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Pico Mountain, Azores - Portugal's highest mountain

Pico Mountain, Azores - Portugal's highest mountain

Postby gld73 » Sat Mar 16, 2019 2:51 pm

Date walked: 06/03/2019

Time taken: 6

Distance: 7.5 km

Ascent: 1120m

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In March last year I did Spain's highest mountain (Mount Teide in Tenerife), this March I opted for Portugal's highest mountain, Mount Pico in the Azores. As the dates approached, I dithered over whether to book a guide or whether just to hope the weather was okay and do it on my own. As going up Pico Mountain was the reason for going to the Azores, I decided (somewhat reluctantly I admit) to book a guide to make sure I did get to the summit and didn't have a wasted trip - not that it would have been a bad holiday, the rest of the Azores holiday was great too.

I booked internal flights from San Miguel, the main island where international flights arrive, to give me 2 nights on Pico island before heading to a couple of other islands, and was disappointed to arrive to low cloud and showers. My ascent was booked for the next day, the 1 full day I had on the island, but weather can change quickly so I was still hopeful. The next morning arrived and I waited for my pick-up. 8am came and went. I then checked my emails and saw the guide, Matteo (from a small company called Tripix), had sent a message saying the weather was too bad, he'd come at 9am instead, and he also double checked I had all the right gear for going up a high mountain in bad weather (I had). 9am then came ... and went ... again I checked my emails and he'd messaged again to say the staff at the Casa do Montagna (Mountain House, the start point for the walk) were saying conditions on the mountain were too bad to go up, extremely strong winds making it unsafe (in addition to the low visibility and freezing conditions).

Fortunately the forecast for the following day was for lower wind speeds, and my flight wasn't until late afternoon; as I was the only person who'd booked to go up, Matteo agreed to collect me a bit earlier to make sure we could get up and down and then to the airport in time. So the next day arrived, the window shutters in my room weren't rattling with gale force storms, and I even saw a bit of Mount Pico for the first time, only mostly covered in cloud rather than completely as yesterday. Matteo picked me up and we drove to the Mountain House, first ones there to do the ascent - and as it turned out, the only people going up today, or for the last 3 days.
First view of Mt Pico, from youth hostel.JPG
3rd day on Pico island but 1st view of Mount Pico

At the Mountain House (at 1231m, leaving 1120m of actual ascent to the 2351m summit) you register to go up and are given a GPS unit so they can track where you are. I think it's 20 euros for the permit to go up, though this was included in the price I'd paid Tripix. We then set off in full waterproofs ..... it wasn't a glorious day for views, that's for sure. The start wasn't particularly glamorous either, as the Mountain House was undergoing building work to extend it, due to be finished by the summer.

In good conditions, it would be possible to do the walk unguided as there are 46 (?) marker posts showing the way to the main crater and these would be visible. Today though, the thick low cloud meant visibility was just a few metres and without a guide I would have struggled to see the right route to take as I couldn't see any posts until I was just a few metres away. In fact, people climbing without a guide even in good conditions have done a lot of damage to the terrain, as they just head for the next marker post rather than following the trail which is mostly on the lava rock. None of the proper trail is on vegetation.
APDC5095 - early Pico marker pole.JPG
One of the marker poles early in the ascent, no chance of seeing the next one in these conditions

Low down in the walk we passed the first of 2 cameras ("Cyclops") which, in combination with the gps trackers, allow the Mountain House staff to check who is on the mountain and see if anyone has gone up without registering and paying. There's another at the main crater which is a bit out of place in such a wild environment - and in the sub zero temps of this trip was iced up and not working anyway. The ascent was surprisingly enjoyable given the poor conditions, though I was lucky the wind was from a direction which meant we didn't get the full blast of it as otherwise continuing would have been very difficult. The lava rock was a nice grippy surface in the wet.
APDC5097 - iced up marker pole and cloud.JPG
Getting higher, getting colder, and still not able to see the following marker pole....

It got quite icy and snowy approaching the main crater, though I didn't need to don crampons. At the main crater (which I could only tell was the crater because it was suddenly flatter, I still couldn't see far enough to tell anything else) I should have got great views of Piquinho, the small 'mountain' which sits in the main crater and is the final ascent to the actual summit, but I couldn't see it at all. Without a guide I wouldn't have known where to head as there was no path visible and no tracks though the snow as no-one else had been up recently (and my collection of OS maps doesn't extend to the Azores). We made it to the bottom of Piquinho, at which point we left the walking poles as the final ascent required hands-on semi-scrambling up the steeper rocks. It was almost strange going from the white icy terrain of the last hour to the thawed-out flanks of Piqhuino where the warm vents have melted the ice. At the sheltered section nicknamed Smeagol Step (for its similarity to a scene in a Lord of the Rings film) I could almost have taken off a layer or two and sat had a picnic, out of the wind and on the warm rocks.

