HOT LAVA: Climbing Stromboli

Looking straight up to the top of Stromboli, one of the most active volcanoes on earth, you can see white smoke puffing from the summit. The ominous mass, just north of Sicily, sits in sharp contrast to the beautiful sister Aeolian Islands that surround it. Every 15 minutes an explosion is heard. Most of the eruptions consist of bursts of gas that hurl incandescent blobs of orange lava above the rims of the craters. There is no hot molten lava running over the edge as I had expected, but projecting from the volcano’s mouth are rocks that could surely kill someone just as easily. The Sicilians call this volcano Iddu, for “him.’ There is the sensation of climbing against the hide of a big beast as you feel Stromboli rumble beneath you, alive.

The flow of lava on the right side of the trail going up the mountain, all steep and black, is the ramp-like sciara del fuoco (literally translated as “skiing down of the fire”); regular eruptions of debris roll down its length into the sea below. This long slope into the water is nearly smooth from millennia of eruptions. Rocks audibly plummet into the water. There have, of course, been deaths and injuries from unsuspecting strays, those chunks of debris that defy the right‑of‑way to the sciara del fuoco.

Brett, my climbing partner, Weighs more than 200 pounds. He’s a pharmacist from Florida, a former power lifter, and a certified dive master. As we’ve both been born and raised at sea level, neither of us has the knack for altitude. Brett’s family history, unbeknownst to me until the flight from New York to Rome, is fraught with heart attacks, so I’m concerned about his ability to conquer the beast that is Iddu.

The climb grows more difficult with each step. Every time I glance over at my companion, he looks worse. He wrings out his red bandanna headband, and sweat falls to the ground with a loud spatter, like grease hitting a hot frying pan.

Earlier that day, Brett and I had signed up for a guided hike to the top of Stromboli. We meet our group in front of a pink church at 6 P.M. In addition to the two of us (the token Americans), our group consists of a German couple in their mid-fifties, polite and chilly all at once; a thirtyish couple from Malta; a 50‑year‑old man from Florence, with red knee socks and an amiable good humor; and three lithe young women from Naples, one of whom is wearing a short dress and elegant, leather, ballet‑style slippers. From the beginning, I’m thinking: If the girl in the slippers and the miniskirt can make it, then, by God, so can I, in my hiking boots, trekking shorts, and backpack full of~ water and energy bars. The young Neapolitan gives me the impression that this is going to be a cinch, seven hours round‑trip or not. Surely Luca, our guide, would tell her to turn back if he didn’t think she was dressed properly.

Luca is a northern Italian who speaks Italian, English, and German, so he’s able to keep a running conversation with the whole motley lot of us. He’s obviously climbed this hunk of stone a thousand times. He acts like he’s ready to finish the tour, to get back to whatever he was doing down below as quickly as possible, so there’s no rundown of what-to‑expects, no pointers about the climb. In America, Luca’s talk wouldn’t be so hurried, so lacking direction. In the States, there probably would have been an hour‑long pitch about safety prior to the jaunt, a stack of waivers to sign, and requirements regarding clothing, food, and gear.

In Stromboli, you travel at your own risk. Being responsible for yourself is of utmost importance. Nor should you be confused by the lush little portside village of San Vincenzo.

The seven picturesque Aeollian Islands (one of which Is shown below) have fooled many tour groups into thinking the hike up Stromboli would be easy.

Friendly as it is, kind and civilized as the general demeanor of its inhabitants might be, this is not America. A lawsuit here would no doubt be pointless. If you fall and break your neck, the mountain guides will probably just shrug, then bitch because they’ve got to go to the top of the volcano to get you. You’re instructed not to go up without a guide, and not to sleep on the rim—but if you do, to h.ell with you. You should have taken heed, used common sense. There’s no policing the trails on the top of Stromboli. It’s all up to you: Do you want to live or do you want to die? It’s as simple as that.

