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A warming climate could ruin this long held summer tradition in Sicily

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Every year in late July, a small village in Sicily hosts a hike to a chasm in a nearby mountain for a last taste of winter. There, they hope to find enough snow left over to make a granita, a slushy Sicilian staple often served for breakfast. But as Joseph Leahy reports, southern Europe's sweltering summer is raising concerns that the tradition may melt into memory.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in Italian).

JOSEPH LEAHY, BYLINE: It's still morning in the Madani Mountains but already turning into another abnormally hot day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in Italian).

LEAHY: Members of the Italian Alpine Club from nearby Polizzi Generosa lead about a hundred hikers up a steep, rocky slope.

ANTONIO CAPPADONIA: (Through interpreter) I'm bringing the mixture to make granita like it used to be once made.

LEAHY: Chief among the hikers is Antonio Cappadonia, an acclaimed gelato maker from Palermo. He's in charge of making today's granita the way it was done long before refrigeration. That's if there's still snow to find.

CAPPADONIA: (Through interpreter) We seem to be entering a new phase. We have created a new climate, but this is a disaster for humanity.

LEAHY: Our destination is the Fossa della Principessa, an enormous natural pit tucked into the mountaintop.

ELIO PICCIUCA: (Through interpreter) It happened in the last 10 years. It happened three times that there was no snow.

LEAHY: Italian Alpine Club organizer Elio Picciuca has helped lead the hike for 25 years. He says three times in the past decade, the snow was already gone by mid-July, and this summer's record-breaking heat could spell a repeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIKING POLES CLACKING)

LEAHY: The rocky slope gets steeper before we finally reach a grove of trees hiding the chasm, about 50 feet deep. One by one, the hikers scaled down along a narrow passage.

Walking down backwards into the pit with a rope.

Cappadonia, whom everyone's calling maestro, clears away dead leaves to uncover a white mound of winter snow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNOW CRUNCHING)

LEAHY: The snow is actually not for eating but mixed with salt and then packed around a steel canister to freeze the granita mix, much like homemade ice cream.

CAPPADONIA: (Speaking Italian).

LEAHY: The first batch, made super-tart and sweet with Sicilian lemons, goes out in small cups to the grateful hikers. For high school student Laura Raimondi, however, the blissfully cold treat is also bittersweet. Sadly, she says, climate change threatens to end a tradition she's only just discovered.

LAURA RAIMONDI: That's frightening because that means that part of my culture will be taken away because of how we are accelerating, like, fast - OK - the process of nature. And, like, yeah, I'm frightened.

LEAHY: The snow is several meters lower than last year, but everyone seems relieved to find any at all and grateful to rest and share a cool moment with friends on a hot summer day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Italian).

LEAHY: For NPR News, I'm Joseph Leahy in the Madonie Mountains of Sicily.

(SOUNDBITE OF MNELIA SONG, "CLOSURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joseph Leahy