asked questions about Etna
The answer is
quite simple and drastic: NO, IT IS ABSOLUTELY NOT
SAFE TO GO TO THE SUMMIT AREA OF ETNA (actually, as of December 2002 it
is also forbidden). This is not only
so when the summit craters are erupting. Etna is a surprisingly large
mountain where people can easily lose orientation, and this huge mountain
creates its own microclimate. Even when there are generally stable weather
conditions in Sicily, Etna may be shrouded in dense clouds, and often
these produce downpours and thunderstorms. Since 1999, three people were
killed by lightning in the higher areas of Etna. Nonetheless, many feel
attracted by the frequent summit activity and go, often alone, during
unstable weather, and not well equipped for that kind of excursion. Apart
from the risk these people face (of getting lost in bad weather and/or
injured by the volcanic activity or by falling), there are some unpleasant
insurance problems and a general bad taste such incidents leave to those
involved. So, besides the official access restrictions which have to be
handled with highest diplomacy, it is recommended to everybody who intends
to visit Etna:
And please keep in mind the following:
Etna is an active volcano. This means, there are projectiles flying out of the summit craters and staying in their range is very dangerous. People who are lacking experience risk to react in the wrong manner, thus increasing the probability to get hurt, even simply by falling in an area where running is not the best idea. Even when in a certain moment there is no visible eruptive activity, the risk of very sudden and violent vent-clearing explosions (such as those which killed nine people in 1979 and two in 1987) exists. In recent years the activity mainly consists of so-called paroxysmal eruptive episode, which occur at the SE Crater at irregular intervals. These events are unbelievably violent and many begin quite abruptly. There have been numerous occasions when the area surrounding the Torre del Filosofo mountain hut was showered with incandescent bombs up to 0.5 m across, and more than once people observing the activity from there had to run for their lives to find shelter from the surprising rain of such large projectiles. If there is cloud cover this will also prevent anyone from seeing what activity is going on and where fragments of lava are falling.
Etna has a much more complex morphology than may appear when it is seen from some distance. It is very easy to COMPLETELY lose orientation rapidly once clouds have veiled the area you're in (this has occurred even to people who know the mountain very well), and there are areas where it's best to have very good visibility (like the near-vertical boundaries of Valle del Bove).
So if you want to visit Etna, check the local weather forecasts (among which the satellite images have proved to be most reliable) and contact the mountain guides (generally, during the tourist season, you will find them at the Rifugio Sapienza mountain hut and at the base station of the cable car on the southern flank). Once it will again be possible to climb to the summit area, leave word that and where you are going, and when you intend to be back. If possible, bring a field compass with you - even though this might not indicate the true (magnetic) north because of the magnetization of the lava flows. A hand-held GPS will surely work well. Cell phones may be highly precious devices in emergency situations on Etna, but be aware that there are areas on the mountain where there is no signal. Do also carry suitable clothes (including serious hiking boots), torches (with a set of fresh batteries) and enough water and food (chocolate is very efficient once you run out of power). If you respect these rules, a visit to Etna's summit area (outside the restricted area) will not be more dangerous than riding the car in your home town.
How to go to the summit area? At present (December 2002) this is forbidden and otherwise extremely difficult and dangerous. The two access routes on the northern and southern flanks have been partially destroyed by the 2002 eruption. On both flanks the eruptive vents have opened across the access routes, and those on the southern flank are still active. The lower portions of the access routes have been in places buried by lava flows. Any ascent would be possible only across terrain without footpaths, some areas being densely vegetated and others covered with young lava flows that are highly unpleasant to walk on. These are conditions where one very easily gets lost and may end up in serious trouble, including the risk of being charged for entering in restricted area. As long as the current eruption continues, it is unlikely that access to the upper part of Etna will be permitted. Once this eruption ends, it will probably take some time until regular guided excursions will be resumed.
Copyright © Boris Behncke, "Italy's Volcanoes: The Cradle of Volcanology"
Page set up on 26 February 1998, last modified on 9 December 2002