Snowboarding on a volcano

Mount Etna towers over daily life in the northeast corner of Sicily. It is Europe’s most active volcano and rises to 3,350 meters above sea level. THAT is a recipe for snowboarding fun: snow, ash, and smoke. Lava if you’re lucky.

The Etna ski season has to be the world’s shortest, and most unpredictable. As surely as Italians can milk a cow there is snow in the Alps in January, whereas January in Sicily might very well be sunbathing weather. There is something surreal about snowboarding on a volcano with a view to the sea where people are wearing speedos (Europeans of course.)

** By the way, the reference to Italians milking cows was not a typo. The World Cow-milking Championship was won in 2014 by a previously undefeated Italian named Gianmario Ghirardi. Even though he won, he raised concerns about tampering with the cows. **

There are two uniquely Sicilian ski stations on Etna, one on the southern slope, and one on the northern slope near the town of Linguaglossa. The normal route up to the crater starts at the northern ski station, taking the ski lifts up from the base at 1,800 meters to the top of the groomed runs at 2,400 meters. That leaves you with 950 meters to hoof it up on skis with skins. As there hasn’t been much snow this year, the lifts have been closed for weeks. I had to start my ascent at 1,800 meters. Super. A bonus 600 meters of vertical.

So how do you get up to the crater as a snowboarder? Last year, when I made the same ascent, I wore snowshoes while my guide strapped MY snowboard to HIS backpack. Love Paolo. He belongs in the Etna Hall of Fame. When I got to the top, I exchanged snowshoes for my board and down I went, and Paolo was still breathing. At the end of the day Paolo suggested I look into buying a split-board if I planned to come back (I think he meant if I ever expected to go up Mount Etna with him again.)

So this year, with a new guide (Paolo doesn’t reply to my messages anymore), I arrived with a split-board. It’s basically a snowboard that splits down the middle to resemble a pair of skis so you can put skins on and go up the mountain with the grown-ups. When you get to the top, clip the board back together, use the other settings for the bindings, and boom, you’re a hip snowboarder again.

My guide this year was a great guy named Alfio. Fortunately he agreed to have my split-board, bindings, and skins delivered to his place in Linguaglossa, and he remembered to bring them with him. The only problem was that neither of us knew how to assemble everything, and as a skier, Alfio was particularly challenged. When we worked out that spraying marine grease on the bindings was not a better solution to reading the instructions, everything came together.

We set off at 1,800 meters and trekked up on skis avoiding the bare spots at lower elevations until we reached the top of the runs about an hour and a quarter later. It was still clear at that point, but we could see some pretty nasty weather off to the south-east and heading toward us. By the time we reached 2,900 meters, three hours after we set out, Alfio called it. An extremely cold wind had blown in reducing visibility to almost nothing. It was time to head down.

Once my ‘skis’ were converted back to a snowboard for the descent, I suddenly felt twenty years younger. Alfio started out, navigating through piles of red tinged and hardened lava poking through the snow. I followed him with a GoPro strapped to my chest, cursing whenever he skied across a flat ridge that connected the steeper slopes (any snowboarder will know why I was cursing.)

The snow was pretty hard at the top speckled with grey ash. As we got lower the snow that remained was wet and heavy, and less than a foot deep. It was on the lower slopes that I managed to catch an edge with my board and experience one of the most spectacular crashes of my life. In my defence, I should tell you that the K2 split-board was a bit like riding a kitchen counter. There is zero camber making it harder to turn and carve the snow.

There is one point on the route where you can see the top of the crater, pouring out smoke mixed with cloud, and it all feels very other-worldly. That is the image I photographed and selected for this post. I’m looking forward to next year’s attempt.

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