There is no hospital, at least none that I’ve seen. Nor have I seen police, ambulances, or any to‑the‑rescue people anywhere on the tiny, two‑mile-wide island. Luca explains that if anyone is seriously ill or wounded, he or she will be transported to Lipari, one of the more populated of the Aeolian Islands; there one can receive better care.

Just when we think Luca is going to let us take a break, he decides it’s time to pick up speed. Soon the girl in the mini-dress and slippers is wavering. She’s tired and has already finished all her Water. Luca tells her that if she’s going to quit, this is the time to do so, because beyond the halfway point it’s not practical to turn back owing to the lack of light, the steep decline, and the many large, loose rocks. The girl gives in. Luca tells her he’s sorry; she shrugs it off. Her two friends debate on whether to go down with her, but decide to continue.

About thirty minutes later, the couple from Malta throw in the towel. Both are a bit overweight, and they know that, at not even the halfway mark, they have a long haul ahead of them. Rather than hinder the group’s progress, they choose to make their way back down to the village.

Brett is next. Panting, he stops and puts his hands on his knees. Luca sees my partner’s heaving chest and tells him to come up front and walk with him, have a talk. I suppose this is either Luca’s way of pressuring Brett to continue, or gauging how capable he is of reaching the top.

Meanwhile, the German man goads Brett on with a couple of remarks that become increasingly insulting, punctuated though they are with the German’s injections of crisp, dry laughter. “Oh, just keep going. There will be a Budweiser waiting for you at the top,” he tells Brett in his thick accent.

After five minutes, Brett stops and shakes his head. He hadn’t anticipated the effect the altitude would have on him, or how many calories it would take for him to maintain an efficient climb. He can’t keep up with Lucas pace.

I ponder the dilemma silently. What should we do?

Brett hems and haws, and I tell him to forget about it. Let the group go. Brett looks relieved, but only for a moment. For, once Luca and the gang are out of earshot, I inform Brett that he and I are going to forge ahead—alone—at our own pace. We begin to make our way up the trail without beer jokes or billy goats.

The white hard hats Luca had handed out for protection seem silly as I skim the side of Stromboli. There was an explosion once that blew blocks weighing 60 tons from the craters, flattening numerous houses. Somehow I doubt the hard hat is going to help in the event of an explosion—or worse. In fact, in 1930 a serious eruption forced most of the island’s 5,000 villagers to flee. Three people were killed by volcanic flows; a fourth was scalded to death in the sea at the base of the sciara del fuoco. Twenty others were injured, and all the vegetation on the island was burned off. The amount of ash forced upward in that one explosion was equal to the amount produced during five years of normal activity.

Still, the island didn’t really gain recognition until 1949. It was then that Ingrid Bergman fell madly in love with the films of talian director Roberto Rossellini, and wrote him a letter telling him she would work with him anywhere, anyhow. She received a quick response, asking her to star in the director’s new picture, Stromboli.

According to lore, the two shacked up in a Strombolian love nest, and in cuckolding her Swedish husband, Dr. Peter Lindstroni, Ingrid got pregnant by Rossellini; when she returned to America, she was vilified. A woman scorned, she

divorced Lindstrom, married Rossollini, and gave birth to a set of twins, one of whom turned out to be Isabella Rossellini, the actress and model. My turn on the island, of course, is far less romantic.

It’s the halfway mark that makes you weary. After I’ve walked for three hours, my new hiking boots are gnawing at my toes, and the 50‑pound pack, loaded with camera equipment, feels like a couple of bowling balls hanging by chains from my twisted spine. There is nothing comfortable about the climb, though the view below—of crystal‑clear water, lush vineyards, lemon trees, and classical architecture—is awe‑inspiring.

The difficulty of the climb increases as we inch ever higher. The air gets thinner. Roughly 3,000 feet above sea level, the volcano extends several thousand more feet underwater Iddu’s utter enormity reveals itself as you get closer to the top. His craters belch and hiss. We grab hold, and climb up his broad expanses; we’re dirty, stinking, and exhausted—but we press on.

