My own expedition into Etna’s center
I have always been addicted to volcanoes, and that addiction has resulted in many volcanic visits over my last 27 years of life, and I have indeed made many volcanic visits. The highpoint of that was seeing the live lava flows at Kilauea: of course Kilauea (just like Hector and Chad) is my favorite volcano. But the first volcano to thrill my brain was Etna in Sicily and this was the first really active volcano that I visited as a kid. I became very thrilled as a child because of it and more Etna visits followed. It too has become one of my most favorite volcanoes. As a child, reaching Torre del Filosofo was enough for me, and we had a lot of fun visiting there in my childhood years. As I got older and more adult I learnt more and more about Etna and about what makes it unique. It is probably the most productive volcano that is not on a hotspot and it is in a very complicated geological setting. Reaching the summit was a goal since I was ten. It became a realistic plan in 2015 and in 2016 as a 21 year old, the conditions were ideal for it. Thanks to social media I planned to do it with just friends, so I organized a little expedition in 2016 where we did a summit attempt that summer and we were successful. It has been way too long now without a VC article on it. I thrive well in Sicily every time, and Etna is just the sweet sugar on top. Etna is the volcano that I visited the most times, so it is very special. In this post I will post most of the photos I took at Etna further down in the article.
(Click on each photo to see it at higher resolution)
Travel to Sicily
Sicily is indeed a wonderful place, with stylish architecture, clear blue waters, good food, white chalk cliffs, and of course Etna. Sicily seems to combine the best of all Mediterranean things in one single perfect hole or spot. I packed one single bag; being an experienced Sicily summer traveller I take just light clothes for the lowlands and some jackets for Etna. From late June to October Sicily is very hot, winters are subtropical and mild. The tourist season runs almost all year except the cooler winter. Sicily is charming and old fashioned, indeed much more charming than the modernist nordic countries, especially my own home country where a lot of post 1950’s city public planning simply seems copied from the nearby Soviet Union, resulting in lifeless concrete jungles. The modern post 1980’s direction is hardly better in Scandinavia with ultra modernism and introduction of skyscrapers. While in my home country function rather than form is important, in the Mediterranean form rather than function is beautiful. In the Mediterranean they have never really accepted modernism and this is one reason Sicily is so beautifully charming. The charming natural and cultural environments in the Mediterranean inspired many 1800’s painters, and so began the modern tourist era. Most of my vacation trips as child and teenager have been in the Mediterranean with fantastic memories. In late summer it is even warmer than tropical temperatures at times, and it is quite near to me, so a European rarely needs to go anywhere else for sun, at least during the summer. The Mediterranean of course has enough volcanoes to satisfy, and you rarely need to go elsewhere even if Kilauea always provides an eruption. For me traveling to Etna is straight forward, giving us excellent time and no jet lag, and because it is so active there is always a possibility to see something, and especially so for a boat tour to Stromboli.
When I arrived in Sicily I was greeted with the familiar stylish brown-beige tones of the architecture of Catania and the huge familiar mass of Etna whose large shape lurked in the distant Sahara haze with a pink gas plume. Getting out from the airport in over 40 C heat was a huge challenge, inside it is cold, outside it is hot, so Catania was simply impossible to explore. Instead of that I took the rental car, driving around interesting sights. The rental car had been in the sun too much so opening it revealed an almost 80 C inferno as it was its own little greenhouse, instantly lethal for any imaginary dog or person stuck inside. The vehicle had to be cooled a lot before use, driven into shade. Thanks to the car AC it was possible to explore a little of the local area before driving up. I drove around the outskirts of Catania and had a look at some historical sights like the lava elephant and the fortress that the disastrous 1669 lava flows flowed against. My interests then turned towards the 1669 flows themselves, which because of the dry climate were not fully forested yet. The sclerophyll vegetation had to be pushed aside revealing the surfaces of the lava flows and even lava tubes that formed in the last phase of that catastrophic eruption. Monte Rossi, the 1669 cone, was also visible in the haze. There are still islands of greenery among the barren lava flows. The warm sunny Sicily climate and Etna’s soils suit agriculture very well, so I took the opportunity to buy some of the local wines and olive oils that I would feast on the evening after the hike. After buying these I headed up straight to Etna to get away from the icky lowland heat that was becoming more oppressive every minute with every shop stop outside.
