Hike

Mount Etna, or Etna is an active stratovolcano on the east coast of Sicily, Italy, in the Metropolitan City of Catania, between the cities of Messina and Catania. The name comes from the Greek Aitne, from aithō, “I burn.”

It lies above the convergent plate margin between the African Plate and the Eurasian Plate. It is the highest active volcano in Europe outside the Caucasus and the highest peak in Italy south of the Alps with a current height of 3,326 m (10,912 ft), though this varies with summit eruptions. Etna covers an area of 1,190 km2 (459 sq mi) with a basal circumference of 140 km (87 miles).

It has earned its stripes as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in June, 2013.
Its craters, ashes, lava flows, caverns and depression known as Valle del Bove make Etna a privileged destination and important center of international research with a long history that has been influential on volcanology, geology and the other earth sciences.

Writings referring to Etna date as far back as 2,700 years ago, leading the UNESCO World Heritage Centre to declare it as “one of the most documented world records among Volcanoes.”

ASCENT OF MOUNT ETNA, THE HIGHEST ACTIVE VOLCANO IN UE

STARTING POINT / CAI Trail 704 (740 mt)
ARRIVAL POINT / Rifugio Sapienza (2500 mt)
EQUIPMENT / hiking boots, helmet
DISTANCE / 16 km total
TIME / 10 hours
OVERALL TIME / all day
MAX ALTITUDE / 2800 mt
ELEVATION /  2100 mt
DIFFICULTY / EE +
TRAILS / CAI 704
HIKERS / Giulio and Daniele

After months of travel bans and restrictive laws due to the international health crisis I felt the need to plan something special, something unique that I could achieve in my own country without flying abroad. I so decided to ascent Mount Etna following a route off the beaten track.

On the 16th of October me and Daniele arrived a Zafferana Etna where we stayed over night at the EtnaGloB&B that took care of us.

The early morning after, at 6.30 am we were in front of the starting point of the CAI Trail 704, Strada Cugno di Mezzo. There, at 740 meters of altitude, our expedition began, in the darkness of the night, half an hour before the sunrise.

Cugno di Mezzo Trail Zafferana

A serpentine path riddled with steps immediately begins to reveal a climb towards Mount Pomiciaro, through a thick wood of chestnut trees. Slowly hiking up the sun started rising from the coast behind the calm sea.

volcano-etna-ascent-3
castagne-etna
volcano-etna-ascent-4

Along the trail at the foot of the imposing volcano, at an altitude of approximately 1000-1500 meters, all kinds of wooded areas have developed including countless fields for fruit cultivation, such as the typical Sicilian oranges. the fertile properties of the volcanic soil consisting of black ash sand is full of nutrients that give crops their special flavors and fragrances.

volcano-etna-ascent-zafferana

The first view point you will find along this itinerary is Monte Pomiciaro (1715 mt). It is a ancient effusive crater opened in a horseshoe shape towards the East, very close to the summit of Monte Zoccolaro with which it is often confused. Indeed the oronym is not very appropriate since in the crater there are no pumice but small blocks of oxidized lava. Probably the name of "Pomiciaro“ comes from the color of the projections that formed it, which over the time they considerably got altered, assuming a red-yellowish tint.
The vegetation in this area, slowly climbing up, is overwhelmed by beech woods.

To observe them it is necessary to dig a small hole since they have been covered by the lapilli of recent paroxysmal activities.

From the viewpoint of Monte Pomiciaro you can take an overall look at the now deserted Val Calanna, once a lush orchard, then arid desert due to the lava of 1991-93.

Valle del Bove Monte Pomiciaro

This first section of the ascent follows the Schiena dell'Asino with one of its highest peak, Monte Zoccolaro which winds along the east side of Etna and allows you to admire one of its most fascinating places: Valle del Bove.

The route was created on a old trace that the inhabitants of Zafferana used to reach the top of the Zoccolaro peak, on which a cross and an altar are placed.
The path, in constant ascent, also allows you to retrace the path of the 1991-93 eruption, the longest of the last century with its 417 days duration and its 300 million cubic meters of lava released. It was also the last great eruption of the 1900s.

Valle del Bove Monte Pomiciaro

We finally reached Monte Zoccolaro (1739 mt).
Its origin would be contemporary with the formation of the Valle del Bove, following the collapse of the eruptive centers of Trifoglietto I and Trifoglietto II, predecessors of Etna, which presumably occurred about 64,000 years ago.
Monte Zoccolaro and the adjacent serre, which must have represented the walls of the ancient eruptive complex, remained standing, closing the depression of the newly formed valley to the south-east.

The toponym "Zoccolaro" is attributable to the regional term "zucco", synonymous of "wood log". In various declinations it is a toponym that indicates wooded areas of Sicily, probably frequented for the supply of firewood. The relief is in fact covered with arboreal vegetation with large specimens of beech, aspen, oak, maple, ash, chestnut and broom.

