MY-XPDTN: Pista Altomontana in Sicily

2020. What a year! For so many so hard. For others, a long awaited, postponed break. A perfect time to review, reflect all what happened till now. With all travels and races cancelled, suddenly, as if someone pressed the STOP button, I got the time my body needed so much to recover. I got the time, or actually my brain got the time, to process all the impressions and all what happened in my career over past years. I got the time to pick on different passions and hobbies. I got the gift of a time window, to realize other dreams, that were on standby for so long. Now the dreams got realistic shapes and got more specific. I am a person who loves to discover new places and challenge myself in new ways. I love to be in nature, far away from crowds. Therefore, adventure of this year was a bike packing trip, as self-sufficient as possible to a remote place, but close by.


Observing traveling restrictions and shrinking list of options, the idea of going to Sicily was born. I really wanted to spend part of the trip on bike packing, a type of adventure that was attracting me for years. We started to look at the options that would be physically not too challenging for me, as I am not a strong rider, but still interesting for my partner in crime, Valerio, who is a seasoned biker. Actually, so much better than me. We were looking for a route, that would be a good compromise of our skills. A route adventurous enough and with some amazing landscapes. This is where the idea of touring around Etna was born. I have seen some travelers’ reports. Watching photos got totally hooked to that idea.  I researched a lot, but all I could find was mostly riding on asphalt and we wanted to use gravel bikes and ride them on gravel roads. Maps do not help a lot on this search. It is so hard to understand, what road would be rideable, and which is only possible to walk. All information was available only for mean roads around Etna. Nothing at high and this is where we wanted to be.


We prepared to be food, shelter, and water self-sufficient – most of the weight of the bike were bottles. That made bikes heavy. Having Valerio as a companion was very comforting to me. Because he is so strong as a rider, he could take a big part of the weight. Because he knows all about bikes, I did not need to worry about mechanics, repair kits and so on. A great change from my previous adventures where all was on me. It made me feel so secure and trust, whatever happens, we will be just fine. Even with a good plan and preparation, I always underestimate how long final packing takes and it took us so long that we left Catania at 3 pm.


I was already exhausted from the sun and heat – we packed outside with no shade option available all day long. When pedaling, I could feel the weight on the bike. Going for only 30 km but 1053 m elevation knocked me. My brain and body went into total survival mode: find sport to sleep, build up shelter, eat, sleep!


On the map, we spotted official shelter in the forest above civilization. As we wanted to use our tent, to avoid problems with police, we decided it would be the best place to sleep. Another thing that never stops surprising me is how different everything looks at night and day. Even with strong lights and a good map, it was very challenging to find a place a few meters from the road. “It should be somewhere here”, but we cannot see it. Finally, we found it. Build up a tent. Prepare food and go to sleep.

Next day we were woken up by conversations of some people, who came to search for mushrooms. I was still not at my best. Well, I did not sleep much, as curious animals were visiting our tent all the night long, making noise, that was waking me up. In the morning, outside of the tent was cold and humid. Everything was soaked. But the view! The view of the rising sun was amazing. In front of us the rising sun, far away downstairs the sea, above our heads blue clear sky and smoking Etna at our back. We were in the middle of the forest. Nothing but nature and us. Just as we wanted.


While we waited for the tent to dry, we ate and packed all we could. It took us 3 hours to get it somehow dry and ready to leave. I was like a lizard trying to get more energy, by searching for sun warmth.

With so much hard riding last day and cooking we ran out of water – we managed to pack only 3,5 l in total on our bikes. As we did not expect to find any water source at this part of the ride, the initial idea was to go to Linguaglossa to get supplies, but after the first day, we realized it was not an option for me. We hoped to find some open refuge, with a service of water source. We were not sure if we do, as in this part of Italy any place can be open or closed any time and now with COVID all was even more uncertain. But finding some place to get water not far away was our only chance to save my legs for the rest of the trip.


We started pedaling. The landscape was fantastic, changing every few hundred meters from acorn forest, to quite fresh lava fields, to pine trees. At some point, we noticed indication to Rifugio Citelli. Open all year long. Serving food. Yesss!!! Worth the extra 140 meters of climb up. Suddenly all the trees around where white barked Betula Aetnensis. A tree that looks like a birch. In contrast with black lava fields, it makes full of contrast and spectacular landscape. Admiring this view, we did not even notice arriving to refuge. Haply find out it is open and really has warn food and drinking water. We fill up our bellies and charge out water supply. It was so nice, so warm, sooo… that I fell asleep in the sun. I was so destroyed, that I just put my head for a minute on my jacket on a bench in the sun and there I was gone.


Sometime later I woke up perfectly recharged. We started to ride down and follow the bike computer, to find our Pista Altomontana, which should have started soon. Somehow navigation sent us up again to a ski resort Monte Nere delle Concazze. I was sure we were not supposed to get up here, but there we were. Landscape another time was like on the moon. I cannot even imagine how it would be to ski here – all the lifts and slopes follow lava flow. Just surreal!

