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Etna. Sea of clouds.

Sulla cima dell'Etna

I just cant wait to go down. Right now I would just love to be sit at a table of Davide’s restaurant, with the sea in front of me and some crispy fish fry in my plate. But the reality is that we are 3300m higher, lashed by a cold wind almost in a complete darkness. The sun already left us diving in a sea of clouds after a stunning pink sunset. One of Etna’s peculiarities is that it’s not surrounded by mountains who can compete in height: when you are up here you can see the whole Sicily on the west side, while on the east there’s the Strait of Messina and the coasts of Calabria; looking north instead you can get the feeling of almost touching that wonderful group of Islands called Eolie.
It was a never-ending day! My friend Eric and I left home at 3am flying from Bergamo to Catania, then reached the Rifugio Sapienza by car, exactly where tarmac roads leave place to nature. We met Davide on the ski slope. He is an excellent skier and knows the volcano very well, you can say it’s his home. After some off-piste downhills to “taste” the Sicilian snow we had aimed directly at the summit of the craters with the idea of ​​enjoying the sunset from up there. We faced the last snow-free meters with skis on our shoulders, trudging through black ash to the top of the highest crater. At certain times, while we were climbing,the volcano gave us a spectacular show: deaf grumbling and powerful roaring while large columns of dark smoke were hurled towards the sky. Then the wind forced these clouds to bend towards the east and the thin volcanic dust began to fall on the snowy blanket. As a precaution we had helmets on our heads: it can happen sometimes that, between ashes, the volcano erupts smaller and bigger stones into the air.

On Mount Etna you can hear the sounds coming directly from the deep bowels of the volcano mixed with the usual noises of the climbing produced by the wind and the skins that crawl on the snow. The fumes and the gas pushed by the wind enveloped us and made us disappear in a painful fog for our noses and eyes. What was in front of us was an unreal and literally breathtaking scene: the unbreathable vapours forced us to wear some bands to protect our mouths and noses. We had the feeling to be on another planet up there or even to be taken back until the dawn of time. We looked down into one of the many craters that continuously puffed incandescent gas. A primordial and exciting scene. We struggled to talk to each other, the wind stole our words and the powerful sound of the volcano stood above our voices. It was so strange, we were deep in a chaos of infinite elements and forces and yet there was an extreme sense of peace. We felt as we were just strangers passing by, infinitely small but at the same time incredibly luck to be able to observe so closely the inner soul of the earth itself. I now understand how, in ancient times, a magical place like Etna had inspired stories of epic battles between supernatural beings. According to some myth, Etna has not always been a volcano. Once upon a time, Encelado, the greatest of all giants, decided to overtake Jupiter and dominate the world. However, to accomplish this, he would have to reach the sky, home of the Gods. Therefore he decided to build, with the help of his giant brothers, a sort of ladder stacking all the mountains of the planet on the top of each other. Jupiter, enraged by his arrogance, threw a bolt of lightning at the giants that ignited the whole sky, blinding these rebels and causing them to fall back on the earth. Encelado was buried under the Etna, he was wounded and couldn’t move the mountain. Furious, he began to throw flames from his chest that went up to the summit of the volcano.
We stayed there for a few more minutes to observe the impressive spectacle of the fury of the giant trapped down there. The red glow of the volcano brightened us as we took the skins off.Then we went down. The headlamp lighted up only a few meters in front of us. The slope was frozen and the wind had shaped the snow in countless flakes: it was difficult to control the skis, due to the numerous vibrations. Suddenly the surface of the snow collapsed and I found myself sitting on the ground, sunk a meter and a half down in the snow with the skis still attached to my feet. Never before I’ve found myself in such a weird situation. The warm ground had probably melted the snow from below creating some tunnels that were invisible from the surface. I felt comfortable in this kind of cave that protected from the wind. I took off my skis and climbed back up in the best I could until finding myself standing on the slope again. Further down to the left I could see the front lights of Eric and Davide, obviously they hd found an easier way to go down. I hurried up to catch them.
The following day we decided to explore on skis the Valle del Bove. A huge amphitheater with steep slopes and amazing snow, certainly one of the most evocative places of the volcano. This hollow shaped like a horseshoe has its eastern side open towards the coast of Syracuse and Taormina and was created about 65.000 years ago. The bottom is almost flat and paved with lava fields of ancient eruptions, it is surrounded by walls of thousand meters high cut by long canals: we slipped into the first one to track our routes. We had a lot of fun passing through the volcanic pinnacles. We went down where we were forced to find the best way to get out of a labyrinth of thick holm oak, larch and beech trees, an unusual environment for those who are used to skiing on the Alps. The top of the giant volcano, with its plume of smoke, was always visible behind us and would remain the background of our descent to the sea.


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