Up close and personal with Mt Etna in Sicily

Last week we arrived in Sicily, and yesterday we climbed Mt Etna. It was such an amazing experience that we wanted to share it with you right away.

I have wanted to come to Sicily for a long time. Probably more accurately, I wanted to visit the Sicily of my imagination—formed from accounts of ancient Greek and Roman expeditions and from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s descriptions of life and villages in mid-19th century Sicily in his novel The Leopard. There likely are scenes from The Godfather mixed in there too. (Although I never saw the movies, I did read the book as a teenager.)

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Italy over the years. My first visit was a work trip to Rome in 1993, and in 1995 I took three weeks to poke around the Ligurian coast and Tuscany. Since then, I’ve returned to Rome for short visits several times, including separate trips with our daughter Elise and our son Dylan. Visiting Naples and Pompeii in 2010 with Dylan was very special, among other reasons because Dylan used his expensive college education in Classics to explain what we were seeing. That visit sparked my desire to learn more about Ancient Greece and Rome, and Dylan obliged by giving me an extensive reading list, which I have been making my way through.

Most of my time in Italy, however, has been on a bicycle in the north—the hills of the Veneto region north of Venice. Coming annually to Italy for the last 15 years to go biking with my friend George, I’ve fallen in love with the country. Happy birthday, George, and many thanks to you and friends at the Locanda Montegrappa in Borso Del Grappa for all the good times! Here’s a website for George’s unique cycling camp.

After all these years it was time to go south—to Sicily, the sunny island at the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, just beyond the tip of Italy’s boot.

So Lorrie and I decided to spend a month in Sicily this autumn, avoiding the hot summer and high tourist season. It’s a big island (about the size of Vermont), so we decided to focus our time only on the eastern side, much of which is dominated by the presence of Etna, the active volcano in the northeastern corner of the island.

I think this is the first time I have really thought about Etna. But now it is omnipresent. The apartment we’ve rented for the first half of our visit has an enormous terrace that looks up at Etna, just 20 miles away. If you look the other way, you can see the shining sea—the Gulf of Catania, which separates Sicily from the Italian mainland. Every day, and throughout the day, Etna is constantly changing, reflecting the light, and creating its own weather, sometimes disappearing completely behind the clouds. It’s a great show.

Climbing Etna

Etna’s eruptions are the stuff of legends. They have been described by ancient poets and playwrights, and the volcano is still very active. There have been over 130 eruptions in the last 200 years alone. The most recent were in 2001-2002, 2007, and 2015.

The first time we saw Etna from the terrace of our apartment there was a big head of steam and gas rising from the top. Beautiful, but yikes! According to the Blue Guide for Sicily, the 1928 eruption obliterated the town next to ours. And to add to the excitement, shortly after we arrived in our apartment we received an unusual email from AirBnB vaguely alluding to the “situation” in Sicily and advising that we follow guidance from the Italian civil protection department and seek advice from our host.

We weren’t aware of any local situation, but we recalled how my brother got caught unaware on his honeymoon at a beach house in Cozumel, Mexico, during hurricane Wilma in 2005. So I consulted Google…and turned up a terrifying news article about Etna sliding into the sea more quickly than previously thought, which will likely cause tsunamis and other calamities. Yikes! It’s just 20 miles from us, and we’re directly between the mountain and the sea. Should we cancel this part of our trip? Would we get a refund for the apartment? As we read further, wide-eyed and sweating, it became clear that disaster is probably not imminent; the academic paper that prompted the article conjectured that we have at least 10, 100, or maybe even 100,000 years to escape. For now, we considered this to be a crisis narrowly averted (la crisi è stata evitata strettamente, as I’d say to practice my compound tenses in Italian). And, we decided that this probably was not what the AirBnB folks were warning us about.

After a bit more poking around in the news we read about flooding nearby from recent rains. Maybe this is what AirBnB had in mind? In any case, I’ve signed up for Twitter alerts from the Italian civil protection department.

Reassured for now that we didn’t need to abandon our perch at the foot of Etna, we decided to climb the mountain instead, signing up for a full-day guided tour. Being an active volcano, Etna is ever-changing, and currently, it rises almost 11,000 feet from the sea. Roads climb over halfway up, so we drove to 6,000 feet. Then we took a cable car to 8,200 feet and a special 4WD vehicle to 9,500 feet. From there, it’s all by foot. We were sorted, first by whether we were paying by credit card or with cash, then by language, into one of four guided groups of about 20 people each. It was then that we realized we were actually going to go all the way to the rim.

Our guide led us very, very slowly up the flank of the mountain. We could feel the effects of the altitude, and I suppose our slow pace was intended to keep the group together. We were mostly walking on black volcanic sand, pebbles, and rocks, but we also crossed sections of snow and ice. Although it was about 70 degrees at the foot of the mountain, the temperature at the top was near freezing and very windy, so we progressively bundled up in our warmest clothes.

