Key information: Mt Etna
- Walkopedia rating80
- Natural interest17
- Human interest3
- Negative points0
- Total rating80
- Level of Difficulty: Strenuous
This walk description page is at an early stage of development, and will be expanded over time. Your comments on this walk, your experiences and tips, and your photos are very welcome.
COMMUNITY COMMENTS AND PHOTOS
Posted on: 27/08/2012
The following is Loraine Littlejohn’s piece on walking here, which was an entry we much enjoyed for our 2011 Travel Writing Competition.
Mt Etna and Me: Poles Apart
Sicily below us looked dry and parched as we droned towards Catania airport. Once landed, the separate members of our walking group (twenty six in all) milled about in the arrival hall. Eventually we coalesced in one spot like iron filings to a magnet. Where was our leader? No one was in sight.
Eventually we rallied and made our way out to where our vehicle ought to be. The coach was indeed in the appointed spot and later our leaders (unavoidably delayed) appeared and frowned upon us for not being inside the airport as originally planned. Hey, ho.
We then had a long coach ride to our destination, a three star hotel on the slopes of Mount Etna and close to the little town of Zafferana Etnea. On the way there we passed through countryside that seemed full of litter and derelict houses. I supposed that people don’t readily buy real estate in a lava field!
It’s well documented that the ancient Greeks believed that Etna was the forge of the god, Vulcan. (I find that very understandable. One day I was resting on a clump of grass and leant forward to touch a rock in front of me. It was so hot that I had to snatch my hand away.) So it’s no surprise that it’s known as ‘Europe’s greatest natural wonder’. That may well be the case, but I also consider it to be Europe’s greatest ash field.
At this point I should tell you that I am a walker who hates walking poles. I find them a nuisance and a perfect pest. They can be pretty lethal before and aft if you happen to get in the way. But I pride myself on having strong knees and can descend on sharp and steep stony tracks with little bother and without aid of stick. Where there is any danger I simply go down on all fours and negotiate my way accordingly.
However, to get back to my walk, my bęte noir…on day four of the holiday I chose the so-called hard walk. It was described as 1800 feet of ascent and descent, not bad.
We started from the rather touristy area of Etna Sud but used quiet tracks to ascend to the rim of the Valle del Bove. That was all wonderful. We were up on the higher slopes and it was a great day, the sun shining warmly on us on this south side of Etna. And we could see the peak of the mountain clearly; a real treat as the cone had been shrouded in mist for days.
The ascent was tough but enjoyable. Then, however, came the descent –for what goes up must inevitably come down. The leader shot ahead of us to lead the trek across what can only be called a mountain side of volcanic sand – and I mean a mountain side. Black ash formed an area as far as the eye could see, in front and behind, above and below, and the surface seemed to form a sharp angle with the lava fields far below.
This was relatively recent volcanic activity as there was no greenery whatsoever, only a near-perpendicular field of black ash. We had to walk at an impossible angle, so that the right leg was always at least twelve inches higher than the left. To keep balance was dreadful. As I lifted my right boot out, the other would slide on the smooth ash and I lurched dangerously downwards. Then I’d get my left foot out, whilst my right pushed upward and ached with the effort of counteracting such unequal terrain.
This was a frightening blackness, soft and unyielding, like an ice field, equally terrifying only dark. There was little sound from our party, just heavy breathing and gasps every now and then. My heart was pounding. If I fell down here I would end up hundreds of yards below with nothing whatever to break the fall. It was hell; slipping and sliding, sweating and grunting. And there was no going back, once started.
An American co-walker, who also did not use a walking pole, sank down on his rear end several times. He was as frightened as me, sweat pouring down his face. Even in the midst of my own hell, I felt sorry for him. He was a big man and his weight and size did nothing to make for an easier traverse.
At last, at the halfway mark with a fearful stretch of volcanic sand in front and behind, a very kind man offered me one of his two sticks. I grabbed at the offer. All thoughts of being a pole-less wonder dissipated like snow in hot sun.
Later, safely across the ash field, my legs shook. It took some time for my heart to return to normal rhythm. I was not pleased with the leader, who used two poles and, had led the way without once looking back. He was quite unaware of the terror we had encountered. Not one of us seemed to have the guts to say, ‘Hey, why didn’t you look after us?’ Later he even had the temerity to suggest a walk up and round the lip of one of the older volcanic cones. I looked up at the black ash of which it was formed, and declined.
And the moral of this travel story is that, if you’re going to be walking on a huge field of soft volcanic ash at an impossibly steep angle, please use a walking pole – better still use two.
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