Report on the successful visit to the crater area

text et photos Chris Crivelli

Lava flow by night
Lava flow by night

I’ll never forget that day. We’d been in Sicily for a few days and explored the lower reaches of Etna - lava flows between ten and several hundred years old - and seen a little of the ancient Greco-Roman ruins which are so well preserved on the island. We had also taken a bus to within a couple of hundred metres of the summit area but had been unable to make much progress on foot towards the craters as there was a driving southerly wind throwing fine tuff into our eyes. We had also observed, every night after dark, the glow of a lava flow effusing from the side of SE crater, the peaceful incandescence punctuated every few seconds by Strombolian outbursts from the central SE crater which could be seen, even from our hotel in Linguaglossa 15 km distant, to reach several dozen (maybe more than a hundred) metres into the night sky. Two days earlier we had driven round to the south of the volcano to observe, by night, the flow of lava. The lava flowed south east down the mountain for a few hundred metres before turning through 90° to flow west for a similar distance and then turning back 90° to resume its south easterly path, the tongue finally fanning out and stopping some 1.2 km from its source.

On 23rd May I turned my ankle and as I write, over five weeks later, the swelling persists; I broke the zoom servo on my digital camera and damaged the lens barrel on a borrowed Pentax 35mm camera; I bent and severely scratched walking poles, again borrowed and I lost a fleece jacket (which my wife never liked), a woolly hat (which I did like), a pair of gloves and half a sandwich (which I could have done with at one o’clock in the morning). These had all been improperly fastened to my backpack. Oh yes, and I ripped an old pair of field trousers. That is not why I’ll remember 23rd May but because that is the day we went to the source of the active lava flow on Etna.

The area on the east side of the mountain where tourists leave their cars before walking or taking the 4WD bus to the summit area was busier than it had been two days earlier and this time Etna’s peak was visible in the sunshine. We were hopeful as we waited for our bus that we could spend more time at the crater areas than on our last try.

1981 flow and ruins.
1981 flow and ruins.

Our guide for the week was Boris Behncke, a chain smoking, multi-lingual German volcanologist (with a quiff of blond hair that seems to defy gravity) and self confessed Etnaphile who has studied Etna for twelve years. He claims that Etna is his mistress, that he’s had an affair with her for all that time, but apparently his wife doesn’t mind because its only plutonic - (geology joke). Boris’s passion for his volcano is reflected in his knowledge of the flows, all of which are known by the year they erupted and standing on flows listening to the story of their effect on the local people and looking at the remains of homes that had been engulfed I was able to feel maybe just a little of what it must be like to live in the shadow of Etna which towers over the whole north east of Sicily.

Sulphurus crater
Sulphurus crater

As we went toward the summit area in the bus, we passed, for the second time in as many days, the head of the ski lift and the snow was noticeable by its absence. There are, in May, pockets of ice near the summit, which are layered with tuff but the ski slopes are lower down the mountain. As we travelled up, the graded track cut through ice several metres thick in places. The vehicle dropped us at about 3000 m which was noticeably cooler than the tourist area in the foothills and we reached for more layers as we disembarked. Once all off, Boris gave us a pep talk to remind us of the nature of the volcano, unfamiliar to most of us, and pointed to a large rock about 200m away, which was to be our next mustering point. There was the semblance of a worn path but it was not the direct route to our next stop and was covered in pyroclastic debris reminding us of the ephemeral nature of our environment. As we set off using varying routes, some over lava, some through ice, we were, after only a few paces up an incline of 15° or so, soon reminded of the altitude as we stopped to catch our breath. We took this opportunity to turn around and admire the view looking northward over the plains of northern Sicily and out into the Mediterranean. It was misty but we were just able to see how wonderful it would have been on a clear day. As we continued slowly towards the summit area we could clearly see the rim of the Northeast Crater to our left and ahead and to our right, fumes were drifting into the sky. We carried on up. It was slow work and we stopped frequently as the air, thinner than we were used to, took its toll. Walking over snow, sometimes we sank, other times we were held up by layers of tuff, while on the rocks we changed frequently between dark sandy dust and more consolidated debris or lava.
We eventually got to our first destination - the ridge between the NE Crater and the Central Crater, which comprises the 20th century vents Bocca Nuova and Voragine, from where dense white sulphurous fumes came and overwhelmed us and bit into the back of our throats.

