Who would have ever thought that there would be skiing on the Italian island of Sicily, much less the highest active volcano in Europe, Mt Etna? When I heard that there was going to be an individual world cup this season on Mt Etna I was intrigued. This season one of my main goals has been to race the world cup circuit. I saw this as a great opportunity to gain more experience racing and travel somewhere I have never been. http://www.scsudest.com/
Michael drove me to Turin, where I then took a flight from Torino to Catania. As we flew over the island of Sicily, Mt Etna was there popping above the Adriatic Sea with its snow slopes rising above the sand and sea. I soon learned that Mt Etna was the highest active volcano in Europe with repeated eruptions over the past few years, notably the eruption of 2001, and over 200 recorded eruptions since 6000bc.
At the airport we met the Andorran and Italian national team. Waiting for us outside were minibuses with signs of each nation- I found the one that said USA/ France, loaded up and travelled from Catania to the small city of Nicolosi considered the gateway to Mt Etna. I had pictured Sicily to be a small island with not too many people but in fact Sicily is heavily populated. I was surprised to see how much traffic we had had getting to Nicolosi. Once I had arrived in the village, I learned that walking around town was dangerous than the sport of ski mountaineering itself. Cars zoomed up and down narrow streets not slowing down an inch for pedestrians. I was even surprised to see small children riding in the front seat of a car with out a car seat- I guess they do not have the same child seat laws as in the US.
I have never been so welcomed to a race before and this race has to have been one of the most well organized world cups I have attended. Upon arrival at the hotel I received a welcome package with my number, a box of Sicilian almond sweets, a bottle of Sicilian wine and a beautiful race souvenir –a rock plaque of Mt Etna. Later that evening there was a knock on the door and I was given a flower (all the women who raced) got one by the major of the village.
The following day I, as well as other teams, did a reconnaissance of the course but did not climb too high as it was super windy.
That evening there was a race briefing, followed by a parade of athletes. The only other time I had seen this was at the last World Championships in Switzerland. I was the soul American racing in this race. A local young skier from the village accompanied each national team. Bruno was the young 14 year old who carried my USA flag and I proudly carried the USA sign.
For me it was a great moment parading through the village streets with the Sicilian crowds around, seeing the other nations as well: Belgium, Canada, Germany, Slovenia, and of course the usual alpine countries. At the opening ceremony the nations and their athletes were introduced onto the stage while playing the beginning of their national anthems. After the ceremony, traditional flag throwers and dancers performed.
Race: The race was scheduled to start at 9:15 but due to extremely high wind, 120km per hour, s it was postponed first to 10:30 and then again until 11:15 but did not start until 11:30. The course intended to go up the flanks of Mt Etna, near the summit crater which would have been amazing, but it was moved to much a lower elevation and only climbed 250 meters higher in elevation.
The course did not have any super steep technical descents but it remained interesting passing through the main part of the station 2x and then proceeding for a second loop in a little different terrain. In total there were 4 climbs in each loop, 8 transitions (change of skins), which meant you got plenty of practice, but also it meant that those who were good at transitions were favored.
The wind was a huge factor. At times on the course I was being pelted with small ice balls and sometimes the wind blew so hard it blew me backwards.
I learned a trick for taking off skins in the wind, to take the middle of the skin with my teeth and then fold. Also using bike tactics of drafting behind the person in front of you helped. Putting up a sail with the wind at our back would have worked too.
Post Race: The organizers continued to impress us with an amazing closing ceremony: traditional Sicilian dancers and singers took the stage prior to the podium awards, which closed with an amazing show of fireworks. One thing I had never seen was the confetti blower, which blew thousands of Italian colors- red, green and white strips of paper all around the podium. (I would not want to be the one picking up the confetti post ceremony.)
That evening all the athletes were given a book of coupons to taste the local flavors of Sicily –and to the region. There was wine, limoncello, pizza, pasta, an amazing volcano cake, cannoli and even pistachio cake. Pistachios are grown on the slopes of Etna and exported worldwide. I have learned that they really eat well here in Sicily and have had a chance to taste many of the culinary delights.
Sicily has proved to be an example of strength and diversity. Speckled throughout the ancient lava flows are green trees growing healthy and vibrant, like the people who have weathered the challenges of the islands landscape over the years. The tenacity of these people and this land shines through here like the sun, but endures like the wind, often never lessening.
Sicily’s message: Be tenacious in the force of a challenge and proud of the ground you stand on. For me a good reflection as I stay for a few days of relaxation before heading to the World Championships in Andorra next week.
I had the opportunity to stay the week after the race for the ISMF (international ski mountaineering federation) Technical Training Camp run by Andre Dugit – technical director (FRA) and Adriano Greco- Manufacturers Pool Manager (IT).
While in Sicily I had a chance to learn more of the history and geology of the region. The volcano museum of Mt Etna is an amazing visit and only 1 euro. The geology of Mt Etna is very interesting and a subject for another post. The culinary delights were delicious. I learned that gelato came from Greek and roman times when foot runners brought snow to the aristocrats from Mt Etna to Catania to be flavored with nuts and berries.
Here are a couple links on the history and culture of Sicily that I found interesting: