Fire and Ice: Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE (6500 words)

Lava Bombs on Mt. Etna

If you decide on a career that includes climbing volcanoes, then prepare to take some heat, especially if you are young. The young are most apt to do foolish things.

I was foolish—23 years young—and watching the open vent in the earth, the Bocca Nuova, waiting for the huge blue flame to erupt so that I could edge over and look down into the mysterious bowels of the earth before the next erupting flame.

During the summer of 1969, I had been a sailing instructor at Club Med on Cefalù Bay in northern Sicily, that great island off the boot of Italy. After several weeks I was offered the job of tour guide to Mt. Etna, the famous volcano on the eastern side of the island. Two days each week, I would lead a bus filled with 70 tourists up and down the mountains and valleys of central Sicily, heading at times south and then east along a twisting, winding road. All the villages and towns along the way were originally situated on mountain tops for defensive advantage. It was almost 140 miles from Cefalù to the first stopover for refreshments at the village of Regalbuto. Then another 70 miles to the desolated south flank of Mt. Etna and our arrival at the hotel Rifugio Sapienza

On the way, I would speak to them in French. “Bonjour mesdames and messieurs. Je m’appelle Bernard Chouet.I will be your guide on this excursion to Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in Europe. You will notice how the road twists and turns. If you count the turns you will find that there are over 1600 on this six-hour trip to our destination at the Rifugio Sapienza, which as you will see is above the tree-line at about 7000 feet. Rifugio Sapienza is a simple hotel with lean accommodations, but since you are all adventurers at heart, we know you will enjoy it immensely. There you will have dinner and receive some clothing appropriate for your ascent. Then you will sleep for several hours until we wake you at about three in the morning. We will get into several World War II Dodge vans and jeeps, and drive for 90 minutes until we get to 10,000 feet, and then we will hike for another 30 minutes to the Bocca Nuova, a vent where you will see a nice jet of incandescent gases. Then after taking a look into the main Central Crater, we will hike over to the Northeast Crater where, if we are lucky, we can enjoy some fireworks shooting into the sky, see some lava flows, and watch the sunrise.”

I’d caution them to walk carefully over the lava rocks, which were very sharp. Invariably someone would trip and fall on their hands and knees, bloodying themselves in the process. Often I’d tell jokes that I had heard in recent days, and sometimes groups of tourists would sing songs on the long drive.

Upon arrival, the tourists would disembark and find their beds. Before dinner, they had to be outfitted with warm clothing and hiking boots, since they rarely had the forethought to realize how temperatures at sea level never reflected wind-chilled temperatures above 10,000 feet, or how sharp and dangerous was broken lava. After dinner and before bed, they enjoyed a movie about Etna, featuring Antonio and a famous French adventurer, Haroun Tazieff, who had traveled widely with a film crew to volcanoes in Italy, Africa, Europe, South America, and Japan.

The first time I saw the film, I recalled that at 16 in Geneva I had seen a French film called Rendez-vous du Diable that featured Tazieff and his adventures in Italy, Sicily, and Africa.The film also showed Tazieff’s companion, Antonio Nicoloso, the  leading guide on the hike up Etna. That old film had sparked a spirit of adventure in me, making me feel all the more stifled and trapped in Switzerland. At that time, I had no hope of ever experiencing anything as exciting as climbing a volcano. I had forgotten all about the film and that spirit until I arrived here at Etna. I began learning all I could about Etna.

Mt. Etna’s summit cone rises over 10,500 feet with a diameter of 1.5 miles, dominating the mid-eastern coast of Sicily between Messina and Siracusa. The diameter of the central crater itself extends over 1600 feet, and has seen continuous activity of one kind or another throughout recorded history.

Etna has been the object of Mediterranean lore for over 2500 years. The Roman fire god Vulcan reportedly made his final home under the volcano. Greek poets like Pindar and Roman poets like Virgil wrote of Etna’s lava and smoke and ash. The philosophers Aristotle and Lucretius both believed that its volcanic activity was caused by a wind imprisoned deep in the Earth, a hot wind that melted rock and mixed with seawater to produce the tremendous blasts of flame that would periodically leap into the sky. People would climb to the summit and offer incense to the gods of the mountain. In England, people believed that the second wife of King Henry the Eight, Anne Boleyn, mother to Elizabeth I, had been banished after her death to dwell under the volcano.