When you drive up towards Etna the dry mediterranean vegetation flys by with its aromatic smells and a wildfire here and there as well, and the ear ringing sounds of the cicadas shooting by. I drive up the way that has a view of the 2001 lava flow that stopped only 4 km from the town of Belpasso. The ghastly hot lowland heat gets replaced by cooler more bearable mountain air and the road snakes its way up Etna. Already many km in the distance, before I arrive you can see the south side ski area, the Rifugio Sapienza and the many other facilities they have there. Huge Aa flows dot the side of the roads and I drive past the alpine-looking building towards another hotel. I had booked a few nights at the Corsaro Hotel at Etna and a few in the lowlands later at Giardini Naxos. The hotel nights up at Etna were crucial for our expedition planning. My friends knew I was coming, and so the expedition to Etna’s summit was made. Before sleep I spent the first day exploring the ski area and the 1983’s lava flows that are just outside Hotel Corsaro which have some rough pahoehoes. With my dinner done, and the sun sinking below Etna, the conditions were set for tomorrow’s adventure.
The long climb up
The climb began early in the morning as I woke up at 8 am and first did the hotel breakfast. A hotel as fine as the Corsaro Hotel had excellent Italian quality food. Soon after Fernando Meschino, Vito Uva and Walter Contarino arrived at the parking lot outside the hotel, my internet friends or perhaps even strangers greeted me. We were to do the entire adventure on foot, skipping the cable car as that would be seen as cheating. We were to take the bulldozed pathways up the 2000’s lava flows and up to the charred summit plain and later up towards Bocca Nuova at Etna’s summit.
The four of us first walked to Rifugio Sapienza, the large Etnean ski base that resembles an Alp hut, to pick up food and lots of water as it was very hot despite the altitude. Rifugio Sapienza, just like Corsaro, is a pretty good hotel that offers good food and sleep accommodations and is one of countless tourist facilities here. I bought food here as the hike would be a long one. The huge Aa flows from the 2000’s are all around it. As you hike up the ski trails the Monte Silvestri flank craters and parking lots get further and further behind you. The lowlands was a furnace and even at the cooler altitudes at the ski area it was hot and uncomfortable in summer. The total climb up and back to Etna’s summit in the bird’s way (as the crow flies) is just 11 km, but because the winding gravel pathways up which zig zags and snakes its way up, the real length we walked that day was perhaps closer to 30 kilometers, combined up and back. During such a long hike water is essential, and we brought a lot; without it you could collapse, leaving you in the worst case alone on the slopes in the night to die and help may not arrive for some time. We started with clothes in the bags, but because it was unusually warm even up here none of that was needed, and the hiking generated great amounts of body heat.
Climbing was surprisingly easy as the paths up are well maintained by machinery and any new lava flows are often digged away, but at Etna’s summit stuff is much less certain as frequent paroxymal eruptions and small fissure eruptions often covers the gravel parts with Aa lava and that lava is an almost impossible terrain to climb over the scoria clinkers. At the time of climbing we were in luck as the summit had been relatively quiet in terms of large eruptions, with the December 2015 and May 2016’s paroxysms the only large eruptions just before the climb, and they had not sent any lava flows down the paths. Just one year later in 2017 our pathways to the summit craters was buried by the upper lava flank eruption of that year, making it impossible to access Etna’s summit from the south side. The first recent cone you pass on the way up is the 2001 cone, that sent lava down towards Belpasso, it is accessible right by the parking lot, a few 100 meters from it.
The climb up is not hard unless the paths are blocked by new lava flows. Me and the team of friends carefully made our way up the bulldozed pathways under the ski cable lifts. You pass huge viscous basaltic Aa lava flows of slightly evolved mildly alkaline basaltic composition from the early 2000’s and the gas plume from Etna’s summit was seen drifting off towards the direction of the alps. One of the weather worries was always that the cumulus clouds would build up because of Etna’s strong daytime summer heating, robbing us of visibility, but thanks to the hot dry Sahara airmass that dominated summer weather in Sicily the visibility was very good and weather remained fine. But cumulus can be a problem even in the summer season at Etna so you want the hottest dry desert airmass for hiking weather. Winter hiking is almost impossible because of cold and bad visibility and therefore potential eruptions would pose an even greater danger. In the winter you can ski down these slopes, doing it in just a few 10 minutes on the way back. In 1980’s and early 2000’s eruptions caused severe damage at the south side ski centers, destroying the ski systems, with the 1980’s flows being recorded by Maurice and Katia Kraffts, with lava bulldozing the rebuild buildings that we had slept in.
