Up The Slope Of Mt. Etna

Yesterday’s hike up the slope of Mt. Etna began with a volcano primer from our indefatigable guide, Marco. We stopped at this spot on the slope, where an old lava flow has cooled and been broken up into a collection of razor-sharp black stones and gravel. There Marco explained that a volcano is not inert like a mountain, but instead is ever changing, like a living thing. Mt. Etna, which has been active for generations, has been through countless transformations and is changing even now.

We then drove a short distance, parked our van, and started the trek up the slope of the volcano. The trail followed a series of switchbacks as we trudged ever upward. The gardener in me thought the black rock, gravel, and sand looked like the finest black mulch imaginable, bringing out all of the colors of the plants growing in the nutrient-rich volcanic soil. Marco noted that Mt. Etna’s eruptions have helped nourish countless vineyards and fruit and vegetable farms in the area. He also noted that the plant life in the vicinity of the volcano can help you recreate the flow of lava from past eruptions. Little plants reflect recent eruptions, whereas trees mean territory that has not been touched for much longer periods. The photo above, for example, tells you that the most recent eruptions in this area flowed down and to the left.

The rocky soil made for a challenging climb. In some spots the ground was covered with tiny rocks like very coarse sand, where your foot would sink in, and in other spots the loose rocks made footing treacherous. Our doughty band of hardy hikers exercised due case and fortunately avoided falls, spills, twisted ankles, or other mishaps. We did end up covered with dust and with sharp rocks in our shoes, however.

Marco explained that the area we were climbing was once densely populated and covered with beautiful gardens—until an eruption buried the area in fiery molten rock. Only one house, shown above, was spared. The lava reached up to the roofline on one side but left the other largely unscathed. Marco noted that the owners still use it for cookouts and hiking rest stops.

Just past the half-buried house you come up to a summit of sorts, and when you reach the top you are treated to an awesome, otherworldly scene that could be the lost world or an alien landscape. The summit is a ledge that looks down on an area formed by the collapse of a caldera long ago. The rocks are covered with lichens, the first step in the circle of life, and only the toughest plants grow in the rocky ground. Behind it all is the smoking, steaming cone of Mt. Etna, and when the wind shifts you can see crooked fingers of lava reaching down the exterior of the volcano.

Marco convinced us to go the extra mile—actually, he said it was only a few hundred meters—to find an even better view. We then followed more switchbacks upward, finally scrambling up a 45-degree slope of loose rock and gravel. We emerged on a rocky promontory, 4500 feet above sea level, that looked down upon a valley 2000 feet below. Because one false move could send you hurtling off the precipice to certain death, I didn’t get close to the edge. Marco, who is apparently part mountain goat, and the Swiss Shutterbug had no qualms about venturing out to the edge while the rest of us wished they would come back to solid ground. That’s Marco in the photo below, taking in the extraordinary view.

The sun was starting to sink behind the clouds of smoke and steam billowing from Mt. Etna’s crater, casting a golden glow over rocks, hikers, and the entire landscape. It was time to go. We grabbed fallen branches to serve as walking sticks, skidded down the gravel-covered hill, and headed back to our van, knowing that fine wine and a fine meal awaited at Barone di Villagrande vineyard.