Pico - Azores
September 11th and 12th, 2007
Ok, I'll just come straight out and admit the fact. I did not "conquer" Pico, as I so believed would be the case... Pico conquered me!
It was such an ego bruising experience (for, it is "only" 2,351 meters high, after all), that I was tempted to not bother with a trip report. But here I am, a couple of weeks later and ready to admit defeat and appreciate the lessons learned.
It all started when Alice and I decided to finally take the long talked of trip to the island of Terceira in the Azores. However, the moment I discovered that there was another island near by that had a volcano with the esteemed title of "highest point of Portugal", you can imagine just how engaged I became. I had yet to bag any countries highest peak and with one in such close range, requiring a pretty "standard" exertion on my part, I thought naively, piece of cake! Pico would teach me to be so cocky.
We left Terceria by ferry a few days before the hike and crossed the ocean to Sao Jorge and then to Pico. We were lead to a bus stop by some friendly locals (thank God for Alice's ability to speak the language) and took it to the town of Madalena. There we stayed for 3 nights at a Residence Inn called the "Mini Bella". Not too bad for 32 Euros a night. Perfect for backpacking travellers like us.
We had not chosen a specific date for the climb, but instead we were waiting for Alice to feel ready for the climb (she wasn't feeling 100% at the time). This was the beginning of many points of indecision. Over the next 3 days I kept trying to make up my mind whether I wanted to do the climb starting from sea level in Madalena or to rent a car and begin at the trailhead which takes 1200 meters out of the elevation gain. Budget constraints, my inexperience driving standard, and my ego all helped with the end decision... we would walk from Madalena to the top in one shot, set up camp at the top in the crater, watch the sunset and head down the next morning. Easy as pie. HA!
September 11th we got our gear together, took our little map of Pico we found in a tourist booklet (first mistake) and began the long trek. Asking for a few directions from the citizens of Madalena, we found the main road that cuts straight through the island towards the northside of Pico. The road is so straight that you can see it stretching off many kilometers ahead of you... all up hill, of course. And so began the long and slow journey from sea level. I figured we'd be at the trailhead within four hours as we only had to cover about 12 km or so (based on some rudimentary calculations using the inaccurate tourist map).
Unlike the climate in Terceria, Pico was much hotter and less breezy (at least on the west side of the island) and so the long uphill slog with our heavy packs quickly released a lot of moisture from our bodies (this was our first climb that we carried equipment to camp out with). Between us we were carrying about 6 liters of liquids, which I assumed would be plenty for our excursion (second mistake). It should be noted, Alice had a contrary opinion on the amount of liquids needed, but you know how it is with us guys.
The country side along this road was stunning. Quiet, peaceful, lush, exotic (to our eyes) and all so brilliantly lit by the hot Pico sun. If I wasn't so obsessed with my constant thirst and the view of the summit looming in the distance, I might have appreciated my surroundings for what they were... an environment completely foreign to these Canadian eyes. Anyway, after multiple hydration breaks and four and half hours later we finally arrived at some crossroads that appeared to match what was on the map. I had been looking for a road that would head south and I knew I was very close based on the distance we had traveled, so when the crossroads appeared along with a sign designating the area as "Zona Central do Pico" I figured it had to be the correct turnoff. There were also some directions etched into a white concrete block (typical of the Azores) on this same turnoff, however it mentioned nothing about the "Montanha" or "Pico", only informing us Sao Matheus and Serra could be found that way. Clear direction markers for the mountain were seriously lacking along the main road (ie; there were none). So, not wanting to waste energy continuing further down the main road when the map clearly showed there would be no other turnoffs beyond that point, and hoping that the name Serra might, in some way, be related to the mountain (as I couldn't find anything on the map that said Serra in that area), we made the decision and headed south along this dusty, red, dirt road. Maybe it's obvious, but yes, this was our third mistake, for we would learn the next day that less than a kilometer away lay the correct turnoff to reach the trailhead.
