The Ascent of Etna

There were five of us traveling together at this point: myself, Eric, Alex, Mark, and Adrian. We were in Siracusa on the island of Sicily, enjoying the ancient ruins and contemplating Europe's most active volcano. Having developed a tradition of volcano-climbing earlier in our travels, we decided to climb Etna.

The transportation situation was fairly typical of Italy: there was a bus to the base of the mountain at which point one had to take a 4WD jeep to the top at a cost of almost $30 per person, the gondola having been destroyed in a recent eruption. Being the picture of Poor Wandering Students, we of course decided to walk. Smart enough to realize that we would not make it back down in time to catch the return bus, we planned to camp at the top, a feat the locals assured us was not precedented, possible, or legal. Smart enough we were not, however, to realize that at an elevation of almost 10,000 feet the top of Etna might not be the balmy 95 degrees of Siracusa. I wore shorts and a T-shirt, my friends just slightly more.

Once we arrived at the base of the mountain, we picked up some bread, cheese, and salami and began our hike to the top. It was a very pleasant 3 hour hike up the road, and the volcanic landscape provided much geologic banter. The jeeps, having choked past us, dropped the tourists off at a plateau about 500 vertical feet from the summit. Here, from a small shack, you could buy postcards, candy bars, and bottles of "Etna Fire Water", a vile concoction bearing strong resemblance to industrial strength Formula 44, cherry flavor. You could also stare at the mountain, presently ejecting huge boulders one hundred feet into the air. Hopelessly underdressed, we spent most of the remaining daylight huddled in the shack drinking Fire Water.

The proprietors of the shack, two young Italian men, were rather amused by us, especially when we stated our intention of staying the night and climbing the rest of the way to the summit the next day. They wished us luck but refused to let us sleep in their shack. Undaunted, we began building a shelter of our own against the side of the only other structure on the mountain: an abandoned and boarded-up hotel. We gathered rocks, garbage, sticks, and plastic sheeting together and constructed a completely inadequate yet rather aesthetic shanty using shoelaces and our trusty Duct Tape, without which I never leave home. The two Italians were laughing, the tourists were staring, and the temperature was dropping.

Needless to say, as soon as the last tourists left the mountain with the shopkeepers behind, waving at us snuggled not quite cozily in our shanty, we broke into the hotel. Smartest thing we ever did. Inside we found candles, blankets, pillows, and, most importantly, warmth. We set up a little slumber party in the main hall and told secrets and ghost stories while the wind rattled the boards.

In the middle of the night we all got up and went outside. The wind numbed our skin instantly and practically blew us over. The night was perfectly clear. A dense, glowing red mist covered the top of the mountain. Cascades of fiery orange sparks arced slowly from the crater and exploded on the side of the cone. A deep rumbling could be heard beneath the rush of the wind. After only a minute we could barely move and were forced back inside to thaw.

The next morning we put every blanket and candle back in its place, left the building by way of the window through which we'd entered, sealed it up again, and crawled back into our shanty just in time to smile and wave at the shopkeepers as they drove up. They were rather amazed, perhaps dismayed, to see that we'd survived.

Ever the spoilsports, they told us that in order to climb to the very top of the volcano we needed a guide. Ha ha. We slipped around back, over the railing, and began our ascent. About a hundred yards from the shack we noticed a dog following us. A very friendly dog. As is usual in such situations, the dog ignored all commands, threats, and hurled objects and refused to turn around. Eventually we caved in to its superior will and named it Guida in an attempt to satisfy the shopkeepers' demands.

The path we chose, true to my reputation, was over rolling, glassy moonscapes then STRAIGHT UP a slope of loose ash. There was, we learned later, a much easier way. As we crested the edge of the crater, everything turned bright yellow. Clouds of sulfuric gas billowed around us and large blobs of molten lava would occasionally hit the ground nearby. The crater was lost below us, a seemingly bottomless pit. We made our way around the edge towards the windward side, Guida following, occasionally glancing down into the depths. A guide and two tourists suddenly appeared out of the mist and approached us. He saw that we were alone and asked what we were doing on top. "It's OK," I said, "I'm a geologist."

After an hour or so on top, we boot-skied back down the ash in giant, leaping steps, said good-bye to the shopkeepers and walked back down the mountain, feeling dusty, hungry, and invincible. Guida followed us all the way down and we had to forcefully keep her off the bus at the base of the mountain.

Back in Siracusa we went looking for one of the restaurants in our Let's Go! As we approached it, a woman across the street called out, "Psst! Come to my restaurant!" She was one of those immense, aproned old women right out of a Ragu add. How could we resist? We were treated to four incredible courses and wine for practically nothing -- I think we were the only patrons she'd had in a while. Stuffed and satisfied, we chronicled our adventure in cartoons on one of the paper placemats. As far as I know it's still taped to her wall.

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Chez Zeus:Writing:Etna

Last modified: Sat Nov 6 12:38:12 2010
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