NAVAL AIR STATION SIGONELLA, Sicily --
On the evening of Oct. 23, the peak of Mount Etna burned a deep red, spewing streams of flame and lava hundreds of feet in the air.
On the morning of Oct. 25, about 20 Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12 scaled its slopes.
"This is definitely one of the coolest things I've ever done in the Marine Corps, climb a volcano," said Cpl. James Bailey, a Security Cooperation Team Tactics-2 motor transport assistant chief from Baltimore.
SCTT-2 is one of four specialized Marine teams in Italy as part of a newly formed unit tasked with mentoring African militaries dealing with regional terror threats. Their time spent in between missions, leaders have stressed, doesn't have to go to waste.
The hike was designed to teach the Marines a lesson in the rigors of operating in a mountainous environment. Small groups of Marines continue to tackle the climb as operational demands allow.
"It's definitely more strenuous than doing marches at low elevation on level ground," said Gunnery Sgt. David C. Ash, a Charlotte, N.C., native and assistant team leader.
It's a winding four-mile hike to the top, relatively short by Marine Corps standards, but the Marines step off on the movement already on level with normal cloud cover with a 3,600 foot climb ahead of them.
Petty Officer 1st Class Ian Anderson, a team corpsman from Murrell's Inlet, S.C., warned the Marines that their breaths wouldn't count for as much on the stratovolcano as they would closer to sea level.
"The oxygen is diffuse, so your body has to work harder to perfuse your red blood cells," he explained, noting that U.S. Olympic runners typically train in Rocky Mountain states to make their work outs more challenging.
Making matters worse were the hefty loads each Marine carried. During one rest break, a group of French retirees on vacation easily passed the team. "How many kilos?" asked one, pointing to a Marine's bulging pack. After fumbling with the English to metric conversion: "About 40," he replied.
The trail itself, at times hardly recognizable as such, presented its own challenges. Smiling tourists waved eagerly from passing suspended ski lifts as they floated effortlessly upwards while the Marines slipped and stumbled for footholds in shifting black sand and rock. Snow clung to shadowy crevices along the route. Still, one corpsman made his way past them in a short-sleeve collared shirt, warmed only by his own constant exertion.
"When you take one step forward and slide two steps back," said Bailey. "You just look up and think, 'it's never gonna end."
At 8,800 feet Sicily disappears under a carpet of clouds, providing the Marines with a view usually reserved for ascending airline passengers. It’s at this elevation that the team dropped their packs and established satellite communications equipment with Naval Air Station Sigonella and a team in Africa before starting the final push.
As the first of the Marines reached the highest point in the path at about 9,600 feet they saw the smoldering, sulfur yellow crater that marks volcano's peak. They also saw something none of them expected: grandparents and their grandchildren, young couples, dozens of cheerful, clean visitors bundled tightly in winter coats streaming out of the monster-truck wheeled busses that shuttled them up.
Speckled with black sand and sweating through warming layers, the Marines took the road less traveled.