In High Places
By: Burton “Out to Sea” Falk
Last October, my wife, Jo, and I embarked on a mid-Atlantic cruise, beginning in Tenerife in the Canary Islands, making calls in the Cape Verde Islands, Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan de Cunha and South Georgia, and disembarking thirty-five days later at Stanley, in the Falkiand Islands.
I, of course, was intent on climbing everything I could lay my feet on. What follows is the first of a three-part report on those adventures:
Regarding the Canaries, Tenerife’s 12,198’ Mt.Tiede is not only the archipelago’s loftiest peak, but the highest point in all of Spain as well. And, as noted in my previous article on Tiede (The ECHO, May-June 1992), the mountain is an active volcano.
On the morning of October 6, prior to boarding the Explorer in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Jo and I revisited Las Cañadas National Park, where we discovered that, although tourists can still ride the cablecar to Tiede’s 11,500 level, the trail continuing on to the summit is closed due to noxious gases being emitted there. The mountaineer’s trail winding up the northeast side of the peak—and eventually merging into the gondola trail—is likewise closed to the summit.
Setting sail the following morning, we found that the staff of the Explorer included several guest lecturers, i.e., two ornithologists, an ichthyologist, a geologist and a military historian. Thanks to Bill Romey, professor geology at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, we gleaned these additional facts regarding Tiede and the Canaries: 1. As measured from its base below sea level, Tiede is the third tallest volcano in the world (after Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa). 2. That what had long been suspected has now been confirmed—a huge prehistoric landslide occurred on the north slope of Tiede, causing an enormous quantity of debris to cascade several miles out onto the sea floor. This in turn created a colossal tidal wave, the size of which, were it to recur today, would devastate a number of low-lying cities around the Atlantic. 3. The current thinking is that the Canaries were formed much in the same manner as the Hawaiian Islands, i.e., that a tectonic plate slid over a hot spot in the earth’s mantle, thus creating a rash of volcanic islands as it progressed.
After sailing due south for four days, our first port of call was Praia, on the island of Sao Tiago, the capital city of the Cape Verde Islands. Unfortunately, as we were to spend only one day in this island nation, population 440,000, and because Pico de Fogo, its 9,280’ high point, is located on yet another island, Fogo, there was no way I could arrange a climb. Still, since I intended to return someday to make the ascent, I did make inquiries into the logistics involved in doing so.
What I found was that all international flights to the Cape Verdes arrive on the island of Sal, 150 miles to the northeast of Fogo. From the U.S., the most direct way of getting to the Cape Verdes is via a once a week South African Airways’ flight from JFK to Johannesburg, which makes a stop in Sal. Direct flights for Sal can also be boarded in Lisbon, Portugal and Dakar, Senegal. Once in Sal, one can catch an intra-island flight to Fogo, and from there, after renting a car, continue on to a small inn located inside Cha des Calderias, the crater from which Pico de Fogo arises. Incidentally, the geological situation on Fogo is similar to that on Tenenfe, i.e., after an original 11,500’ volcano was formed, a gigantic section of its eastern side collapsed into the sea, substantially reducing the peak’s height, and, no doubt, creating yet another gigantic tidal wave. Once you reach the Cha des Calderias, Pico de Fogo can be easily climbed in one day.
The Cape Verdes, frankly, are not the most beautiful islands in the world. Because they lie only 400 miles off the west coast of Africa, at the same latitude as the Sahara Desert, they receive little rainfall. The nation’s sky is often darkened with dust blowing over from mainland Africa, where the process of desertification continues at a rapid pace.
And, the country is very poor. Due to the lack of water, agriculture is difficult if not impossible. Over fifty percent of island’s Gross Domestic Product, in fact, comes from remittances sent home by Cape Verde men who have emigrated abroad to find work. Additionally, although the islands have several nice beaches, because of the lack of a supporting infrastructure, revenue from tourism is still a dream. Furthermore, the Cape Verdese speak Creole and/or Portuguese—neither an especially tourist-friendly language. If that weren’t enough, there is little if anything in the way of indigenous arts and crafts (except for CDs and tapes of morna, a musical form, the lyrics of which are “sophisticated expressions of tragedy, the instruments similar to those played in Portuguese folk music”) to take home as souvenirs.
Because of all these negatives, my wife (of 45 years, by the way) says she has “definitely, absolutely, positively, completely and totally no interest” in making a return visit to the Cape Verdes. Since she seems to be somewhat on the fence in this matter, I’ll hedge my bets by asking if you, or anyone you know, would be interested in joining me in bagging a rarely climbed high point, way out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?
Continuing south for another five days—and crossing the equator while doing so—we arrived off the north coast of Ascension Island at 4 p.m. on Oct. 16. Because it was late in the day, rather than landing our group of seventy passengers at the small town of Georgetown, we instead launched the Explorer’s fleet of Zodiacs and cruised around Boatswain Bird Island, a volcanic stack off the northeast corner of Ascension. This was an interesting excursion, especially for the birders on board (and there were a flock of them), as the guanocovered rock island was teeming with frigate birds, white and brown boobies, fairy terns, black noddies and the graceful, long-tailed tropicbirds, known locally as Boatswain birds. Ascension itself was once a great birding site, but following the 1815 introduction of cats, brought in to suppress rats that had survived and prospered after an earlier shipwreck, the island’s bird population, with the exception of the Wideawake terns, virtually disappeared. The U.K., which holds possession to Ascension, is currently sponsoring a cat and rat eradication program on the island, and it now seems likely that birds will gradually return to their old nesting sites.