Superstitions about Etna reigned supreme until the late Renaissance, when it became an object of more scientific inquiry, especially after a particularly large eruption in 1669 that released flows of lava more than nine miles long, which entered the Ionion Sea south of Catania. Although the flow buried 16 villages and damaged others, no deaths were reported.

Because Etna rarely erupts violently, few people have ever been killed. In 1843, a lava flow erupted through a fracture on the western flank of Etna and moved over a water reservoir. This freak movement caused instantaneous evaporation and explosive expansion of the water, which killed fifty forest workers. In 1911, Etna acquired a second crater when the Northeast Crater was formed, slowly being built up by explosions of lava. Even though several deaths were rumored in a 1928 eruption when lava flows invaded the town of Mascali, no deaths were ever confirmed. The year 1955 saw the beginning of 16 years of almost continuous and intense summit eruptions, much of it from the Northeast Crater between 1966 and 1971. In 1968, a vent called the Bocca Nuova, the New Vent, opened west of the Central Crater. Originally, the vent was a mere 30 feet in diameter. Over the next thirty years it would grow to more than 1000.

I’d wake at 3:00 a.m., dress, and then help the other guides, usually Antonio and his brother Oratio, wake the tourists. By 3:30 a.m. we’d be piling into old 4-wheeler Dodge vehicles left over from World War II, and by 4:30 we’d reach a parking area at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Then for 30 minutes we’d hike 300 feet up Etna’s slope to the Bocca Nuova, and for the next 45 minutes everyone would stare at the vent, glowing golden hot. Every so often at irregular intervals, like a huge Bunsen burner, it would go off—Whoooosh!—with a huge golden-blue translucent flame of incandescent gas shooting over 150 feet into the air. During the day, huge smoke rings would rise from the blasts and float across the sky. Other times it would pulse with flames, as if it were being quickly turned on and off by a child.

The first time we ventured together to the Bocca Nuova, I asked Antonio about its history. 

“When did this first form?”

“Ah, let’s see,” replied Antonio in his soft-spoken way. “I was here late last year. Yes. It first appeared about nine or ten months ago.”

“You mean to say that this used to be just a slope and there was nothing, and then one night a hole just opened in the ground and flames started shooting out?”

“Yeah, that’s just how it happened.”

Wow, I thought. This is incredible. I had felt the earth, fascinated, trying to fathom the mysterious, unseen forces that could produce such a magnificent change in what I had thought was solid ground. The earth was proving much more interesting than I had expected. Gradually, my curiosity about the vent had increased.

I had watched the shooting golden-blue flame, recalling memories of Tazieff and Antonio in that French film that had showed them in Rwanda going down into a crater with a permanent lava lake. Suddenly I had realized that because I was now one of the guides—I did not have any of the restrictions placed on the tourists. 

“Do you think it would be alright if I peaked into the vent?”

“Well, sure, but you don’t know when the gas will flame up, so you have to be very careful.”

So here I stood, watching carefully the 30-foot vent, edging closer, and then quickly backing away as a flame shot up. After several tries, I finally crept close enough to gaze over the edge, still several dozen feet away. I got a glimpse of fiery gold, going endlessly down, deep into the earth. It held me, spellbound and suspended in geologic timelessness. I stared transfixed by that molten shimmering, all thoughts swept from my mind by the intense internal glow of liquid earth.

Then suddenly Whoooosh! The flame shot out, powerfully blowing me backwards. Antonio started laughing. It soon dawned on me that my ski cap had crisped. I felt my face, which was tender and possessed a new texture that took me a moment to understand.

All the hair on my face, and my eyebrows and eyelashes, had burned away.

*            *            *

I was born in Nyon, Switzerland, near the French border, in October of 1945. I spoke German as a young child until the age of five when we moved to a small village near Nyon, where I picked up French. At ten, I had to choose my track for six years of formal studies by taking one of three exams that led to a certificate—in sciences, humanities, or languages. I chose the science track.

At 17 I entered the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. By then I was becoming fluent in English. The four-year electrical engineering program offered two years of highly condensed general electrical studies that led into two more years of specialized studies. Gradually I developed an interest in robotics and control systems and, after graduating third in my class at the age of 21 as an electrical engineer, I stayed on in a lab at the Institute to work on Control Theory.

