Most visitors to the island of Sicily go there to relax and hang out – in short to live the good and sweet life, la dolce vita
. The vast majority never leave the beaches but the more adventurous ones venture out to visit Greek or Roman ruins, churches or cathedrals or just to go shopping.
Hardcore enthusiasts visit Monte Etna, the most active major volcano of Europe. The routine requires taking the car to the parking lot Etna Sud at roughly 2000m, then switch to the cablecar which takes them to 2500m, then hire one of the jeep taxis and be taken to an altitude of 3000m. From there on – if the volcanic activity allows - they struggle through the thin air to one of the summit craters and thus bag an easy 3000er.
We could have done the same…
Monte Etna seen from the Pizzi Deneri
It is Thursday, May 18th and we have returned from a somewhat under impressing hiking trip to the eastern part of the Carbonara Massif in the Madonie Mountain Range. Dinner has been finished, dishes have been washed and now we are relaxing on the balcony of our apartment discussing, what to do on the morrow. We are living in a holiday colony near Cefalu on the north coast of Sicily with lots of interesting hikes around.
Judith startles me by proposing to climb Monte Etna, moreover to do the eastern route which starts at Rifugio Citelli. I know that she came to Sicily because of the volcano but I didn’t imagine she would want to take it on herself to climb to the top. I test her resolve by arguing we would have to get up early – there is a long 200km drive to be done, then the climb, then the drive back. Apparently this is ok with her so we decide to give the mountain a try.
I’m having my doubts, however. The drive will take at least three hours, Rifugio Citelli is located at about 1750m, the summit is at 3340m and the guide book frequently talks of cinder slopes. Didn’t we decide after the climb of Pico Viejo on Tenerife that cinder ascents should be avoided? Oh well – it won’t be too bad – or will it? Anyway it’ll be a long day.
5 a.m. and the alarm rings, a quick shower, a hasty breakfast and we are on the road. We take the northern motorway between Palermo and Messina, which is an endless series of tunnels and bridges. Now I see why Judith didn’t bother about getting up early. I’m driving and she is fast asleep on her seat. After one hour we reach Falcone. Off we turn from the motorway an on to SS185, a panoramic, but very narrow and winding road through the Monti Peloritani. We wind our way up towards Novara di Sicilia and the majestic Rocca di Novara. Perhaps we should stop here to climb this landmark…
But no, Monte Etna is waiting for us. So far we haven’t been able to see it but now we are getting close to the Portella Mandrazzi Pass and there it is in all its majestic size – snow tipped Monte Etna. As always a cloud of smoke drifts from the summit craters – it appears to be Bocca Subterminale, the highest of them which is most active today. But the wind is blowing from the north-west. Perfect for a summit attempt which would wind its way up there from exactly that direction. No need to fear the sulphurous fumes…
Francavilla di Sicilia, Castiglione di Sicilia, Linguaglossa – finally we reach the road to the trailheads Etna Nord and Etna East. The road is wide and new and soon we see why – it winds through fairly recent lava flows which pile up to its sides. Some houses appear to have escaped the flows, others haven’t. Here and there we come across the ruins of a farm or a cabin. Finally, at 9:30 a.m. we reach our trailhead at Rifugio Citelli. Nobody else is there – and we were prepared to climb among throngs of people. We don’t complain, however.
Pizzi Deneri from trailhead
“Look down the road from Rifugio Citelli towards Etna and you will see a saddle. This is where you are heading straight upwards across cinder fields” – the guidebook instructs us. Straight up a cinder chute? This is madness – there must be some other way which wriggles back and forth along the slope. Right! There it is – it is even marked with red dots on the rocks – or with wooden poles where there is cinder. Naturally we follow this path. However, it turns to far left and far from turning “straight up” it stays at the same elevation. No – this can’t be right.
We trace back our steps and decide to find our own route – there are overgrown patches – some sort of dire grass with thorny seeds – there are the cinder patches and there is a small, low birch forest. Pioneer vegetation – let’s get up here.
The choice is far from perfect – the grass is so thorny it cuts our legs. The birches are infested with bugs. As we get near swarms of them rise up in the air and buzz around us, trying to get inside our clothing. And the cinder – is cinder. Three steps up, two steps slipped down. Early on snowfields touch our selected route – amazing as it is scorchingly hot down here. As for footing they are not much preferable to the cinder slopes. We are struggling…
Halfway to the saddle we run across a new marked path, again coming from our right and heading left but this one appears to be climbing. So this must be our route! We just missed it when we started. Problem is – it levels out and heads far southward where we don’t want to go. We follow the path for a while but then decide to head directly up again. We are now close to a ridge which heads up to the Pizzi Deneri and this is our first destination. Once on the ridge we just have to follow it, Right?
