Blog WHS Visits

WHS #724: Mount Etna

Over 240 community members so far have ticked off Mount Etna as ‘visited’, but I wonder how many of them have just ‘seen’ it from a distance versus entered the core zone and witnessed its OUV. Most reviews to date indeed seem to have been in the former category. By far the best of them is Joel’s video, made during terrible weather conditions. I recently spent a long weekend in the area to try to make mine into a ‘good visit’.  It all got off to a fitting start as my flight from Rome was delayed by an hour because air traffic to Catania was temporarily limited due to Etna's ash clouds.

The next day at 5.15 a.m., I left Taormina with my guide for the journey to the northeastern slopes of the Etna. We drove to the parking lot of Rifugio Citelli, which lies already at an altitude of over 1,700 meters. Everything was still dark and quiet, although we were able to stop underway at a bar for an Italian stand-up breakfast of cappuccino and a cornetto. The breakfast bars along the route open early (this one at 4.30!) to serve the local mushroom hunters and the maintenance staff of the park.

Having arrived at the parking lot it became clear that it would be a serious walk: I got a helmet buckled to my backpack, two hiking poles pressed into my hands and even shoes with a better profile fitted on. Also guide Davide and I each had a head light as it was still dark. We would be walking route 723, the Citelli Serracozzo. The first part of this route goes through the forest. It struck me how overgrown the volcano is, the scenery is much greener (from chestnut trees to beeches to birches to shrubs) than I had imagined. The climb is done on a technically sometimes difficult  trail covered with stones, tree stumps and loose lava stones. I would never have made it without those hiking poles. On this stretch we could not see the top of the volcano, only a dark ash cloud occasionally appeared in the sky.

We made our first longer stop at what looked like a minor cave, but turned out to be a lava tube. This is why we brought the helmets! This tunnel is narrow and deep - I had been in a lava cave before (in Jeju, South Korea), but this one felt more impressive due to us being there alone like some early explorers. Above ground you only see an air hole - the tunnel is hidden beneath it.

After climbing a bit more we reached our final destination at slightly over 2,200m: a ridge just above the Valle del Bove and with the active volcanic craters in full view. Really a spectacular spot. The huge Valle del Bove was created by a landslide - nothing grows here anymore. There are currently 4 volcanic craters on the highest part of Mount Etna, all recently active again with explosive eruptions. We found a nice place to sit and watch the spectacle. You first hear a rumble and then a gray ash cloud rises.

Up to this point we did not meet any other people on our hike: of course no one sets off this early, and the northern side of Mount Etna is quieter than the southern one anyway.

Around 11 a.m. the clouds came up from the valley and our view threatened to disappear. We therefore started the descent via another route than we came, meeting a few people along the way that were just hiking uphill. The path down required a lot of concentration and therefore also took me 2 hours; over 6 hours after departure we arrived back at the parking lot. My final thoughts on the Etna: it may not the most beautiful volcano in the world, but its constant activity draws you in and keeps you mesmerized.

Els - 3 November 2019

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