At almost 2500 meters myself and the determined team passed the dark crisp shape of Piano Del Lago scoria cinder cones which formed in 2001 and were visited by myself in the early 2000’s as a 7 year old with parents, with brother burning his hand there in a hot steam vent. Now more than ten years later, it was no longer steaming. Below Piano Del Lago craters is the even much more stunning Laghetto cinder cone that we also passed. It also formed in 2001, with huge lava bubble bursts and strombolian explosions. At time of this hiking I was 21 and determined to reach the summit and the goal was set, and this time I wouldn’t fail like the previous year in 2015. The team of 4 loaded up on water with the summit craters in view at Torre Del Filosofo area where a building was constructed and later buried in the 2001 eruption. Geoff Mackeley used it when he filmed the 2001 eruption avoiding falling bombs and scoria. The whole south facing area just below the summit craters of Etna is named ”Torre Del Filosofo” meaning the philosopher’s tower, named after the philosopher Empedocles who is said to have killed himself by jumping into the fiery chasms at Etna’s summit, burning up like Gollum, with the volcano said suffering indigestion and spitting out his sandals. This area had stunning phreatomagmatic action in 2002.
At Torre Del Filosofo we made a rest among solar warmed heaps of trachybasaltic scoria and lapilli before pushing into the summit. I also inspected the NSEC crater complex that was in the distance, it had grown enormously since my first Etna visit as child, and half of it was not there before 2012 even. This area is the last sight of Etna most persons unfortunately see, as most never push to the summit, either because it is closed due to activity or because the kids are too young, or because they are too old to climb it. With no eruptions and clear weather and young age the timing was perfect to do it. The walk up to here took about 2 hours if I remember correctly, and must done carefully and slow to avoid tiring. Slowly I make my way through the lapilli ash with Fernando first and in a little depression in the distance, I see something white. As I get closer the sight resolution gets better and what looks like a mineral deposit, a touch reveals the cold signature of snow turning wet on my warm finger. Lava and lava sand is a good insulator, so snow can survive the summer here hidden under an insulating blanket. In other words it never gets that warm up here, and some other Etnean lava tubes are permanent ice chillers as lava retains heat and cold well. I was more and more thrilled the further up we got, and I been seeking it for a long time, even if I been on Etna many times, but now with previous limits behind me it was a blast.
The path to the summit
After the rest me and the friends left the doomed philosopher’s area and headed north west to a small gate hanged with ropes. In the background is the summit crater complex steaming, the gate was open and no police guards where present either, thanks to SEC s south east craters paroxysms with all recent lava flows at that date had flown into Valle Del Bove, meaning the summit craters area was not clogged up with frequent lava flows. The trail from there is narrower and passes through older lava flows and I was able to see the flow core of the Aa flows with the rubble on top and on top of that was scoria and lapilli. The excitement was high because now I finally passed the point where I could go no further as a small child. The weather was excellent and Bocca Nuova’s cone was right ahead me, it also hosts the Voragine crater inside. Very few Etna hikers were seen that day, perhaps they actually get too warm even up here at almost 3000 m. Usually the weather up here is almost polar for most of the year, Etna is a cold highland in a searing hot subtropical summer lowland. Just before heading up the central crater cone, we made another pit stop gorging ourselves on water and fruits, and the loose lapilli regolith was solar warmed as well. Because of the thinner air it felt warm in the sun, but noticeable cold in the shadow. Despite the lowering air pressure I was not tired at all, I guess that starts at over 4000 m for healthy younger individuals. Our ascent was quite impressive in speed despite Etna being an extreme altitude peak, probably driven by our excitement.
