Its impossible to deny that Mount Etna is fascinating – the most active volcano in the world, its impact on the local landscape and history of Sicily cannot be ignored. Surrounding the volcano the landscape is covered in smaller vents, plateaus of lava and rock formations from centuries of eruptions.
It is however incredibly touristy.
At Etna South, the southerly main active crater, there is a cable car and chalets reminiscent of a ski centre. It is indeed a popular ski area in winter, but in summer you must be guided to the summit on foot or by vehicle.
As two mountaineers the prospect of being guided up a large dome of ash and lava didn’t appeal to us. Thankfully there are alternatives and hiring bikes turned out to be the perfect day out.
All around the Etna national park there are trails, both hiking and mountain biking which are well marked and available on the national park map. As it was, the company we hired the bikes – Etna bike tours – from gave us a pre-loaded GPS for the main trail – the Giro dell’Etna. Including the descent back to the rental place in Milo the total loop would be 55km.
Having managed to escape the UK for only a week this year and finding ourselves in Sicily for sport climbing and sunshine, I was surprised that there wasn’t more information on hiking in the mountains given that Sicily is quite mountainous. In fact the only map I could find was of the Etna region.
Spending a few days in Castellamare del Golfo we were making the most of the beaches and the sport climbing in nearby San Vito. Castellamare del Golfo is busy little fishing town which has a typical touristy beach and restaurants. Its is also overshadowed by Mont Inici.
Despite the dominance of the mountain on the town it seemed few people walked up there, with no maps available and very unloved footpaths and trails. There were however intermittent signposts at junctions making it possible to see that once it had been a popular area to hike.
So, armed with digital mapping (which turned out to be pretty accurate on all our walks in Sicily) we set off on the tracks from the view point above the town.
We had checked out the popular and only easy to access climbing spot of the Cascade de Lilliaz at the start of the week. It looked like a good plan for when we would be too tired to do more long walk ins and when the weather was predicted to be less reliable.
The cascades is the only climb which isn’t a committing route as you can bail off at any point along the river route. This also means it is very popular with climbers and spectators.
We had only intended to do one day of climbing there but after Moliene wasn’t in condition we headed back there on both Friday and Saturday.
There had been heavy snowfall and any thin ice had been covered enough for us to momentarily forget about it. So on Friday we headed up and climbed pitch 3 on the right side.
Standing on mushy snow with my axes hooked around a thin lip of ice, I got that horribly familiar sensation in the pit of my stomach when I really don’t like where I am stood. And I had to traverse off the mushy snow to get on to the ice.
Having had a fantastic time climbing on Il Sentiero dei Troll a couple of days earlier, we headed back to the Valnontey valley to climb the waterfall next to it, Valmiana another WI3. My initial reaction was that the first pitch looked massive and steep, but I tried not to let that put me off.
Having had an amazing time in Rjukan ice climbing last year I was very excited about our trip to Cogne this year, but very aware that it wasn’t going to be easy peasy climbing.
Rjukan is the ice equivalent of climbing at Stanage, something for every ability, lots of single pitch ice making it nice and short and 5 minutes from the car. Yes there’s multipitch routes and hard stuff to scare the pants off you, but there’s options for not doing these routes and still having a great time.
Cogne is the opposite in everyway.
In the heart of the Alps, Cogne has two main areas for climbing, the Valeille valley and the Valnontey valley – with climbs being on both sides of the valley from the sides of the mountains. The routes form in mountain gullies or from the edge of crags with terrifying chandeliers to huge walls of solid ice. All of the routes are committing multi-pitch ice which require abseiling to get off. This isn’t a place to come for your first ice climbing or multipitch climbing trip.
“I’m going to struggle with that crux pitch” I said, as I watched an Italian guide following his client up the rock face and wobbling on his crampon points as he went. When his foot slipped it crossed my mind that if he was finding it difficult to keep his crampons on the tiny slots cut out of the face, I was going to do more than struggle.
It’s easy to dream big when you arrive in Chamonix. Everyone wants climb Mont Blanc – and plenty do, without really being alpinists.
Whilst it was in the back of some minds for the end of the week, to start with we were all happy refreshing winter skills and teaching crevasse rescue techniques as we played on the Mer de Glacé. Important lesson of the day – ice screws are sharp and go through fingers as quick as ice. Ouch!
Knowing that Saturday was going to be wet we planned a great Friday for our final day in the Dolomites, heading to Corvara, a town recently expanded around the ski industry with shiny new ski lifts and outdoor shops and cafes catering for the Apre skier. It’s certainly a contrast to Cortina with its alpine war history, 1950s Winter Olympic legacy and 1960’s James Bond style ski lifts in Cortina. (See the Marino Bianchi route for an example!)
Having decided the Piz da Lech route in Corvara looked suitable challenging in the rockfax guide we headed up the two ski lifts to the bottom of the crag. (In particular the photo of the traverse across the rock face taken from the view of the cable looked impressive and had me simultaneously excited and crapping it!)
Heading up the ski lift to the Cinque Torri, the group of more than 5 towers that lies on the south slopes of Falzarego Pass above Cortina, we were finally having a day of proper climbing and not via ferratas. A day without the safety of the cable on the rock.
Having me in toe (or is that tow?) we headed to Torre Terza to do an easy multi pitch up the route ‘via normale’ followed by one of the ‘school of rock’ sport routes. Whilst the multi pitch trad route had a great abseil off it was really a scramble route and not climbing, but as a group of three it did give us chance to watch and listen to the other climbers in this small arena, all shouting and swearing at one another as they climbed through the mist up the rock spires.
Having survived my first Via Ferrata a couple of days previous but all of us keen to avoid having the mega long walk in we’d had on the Sorapiss, we decided to pick a route which had a short walk in for our next route.
The Col dei Bos route is east out of Cortina on the Falzarego pass and has only a 20 minute walk in from the road. It is grade 3b making it trickier than the previous route we’d done. Before we reached the rock face however, we arrived at the old Italian military hospital, our first indication on our trip that this whole area was on the front line of the Italian and Austrian battles in the First World War. The whole area is an impressive memorial to its history and its amazing how much is still standing.