Red-faced, spitting and swearing, the guide rages that we disrespect the rules, while his group wait wide-eyed and silent behind him.
I have never, until this point, experienced anyone who is literally apoplectic. I feel strangely calm. I hold my hands up: “Calm down. Please stop swearing at me.” I suggest he might want to concern himself with his group and, with him yelling that he would call the police to arrest us for violating Sicily law, we continue our ascent to the summit crater of Mount Etna.
We had taken the rickety old cable car (Funivia del’ Etna) from Rifugio Sapienza to 2500m. You can hop on a minibus from here to Torre del Filosfo at 2920m but we decide to walk up the dusty, gently-sloping lunar landscape. We pass a sign which advises all hikers going above 2,700m must have a guide.
From Torre del Filosfo, most tourists walk up the small volcanic cone adjacent to the bus stop or take the guided tour up to the crater rim on Mount Etna. We watch the groups shuffling up the flanks of the mountain. They are large – around 15-20 people – and slow.
Preferring to move quicker and be self-sufficient, we always intended to hike up the mountain independently. We had done research and were armed with a map, first aid kit and all the normal provisions for a day on the hill.
We set off on the lava trail and soon catch up with a group. The guide shouts that we are not permitted to follow him and we must turn back. We don’t want to cause a scene so head back the way we came.
On the map we see an alternative path away from the guided groups further around the hill. So, we follow this uphill, picking our way across the boulder field of sharp black lava. The terrain becomes sandy and steep. We make good progress. We are just ten minutes from the crater rim when we meet our angry friend.
At the crater rim, we are rewarded with a hazy view but you can make out the coast. At 3329m and with four summit craters, Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe. We can see two large steaming craters from this south side. Fumes escape from hotspots framed with red and yellow crystals.
After taking our fill of the view, we run down the scree stirring up a cloud of dust, little stones filling our boots. We retrace our route and return to the cable car. The polizia are not there waiting with handcuffs – maybe they are chasing some of the mafia bad guys.
I know this post might be a bit controversial among some of my climber friends. Should you ignore signs and not take a guide? Are you taking silly risks that could put you (and maybe those that might have to rescue you) in danger?
For me, climbing and mountaineering are all about adventure and discovery. Time (or lack thereof), knowledge of the terrain and experience has meant it has not always been possible for me to discover new areas independently. In these cases, I have happily joined guided parties. But I generally have the experience and confidence to know whether I need to hire a guide or not.
It is all about risk. That doesn’t mean taking silly risks but making calculated, informed ones. Is the weather stable? Is the avalanche warning high? Has the volcano been active in the last week?
We had been studying the mountain for several days. There didn’t appear to be an increased amount of volcanic activity. We have climbed many volcanoes in the past, some of which are still active.
Many places want you to take their guides simply to generate and protect their income. If the mountain had blown – whether we had had a guide or not – we would have been peppered with boulders, ash and possibly lava, dependent on the eruption. We followed the trails on the side of the mountain advised in the guidebooks. We were prepared. We were responsible for ourselves.
As well as leading groups safely, guides can enhance your experience on the mountain by explaining more on the history or geology of an area. I have appreciated the guides I have walked with. But it should be your choice. You should not be verbally abused for choosing to explore independently.