Etna, with the December 2002 eruptions. Trekking route in June 2003 indicated.
'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, 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 and clouds surrounded us.
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.
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