After having seen the enormous volcano of Etna from the plane before touching down at Catania, and several times from a distance on my approach from the south, it is finally time to head to the volcano to actually climb it. It is not allowed to climb above 2900m without a guide, so I am forced to book a tour. Arriving the day before in Nicolosi, I climb the Monti Rossi, two small cones from the top of which I have a much closer view of Mount Etna. I am excited to go up, and do so the next morning by driving to Rifugio Sapienza at over 1900m. The weather seems great, and I see a cloud coming out of the top. After meeting my group and preparing our hike, we take the skilift, and then step into special trucks that take us to near the Torre del Filosofo, at around 2900m. We walk past the barrier you are not supposed to pass without guides, and start the hike up the slopes of this very active volcano. The going is not difficult, sometimes my shoes disappear into the pointy and sharp volcanic gravel, sometimes I am treading solid rocks, which are still sharply pointed. The trail is never steep, even though we take the "sporty" one. We stop regularly, so we can better enjoy the views, and listen to the explanations of the guides. Etna has had eruptions in its recent history which have reshaped the volcano. New craters have appeared, new lava flows have solidified. it is, indeed, one of the most active volcanoes of the world.
The guides turn out to be absolute lovers of their mountain, and tell us that they go up every day, sometimes even twice a day, just to discover more. Even after all those hundreds of ascents, every time they go up is different. They point out cones on the slopes of the volcano which weren't there ten years ago. They tell stories of how eruptions happened while they were going up. The volcano is obviously closely monitored, but eruptions can just not be predicted. We hear regular rumbles coming out of the mountain, and our guides reassuringly tell us that the more noise it makes, the less the chance of a heavy eruption. We find a thick layer of snow just below the volcanic soil. In fact, it seems that gelato was invented here: the Romans took snow from the Etna, added fruit, and consumed it. A member of another group is suffering altitude sickness: we are just over 3000m. We have pretty good views on the landscape below - very fertile grounds where lots of agriculture takes place in vineyards and orchards. Clouds are moving in fast, and when we reach the Bocca Nuova, the new crater on the west side of the massif, they block most of our view.
Standing at the edge of the crater, we see steam and gases coming out of fumaroles, with a completely white background of clouds. We wait for a short while, but there is no sign at all that things will clear, so we move on. We see sulphur on the ground, walk to more fumaroles where breathing is quite difficult: everyone is coughing. The guides joke that we are now well protected against Covid-19. There are a few seconds when suddenly the other side of the crater becomes visible, before the cloud curtain closes again. It is time to walk down: we do so in a straight line, almost running, and have our shoes full of the fine black gravel of the slopes. During a short lunch break, I watch the clouds moving over the slopes, and then we hear a loud rumble coming from the inner Etna. Unfortunately, we cannot see a thing: the summit is wrapped in a thick cloud. We walk further down, walk past recent lava streams that solidified, and through a tunnel formed by a lava stream. The guides tell us that while the outside of a lava stream cools off quite soon, the inside can stay hot for many months. The more stories I hear, the more I realise that you could come back here every day, and have a different experience, see a different side of the big mountain, and learn more of this fascinating environment. Or even go skiing in winter. After reaching the Rifugio Sapienza again, I walk up the two nearby Silvestri craters, which offer great views of the volcanic landscape with cones, black slopes with bright green vegetation dotted around. A heavy downpour starts as I am on the higher crater: a clear sign to walk down and seek shelter. Mount Etna: I will be back for more, and for a better view!
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