So today we were up and awake before sunrise and heading to the airport. We were entertained in the departure lounge by various different sporting or musical groups including a medieval tribute youth orchestra complete in monk outfit. They sang and danced their way through customs and through to the gates which evoked much applause and brought a smile to many faces. Is this a traditional Azorean cultural activity?
We were heading to Pico island on a regular internal flight. There are various internal flights and ferries throughout the islands. I have to say, before today many of us had felt we were lacking in any ‘wow factor’ – that we didn’t know how we would ‘sell’ the Azores as a study trip, not because there is a lack of opportunity per se but because if you are offering an international residential it needs to have a combination of activities and experiences that are unique or cannot be seen back home. So we were really excited on our descent to Pico island, and became proper geeky tourists stepping off of our plane, frantically switching on phones and cameras, and getting a photograph of Mount Pico as soon as possible. We had our wow factor. Arriving on Pico is like arriving in a completely different landscape, something that would be guaranteed to arrest student and adult interest and make them have a collective intake of breath. The island immediately felt unusual, rare, exotic, and exciting.
We had been warned that we were at the mercy of the changeable weather, and that we would not necessarily be able to climb Mt Pico today. This is something to bear in mind to any of you planning future trips – you need a back up plan and flexible itinerary that if the weather is inclement you can try again another day. Luckily for us however, there was a break in the cloud until later so we had a window of opportunity. Our minibus driver raced us up to the mountain only allowing a short photo stop, and we stocked up on carbs on the journey.
One third of Pico island is a nature reserve, including the mountain. You have to get a permit to climb, which costs 10Euros each. The numbers of visitors at any time are limited and monitored, and the tiny car park up the mountain at the start point may prevent too many casual attempts. This is all due to the various endemic species of vegetation in existence, particular alpine species that are very fragile.
Pico is the youngest of all the Azores Islands at just 300’000 years old. The archipelago has developed over time in numerous stages dating back 8million years, from submarine volcanism building up successively over the ages. Pico is a basaltic stratovolcano and from a distance looks like a stereotypical ‘proper’ volcano, exactly like you would draw. As we drove towards it we could see the caldera and summit peak poking through the mists temptingly, and this gave me butterflies. I couldn’t wait to get up there! The mountain is Portugal’s tallest, and it is still an active volcano.
So we spent the day trekking. Having been told beforehand that the climb was ‘gentle’ we were all a little surprised when we met our incredibly serious but very helpful local mountain guide Sonia who warned us of the dangers and briefed us. I was grateful for the good weather – some light cloud cover and mist to prevent overheating or too much sunburn, and a gentle breeze mostly. At times on the higher exposed sections there was biting cold strong winds, and we did have heavy cloud on the return below the summit, but we had a comfortable environment to climb in. So we set off.
The climb takes approximately 7-7.5hour and I would say is a mediumly arduous hike with times that are hard. There is very uneven ground because you are walking on broken clinkers of volcanic debris lava and ash deposits and volcanic sand which us grippy with good boots but very uneven and there are some scrambling sections requiring hands. The climb is not scarily precipitous but does lead to a slow descent due to the terrain. You hike up and down the mountain over ancient pahoehoe and a-a lava fields and we even had snow fields. There are lots of lava tube relics and scars, pillow lava and ropy pahoehoe flows arrested in time cascading down the mountain in dramatic blacks and oranges. Then amongst all this there is evidence of some succession of alpine species up the mountain, although vegetation is very limited and scrubby generally.
The material underfoot was obviously igneous, mostly basalt and ignimbrite and also plagioclase and various other minerals such as trichite, olivine, etc,. This rocks made excellent grips when in large enough sections. As we went up above the clouds and the snowline, there were very few species. However there was lots of lava scree and volcano sands, again making the conditions a bit difficult and slow going in places.
The crater rim is vast and unstable so we were guided to skirt round the edge and then drop down into the pit to walk along the crater base, from where you then can choose to scramble up the final central cone. The pit crater of Pico is called Pico Alto and is about 500m diameter. This area was naked rock and lava, and largely filled with snow. The final summit is called Piquinho and is a small volcanic cond formed by the last eruption that rises another 70m of near vertical scrambling to to true summit. At the summit (2351m), a human-made rocky boundary provides shelter from winds and the natural steam vents (some up to 50C but modified by winds) provide heating for a lunch break! Truly a very unusual summit from this point of view, and the most comfortable and warm summit I have ever stopped on!
The descent was very slow for the most part, with many finding the steep unsteady and uneven sections very awkward for knees / ankles due to the rocky material. I would say that the climb is entirely doable, if you have time, but it is a long slog. It is very worth it, and on clear days you can see the other islands as well as the lower Pico valley. However, I would suggest that anyone taking a school group has a back-up plan for poor weather and also for any students who cannot complete the whole ascent as I would be surprised if all had the stamina or confidence or drive to make it all to the top. So consider your options for splitting groups, having a back-up alternative, and having enough guides and qualified staff that you can have the choice of some in the group making the summit attempt whilst others do something else.
After the hike we were transported to our accommodation on Pico island to stay at the youth hostel which is a converted monastery. Very interesting building and has basic clean rooms of bunks, nice hot showers and four separate lounges in different areas including a main lounge with table football, tv and some wifi access.
I would say this is a great climb, and certainly good fun. But it needs to be taken seriously. You would need students to be fit and confident, and have a good number of staff and local trained guides as it is very remote. You could easily sell this as being a challenge, the ‘character building’ or ‘push yourself to achieve something new’ activity that forms part of the overall exploration and academic trip. You could tie in the activity to academic purposes if you wished looking at biodiversity, succession, colonisation, pionerf species, invasive vs endemic species, soil quality and type, geology, landforms, impact of volcanic activity, etc,. Especially if you then compared to an/other island/s in the archipelago to compare and contrast volcanic behaviour, landform creation, environments, etc,. As such it is fantastic. Just be prepared for very changeable weather, and have a back up plan!