Tuesday 8 April 2014

Above the Clouds

The second largest island of the Azores is named after its literally most prominent feature, mount Pico. This archetype of a stratovolcano is towering high above the sea and offers not only the highest summit in the Azores, but in all Portugal.
Spread around the immense cone are the villages of Pico, on the coast namely Madalena and Lajes.
The former should have been our port of call, or better disembarkation as we intended to use the small boats. The Atlantic, however, wanted to have a word in this and pounded us with heavy swell that made a landing impossible. So we had to go all around to the other side and look at the conditions in Lajes. Luck favors the brave - our detour earned us fabulous sightings of some common dolphins who played with our ship's nose. On the other side no swell, no wind to speak of, perfect. So we brought boatload after boatload ashore and the excursions could take off, albeit a little late.
Much to offer has the island of Pico, a long history of whaling which underwent the transition to the lucrative business of whale watching smoothly. A governmentally run museum has a lot of interesting artifacts and old movie footage to keep you busy for hours.
As everywhere in the Azores the volcanic soil is rich and fertile, which makes Pico one of the three Azorean domains for wine cultivation. Especially the whites are gaining more and more reputation among wine lovers. Growing the vines is quite a challenge here, the fierce winds have to be shunned, and this is done very efficiently - and beautifully - by framing the vines with low walls of lava rocks. The pattern of these walls on the green ground is a trademark of the Azores.
A drive across the island reveals its full charm, even on a day like this where the clouds are hanging low. Crater lakes are sunken in into the lush landscape and the plains at Mount Pico's are pocked with many parasitos, small secondary craters, some of them looking like made for a Hollywood decoration.
The probably boldest endeavor of this visit is undertaken by a small group that sets out as early as possible to make it to the top of Mount Pico proper. The weather doesn't look too promising - it is high mist or low clouds. But who cares?
So a small group begins the long, unknown climb into the clouds, into the invisible.
And a harsh one it is, 1150 meters up, over sharp rocks and slippery vegetation, steep all the time (as in using-all-fours steep). The clouds are cool and damp, but certainly nobody is freezing...
At elevation 1800m the light around us gets brighter and brighter, and a few minutes later we step out from the clouds - above them! Suddenly there is wonderful colors of rocks and plants and the blue skies, suddenly the intense smell of mountain thyme unfolds. Magic.
Still, there is more volcano to climb, and it's getting even steeper. After four hours of ascent we reach the last of the guiding poles and the summit. The top Mount Pico is a natural fortress, the basalt walls of the last eruption surrounding Little Pico, the very last cone that emerged only a few thousand years ago and now look like a pointy hat on Pico's head. 
This, of course, is an irresistible challenge for three of us. Seventy meters more of serious rock climbing - and yes! Significant moments in life...
The walk down is hard on the legs and demands all concentration we can muster, but some hours later am exhausted but utterly happy group returns to the ship, that now heads for the very last stop on this journey, Terceira.