Inside the Volcano
After hiking through a field of lava, donning a helmet and harness, and climbing to the top of a perfectly conical volcanic crater, we gathered our courage and stepped onto a cable lift… the kind normally used to wash the windows of skyscrapers. Then we were lowered four hundred feet underground into the magma chamber of a long dormant volcano. A little scary, but visiting Þrihnúkagígur was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we couldn’t resist.
The Þrihnúkagígur (“Three Peaks”) volcano southeast of Reykjavík has lain dormant for over 4000 years, but it wasn’t until 1974 that a team of local adventurers led by Árni Stefánsson discovered the magma chamber accessible through the mouth of one of the craters. A perfect magma chamber without any magma. Immediately realizing this was a place unique in the world, Árni labored for years to open the volcano to tourism, finally succeeding in 2012.
Tours inside the volcano are run exclusively by 3H Travel. A bus picked us up in Reykjavík and brought us to the Blafjoll mountain ski resort. From here it was an hour-long hike over a lava field to the camp at the foot of Þrihnúkagígur, where we met the team, examined diagrams of the magma chamber and played with an injured arctic fox cub that had taken refuge there.
The diagrams of Þrihnúkagígur were impressive — it’s spacious enough to comfortably fit the Statue of Liberty, and taller than the Hallgrímskirkja. But I didn’t truly understand the size of the place until we were lowered into it. Massive.
Þrihnúkagígur is unique in that it has managed to retain its conical shape even after the release of its magma. Scientists believe this is because the magma drained out the bottom, instead of exploding out the top… “It’s like somebody came and pulled the plug”, said Haraldur Sigurdsson, the volcanologist who founded Stykkishólmur’s volcano museum. The lift takes about seven minutes to reach the floor, and then you have around a half-hour to explore, before the ride back up.
It’s an amazing feeling, crawling around the jagged rock, peering up at the tiny crater now 400 feet overhead, feeling the walls which have been either scorched black by the lava’s heat, or are still vividly colored by the earth’s minerals… yellow, red, orange. It’s exactly how you always thought the interior of a volcano might look, and the experience of simply being there is unforgettable.
There’s no denying that at 37,000kr ($310) apiece, the tour is prohibitively expensive. But turning people off is partially the point, since this is the kind of operation that simply can’t support massive numbers of tourists. Still, after you’ve paid $310, driven an hour out of Reykjavík, hiked an hour, and then waited at camp for your turn, it’s a little frustrating to have only 30 minutes inside the chamber.
But this is a petty gripe and, in the grand scheme of things, these were probably the only 30 minutes I’ll ever spend inside an actual volcano. Overall, it’s an experience we can’t recommend enough.
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September 16, 2013 at 1:47 pm