Moving to the slopes of Mt. Etna yesterday let us casually sort out our volcano tour options in the bright light and crisp air of the morning. If you are interested, more information about the tour choices and
logistics is included at the end of this section. After some debate, we opted for a 4+ hour tour that took us by a combination of ski lift, 4 WD bus, and foot to the rim of one of the upper craters of the volcano. The return to the Refugio area from the summit was by foot.
Due in part to the potential hazards (9 tourists died on Etna in the 1979 eruption and there were four deaths in five years due to lightning), only guided tours are allowed to go to the crater rim. The tour originates from the Gruppo Guide Alpine Etna Sud building near Refugio Sapienza. We were scrutinized by the head guide who checked us out to see if our boots were up for the trek and whether we were fit enough for the tour. Passing muster, we were good to go as long as Becky replaced her running shoes with the tour’s boots.
After the wardrobe adjustments, the group collected in a typically chaotic Italian fashion for the trip up the hill. We just tried to stay with the group, but it was unclear exactly what we were supposed to do. Somehow it all came together as we headed up the lift and into the four wheel drive bus for the ride to the upper tour guide shack. It worked, but I could never figure out how the guides had any idea that they had the whole group together. My guess is that they didn’t and if you somehow lagged, you would have been left behind.
On the lift ride up you pass the lava flows and pumice fields that have repeatedly destroyed Etna’s ski lift system. It seems as if the Italians are very good at predicting where Etna’s eruption will occur in the near future as they always build a ski lift in that area. The bus ride from the top of the lift transits a fine gray pumice field and drops the passengers about 2,000 feet below the top of the volcano. The guides collect the patrons and sort the groups. On our visit, the tours were given in French (there might have been some Italian on this one also) and English. Not surprisingly given our command of French and Italian, we chose the larger English tour. Ironically, we were the only Americans on this tour and there was only one other native English speaking couple. All the others, as far as we could tell, were German (of course!) or Dutch. I’d estimate that there were around 30 people in the English portion of the tour.
From the bus drop off point, we headed up the mountain, first through pumice and cinders and then through an extended, sharp and rugged lava flow. Etna is the tallest volcano in Europe, so we had commanding views of the surroundings, from the gray and black volcanic slopes of Etna to the hazy lands of Sicily and on to the blue Ionian Sea. At close to 9,000 feet in mid-October, the air temperatures were cool. With the exertion from the climb, we quickly warmed up and were out of our jackets and down to our shirts. In the height of summer, this hike would have been seriously warm.
On the other side of the lava flow, we followed a crude path that snaked its way up the hill. The path we climbed was close to the limits of traction on the soft surface. Our tour guide kept a brisk pace causing
some angst with a few of the patrons. Regroups were periodic, perhaps every 20 minutes or so, during which the guide would give a somewhat difficult to follow (his English was so-so) explanation of the sights. Though the details were often incomprehensible, the general idea was usually communicated with enthusiasm.
I’d estimate that it took the tour group 1.5 to 2 hours of steady aerobic work to reach the top of the mountain. Covered with sweat, everyone was breathing hard with raw lungs as we moved into the cloud of choking, acrid, sulfurous fumes from the volcano’s crater. Even though the tour route had been chosen so as to be upwind of the crater as much as possible, the acrid fumes were often overwhelming. Hands and shirts quickly covered mouths. It was not reassuring to see researchers nearby studying the volcano and taking gas samples dressed in full white environmental suits with gas masks.
Through the haze was a scene that must have inspired many visions of Hell. And, much like you’d expect if you could visit the Gates of Hell, there were plenty of German tourists there. Not that the German tourists are necessarily going in to Hell. It’s just that the Gates of Hell is the type of place German tourists would make a point of visiting!