Wanting to break barriers, I decided to explore how the body worked. It fascinated me how the body maintained electrochemical balances and controls, how the cardiovascular system maintained itself, and how the lungs and kidneys kept an acid/alkaline balance in the body. Working under a grant from Hoffman-La Roche, a giant pharmaceutical firm in Switzerland, I began exploring a mathematical control system’s approach to describing kidney functions. My research pushed me into looking for literature, which always seemed to come from the Rand Corporation in California. The literature moved beyond the bounds of linear dynamics into descriptions that later would be formalized into a new mathematical field—non-linear dynamics.

Linear dynamics describes constant and regularly variable changes in the actions of an object or organism—the way a car accelerates or cells divide, the way a thrown object arcs through the air. Non-linear dynamics involves attempts to describe actions that appear much more chaotic and filled with masses of data, such as weather patterns, ocean currents—and kidney functions. Because of their virtually opaque complexity, studies in non-linear systems were often pushed aside in favor of more understandable, and easily modeled, linear systems.

I needed to learn more about non-linear dynamics (a study that would be central in coming years in my research into the volcano eruption process). But I gradually realized that kidney function was still too complex for me to model. I knew wasn’t going to make it. So I went to my professor, explained my problem, and then made a cardinal blunder: I told him that everything I needed was in the United States, and that I had to go there if I were to do this kind of work.

Switzerland at that time was very conservative and a few educators were very proud. My professor exploded: “Go ahead, if you think you are so brilliant. You’ll fail and come back with your tail between your legs. And by the way, I won’t be renewing your grant. You’ll have to go elsewhere for a job.”

My position ended in early 1969. I immediately began writing dozens of letters to universities and technical institutes throughout the United States, introducing myself, describing my education and achievements, and revealing my interests in the body, control systems, and robotic applications. I asked for application materials and information on financial support. 

Meanwhile I had to get another job. A friend in the lab connected me with the head of a computer lab in the University of Geneva, and I was offered a job working in biophysics on the dynamics of single cells. But that job didn’t start until the following October, so after brief and unfulfilling attempt at teaching science to teenagers, I ended up here, at first teaching sailing in Club Med—and now leading dozens of tourists twice each week on a volcano excursion. 

*            *            *

It was at Rifugio Sapienza that I began a 30-year friendship with that soft-spoken, aristocratic, extraordinary man—Signor Antonio Nicoloso. Antonio and his brother Oratio made a comfortable living working as guides on Etna. They led the tourists from Rifugio Sapienza to the active vent and craters of Etna. Antonio had a passion for sports cars and was never without the latest Alfa Romeo. He loved to drive fast along the two-lane mountain roads, taking hairpin curves with a handbrake, and generally putting a fright into me each time we went to the coast for a meal of good fish and calimari. He was tall, with dark hair combed straight back and a Roman nose, very gracious, in his early thirties. His brother Oratio was equally tall and lean, quieter and more intense, with short curly black hair and bushy eyebrows. 

The two brothers lived in Nicolosi, where they owned a significant slice of Etna, one that extended miles up the slope to cover the trails to the summit. They also oversaw a vineyard. I soon learned that Antonio was the first man to actually go down into the Central Crater of Etna, almost getting killed by the gases and the unstable ground.

In the evening before the early morning hike, Antonio and Oratio would play poker in the restaurant with other guides who worked for them. And it was over a poker game that they really had begun to warm up to me, a young, brown-haired, brown-eyed Swiss, who at first would only watch.

“Bernard, come. You have to play with us,” called out Antonio. 

I looked at the table with stacks of 10,000-lira bills. That was a significant amount of money. “I’m very sorry, but I don’t have that kind of money.”

“Ah,” Antonio waved his hand as if it were of no consequence. “You have to play with us. We’ll make money tomorrow. Then you can play with us next time you come.”

“Well, OK, but you’re going to have to show me how.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, we have a nice thing going. People, they like to take some mementos with them when they go to Etna, so we go and we make ashtrays out of the fresh lava.”

“OK. That sounds really cool.”

