At 5 am, several alarms beep and jingle and shafts of light tremble through the room, until finally someone turns on the ceiling light. The air in the large dormitory is smelly, but the Refugio Altavista is the only accommodation near the peak of Mt Teide, Spain's highest mountain. Almost everyone sleeping here is going to climb the peak in the early morning hours – except perhaps for a few who may have been up there yesterday.
At 3718 m, Mt Teide is not only Spain's highest mountain but also a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site and the centre of a protected national park. There's a cable car leading up to about 3500 m, but the number of daily visitors to the peak is strictly limited in order to protect the crater area from mass tourism in the face of its easy accessibility.
When we tried to apply for the necessary permit a couple of weeks before our visit to the Canary Island of Tenerife, all slots were already booked. Presumably by tour operators who reserve them well in advance, we found out later. The only other option to climb the peak is staying at the Refugio Altavista: so as to be able to pass the control point before it is manned at 9 am, in which case you don't need a permit (the gate is always open).
In the evening, the around 50 people staying in the hut had already discussed the options: Most were planning to reach the summit for sunrise, just before 8 am. In the darkness and thin air, we were advised to start 2 hours earlier to make it to the top in time.
At 5.20 am, most hikers have already left, nervous not to miss the sunrise. When we get our backpacks from the now-empty dormitory, a wiry shadow hops towards the door, turns off the light and hisses "I can't sleeeeeep! Close the doooor!" Only a few seconds later, when we have already left the room again, we realize that he didn't wear any underpants …
Anything before 6 am is too cold and unpleasant to be on a winter mountain – it is pitch-dark and several degrees below zero, with an icy wind blowing over the rocks. In spite of walking rather fast and upwards – it's 500 altitude meters from the hut to the peak, after all – our hands and feet are freezing when we reach the summit, and we are glad that we didn't leave too early: The horizon is already orange, and we only have to shiver for another 10 minutes or so before the sun goes up, sending Mt Teide's own shadow in the clouds behind us.
A few more glances at the panoramic view below us, and we hurry back down to the mountain hut, have some breakfast shielded from the cold wind, and descend to the 2000 m plateau where we can have more coffee, cheese sandwiches and cake before we finally catch a bus back into civilization.
Is Mt Teide worth climbing?
As it is Spain's highest mountain and not difficult to climb the main counter-argument may be the logistic difficulty of getting a permit. The hiking path, like on any volcano, lacks diversity, but it's easy to hike and the view from the top is impressive. Personally we can't really confirm that climbing the peak especially for sunrise is worth it, though.
How to climb the peak of Mt Teide
In order to walk up from the surrounding plateau, you should be reasonably fit and have proper Alpine hiking equipment (high boots, sticks, layers of clothing). Technically, however, Mt Teide is not difficult, and no mountaineering experience is necessary. Considering the thin air, it is important to drink a lot and not to walk too fast. Taking an Aspirin may help the blood to circulate.
There one a single bus connection per day to the starting point of the hike from Los Christianos in the south, and one from Puerto de la Cruz in the north.
In winter you might encounter some snow, but even then hiking to the top should be possible. When we hiked in the middle of December there was no snow at all, but a few days later the peak was covered with some snow.
Using the ropeway makes the access to the peak even easier, but obviously it also reduces the achievement.
Have you been on top of Mt Teide? How was your experience?