Looking down the throat of Mt. Etna.

It was already warm at 8:30 when we caught the bus from Catania Centrale and began our meandering way through the villages that cling to the sides of the volcano. Steadily we made our way upward until there were no towns left, then it was up a new road, winding its way up a new lava flow, past new buildings. We passed a rooftop almost level with the top of the flow, a tile raft that until 2003 sheltered a family. Apparently there were sighs of relief back then when the lava stopped short of the town of Niccolosia.

We reached an artificial town, a tourist outpost, and piled off the bus. The only bus back down would leave at 4:30 in the afternoon. We were directed to the headquarters for the guided tours, where we were informed that there were two packages available. The first involved taking the cable car, then getting in trucks up to a point within striking range of the top, then a trip back down by truck and cable car after exploring a minor crater there. The other tour used the cable car and the trucks, then included a hike all the way to the top, followed by a long walk all the way down, exploring other features. It was designed to arrive back at the bus stop just in time.

After the guy explaining our options said “central crater” there was no other question. Our boots (and just about everyone else’s) were rejected as being inadequate, so we had to use theirs. Their boots were better than mine, but I have somewhat odd feet and it’s hard to find shoes that actually fit right. For a while I hoped I could put together an odd pair and have boots that fit both feet for the first time in my life, but no luck. Thus it was with quite a bit of concern for my left foot that I set out.

Tram, truck, and then then climb began. It was not a long trail, but pretty steep, and I counted myself lucky that there was at least one person in the group in even worse shape than I was. We crossed a lava flow from march of this year, and then one from 2006. Then more cinder fields, up, up, up.

The most recent eruption was from the southeast crater, on May 7. One and a half months ago. It was a small eruption, lasting only eight hours, but the southeast crater is still smoking and generally being threatening. “There are a lot of fissures on its face,” our guide explained, “and a lot of pressure. I think it could erupt soon, like in days. Of course, it is hard to predict…”

Our guide was great. Very patient and very knowledgeable. He took time out to demonstrate the proper use of walking sticks on steep loose terrain to one of our number, and was always watchful and helpful. He has been climbing Etna almost every day for twenty years. “I used to be a guide on Strómboli, but… this one is better.” He would stop to tell us about eruptions, using words like ‘beautiful’ to describe a lava flow that came within a kilometer of a town.

Finally, winded, I staggered to the top as our guide circled the group and drew the layout of the central crater in the dirt. In groups of three he took us to the edge of the “new chasm” to peer down. “Good conditions today,” he said. “Sometimes there’s too much steam and you can’t see in.”

I peered down. I eased myself closer to the edge, and peered again. The sun was straight overhead, shining way, way, down. I took another baby-step forward, and looked farther down. The wind was pushing me around a bit; it would have meant nothing were it not for Certain Death awaiting any misstep. I stepped back from the Very Deep Hole.

There are three chasms in the central crater. We walked to where we could get a good look at all of them and take pictures. We milled around a bit, finding places where the sulfurous gasses escaping from the ground all around us weren’t so bad. Crater 1964 is blocked now, which happens pretty often in volcanoes of this type, and eventually leads to explosions. So we were standing on a time bomb with (geologically speaking) a very short timer.

The central crater as a whole has been pretty quiet for a few years now, however — most of the action has been from the youthful and blustery southwest crater, which is off limits right now. We climbed out of the central crater to the portion of the rim closest to the southeast crater, and the guide gathered us around a large chunk of basalt. “This was from the May 7th eruption,” he said. The rock was less than fifty days old. I imagined standing there while semi-molten rocks rained down around me. “We will only stay here ten minutes,” he continued. “It’s not safe.”

I spent eight minutes taking pictures and two minutes looking wistfully at perhaps the best venue for stacking rocks I’ve ever seen. Good rocks in a variety of styles, level cinder terrain good for photography, dramatic backdrop. No time. A good rock stack takes a long time to compose (for me it does, anyway). I don’t like stacking in front of people, but up there I think I could have.

It was time to go down. Down and down and down, at times ski-jogging down ash and cinder slopes, pausing periodically to empty the quarries out of our shoes. By the time we reached touristville my legs were rubber, and I was not the only one in the group stumbling on fairly minor obstacles. You don’t realize when you walk on fresh legs how much goes into recovering from minor irregularities in the terrain. When you don’t have the strength to perform these basic adjustments, suddenly the world is a much trickier place to walk.

We returned our boots and caught the bus back down, winding cautiously down the steep road. Finally back in Catania we stepped off the bus and the evening heat hit me in the face like a steaming mackerel. Everyone, as they left the air-conditioned bus, said something like, “holy crap!” in the language most convenient to them. Something had changed while we were up on the mountain; the hot, hot sirocco winds from Africa had arrived and summer had begun. Time for one last seafood feast, and then back to Prague. News that it had been raining there made returning home all the more appealing.

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