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Sunrise on the Pico del Teide [3718 m]

It was not my idea. I thought that this time I would finally manage to travel to the Canary Islands without winter clothes, gloves, caps, warm hiking boots, etc. But on the last week before leaving to the Winter School, I got an e-mail from Ádám, who works at the Konkoly Observatory in Budapest (Hungary), that he would really like to climb the Teide, but he needs someone to join… And of course I could not say no to such an idea :) So I even packed in my hiking sticks (the ones I bought in Andorra) along with my full hiking equipment (GPS, headlamp, etc.). This probably meant an extra 3 kilograms at least… There was only one problem at the beginning: the permit. Because you can not just walk up to the very top of Spain, you need a permit for it. As the volcano lies in a National Park, they want to protect the caldera from erosion by not letting up all the thousands of tourists, who take the cable car all the way up till 3550 meter ASL. The cable car runs from 9 AM till 4 PM, and you can apply for a permit online for these hours. Also, if you sleep in the Altavista refuge (at 3270 m ASL), then you can go and climb the peak – if you leave the restricted part before 9 AM – with a stamped document which proves your previous stay in the hut. Now, to make it complicated, we planned to make the climb during the night, but without sleeping on the mountain, so it was not clear how to proceed. I tried to get information from the National Park (via e-mail), but with no success. We had no 100% secure information on Saturday morning, less than a day before the planned ascent, so as a last idea, we went to the info point of La Laguna, where we asked the lady – who gave us the guided tour in the city an hour earlier :) – to find out what do we need to do. It turned out (after she spoke with someone and mentioned that two astrophysicists wants to climb the peak ;D), that we can go without a permit, if we leave the peak before 9 AM. We were really happy about this!

We spent the rest of the day with shopping (food and drinks for the climb), and – as I already told about it yesterday – with a scenic ride through the Anaga Mountains. Then Ádám went to sleep early (he is not crazy, I should have done the same, but you know, I am crazy :D), and I went for dinner (and had one of the best pizzas of my life in a very nice restaurant). My original plan was to sleep at least three hours, but at the end, I only managed 40 minutes… So you can imagine how painful it was to get out of the bed at 1 AM… So after a long and quiet drive to the National Park, we parked the car in the parking place at 2350 m ASL at 2:15, and started the hike at 2:30 (five hours before Sunrise), under the light of the magnificent full Moon.


It was so bright, we could have walked all the way up without headlamps. The route was very easy during the first 4.5 kilometers, meandering through volcanic ash, sand, and rock formations, and the “real thing” started after this part, somewhere at 2750 m ASL. Then the next 3.5 km brought more than 800 meter of elevation gain, on a steep, but not at all technically difficult path (no use of hands needed) through the frozen lava-flows of the Teide. The only difficulty was the less and less air to breath, so we became quite slow above 3000 meter. Luckily, we had a lot of time, so there was no reason to rush. Then there was a ~700 meter long almost flat section leading to the mountain station of the cable car at 3550 meter ASL, where the restricted path started towards the peak. Of course at this hour there was no one at the checkpoint asking for permits… The last half kilometer with more than 150 meter of elevation gain was really slow, and steep. The Moon was (still) surrounded by a full halo ring, and we started to smell the sulfur gases of the volcano. We arrived at the very top at 6:35. We were not the first ones to arrive, but far not the last ones either. And we were the only ones who started from the parking place, and not from the refuge… It was very cold on the peak (which is the highest side along the rim of the crater), somewhere around -5°C with strong winds, so it felt like -20°C…

We took cover between the rocks, but it was far from perfect. It was so cold, that I had to put on another top layer (a thermal ski underwear), but to do so, first I had to get rid of everything from my upper body except the my T-shirt… (For the best effect, I should have put on the ski thing as the very bottom layer, but getting of the T-shirts was really not an option at that moment.) Man, the 10 seconds I had to stand there like that was terrible. By the time I was finished with this operation, I really did not feel the end of my fingers (as I had to get my gloves off too, to be able to change clothes). Luckily with everything back on, the situation started to feel much more comfortable.