So that next morning, Antonio and his brother had brought a 7-foot-long steel bar, a pair of pliers with long handles, and a metal mold that looked like a tin can with a wide lip. They would take the tourists to vents at the base of the Northeast crater, where fresh lava was always flowing, changing course from day to day. As the golden aa lava flowed out of the vent, it would solidify and turn black on top as it continued to flow down the slope. Aa lava was characterized by a sharp-edged broken surface that resulted as the lava cooled as it flowed. The other kind of lava, pahoehoe, was rare on Etna. Pahoehoe was characterized by a more flowing ropy texture and was more commonly found on volcanoes like Kilauea in Hawaii. The Nicoloso brothers and their hired guides would take turns getting within seven feet of the flowing bed of 2,000-degree lava, poking it with the steel bar, taking a chunk of lava, putting it in the mold, and then with the pliers making a cylinder and popping out a rough, black-pumice lava ashtray. The work was hot, but it took only a minute or two to make each one, usually a total of 30 or 40 for each group of tourists, who would pay 10,000 lira for each. Since 10,000 lira was a good day’s wages anywhere in Sicily, the 300,000 to 400,000 lira they made in less than an hour explained why they played poker in so carefree a manner.

I helped them make lava ashtrays and soon found myself enjoying these late-night, coffee-drinking poker games where piles of 10,000-lira bills moved rapidly around the table like Monopoly money. And if anyone ran out, we all knew that the next morning would bring in a fresh supply of cash. 

*            *            *

The stars protruded sharply, embedded in the black early morning sky like glittering jewels ripe for plucking. The crowd of tourists and their guides walked carefully on the crunching, clinking chunks of broken lava that covered the trail around the west slope of Etna. Whiffs of sulfur occasionally intruded into the fresh mountain air. Remarkably, only a few lost their balance on this trip. There were few calls for the bandages needed to wrap bloody hands and knees when somebody slipped. 

The crowd made their way up the slope to the Central Crater. Sulfurous smoke and steam emerged from hidden fractures along the slope like dozens of continuous smoke bombs. The wind carried the smoke away from the trail. The going was tough as the underlying debris of lava gave way under foot. At the rim of the summit cone, little could be seen in the monstrously deep and dark pit, even in daylight. Not even a hint of fiery glowing could be seen in the crater. Most of the activity this year was in the Bocca Nuova and the Northeast Crater, which we could see in the distance, periodically sending streaking lava bombs arcing through the air. But when we listened carefully, we could hear deep and distant booms, like Vulcan’s hammering, echoing up from the bottomless Central Crater. Antonio had told me that Tazieff had once tried to measure the depth of the crater, but after lowering a cable with a plumb bob to a depth of almost a mile, they had given up.

Now we began the more exciting journey to the Northeast Crater. Coming down the slope and hiking to the north side of Etna, the crowd moved to within 1500 feet of the almost silent Strombolian display coming out of the Northeast Crater. Stromboli was an island volcano north of Sicily, one of a string of volcanic islands dotting the waters off the southern coast of Italy. Stromboli had become so famous for its continuing fireworks display of arcing lava bombs that its name had become a standard term for any volcanic activity in the world that spouted such fireworks.

About every 15 minutes the Northeast Crater would send up an oddly quiet shower of golden globs several hundred feet into the sky to be carried by the wind. The globs would cool and darken as they fell, and everyone could hear the sounds of the larger ones impact and roll unseen down the slopes. The effect for the observer was magical. In the darkness, the Northeast Crater could barely be made out in the star-studded sky. Then, with a sudden expulsion, the crater would launch the lava bombs, creating a sharp golden-red streaking effect on the eyes that would gradually fade and resolve back into an after-image blackness. Even as the sky began to lighten with the approach of dawn, the effect was maintained.

Suddenly, the wind shifted. Smoke that had been streaming southeast from the crater and a dozen fractures began blowing our way.

“Everybody down, now!” yelled Antonio. As they had been told to do before their ascent, the tourists dropped to the ground and covered their faces with handkerchiefs or parts of clothing. Wind shifts didn’t happen often, but it was important to be ready because the smoke held a highly acidic compound of hydrogen sulfide and steam that ate away clothing, cameras, and lungs, if allowed to get in. I had already thrown out one camera after the lens became etched from the sulfurous smoke. By keeping our bodies low to the ground and noses buried in the dirt, a low layer of air could supply some breathing room. The stinging, asphyxiating smoke blew over us for about 45 seconds before the wind shifted back to its normal direction.

After the danger passed, the tourists got up and went back to watching the crater, while we guides found a comfortable spot near some lava flows coming out of small vents on the slope of the Northeast Crater. As the tourists gazed at the volcanic fireworks, Antonio, Oratio, I, and two other guides took our ashtray-making equipment and began looking for a good spot to extract globs of lava.

