Climbing Mount Etna: The Hottest Ticket in Sicily
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October 11, 1998: "Spectacular Strombolian activity resumed at SE crater. Glowing pyroclastic material was thrown over 700 feet into the air, and a lava flow stretched 2300 feet down the eastern flank of the new SE crater cone. This activity was easily viewed from towns on the eastern coast of Sicily."

(Smithsonian Institution's Preliminary Notices of Volcanic Activity)

You probably know that Europe's highest and most active volcano has been acting up fairly regularly for the last two years. I was treated to wonderful nocturnal fireworks when I spent a night in Taormina last July, and the above-described misbehavior occurred just a week before I returned two autumns ago. Now, I am not in any way a mountain climber or a volcanologist. I'm not even a particularly athletic person and I never had a mineral collection as a child. Yet I have a color photograph of Mt. Etna on my wall. Taken from the space shuttle, it clearly shows the dazzling blue Mediterranean, the lizard-like slopes of the mountain, and a blue plume of smoke rising straight up into the stratosphere. Somehow this ancient natural wonder has wormed its way into my subconscious and cast its spell as it has been doing to writers and explorers for two millennia. Three decades after I first laid eyes on its snow-capped summit, which by optical illusion seems to hover above the horizon behind Taormina's amphitheatre, I finally gave in last October and allowed myself to be grafted onto an "expedition" going to the highest point possible.

We began our journey from Taormina, leaving the autostrada at Fiumefreddo, heading west to Linguaglossa and then south along the base of the mountain. At the lowest altitudes, barely above sea level, Mount Etna is blanketed with citrus groves. Their shiny dark green leaves, bright orange and yellow fruit stretch as far as the eye can see. If you look carefully you'll often spot the ancient irrigation systems that are largely out of use now because they require so many man hours. They consist of a network of channels - hewn from lava of course - which snake back and forth under the trees on the terraced slopes. At the top of each system is a very large round tank (some farms use them as swimming pools nowadays). Water is gathered in these tanks and then, once a week, it is released into the channels. At the entrance to each level of terracing, a tiny "door" can be raised or lowered: when it is lowered it forces the water to spill out of the channels on the level above, flooding the ground around each tree. It takes several workers an entire day to irrigate a grove this way, because they actually have to create tiny levies that confine the pools of water to make it seep into the ground instead of running off. Traditionally, each farm watered once a week, with workers rotating from property to property. Local farmers still swear by this method, which soaks the tree and then allows it to dry out, but most of them are forced by the high costs of labor to use the new "drip" method, which mechanically delivers a steady stream of water to the plants every day of the year. The old systems are still in place though, and we had fun trying to spot their lichen-covered sides amidst the tall grass growing beneath the trees.

Our bus roared through the narrow, lava-paved streets of Linguaglossa, slowing down just enough for me to see two local men squatting in front of the church. Each man wore the year-round "uniform" of the small-town southerner: wool slacks, cotton dress shirt, knitted vest, wool sports jacket that looked very old, very beloved and about a size too small, and what my grandmother used to call a "Sunday-go-to-meeting hat." They were bent over a pair of large woven baskets, which immediately drew the attention of all the other men in the square. As we lumbered past I caught a glimpse of the baskets' contents: about three dozen freshly picked wild mushrooms.

After that we turned and started climbing upward, almost immediately leaving the semi-tropical climate behind. For a while we drove past a host of apple orchards, pistachio and hazelnut groves, and vineyards where they had just finished harvesting the grapes used to produce the local Etna wines (they just acquired the prestigious DOC designation, by the way). Few sites are prettier than a vineyard in autumn, and these were made even more picturesque by the 18th-century homes of the aristocratic families that had originally planted them. Many of these manor houses are now abandoned, but no matter how sadly they may have deteriorated, their grand double staircases, pedimented windows, ornate fountains and elaborate tiled roofs paint a very clear picture of what life was like here in the days of Lampedusa's The Leopard. The villas of Etna possess a special characteristic I have never seen elsewhere in Italy: their walls are colored in shades of azure blue, cotton candy pink and pistachio green. Against the backdrop of the wine-colored grape leaves and the elephant-grey volcanic earth, bathed in the hot Sicilian sun and backed by the low-flying clouds of crater steam, well.... It could make just about anyone consider spending a few months in this neck of the woods.

