finally, after an hour of hiking we gave up and camped right in the trail. It didn’t appear that anyone would be hiking up at night.
The next morning we rose early and hiked back to the car, then drove back east along the coast to the town of Los Realojos. Here we cut inland, switchbacking up steep hillsides on TF-21 until we broke out above treeline on a large plateau. Here we got our first glimpse of Teide in the distance.
Teide looked almost like a Martian landscape. The landscape was covered with different shades of red and brown rocks, with no sign of vegetation. The summit was an interesting feature with a clear caldera, then a smaller hill sticking out that marked the summit.
We drove to a small trailhead on the southeast side of the mountain, about 2 miles east of the cable car station, and parked in a tiny parking lot next to three other cars. We had no intention of paying for a cable car to take us up a hike we could do ourselves in a few hours. Even though our permit was technically for 3pm, and we guessed it would only take us 3 hours to the guard station, we started hiking early at 8:30am. We actually had a flight leaving the Canary Islands that evening at 7pm, and it would be cutting things pretty close if we really had to wait until 3pm to summit. We were hoping we could ask the ranger to let us through the gate just a little bit early.
The trail started following a gravel road, then soon cut left and started switchbacking up the east side of the mountain. We passed through all different kinds of red, brown, and black scree, until hitting some more solid talus slopes higher up. In a few hours we reached the Refugio Altavista, a nice place to stay if you want to break the hike up into two days.
We continued a little higher above the refuge, and soon started seeing a lot of other hikers. They all looked really fresh, and some not in very good shape. This meant we must be close to the top of the cable car. Indeed, just around the corner we saw the cable car and a few buildings. We also noticed the trail leading up to the summit, which started right next to the buildings and was guarded by a ranger and a gate. It looked like it would be pretty easy to just sneak around the gate, but with no trees to hide behind, anyone sneaking around would be quickly noticed.
If you really wanted to get up without a permit, you could probably manage at night by going around the north side of the mountain and not using a headlamp. But we had permits, and didn’t particularly want to get in trouble here.
It was 11:30am when we reached the hut, and as the only Spanish speaker of the two of us, it was my job to go ask the ranger if we could summit a bit before our permit time. We had read that hikers must print out their permits and show them to the rangers to get through the gate, and we had briefly considered modifying the time using photoshop to say 12pm instead of 3pm. But I’m glad we didn’t, because it turns out the rangers actually pull up an online permit system to double check that everyone is going when they are supposed to. They also check IDs.
I walked up to the ranger and politely explained my situation, that I had a permit for 3pm, but that would make it difficult to catch my flight, and I was hoping to go up just a little bit earlier. He was at first very stern, probably assuming I didn’t have a permit at all and was wanting to climb. He probably gets that request all the time.
He looked up my name in the system and verified my permit, then softened up a little.
“You can’t go now, but check back in every 30 minutes and I might be able to let you up,” he said (in Spanish).
“Gracias!” I replied. I got the impression he could easily have let us up right then, but wanted to assert his authority and show us we could only go when he decided we could go.
We had a half hour to burn, so hiked around some other trails in the area. There were plenty of rangers around making sure nobody tried to make a dash for the summit, but they didn’t have to worry about us. We were pretty certain we’d make it up legally.
We returned to the gate at noon and I asked the ranger if we could proceed. He sighed grudgingly and then motioned for us to go, as he scanned the field of tourists for anyone trying to sneak past.
With the green light finally given, we marched through the gate and started briskly up the trail. It wasn’t as crowded now, and this is by design. I guess they don’t want tons of people causing traffic jams on the steep narrow trail. We passed a few people, and within 15 minutes reached the summit of Spain.
Somehow I seem to get lucky pretty often with undercasts on mountains – I had just had one in Portugal – and we were treated to an amazing undercast here. Clouds were below us on the whole north side of the island, while the south side was cloud free. We could see the ocean almost all the way around us, and it was pretty spectacular. The summit block was kind of small, and with 10 people up there we each had to pick our own little spot to enjoy.
I found a small patch of snow and made a little snowman on the summit. Matthew got a few pictures of me juggling snowballs too.
We enjoyed the view for 20 minutes, then started hustling back down. We were relieved that we could certainly make our next flight. Past the gate we retraced our hiking route back down to the car, and arrived with plenty of time to spare.
We took our time driving back to the airport to admire some scenery around the island, and make a grocery store stop to stock up for the next few days. Our next plan was to fly to Cyprus, but we had slightly different
plans to get there. Matthew somehow figured out a flight plan that gave him a 3 hour layover in Malta, which would be just enough for him to run outside the airport and tag the highpoint. I had already climbed the Malta highpoint, so opted for a cheaper flight connecting in Paris.
By evening we successfully got on our planes, and started thinking about Mount Olympus, the highpoint of Cyprus.