We had taken orders for 35 ashtrays, some tourists wanting more than one. This morning, there was a lava flow that formed two branches right out of its pulsating-gold source. About a hundred yards up the slope at the source, the bright golden lava flowed quickly at about 20 feet per second. We could see that the nearer branch, which extended about ten feet across, was petering out as it moved down the slope, and that the farther wider branch offered much better lava to work with. Antonio led the way down to an easy place to cross the hardening first flow to the much wider and more active second flow.

Working our way up to a nice spot between the flows, we stopped, and Antonio took the steel bar, extended it over the shallow lava bank, and pushed it down into the fresh flowing lava. Here it was flowing slower, about 10 feet per second as it spread wider and cooled. Working like a master glass blower, Antonio extracted a golden glob and brought it over to where we had set up the ashtray molds. After plopping the lava glob into one of the molds, Antonio watched as one of the men used the pliers to form an already blackening ashtray. We worked busily, taking turns getting lava globs with the steel bar, and making the allotted number of souvenirs. We paid scant attention to the lava flows around us as we worked.

An hour later, we gathered up the ashtrays into bags and prepared to leave our hot working area.

“Uh, oh!” cried Oratio pointing down the slope.

I followed the man’s gaze and my heart sank. While we had worked, the first lava flow had picked up new life, and about 50 yards down the slope, the two lava flows had merged, stranding us on an island of cool land surrounded by two fully active and hot lava flows.

“Let’s go,” said Antonio, taking the steel bar and heading down the slope.

“What are we going to do?” I asked, barely finding my voice.

“We’ll find a place to cross,” answered Antonio, apparently without any anxiety. I had yet to experience the range of Antonio’s creativity and experience with volcanoes.

We walked down to the tip of the island where the two lava flows came together, still moving at about 3 feet per second, but with a dark crust already forming on the top of the flow. Antonio began probing into the black crust with the steel bar.

“No problem,” he finally said, smiling. “We can cross here. Just be careful. Be sure to follow me and step where I step.” And without waiting, he walked along the flow probing the crust, and then stepped onto it, probing for the next step and stepping again, probing and stepping.

Good grief! I thought. I can’t believe I’m going to do this. After the Bocca Nuova incident, my eyebrows had still not grown back. This could be much worse.

Breathing shallowly, my forehead wrinkled with tension, I followed closely behind Antonio, stepping where he had stepped. As soon as I stepped onto the lava flow, my orientation changed. Now it seemed like the land on both sides was moving up in the opposite direction. The blackened lava crust moved mushily under my thick-soled hiking boots. I watched where Antonio stepped, trying not to think about my foot slipping and sloshing into the 2000-degree lava flow—or that we had between 20 and 25 feet to go before arriving on cool, solid land.

Steadily but quickly the five of us covered the distance, ignoring the heat. As we gratefully stepped onto the far bank of land, Antonio began quickly unlacing his boots. I took the cue, suddenly sensing the intense heat in my feet. After furiously unlacing my boots and kicking them off, I stared open-mouthed as Antonio and Oratio looked on, chuckling.

My socks were smoking.

*            *            *

One summer day in Cefalù, the open-air administration building was crowded with Club Med employees and a handful of tourists who stood staring at the small color television set. 

Kicking up some dust . . . 30 feet, 2 1/2 down . . . faint shadow . . . 4 forward . . . 4 forward . . . drifting to right a little . . . O.K. . . .

After midnight on a Monday morning in late July, everyone’s eyes were wide open.

Thirty seconds . . .

Contact light! O.K., engine stop . . . descent engine command override off . . .

I stood watching with the rest, vicariously participating in the most extraordinary event in history.

We copy you down, Eagle. 

Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed!

The room erupted in cheers. 

Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot. 

I hadn’t realized that I was holding my breath as well. I let it out and smiled broadly. 

This is great! I thought. This opens up everything. We can go to other worlds. We can even go to Mars.

After hanging out for a while, I returned to my hut to try to get some sleep, since the astronauts were not scheduled to emerge for several hours. But the idea of the moon landing had struck a deep chord within me. I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I daydreamed of the moon and of Mars. I could almost see myself as an astronaut, training for the first Mars mission. The idea was not completely unthinkable. Those letters I had sent out to the U.S. at the beginning of the year had returned many applications, but one had generated a surprising letter that had opened worlds of possibilities for me.

