A short walk up Mt Etna
Trip Start Jan 25, 2007
31Trip End Jun 30, 2007
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I've been planning to climb Mt Etna for some time, and having arrived home from Matera the night before, and not being able to take the rental car back until Monday, I decide on the spur of the moment to do it next day, which is a Sunday. Another reason is that I'm not sure my motor scooter would make it up to the starting point at 1900 metres.
I have good intentions of getting away early, as it's a couple of hours drive and I don't know how long it will take to climb the mountain - Mt Etna is the highest volcano in Europe, 3340 metres
I am woken by my alarm at 7am, but somehow or another I fuss around a bit, have a shower, pack a few things (alas not enough) in my rucksack, drive down to a bar on the outskirts of town for my almond granita and ricotta pastry (my first for a week so doubly delicious - they're only made in Sicily, and actually the best are from south-east Sicily), and by then it's 10am, and I'm annoyed at myself (but not too much, because the almond granita has made me happy) because I might end up being the last person on the mountain in the dark (it's happened to me before).
Anyhow, I drive to Catania, the 2nd biggest city in Sicily with around 350,000 inhabitants - the last 2-3 kms through an aveniue of gum trees. It's got a reputation for crime and chaos but I don't have time to worry about that, as I have to concentrate on navigating my way through the city on a sunny Sunday (not an easy thing to do in old cities with narrow winding streets (mostly one-way), intersections and plazas with multiple exits, confusing street signs, and an incredible amount of impatient traffic - if you go slow so you can read street signs, or don't take off the instant the traffic lights turn to green (or a nanosecond before), everybody behind you beeps their horn.
I finally get out of Catania and head off up the mountain but progress is slow because of all the Sunday drivers
There is a cable car that will take you to around 2500 metres, and 4-wheel drives from there that take you to about 2900 metres, but I have decided to do it on foot, so I head off up the trail.
This turns out to be a steep slog through lava dust, rocks and snow for 1000 metres and a strong cold wind is blowing. Once I reach the area above where the 4 wheel drives stop I set off exploring on my own. Etna has so many craters and cones it's impossible for me to tell which is the highest. I don't have a map and according to everything I've heard you're supposed to hire a guide, but I'll be buggered (a true dinky-di Australian expression) if I'll pay 50 euro for this.
So I head blindly up the mountain, not knowing where I'm going. I have forgotten to tell you this, but you know how you're always told when you go to mountain areas you should always take warm, windproof and waterproof clothes as the weather is very changeable, well I was in a hurry this morning, and I only packed a pair of shorts, a light short-sleeved cotton shirt, and my 6 year old pair of lightweight walking boots (which are starting to come apart at the seams), for my assault on the summit
I see this large volcanic cone ahead giving off lots of steam so I decide to investigate. There is a very strong cold wind up here and I'm frozen as I trudge variously through snow, thick lava dust and volcanic rocks. There are fumaroles everywhere - fissures and holes in the rock from which hot steam emanates. I am so cold and battered by the wind I try and find sheltered spots near fumaroles so I can warm up a bit. It gets to a stage where all the muscles in my arms and hands lock up and I have great difficulty taking photos as I have no feeling in my fingers and have great trouble moving them.
I climb up scree - with every step I take I slide back so it's extremely laborious getting anywhere. Then I get to a volcanic rock area. These rocks are porous and brittle - when you step on them they move or shatter so I have to very gingerly work my way across, and if I fall will get cut badly as they have extremely sharp edges. I have what seems an ocean of them in front of me and I can see it will take me hours of intense concentration and effort up an ever increasing slope to make my way up the mountain. Clouds keep sweeping in and creating whiteouts from time to time, and the wind is making it hard to keep my balance.
So I decide I'm not going to make the summit today (I don't even know where it is), and retreat to the snow, where it's easier going
I see a group of people below and decide to follow them as I assume they are led by a guide. I am surprised by a couple behind me who catch me up and ask in English if this is the way back, and I say I don't know, I'm just following the others, and if they're lost we're all lost. The couple are actually from Verona (Romeo & Juliet's city) and I assume they talked to me in English because they think only people from northern countries would be mad enough to be at 3000 metres dressed in shorts and a cotton shirt - everybody else up here has jumpers, fleece jackets, parkas, gloves, beanies, boots, etc. They are surprised when I speak in Italian to them (through frozen lips) and say I was born in Sicily but live in Australia.
We follow the others down a path along a huge scree slope, where everytime you put your foot down it slides another 30-40cm
I drive down the mountain road that has magnificent views over the plain of Catania and the sea. It's hard to imagine that exactly the same time as I was feeling frozen, there were people sunbathing and swimming on the sea, probably no more than 15kms as the crow flies, and visible from where I was.
Down I go to the nearest mountain town, Nicolosi, with the intention of having a really good meal (I haven't eaten since breakfast). I have a particular hankering for mushrooms (which grow in the pine forests here), as about 28 years ago I had a wonderful meal here of pasta with mushrooms followed by a huge grilled mushroom that almost filled the plate and almost tasted like steak. I wander around for a while trying to decide where to eat and when I ask a couple of people in a shop where's a good place to eat, and they name Antico Orto dei Limoni, near where I've parked my car the deal is done.
As is usual in most restaurants here they bring bread and a half litre of wine (filled from a barrel nearby), and the waiter suggests what I have
My stomach is stretched to the limit (again). Just to give you an indication of cost, the foregoing was 25 euros, which is the cost of the cable car ticket, so by not taking it I got lots of exercise then splurged it on an excellent meal - this works the mind of Everard.
So there we are, that's the story of my short walk up Mt Etna - all's well that ends well.