The habit of paying no attention whatsoever to official notices is not just a practice to be exercised only within the urban environment. The fun police are everywhere, and even if you find yourself headlamped up in a volcanic ash desert at 5.30am trekking up the side of Europe’s largest active volcano, it should come as no surprise if you are confronted with bullshit like this:
Volcanoes are pretty awesome things, and as such, the tourism industry has long since gotten their claws in; ‘requiring’ you to pay 60 odd euros for the privilege of plodding along in a line of national stereotypes while a ‘guide’ rattles off endless statistics all the way up the hill to make the whole thing seem worth it.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could climb up a mountain at your leisure, enjoy the poisonous gas, the deadly craters, the red hot rocks, not get stuck with huffing yanks, moany english or marching germans and get the chance to actually take responsibility for yourself? Well according to literally every single person we spoke to after coming back down, this was impossible.
We were taking a week and a bits trip up through Sicily and the bottom bit of Italy, propelled by some 15 quid ryanairs and the desire to eat good pasta and breath some sulphur dioxide. Me and my compatriot got hooked on fire breathing mountains after climbing Hekla in Iceland a few years ago, so spending some time getting busy with the big two of continental Europe made a good deal of sense.
Climbing Mt Etna is easy, you just need to be an early bird to avoid all the national park police, who will more than happily slap you with the 300 euro fine or whatever it is if you put yourself in so-called danger. We camped up on the mountain just below the tourist village thing (cunningly avoiding the extortionate day-rate parking change) and set off about 4am. The hike up is pretty chill, and within a couple of hours we reached the first smoking vent.
This is a smashing spot for breakfast as it gets pretty chilly at this time in the morning, especially if you stop – so if you dig down about half an inch you’ll find the ground is baking hot from all the lava and hot gas underneath your feet and you can wiggle your way into the sand and warm up while you eat your packed lunch.
Another nice little activity while up here is to wang a few big rocks into it. It’s VERY deep, and if you’re lucky the boulder you threw in will give it a nudge and it’ll spit back at you with a big cloud of steam (just mind your face, yeah?).
The main event though is another 2 hours hike away, right at the top of the mountain at the western crater.
We bypassed the ‘ABSOLUTELY DO NOT CROSS THIS LINE OR FINE BLAH’ sign and carried on up through a track cut between the ice. Our trek up was mildly eventful – being spotted by a couple of circling helicopters, having a near miss with a patrolling park police jeep and a distant party of camping geologists in respirator gear, who looked rather confused to see a pair of pasty white kids in jeans hiking up through the ash to the summit.
They did a lot of arm waving, but we figured ignorance was the best policy and ploughed on regardless.
The wind was in our favour and blowing firmly to the east, meaning any poisonous fumes and ash would be sent away from our direction for our final journey up the western slope.
Bit of a mission this last bit. All the ash and dust makes it a two steps forward one step back kind of affair, and when combined with the thinning air at this altitude, you start getting pretty knackered.
Even with the wind blowing in the opposite direction, the heat and sulphur pumped out by the active crater hits you like a brick wall.
At 11,000ish feet with the thin air mixed with sulphur dioxide, it doesn’t take long for the atmosphere to start wrecking your head in after you’ve stood around for too long. As magnificent as she is, I didn’t want to end up collapsing (or get taken in by one of those patrols on our descent) so after a good hour of lounging around on the warm rocks, we made our decent, eventually getting back to base camp and smugly strolling to our car (a smugness mainly fuelled by our free parking trickery rather than any smokey-hill related achievement). On our way back down, we encountered some poor Italian fellow who’d just tried the same stunt we’d just pulled with his teenage lad, being shouted at by a pair of coppers. Hope it didn’t cost him..
Hot toxic gas is all well and good, but what we were really after was some LAVA. Red hot, dangerous molten stuff being shot out of the planet at a hundred miles an hour. Fortunately , there is a place in Europe you can go and see this without having to wait for a big eruption. Stromboli is a bit of a mission to get to, but if you’re in Sicily you’d be an absolute prat not to make the trek. You’re basically 2 or 3 ferries away from the tiny volcanic island which lies about 60 miles from the Sicilian main land. It’s a retreat for the rich and famous and the prices of the local shops reflect this pretty heavily, but as well as being a prime location to spot Italian movie stars in the summer , it also boasts one of the most active volcanoes in the world. In fact, the whole island is a volcano, and has a tendency to go off without too much provocation.
Like Etna, climbing solo is now forbidden and is protected with a hefty fine so it was going to have to be another night time jobby.
We bivvied down on a helipad we found amongst some long grass, with the aim of setting out around 1am. The climb was ok, but once you get to the main ridge that takes you up above the main crater, the fog and fumes start to get very thick indeed. You’ve also got to contend with a mixture of razor sharp dried lava and slidey pumice, and a bad move or step in the wrong direction will see you falling down the slope into a puddle of molten rock. Visibility got so bad, that when we hit the summit it was down to around 0.5m, and if we hadn’t have gotten off the top quick sharp aided by nothing but a compass and a pair of crossed fingers, we’d have ended up in a right pickle.
If stromboli gets into a proper strop and really gives it some – she tends to sprew out massive lava bombs. You can sort of think of them as ultra-death chocolate liquors (cruncy rocky outside with a molten inside) and because they have a habit of killing people there are a few reenforced emergency shelters to allow you to hide from danger up at the top of the crater. We set up up our little 35mm film camera got into our sleeping bags to shelter us from the freezing wind and waited all night on the outside of our little vulcan bus stop.
And when it hit.. fucking. woah.
Experiencing a volcanic eruption from about 400ft actually made me cry. I’m not sure I’ve got the bits in my literary toolbox to describe how immense seeing something that powerful up that close was. I’ve seen some pretty incredible stuff in my time, but that probably tops out over all of them.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
Our hydrofoil was due in a few hours, and we left it to the last possible second before leaving and embarking on the long journey back to the dock. I didn’t want to leave, and sort of clung on with my eyes for as long as physically possible.
Time to man up.
We took one last look at the town from the summet…
And slid down the ash slopes for the first boat of the day.
Right – enough of this nature shit, more train dodging next time. Promise.