At this point, the dawn was already underway, coloring the sky above the eastern horizon with shades of blue, yellow, orange and red. After waiting three quarters of an hour, the Sun started to rise, casting the shadow of the mountain towards the island of La Palma.


As the Sun climbed higher on the sky, the triangular shadow became more prominent, and covered the sea between Tenerife and La Palma. The other hikers left the harsh peak as fast as they could after they all made their pictures, but we stayed much longer.


It was so beautiful, that I wish we could have stayed even longer. And – to say something positive about the freezing cold wind -, finally the Hungarian flag flew as a flag always should! It was also very interesting to see the gases coming up from the crater…


At the end, we started the descent after one hour and 15 minutes on the peak, and we left the restricted path behind 30 minutes before the deadline.


The walk down felt very long and tiring, but now – thanks to the daylight – we could at least see the surroundings too :)


The view was of course magnificent, with the whole (visible) world below us. I especially like the reflection of low clouds on the mirror of the sea…


The last kilometers seemed like an endless walk in the desert, it was hot, dry, and sand all over the place.


We arrived back to the car 9 hours and 30 minutes after we started the climb. I was so tired (after 1400 meters of elevation gain, several hours spent above 3000 meter, and basically no sleep for 30 hours), that I did not manage to stay awake while Ádám drove us back to the Hotel. Luckily he did :)


It was a wonderful climb, highly recommended! (GPS details here.)

Winter School on Tenerife – 1st week

I am not really in the mood of bloggin’ these days, but I don’t want to forget everything (and I still enjoy looking back at old posts, and I want to look back to these things later on), so I will make myself write something. It is just difficult to sit down and start writing, when you have so many other things to do. Anyway, let’s do it :) So Steven and I left Leuven at 5 AM on a rainy and cold Saturday morning (13th of November), with the hope that we would be on Tenerife already that afternoon, one day before the start of the winter school. This plan failed already before take-off, as the Spanish air-traffic controllers decided to screw with thousands of travelers, for a higher salary and better work-conditions (I guess). And only the pilot was brave enough to tell us the truth, because on the airports, the official explanation was bad weather (which was clearly not the case in Madrid). So we had to wait two hours at the gate (I had to buy a book to read – and for your information, the reading failed because I did not sleep anything on the previous night), one hour in the airplane but still on the tarmac, before we finally took off. It was granted at that point, that we would miss our connection in the Spanish capital, but what really came after we landed in Madrid, was beyond our wildest expectations.


We had to queue for more than three hours to exchange our tickets (meanwhile watching two other planes leaving to Tenerife), because there were only 3 people behind the IBERIA information desk, dealing with half of all the delayed people on the whole terminal… At the end, we got a ticket for the following morning, and we were taken to a hotel in the outskirts of Madrid… Strangely enough, the dinner was in an Asian restaurant. So on the next morning we had to get up at 6 AM, and catch the flight after a quick breakfast in the Starbucks of the airport. I do not know if only because of the delays, but our plane was an Airbus A340-600, the second biggest plane of the Airbus company (following the new A380), so I was happy :) It even had a tail-cam broadcasting live from the top of the tail ;) So at the end, we arrived to our hotel in La Laguna 37 hours after we left Leuven. Still in time for the welcome drinks. We even managed to get Belgian beers in a pub during the evening, so we knew we were safe from then on.


The school part of the XXII Canary Islands Winter School of Astrophysics was – most of the time – interesting, you can find all the presentations on-line, if you need to know more, but I will not write about this here. For me, the school was a very good opportunity to get to know a lot of young researchers and professors from the field. As we were together for two weeks, it was not a hard task. So from now on, I  will cover only the social events, not the science.


On Monday evening, we visited a local wine cellar, and after a walk through the cellar and the production area, we had a dinner there. It supposed to be a wine tasting event with some food, but it turned out to be a dinner, with one red and white wine only… On Tuesday, we went to the IAC headquarters. I do not really have anything to say about that, except that the big engineering room was cool. The buffet dinner was not (but this is the only negative thing I can say about the IAC).


