André, the friend I had met the first night on the island, was waiting inside the visitor centre. He welcomed me warmly and was glad to see I had made it that far. He told me I could sleep inside the visitor’s centre overnight and rest up for the day ahead. Seeing how I had already chosen a spot for myself under an overhang, the news was well received. During peak tourist season they were open twenty four hours a day for people like myself. I unpacked my bag, made my bed on the floor, and starting caring for my blistered feet and toes. The plan was to rest there overnight and make my way up the mountain in the morning. So far, I was right on schedule.
André also let me know that a really bad weather system was heading straight for us. By the time the morning came, we’d be right in the middle of it. I told him I could only hope that the winds would shift in my favour. Either way, there was no turning back. I hadn’t traveled all that way to give up at the foot of the mountain. I passed the time reading “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” and watched the sun set. I took this pic in the direction of Madalena and Faial as the sun set over the Atlantic:
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky that night. The silhouette of the mountain carved into the star filled sky. I decided to take a walk around the mountain’s base. Soon, the neighbouring island of Sao Jorge came into view. When it did, I fell to my knees in awe of the beauty before me. The majesty of the mountain and the power of the sea were with me simultaneously. The mountain appeared to have a aura surrounding it. It’s haze blanketed the stars within its reach. I stayed there in the dark listening to the sounds of the animals and insects moving about me. I prayed to the mountain for protection and gave thanks to the sea for everything.
As I returned to the Casa da Montanha, I noticed two lamps making their way down the mountain in the pitch black night. I had no doubt of how dangerous it was to descent in the pitch black. I hoped for their safety. The pair turned out to be a young French couple from Bordeaux. They had seen the sunset from the summit and decided to descend afterwards. They were grateful to have made it down unharmed. With their beds on the ground beside mine, succumb to our mutual exhaustions.
I woke several hours later in the middle of the night. I went upstairs and met Paulo and Nuno, the night shift workers at the Casa. Nuno told me about the incoming weather. The system appeared to be getting worse. He recommended I plan my climb for another day. I told him that was not possible. I had come too far to turn back. I was going to reach the summit of Pico and spend the night. He seemed concerned.
I sat in the kitchen reading beside a glass exterior wall overlooking Madalena and Faial. As I read, two small brown birds bounced about outside. One took an interest in me and approached. I welcomed it, “Olá pássaro.” I said. It bounced up as close as the glass would allow and looked up at me curiously. After a minute or so, it left.
Nuno and Paulo kept me company for some time. They told me about their lives and I listened. I was happy to learn more about life on Pico. Life is hard there. The economy has suffered greatly due to the crimes of an elite, European few. Despite that, the people remain honest and caring. They look out for each other. Many think of leaving for places like Canada where there is more money to be made. When my eyes got heavy, I returned to bed.
I woke again after the sun had risen. By then, the mountain was covered in clouds. The weather system I had been warned about was passing right through us. I thanked Nuno and Paulo for keeping me company during the night. André and his crew arrived for the day shift.
People began to arrive to climb the mountain. Many headed back in their cars once they saw the weather. I decided to wait until noon before departing. My French flatmates woke and we kept each other company. They showed me the pictures they took at sunset the night before. They were breathtaking. I hoped the weather would allow me to see the same, but feared it would not.
The two were trying to get a lift back to their campground. In the meantime, we talked about n’importe quoi. Eventually, my experiences in the military came up. They asked me if I learned anything during my time there. I told them this. “There is no point to any war. They are all stupid. It’s important to treat everyone, every person at every moment, with love and respect. The end result of not doing so is always war. However, at the same time, if someone proves themselves to be of bad intent and try to do you harm, they can go fuck themselves.”
I went to go speak with André and told him I was ready to begin my climb. He told me the winds were currently at 40 km/h and that they weren’t getting any better. At 80 km/h they closed the mountain off to the public. His co-worker, the woman who ran the kitchen, strongly recommended I didn’t go. She was very concerned for my safety. I told her I had no choice.
They gave me a GPS/Satellite phone with three preprogrammed buttons on it. The first one called the Casa da Montanha via GSM. The second called them via Satellite. The third called the local emergency rescue team. An emergency rescue would cost me 2,000 Euros. The concerned woman made sure I properly understood that. They asked if I had seen the safety information video. I lied and said yes. I was in too much of a rush and didn’t care for my personal safety. They made me sign a waiver saying I had been warned about the extreme weather and that it was recommended I not ascend. I signed “André Clementino Aguiar” as a Portuguese citizen. I loaded up my pack and picked out a solid wood walking stick from a pile they had there. André said, “Let’s go Moses! Good luck.”
I stood at the foot of the mountain and was overcome with fear. All I could see in front of me were clouds. All I could hear were the winds. For the next twenty four hours, I was going to be on my own. I prayed for strength and received it.
Well laden and in good spirits, I began my ascent up the mountain…