It seemed to me that the villages we passed through had recently acquired a fair degree of prosperity: they were still little more than a minuscule grid of narrow streets lined with vestigial sidewalks and modest two-story houses where laundry adorned the balconies, but they were all clean, the shop windows looked inviting, and cellphones were everywhere. In each small sunny square stood a church or municipal palazzo made of lava. The soft grey consistency of the stone reminded me of the best flannel, and the pilasters and window frames of beige Siracusan marble resembled piping on a very good, if old-fashioned, suit jacket. You could tell this was a real provincial backwater, but it looked like people were living a very enjoyable lifestyle here, just a few steps off the beaten track.

Our bus stopped briefly outside Zafferana Etnea to let three members of our group dismount. They set off on foot, taking an old mule track which led up the hill between two dry-stone walls. That evening they told us they had walked first through live oak groves (past one specimen reputed to be 800 years old), then through ancient chestnut stands, then on to pine forests and finally to the edge of the Bove Valley. In front of them stretched what most of us probably envision when we think "volcano": a barren field of chocolate-brown lava (it looks like brownies, actually) riddled with dormant vents, lava streams, caves, sand channels and layers of volcanic ash. As formidable as it sounds, it is actually what has saved the villages on this side of the slope for centuries, because lava flows are absorbed by it before they reach human dwellings.

We saw Bove Valley from a distance, towering above the densely cultivated base of the mountain as we left the wineries behind us and plunged into the forest, where the ground was littered with huge ripe chestnuts. The slightly bitter perfume of their roasted cousins had permeated the air in the towns we'd driven through. A different smell filled the air up here though, and soon I spotted its origin: a pyramid of thick branches with smoke emitting from a hole at the top: a homemade charcoal kiln! The charcoal profession requires men to live in the forests for months at a time, gathering branches and slowly reducing them to blackened chips in a smoldering pit. I thought it had died out long ago, but there it was, still being performed exactly as in the Dark Ages.

There was little time to think about that though, because almost at once we emerged from the forest and saw a most breathtaking site. It was a series of lava fields, so smooth and round that they seemed to still be flowing, except that of course I knew they had literally turned to stone. And off to one side, trapped between two enormous petrified brown slabs, was an entire forest of brilliant yellow and red poplars, beeches and birches. I am sure that Mt. Etna is stunning every single week of the year, but you'll never convince me that its autumn coat isn't its most glamorous.

Within minutes we had left the warmest corner of Italy far behind. The air turned chilly and then downright bitter as the bus churned higher and higher, back and forth along the switchbacks of the deserted road that cut through the barren fields. We stopped some time later at the Rifugio Sapienza and it occurred to me that if I'd been blindfolded until now you could have convinced me this was Passo Stelvio or the Matterhorn. The moment I stepped off the bus, I was almost swept off my feet by a wind I was sure was barely milder than the one tormenting Mt. Everest. I couldn't get enough layers on my body fast enough.

Huddling together, our little group stumbled along the lip of a small dormant crater, crouching to keep from being blown right over the edge of the abyss. Only the amazing agility of the human mind could assimilate the difference between this alpine climate and the indolent Mediterranean one that we had just left behind. Almost as if to reassure myself that it was still there, I turned around and saw, stretched out below - very far below - the vineyards, the oak groves, the lively little villages, the miles of golden beaches and the myriad tiny coves. Raising my sights I saw the beautiful aerie that is Taormina, the silvery Ionian Sea and beyond it, looking close enough to touch with my own fingertips, the mountains of Calabria. If I had ever wondered what was so special about Mt. Etna, that was over now.

What had really just begun, instead, was our ascent of the volcano. Grateful to get out of the wind, we climbed into a cablecar and rode straight up for twenty minutes, observing the total silence of The Awed and The Terrified. On our way we passed a lone hiker. He stopped to peel off his parka, because despite the wind chill, the sun was as hot as on an August afternoon.