Wednesday was lecture-free (we had four 90 min lectures every “workday” – except Wednesdays), but we had to get up early, because we flew to La Palma to visit the Observatory there. Flying such short-distances with these small planes is like taking the bus. Our schedule was very tight, so we did not have too much time at different points, but at least we saw a lot.


We visited the following telescopes: MAGIC, GTC (finally, I made it – yes, this is a reference to the afternoon, when I overslept the visit in October), WHT, and the TNG (follow the links for videos!), plus we had lunch and coffee at the Residencia, and 15 minutes at the Roque de Los Muchachos. We had perfect weather (with cool cycling sunglasses on :D), so the road up and down was also really nice (for those who did not sleep in the bus al the time :D). Before catching our flight back, we had 20 (!) minutes to walk around Santa Cruz. Did I already mention, that we had a tight schedule? :D


Thursday and Friday was nothing special (lectures – oh, and I got a very positive referee report on my submitted paper!), then on Saturday after a guided tour around the center of La Laguna (video here) we rode through the beautiful Anaga Mountains in the Northeastern part of Tenerife (video here), and we went shopping for the next day, which I will cover in my next post soon :)


To be continued…


Sorry for no posts recently, but I am very busy. To fill in the gap, please watch the presentation below (given by my supervisor) if you are still not familiar with the field of my research. I will write in detail about the past two weeks (the IAC Winter School) as soon as I can. Stay tuned, and check out the pictures in the meantime.

Night 7-11 at the Mercator Telescope

These were the last nights at the telescope, but let me just pick the most important memories from these days, because I completely lost track of time by the end of the observing run. First of all, about the weather: we had only one night, when I did not have to keep one eye on the satellite picture or the full-sky webcam of the nearby Liverpool telescope, but at least we could open the dome on every night (though the last one was again quite crappy). I am very happy that the students were here, because after three weeks in the night rhythm, I got a “bit” tired, and I really needed company, to stay in a good mood. There were obvious signs, that my biological clock stared to break down. First of all, on Thursday we had a visit to the largest single optical telescope of the world, the GRANTECAN, but I did not manage to get up at 4 PM after a very long night, so I missed it… Then some days later (on Saturday), I slept over (this way sleeping 11 hours) and missed dinner (so no warm food that day…), so I had to ride up to the telescope in the moonlight, under the Milky Way (which was – beyond any question – extremely cool). Luckily this did not result in lost observing time, as the students and the teachers were up already. (Yeah, normally I was the first up at the telescope around 7:30 PM, and I was the last to leave at 9:30 AM…) I am sure that knowing that they were around gave a false secure feeling to my subconscious, because I know if I had been alone, this would have never happened. On Friday, we visited the 2.56 meter Nordic Optical Telescope – see the video below. The size of the dome is extremely small for such an instrument (I think the 1 meter RCC telescope in Hungary has a larger dome)… And the whole building rotates, not just the dome ;)

In the second half of the night, when the humidity was again too high to continue with the observations, I held a quite long stargazing session with the “small” Dobson-telescope to the students (and the teachers also ;D). We saw the Andromeda galaxy, the Triangulum galaxy, the Orion nebula (which was really like on the pictures), Jupiter with its dark band and the shadow of Io, etc.


Then on the morning we went to watch the sunrise, and the clouds moving low across the ridge of the caldera (where I sat hundreds of meters above nothing – thanks to Lena for the picture). We spent there at least one hour, as it was truly spectacular. We could even see our own shadows on the clouds, then – while riding down to the residencia – a full rainbow circle too :)