In a series of lectures prior to our call at Ascension, we learned:
1. Ascension, like the Canaries and Cape Verdes, is of volcanic origin. Unlike those island groups, however, Ascension lies almost directly on the mid-Atlantic rift, and thus was formed as a result of the spreading and/or lateral faulting of two tectonic plates. Other geologic facts: There are 44 dormant craters on the island; the last major volcanic activity occurred about 600 years ago, and the possibility of additional volcanic activity remains strong. 2. Until just a few years ago, due to the presence of sensitive military installations, Ascension was off-limits to tourists. Today the island, which now encourages tourism, is used mainly for communications purposes. The U.S. Air force, for instance, operates a surveillance station and an auxiliary airport, leased from the U.K., at Wideawake Field on the island’s southwestern corner. A tracking station for Ariane rockets and a satellite communications center, both run by the U.K. firm, Cable and Wireless, and the Atlantic Relay Station for the BBC’s World Service are located on Ascension, as well.
3. The U.S. built the airstrip on Ascension during WWII so that some 25,000 planes could be flown from mainland factories, via Brazil, to the war effort in North Africa and Europe. The motto of pilots who made the flights to the small, difficult-to-locate island was, “If I don’t find Ascension, my wife gets a pension.” Navigational instruments, it seems, were a bit more primitive in those days.
4. There are no permanent residents on Ascension. Virtually all the 1,008 people (2001 census) who live on the island work there on a contract basis. The majority of these folks hail from the island of St. Helena, 700 miles to the southeast, another U.K. possession, where employment opportunities are scarce. These expatriates are known as ‘Saints.’
5. Other than arriving on a ship like the Explorer or by a private vessel, there are only two other means of getting to Ascension. The fastest method is via the bi-weekly RAF Tristar (L- 1011) out of the RAF base at Briz Norton, England, a flight that makes a refueling stop in Ascension on its way to (and on return from) the Falkland Islands. The second, much slower, way is via the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena, which makes four runs a year to the island from Cardiff, Wales. The St. Helena does make more frequent runs to Ascension from St. Helena, but, since St. Helena has no airport, it is even harder to reach then Ascension. Allow 13 days to sail from Wales to Ascension, via Tenerife.
6. Besides cats and rats, there are several other invasive threats to Ascension’s native habitat. One of the newer, more pervasive pests is that which the locals refer to as Mexican Thornbush, but which we know here in the western U.S. as mesquite, and in Hawaii as kiawe. This pesky plant seems to have developed a special attachment to Ascension, and is currently running rampant at the lower, dryer elevations of the island.
Green Mountain, Ascension’s 2,817’ highpoint, is located just a bit southeast of the dead center of the triangular-shaped island, which in itself is a mere 8-1/2 miles wide at maximum. To ascend the peak one can either hike, bike or drive (4X) up a very steep, switch-backed road to a deserted farm known as the Red Lion. From the farmhouse, which possesses a unique Swiss-like clock tower on its main building, follow a signed road as it gradually dwindles into a wide path leading east, across a ridge affording good views of the island, and then onto an increasingly steep and slippery trail, ascending into a dense rain forest. The trail becomes so slippery, in fact, that ropes have been placed along the steepest sections as an aid to helplessly slithering climbers. If you should ever decide to attempt this climb, my advice is to wear something you really don’t care about. If it’s as wet as it was the day we were there, you’ll be covered with mud by the time you return.
You’ll know you’re nearing the summit of Green Mountain when you suddenly break out of the dense vegetation at a small man-made lake called ‘The Dew Pond.’ Follow the trail around to the far side of the pond, and there you’ll find a rain-sodden summit register. The actual summit lies a few feet beyond the register, however the lush foliage makes it a bit hard to locate.
Months prior to the cruise, I had, by e-mail, arranged for Ascension’s Chief Conservation Officer, a woman named Tara (no last name disclosed), to act as my guide for a climb of Green Mountain. On the morning I was to make the climb, however, Tara decided instead to lead a large group of fellow passengers on a trail around Green Mountain, a couple of hundred feet below its summit. The upshot was that I got Dave (again, no last name given), a cabinetmaker from London, who was on Ascension as a part of a yearlong cat/rat eradication program, as Tara’s replacement. Also, because I had mentioned my impending climb to a number of fellow passengers, four additional hikers belatedly opted to join in on the summit excursion. Well, in spite of all the last minute changes, the hike worked out quite well. Everyone, I think, enjoyed the muddy adventure. Our round trip time from the Red Lion and back was about 2 hours. Although neither Dave nor Tara would accept a personal gratuity, I was able to make a donation to the conservation efforts on the island in appreciation of their kindness and consideration.
In the early afternoon, our entire passenger group reassembled at the Two Boats Club, about halfway up Green Mountain, where we enjoyed a tasty barbeque lunch. Following the repast, many of us hiked out on Wideawake Fairs, a rocky plain near the U.S.A.F. base, to view an approximate 200,000 pairs of nesting Wideawake terns (a.k.a. Sooty terns). Most of the rest of the group spent the afternoon snorkeling at Comfortless Cove, one of the few places on the island where it is safe to swim.
We returned to the Explorer by Zodiac late that afternoon (by the way, there is no pier for docking in Ascension, only a landing), to enjoy a cocktail party and dinner hosted by the officers and staff of the Explorer in honor of an array of Ascension VIPs, including the island’s resident administrator (who reports to the governor of St. Helena), the commander of the U.S. Air Force base (a surprisingly young fellow), and the captain of the Maersk Gannet, a tanker permanently moored off of the island, from which the Explorer refueled earlier in the day.
At the evening’s conclusion, after bidding fond farewells to the friendly islanders, the Explorer began its two-day voyage to St. Helena, famous as the site of Napoleon’s final exile, but also notable for the fascinating but endangered flora and fauna to be found on 2,685’ Diana’s Peak, the island’s highpoint. Tune in next time for more exciting mid-Atlantic adventures.
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