The landscapes appearance and features at Etna tell about the eruption styles and magmatic nature of the volcano. All Etnean landscapes that I visited on this and earlier visits before have all featured lots of loose materials, lapilli, scoria and ash sand and rubbly Aa lava flows. Even the thin near-vent flows where generally rubbly, and if any pahoehoe near tubes was present it was always rather large ropes and rough in texture. That instantly suggests that Etnean lavas are more viscous than the typical fresh lavas that you find in Iceland and Hawaii. Etna produces a crystal rich evolved trachybasalt, while low in silica, it is a very crystal rich melt and is a bit lower in temperatures than Hawaii. Still Etna is a relatively low viscosity lava. But these specs makes Etnean basalts far more viscous than Hawaii, and added viscosity together with Etna’s very high gas content, prone to very tall lava fountains indeed. Because of that, copious production of scoria, lapilli and tephra, and Aa formation even close to the vent is certain with added viscosity. It is this which is the cause of the copious amounts of loose lapilli materials that we had on the hike up.
The landscapes were smooth and very lunar like, with the loose lapilli could be taken for lunar regolith and smooth phreatomagmatic craters could be imagined as impact craters. The landscapes just below the summit craters were soft, smooth and sandy and dark grey. The smooth ash desert was littered with a few larger darker scoria clumps. Etna’s volcanic forms is very different from the smooth more fluid lava flows of Hawaii that was quite easy for me to walk on. Etnean terrain are either sandy or rubble lava that is impossible to walk on. Etnas lava viscosity is very variable, and seems to range from many 10 000 s Pa.s at Aa flow fronts to many 100 s of Pa.s at fluid spattering vents, which explains the variety of features seen that ranged from rough pahoehoe and spatter cones, to almost andesite thick basalt Aa flows feed by paroxysmal lava fountains. The average near vent viscosity at Etna seems to be perhaps 700 to 2000 Pa.s, with some Etnean flows almost in Hawaiian territory at least near the vents.The fluid Hawaiian flows for comparison range from as low as below 10 Pa.s to little over 100 Pa.s. Etnean mafic lavas are very crystal rich, and because of the high crystal content, the true melt viscosity is probably hiding behind the high crystal content. Etnean trachybasalts can be classified as hawaiites or mugearites depending on the ratio of potassium and sodium. They are similar to the Westman island lavas of the 1973 Heimeay eruption.
When the summit is accessible there are often tramped trails up there, so you don’t have to deal with the terrain, its very reminding of the paths up Mount Doom’s entrance that are maintained by Mordor’s slaves, I called it ”Saurons Road”. The last trail up to Bocca Nuova was not too hard although very steep, luckily no lava flows from lava fountains had been flowing there before our arrival, that would make the climb impossible. The four-man team made its way slowly up towards the central crater that hosts the Bocca Nuova and Voragine craters, it is a steep climb now but not impossibly steep, but sometimes you slip down the lapilli that is basically half a centimeter sized scoria chunks, overall the environment is incredibly sandy and the lapilli sand is coarse and abrasive and gets into the shoes. The whole team probably emptied our shoes 15 times during this expedition, the abrasive lava glass also wears down the shoes themselves, and the undersides would later melt in the heat, at least mine did. We also had to worry to not cause a landslide of scoria clumps as if they roll down and hit a person’s head, a person could be taken out. Foolishly we did not carry helmets or gas masks. As we approached Bocca Nuova at over 3000 m we gazed into the distance attempting to see Malta which can be visible as you can see 100’s of km on Etna’s summit. But the visibility was only 40 km at ground because of the Sahara summer heat haze or fog that was in the lowlands in summer. In other words the lowlands were smothered in a light brown fog, that made a brown horizon over the clearer upper atmosphere. Up here the skies where brilliant blue, and Etna’s huge gas plume was seen drifting away into the distance. Below the light grey mossy pahoehoe field of Bronte could be seen. As the team got closer and closer to the summit craters it got steeper and steeper and we were excited what we would see up there.
