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Crossing the Etna volcanoe in one day, June 2003


Eruptions of December 2002 with a view at the Provenzana area on the North side. Cross Etna route indicated. Top of Etna 3300 m, lower valleys at 700 m. Picture from


'Nobody will stop you!!!', the young volcanic guide told us when we asked if we could ignore the ban on climbing Etna on our own. The next day, after sitting on a snow and ash field among lava flows in dense clouds at the Central cone at 3100 m and just loosing the ash covered trail for the second time I wondered, we were at the half was point and could still return. It was getting cold.


Etna in the clouds. Picture from


Overview map of Etna. In blue, cross Etna route from Sapiensa to Randazzo. In red, lava flows from the seventies.

Volcanic activity


Since the volcanic activity in 2001 and 2002, climbing to the Etna volcano summit at 3300 m is only allowed with a certified volcanic guide. Already above 2000 m trekking on your own is banned but nowhere you will see signs.


Big eruptions in the 70's covered most of the top above the central rim with several km's of lava flows, see figure above.  These black spongy rocks resembling black pumice crumble when stepping on it and make the walking hard.


In December 2002, eruptions took place on the South side, nearly covering the buildings of the Refugio Sapienza and Hotel Corsaro. On the North-East side, in the Provenzana area, an old radial fault opened and a lava flow completely covered the hotel, refugio and restaurant. To make it worse, a large black cinder cone formed roughly on top of the buildings at Provenzana. Half a year later, the lava flows are still fuming in places but it is save to cross them, in terms of the temperature, not the loose blocks.


Etna is easily accessible from many sides but we used the access road from Randazzo to Cisternazze and from Maleto to Refugio Nave. We decided to do a few reconnaissance trips from the North side as here there are extensive woods with nice trails.


Randazzo with Etna in the back-ground, view to the South

Monte Nero

The first day trip to Monte Nero ended in a heavy thunderstorm at the recent lava flows of Provenzana.

Recent lava flow and cinder cone (middle) at Provenzana, just before a thunderstorm.

Hoping to reach a remaining building in time, the thunder hit us full at 2000 m before we could look at the situation and for one hour we hid in the woods, the temperature quickly dropping with hail stones coming down. The shelter under the trees was not good but even worse we missed a good cappuccino. I was fine, clad fully in a Gore-Tex coat and pants but Ruud was wearing only shorts and a wind jacket despite the warning on the news this morning of thundershowers. He got very wet and very cold but he is a “die-hard” (or “bikkel”), he said.

On going back to the last hut, Ruud was dreaming of a warm fire and coffee, and after I said that I saw someone at the hut from a distance he said 'We need an Antonio who can make us a good cappuccino’.


Anthonio was indeed there. He was a forestry student measuring trees and was sheltering for the storm. He shared his  freshly made coffee and had a wood fire in the stove going that made the hut warm.


Two hours later, at the Cisternazza access road, Salvatore was about to leave his cottage near the refugio and he gave us a ride back to Randazzo. He is always there in the week-end and next time we will drop in for wine.

Grotto de Gello

The next day the trip to the Grotto de Gello at 2000 m was much better. We only had rain once and it was a bit cool but we sheltered in the cave of the Grotto de Gello using the accumulated snow to go down. Here we met a family with a 9 year old son and a 16 year old daughter on sneekers so you wonder how tough this trip was.


Pietro and a friend from Nicolosi followed us to the Maleto access road at the Refugio Nave, worried we may get lost, and as a bonus gave us a ride back to Randazzo in their Jeep.

Pietro (right) assisting us in the lava flows West of the Grotto de Gello.

Pietro's Jeep.

Change of plans

We still had not been higher than 2000 m and even the 2400 m region seemed unreachable. The Etna rim craters  are at 3100 m and the top crater at 3300 m so we were worried we would never get there. This called for a cunning plan.


In one day we would walk the 30 km from Randazzo along the rim road to the South side of the Etna at Refugio Sapiensa and stay in the Hotel Corsaro at 1900 m. The next day we would take a 4-WD bus up to 2500 m and walk back to Randazzo, an 10 hour trip we estimated but felt unsure.


The walk to Refugio Sapiensa took 9 hours as Ruud had trouble with a foot but we could easily have done it in 8 hours. The Hotel Corsaro is a three star hotel with good food. Temperatures drop to low temperatures at night.

Etna summit

The mountain guides at Sapiensa wanted to charge us 400 to 450 Euros for taking us across, much higher than the Euro 220 for a private guide for the day. We thought his was a bit much for reading a map, Ruud and I having 30 years experience each, and we did not come to an agreement, also because no one was available as this seem to be an unusual request. After some talking, and getting impatient, 'Nobody will stop you!!!', a young volcanic guide told us and he said he would be pleased to take us up but tomorrow he was busy in his regular job.


The next day in the early morning, an older guide said that the weather was perfect and we should go for it without a guide. The hanging around and waiting patiently paid off and the ticket up in the 4-WD bus was 30 Euros each, saving a 600 m climb but I would have rather started earlier and walk up myself.


