Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dear Mount Etna, You're Our Bitch

At 5:20 in the morning, all three alarms that we had set went off. I awoke to a Spencer groaning, “noooooooooooooooooooooooo…” which was quickly followed by “Etna, yeah!”. Then he fell back asleep. Approximately five minutes later, we managed to drag ourselves out of bed and stumble our way to the train station. We hopped on our train and headed south along the coast. The view of the sea was fantastic, but we were exhausted, so we mostly watched the insides of our eyelids.
When we reached Catania, we were greeted by some locals. It seems that the Catania train station has the highest per capita dog population of anywhere in the world, with the exception of Labrador. There were all sorts of dogs, mostly strangely oversized (for dogs, they were small for horses). We proceeded outside and found a bar where we could buy tickets for the bus to Etna. We bought the tickets without trouble, but when we asked the lady where the bus itself was, she just pointed us towards a giant mass of buses.
Approaching the mass, we noticed what seemed like a couple bus company employees directing people. To be more precise it was four bus company employees accompanying one attractive woman to her bus (which later turned out to be the same as ours). Since these guys seemed so helpful, we headed over to where they were sitting and asked where we could find the bus to Etna. One waved his hand toward the bus pit and said, “Somewhere over there. It should say Etna on it.” The other ignored us and pretended to read a newspaper. We followed their advice, and after asking another two bus people we came across, finally found our Etna bus.
We walked on to the bus and immediately thought we had made a mistake. While it was the most diverse crowd I had seen since arriving in Italy, no one looked especially ready to hike. A Japanese business man and his wife. A couple of elderly French ladies. A black woman carrying bags of groceries. Two Ukranian women in the back who were barely wearing anything at all. A tiny geriatric Italian chewing on half of a cigar. We settled down in the empty seats in the back and pulled out our yogurt, content to sit on a bus, eat, and try to figure people out.
The first half of our bus voyage was pretty generic: narrow streets, frequent stops, discomfort. The way I know exactly when the first half of our trip ended and the second half began is that there was actually an intermission. We arrived at a tiny plaza in the town of Nicolosi, which is at the foot of Mt. Etna. The bus pulled over, for what we assumed was just another stop. Then the driver informed everyone that we were going to take a thirty minute break. He then had an Italian guy near the front translate this news into broken English. I then translated his English into real English for the other people on the bus who didn’t speak Italian.
Thoroughly confused, everyone got off the bus and started wandering aimlessly throughout the tiny grassy square. One guy, who we assumed was a kick boxer started stretching and then fought a tree ferociously. We were definitely a little frightened. For the rest of the break, we wandered and watched some locals construct some sort of framework out of rusty metal pipes and another who spent ten minutes cutting a piece of wood with a hacksaw.
Before the Italian carpenter had finished his task, we returned to the bus to head up the hill. We left the town of Nicolosi and, threading between some hills, could see Etna rising into the clouds ahead of us. It seemed like we were still kilometers away when we started to climb. The road became steep and then there were switchbacks, then suddenly all the life around us disappeared and we entered a field of volcanic rock, interrupted only by the road. As we headed upward and upward, we passed the remains of a house. Only the roof was visible, and where it had collapsed, you could see the inside filled with lava. It was strange to see such a real representation of the lava flows and the damage they cause. As we ascended, we watched the thermometer as it dropped from 35 degrees to 16.
After about half an hour of desolate black, we arrived at the Etna base camp. There were three or four buildings that looked like old barns, but were actually hotels and a small shack that was the headquarters for the Etna expeditions. There was also a tram for the first leg of the journey, which we found out later cost 50 euro per person. Being as we had no idea where to start, I wandered over to the expedition shack where everyone was gathering. There were people in heavy coats and others in intense hiking gear. I pushed past them to look at the map of the expedition route. It showed where all these well prepared mountain climbers would be getting into big tank-like buses that would drive them up the mountain. So I oriented myself, grabbed Zach and Spencer, and we headed off to the roads.
The roads were steep and made up of loose black rock. It was tough walking, but walking nonetheless. Before long, we realized that the only two other people hiking up the mountain were speaking English as well. We caught up to them and introduced ourselves. Their names were
Bethany and Sean and they were from Philadelphia. They had been staying at Bethany’s uncle’s house in Nicolosi as well as traveling throughout Europe. We quickly joined forces to form quite a
hiking team.
We walked for about twenty minutes until suddenly the road we were on disappeared. We had reached a fairly steep part of the mountain, right beneath the tram porting the wealthy and boring to our next destination. We started up and quickly had to choose a path. On the right side, we had a slope made up of tiny pebbles, almost like sand. It was almost impossible to make any headway, so we chose the left which consisted of jagged chunks of lava rock. We tried to stay on ridges so as not to get stuck. Every once in a while, a piece would break off and tumble haphazardly toward everyone below.