Navigation says we should go on one trail. It looked suspicious to me, so I hesitated. Valerio continues to have a look. Then I heard behind my back – “check this interesting E-bikes” – in German. I turned around and said – “this aren’t E-bikes, these are human power bikes”. The father of the family said then: “Oh you must be very good then. This trial is very demanding.” Ups. After a short brainstorm, we decided that I would stay with Valerio’s saddle post bag and he went to check the route. He came back with some precise information on where we should go, from people he met. So, we biked down again.


Due to our tent drying mission and my knockout sleep, our progress of the day was slow, something around 20 km and 800 m elevation and it was getting very late again. It was super cold, so we decided to find our “Pista” and go to sleep. On the way, down we passed one wooden something that looked like a bike camp with a hotel. It looked even like it was open, but we followed the plan. On entry to the “Pista” everything was closed, we were cold and hungry. We decided to go back up to that “something open” looking place, just to eat something warm and maybe use the camp site hoping for a warm shower. It appeared to be Chalet Clan dei Ragazzi. We got a nice price for a half board and we could not take it. Once you enter from the cold into a warm room and are welcomed by nice stuff, it is so hard to refuse one night of spoiling yourself with a warm shower, warm bed, and warm home-made food. At the end this are holidays.


Next day we finally left asphalt and went on a gravel trail – the long awaited and searched Pista Altomontana. Both of us were so happy to find what we came for. It was even better than we expected. We got to riding through pine forests, trough lava flows, admiring stoning views. It was so hard not to stop to take a photo every few meters. At some point we adapted our strategy, to be able take photos most of the time not stopping.


Still water was one of the things we mostly worried about. At one of the “food stops” next to a beautiful, tiny, hidden in the middle of the forest stone Rifugio – sort of bivouac opens to everyone – Valerio noticed water well. We lucked into it and were delighted to discover water inside.  Some people told me they would not drink water from sources at high Etna, but I took a trial filter with me and we were cooking this water, so we hope it will be ok, to prepare food with it. There was no backed, only left by someone’s wine bottle on a rope. Italian style? Anyway, it did the job!  We prepared a warm lunch, listened to the sounds of the forest and rest.


This day we spent riding in nature. We experienced so many different light conditions, vegetation and surfaces. Sometimes It was technically challenging – the weight on the bike makes the bike to react with delay, that I am not used to. Plus, loose lava stones on the trail, that made me spin my wills more than I should. But every hour I felt more and more comfortable and confident. Our goal that day was to arrive at Rifugio Mt. Scavo before sunset.


We got to ride in beautiful golden hour light and got there on time for sunset. Well, I needed to hurry and push a lot, but we did it just on time. Just before sunset, two Italian guys were passing by. They wanted to get to the next Rifugio, but when they heard from us that we believed it would probably take another 1,5 hours for them, they decided to stay. We chose to sleep inside of Rifugio, to save time on packing and drying the tent the next day. The other guys chose a tent.


While they were preparing all for the night, Valerio did fire. It started to get super dark and the stars pop up in the sky. After some time, it was so dark, that all I could see were stars and places lightened with fire and headlamps. When I was talking to one of the guys, suddenly in the weak light of his lamp, I saw a fox just next to us. I ask the guy to put light on him so I can take a photo. The guy looked at me, to ask for a repeat and at this moment the fox grabs entire baguette and ran away to the forest. A white dot disappears in the darkness. One of the guys ran like a maniac after the fox shouting: “Stop! Stop!”. We started to laugh. Valerio thinks it is probably a trick of the fox, that he uses as distraction: “Oh look, I am so pretty. Take a picture of me.” and is running away with tourist food. Takeaway gets open.


Later, while the guys were doing sausages on the fire, fox somehow stole a power bar from their tent. He came one more time. I heard him or her in the forest, so all the guys rushed to chase. I did not want to stay alone with sausages, so one of the guys came back. We spoke, when suddenly, like a ghost, next to the fire appeared the fox. He was just there. Staying looking at us up and into the fire. I got so shocked, that I started to shout: “Fox! Fox!” The fox lucked at me, as if I he thought “Crazy woman! Why you shout. I know I am a fox.”. He run away only when guys rush at him. The entire situation brought such a light and fun dynamic into the entire evening. The night was great – fire, stars, storytelling and just nice talk.


Next day we started biking super early, to be in Catania by lunch. We finished the Pista and came back to civilization. Roads with plenty of cars that passed us at full speed. Next to Rifugio Sapienza was packed with tourists. After two days with only lava, forest and some hikers, it was overwhelming to see so many cars, busses and people everywhere. Definitely not my cup of coffee. Trying to avoid all this traffic, we decided to ride to Catania on a smaller road. It appeared it was the worst part of the entire trip – the holes were so big, it was probably the first moment, of entire trip, I was sorry not to ride a fully. But thanks to that we were safe from crease speeding drivers.


This trip, even if short, was one of the best adventures in my life. We did not do any impressive speeds and distances, but why would we. We took our time to truly embrace every view, every smell, every moment. The landscape of Etna is so impressive – sometimes the moon-like, sometimes so full of life. It triggers imagination, helps to vision the beginnings of the Earth. You sit on some rock and stair into the valley to civilization. That is so far away and so close same time. It is easy to forget about everything: about everyday hassle, about the new reality we live in. Here, at the high time stopped. All that counts are move, breathe, find water, eat and sleep. A place to be. A place to come back to.