Erupting Volcano, Friday the 13th and a Full Moon!

A Girl Always Remember Her First!

My first time seeing red lava was the Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala.  It was on a volcanology field trip in graduate school led by the venerable Richard “Dick” Stoiber.  It was the next-to-last out of the country field trip for Dick – who must have been in his 80s.  Dick left us to pick up a group of undergraduate students in the Mexico City airport.  He got his dates mixed up, and they were left on their own for a full day and night.  Let’s just say there is nothing pleasant about spending the night in the Mexico City airport.

Pacaya wasn’t the safest volcano to hike.  Banditos roamed the foothills looking to ambush hikers – foreigners and Guatemalans alike.  Oh – and it was also erupting.

We hiked to the top as a group, leaving Dick partway up the hill at a lookout.  The summit was socked in with clouds, but we could hear a steady crackle and pop that sounded like thunder.  We stopped, ate something, talked about the thunder that we could hear (keep in mind we were a bunch of geology students studying volcanology) and headed back downhill to find Dick.

On the way we were stopped by the banditos.  Those were the days when the banditos seemed more afraid of us than we were of them.  They waved guns – from a distance – and instructed us to put our money down and walk away.  Almost all of us (there was one exception) had a few dollars in our front pocket that we pulled out and placed on the ground – the rest of our money left safely behind in the hotel.  The one exception had a large amount of money in his wallet – to this day I can’t figure out why he didn’t listen to the ample warnings about how to be prepared for the bandito robbery.  Sidenote: over time the Banditos became less satisfied with a few dollars, and became more violent.  I believe there have been more deaths on Pacaya due to banditos than due to volcanic activity – but we were lucky that day.

After the hike, we climbed back into the van and drove to another lookout.  From that vantage point we could clearly see lava cascading down the side of the mountain.  Turns out what we thought was lightning and thunder was a volcanic eruption, and we had been too close for comfort!

That day taught me that the “experts” in volcanoes know nothing about volcanoes.  Volcanoes are predictably unpredictable.

Stromboli is thought to be the exception.  Stromboli is the “Old Faithful” of volcanoes.  It sends up spurts of hot lava every 10 minutes or so delighting hordes of hikers that camp down on a ridge about 200 m above the active crater.  There haven’t been any deaths on Stromboli in 80 years.  Statistically, it’s safer to view the lava spurting out of Stromboli than drive (or cross a street) in any large city in Italy  – or so you have to keep telling yourself as it lets off burst after burst of hot lava.

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We climbed Stromboli as part of a guided tour.  The volcano soars 1000 m above the Mediterranean.  You can climb the foothills (up to 400 m) without a guide.  Above that is off limits.  Four groups of 20 people each are allowed on the summit at one time.  As the fireworks are best seen at night, groups start the hike from the village of Stromboli about three hours before sunset.  They are allowed 50 minutes on the summit.  Our guide said that rule was in place to minimize the chances that you get hit by a flying piece of rock.  Another rule they instituted for safety is that you must also wear a hard hat as you approach the ridge.

I was so focused on worrying about the hike; I wasn’t too fixated on the volcano.  It’s warm and muggy in the Aeolian Islands in June.  Nowhere near as bad as it will be in July and August, but in the heat of the day walking down the street can be a chore.  There is a reason they all take siesta from 1 pm to 5 pm around here.  The idea of walking up a black slope in the sun was not appealing.

We arrived in Stromboli around 4.  After our guide checked equipment and gave us hardhats, we had about an hour to kill.  There isn’t much to do in the village – the only site is the home where (married) Ingrid Bergman lived with director Roberto Rossellini when she filmed Stromboli.  Ingrid ended up pregnant (Isabella Rossellini is their child) and publically shamed, especially as her husband would not grant her a quickie divorce ensuring the child was born out of wedlock.  (This was in the late 40s early 50s).  This created a huge scandal; Ed Sullivan refused to have her on his show; she was denounced on the floor of the US Senate as an instrument of evil.  It was an affair to rival Brad / Angelina or a Tiger Woods level of scandal.

We didn’t have Hollywood to entertain us, but there was a wedding going on in the local church.  We watched the bride arrive by electric taxi.