And so we walked, looking for another crossroad that would take us east and up to the long awaited trailhead. According to the map, it would only be a kilometer or two away, only by this point I was so used to my distance projections and times being off that we walked much further than the 2 or 3 kilometers I had thought it would be. Really, this was the worst part of the trek that day (though the countryside along this lonely road was stunningly beautiful, as were the many wandering cows and bulls). The fact is, I hate nothing more than feeling like I'm completely off track and yet not being entirely sure that I am. All the while Pico loomed to the east of us and yet we seemed to be always heading south. I just kept hoping that around the next corner would be the eastern turnoff I was looking for. Finally, we did reach a crossroad with another one of those concrete signs, only this one confused us even more. The hope that Serra had something to do with the mountain was dashed, as the sign told us Serra was west, the complete opposite direction from the mountain. The road heading south-easterly said Sao Mateus. Looking at the map I soon realized that either A) the map was completely inaccurate and missing roads, or B) we're totally off track. The answer, it turns out, was all of the above. Tired, confused and frustrated, we took a break and I sat dejectedly on the side of the road, unable to decide what to do next... continue on towards Sao Mateus and hope to find a turn off for the mountain or head back the way we came. It was at this point that a truck appeared on the road (the first human we'd seen since getting off the main road) and Alice flagged him down. We soon discovered that we needed to head along the road to Sao Mateus and that we'd reach a sign showing us the way to the trailhead. Happy to have finally been given some true directions, we headed off with renewed ambition.
Only the sign/turnoff we were looking for was nowhere near as close as I imagined or hoped it would be. It was getting in to evening and all we had seemed to accomplish was traverse the entire western side of Pico. After a small snack break we noticed a truck driving on the mountainside above us on a unseen road, which gave us hope that a turnoff would be coming soon. For the first time, we were correct! The concrete sign at the crossroad clearly indicated the mountain was ahead. Though feeling quite fatigued, the hope that we'd reach the trailhead soon was invigorating. Only now, once again, it was an uphill slog.
It wouldn't be long before my thirst was really kicking in again. I've felt thirsty on most of my hikes, but this one was different. Even after taking breaks to drink, I would quickly begin to feel thirsty soon after we'd start walking again. It was like an unquenchable thirst! The fact that we were down to our last 2 liters was not a good sign either, as there had not been a single place to refill or buy liquids since we had left Madalena. In the back of my mind was the constant thought that we'd have no water left for the climb.
It wasn't until we reached a point on the road where we could see a collection of cars and what appeared to be a building on the mountainside that a great hope surged in me that there would be a water supply at the trailhead... how could there be a building without water, right? Well the answer to that soon arrived as we worked our way up the final turnoff for the trailhead. A volunteer firefighter from Madalena was heading down in his truck and stopped to sign us in as climbers. He informed us that the building was still under construction and so there was nothing there for us to drink (Note to future Pico hikers, when the building is complete it WILL offer food and beverages), however, up the trail near some caves, we were told, would be rain water we could collect. That was all I needed to hear. As long as we had water, it was a go.
Finishing up the last few hundred meters, Alice was finally feeling the fatigue of the ten hour, 22km hike we had just completed. We reached the construction yard and trailhead at around 7pm and set up camp on a sloped, cow grazing area just off the side of the road. Not a soul in sight. I tried not to let the nausea that was slowly creeping in distract me from the truly heavenly views of the countryside surrounding us. There is nothing like the experience of a hard day of physical exertion and the moment you finally relax... especially when the view is as amazing as that. Paradise.
Settling in to the tent, I forced myself to eat hoping it would make me feel better. It helped a bit, but I think I was suffering from dehydration. I'll use that as my excuse for making my fourth error of the day... Instead of bringing our backpacks into the tent for the night, I left them outside assuming the clear skies would last through the night. Wrong! Oh, how wrong I was! Rain, my friends! Rain that seemed to want to prove just how much of a fool I am. Angry, spiteful rain. Rain that so needed to prove a point that, not only did it soak the packs through and through, but also managed to squeeze into the tent and collect in a pool where my only dry socks were. I wanted water. I got water.
Waking the next morning in the wet, cold environment was not very motivating. But it appeared that the sky was slowly beginning to clear by the time we had packed up and got ourselves ready to go. For the first time, I was going to use my boots without the benefit of socks and was worried blistering could become a major problem, but surprisingly it worked out quite well (with the exception of the occasional pebbles finding their way in and scratching away).
We started up the trailhead late in the morning (close to 11am) because we hoped to finish the hike in time to hitch a ride back to Madalena with some of the construction workers that were at the trailhead until 6pm. So off we went on this rough, rocky, wet and steep trail. We slowly made our way up to the area where we were told to find water. This spot wasn't too far up the trail, near a volcanic cone that concealed some caves, I believe this spot is called Furna, but there were no signs (before this location is another lifted area with a single cave near the beginning of the trailhead... this may be the spot they call Cabeco das Cabras, or Goats Peak, but that isn't where the water source is located). You'll know you're near the correct area when you get to the "Brinko cavern" (ie; Furna... see photo), but not sure if the graffiti will be there for a long time. The water is not in the caves but a little north of there and off the main trail. It took some searching, but Alice found a crack in the ground that had some nice fresh rainwater to collect (not sure how much water would normally be available, but the rains of the night provided about a 2 inch deep pool). So we filled up our jugs and headed back on the trail.