Valle del Bove Monte Pomiciaro

From this point the ridge path started with a high slopes crossing a steep area formed by very precarious debris and thin black sand.
This is a stretch of the path also exposed to bad weather and fast temperature changes that cause the collision between the flow of hot air from the sea with the cold one of the Valle del Bove

We hiked up with strong commitment and energies between fog banks and receding sunbeams, mostly with humid and cold air.

valle-bove-volcano-etna-summit2
valle-bove-volcano-etna-summit1

During this stretch of the route, where the woods start to disappear, several lava dikes stand out.

dike in geological usage, is a sheet of rock that is formed in a fracture of a pre-existing rock body. Dikes can be either magmatic or sedimentary in origin. Magmatic dikes form when magma flows into a crack then solidifies as a sheet intrusion, either cutting across layers of rock or through a contiguous mass of rock.

Magmatic Etna Dike
Magmatic Etna Dike
Magmatic Etna Dike

After about 8 km from our departure we got to the peak of Schiena dell'Asino trail, where others trails intersect.
There, at more than 2000 meters above the sea level, the high vegetation begins to thin out giving space to very low and arid vegetation uncovering completely the wild nature of the volcanic morphology.

At this altitude only one species dominates on the Etna Volcano: the Sicilian astragalus, called Spino Santo meaning "holy thorn", with the thorns that characterize it, which has adapted well to the severe conditions to become one of the singularities of Etna, since it has no similarities in any other part of the world.

This endemic plant has the shape of large thorny cushions (called Pulvinus), 30-50 centimeters high with a diameter of 1-2 meters, which give a unique touch to the landscape and offer shelter to other plant species (including violet, chickweed, Etna chamomile, senecio) which, defending themselves among its branches, are able to better resist the harsh climatic conditions. The robust roots also stabilize the expanses of ash and lapilli making them less exposed to erosion.

Astragalo Etna Spino Santo
Astragalo Etna Spino Santo

Therefore we also began a different type of walking pace, slower, closer steps, more constant as the walls of the volcano started becoming completely deserted and steep with some of the most significant degrees of slope in Europe. Our feet sinking at every step making the hike a real challenge.

Hiking Etna Volcano
Hiking Etna Volcano

After about 7 hours from the start of our ascent we finally arrived at the most exhausting climb, the one that took us vertically straight to La Montagnola.

The Montagnola is one of the most impressive adventitious cones of Etna: it rises south of the Central Crater, on the high southern slope where it was established at an altitude of 2,500 mt following the violent eruption of 1763.

We stopped there to recover energy and, despite the strong winds, to admire the summit area of ​​the volcano opening in front of us, our final goal of the hike.

Etna Summit

The ground was strewn with lava stones of every size and color, formed by the different pressures and quantities of minerals at the time of the eruptions.

Etna rocks terrain

After taking rest and some nice photos was time to leave to intercept, towards the plain, one of the many trails that lead to the summit craters.

Etna Volcano Ascent Hike
Etna Volcano Ascent Hike

We kept hiking bypassing the Laghetto crater, a huge imposing and completely intact cone.

Cratere del Laghetto

A little further up we found shelter from the cold winds among the rocks of a lava flow and we put some more layers on to better cover ourselves with gloves and fleece.

Etna Rock Shelter

Once we left, we returned to hike up towards our last possible stop, the shelter of the guides at an altitude of 2800 meters, crossing the Pian the Lago plateau.

Etna Volcano Ascent Hike

The more we climbed the more we felt being on the moon surface scenario; a  unique and indescribable view. At that altitude it was just us, the fast moving clouds, and the sound of the wind.

Etna Volcano Ascent Hike
Etna Volcano Ascent Hike
Etna Volcano Ascent Hike

Once arrived at the shelter, we took the last photos, and then we quickly ran down, using the lava sand as a shock absorber.
Usually descending Mount Etna takes way less than any hike you will ever do to reach any point of it. Are popular online videos of people litterally jumping and running down the steep black gullies, typical of this volcano.

Hiking down, towards the South base of Etna we couldn't avoid stopping one more time for our final photos a the most popular craters, the Silvestri Craters.

Etna Crateri Silvestri
Etna Crateri Silvestri
Etna Crateri Silvestri
Etna Crateri Silvestri

At 5.45 pm we arrived at Rifugio Sapienza.

Photo credits: Giulio Aprin – Daniele Gatti
Thanks to: Carmelo Siscaro – Giuseppe Coco

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1 Comment

  1. Griselda
    October 22, 2020 / 8:41 pm

    What an incredible experience this must of been. The fast moving clouds and the sound of the wind. How exhausting it must of been to climb such a distance the end view is magical and exceptional. Thank your to sharing. You make everyone want to travel and see the world around them

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