Exploring an Active Volcano


“Lucy: Do you think you have pantophobia, Charlie Brown?

Charlie Brown: I don’t know, what’s pantophobia?

Lucy: The fear of everything.

Charlie Brown: That’s it!”

There is much that is written about how phobias and how irrational they are.  Some argue that our fears are rooted in our need for survival. For instance, the fear of snakes is considered adaptive because if we were to stumble upon a poisonous variety, the fear would cause us to flee. Then we’d live to flee another day. Any five year old knows that. But, we know that not all phobias are adaptive, like a fear of sterile needles. Or what about the opposite? Why don’t we have an innate fear of an electrical socket with loose wires?

Mt Etna is a great example of how selective anxiety can be.  When Elaine and I  walked out of the BX at Signonella NAS, I looked up into the moutons.

“Why don’t we just wander north for a little while instead of staying here for the night? I’m sure we’ll find some nice place to stay.”

“Okay!” was Elaine’s reply. I knew I couldn’t come right out and say, “Let’s go check out an active volcano.”  I can be so manipulative.

An hour and a half later, I was banking our rented Fiat through successive hairpin turns as we climbed up the side of Mount Etna. The sun was approaching the western horizon and the temperature was steadily decreasing.

“Joe, I don’t like this. Look at all those cars coming down. Do you notice there’s no one but us going up. Maybe there is something wrong up there.”

Elaine didn’t insist that I turn the car around so I kept going up. I did slow down though.

About half way up the mountain we reached what I’d called, “Base Camp”. No private vehicles beyond this point. We parked the car and got out. The cold wind hit us in the face, we were instantly chilled to the bone. We’d brought warm clothing and immediately dug into the trunk for extra layers. After bundling up, we walked to a large building to ask about the sightseeing. That’s when Elaine noticed the cable cars that were coming down the side of the mountain and into a the building.

“Okay you got me this far. There is no way you’re getting me into a cable car to go to the top of a volcano that erupted five days ago! She gave the,  Stick a fork in me, I’m done! expression.

I knew she was serious this time. I also noticed the sign behind her. It showed the hours of operation and we were 15 minutes too late. That’s why all the cars were heading down the mountain. Visiting hours were over.

I said, “That’s fine, we’ll head back down and find some place to stay in that little town we passed at the base of the mountain.”

It was dark by the time we entered the village of Nicolosi. The town is named after its twelfth-century Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saint Nicola. A sign we saw on a street corner led us to a small Bed & Breakfast located in an alleyway. We could barely squeeze the Fiat through the narrow space. I thought about our already damaged fenders and hit the gas.  No problem here, I’ll make it fit if I have to. We pulled up to the gate and rang the bell. A short, elderly Italian women came out. She was full of energy. Her words spilled out so fast I gave up listening for snippets I could understand. And she was speaking English!  I aimed for generalities like affirmatives and negatives.

“Do you have any rooms available?”

I believe she said something like, “I’m so sorry, this is a holiday weekend and everything is full.”

We thanked her and prepared to move on…”but, I do have an apartment I rent by the week and my guest are not showing up until tomorrow. I don’t think you will be able to find anything, so you can stay there tonight.”

I asked, “Quanto?”

“Oh, no problem, the same as my B&B, 55 Euros.”

For two people?” I asked.

“Yes, for the both of you, one price, no problem.”

Next thing we knew, this woman–this perfect stranger had jumped in our car and said, “I will direct you.”

After a few miles of listening to Italian that reached the speed of light we had arrived. We followed her to a full-sized, 2 bedroom apartment costing less than a typical motel room in the States.

We woke early and after a large breakfast at the B&B (included!) we headed back up to Mount Etna. I was surprised how anxious, and in this case I mean eager, Elaine was to go back. I think it had now become some kind of a personal challenge.

She said, “Did you see all those hikers yesterday? I want to hike to the top!”

I did see those hikers and they were a serious looking lot. Down parkas, winter hats, trekking poles and daypacks. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill tourist destination. Sure, there were the more typical tourists taking the hired four-wheel-drive variety of conveyance, but even they looked a bit hardier than the beach goers we’d seen down on the coast.

As we worked the Fiat back up the mountain, we saw old lava flows that had come down the mountainside. They were hundreds of meters wide and created huge, craggy modern-art sculptures of black cinder. The winding road was chiseled through them, as if cut  with a knife. Back and forth, back and forth, the little car snaked it’s way up to the top.  We parked the car by the cable car building and got out. It was a lot colder than the afternoon before. We bundled up with our extra layers and grabbed our hiking poles. From here there are three choices; cable car, industrial-sized, four-wheel-drive vehicles, or feet.

