Suddenly, I had the sun on my eyes. The steep incline of the Pico Mountain, just moments ago hidden behind the mist, seemed now to go up indefinitely. The thick clouds I had just emerged from still sat very close to my feet, slowly swirling with the wind. The change was not entirely welcomed. While I was out the clammy cold that had surrounded me for the better part of an hour, I could now see the full magnitude of the climb that stood between me and Portugal’s highest peak.
This is the third instalment of our trip through Azores, a Portuguese archipelago that sits on the Atlantic Ocean, roughly a third of the way from Lisbon to New York. Read the first parts here and here.
Allow me to rewind our story by a couple of days before we get back to that climb. By then we were not quite yet at the Pico island, but somewhere between São Jorge and Pico, aboard a ferryboat. Gabriel, despite the initial enthusiasm with his very first boat ride, was now sound asleep, unable to resist the soothing back and forth rocking.
Jules, who has the eyesight of a hawk, was on the lookout for dolphins. I, limited by my more mole-like vision, stood close, camera in hand, waiting to be pointed to the right direction. Freed from sentry duties, my mind wondered about this very text, and what we would end up writing about Pico.
Unconstrained by the duties of providing any sort of useful travel advice, we often test the patience of our readers by writing about the particularities of a place that, for one reason or another, sit close to our hearts, but are not necessarily very relevant to others.
Our fondest memories of Pico? Parakeets, sunken boats, whales and, of course, mountains surrounded by thick clouds.
One lonely parakeet
Parakeets are gentle birds that don’t enjoy being alone. They often mate for life, limping through existence if their companion suffers an untimely death.
We rented our apartment at Pico from a gentleman that lived on the nearby island of Faial. We greeted him at the doorstep, as he crossed the road from the harbour. After showing us around the place, we all sat by the terrace, making time for the next ferry.
As Gabriel ran around, scurrying away the small wall lizards basking in the sun, our host told us that he had bought the apartment a few years ago, to enjoy retirement. His wife died unexpectedly shortly after, leaving him stunned, alone, and with a half-decorated apartment. He finished the renovation, faithfully following what his wife and him had planned, but could never bring himself to move in.
As he crossed the road back to the ferry, the bells of the nearby church tolled ominously. For the remainder of our stay, hearing those bells instantly transported us back to the terrace, watching that lonely parakeet limping away.
Two sunken ships
Our terrace offered a prime view of ‘Mestre Simão’, a ferry boat that had wedged itself in the rocks a few months before, while attempting to dock during foul weather. Nobody got hurt, but the shipwreck proved hard to remove, so the embarrassing omen was still there when we visited.
Jules didn’t think much of it, but I would spend countless hours on the terrace looking at the half-sunken ship – with one eye only, as the other one tracked the stubby yet surprisingly fast creature that kept chasing the poor wall lizards. The shipwreck reminded me of Tollan, the British container ship from my childhood memories that had capsized in the Tagus river in the 80s – just meters away from Lisbon’s shore – and which stood there for more than three years.
To get us off that terrace, Jules proposed a visit to a nearby bar that had won ArchDaily’s building of the year award in 2016. Made as a wooden extension of an old volcanic-rock house, the bar had an indefinable shape. While circling around it, we proposed a myriad of interpretations. A wine cask? A solid lump of lava? A whale? The shipwreck of Jules Verne’s Nautilus?
We naturally settled on the latter.
Three-spiked whale spears
The two sunken ships didn’t prompt any thalassophobia as, shortly after, the three of us travelled to the Southern coast of the island, eager to get ourselves onboard a whale watching boat.
Alas, our hopes were short-lived. Over concerns that a one-year old would not sit still for a couple of hours staring at the sea – especially while wearing an ill-fitting life-vest that covered most of his eyes – Gabriel was denied boarding. One of the staff members offered to stay onshore and babysit, but we thought best not to reward such a kind gesture with two hours of chasing Gabriel up and down the pier.
So, we went instead to the next-door Whaler’s Museum. Right from the onset, the exhibition made no attempt to greenwash the brutality of whale hunting. Instead, it offered an engrossing account of the 150 years of Azorean whaling.
By the end of the 18th century, large whalers from New England started coming to Azores to recruit crewmen. The islanders, some as young as thirteen, would embark on long journeys across the Atlantic and learn the craft of whaling. By the second half of the 19th century, some of them settled back in Azores – particularly at Pico – and used their craftsmanship to develop local whale hunting techniques. These turned out to be very different from the ones used aboard the large New England whalers.
