I thought it would be tough to get up at 6AM but the excitement took over and I was running around the flat quickly after I’d opened my eyes. It was supposed to be the true day 1 of my adventure!
Surprisingly I was able to sort out the bus tickets for Parco dell’Etna very quickly and I didn’t even have to search for a platform as there was a small group of tourist already waiting for the coach. It arrived 45 minutes late.
My endless happiness quickly found its end as the weather got worse and worse the further we moved away from the city to eventually become a rainstorm and thick layered cloud cover. After around 2 hours of journey I finally arrived at Rifugio Sapienza – a small outpost with 2 sleeping bases, couple of restaurants and few small shops. It was a very convenient stop for me to drop the rucksack, restock water, and change, as it was around 10 degrees and windy outside. The owner of the Corsaro hotel welcomed me with arms wide open the moment he noticed my nationality. Realising my slight surprise he explained that he was married to a Polish woman — a choice I cannot fault.
I must mention that the hotel itself was very well maintained and I can definitely recommend it for any stay in the park. It’s a bit pricey, compared to your usual ***, but 100% worth it. Also a great base for skiing in the winter.
Anyway, it was too late for me to climb to the top and the weather was not so great either, so I decided to take a cable car to 2500m and then venture east on a less popular route, that was supposed to be equally stunning, going alongside Valle del Bove — a massive depression created after 2 Etna predecessors collapsed.
10 minutes after I left the main trail, the madness begun.
I’m sure many of you stood in a cloud at some point in your life, but on Etna it’s completely abstract experience. First of all there’s completely flat, pure black volcanic sand under your feet; not a single shade of colour. That and rather harsh conditions result in no life whatsoever. Now imagine standing in this monochromatic void, in complete silence (not even wind was audible!), barely seeing rather than feeling the cloud moving through you. I stopped, held my breath and it simultaneously freaked me out and amazed me. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a literal nothingness, but the term ‘hearing thoughts’ suddenly became very real.
It was beautiful. And eerie.
If you are at the crossroads of your life and need a place to think, some kind of isolation perhaps, I can’t imagine a better place for it. It will make you aware of yourself 10000%.
Eventually I forced myself to move forward. I must say it was rather difficult without a decent map, no path marks whatsoever, just a phantom of a trail appearing from time to time, occasionally spiced with shoe prints leading in totally random directions. If not for the compass I’d probably die there few times… In fact, thanks to this nonexistent visibility, I nearly dropped few meters down from the mountain edges! Twice! Phew…
The further I moved away from the main craters, the more the landscape changed. I could see spider webs, though no spiders (made me think Shelob from LOTR;), lone boulders and patches of yellow swamp-like plants that were stupidly difficult to pass through. After more than 1 hour I knew I was completely lost and the only thing that kept me going was the compass and a rough assumption of my current position. I had no idea how much distance I covered and eventually it proved wrong by over 2 km(;
After 3 hours of descending, the clouds finally dispersed and I could see a clearly marked path on the horizon. I was definitely not on it(; Which makes me think that I invented a new sport — volcano orienteering. Not long after reaching the trail, I ended up standing on top of an old post eruption valley. There was clearly no easy way around it, and it was already around 3PM, so decided to make it a final stop.
My joy didn’t last too long. I barely managed to have an apple and sip some water, when unexpected lightning struck at the opposite slope of the valley! I’m pretty sure I had a small heart attack at that moment.
In case you don’t hike too much, the last thing you want to face in mountains is a thunderstorm — human body containing a lot of salty water is a perfect attractor for electricity. Not even mentioning all equipment I had on me made of metal. I dropped everything as I was and rushed away, assuming pooping-girl-covering-her-head position (it actually is suggested in these situations!), praying that neither my gear nor me get a hit.
I was relieved when 10 minutes later thunders stopped, so I grabbed my backpack and followed the path down the hill towards the narrow road I could use to get to the rifugio. I was not risking this storm catching me again somewhere higher. It was a very good call as it came back soon after, exactly the moment I reached small patches of conifers… I was really asking for it, wasn’t I?
Fortunately nothing happened and I managed to reach the road and the hotel with no major adventures. When I spoke with the owner’s brother later that day, he told me that I did a very smart thing — apparently, according to the official statistics, there’re many more deaths on Etna caused by lightning hits than from lava eruptions! Blimey!