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The hike to the summit was around two and a half hours.  I won’t sugar coat it and say it was easy, but it was far less brutal than I imagined.  Most was in shade – through vegetation in the lower half, and in the shadow of the volcano for the remainder.  There is a reason why I don’t have photos from the early part of the hike. There were three groups climbing.  We were the third, and the group ahead of us had a few children, so it kept the pace nice and slow.  For some reason our guide decided we were fit enough to overtake that group – to the moans and groans of many of our group.  That meant we missed our first water break and pushed on relentlessly.  He then decided to overtake the next group and put us in the lead.  There was a lot of rumbling about how we weren’t that fit, etc. etc. but he pretended not to hear us.  I imagine that after 13 years of guiding treks he knew exactly what he was doing and had gauged the fitness level of the group with a quick glance.  All I know is that I could keep up – so it wasn’t that bad, but no time for photos!

The hardest part of the hike was up through the sand - it was like walking uphill on a beach.
The hardest part of the hike was up through the sand – it was like walking uphill on a beach.

As we neared the top we could hear that familiar crackle and pop that I now know isn’t thunder. We finally stopped and our guide pointed out that it was Friday the 13th and a full moon, and the volcano had been unusually active that week.  The summit had been closed for a few days!  When it started to rain ash he muttered “That’s no good.  That shouldn’t happen.” Just then a black raven flew out of the crater and away from the island.  “That’s not a good sign,” he muttered.


But we put on our hard hats, and he gave us a quick lesson in case of a pyroclastic emergency.  “The volcano usually doesn’t drop bombs on the ridge where we’ll be sitting.  But if it does, don’t panic.  Just try to dodge out of the way.  Pretend you are playing a video game.  Whatever you do, don’t run.  There’s nowhere to run to.”

This was Pacaya all over again!

We finished the climb and sat down to watch the fireworks.  Stromboli was erupting from a central crater around 200 m below us.  It was magnificent.  On a good night the crater usually erupts maybe 5 or 10 times an hour.  The night we were there it erupted almost continuously.  As the sun set, the red lava started to get more noticeable, sending up glowing cloud of ash, rocks, and boulders.

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Now to our right was another crater.  When this one erupted, it would start with a big shoot of lava and end with a plume of ash and rocks.  It was spectacular – unfortunately the rocks fell on the hillside in front of us – too close for comfort. Our guide was not amused.  As we sat on the ridge he paced back and forth behind us – mostly muttering about how he didn’t like how close the rocks were falling.

Crater to the right of the main crater let off large bursts. (Ken's photo)
Crater to the right of the main crater let off large bursts. (Ken’s photo)

The most predictable thing about volcanoes is that they are unpredictable.

By my estimation – we only had to wait out three or four of the larger eruptions from the crater to our right – and we’d be fine.  What were the chances that one of them would be the “big one” that rained volcanic bombs on our flimsy hard hats?  Just then the main crater gave a huge belch and emitted a long, large cloud of steam and ash that formed an almost perfect smoke-ring.  It would have made Bilbo Baggins proud.   Our guide took one look and visibly cringed.  “The Strombolians say that when the mountain makes a perfect ring there will be trouble,” he said under his breath.”  We had already been on the summit for 40 minutes and had been given the 10 minute warning.  At five minutes I scrambled over to Ken and told him to start putting his tripod away.  I was ready to go!

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In our last minute the crater to our right gave us one more spectacular show – molten lava streaming into the sky with a huge cloud of ash.  Thankfully most of it went straight up and down, and missed the ridge by a few dozen feet, although ash stung our eyes (well for me the back of my head as I scampered right behind the guide – I couldn’t get out of there fast enough!)

After that was a quick hike down the hill through deep ash.  It was like walking down a sand dune!  All under the full moon and aided with the light of our head lamps.  We had just enough time in the village for a drink before boarding the boat for the trip home.

We were all dirty, exhausted, and satisfied – and best of all alive.  I’m pretty sure I’ll never forget my hike on Stromboli, just like Pacaya has stayed with me all these years.  Bucket list.  Check.