Above us, the trams passed by, suspended as if afraid to touch the scorched landscape over which we struggled. At one point, we heard yells from above. We recognized the language as German and the emotion as anger, or at least mockery. So we yelled some insults back. As the tram passed us by, we saw them give us a thumbs up and realized that these Germans had, in fact, been excited to see us climbing and had been yelling encouragement. I’d be embarrassed at the misunderstanding, but it’s not my fault that the German language can’t sound friendly.
Giving up on the sharp rock ridges, we moved on to the sandy slopes for the rest of the journey. After about an hour and a half in total, we crested the top of the ridge right next to a lodge where everyone was getting off the tram and loading onto their tanks to conquer the next part of the mountain. As we came into view, everyone in the line started cheering for us and some Germans, who we assumed were our supporters from the tram, were filming us. Spencer put up his arms triumphantly and informed us that he felt like a hero. At this point, we took a short break to empty the rocks from our shoes and to take some of the food samples inside the lodge.
Before long, we were ready to commence the second leg of our volcanic adventure. Almost immediately, we ran into a group of Swedish girls who wanted us to take their picture. In return, they took our picture, but wouldn’t give us our cameras back unless we did a jumping picture. It
was not a great success.
Unlike the first slope, the part of the mountain where we now found ourselves was more like a plain of pure black desolation. There was only a gentle incline and the ground was covered in tiny black rocks. Occasionally, you could see the jagged protrusion of a larger piece of rock. Looking behind us, we could see large parts of Sicilia and the tops of the clouds covering the rest. Suddenly, a cloud managed to ascend to our level and came swooping across the barren landscape like a white curtain, bringing with it near blindness and a significant drop in temperature. Then, as suddenly as it had come, it was gone. The next part of our walk was like this; an alternation between warm and black and cold and white.
At one point, we were enveloped in a cloud and could see only each other. From behind us, we heard the sound of an explosion. We all reacted differently. I, for example, was thinking about running, but was confused about which way to run since the explosion was between us and the way down. Zach was busy thinking how crazy it was that Etna happened to erupt the one day we were up there. Bethany wasn’t thinking about much other than fear. We all knew exactly what Spencer was thinking because he told us. It went something like this. “Should we go? We should go.” Silence from us. “We should go, shouldn’t we?” Silence from us. “I think we should go. Let’s go.” Sean, on the other hand, was just surprised that they allow fireworks on Etna. After the cloud cleared, we looked around, and seeing no eruption realized that what we had heard was the sonic boom of a jet passing overhead. Not as cool as an eruption, but I’d never experienced a sonic boom before either.
Shortly after, we reached the tank parking lot at the base of Etna’s summit. There were many signs warning us not to go closer and as we watched a great crevice on the summit’s face
emitted a giant cloud of yellow smoke. We decided that it was probably wise not to proceed further because we didn’t have enough time. So we ascended to the top of a nearby smoking crater where all the tank and tram goers were headed. We stopped at the top to eat some food
and enjoy the view. The ground was very hot, but we’re not sure if it was from volcanic activity or from being black rocks in the sun. As a mob of people approached us, we decided to head down, not knowing how long it would take us and not daring to miss the only bus back.
As we headed back across the black plains, we played one of our favorite games. It’s called “Who can hit that rock over there with a different rock first”. The four male members of our team played while Bethany judged us. I’m not sure who won, but I know it wasn’t me, so I’m going to say that winning wasn’t the point.
In no time, we had made it back to the top of the tram. We went into the lodge to use the restroom facilities and to scavenge some more food. We also tried some Etna liquor which was 80% alcohol. It was kind of like someone mixed cough syrup, rubbing alcohol, poison, fire, and red food coloring. Needless to say, we did not buy any.
Assuming that the descent of the first section would be as difficult or more so than the ascent, we decided to get going. What we quickly discovered is that going downhill on small rocks is not only easy, it’s fun. The five of us ran, frolicked, and tumbled down the slope giggling and, at times, laughing inappropriately. It was unreasonable fun and only Bethany managed to get injured. This happened when she slipped and fell on the only plant on Mount Etna, which happened to be covered in spines. We were almost more impressed than sorry for her.
After unloading eight pounds of rock from our shoes, we made it down to the bottom in about twenty minutes. We had more than an hour until the bus arrived, but we weren’t without something to do. Sean and Bethany led us to a nearby parking lot where there were three or four giant trailers selling specialty honey. The best part was that if you went up to their stand, they’d give you samples until you had tried every single kind. We tried peach, strawberry, blackberry, eucalyptus, hazelnut, and pistachio. There were probably others, and they were just as amazing. It was the perfect after-hike snack. We then headed into the lodge and had a beer to celebrate our victory over Etna.
We rode the bus back down the mountain, said our goodbyes to Sean and Bethany in Nicolosi and passed most of the rest of our trip back to Messina in a coma-like state. When we got back, we stopped by our favorite kebab place and returned to the hotel to pass out.

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