I got out of bed and dug the letter out of my personal bag. The stationery’s heading still made me blink.

Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
School of Engineering
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
Room 37-155

March 10, 1969

Bernard Chouet
Automatic Control Research Engineer
3 Place de la Gare
1260 Nyon (VD)

Dear Mr. Chouet:

        I understand that an application has been forwarded to you for entrance to M.I.T. Enclosed is material describing Engineering and Living Systems activity at M.I.T. and, in particular, those in Aeronautics and Astronautics which take place in the Man-Vehicle Laboratory.

        From your background I would think it appropriate for you to work toward a Master of Science in Aeronautics and Astro- nautics, probably supported through a Research Assistantship in my laboratory.        

Please let me know if I can be of any further help.

                                                  Sincerely yours,
 Laurence R. Young
Associate Professor
Director, Man-Vehicle Laboratory                

Here was a letter from the Director, the Director, of the NASA-supported Man-Vehicle Lab inviting me to come over to America and play in the Dept. of Aeronautics and Astronautics of M.I.T.

At the time I had first received this letter, I had already been accepted for a position at Club Med, and after all my schooling and research, I wanted very badly to take a break. Spending time sailing off the coast of Sicily from April to September was simply irresistible. The M.I.T. academic year started in September, and there was no way I could do both. And going to the States made me nervous. It was a big change. What if I wasn’t ready for it? What if I got to Cambridge, started the program, and found out that I stuck out like an academic amateur?

I had written back to Professor Young explaining that I could not begin this year, but I hoped the offer would stay open since I intended to apply again the following year. Professor Young had written right back, expressing hope that I would join the Lab in September 1970. 

I had taken both letters with me to Sicily. Now with the moon landing, I wrestled with thoughts of possibly being involved in work supported by NASA. My interest in volcanoes had been reawakened, but just now I saw nothing on the horizon that would allow me to study volcanoes on earth.

But Mars had volcanoes. In fact, it had the largest known volcano in the solar system. NASA was talking about manned spaceflight for years to come, including a manned trip to Mars. Perhaps there was a way I could get ahead in the lab and then somehow get into the astronaut program, and then maybe get to Mars . . .

By 5:56 a.m., I was back in the administration building watching with the others as Neil Armstrong took his first step onto the moon.

*            *            *

Three months later, in October 1969, I made my way up Etna for the last time that year. I had just had a birthday, and I had dreamed of spending a night alone on top of the Northeast Crater. Now, before going back to Geneva and an intense computer programming job, I intended to fulfill that dream. 

I asked my good friend Antonio if it was safe. After I had walked across the lava flow, Antonio and some of the guides had, in good fun, given me a nickname.

“Sure, Smokey Socks,” said Antonio nonchalantly. “Just be careful and dodge the lava bombs.”

“How do I do that?”

“If you keep your wits about you, if you don’t panic, you will be fine. Just keep an eye on them as they fall. You can tell when one is coming your way, and all you do is you simply step to the side. But if you lose your wits, if you panic and start running, you tumble, you end up cutting yourself and getting bloody all over, and maybe then you get hit by a rock when you are not looking.”

With that advice in mind, I had tried to go up several nights, but it never seemed to feel right. That night, however, felt perfect.

I started out from Rifugio Sapienza around midnight. After parking the old Dodge 4-wheeler in the parking area, I began my hike around to the north side of Etna. It was a spectacular evening, with a wind chill below zero. The Bocca Nuova was shooting its flame up the slope, and the stars were closer than ever in the cold autumn air. Being alone on that mountain somehow made everything more intimate—the living volcano, the cold air, the jeweled stars, the partial moonlight illuminating the broken shards of lava, the prospect of sitting on a summit ridge beneath arcing lava bombs. For a while I sat near the Bocca Nuova smelling its sulfurous vapors.

What if it opened up more, right now, taking me into it? After all, it appeared one day out of nothing.

Thinking such thoughts made me a bit nervous. The intimate aloneness magnified every little sound, so that soon I was looking over my shoulder wondering what might be moving nearby, eyeing me.

I got up and shook myself. There was nothing there, of course. Collecting myself, I hiked around to the saddle between the Central Crater and the Northeast Crater. I watched for a while as the crater silently, mysteriously, exploded up with its arcing gold and red streamers of lava bombs. I could only hear the cooling and darkening lava rocks impacting in the distance and rolling down the slope. Noticing that the wind was blowing from the north, I decided to hike around to the west slope of the crater to begin my ascent.

