Freeriding on an active volcano
Rafael Muñoz Luño
It was just like Shanty had imagined: white lines on the black ground, carved out by skis in a surreal landscape. The interplay of contrasts, extraordinary images and a one-of-a-kind freeride experience. But a volcano would have to erupt before this could happen.
A rare opportunity
Shanty Cipolli was traveling around southern Italy anyway. For his ArroSKIcini project, the Italian freerider and mountain guide had been touring the Apennine mountain range. “We set off on our tour at the foot of Etna around the end of March, hiking through orange and lemon groves. At the time, it was hard to imagine that we’d soon be on skis, gliding over snowy areas coated in black lava sand.”
It is a rare natural phenomenon. Half a meter of fresh snow had accumulated on Mount Etna. Then the volcano became active, spewing smoke and ash. Countless lapilli—stone-sized volcanic cinders—rained down on the fresh snow to form a thin, black blanket. The ongoing search for breathtaking locations gave rise to an unexpected and truly one-of-a-kind opportunity: skiing down an active volcano—Shanty Cipolli wasn’t going to let this chance pass him by.
When he contacted us, we knew straight away that we’d just have to get on board. But what about the risk?
"There had been 50 cm of fresh snow and shortly afterwards it erupted. It was a true spectacle of nature.”
Few people know the 3,340-meter Mount Etna as well as Nuccio Faro. When the volcano guide heard about the project, he thought, “These guys are crazy. They could choose any of the imposing mountains in the Alps but they’re going for Etna?”
But he quickly got caught up in the idea. “This year was exceptional. Very few tour groups were venturing out onto Mount Etna, there had been 50 cm of fresh snow and shortly afterwards it erupted. It was a true spectacle of nature.”
With his expertise in the tallest active volcano in Europe, Nuccio was the ideal companion for the team. “Our safe window of opportunity was short, as the volcano was getting ready for a new explosive phase. Tremors, blasts, escaping gases and wind direction—all signals that would have to be constantly checked during the trip.”
Hard going for both the team and equipment
On day one, a bus took the team to the starting point. Two days earlier, it had snowed on Mount Etna before an eruption covered everything with volcanic stones. Shanty checked the conditions, hoping to find out whether the black-and-white mountain was possible on skis.
Scrambling over the sand-like lapilli takes a lot of energy. “It’s really tiring getting over this sand. And it’s a really long haul dragging all our equipment to the top,” said Shanty. Rakes and shovels were included in the haul to remove the rocks from the snow. Otherwise, the friction would have been too great and it would have been impossible to ski on the surface.
In his initial attempts, Shanty often found himself getting stuck in the volcanic rock. Fortunately, his infrequent wipe-outs caused nothing more serious than laughter. The unusual conditions made the work hard for the team and was tough on the equipment, and isolated hot ash showers burned small holes in their clothing. “My jacket’s a bit less waterproof than it used to be,” joked Shanty.
“During the ascents, I felt the explosions and vibrations...I felt the power of nature more intensely than ever before.”
The power of nature
The freerider was profoundly impressed by the scenery. “During the ascents, I felt the explosions and vibrations. This allowed me to experience nature in all its power and beauty. At the top we were greeted by breathtaking views over smoking craters all the way down to the Mediterranean Sea. I felt the power of nature more intensely than ever before.”
A unique experience
As the team sets off for the last time, everyone is exhausted. “We’re wrecked,” says Shanty. “Every time you climb, making your way over this sand, it wears you out. And it’s 3,000 meters to the top!” He examines his skis, which have been heavily scratched by the razor-sharp lapilli. Laughing, he holds them up to the camera. “Let’s see if they survive the day. At least we now know that they’re suitable for skiing on rock.”
One last go. Breathtaking descents over a lunar landscape. Columns of smoke, tremors and the monochrome interplay of colors against a dreamlike backdrop. Spectacular takes, but above all a lasting experience for the whole team. “The ash on the snow made the descent on skis something really special,” describes photographer and videographer, Thomas Monsorno. “Watching Shanty draw white tracks in the layer of black ash made me really aware of the special nature of the mountain. It was truly a one-of-a-kind freeride experience.”