Autumn's Cauldron

Mount Etna is the largest of three active volcanoes in Italy. As an active stratovolcano on the east coast of Sicily, it sits between the cities of Messina and Catania.

On September 27, 2004, eleven travelers from different parts of the world were led by Andrea Ercolani, our guide to explore Mount Etna. Earlier that month, the volcano had become active with lava flowing from a fissure in the Valle del Bove and percolating from the mouth of a new effusive vent.

The initial ascent halfway up via funicular (cable car) deposited us into an otherworldly mist and cold temperature. Walking through dense atmosphere, our collective amazement pushed the physical challenge to climb as the terrain became more rocky and steep. Air quality cleared and warmed at higher elevation.

Etna, which stands at close to 11,000 feet, has slopes with large calderas (cauldron-like hollows). Historically, these formed when magma chambers beneath the surface collapsed inward. The continuous summit degassing, Strombolian eruptions, and basaltic lava flows are what make the visual landscape so attractive and memorable to trekkers. We quickly discovered that rock surrounding the hollows was extremely hard and sharp to the touch. And with one step too close to a lava stream, both heat and sulfuric fumes intensified. One trekker's eyelashes were immediately singed.

Our group had been together for the better part of a week celebrating the 40th birthday of a friend who had arranged the tour up Etna. Nighttime fell. Headlamps helped us navigate. We stood together in a row on a ridge overlooking Catania to the east and bonded in appreciation of the experience.

(updated September 27, 2020)

Trekking up Mount Etna, September 2004

Fog begins to clear at higher elevations.

Guide, Andrea Ercolani of Siciltrek, leads the group toward the lava streams.

The lava pools reach temperatures around 2000˚ F and emit a strong sulfuric odor.

Looking out into the twilight sky from Mount Etna.

Eruptions from Mount Etna, September 27, 2004.

Trekkers get a blast of intense heat from a lava stream.