On the rim of the crater, the vapor clouds parted to reveal crusty yellow-green crystalline sulfur deposits. The guide took the group closer to the crater’s edge. While the rest of the group dodged the densest sections of the vapor clouds, the guide let one or two of the tour members move up the last couple of feet and view into the crater from the immediate edge. Perhaps a bit disturbing, it was our understanding that he was limited to two guests at a time for safety reasons. At the edge of the crater, we saw a steep sided pit, perhaps 200 to 300 feet deep. Through the shrouds of haze, we could see decomposing rock and intensely greenish-yellow sulfur deposits. Being at the edge was intimidating. If the edge gave way, which it sometimes does, and you survived the quick trip to the bottom, dying in the heat and the fumes in the volcano would be a particularly unpleasant way to go.
After the last person in our group viewed into the crater, it took little encouragement from the guide to get the tour group to move out of the acidic fumes. We followed the rim of the crater perhaps a quarter of the way around and then turned down for the descent. We could now breath freely again and the hands and handkerchiefs dropped collectively from the mouths of the group members. We crossed the crunchy crust of the sulfur deposits on top of the decomposing rock as we moved down hill from the crater. The footing was firm until we reached the top of a pumice field where unexpected fun began. Rather than traversing the
pumice, the guide took us straight down the slope, advising us to run heel first in the soft volcanic ash. Soon all the group was running, raising a cloud dust that encouraged being at the front of the group and brought the handkerchiefs back out for the stragglers. It did not take much time to get the hang of descending on the loose slope. You launch and land, launch, land repeating your way, floating down the hill. The sensation is not unlike what it feels like to ski in deep powder. In no time, we were at the bottom of the pumice slope and ready to transit the sharp rocked lava field back to the bus drop off point. When we reached the bus stop, it was time for lunch and we stopped to eat the paninis that we brought along.
Rather than take the bus and lift down, our tour trekked its way down back to Refugio Sapienza on foot. The trip down starts with a traverse across a barren volcanic plain that resulted from one of the more recent eruptions of a cinder cone near by. Uniformly dark gray and smoothly contoured, the plain was scattered with volcanic rocks and boulders. If ever a terrestrial place can be described as a lunar landscape, this would be it.
The route down continues over the top of Valle del Bove where active lava flows can often be seen. Unfortunately, the coastal clouds had moved in so we were unable view this sight. The prospects of seeing an eruption in progress may be enough to make us return to Etna!
Wrapping around the hill, we reached the top of another extended pumice field. This time we were in for an extended descent of 800 m (about 2,600 feet) to the bottom. Chaos again erupted as the group ran down the slope raising a large dust cloud. It felt like we’d been thrown into Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch with the variety of funky, long striding, heel-toe descending techniques being used. I’d guess it took us only 15 to 20 minutes of descending time to make it to the bottom of the hill (not counting the regroups). Becky and I finished the descent with ear to ear grins and volcanic ash in every crevice and pore of our bodies. This was perhaps the most fun we have had on the trip. And to boot, we got a free foot pumicing.
When we reached the bottom of the ash slope, we were out of water. Fortunately, the last section of the trek, a traverse back to the Refugio base area, was over quickly enough. This was quite a tour.
Back at the car, we cleaned up as much as we could. Even then, we would still be cleaning grit out of parts of our bodies we didn’t know existed for days afterwards. We dialed the address for our hotel in Siracusa (Syracuse in English) into the TomTom and we were off.
I’d guess the navigation directions from the TomTom over the duration of the trip were about 99.5% accurate. Every once and a while, however, there would be a mistake. In a town on the slopes of Etna, there was a
doosie of a navigational error as we blindly followed the TomTom’s directions, in dense, aggressive, Sicilian traffic, the wrong way down a one way street. There was no damage done as we three point turned our way out of the potential disaster. We did get the wagging finger from a fellow motorist. This wouldn’t be the last time we got this gesture in Sicily. In the short video in the link below, Becky demonstrates the Italian “No, no, no” gesture. Unfortunately, Becky has taken to using this gesture on me in some most inopportune times!