The cracks of doom: walking the summit of Etna
The excitement was great as we finally made our way, up the tramped non existent trail up Bocca Nuova. It was quite steep for the last part. Here the grey sandy lapilli landscapes began to change as dark lava bombs from the 2015 and 2016’s summit paroxysms littered the area. Close to the vents we were meet by new volcanic features. Many bombs had fluidal features, as close to the vents they don’t cool much at all. The last part up to the rim was littered by these splashed-out cow pie bombs, not as fluid as Hawaiis glassy splash, but they where clearly liquid when they landed and did look like dark splashed out cement or cow dung piles. These bombs were smooth and pahoehoe like, so the lava had very low viscosity, because of that, it could perhaps be fresh alkali basalt, rather than the typical trachybasalt that makes up the typical Etnean lavas. Such more fluid lava formed ground which was much easier to tread although more sharp. The materials was darker than the materials from vents below and probably was more mafic and primitive as the last eruptions before the climb, is said to have involved more gas rich primitive lava that made the gigantic 2015 winter Voragine fountain.
The four men team celebrated our ascent, and was greeted by heavy heavy volcanic fumes, yet somehow it was possible to breathe. SEC and NEWSEC and Central Crater that hosts Bocca Nuova and Voragine pits were degassing heavy and we were worried not be able to hike it and return down, but thanks to the wind the conditions at the summit of Etna became suitable for photography and we began to walk along the edge of Bocca Nuova and the results would not disappoint us.
Being inside Etna is one of the most intensely colorful and most amazing experiences that I ever had! The colors of the summit craters where surreal, condensed gases falling out minerals and sulfur. The colors where numerous shades of oranges, whites, yellows, beiges with fresher black bombs on it . I photographed all out at the summit. The experience was almost as surreal as seeing the active lava flows at Kilauea as I did 2 years before during a forest hike.
The 4-man team was amazed by the color, never before in my life had I seen so many fumaroles as this moment inside Etna’s summit. As we walked along Bocca Nouvas edge we were greeted by the most psychedelic display of volcanic gases and degassing, and as well as the great feel of having summited one of the world’s most active and productive volcanoes and one of the world’s most famous volcanoes as well, and it was the first time I was inside a volcano, even if I had seen eruptions before. The ground was harder and more solid now, yet very powdery with sulfur and stepping on lava and spatter had a crunchy sound.
The 4 person team continued our way along Bocca Nuova’s rim struck in awe by the beauty and color of the cooking hot landscape clad in sulfur. From every crack and hole in the ground there where volcanic gases coming out depositing colorful deposits of sulfur and minerals, so much that the entire ground was yellow or white or orange. There where so much volcanic gas coming out at the summit that we worried over out health being choked, but parts of the air had good quality despite the fumes. Still as we walk through the sulfurous fumes the whole place smelled strongly like fireworks, the brimstone fumes got right into the brain and the smell seemed to be stuck there for a while, and I thought it could not be good for my health. But we cancelled our attempt to tread Bocca Nuova’s interior even before the climb, as it was way too hot and noxious. There where fumaroles everywhere and some of the cracks where probably almost red hot if they were seen at night, especially those with orange sulfur. So we kept ourselves to the trail around the rim of the Bocca Nuova to avoid the most dangerous spots. Even there you had to watch out for deep cracks where a sinister glow could be seen, so the environment was treacherous. Bocca Nuova itself may not be as impressive as other basaltic pits and calderas, but still it felt huge. As we walked its rim coughing lightly, it was hard to grasp that only 48 years earlier it was born as a small glowing hole, and since then it had grown into an almost 400 m wide crater pit, now filled by Aa lava.
I gazed into Bocca Nuova which was filled by dark clastogenic lava flows from the huge fountains at Voragine just a few months before my visit. Some of its cracks where still feeling very hot when the wind blowed from there. The SEC and NEC craters were now hidden by large clouds of sulfur, their slopes yellow of sulfur with green patches of something perhaps like the Ionian pyrite deposits. The whole Bocca Nuova had been filled by the brim with new lava just months before, so it is perhaps better to call it a crusted-over lava pond, but it is far more viscous than the lava ponds in Hawaii. Two years after my visit this lava pond had began to shrink and contract as the lava slowly cooled. It was refilled in the 2020’s when Voragine became very active. Later in 2021, more than 50 intense SEC paroxysms made the summit inaccessible. I enjoyed the scenery and indeed there was so much sulfur and so thick that you could perhaps ignite it, like at Ijen, it is obvious that the pooled lava was still degassing and was liquid at depth. The magma system itself is just a few 100 meters below.
