A Windy Experience – Climbing Mount Etna
In late April this year, I took a day trip to Mount Etna. It was kindly gifted to me by the owners of Ostello Del Plebiscito in Catania, as i’d been working for them the previous couple of months in exchange for a bed.
The trip was with EtnaExperience who are the guide group of choice for most visitors to the mountain. A lot of people arrive in Catania solely for climbing Mount Etna. Investigating this active volcano that hovers in the background of the city is a must do, and it is easily reachable from Palermo, Taormina, or Syracusa. The locals love the mountain too, and will chat happily with you about the special geology that surrounds them.
The EtnaExperience guide picked me up from the hostel, and lucky for me there were only two other people in the group, a nice couple from Australia. First we drove up to the base hut of the mountain, to get on thermals and gloves. The other guy on the tour, Marty, insisted we try some of the alcoholic ‘Fire of the Volcano’ before we set off. It was strong and fiery stuff, much like cinnamon AfterShock if you’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting that (extreme sarcasm).
As we climbed the loose volcanic-rock paths to visit various craters and enjoy the views, the guide stopped occasionally to tell us about how the mountains are formed, the different rocks and fauna, and the history of Catania and Etna’s eruptions. The history of Catania and Etna are closely intertwined, with the coastal half of Catania being built on land formed by lava flows, and parts of the city being destroyed by eruptions in the past. Gorgeous blue skies combined with fluffy white clouds and twisted rock formations to give postcard views everywhere I looked.
Mount Etna has a total of 17 craters, falling along a straight line from the top of the mountain towards the sea. Most of them are inactive, produced by ‘explosive’ eruptions, which are characteristically blocked by extremely dense rock on top once they have erupted. Our tour gave us time to head upwards to check out 3 different craters, although there was a very strong wind to battle that day. The guide pointed out the different rocks from the volcano; yellow rocks with high sulfur content, red rocks with high iron content, and brittle black rocks from very recent eruptions.
Despite temperatures down near the coast regularly hitting 22 degrees celsius and higher for over a month, the roads up to Etna had only just reopened after a fortnight-old 3 metre snowfall. There were lots of eager tourists! But the day was still too windy for the Gondola to run, normally transporting you 500m higher up the mountain. The views were spectacular anyway, and if you’re ever in the area, don’t hesitate when you think about climbing Mount Etna from the sunny comfort of Catania.
Just as the threat of clouds started to close around us, we left the volcanic trails to see the tunnels carved into the landscape by hot flowing magma. The most recent eruption from Etna that caused serious worries was just over 15 years ago, and evidence of the flowing molten rock is clear all over the mountainside. However this was a relatively small eruption, with magma moving slowly at 10-15 kilometres per hour, and left minimal damage. In comparison, the magma flow at Pompei is predicted to have travelled at 400 kilometres per hour!
So our last stop of the day was the strange other-worldly cave, formed from the weak brittle remains of magma flow being eroded by water over many years. This cave was found accidentally by workers, and is accessed by an unceremonial opening at the roadside. Its undulating roof shows how the magma pushed its way through the land, and had an ebb and flow just like that of a river.
It was a great day out, high over the fantastic city of Catania, and a pre-return picnic was a perfect finale! Our guide produced individual cartons of local wine and some traditional Sicilian Cipolline (delicious pastry, with ham, cheese, onions and passata). Molto Grazie Etna Experience, and my friends at the Ostello!
If you want to take a day trip up Mt Etna too, the hostel currently has a package deal (on their home page) for two nights in a dorm, breakfast, and the full day trip, at only €88 per person. Recommended!