At the bottom of the slope, all of the huge boulders of lava had accumulated in a kind of broken ring of rubble around the base of the cone. I found a place to climb over those, and then found myself facing countless millions of broken chunks of loose lava rocks that covered the slope. They ranged in size from about six inches to about two or three feet across. The slope itself angled up at an imposing 35 degrees. Bracing myself, I began the rough climb. The lava-covered slope crunched and gave way easily under my hiking boots. It seemed that for every two steps up I slid one step back. It was frustrating, and shortly after I began, the crater erupted, sending arcing lava bombs into the air to land, roll, and stop on the southern slope dozens of yards above and to the right of me. Suddenly, I lost my balance and put down my hands to steady myself. Then I remembered and looked at my palms.

My gloves were already shredded.

I started up the slope again, making scant apparent headway and almost giving up several times before I could see that I was indeed gaining altitude. I had to stop every several minutes, watching as the crater exploded, sending big molten globs of rock arcing either to the side or behind me before rolling down the slope. None came directly at me. 

I’m all alone on this slope, I thought. This constantly changing slope. This is new ground that no one has ever been on before, and after me, no one else ever will. It will soon be replaced by a new layer, fresh out of a hole in the earth.

I was awed. My conception of the earth had transformed. I no longer thought of the earth as solid or stable. It was fluid, ever changing. It was a living being.

Soon, as I approached very near the rim of the crater, I stopped. The way ahead seemed to curve over into emptiness. 

This is it. If I get to the rim, it could be unstable, I thought. I don’t know what’s on the other side. What if the whole thing peels off and I go with it?

It was three in the morning. My climb had taken almost an hour. I sat pondering the dilemma of coming this far and coming up short. Fears came up. Fears of falling into the crater, of being hit by a burning lava bomb. How could I go back now and tell Antonio that I had been this close and had chosen to turn back?

The crater was still strangely quiet, even with the explosions of lava bombs, which now all arced high over my head, falling far to the right and behind me. The explosions were primarily visual rather than auditory. Just soft, high-up whooshing sounds as the lava bombs spun in the air like little galaxies. I sat for a while, letting my curiosity build until it got the best of me.

No. I won’t just sit here. And I won’t turn back. I have to see what’s beyond the rim, no matter what happens.

I began crawling on all fours, carefully, but no longer really caring that the sharp-edged lava rocks were shredding my pants. Ever so slowly, I continued creeping up to the rim. Then, gradually, I stuck my head over—and feeling the intense blast of heat on my face, I stared down into the subterranean world of Dante.

The crater rim was sloped, with the north side of the rim higher than the south. More than 100 feet down, in the north end of the crater bottom, huge vents opened up, glowing and churning like molten gold. Then with an incredible, very soft whoosh, a sheet of molten gold came out of one vent after another like solid sheets of liquid gold, rising up into the charged air. Time stood still. I watched trance-like in that timeless moment as large chunks of fiery matter rotated in the flaming sheets of liquid, just before the sheets would break into glittering filaments, stringing like pearls a hundred golden globs, which then would break off, still rising, high above the rim, and start spinning and coalescing and forming into lava bombs, caught by the wind, and carried far away to fall gracefully over the rim and out of sight, all in a very silent, very alien dance of motion.

I stared into the crater for hours, watching the endlessly repeating cycle of fiery creation, ascension, and fall. 

Returning from that eternity, I saw that the sky was lightening with the dawn. I turned to look to the northeast where I could barely make out the sea, and then looked back into the crater.

This is real. This is incredible. This is alive.

I brought out my camera and began snapping pictures of the incredible lava display in the crater and then I turned the camera up on the coming dawn. I stopped and looked at the stars, and the moon, thinking of those men who had walked on an alien world so many tens of thousands of miles away. Something ached within me.

I have to go to America, I thought, more with feelings than with words. I have to travel and find my way, either to Mars, or to other volcanoes, or to somewhere else, somewhere where few have walked before.

The sun broke the surface of the Mediterranean, and I sat snapping more pictures. I could see the Strait of Messina, and beyond that the tip of the boot of Italy. Here, sitting next to an active crater high on top of a volcano in Sicily and now 24 years old, I couldn’t see my native Switzerland—but I could still see farther than I had ever seen before.