We did our big food break at Bocca Nuova feasting on quality food and myself worrying that the heavy volcanic gases we sat in would spoil the the taste. Everything we had on us became yellow of sulfur and especially the shoes: we left yellow-white footprints in the gas deposits around the summit. Everyone ate as much as we could, with Fernando Meschino being especially hungry. Everyone on the team sat beside steaming Aa clinkers that were yellow-green of gas condensates. It was a side seat in view of armageddon. The weather was good except the annoying gases, sitting on ground that was 20 years younger than myself was a thrilling fact, here the Earth is alive. The ground was very hot in some places, with one gas vent at a place in the clastogenic flow was almost hot enough to ignite a serviette, it darkened to brown, but did not ignite. It suggested at least 380 C, the thick ponded lava in Bocca Nuova was certainly liquid at least at some depth.
The gas production was noticeable, In fact Etna’s summit as a whole reminded me of Ijen because of all the sulfur. With such copious sulfur gas production its a sure sign of an open magmatic conduit system and of a well developed shallow magma storage at Etna, where magma sits and degasses itself. The copious gas amounts also has to do with Etna’s rather large magma supply and its alkaline chemistry, with alkaline magmas being more gassy than non alkaline ones. An average person with some geological knowledge may take all the fumes we saw as ”toxic gas” but most what comes out from Etna’s summit is just magmatic water vapour. But this magmatic water gas can be lethal too, and me and the team had to run from suffocating pockets. While sitting down resting, we enjoyed the warm ground, trying to avoid the hottest fumaroles, and warming ourselves in the sun, still every wind brought a strong chill here. Mostly the winds brought the same firework-like smell from Etna’s center, but drifting through the noxious fumes came another smell. an acrid burnt smell of rubber and plastic. I instantly jumped up and looked at my burnt shoes bottoms, luckily they where still usable. I realised that most coloured ground areas could not be sit on trustfully, but many of the fumaroles where also just warm and humid and not extremely hot. These fumaroles all felt humid as a hand swept through the gas, a clear sign of the water rich nature of magma, and I tried to avoid low lying areas in chase of gas pockets. If you tripped and fell inside here, you may never wake up again.
Etna is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and rarely goes a few months without eruptions during phases of high supply rates, so we where not safe at all as we continued to walk along Bocca Nuova’s rim. At any time an eruption could emerge which was a very unsettling thought that everyone had as the eyes gazed through heavy corrosive fumaroles looking at the sickly twisted landscape. While Etna is a ”red volcano” meaning the eruptions are not super violent because of the relatively low magmatic viscosity, the paroxysmal eruptions are still incredibly powerful often doing the world’s tallest lava fountains, so because of that it is always risky to be here. Small scale summit activity is nothing to worry about, it was in fact wanted, we had hoped for small scale strombolian spattering when we climbed up, such as had built a little spatter scoria heap in Voragine just weeks before my arrival and was clearly still hot enough to not allow sulfur to settle on it.
But large scale paroxysms are another thing definitely, such can involve glowing lava fountains 2500 m tall or more and tephra columns that go all way to the tropopause, showering the whole Etna area with lapilli stones. Had such an eruption broken out as we had lunch at Bocca Nuova’s rim we would have been in serious trouble, showered by hot lava chunks and perhaps directly killed by falling meter sized molten lava chunks. Survival chances at Etna’s summit during a paroxysm or subplinian fountaining are slim. But we were not very worried as a large eruption is often almost always preceded by instrument tremor, and should tremor rise, we would escape the area instantly. Still there was no good or perfect survival plan in the worst case scenario. Here in the heart of Etna or Orodruin if you wants to call it that, we are in the hands of forces of nature. Because of the potential hazards with eruptions, some in the team including me spent time every now and then looking at the INGV tremor graphs in case activity would arrive and if we should evacuate, in other words the mountain is more in charge of us, than we are in charge of ourselves, that is how it is to walk the depths of a hyperactive volcano. The others in the team were essential in this toxic, noxious, almost evil landscape, if I would fall or get hurt. They would perhaps be able to call for help and perhaps even able drag me out, although a large eruption is another thing as I said. No activity was seen during our hours at the summit, but the days after at the hotel NSEC did some small ash burps. Every team member’s ears and eyes were in high gear, in case Etna would betray us.
