Monday, 6 January 2014

Vesuvius and Etna 2004


A Pair of Volcanoes

Christmas 2004, unable to find a travelling companion and recently separated, I decide to indulge a long held but distant fascination for volcanoes. With a budget flight to Naples (a short distance from Mount Vesuvius), and then an overnight ferry trip on to the Sicilian port of Catania for an attempt on the much more challenging Etna, this was a two-volcano trip.
Approaching Etna
It may all sound rather rash - walking up mountains in midwinter - but there is a rationale underpinning my general approach to adventure. Firstly, the scale of ambition has over the years been growing in small incremental steps. One hears of silly people who buy their first boat Monday, set off across the Atlantic on Tuesday, and have to be rescued Wednesday. That approach is rash. Secondly, the enterprise has to promise rewards in the form of sights or events.
There's a happy medium between doing something so banal that it's pretend-adventure (the Bear Grylls approach - the contemptuous little tart with his cameraman and sound recordist sharing every "death-defying" experience) and something so risky that one ends up - what's the word I'm looking for? - oh yes, that's the one - dead. In short, it's a balance of risk and reward. The greater one's skill and experience the smaller the risk; from this it follows that with increasing capability comes the opportunity for more vivid and memorable adventures.
So one essential skill, which must be refined and honed, is sensitivity to danger. One has to be prepared to pull back; to acknowledge that whatever the steps leading to this dangerous moment every single one can be reversed if that's the right thing to do. In the case of this Italian trip the dangers were all natural, but the same applies to human dangers. One has to develop a nose for human threats; truth be told I cannot categorically say that I have acquired these antennae: it's hard to define. But in many a strange town with its exotic inhabitants I have edged away from the quiet alley, moved towards the more public places, and glanced around for any malevolent eye contact in order to avoid becoming a victim.
On that second category - human as opposed to natural danger - we Westerners have to contend with the coloured lens of what is "normal" to us. In exotic locations the locals have a very different sense of what is normal and familiar and, say, hygienic. By way of illustration (I hope I'm not labouring the point here), my stepson Charlie and I went walkabout in Luxor (Egypt) one afternoon. Some other guests in the hotel later said, "What? You went... outSIDE?!! Out walking in the STREET? How brave!" Their temerity may be comical, but for them the unknowns were greater than for Charlie and me; better safe than sorry certainly has its merits as a motto. The trouble is that in applying that motto too strictly, people disbar themselves from a range of experience and end up the poorer for it. (Incidentally, Chas said to me as we walked to a smelly smoky internet cafe twenty times cheaper than our hotel, and bought freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice from a street vendor, "Brent, let's get this straight. It's the hottest time of the day on the hottest day of the year in the hottest year in decades...." "Yeah? Your point?" "Well we're not behaving, er, normally!" Well said Charlie!

In the first stage of this Italy journey I had slept on the rim of Vesuvius, the volcano which destroyed Pompeii and which was still smoking slightly after its last eruption in 1944. An astonishing river of cold lava was created in that 1944 eruption, like scummy water swirling its way around the edge of the sink. If this is what they term a Caldera, the known eruptions of Vesuvius may one day be dwarfed by a big one.

 River of lava in the caldera below Vesuvius's summit
I reached the entrance to Vesuvius late afternoon, and was miffed to be turned away by the gatekeepers who were packing up to go home. You come-a back tomorrow. We closing now. After they'd cleared off I sneaked through a gap in the mesh fence and yomped up to the rim, tying my tent onto a vulcanologist's vent-pipe to ensure that rolling over in the night wouldn't end in tears. Here are a few little vids of the approach, the summit,  the fast descent.(Links to Youtube under construction)

Vesuvius. The smoke and rucksack help give an idea of scale.
The overnight trip to Catania was uneventful; I had hoped to see Stromboli in the night (an erupting volcanic dome which protrudes above the waves of the Med). Dawn arrival at Sicily, with Etna brooding above it, was quite atmospheric.

Approaching Sicily by sea: Etna pink above the horizon.

A brave - or more likely hungry - fox on Christmas Day, Etna foothills
A fox came to visit me on Christmas day, having tried to dig his way through the snow into my tent. (The photos above must be under a tree.) Here is a video showing what a pest he was.There was a heavy snowfall that night. This photo gives a better idea of the conditions:

Christmas Day on the footslopes of Etna
He (or is it she?) couldn't be coaxed to take that fig from my fingers. My Christmas treat was some chestnuts growing there (in England they've all gone by November), a vivid illustration of von Humboldt's discovery that environments exist in bands, with latitude and altitude (two independent variables) combining to replicate the same conditions in far-apart locations such as Everest and the Arctic.