After a chance to take in the barren, unfamiliar, even mystical landscape Æ and photograph it - Boris pointed out a narrow path round the rim of Bocca Nuova and, urging care, agreed to meet us on the other side of the crater. This was the point of no return as each of us had to decide whether to go on for a further twelve hours to include a 10 km night walk down to our cars or return to the drop off point to get the last bus down. Sad goodbyes... and we went our two separate ways.

Descent along the rim of the crater
Descent along the rim of the crater

We walked round the rim with a gentle breeze wafting fumes around us, now less dense than before. We regrouped at the top of the Valle del Leone from where we could see the cone around the active effusive vent and the strombolian activity from the main vent 100 m above it. The valley sides were over 150 m deep declining at over 35°. After pointing out the landmarks so clear from our vantage point and again reminding us of the dangers, Boris invited us to descend into the valley. Some of the group took the quick way down, galloping over the loose tuff several cms deep and slipping around under our boots - the rest of us going more sedately, traversing the slope and grateful for the support of our Leki poles. We met up about 20 minutes later and sat against a bomb many metres across and ate lunch.

This was our base for the rest of the afternoon while we explored the area waiting for dark to reveal the glow of the active vent The effect of the fumes receded to be replaced by fine volcanic dust blown up from beneath our feet and sucked into our mouths.
A few metres away there was the flow of February 2001, predominantly aa formation but in places ropey pahoehoe had formed and we carefully walked over it and we found it to have a hollow feel. It was the roof of a lava tunnel with lava still flowing gently through it and in places still hot with white ash deposits.

Walking on the lava flow recently cooled.
Lava walk

The flow stemmed from some 150 m above us, near the active vent but after reconnoitring further up Boris felt it was too difficult to attempt as a group. We settled down and explored the lower reaches of the flow. A gentle wind was swirling around and occasionally bringing acidic fumes from the Bocca Nuova towering above us. From time to time the direction changed and the wind blew over a fumerole and brought its warmth, a welcome change to the falling temperature as the sun set behind the top of the valley. It is a magical place, rugged, primordial, dark rock everywhere and devoid of all life.

Lava flow on the Etna
Lava flow on the Etna

Some time later three figures appeared at the top of the slope. They scaled down the slope and introduced themselves as journalists come to photograph the active vent. We watched them scrabble up the active flow and as we watched we discussed how we felt about getting up there. Not all of us agreed we’d go. We asked Boris when he thought he would next get to the vent and after a second or two replied ‘now, if you like’. Well we didn’t need to be asked twice and having reviewed the scene Boris led a small group of us along the base of the old flow and up to the now glowing vent (rather than up the live flow itself). After about 20 minutes we approached the vent area.

There was a noticeable hiss of degassing at the vent and cracking noise as the surface of the flow cooled and solidified on exposure to the air as it rode along on the molten lava underneath. We stood and watched the flow of about 5 m s-1 and at a temperature of over 1 000 °C dogleg down the mountain-side as we had seen it from below days before. When we rejoined the group it was completely dark and the mountainside glowed bright red from the main flow and random fumeroles. We had a four hour walk ahead of us, the first. The torches were indispensable and we helped each other over three or four km of rough pyroclasic fallout until we got to the graded track where the walking was easier. Three hours later we arrived back at the vehicles tired but elated and we drove almost in silence back to the hotel. It was nearly 2.00 am, later than expected, when we arrived, and the early returners had kept the staff up to allow us access through the security gates and to keep the bar open.

I’ll never forget that day.

 

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