I was quite tired and since I wanted to get up at 5 next day to get as high as possible before the sunrise, I called it a day.
I got up at 5AM all right… to the sound of rain and thunders! After what I learnt the day before, I wasn’t going anywhere… I reset my mobile to wake me up 2 hours later.
At 9AM it was still British. I didn’t mind the rain much but I didn’t want to climb to 3000m with rubbish visibility. I went down to the reception to check the forecast and it wasn’t promising. The good news was that the following day was supposed to be much better. Not thinking long, I extended my stay for 24 hours, geared up and went towards southern slopes, hoping to find old rivers of lava rock.
I wouldn’t call it a wasted day, though it wasn’t as eventful as I expected. The landscape was interesting enough, it was a refreshing walk with quite a few intriguing locations, like e.g. a hut made from black rock in the middle of an old lava river, on top of a bloody cave! Not sure what is the purpose of having anything like this built in this specific location, but it definitely is a nice photographic subject.
I also managed to run away from some kind of Sicilian mini-monsoon! Nothing comparable to the real ones in Asia, but still looking scary.
I came back to Rifugio after few long hours, grabbed a bite of a cold pizza in a local bar and proceeded to the hotel. Next day was supposed to be a big one. And you could feel the tension around as there was a very high probability of paroxysm, so I could spot boys with big lenses waiting, like a bunch of panthers lurking for their antelope snack… I was also warned that the main craters were off the limits for the time being but I was still free to visit the secondary ones. Disappointing, but you either live with it or you end up as a low quality Tesco-like BBQ dish.
When I opened my eyes at 6 o’clock in the morning, I almost jumped from the excitement — no clouds! I took a hot shower, grabbed a decent breakfast, kindly prepared for me a night before by Corsaro’s staff, and took off.
It was still dark, but having my head torch on was enough to illuminate the blackness of the slope. I had 2 ways to choose from — an easy one and a much harder one, being unmarked and unused. One thing I was certain of was that I haven’t travelled that far to be a princess, so I went with the sweaty way.
It wasn’t a very long ascent, but it definitely was not a piece of cake. Gusts of stubbornly freezing, strong wind constantly tried to penetrate my 3 layers of clothes; my face was starting to stiffen so I had to rearrange my 2 Buffs to cover everything but my eyes. But it wasn’t the worst. What drove me mad was the hopelessness of the climb. You see, about half of the way up was leading through fairly vast lakes of lava sand — each step ended up with me sinking ankles deep. You think, not a problem, right? Well, then tilt it 45° and try ascending — 1 meter up means 0.75m sliding down… It was very discouraging to turn around after an hour and see that I didn’t really progress that much. If not for the hiking poles (that I still struggled with) it would probably take me much, much longer.
I was sweating like a pig when I reached Piccolo Rifugio at around 2500m — last stop before the summit. It was 8:50 and since they claimed to open at 9, I decided to wait and grab a hot drink before proceeding, but more importantly change my shell mid layer to a fleece. When you take Sicilian lifestyle under consideration, being 15 minutes late is not a bad result, and I welcomed it with a broad smile just because I was starting to feel cold with not much movement and protection from the wind. BTW, hot chocolate is the best thing to have on these altitudes!
Anyway, 20 minutes later I sealed myself up with all windblockers I had and bade the 2 very attractive hostesses goodbye. I must admit that the rest of the summit was way less challenging that I hoped for. It was adopted for the specially made minibuses, that looked a bit like lunar buggies, to transport lazy tourist to the top. I do understand the business idea and a need for such a thing, but it drives me mad when I see natural environment exploited to that extent. There should be no bloody cars allowed on mountain summits! I was passed by 5 or 6 jeeps on my way up, packed with people flattening their faces to the windows, staring at me with disbelief. Yes — I have my own legs and I can walk! I responded with a look of pity and disdain.
The views were magnificent in a very strange way — endless blackness I already knew from the previous days was now, with no clouds to contrast with it, completely dominating the landscape in every direction I looked. At around 2800m a fantastic panorama opened up to the valley on the east, with pixel-like houses somewhere on the coast. I was also when I noticed the first patch of snow.
I stopped to take few shots, pointed my camera at the summit and froze — I couldn’t see it anymore! Bloody hell, the clouds were coming back! 5 minutes later I was covered in them. The temperature dropped to just above 0°C very quickly and the visibility to 10m. It was the only time I appreciated those clearly noticeable tire marks which I could easily follow. I set my head lamp to strobe, just in case I was on a collision course with a car, not being able to hear its silent engine through furiously dancing wind.