 Chestnuts at Christmastime

The long haul upwards. Alarmed to find the snow melting from below.

The snow on Etna is melting from below. This made a direct ascent too risky, and so I had to follow the endless hairpins of the ski slopes - no skiers but a tracked vehicle was still driving up and down them. I only got as far as 2700m - the top cablecar station. It was perishing cold, with high winds, and I pitched my tent in the basement using ceramic tiles in place of tentpegs. A notice up there read "Any tourist found beyond this point will be forced to pay in full his mountain rescue costs". Even without this there was no question of attempting the 3350m summit. (Everest - for comparison - is 8850m high.) This was admittedly a hard slog - every sodding footstep! - but its nature was just hill-walking: a tougher Snowdon. No crampons pitons or futons. The white pall showing over Etna in the top photo is no illusion; I think it's wind whipping up ice crystals rather than volcanic activity. Disappointingly I was to see no lava except in the form of mile after boring mile of old stuff at Vesuvius, abrasive as hell and unforgiving in the event of a stumble on the horrible clinking pumice.
As I made my laborious way up the piste a tracked vehicle was coming down. Its purpose is to keep the ski slopes flat enough. He pulled over to advise me that I could take shelter under the top cablecar station. In his words there was basso temperaturo which even I can understand.
The winds on Etna clearly blow in the same direction for long periods. This causes ice crystals to grow unidirectionally, as on this crucifix:
A crucifix encrusted with ice crystals on Etna; volcanic sub-craters in the distance.


The tractor driver's advice was sound. When I got up to the top cablecar station the wind was outrageous. Any thoughts I had had about pitching a tent were unrealistic. The flysheet would have blown horizontal during setting up. And so I was grateful for the basement of the ski lift. It had filled with powder snow - microscopic crystals as fine as flour - which gave no purchase for my tentpegs. Invoking Hargreaves's Rule of Adventure - in case of doubt, difficulty or danger: adapt adapt adapt - I found a pile of gorgeous Italian floor tiles and they served to hold down my tent pegs.

Sleeping arrangements in the basement of the deserted ski station
As expected, the temperaturo was bloody basso and I was having to stop every few minutes to put my chilled hands down inside my trousers. When finally the tent was up, a bit of a wobble: the zip was stuck. It took several attempts, getting more and more chilled, but in the end I managed to hole up in my sleeping bag shivering like a shivery thing. Cooking involved lying half in the tent and half out: any temptation to cook inside must be resisted for fear of asphyxiation. In order to speed up the morning's cooking I took the stupid decision to sleep with a bottle of snow - a cold water bottle so to speak. After a miserable cold night, I tried to pour out the lovely liquid water only to find it was still solid snow. Duh!
The descent the next morning was other-worldly, with beautiful sunshine and the wind whipping ice crystals across the surface, deceiving the eye like the retreating waters at the seashore.
On the way back down, a scene of great beauty

 I went out of my way to find the tractor garage and pop my head around the door to show I was not stranded at altitude. I was grateful for the driver treating me like an adult capable of assessing his own risks rather than lecturing me for a fool.

Sulhuric gas vents

The sulphur vents were at neither volcano but at Naples. Here's a short vid taken just as my battery died.When the area had become fashionable in Byron's time the Brits constructed cubicles in which to inhale the health-giving fumes. Turns out that these fumes turn to sulphuric acid when inhaled. Not good.

Naples was full of household litter, piled high on street corners and also strewn for many miles on the hairpins up to Vesuvius. This is down to the Mafia, their theft of public funds and consequent failure to dispose of the litter properly there for all the world to see. Shameless; beyond the impotent law. For some reason I shot a vid in the woods below Vesuvius.

For some reason, Pompeii made little impression on me. I seem to have taken no photos, and barely remember walking its streets. Here are some stock photos of what I might have seen:

Vesuvius                                  A victim of Pompeii              A past eruption of Etna 
As adventures go this was not the most satisfying, but helped quench my thirst to sleep on the rim of volcanos. The unexpected didn't really happen, but once you've done everything to give 'im the opportunity to put in an appearance, well if he sniffs at that red carpet and stays sat in the limo well we're not going to drag him kicking and.... (this metaphor is now out of control and shall be terminated).

One minor footnote: Somewhere around Vesuvius I managed to lose my money belt with passport, cards and cash. I had to throw myself on the mercy of the British Consul, the gent in the middle below. I do believe that the Italian lady on the right was, er, flirting with me. It crossed my mind that, with me a penniless beggar, she might take pity on me. Before this team photo, with just me and her either side of the glass, she was, er, doing things to the microphone. Me being a shy boy, I was never to find out if...
The Consul, his gorgeous Italian ladies and... that microphone.