Becky demonstrating the Italian wagging finger:
We checked into Hotel Cavalieri, a small comfortable place with a modern interior. It’s a short distance from the Ortygia, Siracusa’s old town area. After taking drain clogging showers, we walked the length of the Ortygia for a good meal and a bottle of local wine at Taverna Sveva. Siracusa looked intriguing in the lights of the evening and we were looking forward to more exploration in the morning sun.
More information about the tour of Etna:
I’ve included some extra details about the Etna tour in this section. Before we arrived, we only had a loose idea that you could book a tour of the south side of Etna from Taormina (and other locations, too, I’m sure) or go up to the Refugio Sapienza area and find a tour there. This section is intended for those looking for a little more information about finding a tour near the Refugio.
When we inquired the evening before at the Refugio reception desk, we learned of three options:
For about 45 euros, this option involved taking the ski lift up to its top and transferring to a four wheel-drive vehicle for a ride to a saddle 2,000 feet short of the summit. From the bus stop at the saddle, we would be free to wander around and explore the slopes of the volcano, as long as we didn’t go up to the crater on the top, and then we would eventually make our ways back to the ski lift and ride down.
The second option that was mentioned was a four plus hour tour. Option 2 started like Option 1, but, from the bus stop at the top, you would proceed with a guide to the top of the volcano. At the top, the guide would take the group to look into the crater. We were told that the only way to see the upper crater was with a guide. After the ascent to the top, tour Option 2 would return to the Refugio base on foot. Option 2 costs 60 euros per person (October 2008). We also overheard that it was possible to pay extra and ride the ski lift down rather than walk all the way down. I understood that the choice to use the lift for the descent could be made during the tour. As it turned out, we took Option 2, which was definitely the right decision for us. If we had chosen to take the ski lift down, we would have missed one of the best parts of the tour—the run down the lower, 800 m long pumice slope. In fact, we would consider coming back to Etna just to run this descent again.
A third option is to hike up all the way from the Refugio base. This one is free. I’d guess that the round trip would take at least 8 hours, and maybe more. Bring lots of water and food and be in good shape if you want to see Etna this way.
To the top without a guide?
As mentioned in the text above, it is our understanding that only guided tours are allowed to go to the crater rim. With that, we did see some unattended hikers near the top though not at the crater rim. We don’t know if the rules are being bent or not, but I would do serious research before considering this.
Hints for the Option 2 tour:
–Bring plenty of water and food
–Use the restroom when you can as the top of the lift is the last unexposed opportunity for a long time
–Tours end at the end of October, at least for Option 2
–Bring good hiking boots if you have them
–Bring something to cover your face from the fumes and the dust.
–Bring clothing for the weather which can be changeable
–You need to be pretty fit to enjoy this trip. The less fit amongst us made it through, but were suffering towards the end.
–The drive up to the Refugio takes about 45 minutes to an hour from the base of the mountain
Tel: 095 915321
FAX: 095 916107
Quite basic accommodations next to the ski lift. We chose to stay there to help with the altitude and to take out any drive uncertainty. We had difficulty contacting them before our departure most likely because they aren’t very full this time of year and aren’t used to taking reservations. In fact, when we got there, they had no record of us. We stayed with half board (not too many options for food right at the base) and the price was cheaper than was quoted ahead of time.
We noticed other lodging options on the drive up, so with some research I’m sure a nicer place could be found.
Via Malta, n. 42 – Siracusa – Italy
GPS Coordinates: N37°03.909′ E015°17.270′
Telefone +39 0931 483635
Fax +39 0931 446214
Comfortable, quiet, and stylish, we felt that this was a well priced option that was perhaps only a few details away from being considered an upscale luxury boutique hotel. The front door to the hotel is unique!
Dinner in Syracuse:
Piazza Federico di Svevia 1-2
Phone: 0931 2 46 63
Towards the end of Ortygia on a small square, this was a nice out of the way place to have a good, quiet meal.