7 January 2000
Mt. Etna is an active volcano. It has been active for the last few thousand years. It goes through phases where it spews lots of steam and ash in occasional teeny eruptions. It also goes through times when it spews a bit of lava. I believe it has inactive times toom, but they are brief. We were fortunate enough to visit during one of the steam and ash phases.
The train ride to catnania was nice. We went across the center of the island, getting a feel for the entire area. It wasn't much different than what we had seen in the western area of the island, accept for the views of the giant steaming volcano. We had some nice views as we came to the eastern side of the island, but we could see it from a long ways away.
When you look at a topographical map of sicilia, it is hard to miss etna. It is almost on the eastern coast and it is massive. It isn't the height that is stunning on the map, it is the area of the mountain. It takes up a quarter of the island! (well, not quite) it also has lots of craters all over the place, making it hard to find the current peak and active crater. Mt. Etna's height isn't much to sneeze at either at 3323 m. despite the appearance on the map, we were still a bit stunned by the size of the volcano, but not the height! It is not an easy thing to miss. The steam constantly streaming from the top helped too. It was quite impressive.
We stayed at a hostel in a town outside of catania, on the lower slopes of mt. Etna, called nicolosi. The hostel was located a short walk from the main street, accross the street from a grocery store. We arrived on a holiday so the store was closed. The hostel didn't have a kitchen anyway though, so it didn't matter that much. We really liked the hostel. It was pretty empty when we were there. The best thing was that the main guy at the front desk was really friendly and nice and spoke perfect english, making the experiece easy.
I asked the front desk person about living on the side of a volcano. I was thinking i would be scared of the high earthquake potential. He said," lava moves really slow, it is no problem.'' I thought this was kind of an odd response. It should have been clear to me as soon as we left town the next day though.
The next day we 'did' etna. We found and boarded the bus that takes about 45 minutes to get to the southern take-off point on the volcano. As soon as we left the town of nicolosi we could see large piles of crumbly, black and grey rock almost as far as the eye could see. It was striking. This lava rock was all we could see for the bus trip as we headed upwards. It got us all excited about being on the volcano!
The bus dropped us off at this little area with 20 souvenier shops and a couple of cafes. There was also a hotel-like building there. We went to the tourist information office to get acquainted with the maps there. We were told to take the cable cars up and hike higher from there. We were warned about snow and ice and strongly discouraged from hiking up from where we were. So we started hiking from where we were.
Despite the clear skies, we couldn't see the peak from this point because of the steep slope in front of us. Every once in a while we could see the steam and ash rising from the volcano though. There was gritty ash on everything. It is much different than the ash i normally associate with mt. St. Helens, which is fine and dusty almost. This stuff was really gritty and black, and not particularly fine.
The slope we were walking up was all gravelly lava rock. It wasn't much different that trying to walk up a sand dune sometimes. So it wasn't the easiest going, but i wasn't bad. We got to the dirt road that the tour 'jeep' goes up when there isn't snow and ice at the top. We followed this instead of trying to walk on the sandy, gritty rocks. This was fairly easy going until we got to the snow patches. We were a bit worried about trying to walk on snow with our light hiking shoes, but since the weather had been nice and the volcano had been spewing ash, the snow was crusty and grit covered and was fairly easy to walk on with confidence. So up we went. Soon we were socked in with clouds. This concerned us only a little since we were walking up the road, parrallel to the cable cars and we were near the top of them. The clouds didn't give us any precipitation and didn't get too thick to see a good distance ahead. It wasn't long before we got to the top of the current big hill.
Had the skies been clear we could have seen the volcano at this point. As it was we had to settle for being able to hear the little ash and steam eruptions. We walked in the general direction of the rumbles. There we a sizable handful of people skiing in this area. It seemed odd to me. The conditions didn't seem worth it. But i thought about it later and realized this is sicily, where else are people going to ski? So they take what they can get.
After walking in the cloud toward the rumbling mountain for a while, we decided it was a little pointless without any view. So we set ourselves down for a bit to see if the view would clear for a time and we could see the volcano. We didn't have to wait very long.
Soon the clouds did clear and we got a perfect view of the volcano. We even got to see an eruption or two before the clouds obscurred our view again. it was pretty darn cool.
At this point we looked at the time and had just over and hour before we had to catch our bus back to nicolosi. I was a little concerned about making down with enough time since we were a bit tired and we couldn't risk missing the bus since there was no other way back to town. We talked it out and decided we didn't want to pay for the cable car and thought it would be much more fun to have completed our hike without the help of motorized technology.
As we set out we found a partially broken plastic sled shaped kind of like a short-handled flexible shovel. We decided to try it out (one person at a time.) it made me a little nervous because there isn't much of a way to control direction and speed on a little thing like that, but we had no cliffs to worry about so we took turns for a bit. Then we found another one! So we slid down the gritty ice and snow with our heels firmly in the ice in front of us. It was tons of fun. Sometimes with all the little rocks and unevenness of the snow we would be rattling our way down with snow slush flying in every direction in front of us. It looked like something you would see on t.v. we cruised down quickly. The semi-broken sled lasted until just the end of the snow. At that point it fell apart completely. The timing was perfect though!
We make it down to the bottom in about 20 minutes. There was one casualty of our trip though. The back of my jeans had worn through where i had been leaning back to go faster over some of the more gravelly places. The damage wasn't too bad though. I am still wearing them.
We had time to wander to a nearby crater-like rocky structure before getting on the bus back to nicolosi. Of course as we were waiting for the bus the sky was clear. We had to settle for views of the volcano from the bus as we headed home.
It was a really great mountain day!
© Copyright Cheryln Crowl 2000