Our hike along Bocca Nuova continued after the food stop, and Etna’s west side could be seen. Here I attempted to see Stromboli only 116 km away, but it too was hidden under a martian like layer of Sahara dust and sea humidity in the lower atmosphere. The place from where the town of Bronte can be seen from Bocca Nuova, is the location where the lava flow that filled Bocca Nuova had spilled over and flowed a few km down Etna’s west side during the May 2016 paroxysm. Here the trail stopped, blocked by the lava flow. Reaching NEC, Etna’s highest point would mean more hiking through the poison fumes and potentially dangerous concentrations of volcanic water vapour so that possibility was not on the menu and indeed just visiting Bocca Nuova was fantastic enough.
The scenery at the summit of Etna was was incredibly dramatic, and very much is why I wanted to write this article and upload my photos. In terms of landscapes it is the most dramatic and colorful that I have ever had, very unsettling and dark, it really makes the mind go into hyperdrive. Every inch of Etna’s summit was belching gases and had colorful condensation deposits everywhere, with the dark basalt and sulfur and the fumaroles giving a really ”end of the world look”. In terms of aesthetics Etna’s summit was pure Mordor or the biblical version of hell. As the group of friends walked the rim images of Mordor came to mind, the sights were incredibly moody, dark, and satanic and almost goth metal, but a dark high fantasy like Mordor came mostly into mind, with Etna being Orodruin or Mount Doom as it is also called, being the feared volcano in Tolkien’s Legendarium. When my friends stood on outcrops surrounded by the sulfur rich steam, it was when the cracks of doom ”sammath naur”, the volcanic fissure at Orodruin where the ring was forged most of all came into my mind and a terrified almost paralysed Frodo not sure if he wants to throw the ring in. I also always imagined Gollum unseen stalking us in the acrid fog when we walked along the summit crater’s rim, and my mind playing with Gollum attacking the team leader Vito Uva who was barely visible in the fumes, with the enraged creature that emerged through the gas, trying to grab the ring that he did not have with him. Neither Gollum, orcs or any other complex life or life at all other than humans, was seen in this toxic almost sinister environment and birds avoid it with their sensitivity to sulfur gas.
The doomsday scenery we found up there must have had an impact on earlier explorers as well. The Romans and Greeks where fascinated by it and created a mythology about Etna. In the Middle Ages such unsettling sights of sulfur and steam at Etna were explained as the Gates of Hell, and this volcano became just as feared as Hekla among biblical scholars in the Middle Ages, in fact more so as the fires of Etna where far more frequent. In the early middle ages during Islamic Sicily it is calledجبل النارJabal al-Nār (‘the Mountain of Fire’), a fitting name for such a scenery that we experienced up here. I and the team spend a few hours walking the summit craters in this sinister netherworld between the skies above and the inferno below us, before we decided that the conditions up here where too dangerous and too untrusty in potential possible situations for our own safety, so we slowly made our way back downslope doing it all again but in reverse. With the ascent of Etna’s summit, one of my childhood goals was completed as I have been on Etna many times. More photos below follow here including the summary.
Visiting an active volcano can be an extraordinary experience, and as a 21 years old I finally summited Etna’s summit, something that had been on the mind since childhood. It is an experience that really plays with the mind and inspires deep thoughts. Whether you can summit Etna depends on the conditions and levels of activity and if the volcano is open for visitors. While I have been on many volcanoes and even seen eruptions, this adventure was almost as exciting as seeing the flowing lava at Kilauea. Etna provides her own unique peculiar experiences and colors, and one of my goals was completed.
I also wish to give huge thanks to Vito Uva, Walter Contarino and Fernando Meschino for making this rather risky adventure possible; it would have been far too dangerous for me to go to Etna’s summit alone. There have been as many as four Etna visits since then for me, but the later ones without a summit ascent.
Jesper Sandberg, June 2023