A tiny hut awaited us at 8200 feet. We raced up the wooden stairs and bellied up to the bar, eager to down a shot of the fieriest liquid they were offering. It turned out to be a bright red liqueur that lived in a bottle covered with fake lava and fluorescent flames. A sip of it was offered free of charge; after that you had to pay exorbitant tourists-trapped-on-a-mountaintop prices if you wanted more. Bolstered a bit, we filed back out into the wind and gladly paid 1 Euro each to rent a parka. Before I donned the gloves that came with it I plunged my hands into the pockets and came up with ten fingernails full of old cookie crumbs.

The next-to-last leg of this memorable journey is performed by two ancient school buses that climb another 1400 feet, their engines wheezing and screaming for breath as they trundle onward, never leaving first gear. The many hikers we passed on this lap were all stripped down to their shorts and t-shirts. When the buses stopped and we got out, we were less than a thousand feet from the true summit, the summit du jour, I should say, of Mt. Etna. A guide awaited our group, for no one is allowed to go beyond this point alone. Enrico, our guru, was probably in his fifties. He said he had been doing this work for many years. Some of the world's greatest volcanologists had become his friends. A couple of them had died in front of his eyes.

As we struggled to climb the last three hundred feet, Enrico bent to pick up something that looked exactly like a cow paddie. "Questa è una bomba," he said, explaining that large clumps of lava such as this explode out of the crater with such force that they behave like bombs. That's during an "explosive eruption." There are also "flowing eruptions," which mainly involve large or small quantities of molten goo inching down the slopes. Over the last two millennia, a few of these have wiped out entire villages. "Actually, we had one this morning!" Enrico casually admitted as he veered off to the left. We crept along behind him, still fighting the wind, and gasping a little because of the combination of thin air and volcanic fumes. I had read that scientists were using Mt. Etna to test the robots that will one day walk on Mars, because the atmospheric and geological conditions are virtually the same. Certainly this desolate landscape could have been a "dead planet." And yet, what Enrico showed us next could lead anyone to fantasize about life in outer space. He led us over to what looked like a ledge. It was about twelve inches high. Obedient pupils, we stooped exactly as he told us to do and saw it: underneath, glowing yellow and red and emitting unbelievable warmth, was the living heart of that ledge, a slow-moving river of heat that was trying to make its way down the mountain. Enrico showed us how to pick up a piece while it was still molten: you grabbed the outer crust and yanked it, and by the time you got it to the level of your eyes it had turned as cold and dead as a rock. Three of those rocks are sitting on my desk as I write this, and though they are "dead" they possess a sort of ineffable glow, as if their true nature were still alive inside them, just like the memory of that wonderful day.

Kristin Jarratt

Mount Etna Facts

There are many ways to see Mt. Etna. If you don't have a car, the easiest is to take the circumetnea train that circles the volcano's base and leaves regularly from Corso Italia in Catania. If you do it on your own, stop in at the Tourist Office in Catania, either at the train station or the airport, or in Adrano, Bronte, Linguaglossa, Maletto, Mascali, Milo, Puntalazzo, Regalna, Randazzo, Sant'Alfio, Trecastagni or Zafferana Etnea to pick up brochures, maps, hiking instructions, and to find out the present state of the volcano. Please remember that although Mt. Etna is not usually dangerous, it must always be approached with intelligence and care.

If you wish to spend a few days in the area, we highly recommend Etna Vistas B&B. Or you can monitor the volcano's activity from the nearby resort of Taormina.

A wonderfully authentic place to have lunch is La Fucina di Vulcano, an 18th-century hunting lodge outside Bronte. In the delightful setting of an aristocratic villa surrounded by lemon groves, you will taste local specialties and afterwards, take a tour of the frescoed villa. Be sure to call ahead as they are not always open: 095/693-730.

Since I climbed the volcano, two major eruptions have occured, one in the summer of 2001 and another in the fall of 2002. The restaurant where we tasted "liquid fire" is now semi-demolished, the cablecar lines have toppled, and the summit we climbed may not even be there anymore. Be sure to get updated information about this fascinating force of nature before attempting an ascent to the summit.

Kristin Jarratt

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