Mount Etna

Just the six of us on the side of a volcano


Yesterday was a big day.  I had been looking forward to it ever since we decided to come to Sicily.  We were going to climb a volcano. Mount Etna.

Most recent eruption . . . last week (just a small one).

Our alarm went off at 6:15am but I was already awake.  For years I’ve had trouble sleeping but this trip has seen more restful nights for me than I’ve had in a long time – except the night before Etna.  Maybe I was too excited.

Espresso number one.  Espresso number two. Espresso number . . . just kidding, there wasn’t time for three.  We packed a couple of backpacks with lots of water and layers of clothes (we heard that it gets cold up there) and headed out the door.  It was a twenty minute walk to the bus station and there’s only one bus to Etna.

On arrival at the ticket office the man at the counter looked at me, then looked at the boys sitting on the chairs behind.  He gestured at them, then to me and said something in a mixture of Italian and English that included the word, “. . . Yours?”

“Si,” I replied because I’ve been learning Italian and saying “Si” makes me feel legit.

“You lika the television?”

“Uh, yes . . .?”

“Ahhh, good!!  Ha ha ha!! Yes, it’s good!!  Ha ha!”

Apparently, this was a really funny joke because a few of his colleagues joined in the laughter.  But even after they tried to explain it to me in perfect Italinglish I still didn’t get it. Guess I should have had that third espresso.

Anyway, we made it onto the bus.  Ten dollars each for the round-trip 1.5 hour ride to Refugio Sapienza which is a tourist area about halfway up the mountain.   This is where all Etna excursions begin.

Halfway to our destination the bus stopped at a small town called Nicolosi for bathroom breaks and cappuccinos (ironically, diuretics).  Perhaps the driver also needed to cool down a little from the heated argument he was having on his phone (and later to himself) while he squeezed and stretched that bus through the impossible labyrinth of buildings, pedestrians and other vehicles that is Sicily.  We wore our seatbelts.

After the pit stop the occupants of our bus were joined by a Sicilian Rico Suave who, in between flirting with Linds and several other women at the front of the bus, “educated” us on how best to see Mount Etna.  He talked at the group for 30 minutes straight, finally getting to the punchline that the only legitimate way to experience the true living, breathing phenomenon of Mount Etna is to purchase the 84 Euro ($130 per person) tour.  If the boys were to learn nothing about geology that day, at least we had a prime example of first-rate slimy salesmanship to hone their sense of skepticism. Thanks, Rico.

The bus arrived and we disembarked.  Nearby Refugio Sapienza you can hike around several “craters” which are sites where the volcano has erupted part way down the side of the mountain.  The boys were even able to scramble down into the centre of one and back up the other side. A good start to the day!

That was the easy part.  We had seven hours before the bus left to return to Catania.  As Rico had informed us, it is impossible to hike to the top of the volcano in that time.  Even taking the gondola at $50/person will still not get you within striking distance, although it will take you to more interesting areas.

The kids had done the math.  $780 to get the family to the very top (gondola + 4×4).  $300 for a 10min gondola ride to a spot we figured we could hike to.  $0 to just start walking (with the promise of gelato and pizza at the end of the day).  Done deal, my little frugal friends!

We fueled up on cheap high-octane arancini and started walking.

In case you’ve never done it before, walking on the side of an active volcano is not like normal hiking.  The ground beneath your feet consists of billions rocks that were once spewn into the air as magma, cooled, then fell to the earth loosely as sharp little nuggets.  Ever tried walking up a pile of gravel? It’s like that only tiny pieces of volcanic sandpaper work their way into your shoes and socks as every step slips and shifts unpredictably.

Somehow Ben tapped into his inner mountain goat and rocketed ahead shouting words of encouragement down to the rest of us.  Linds and I took turns holding Eli’s hand as we zig-zagged our way upward .. . very . . . slowly. Owen and Jake valiantly pretended to enjoy themselves, not wanting to jeopardize their chances at gelato by complaining.

As I gazed longingly at the gondolas whizzing by overhead, Eli chatted my ear off about how he was “pretty lucky” to be climbing a volcano anyway, and that some people in the gondolas might feel bad spending all that money when they see a seven year old just climbing up.  “They spent all the money and they don’t even get to experience this!”  What a guy 🙂

One hour and twenty-four minutes later (do all kids obsess about measuring things?), we arrived at the gondola station extremely tired and proud of ourselves.  After a brief rest, we continued a little further up into landscape that looked and felt more and more alien all the time.

The 4×4 buses rumbled by kicking up clouds of dust as they transported the super-rich to the summit.  But we had a great time exploring off the beaten path, scrambling over strange black formations, and even finding a place to fly the drone.  They boys excavated a hole, tossing away rocks that were far lighter than they should have been (volcanic rock is porous). We put our hands to the ground trying to feel the heat of the lava beneath the surface.  Was it just the heat from the sun? The whole time, all we had to do was glance up to see smoke rising from the top of the mountain. It was the real deal.

I will admit to investigating the cost of the gondola on the way down for Lindsay’s sake, but she wouldn’t do it.  Atta girl!

Knowing a fall on those gnarly volcanic rocks would shred our skin like nothing, we picked our way down the slopes as carefully as we could.  Miraculously, not only did no one get injured, but we all made it down with smiles on our faces.

As we emptied the rocks and dust from our shoes we recounted our day and agreed unanimously that we had made the right decision to choose the free Mount Etna experience.

Sure, we didn’t get to ride the gondola, to see the top, or to smell the sulphur.  But in my opinion we got more. We still got to hike Etna, see awesome things and take some great photos, but we also got to learn how to think independently in the face of an aggressive sales pitch; how being financially responsible can feel really good; and most importantly, the value of doing something hard with people you care about.

Gelato and pizza never tasted so good!


  1. Cool hike!

    I’m sure you got the T.V. joke, but just in case…families used to have a lot of kids before T.V.’s came into the house. 🙂

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