The 4-WD bus took us up from 1900 to 2500 m in only 20 minutes. At 10 AM we arrived and quickly left the crowd of some 100 people and 10 buses at the Monte de Philosophico at high pace as if we knew what we were doing. We heard a whistle only once in the far distance and wasn’t sure it was for us but ignored it and quickly were out of sight. The 4-WD trail leading to the top was fine although in places covered by 20-50  cm of  loose ash from the 2001-2003 eruptions. After one hour we reached the summit rim and the trail was invisible, fully covered by ash. A bulldozer was at work restoring the trail from the winter ash falls.


Summit area of Etna at 2900 m with Northern crater, view to the North.


We followed the rim and after 500 meters Ruud found the trail back. Do not follow the tracks up as they lead to the crater,  the trail stays on the outer rim following the contour lines. It took us to the central crater. Here we lost the trail again in the numerous snow fields and thick ash cover. It was now noon and the afternoon clouds were rolling in. We were at the half way point and could still return easily but this would be a defeat. We wanted to go North, back to Randazzo.


After 15 minutes the clouds lifted and we could see Punta Lucia, a clearly visible point at the edge of the rim, and found the trail again. It was some 50 meter elevation down where you expected it. Now the going was easy and the trail clearly marked. Aim at Punta Lucia when you loose the trail.


As most of the trail would be destroyed going down to Provenzana as explained by the guides, we decided to use the snow fields on the lava flows from the seventies to go to the Grotto de Gello trails. This was a good choice, the snow fields in early June were continuous and  very easy walking going downhill and we quickly covered a 2 km distance perpendicular to the elevation contour lines.


When the snow fields stopped we were in trouble again and the going very rough on crumbly lava blocks and small rocky hills. Luckily we saw the row of small craters near Monte Pizzillo and the very distinct Monte Nero although I could not believe we were already so far North-East. The volcanic observatory was visible in the far distance and the trail was half destroyed by land slides and the earth opening but it was relatively easy walking. This area was active in the seventies and again recently. Several fault cracks were visible and in places smoke still comes out of the ground. The ski lifts were destroyed in the seventies and only green poles and rusted cables were left over.


Row of craters, view to the Etna.


The row of craters are spectacular and here we could easily orientate again helped by a tourist sign indicating the names of the craters and mountains. We had a splendid view at the 2002 lava flows of Provenzana and the big black cinder cone. This was perhaps the most spectacular part of the trip, even more than the summit. Here we had lunch.


We carried on through the rough terrain to reach the main trail near Monte Nero and at 4 PM we finally reached the hut West of Monte Nero.

Monte Nero, a black cinder cone from a few centuries ago.

It would be another 2 hours back. On taking a short cut along Monte Santa Maria back to Sisternazza, Ruud saw a big snake, a Papa Miranda like they have in Nicaragua, and insisted on returning. On going back we met a group of  40 pensionates and they were from the Milan Alpine Club. Their guide assumed we were lost and told us to follow, he knew the trail. We had no choice but to follow them. Now Ruud was save, protected by the crowd.

Group of 40 pensionates using the short cut through the snake area at Monte Sante Maria


At 6.15  PM we reached the road, the trip took us only 8.5 hours. The pensionates had a big bus and gave us a ride back to our hotel were they also stayed. Luckily they did not fill up the hotel as we returned a day early.


The trip across Etna going from the South to the North is feasible for experienced trekkers. You have to watch the weather, a thunderstorm is no fun but in early June the summit is generally clear in the morning and is often only partially covered in the afternoon, with clouds lifting at times.


The easiest access is from Refugio Sapienza, it is only a 400 meter walk up after getting a Euro 30 ride to the  Monte de Philosophico but the access from the Provenzana area at 2000 m in the North is much nicer and you will not run the risk of being stopped by a guide. A one day trip from here should be feasible but you have to watch the rough terrain. You could aim at the upper ski lift pole (Coccinelle on the detailed map) and follow the road up, roughly aim  right of the Observatory if you loose it in the landslides. Alternatively, start at the Refugio Citelli 3 km South-East from Provenzana and aim for the observatory on the upper rim. The trail on the upper rim is reasonably visible, stay along the contour lines if you loose it.


If you cannot read a map, do not try it or get a guide, the terrain is very rough when you loose the trail in the clouds you can be in trouble in the rough terrain and high relief of some 1500 m.

Other pictures

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Etna in the clouds.



Jean on the lava flow towards Randazzo near Monte Spagnola.


June 2003

Ruud posing at the rope lava (pahoehoe) near the Grotto de Gello.


June 2003

Jean inside the Grotto de Gello. Cave is 125 m long.


June 2003

Refugio della Galvarina on the the rim trail, near Adrano.


June 2003

Ruud at the Southern top volcanoe of Etna.


June 2003

Ruud at the Provenzana area with 2002 eruptions.


June 2003

Myriad flowers in the Nebrodi National Park.


June 2003

View at Randazzo and Etna from the Nebrodi National Park.


June 2003

Jean and Ruud getting wet in thundershowers in the Nebrodi National Park.


June 2003

Local train around the Etna, from Randazzo to Catania.


June 2003

You are visitor # Countersince June, 2003.