The Volcano Adventures – Inside the Volcano: Þríhnúkagígur

I’ve talked recently about climbing a couple of volcanoes – Esja and Laki – and I’m not out of volcano adventures just yet. Today I’m going inside one.

Þríhnúkagígur – that first Þ is a “th” and its name means “Three Peaks Crater” (Þríh – three, núka – peaks, gígur – crater) – is a dormant or extinct volcano sitting in a nice flat lava field to the south of Reykjavik. It’s unique in the world because it’s the only one we know about with an empty magma chamber and if you’re interested, you can pay a crazy amount of money to descend into it.

I did it for three reasons. First and foremost, caving blood runs in my veins. I am called to the dark, to the underground, to the nasty places below the Earth. Second, I like all things volcanoes and to go inside a volcano is hugely exciting and also makes me feel like a Bond villain. Thirdly, I was assured – falsely, as it turned out – that this volcano was only ever going to be open for six weeks in the summer of 2012 and I therefore decided that hellishly expensive as it was, this really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t miss. Also, it was my birthday. Well, for reasons I can no longer remember, I did this two days before my birthday but it was my birthday adventure.

So you start off with a bus journey to a little ski resort which looks weirdly deserted in summer. From there, it’s a hike of about two miles across the lava field to the volcano. It’s a pretty flat lava field, as these things go, but it’s not exactly like walking on a road. I had a look at the footwear of the rest of my group – I was in my hiking boots, as I always am, but there were a lot of trainers and even one pair of pretty little black leather heeled boots of the sort that shouldn’t be walking over anything rougher than carpet.

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It’s a bit bumpy and a bit mossy and a bit uneven and you do keep up a reasonable pace because these trips have a timetable and the first excitement happens quite a while before you reach the volcano. You have to cross the North Atlantic Ridge. That’s where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and Iceland is the only place where they meet above the sea. I’d seen the rift at Þingvellir but there, it’s a massive rift valley several miles wide. Here, you can really see it up close and personal.

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It doesn’t look like much, this narrow canyon in the lava field but that’s where the Earth itself is pulling apart. It’s very exciting to step across a crack between continents.

As we walked, our guides told us all about the volcano and what we were going to do, which made me feel like Tony Stark in The Avengers – “am I the only one who did the reading?” Þríhnúkagígur is not easy to pronounce but I’d tried and I appeared to be the only person in the group who even knew the volcano had a name. It has three craters, as given away in the name, and we were to descend into the north-easterly crater, the peak of which stands about 35m above the lava field, down about 400ft in a contraption best described as “a window-washing basket”. We went into a little portakabin at the bottom where we were to leave our stuff and were fitted with helmets, lights and harnesses before trekking up to the gantry, climbing into the basket and being clipped in safely. It all feels and looks a bit rickety and a bit homemade, to be honest. Cameras all had to be safely tethered so they couldn’t be dropped down the hole and I’d apparently had the sense to bring the neck string from a waterproof case and a carabiner and clipped mine to my harness so I could take as many photos as I wanted.

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The opening is very narrow – barely any wider than the basket, which is why it has wheels, so it can run gently down without smashing against the rock.

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The upper parts of the chasm – once you get past the moss growing in the sunny entrance – are very red. The cavern is streaked in all sorts of colours, a lot of yellow lower down, but the top is very red. It very much adds to the effect of descending into hell. I don’t know how long it took us to descend those four hundred feet but judging by the number of pictures I took on the way down, it took a while. Five, maybe ten minutes.

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We landed on a mini hill in the bottom of the cavern. Paths are roped off so you can only walk in certain places and there are huge spotlights lighting up the place. I found it impossible to imagine this being an actual magma chamber rather than a cave. You just can’t imagine this place being flooded with molten rock, lighting up the cavern with a red glow, at an incredible temperature. No one knows what happened to the magma – whether it drained away back into the mantle or whether it solidified on the walls or something else. The travel blog I wrote at the time says that they think the floor is formed of the magma that didn’t disappear and so the magma chamber is probably actually much larger than it appears. And you also wonder what it is that attracts supervillains to places like this for their lairs – it’s not very warm, it’s very humid, the floor is rocky and uneven and filled with boulders.

But you’re standing the heart of a volcano! You can’t do that anywhere else and it’s magical and exciting.

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And the colours! You can find far better pictures on Google Images but the walls are streaked yellow with sulphur, and black and blue and green and white and grey and a bit of everything.

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We didn’t have long inside the volcano, so I used my limited time to burrow down as deeply as I could. There are a couple of passages that go downwards, as you can see in the map, and although I know you can’t really scurry down to the ends of them on your own in the time limit, I certainly found myself a little hole and attempted to poke into a corner of the volcano that most tourists don’t bother with, to see how far down I could push my feet.

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Sadly, all too soon our time was up and we had to get back in the basket and return to the sunlight.

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Here’s the volcano team and probably the next tour group, left behind.

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This is one of my favourite photos but getting the basket out of the crack at the top was even harder than getting it in in the first place.

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We took it so slowly and carefully, the basket’s wheels bumping gently off the rock as we were winched upwards, back to the sunlight.

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Considering the mountain itself isn’t actually very big, you can see a surprisingly long way. You can make out Reykjavik in the distance.

At the bottom, we were freed from our harnesses and helmets and then given a bowl of Icelandic meat soup. I don’t eat so I was allowed to go outside and play. Nearby there were the collapsed remains of a lava tube and a pretty little ruined crater, so I went off to see them.

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After an hour or so – an hour we surely could have spent inside the volcano! – it was finally time to walk back to the bus. This time we crossed the North Atlantic Ridge in a slightly different place and it was a bit too much of a leap of faith. After standing staring at it for a few minutes, I finally gave up and crossed somewhere easier.

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The leap to that boulder was just a bit too far

As we were a little bit early getting back, and because I may have mentioned my caver blood and had my headtorch with me, our guides stopped at a couple of lava tubes so any “mountain goats” in the group could go and explore them because the guides are brilliant and I particularly appreciated that little unscheduled stop-off.

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This one is Langihellir – “long hole”. One entrance is right there and the other is just behind it to the left – see? It’s just a tube joining them – nothing technical, nothing scary. They’re little more than lava bridges, really, going from one fairly shallow boulder-filled pit to the next.

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I don’t know who this man is, only that he was the only other person who joined me in exploring these scary holes in the ground.

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And once we’d explored Long Hole and Deep Hole, we finished the walk back to the bus and went back to Reykjavik. I’d like to tell you about all the exciting things I did but I suspect I did nothing more than buy some food and go back to the my guesthouse.