Then Saturday night was perfectly clear, but I was so tired, that although I finally had time (as I did not have to check the clouds every 5 minutes, and the students were able to observe without my help most of the time by the end of their stay), I could not work on my paper at all… :( But at least I managed to finish processing the pictures from my spring observing run (so they will be on my flickr gallery as soon as I manage to get a proper internet connection – as there is something wrong with the web these days here…). Before sunrise, I went out to walk a bit under the perfectly dark sky filled with thousands of stars (something you do not have in Belgium), and as soon as my eyes got used to the darkness, I realised that the triangle of the zodiacal light is perfectly visible above the eastern horizon! This was the second time that I have seen it in my whole life, but this was the first time that I managed to take a proper photo of it :) (The lights in the distance are cities and villages on Tenerife!) Then on the morning, there were absolutely no clouds down above the see, so we could see the shadow of the mountain on the see itself – also for the first time. And I had the fastest downhill ride of my stay ;D (Faster than the students with the car…)


The last night was just long and tiring, with lots of high clouds, and almost no observations made. I am happy that I can switch back to the normal day-rhythm now, because I barely saw the Sun in the last three and a half weeks, and I am extremely tired now (so I really do not understand how did I manage to break my record riding up to the observatory after dinner – maybe the students passing me while waving and horning from the car helped :D).

So this is the end of my observing runs on the Canaries, and although it was much more tiring than my spring run on Mercator (hence I am much more exhausted at this point – so writing in English is not that easy anymore), I am still an observer, and I will be happy to take another observing run next spring, or as soon as I can after the winter is gone. But now I really start to miss things from Belgium; the colleagues and friends, the chocolate, proper fries (!!!), good brown beer, my studio (it is going to be so cold when I arrive home), the flat cycling route along the Dijlekanaal, just the streets and atmosphere of Leuven, and so on. So it will be good to be back. But now I will have some holidays at see level first, which I will use to rest and cycle (I do not know yet how am I going to do these two things together, but we will see). And I MUST spend some time on my paper (still the comments of the co-authors) in the next 36 hours, because I want it to be finished before I take the taxi down to Santa Cruz, to save myself from the stress… Honestly, I thought it would be finished by now, but I had much less energy in the last week than needed (and originally expected). But first of all, I have to sleep. A lot.

Night 4-6 at the Mercator Telescope

I finished 10 minutes before the start of the twilight on night 3, so as I had no targets which could have been observed in such a short time, I decided to turn the telescope towards something visually stunning to create a proper outreach (PR) picture for our Institute, and the Mercator Telescope. The result is shown below :) The idea that we should release something like this once every month is supported by the staff at the telescope too, so that’s the reason why I made such a labelled version.


My last lonely night turned out to be much more busy than planned, as the students from Leuven and Amsterdam were already at the observatory that evening. So while I was observing, they had their project presentations in the control room, which in one hand was quite interesting, but on the other hand, I could not work on my article… (I have to admit I have serious problems concentrating on it here.) The night itself was not the best, we had a lot of cirrus clouds (creating an amazing sunset – see below), and the seeing was also not that good. Then I had to close the dome for the last hours, because the clouds came up again… Even with far from optimal conditions, I managed to observe almost all the targets of the program, so it is OK.


The first night of the students brought the worst weather I have ever seen until now on La Palma, as it was raining all night long. Luckily we got an invitation to visit the William Herschel Telescope, so after they got an introduction into image processing with IRAF, we left Mercator, and walked to the nearby WHT. Yeah, walking was my idea, as it was not raining at all, and the distance is only 400 meter. (Of course, on the way back it was raining, so we got completely soaked, but it was “fun”…)


The WHT is really huge (for scale, look at the monitor in the bottom right corner), it has a mirror diameter of 4.2 meters. Mercator feels a bit smaller since we saw this :S We got a short introduction to the research done with the WHT, and a tour around the telescope itself. We even got a chance to take pictures of ourselves in the main mirror :) It was really impressive. The clouds and I stayed until sunrise (the students went down to sleep at around 3 AM), too bad that I am only productive in the last hour of the night. I guess this messed up day/night rhythm is not really good on a long term… Anyway, I still love observing.

Tonight we have good weather, so the students can finally work according to their projects, but I need to help them with the system and to give advice about exposure times, etc. It is almost continuous supervising. So the progress of my work will not be fast… But at least no one can say now that I am not taking my part from the teaching duties. Honestly, I like the role of the support astronomer very much :)