The weather did not stay agreeable for long though. Clouds and fog took over the mountainside and made it impossible to see more than a hundred meters ahead. With the trail seeming to diverge in different directions quite often, the only thing to keep us heading in the right direction were the white plastic markers every few hundred meters. These really became important as the fog rolled in thicker and thicker. For quite a while we hiked without a clue of how far we had come and how much further we needed to go. It was impossible to see the bottom or the top of the mountain. I can't really explain why it happened, but as we went along I was beginning to lose my will power. I don't know if fog has a psychological affect I'm unaware of, but the feeling of discouragement and dwindling motivation made the hike ever more difficult. There have always been points in my past hikes where it begins to feel like a fight of wills with the mountain, but Pico was different. Maybe it was the cold dampness sucking the energy out of me, the dehydration or just plain exhaustion from the previous day and night... I don't know. I just came to a point where I sat down exhausted, enveloped in a thick fog and depression.
We had no idea how close or far we were. We had been hiking for two and half hours and from the information I had read about the hike, that should have meant we had less than an hour before we reached the top (if I would have brought my GPS, I could have, at least, known our elevation). But at that point, with no visual clues, it felt much further. Alice and I talked about our situation and quickly began to feel chilled (our wet clothes and lack of proper rain attire would quickly work against us anytime we'd stop moving). Frustrated that the hike was feeling so difficult, I couldn't help but sense, in some way, that Pico was pushing against us. Then the sign came. I said to Alice, "All we need now is more rain". The moment those words escaped my mouth the rain started coming down.
What little determination I had left was pretty much crushed by this change for the worse in weather. The chill I was already feeling grew stronger and it was at this point Alice and I really began to imagine all the things that could go wrong if we started making stupid choices based on my prideful determination to conquer the mountain. Scenes from "I Shouldn't Be Alive" flashed through Alice's mind and she wasn't shy to express her concerns. I thought about all the things we were lacking (dry, warm clothes, shelter, first aid, GPS) and we both soon realized that if anything were to happen to cause us to be stranded on this mountain (something as simple as twisting an ankle, which would be easy on such terrain) it wouldn't take long for hypothermia to set in under these conditions. Pushing my ego aside, we made the safe decision to turn back.
It was difficult to mentally let go of the goal after coming so far and struggling so hard. Memories of Kyes Peak were reminiscent, but at least on that occasion I could clearly see how unattainable our goal was. There was a moment during the descent when the fog blew out and we could see down to the trailhead... this gave us some idea of just how far we had actually come. I believe we must have been quite close to reaching the caldera, but I can never know for sure. It took another 2 hours or so to reach Brinko cavern/Furna and we decided to take shelter in there, as it was the only place to escape the rain and wind, and we still had a few hours before our potential ride was leaving.
In the end we were back at the trailhead for around 5pm. Some kind people agreed to give us miserable looking hikers a ride back to Madalena. So by 7pm, September 12th, we were back at the Mini Bella Residence ready to finally relax.
As fate would have it, the next day was beautiful, sunny and clear. We took this final photo of Pico on a whale watching trip the following morning. It stands out as a beckoning call for me to return some day... some day when I am wiser, better prepared, better equipped and mentally ready for the challenge. I look forward to it.
Tip: If you feel the need to hike Pico starting from sea level, I highly recommend you start from the town of Sao Mateus as opposed to Madalena. This would reduce the distance you have to cover significantly. There are buses that run in the morning across the whole island, so it would be easy if you are staying in Madalena or Lajes to take a bus to Sao Mateus. Feel free to contact me if you're looking for more information on places to stay and how to get around on the islands.
Download my Google Earth pico-hike.kmz file [17 KB] to see my route and descriptive placemarks of the Pico hike. To use this file, download and install the free Google Earth software, then once it's up and running, choose File --> Open... and select the "pico-hike.kmz" file that you downloaded from here. A folder called "Pico Hike" should now be in the Places tab. Expanding this folder you will find all my placemarks and routes for the hike. Clicking on any of these placemarks will bring you to the exact spot on Earth.
Distance: Madalena to Trailhead: 18km (one way), or over 22km going off track like us
Time: Took us 10 hours going off track to get to trailhead
Elevation Gain: 1,151 meters (from trailhead to Peak) or 2,351 from any of the coastal towns
Trailhead Elevation: 1,200 meters
Pico elevation: 2,351 meters (7,713 feet, highest point in Portugal)
Pico Trailhead: 38º 28' 15" N; 28º 25' 34" W (NAD83/WGS84)
Pico Peak: 38º 28' 09" N; 28º 23' 56" W (NAD83/WGS84)