Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

How to hike up Mount Etna

When you think of visiting Sicily, you probably imagine relaxing on sun-soaked beaches, gorging on gelato and getting your tan on. Well, I wanted to do something a little different. Many people know about Mount Etna, Europe’s largest volcano and one of the most active in the world. But not many can say that they have stood at its summit.

The day of mine and my mum’s visit started early, the only bus to the volcano leaving from Catania at 8:15am. During the bus ride, the tour guide pitched the various excursion packages. Having researched the treacherous 3350-meter hiking experience, we agreed that only going part way up the volcano via cable car and Jeep was the most realistic option. Before getting kitted out with the appropriate walking boots, jacket and helmet at Etna’s basecamp, the Sapienza refuge, I decided to go to the bathroom (as believe it or not, there aren’t many public toilets half way up a volcano). When I returned, my mum had signed what she believed to be the consent agreement for the short excursion. Clearly, she had drastically over-estimated her knowledge of Italian.

we (incredibly naively) assumed that our guide was taking us to one of the volcanoes dormant craters

We undertook the first leg of our journey via cable car, from which the views were incredible. Miles of rolling ash and exotic vegetation with the faint sight of the Sicilian coastline in the distance. And after an incredibly bumpy 4 x 4 ride, we soaked up a spectacular panorama of charcoal greys and vivid crimsons from the mid-way point. Then before I knew what was happening, we were being whisked away with around 15 other people – of which I was clearly the youngest, across a borderline into a relative no man’s land. I couldn’t speak a word of Italian, but I thought a stickman and a “no trespassing” symbol was indication enough not to continue in any language. But we (incredibly naively) assumed that our guide was taking us to one of the volcanoes dormant craters, which were slightly off the beaten track.

However, the pace briskly became faster and the ascent more strenuous. And in about 15 minutes I was falling way behind, which our guide did not take too kindly to. He then “politely” informed me that I was walking far too slowly and that, if I did not speed up, we would never make it back from the summit before the last bus left for Catania in the evening. Cue panic. My mum was fine, she had decades of walking in the Lake District under her belt. I, on the other hand, was far from equipped, mentally or physically, for a Bear Grylls level excursion.

after several hours, we finally reached the top

I was then informed that I couldn’t go back on my own, it was a fineable offense to deviate from a guided tour of Mount Etna given its frequent activity. I couldn’t let my group down, I had to carry on. We plodded up the mountain of loose volcanic rock that confronted us, struggling against decreasing air pressure, patchy storms and constantly changing temperatures. Until, after several hours, we finally reached the top.

A canopy of greenish-grey sulphurous clouds, endless stretches of red terrain and surreal moon-like craters. The atmosphere was truly otherworldly. In my exhaustion, I sat down for a minute to reflect, to remind myself that I had indeed just climbed a 10,912 foot volcano and that I was currently amongst one of the most unique geological environments on the planet. The sense of fulfilment was invaluable.

never go to the bathroom whilst important paperwork is being signed

Knowing that the uphill struggle was over, I was then able to enjoy the descent. The guide took us through lava caves like the infamous Grotta del Gelo and I really did have my own Bear Grylls moment when we were instructed to career down several hundred feet of almost vertical rubble. The entire trip lasted around seven and a half hours and I don’t think my limbs have ever ached more than they did the following day. But I am nonetheless eternally grateful for my mum’s document mix up as, before the journey, I did not consider myself even remotely capable of achieving anything of this sort. So, to anyone reading, I have two pieces of advice for you. Firstly, never go to the bathroom whilst important paperwork is being signed. But more importantly, never underestimate what you can achieve with a little determination.  

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