I reached the summit not long after. If not for the barely visible shapes of the cars, I’d probably miss it and go for the forbidden craters(; It was rather disappointing experience considering that I couldn’t tell the difference between smoke coming from volcano’s shafts and the clouds passing through it. Knowing how quickly the conditions can change at this altitude I decided to wait for an hour or so, hoping for a clear patch, with a view not only on the craters but on the rest of the island as well.
After 30 minutes of waiting in now truly winter conditions, with temperature of -5°C, I spotted a volcano guide. Hoping to get some real-time forecast (there’s a station on top of the main craters) I waved a pole at him (yes, I know — it sounds wrong coming from a Pole;) and approached his leaving group. He was quite straight forward about it — he told me to get the hell out of there as there was a snow storm expected in the next hour and nobody was supposed to be there at that time. Crap.
I decided to had a quick last round along the crater edges before I go down, but it proved quite quickly not a good idea. You see, while there, the visibility completely dropped to no more than 2 meters. I could barely see the path but then… it suddenly ended. I was the last person on the summit, having a complete emptiness in front of me, walking through a small manmade stone forest, having complete lack of orientation. Sure I had a compass, but it was not going to point me to that damn path. I must say that having a vision of a potential storm coming in minutes and me standing on top of a mountain, mocking Jupiter, got me a bit of adrenaline rush. After 10 minutes of walking in circles I actually shouted ‘YES’ (it was quite muffled though, considering all the fabrics covering my mouth;) the moment I spotted the path. I was saved! Without thinking too much I rushed down.
I must say that my ascent was much more surprising than I expected. In the following hour and a half I turned back at least 20 hikers, of which only 4 were geared up while the rest were wearing bloody flip flops, trainers, shorts and t-shirts. What the Fuck, people? It’s -5 up there, super windy, potentially snowing and still a volcano with toxic gases at 3000m. What are you? British?
Yes they were… Only 1 couple from Germany. Sorry guys, I know you’re my hosts and I genuinely thank you for that, but you just keep doing these stupid things no matter what part of the world I stumble upon you…
To be fair, the last couple I advised to join me walking in the opposite direction was British and we had a very nice conversation while closing now a small pilgrimage of failed tourists.
2 hours later I turned back to look at the summit and a spark of anger jumped through my eyes. The sky was completely clear — not a single cloud up there. Sure, it lasted 10 minutes but I would so like to be there at that very moment! But, since it was too late for that, I grabbed another hot chocolate at Piccolo Rifugio and followed down to Rifugio Sapienza. This time the easy way, although taking a detour to some smaller but colourful old craters alongside.
I reached the refuge at around 4PM, noticing the return coach I was planning to take the next morning. As I wasn’t sure about the departure time, and there was only 1 bus, I decided to ask around. I found the driver playing poker with local bar’s staff and not giving a damn about my questions. Fortunately a cleaning boy (!) was kind enough to push him to give me some answers. And they were not what I hoped for. Apparently there was no morning bus, only one at 4:30PM. I was already a day behind in my schedule, so I had 2 choices — either waste another 24h or rush to the hotel, pack up and catch the bus today.
That’s exactly what I did. In fact, I managed to grab a quick shower, make a deal with the owner to give me 50% off discount on the last day, and run 100m with 22kg on my back just in time to wave at the driver ready to leave. I was on board!
You may find it ironic that later that day I got a text from Stefania asking me whether I took any good photos of the lava flowing that night! It seemed that Etna felt shy with me around and decided to erupt only the moment I left. How bloody convenient… Next time I’ll come back with explosives and make you spit fire, bitch!
You can see where I went on the map below. Perhaps it doesn’t seem like great distances, but it never is about that in the countryside. Take it slow and inhale a lot, otherwise you’ll not appreciate any of this in a way it deserves it. Trust me — I know it too well.
Finally, If you don’t care about my experiences but enjoy pretty things, feel free to click through this mini gallery, also available in on Flickr. I hope you enjoy it!
And if, by some wild chance, you just landed on this very page without knowing what the hell you are reading, I encourage you to start from the beginning!
Next part of my adventure will be uncovered in the next few days, so watch this space.