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 walked 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:
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 until the island of São 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 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 that was and 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 had made it down unharmed. With their beds on the floor beside mine, we went to bed.
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 wasn’t possible. I had come too far to turn back. I was going to reach the summit of Pico and spend the night. He seemed very 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 due to the crimes of an elite few. However, the people are 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 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. The French couple woke and we kept each other company. They showed me the pictures they had taken at sunset the night before. They were breathtaking. I hoped the weather would allow me to see the same.
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. Because of that 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. At the same time, if someone proves themselves to be of mal-intent and want 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 that 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 numbers in it. The first called the Casa via GSM. The second called them via Satellite. The third called the local emergency rescue team. An emergency rescue cost 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. Before I could leave I had to sign a waiver saying I had been warned about extreme weather and that it had been recommended I didn’t 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 winds. For the next twenty four hours, I would be on my own. I prayed for strength and received it.
Well laden and in good spirits, I began my ascent up the mountain.
From the Hotel Caravelas, I headed straight for the church of Madalena. The idea was to pay my respects and officially begin my journey there. I stepped inside and was instantly in awe of the profound beauty the small town’s spiritual centre held. This is what I saw:
Unlike most churches that focus on the masculine aspects of the divine, this church was almost completely devoted to their female counterparts. Front and centre, instead of the usual statue of Jesus being all miserable, there was a statue of Mary Magdalene, the patron of the town. She looked kind and benevolent, gracious and loving. Other women of the faith adorned the walls. The only statue of Jesus to be found had him speaking to a nun. I can’t recall ever seeing anything like it. Only steps from the ocean, this church was devoted to the goddess and her servants.
I removed my pack and walked respectfully to the front row. I knelt and prayed the rosary in constant awe of the beauty surrounding me. I left the church ready for the days ahead. I walked to the ocean, dipped my hand in, wet my head, and hit the road. I began my ascent.
The night before I had learned there was one road all the way to the top of the mountain. To make sure I had the right one, I asked several people along the way. They’d point to the road and give the same reply, “É só um caminho. Sempre para címa.” Meaning “There is only one road. Always upwards.”
As I walked I heard a rustling in the bushes. It followed me across fields and the roads between them yet always hid from sight. “Hello old friend,” I said. “I have big shoulders. I can lift you to the top of the mountain, if you like. Maybe if you weren’t so ugly and tried so hard to frighten people, we’d welcome you around more. But you no longer frighten me. You may startle me with your ugliness, but I always get over it.”
Just within the village limits I took my first break. I looked toward Madalena and the neighbouring island of Faial:
I approached a wall to sit on and saw a gecko scurry and hide in the rocks. “Old friend,” I said. “Why do you hide? Haven’t I welcomed you?” I put down my pack, grabbed some food, and placed my rosary in my pocket.
It was only fifteen minutes up the road when I realized I didn’t have my rosary with me. Somehow it had either fallen out or had never reached the inside of my pocket. I debated going back for it. However, sensing the symbolic relevance of it staying within Madalena, I opted to go on alone with my other companions, the weight on my shoulders and the rustling in the bushes.
A man drove past and asked, “Are you going to the mountain?”
“I am.” I said.
“Let’s go then.” He replied and pointed to the back of his truck.
“No, thank you.” I said. “I want to walk.”
He gave me a smile, a warm, authentic smile. He thanked me and before driving off said, “Força”, a Portuguese phrase of encouragement.
I continued, always upwards. I focused on my gait and my breathing. I drank little but often. I tried to make every step a conscientious one. I encountered many people along the way. We all acknowledged each other in some fashion if not in words of care and encouragement. The people of Pico are caring and selfless. They are the type of people who don’t wait to be asked, they offer to help where they see the need. I could feel the love and concern of the people there. When I asked the way, everyone said, “Sempre para címa.”
My feet blistered. I tired. I drank water regularly and ate. The island of Faial got smaller as I ascended:
I rose into the clouds and continued upwards. I continued to encounter people and animals along the way. I welcomed them all with kindness. Eventually, I rose above the clouds. I took pictures along the way:
After 7 hours, 18 kilometres of road, and about 1220 metres of ascent, I reached the Casa da Montanha, the visitor centre at the foot of the mountain.
I took off my pack and went inside…
I arrived in Pico, Azores on August 27th 2014 and immediately went to my hotel. I dropped off my things, changed my clothes and took a picture of the view from my hotel room. This is what I saw:
The mountain, my destination for the following day, was completely covered in clouds. I was beginning to think that I should have asked for an ocean view.
I took a nap, had a nice four course meal, drank wine, hit the bars, made friends, and treated myself well knowing that the days ahead were going to be difficult.
By chance, I made a friend at the bar named André. He works at the tourist center located at the base of the mountain aptly named the “Casa da Montanha”. I told him about my plan to start my trip to the summit at the ocean and walk all the way to the top. He told me he had done the same before. He commended me for the effort as most people drive to the tourist center, already 18 km and 1200m in altitude from the ocean. He kept saying in Portuguese, “From zero to 2351. That’s the way to do it!” He also suggested I bring a bottle of wine for when I reached the summit. I thanked him for the good advice.
I woke up the next morning and looked out my window. This is what I saw:
It was the second time I had seen the mountain. The first time had been in 2008 from the neighbouring island of Terceira, 150 km away. From the top of Santa Barbara in Terceira you can see the islands of Pico, São Jorge, and Faial over lapping each other. They looked like this:
I ate an uncomfortably large breakfast, knowing that I’d need the energy, and went to the grocery store. My estimate was that the trip would take three days. I bought 9 litres of water in 1.5 litres bottles, a good bottle of wine, a knife, a corkscrew, 2 loaves of traditional corn bread, a chorizo, a good sized chuck of cheese from the neighbouring island of São Jorge, some apples, and some bananas. I only ended up bringing one loaf and 6 litres of water with me. When all was said and done, here is what I packed to go up the mountain:
I also carried a wooden rosary with me from a religious site in Boznia-Herzegovina called Medjugorje. I had never heard of the site before. My godmother had given the rosary to me to keep me safe during my trip. The plan was to pray the rosary along the way in order to pay my respects to those involved in my journey, to give me protection, and to keep me sane during the long walk ahead. Here’s a close up of the rosary on the nightstand from the picture above.
Once I packed my bag and was ready to go I became overcome with fear. I began to curse my decision to come to Pico. What the hell was I thinking? Why had I left everyone I loved? Would I ever make it back to them again? Was this a fool’s errand? My eyes began to water. I begged for strength and received it. I pulled myself together. I took this picture moments before departing:
Well laden and in good spirits, I set out for the mountain.