Hiking Mount Etna – The Pulsing Heart of Sicily

Hiking Mount Etna was a little bitter-sweet.  Ken and I met in graduate school many years ago, and our first class together was volcanology.  We had a venerable old professor – Richard “Dick” Stoiber – then emeritus and probably around 80 – teach the class.  Dick had two rules regarding climbing volcanoes – take a head lamp and a space blanket.  This was because he lost a student to Etna.  If I remember his account correctly – he was descending the mountain at night with a graduate student – Gary Malone – when Gary slipped and fell off a cliff.  Through the night Dick sat on the ridge talking to Gary, but by the morning Gary had passed away.  Dick felt that if Gary had a space blanket to keep warm, or a headlamp to see the route correctly, he would not have died.  This occurred on March 21, 1975.

There have only been 77 confirmed deaths on Mt. Etna over its recorded history.  As volcanoes go, it is relatively safe.  Over one thousand tourists were on the mountain with us the day we hiked – the number rises to two thousand in peak times.  Even though lava has covered the Catania city site seven times in recorded history (the last flow to reach the city occurred in 1669), the city is in greater danger from earthquakes.

Etna has been continuously active for over 3,000 years – and only Hawaii’s Kilauea produces more lava. It is mostly a shield volcano like Kilauea, but does sometimes produce pyroclastic flows like Vesuvius.


We hiked on Etna’s south side – which is where all the recent volcanic activity has occurred.  There are also well developed tourist amenities.  There is a public bus running once a day from Catania that drops people off at Rifugio Sapienza.  Sidenote:  this is the same Rifugio we visited about a month ago – but that time we took a different route up from Messina.  On that visit one of the men on the tour fell and injured his knee and we spend much of our time helping him.  It turned out that was the end of his cruise – he took a medical evacuation home to the states.


You can hire guides at Rifugio Sapienza.  Guides have either a naturalist or volcanologist certification for Etna.  If you are interested in geology – make sure your guide has the volcanologist certification.  The mountain is very accessible.  From the rifugio, a cable car whisks you mid-way up the mountain.  From there a group of four-wheel drive buses will crunch their way up to 2920 meters – right above the 2002-2003 main craters.


The newer craters are 400 meters higher than the dropoff – but they are off limits – at least to guided tours.  We saw quite a few people duck under the barrier and climb towards the peak.  I have a healthy respect for the unpredictability of volcanoes.  Etna had active flows this winter, and the south-east crater is bulging and emitting ash.  It had a minor collapse the day after we visited.  I wasn’t going near it!  (Almost all the recent fatalities on Etna were tourists venturing too close to the active crater.)

See the bulging southeast crater (yellow top).  It is about to burst!
See the bulging southeast crater (yellow top). It is about to burst!
South east crater on Mt Etna - June 9, 2014.
South east crater on Mt Etna – June 9, 2014.

With the south-east crater “burping” sulfur in the background, we skirted around the two 2002-2003 craters – both still emitting steam.


A little further below was the 2001 crater. While the lava flows haven’t been that dangerous to human lives, they have taken out much of the tourist infrastructure built high on the crater.  A cable car has been around since the 1960s.  It was taken out in 2001, and was in the process of being rebuilt when the 2002-2003 eruption reached all the way to the lower part of the parking lot (below Mt. Silvestri on the map.)  By 2004 it was up and running again – as was the road to Rifugio Sapienza.  The road is built by the regional government, but the cable car is private.  And of course, there is no insurance.  Tourism is that important to the local economy.

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Hiking down the mountain through the barren lava fields, the resiliency of humans, plants, and insects was striking.  A huge variety of insects, including a gorgeous dragon fly, numerous ladybugs, and swarms of black flies were carried up to the barren wasteland at the top of the mountain by warm winds.

The hike down the south side of Etna detoured to a viewpoint of the Valle del Bove. A few thousand years ago the entire east-side of the volcano collapsed, leaving behind a huge gash that has since been partially filled with new lava flows and craters.

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After that was a scamper down a pumice field.  Dusty, but fun.

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The vegetation line was much lower – perhaps about the height of the cable car upper station.   Cactus clung on precariously and dug deep for water (roots go 10 meters down).  In their shelter, a large variety of native and unique plants took hold.

Our awesome guide Marcos explaining about the resilient cactus
Our awesome guide Marcos explaining about the resilient cactus


And then it was back down to Rifugio Sapienza for a glass of Etna wine at the end of a fabulous five hour hike.