Pico in morning light.

Gordon: The island of Pico gets its name from the high volcanic peak located on it. The mountain of Pico rises 3500 metres from the ocean floor, 2351 metres of which are above the waves. It is the highest point in Portugal.

I had hoped to climb Pico the last time we were on the island. I brought heavy hiking boots and appropriate clothing, but it was unseasonably cold, to the point that the mountain was covered in snow. None of the guides were working, and it seemed like a bad idea to do the climb.

Ruth and Vicki before they headed down for pastries and coffee.

Fast forward to today, with mostly clear skies, light winds and mild temperatures. It was now a good idea. The three of us (my sister Vicki joined us yesterday) drove up to the Casa da Montanha shortly after sunrise this morning. It was clear, and the light on the mountain had us oohing and aahing.

The climb of the mountain is tightly regulated for safety reasons. Like all big mountains, Pico creates its own weather, and conditions can change quickly. Everyone who walks above the Casa da Montanha, at 1250 metres, has to register and carry a GPS and communication device. While on the mountain the staff at the Casa knows where everyone is located on the mountain, as well as whether they are moving, or just lying there in a heap.

Ruth and Vicki opted for a short hike to a volcanic vent that functions as a natural abrigo or shelter. Still poisoned by testosterone, despite my advancing years, I registered for the highest point of the mountain, the summit of Poquinho, the small cone that rises within the large crater at top of the mountain.

The hike started in the clouds, but about halfway up I burst into the sunshine. Although I was carrying numerous layers of extra clothing, including mitts and a toque, the only accessories I actually needed were sunscreen and a hat. It was such a beautiful day I did the entire hike in shorts and a t-shirt.

The climb took a little over two and a half hours, with the descent surprisingly requiring almost as much time. I had expected to be walking up cinder fields, but most of the climb was on firm lava. Much of it showed the ropy surface, or the ridges and chutes, of cooling lava. It felt like climbing on the bones of the mountain.

The final climb up Poquinho was a scramble, with a possibility of falling rocks dislodged by other hikers. There seemed to be a bit of cloud swirling about the summit, but it was actually steam rising from a volcanic vent: Pico is still a living volcano. (The last major eruption was in 1718: it destroyed the town where we are currently staying.)

The plague has taken away some of the physical challenges that I enjoy, such as half marathons and treks in Nepal, but today I got to climb a big mountain and it felt great.

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