“Let’s hike it!” Elaine said.

I looked up at the top of the mountain. “We’re not prepared for this. You’ve never hiked at altitude, we don’t have water, food or enough cold weather gear to…”

“Joe, this is Sicily! The middle of the Mediterranean! How bad can it get?”

I looked at her as I hugged myself, shivering. How did I become the worried one out of the two of us?


Elaine went for the cable car as the next alternative. I was surprised at her decision. Maybe she didn’t notice the four-wheel-drive trucks.



We hopped on one of the dangling cable cars. Looking out, it was all lava beneath us. The little vegetation I could see  consisted of occasional wildflowers and scrub brush. How it could flourish in this environment is a mystery to me.  I didn’t detect a single bit of fear or anxiety from Elaine, she was loving it.

See what I mean about selective anxiety? Not even a fear of heights this time, and she usually avoids them.

The cable car ended about 3/4 of the way up the mountain. From there, we were down to two choices.

“Come on! Lets climb!”

I reluctantly conceded and we passed the line of people boarding the four-wheel-drive truck. Elaine headed up the volcano, I followed, reluctantly.

I was wearing a thick polypropylene UnderArmor turtle neck, a flannel shirt, a fleece jacket and a wool hat. I was still freezing. The wind was blowing over 30 knots and the wind chill was  below freezing. Thank God the altitude started getting to Elaine. We’d climbed about a 1/2 kilometer and we were both breathing as hard as if we’d run a mile. I finally caught up with Elaine.

“Darling, I can’t do this. This is stupid! Look up there. That’s a long way.”

Elaine looked up at the top of the mountain; bright, billowy clouds floating over the top and pouring down the other side.

She yelled loudly in the stiff breeze, “Hey when did we switch roles? You’re the explorer, not me.”

“I give. Today, I’ll be the one with the fear of heights.” I said.

“Okay, let’s go back and catch the truck, but I get to call you a wimp.”

I was relieved as we walked back down. We boarded the truck 15 minutes later and headed back up to the volcano, along with 20 other “wimps”.

4-Wheel Drive Trucks Carry the Whimps to the Top

It looked like we were traveling on the moon, as the truck weaved back and forth between the old grey lava flows. We passed huge funnels from past eruptions, their sides so steep that if you started sliding, there would be no stopping until you reached the bottom. Passing the north side of one ridge, we saw patches of snow left over from last year. The truck kept climbing. Then we saw the steam. It was pouring right out of the ground in front of us. The truck stopped and we all climbed out.

I’d braced myself in anticipation of a blast of cold air as I stepped down from the truck. Instead, I was met with a warm breeze. Wow! We were downwind from one of the hot zones and it was like walking on the beach on a hot, summer day. That didn’t last long though. An Italian guide led us off toward the summit of a steaming funnel. After about 50 meters we were no longer downwind from the steam and the cold blast of mountain air hit us like a freight train. The wind switched from a warm, 10 kt breeze to a frigid 40 kt blast that blew straight through me. It came and it went, warm, cold, high wind, gentle breeze–one second, the smell of sulfur, and fresh, crisp air the next. The howling noise of the wind kept me from understanding anything that others were saying so I moved into my own world. All my senses were firing as we crunched through the sandy cinders.

Elaine (not Joe) and the Volcano

At one point we had to cross a craggy flow with hardened chunks of  lava the size of cars. They were piled one on top of another. The mountain guides had prepared a way through ahead of time, by piling up smaller chunks, filling in the gaps and in some places using a sledge hammer. The rock is very brittle and it breaks down quickly with some hard labor. As we traversed the flow I slipped and caught myself, scratching my hands on the sharp cinders.

I yelled over the roaring wind, “ELAINE, FEEL THE LAVA, IT’S WARM!” She bent down and picked up a fist-sized chunk.

The guide in front of Elaine heard me and yelled back, “THIS WASN’T HERE FIVE DAYS AGO.”

Elaine looked confused at his words. She felt the warmth of the stone in her hands. She looked back at me and saw the surprise on my face. Then she realized what he’d meant. Her eye’s got big. We were standing on rock that was a molten, red hot stream less than a week ago.

Click here to see a short video of Mount Etna…

Elaine and the Volcano

Elaine says she learned something about her own anxiety today:

1. We all have anxiety, even the most battle-hardened explorers can become victims.

2. Sometimes we don’t worry about the real things that can hurt us, like being afraid of strangers and not afraid of drinking sugary sodas.

3. Break the habit of focusing on the things that frighten you.

4. Notice, and celebrate the things that prove your courage.

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