That’s a picture of me next to a five-foot diameter “lava bomb” on the side of Mt. Etna, a still-active volcano in Sicily I climbed (partially) last week.
While the mountain wasn’t spewing hot stuff the day I was there, it does still pop off quite often. In fact, so much volcanic material erupted in 2021 from inside the Earth that Etna was 100 feet taller at the end of the year than at the beginning. Julia, the guide who led the small group tour I was part of, told us that when “Mother Etna” (as she refers to it) erupts, lava chunks often rain down on Catania, a city more than 30 miles away. That sounds even more intense than the hail storms we get in St. Louis every spring, although I doubt any Catanians can then convince insurers to pay for a new roof (as we have).
We didn’t climb up the entire volcano. Because the gasses released at the top are so dangerous, no one is allowed at the peak, some 11,000 feet high, unless they’re part of a scientific expedition. And even then they must wear gas masks and limit their exposure.
The spot where tourists begin to hike is at the 4,900-foot level, where there are multiple parking lots full of tour busses and at least two dozen stores selling cheap souvenirs. There’s even a guy selling different flavors of honey from a large cart. I have no idea how the infrastructure remains in place, considering Etna’s irregular moods. The place was packed with what looked like a couple thousand people, but most of them weren’t there to hike. They just wanted to take selfies and buy tchotchkes. I was particularly amused to see there was cell service — on a volcano! — and one store with a sign saying “Free Wi-Fi.” Because you can’t possibly wait to descend the mountain before posting your Mt. Etna TikToks.
Before getting there, Julia stoped the minivan at an observation point to show us a sea of lava several miles wide, a stunning site. She also took us through a lava tube, which is exactly what it sounds like. Actually, she led the rest of the group through there. I couldn’t make it because the tube narrows down to about four feet high, and I’m 6’4″. When you consider the unsteadiness of the rocky terrain and add in a couple of extra inches for the helmet she provided (without which my scalp would have been torn up by stalactites), it made for an extremely dicey experience. So I backed out, allowing my wife and the others to proceed without my claustrophobic whining.
When they emerged, we began our ascent on foot from 4,900′ up to about 7,200′, witnessing enormous craters and hearing stories about Etna’s history. As I observed while visiting Mt. St. Helens years after it blew its top, it was refreshing to see new growth vegetation sprouting in many places and, for some reason, a lot of ladybugs for whom the thin air is no problem. At altitudes greater than Denver, getting enough oxygen was an issue for me, so I had to stop several times while the quartet of twenty-somethings in my group ran around and jumped on lava bombs. I apologized for slowing them down, as well as the middle-aged German couple with us who are in better shape because they live in The Alps!
Julia is part of a group of volcanologists who are so enthusiastic about Etna that when earth-based monitoring equipment and satellites indicate it’s likely to blow again, she and others in her community communicate via a WhatsApp group text, then rush up the mountain like storm chasers heading into tornadoes and hurricanes. Whenever a new scientific expedition is announced, she volunteers to join and go to the peak to collect new rock samples. Remarkable.
If you’re ever inclined to visit Etna, let me warn you that the city of Catania is, quite frankly, disgusting. There’s trash everywhere, peeling paint on most buildings (even in relatively nice neighborhoods), roads in seriously bad shape, and more graffiti than I’ve ever seen. At one point, as we walked around the downtown area, I noticed what appeared from a distance to be a nice looking fountain, but when we walked over, the water was so yellow I thought it was a Sicilian tribute to urine.
We’d been warned the area would be overrun with people who had watched the second season of “The White Lotus” and wanted to see the locales in which it was shot. Since our reservations were made before those episodes debuted on Netflix, we were not happy to hear about an impending tourism surge, and hoped it wouldn’t be overrun by Jennifer Coolidge fans. But we discovered that if those folks were in the area, they were not in Catania proper but more likely the resorts of the nearby seaside village of Taormina, which must be nicer than what we observed downtown.
Or maybe they were busy trying to figure out how to stuff a souvenir lava bomb in the overhead compartment of their flights home.