But I headed up, knowing the summit was close, and then my luck really came in - from the cloudy wet murk of many a scottish munro, I emerged to blue sky and bright sun :D . The very top was above the cloud, so finally a chance to put on sunglasses 8)
APDC5106 - Pico summit and cloud below.JPG
The summit, with the thick cloud below - nicer to be above it than in it!

It was very windy, and I had to hold on to the summit point to stay upright in the worst moments, but it was then possible to get shelter nearby, again on rocks warmed by the volcanic vents and wait to see if the clouds would clear. We'd made good time up the mountain so there was no rush to get back down for my flight. 45 mins were spent eating lunch, taking photos and getting the occasional brief glimpse of the main crater if the clouds blew lower momentarily - but in the main, the thick cloud carpet stayed all around, so I never got views of the Atlantic and the other islands .... but I was still loving it.
APDC5115 - at Pico Mountain summit.JPG
At the summit, wrapped in multiple layers and in a brief moment of being able to stand upright

APDC5108 - Pico main crater just about visible briefly.JPG
The nearest I got to a view of anything but cloud from the summit - a brief semi-glimpse of the main crater below

Eventually we headed back down, collected our walking poles again and set off across the crater. From being reluctant to get a guide, I was glad I had, and I can see how it's a shame in some ways that other people do their own thing - Matteo was obviously quite frustrated at the damage people without guides had done to the terrain, but also their use of lava tubes as toilets. The lava tubes in the crater could be great places to get shelter or get a good photo, but he says they can't do that at all in summer - people with guides are shown the safe and non-intrusive places to go, but other people just find these nice convenient lava tubes next to the main route and .... well, do what they do ... :?

The descent again was done surprisingly quickly. I'd read trip reports on other websites where people say the descent is difficult, painful and quite dangerous, but actually the proper trail isn't bad - it's the shortcuts (which are so worn that people probably follow them thinking they're the proper route between guide posts) that are steep and loose stones and easy to fall on (and falling on sharp lava rock would be no fun!). I have bad knees for descents, but made it down without any difficulty, helped by the walking poles the guides supply (saved packing mine).

So back to the Mountain House to peel off the wet layers, and hadn't seen anyone else on the mountain all day. It had taken 6hrs in total, but that including 45mins at the summit. Speaking to Matteo, the staff at the Mountain House, and from reviews/reports on line, it seems 7 to 8 hrs is the norm, but it can even be as long as 12hrs depending on fitness levels and footwear of people in a group and having to queue in peak summer to get to the top!

Going out of season definitely worked out well for me, it really felt like I'd been up a proper mountain doing it in those conditions and having the mountain and summit to myself. I'd been lucky that conditions were (only just) okay the 2nd day to go up - the weather is so unpredictable that giving it 3 or 4 days on Pico island to be sure of getting up the mountain on 1 day would be advisable.

A couple of things to note for anyone thinking of doing it - only 200 people are allowed on the mountain at a time, and in peak season, especially July and August, those numbers can be taken up by 6am (it includes groups who may have camped at the crater overnight and still be on the mountain, and people who have already booked with guides as they have priority). There's no public transport to the mountain, so the price with a guide usually includes transport to/from the main town/village Madalena (I stayed in another village so had to pay extra), otherwise it would be around 20 euros for the taxi, in addition to the 20 euros for the mountain permit (which is also included in the Guided trip price).

The drawback for a guide is that you're in a group with other people so have to go at the pace of the slowest - being quite a fast walker, I would have found that frustrating! Getting a guide when no-one else was going up was great as I was still just charged the 55 euros for a day hike (plus more for my specific pick-up/drop off) and effectively had a friendly, enthusiastic, knowledgeable private guide to myself. There are a handful of small companies like Tripix who do these guided ascents, and I did find it handy that they provided walking poles (plus crampons, ropes and helmet which it turned out we didn't need as the snow and ice weren't bad on Piquinho), saving me from bringing all that from the UK. Night hikes and overnight camping trips are also offered.

And even after sitting on a plane straight afterwards rather than immediately having a hot shower and change of clothes, I was fine the next day for some of the other walking routes in the Azores :D
Posts: 312
Munros:114   Corbetts:43
Grahams:22   Donalds:2
Sub 2000:33   Hewitts:31
Wainwrights:31   Islands:13
Joined: Aug 11, 2015
Location: Inverness

Re: Pico Mountain, Azores - Portugal's highest mountain

Postby Coop » Mon Mar 18, 2019 11:32 pm

It's a shame you didnt get better views on the mountain; but well in for persevering and getting a better weather window and getting on it and to the summit
Posts: 896
Munros:259   Corbetts:95
Grahams:32   Donalds:40
Sub 2000:2   
Joined: Jun 5, 2016

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