Curled up in front of the fire after eating an obscene amount of barbecued meat it’s easy to plump for heroic. The way that it’s been described, it doesn’t sound too bad. The difference between the three seems to be one of distance, rather than difficulty, and it’s only walking, right? Putting one foot in front of the other and all that. How hard can it be?
Photo credit: Davide Spina
The ‘easy’ route finishes at a point high above the Valle del Bove. It’s a spectacular spot: a giant bowl, partially filled with hardened lava from Etna’s 1991-1993 eruption. Its roots are ancient: it was formed around 64,000 years ago by Etna’s predecessors, Trifoglietto I and II, when the two erupted and partially collapsed, forming a caldera. Nowadays the valley bottom is thirty-seven square kilometres of blackened, lava-filled desert; the walls are steep and alternately grassy, scrubby, and covered with charcoal-grey volcanic sand. “Does it snow up here?” I ask with a hopeful glint in my eye. “You can’t ski it,” I’m told with amused finality. “It’s far too dangerous.”
Clouds scud over the top of the valley, whirling and eddying with gay abandon in the air currents which rise from the valley bottom, before being buffeted every which way by the wind whistling down from the top of the mountain. Neither photo nor video do this spot justice: I keep trying, but even as I click the shutter release on my camera I know that this is one to keep in my mind’s eye, rather than on my hard drive. We continue on. It’s less of a walk than a hike now, scrambling over rocks and bits of thorny scrub which send spikes even through jeans, thick socks and boots. We’re somewhere around 2,300m up, and still climbing. The air gets ever thinner and colder.
We crest the top of the valley and are hit by a wall of icy wind. Ahead of us stretches a sea of black sand, punctuated at infrequent intervals with silvery-grey rocks. In contrast to the easy banter earlier on, nobody’s talking much now. Every spare bit of energy is being concentrated on keeping warm and staying upright as we traverse the forty-five degree slope. We trudge across it, slipping sideways on crunchy, ankle-deep chips of volcanic pumice which work their way into boots however tightly they’re laced and send clouds of ash up into the eyes, noses and mouths of anyone following behind.
“This is where we start going down, right?” asks someone as we reach an island of rock jutting out from the ash. Donato shakes his head and points 500m uphill. “No. We need to reach that outcrop over there first.” There’s a collective hiss of disappointment – in our current state of cold and tiredness it might as well be 500 miles – and then the mutiny starts. “When do we get to eat?” “Yes, when?” “I’m not going any further without eating.” The matter’s settled by a good half of the group voting with their bottoms. We huddle behind insufficiently substantial rocks in a vain attempt to stay out of the wind and wolf down food as fast as we can, concerned less with taste than with getting enough food in our bellies to get us home.
Ten minutes later – digestion be damned – the biting wind spurs people into action again and we stride, heads down and with renewed energy, to the next rock outcrop, where Davide grabs my hand. “OK. Let’s go!” He turns to face downhill and starts to run, pulling me with him. Black clouds of ash billow around us as we barrel down the slope, skating a perilously thin line between our increasing speed and conversely decreasing control. Later I’ll tell Davide the story of my youngest brother, aged ten or eleven, losing his feet at the top of Tortin in Verbier and cartwheeling all the way down, narrowly missing a pylon and bellowing as he went, using language that would make a sailor blush. For now I’m just concentrating on staying upright, knowing that if I fall there’ll be nothing to stop me from rolling all the way to the bottom unless I’m unlucky enough to hit a rock headfirst. The blood rushes in my ears and I shriek with exhilarated terror. From behind me I hear a yell from Donato: “Ski it, Kate, ski it!” I swoosh and tack across the slope, cackling as I go.
This truly is the life.