While I was climbing Mt. Etna…
This is a phrase that bears repeating, and so I try to use it often. I hope for opportunities to insert it into any conversation.
I like the very sound of it. But in fact, the day I spent on Mt. Etna was epic, and as everyone knows, Mt. Etna is a very alive volcano, tinged with an aura of danger. It was a singular and memorable day, made even more so by my new best friend Hilde, a hardy young Dutch teacher I met on the overcrowded bus which set out on a hot morning from Catania but which elevated us into the cool heights of fall on the very flanks of Mt. Etna.
The bus was the only one leaving that day, and everyone jostled to get on. Hilde and I had a common goal, climbing Mt. Etna and a common enemy—the tour guide on the bus who we soon decided was Mafioso, sexist, and prejudiced. Guido, as we came to call him, made pointed jokes about the two women in front (us). He intimidated, cajoled, joked, and harangued the entire bus for the majority of the ride, more than an hour, warning us all of danger/death on Mt. Etna if we did not buy the life-saving tour of Mt. Etna. It included things like helmets. It also included socks which he said “had never been worn and are for you to keep forever. ” It did not include things like walking sticks, remarkably, which later became essentials, but still, his comments were all quite terrifying. How were we to know? After all, how many of them had ever set foot on a live volcano?
By the time the bus arrived, Hilde and I had decided we were having nothing more to do with the leering Guido and threw in our lot together. At the climbing shop, I rented us a set of hiking poles, gave one to her, and Hilde pulled out a vague set of directions she’d unloaded from the internet. We bought our thirty Euro tickets to the tram, and again, come sardine, shuffled along with the crowds onto red gondolas to take us partway up the mountain.
Finally, I had a use for the down jacket I’d dragged halfway around the world, and hiking pants, too. The gondola was like a bathyscaphe gliding on rails over a gloomy ocean floor. It was overcast, and the rocky surface of etna appeared below, with bits of green moss beginning to grow on the ashy surface and me expecting schools of fish to come along. When we exited, the sky had opened somewhat, with shifting light, clouds, fog, and now there were crowded all-terrain vehicles grinding their way up the mountain while Hilde and I strode our way fearlessly uphill, giggling like schoolgirls about how we had outwitted the dastardly Guido.
We stop outside the stoop of a Refugio, filled inside with trash. We eat our stale sandwiches, one apiece, but we have plenty of water and good cheer, and we move onward and upward, marveling at the snow, the floating fog, and the steam rising from the earth. We stop to put our hands on these mysterious smoky crevices to warm them.
Past the Danger/Death signs, we hang a left, following the tour guides at a cheap but effective distance. We listen to the stereotypical mountain guides, brawny tanned men in wool hats with cool sunglasses on their heads, wearing climbing boots and spewing forth metrics, facts, and figures about Mt. Etna in French, German, and English.
The rocks in our hands come in three colors, too–red, yellow, and green: The red, iron, and the yellow, smelling like rotten eggs, is sulfur. Then came time for the route down.
This proved to be a bit more difficult, and we descended from a completely different route since we had now basically tied our fate in with that of our unhired guides. We slide on the shaky ground down a steep and narrow ridgeline that lurches over nothingness. Hilde looks frightened, but this was nothing compared to a German woman who looks to be near tears but denies all help. At least we have our sticks. With every footstep, the ashy ground slides below our feet.
As a skier, I, of course, feel superior, wholly accustomed to a slide down the side of a mountain, but I completely pity the fear of folks unused to such an unstable universe, each foot plunging uncontrollably down the pitch, the blue helmets they had rented dangling helplessly against their butts hanging from their belts.
Afterwards, Hilde and I invite a handsome Swiss man to join us in wine and French fries to hear his tale (he supplies the chocolate). He tells a tale of having gotten to the pinnacle—at least he thought so. But barely. He, too, had disregarded the imposing Guido. Oh, the thrifty Swiss, I think.
That night, Hilde and I went on the worst fish dinner we’d ever had, the best coffee granite, and on to, I hope, everlasting friendship. We keep in touch to this day, and we still like to refer back to the glorious time we spend while climbing Mt. Etna. I hope we stay friends, and maybe one day Hilde will come here, and we’ll climb Wheeler Peak in my own backyard. “Here’s to Guido,” we’ll say. “We owe it all to him.”