Valle del Bove
Valle del Bove and the summit craters of Monte Etna
Not quite right. We reached the ridge which bounds Valle del Bove, a huge valley which runs from the summit craters to the south-east and which is filled with a vast lava field. Come to think of it – countless lava fields merge and blend here. It is an impressive sight – but soon forgotten. Up there – to our right are the summit craters – Bocca Subterminale and Cratere Centrale. Both are fuming, but both also carry small ice- or snowfields.
Now we examine our further route. The “ridge” is not really a ridge – it is a conglomerate made from lava and buried by cinder scree. Vertical in places, but nowhere solid. This is going to be hell! We struggle on. First we climb Monte Rittmann – we notice how far we had gone wrong – this side summit was never mentioned by the guidebook. On we go up Rocca della Valle (2736m). The slope is very steep but luckily there are lava rocks strewn through the cinder so we have a chance. But we are getting very tired – falling rather than climbing upwards. Now we have made at least 1000m in elevation through this crappy stuff…
Pizzi Deneri 2 and 3
Above Rocca della Valle the ridge turns less steep – we see the first of the Pizzi Deneri right in front of us. The Pizzi Deneri are the uppermost summits which flank Valle del Bove. All four are equipped with devices measuring all tectonical changes in the vicinity. Now we have crossed the snow line and stamp through old and baked snow. It’s not much fun but anyway the views are quite good. We struggle across summit 2 and 3 and finally end up on summit 4 at 2848m.
It has become freezing cold and we unpack our warm stuff. But still the wind makes the lunch pretty uncomfortable. During the half hour it takes us to munch our sandwiches we inspect the further route up to Bocca Subterminale. We have to descend 200m and cross a large snowfield after which the route disappears behind the summit cone. We look at each other – no, we’ve had it! Reaching the summit would take another three hours until 4 p.m. Another four to five hours for the descent and three and a half hours for the return drive. That doesn’t add up. A bit frustrated we pack up and turn around.
But once we feel our sore legs we feel confirmed in the decision. In no way could we have reached the summit of Monte Etna. At least we reached a side summit. The guidebook recommends us to take the cinder chute between Pizzi Deneri 1 and 2 but this is covered in snow. At first we try to follow a ridge downwards but it vanishes in deep snow as well. What to do without any winter equipment?
I step on the snow – which is firm – and start to slide down a bit. I turn straight downward and off I go. Now this is more like it – ski down the slopes on the soles of your hiking boots. After getting the knack it starts being fun though I’m very exhausted after a couple of hundred meters. 1000m later and after some falls I step off onto the lava beneath Monte Monte Frumento delle Conazze, one of Monte Etna’s numerous side craters, a perfectly round cinder cone.
We refrain from climbing it but rather head for Rifugio Citelli which is already visible from afar. However, we have to cross a huge lava field and finally get into that blasted birch forest again. And now with the sun getting lower the bugs are accompanied by mosquitoes. Blast them! Finally, back at the car, we shake off the lava dust, get down into the car and turn on the air condition. Finally!
... And Back
Monte Etna seen from Portella Mandrazzi
Well, not quite. Judith soon drops asleep but I have three and a half hours driving before me. At first it works fine. I follow the mountain roads back to Linguaglossa, then back to Portella Mandrazzi. I stop there to take a last shot of the volcano and then head back winding roads towards the coast. I get stuck behind a bus so that crossing through Novarra di Sicilia takes half an hour.
When finally we reach the motorway on the north coast I’m utterly exhausted. Don’t ask me how we returned. Another hour of driving across the numerous bridges (ka-bump, ka-bump, ka-bump, ….) and countless tunnels take us back to the apartment. Now the shower – and something to eat.
To live the good life
Finally we’re back on our balcony, gnocchi al gorgonzola con melanzane, prosciutto crudo e olive
on our plates, a glass of Sicilian Syrah in our glasses. Across the little creek the evening animation has started. A local copy of Eros Ramazotti sings Italian ballads and now croons “The Great Pretender” in Italian. Tomorrow we will go to the beach, won’t we?
Naturally we didn’t bore ourselves to death on the beach the next day. But we didn’t drive three hours either. We climbed to Pizzo Catarinecci and got almost blown down by full force winds.
Somehow this is La Dolce Vita
for us. Are we still sane?