As we climbed we kept hearing terrific booms from the crater above us, which inevitably made me look up quickly so I might be able to avoid any falling debris, which our guide called “bombs.” We didn’t see any on our climb, but we all dutifully wore our helmets anyway. Our guide said that bombs were falling just the other day. When I looked up, I mostly saw thick clouds of escaping steam and gas.

As we neared the crater, bits of gritty ash got in our eyes and mouth, and the smell of sulphur was overpowering, burning our nostrils, lungs, and eyes. We did our best to wrap our faces against it—which helped only a little. Lorrie had brought her buff, and I used a favorite scarf given to me on my last day at the Inter-American Foundation by a colleague who had served in Afghanistan. (Thanks Brian!) Hours later, our eyes still burned and our throats were still scratchy from the noxious gas.

Looking into the crater was an other-worldly experience. It seemed to be about 200 feet across, and deeper than we could see. There was lots of steam, which our guide told us was 80 percent water vapor. The rest is mostly sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide. (Later, we met a Costa Rican volcanologist who was part of a team using a drone to take air samples from the plume. He told us that the composition of the gases changes day to day.)

A strong gusty wind added its whistling voice to the booms and hisses of escaping steam. Despite the racket and the feeling that we were teetering on the edge of an abyss—which we were—our guide assured us that there was no danger because this crater was not throwing out bombs or lava at the moment.

Here’s a video: Click here

This is probably a good time to mention that while from afar Etna appears to have a single, classic crater, it in fact has several craters and vents, which again are changing all the time. As we descended on a long circuitous route to return to the cable car station, we walked on ground that didn’t exist until 2002 or 2015. We peered into other perfectly shaped craters and vents that had contributed lava flows to the mountain in the last 20 years. At one point, our guide directed me to put my hand into a small hole to feel the heat of rocks that are still warm to the touch, 15 years after the last eruption at that spot. Over and over, he pointed out the lava fields from the eruptions that have occurred since he began guiding 17 years ago. Each year, after the ski season ends—yes, you too can ski on an active volcano!—new roads and trails have to be made to adjust to the changing landscape.

By the time we reached the cable car station we were exhausted. Yes, the hike had been physically demanding at high altitude and on unstable ground (glad we had our hiking poles!), but it was the psychological impact that was most draining. I’m not sure I can explain it. We’ve both been on volcanoes before, and I’ve even peered into a sulphur-belching crater in Nicaragua (no, I’m not talking about Daniel Ortega), but the scale and latent power this time was much different. Our guide claimed that even if the lava had been flowing, we were not in any real danger of anything other than a sprained ankle or other ordinary hiking mishap. But walking on solid ground that simply didn’t exist two or twenty years ago is somewhat mind-bending…as is thinking about the inevitable continued growth and eventual collapse of the mountain. Our guide pointed out where the volcano collapsed 8,000 years ago, creating a giant caldera (called Valle Del Bove). A more recent collapse, 2,000 years ago, is now mostly filled in by a new volcanic structure that grew on top of it.

While we’re used to thinking of “geologic time” spanning millions of years, Etna’s time scale seemed to be happening at warp speed. Thinking about it made my head hurt. Or maybe it’s the sulphur dioxide….

We’ll be posting some catching up blogs from Croatia and Slovenia soon, as well as more from Italy. We’ll be in Sicily for a couple of weeks more, and then we’ll do a deep dive in Rome for three weeks. We’re back in the US in early December and then off to more adventures before we wrap up our journey and have a go at settling down again.

6 thoughts on “Up close and personal with Mt Etna in Sicily”

  1. Wow! You’re so adventurous. Love reading your blogs. I can vicariously experience you adventures. Thanks, Dick & Beverly

  2. Bob, what happened to my comments? I said I am glad to have read your new blog as I was concerned when I got your WhatsApp . Glad you two vagabonds are okay. Love you, MOM

  3. I feel so much better now reading of your Mt. Etna ‘hike’. Some hike!! It explained what you wore on your face in the WhatsApp you sent. You dare devils. Your blog is most interesting and as I said, I feel much better knowing you are okay and what the hike was all about.
    Love you. Keep safe. MOM

  4. Very reassuring to be told that it was not throwing out bombs!!

    Gives one a lot of pause to be wearing a bomb injury prevention helmet….?

  5. Very fun read! We were in Sicily several years ago but didn’t climb Mt. Etna. Our destination was actually a small town right next to it, Cesaro, which is where Jim’s grandfather was from. It was delightful, perched on the side of the mountain–have you seen it in your travels?

    Have fun with the rest of your trip!

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