30 May 2012

From Pico do Areeiro to Pico Ruívo and back - Hiking on the high peaks

A couple of days ago I was standing in front of the Portuguese Air Force Radar Station nº4, located in Pico do Areeiro, questioning myself whether or not I should start, by the third time, the mountain track that would lead me to the island highest peak.
Truth be said, the hike between these two peaks is the closest thing to a masochistic ritual that we can find in the Madeira mountains. So why is it so popular among hikers of all nationalities? Well, basically... the fabulous landscape. Let's see, at first it doesn't seem so intimidating. You start in Pico do Areeiro, at 1818 mts, and about seven kilometres after you end up in Pico Ruívo, at 1862 mts. A calm and relaxed five-mile walk to climb 44 metres in high, right? Wrong! The problem is in-between. Starting close to the radar dome, the path will lead you first, in a gentle descent, to the Ninho da Manta belvedere. There, you can relax a bit, watching the surrounding landscape and trying to spot the famous "Freira da Madeira" (Pterodroma madeira), an endemic bird at the verge of extinction. Following the route, you are now, after a slight ascent, walking over a rocky ridge no wider than the trail itself and with a vertiginous abyss of hundreds of meters on either side. Ever imagined walking over a knife blade? Here is reality overtaking fiction.
At the end of the basalt ridge you start the steep descent to Pico do Gato. And when I mean steep, I really mean steep. No problem with the route, tho. The path is well marked and well kept and on the most exposed parts you have railings on either side. The problem is the steepness. Those stairs seem to never end. Step after step after step. And when you finally reach level ground, some three hundred meters below, at the entrance of the Pico do Gato tunnel, you gaze one last time back, to what you've just done, and say to yourself: "Good God, I'll have to climb this on my way back".
After the Pico do Gato tunnel and a few more stairs, you'll be facing a crossing. Both directions will lead to Pico Ruívo. If you choose the left path, you will reach Pico Ruívo after 3.4 kms and a few tunnels on the way (always bring a flash light with you. In Madeira mountains it's pretty much convenient!), on a mostly leveled path. However, if you choose the right one you'll end up at Pico Ruívo, all right. After almost five kilometres climbing to the Torres ridge and then coming down and once again coming up to your final destination, at 1862 meters. In short: if you are a religious person and you feel that you are square with God, by all means choose the left path. But if you are a sinner, you should punish your body and your soul a little bit more. So, please, choose the right path and add 300 metres of steep ascent followed by the same amount of descent to your penitence.
Since I was feeling pretty much in peace with God and Humanity, I've decided for the left. This path is not as aerial as the one by the Torres ridge. In fact, you are always walking thru a narrow and canyon-like landscape. However, due to the amount of moisture in the air, the flora is quite colourful and although in small quantities (you are in the high mountains) the flowers are everywhere. When you pass the last tunnel you are standing on the path that's coming from the Torres ridge. So you proceed to your left and to the final part of your hike. From here, should be around two more kilometres to the Pico Ruívo, in a gentle ascent gradient, first to the Pico Ruívo mountain hut and then to the peak itself. On the way back, you can choose the tunnels route or you can go straight ahead to the Torres, following the gentle trail that leads you to the Torres ridge. Just don't forget that, as soon as you have peaked it, you'll face the steep descent down to Pico do Gato that you avoided before coming by the tunnels. If you are not on your best shape, your knees will suffer on the steep stairs. I wasn't. So I suffered like hell in that passage. A hike that usually takes about two and a half hours did cost me almost five. Honestly, I was seriously thinking about spending the night in the mountain, if I couldn't manage to reach Pico do Areeiro by daytime. With my legs like gelatin and already after the sunset, I finally managed to drag myself to the car parking lot close to the radar station. That's how fit I was. And that was a serious lesson learnt about despising regular physical training. However, for a normal hiker, there is absolutely no reason stopping you to accomplish the route Pico do Areeiro-Pico Ruívo-Pico do Areeiro in five hours.
The most beautiful mountain walk in Madeira starts here, close to the Radar Station Nº 4, of the Portuguese Air Force. For you tech fanatics, this is supposed to be a long-range tri-dimensional SA Lanza 3D radar, built by INDRA Sistemas SA, from Spain. This system is supposed to increase the vigilance of both the civil and military air space of Madeira and adjacent waters up to a distance of 250 nautical miles.
Pico do Areeiro, as seen from the Torres.
The (in)famous Torres crossing, right after the Pico do Gato tunnel. Right here you decide. If you follow the left path, you'll find several tunnels ahead on a mostly horizontal trail. If you choose the right one... soon afterwards you'll be climbing up to the Torres ridge by a very steep trail and you will be adding an additional 300 meters of ascent and as much in descent to your ride. Your choice.
The left path will lead you to a crossing of the Torres ("Towers") with a few subterranean moments.
Either way the trail is always well marked...
...well kept and mostly well protected, as you can see by the pictures above, taken close to the Torres and when were remaining about 30 minutes to reach Madeira's highest peak.
It's Spring time, so flowers are constant...
...and constant...
...along the way.
The mountain trail passing near the Torres.
After two and a half hours on the trail, you finally see the Pico Ruívo mountain hut appearing over the trees.

A landscape reflection in a Pico Ruívo hut window, late in the afternoon.
The view from the Pico Ruívo is never the same. It varies with the seasons and even during the same day, due to the cloud cover of the sky. At the distance, near the sea, you can see the village of Santana. In the right extreme of the picture there's the Achada do Teixeira parking place.
Pico Ruívo, as seen from the Torres ridge, on my way back.
The quickest way to reach Pico Ruívo is by an easy path departing from Achada do Teixeira (at a height of 1592 meters). This trail, with about three kilometres of extension, will lead you to the Madeira's highest peak in a gentle crossing of the mountain ridge that you can see on the horizon. It's safe, it's fast... but not nearly as much fun as the bigger one.