An onshore spotter, sitting on a vantage point, would scan the seas looking for spouts, the streams of moist warm air that whales throw up in the air when surfacing to breathe. After spotting a spout, these scouts would wave bed sheets or throw fireworks up in the air, prompting whalemen to rush to their boats. Whaling was not a full-time occupation, but rather a complement that allowed poor peasants to put a bit more food on the table.
These makeshift whalemen would huddle over long and narrow wooden boats, designed to silently approach the whales, and embark on a pursuit that could last several days. Following the directions of the onshore scouts, they would encircle the large cetacean and attempt to spear it. Once speared, the whale was tethered to the boat and no longer able to dive into deep waters to escape. Eventually, the bleeding animal would succumb from its wounds.
Once dragged back to land, every bit of the carcass was put to use. Whale oil was used on lamps or to make soap and margarine. Bones were shaped into combs, brushes and artwork. Leftovers were turned into animal feed and fertilizer.
By the first half of the 20th century, more than twelve-thousand whales have been killed in Azores, but the business had started to dwindle. Petroleum and vegetable oils were increasingly used instead of whale oil, and concerns over the conservation of cetaceans brought criticism to commercial whaling. Portugal abolished whale hunting shortly after joining the European Union. The last whale was killed in 1987, at Pico, close to the Whaler’s Museum.
“How it is, there is no telling, but Islanders seem to make the best whalemen”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
I had been waiting to climb the Pico Mountain for more than twenty-five years. While a teenager, my uncle – who had married an Azorean – took me travelling through the archipelago. Climbing Pico would be the highlight of an unforgettable trip that already included camping by the seaside and hitchhiking on cattle trucks.
We spent the last night before the climb on the small stone house of two elderly brothers. At dinner, they warned us not to attempt the climb if there were clouds covering the tip of the mountain, as these were often a harbinger for sudden and dangerous weather changes. We took the advice seriously, as there was no shortage of reports of unprepared hikers perishing in these mountains.
And, sure enough, in the next morning we woke up to the dreaded clouds covering the tip of the Pico mountain.
Twenty-five years later, I eagerly got out of bed at sunrise and rushed to the terrace, where a glorious unclouded mountain tip awaited. I hurtled around the apartment getting everything ready for the climb, making more noise than needed in hopes of waking up Jules and Gabriel, who I needed to drive me up to the mountain. By the time we got there, the base of the mountain was shrouded in clouds, but the tip was still clear.
After years of mishaps, Azorean authorities are not taking any chances. All those attempting the climb are required to register at the Mountain House, where they are handed a GPS tracker and a 2-way radio. At a corner, a giant screen shows the position of all climbers. Those that deviate from the track or stand still for too long are hailed over the radio.
I said goodbye to a nonchalant Gabriel – too involved chomping on a cookie to notice anything else – and to a slightly crestfallen Jules – who had drawn the short straw and had to stay behind babysitting our blasé son – and started my ascent.
The climb is marked by 45 numbered wooden stakes. Aided by the initial gentle slope and biting cold, the first markers went by fast. The thick fog meant that I couldn’t see more than a few steps around me, so it felt like carrying a dim-lit lamp across a misty cavern.
As I continued my journey upwards, the setting slowed changed. The early well beaten path gave way to a barely visible track made up of coarse volcanic rock. The vegetation became shorter and shorter, down to a military haircut made to withstand the increasingly harsh environment. The once gentle slope was now a punishing steep incline, and I found myself taking more and more pictures as an excuse to stop and rest.
Suddenly, the mist gave way to bright blue skies. Beneath my feet, the clouds were so thick that I could seemingly jump off the mountain and walk on top of them. Looking up, the full extent of my remaining penitence was painfully visible. I set my eyes on the final marker and continued the climb.
The joy of reaching that final wooden stake was short-lived, as it marked not the end of the climb, but merely the edge of the volcano crater. In the middle of the crater stood the ‘Piquinho’, the very tip of the Pico mountain.
There wasn’t a single person in sight as I stepped into the crater. The final path up ‘Piquinho’ first snaked around crude rock shelters and then spiralled up the rock face, passing close to billows of sulphurous vapour.
With a grunt, I took my last step up the climb. All around me, the entire island seemed like a model world made up of tiny roads and buildings. In one of those miniature houses, somewhere to the Southwest, stood Jules and Gabriel. With phone reception now reaching the most unexpected of places, I video-called them to share the view. During those brief moments, nobody in Portugal was higher than us.