I remember the words of an Austrian couple, Wolfgang and

Elizabeta, whom we had met at the hotel before the climb. They’ve been coming to the island, for 35 years. Before we had set out, Wolfgang, an amateur volcanologist and a vice president at a large bank, cautioned, “It’s a crapshoot. Most will live. Some will die. But Iddu could blow at any moment.”

In fact, in 1983 a biologist was killed up on the rim of the crater by a flying rock. Ten years later there was an explosion, and one woman was hurt while sleeping on the rim. In 1996 several more were injured on the rim. And on Halloween night in 1997, a man was killed when he got lost, became dehydrated and delirious, and fell off a cliff. The last serious explosion was in August 1999, when several people were injured.

“I’m getting to the top of this thing,” Brett moans, “If I have to crawl.”

Three quarters of the way up, we are crawling. So steep is the ascent, it is necessary at several points to use all fours to shimmy upward.

Four hours into our climb, we’re almost to the top. The dense smoke and the smell of sulfur stun me. Darkness is upon us. The heat is remarkably intense; sweat drains from every boiling pore. This must be what it’s like to knock on the door of hell, I think. The acrid aroma and rust‑colored lava canals rattle my mind. I think of Pompeii, of being buried in lava with my mouth open in mid-scream.

Once we reach the top, there are other people, in groups, although I don’t see Luca and the gang. Perhaps none of them had the stamina to make it. There is a giant crater that contains three active smaller ones with their angrily spitting orifices. To observe these, one must climb to the top of the pizzo; this peak is all that remains of the border of an ancient crater, the western part of which dropped into the sea thousands of years ago. Peering down into Iddu, I see what looks like the world’s most magnificent f ire works display.

Black clouds of ash spurt from the craters in tall columns, then descend on visitors in the form of fine black sand. “Bombs” of lava explode often while Brett and I are looking into Iddu’s innards. Some of these bombs have been known to weigh hundreds—even thousands—of pounds, and to have temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

We are told by some Russian tourists that they have been camping on Iddu for several nights; they caution us against getting too close to the craters, because the thick, ashy content and gassy fumes make breathing difficult.

Though the air is cloudy and smoky when we reach Stromboli’s peak, the explosions pierce through the miasma. Sometimes there are jets of melted lava accompanied by hisses. Other times there are louder bangs, which, to a first‑timer, can be terrifying. Still, there’s the “it can’t happen to me” attitude that makes you feel a bit invincible, evidenced by the small, man‑made stone hovels, called outposts, where people camp overnight. These refuges are merely pacifiers, like the hard hats. The little shelters are no protection against flying rocks of fire.

A young German couple approach and tell me they’ve spent the last week on the rim, taking photographs. “We almost lost our camp the other night,” the tall young man says, with a nod to his companion. “A rock fell on her sleeping bag, but she had walked off to take a piss. After that, we went back to the village.”

Brett and I take a seat on the rocks and catch our breath. My feet are destroyed, for at least the next couple of weeks. I know that when, I take off my boots, I’ll have to peel off my socks carefully, or risk removing a good bit of skin; I’ve been feeling the pus ooze from blisters, and bond like glue to the fibers of the fabric. And we still have a two‑hour hike back to the village.

Exhaustion gives way to the adrenaline rush of being so close to something so alive and so deadly. You can hear the pulse of the planet, and feel the heat of its breath on your skin. There is a sensation both of freedom and confinement, for you’ve made the climb and are looking into the belly of the planet—and the belly could swallow you. There’s nowhere to go up here … but down.

After two hours we decide to make the descent, which is on another trail, mostly of a soft sandy texture. My knees begin to shake. My quadriceps shiver and ache. My feet scream. Yet there’s this feeling of elation—euphoria even. My emotions fall somewhere between utter terror and orgasm. Brett and I are quiet for a while, then become deliriously giddy as waves of hunger and exhaustion claw into us.

And despite all this—the agony of my feet, my weary muscles, the heat—I’m thinking only one thing on the way down: I can’t wait to take on Iddu once again.

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