I’ve talked about Eldfell before but for those of you who haven’t read it, let me run over the basics.
I did a whistle-stop tour of Heimaey in the summer of 2012 with Viking Tours via Iceland Excursions (now Grayline). We left Reykjavik at an obscene hour of the morning, drove a few hours along the south coast to Landeyjahöfn which is a small harbour specially built for the ferry which we caught over to the Westman Islands. We did a tour around the island by boat to see the landscape from the water and to look for puffins, we did a tour around the island by coach and we were dropped off on one side of Heimaey to climb over its shoulder and meet the coach on the other side. We were then delivered to a cafe in town to eat and kill an hour or so before getting the ferry back and arriving in Reykjavik at an obscene hour of the night.
Heimaey has a long and interesting past which features murderous slaves and a raid by Algerian pirates but my interest in it starts in January 1973, when the ground on the west side of the island split open and began spurting lava. That eruption continued until July 1973 and by the time it was finished, a new volcano had been formed, the island was a third larger, a significant portion of the town was buried under ash and lava, the harbour was improved and the people of Heimaey had done something unprecedented.
When the lava started threatening to close up the harbour, thus killing the fishing industry, which was 99% of the industry on Heimaey in the day, they fought back. Yes, they fought the volcano. They tried to divert the lava – millions of tons of red-hot molten rock, rock so hot it had turned to liquid – and when that didn’t work as well as they wanted, they tried to just stop it, which they achieved by cooling it by spraying it with seawater, having built a network of pipes and hoses on top of the hot lava. It just blows my mind, that these little islanders from the 1970s took on a volcano and they won, armed with little more than fire hoses.
Having my own car and my own schedule, I popped over on a day trip this summer with the aim of getting to know the volcano a little better. There wasn’t space on the ferry for my car, so I left it at Landeyjahöfn (literally Land-Island Harbour) and went over as a foot passenger. I had fond hopes of catching a bus from the harbour to somewhere around the foot of the volcano but it wasn’t to be. Haimaey does have buses but they’re exclusively tour buses. You buy your ticket and you’re taken around the entire island to see all the sights. No such thing as a hop-on local bus on an island barely four miles long.
So I walked up to the volcano. First an easy walk through town, which is still pretty tiny. Then through the lava field, going upwards and north and west until you’re at the foot of the volcano, at which point there’s a big sign saying “see that obvious path right here? You’re not allowed to walk there. Walk around the volcano and climb from the other side.” Which I did, because I’m a good tourist. No one else did. And it’s ridiculous because it really is the long way round.
The red route is the very obvious one to follow if you’ve come up from town. The green one is the one you’re supposed to follow. 1.6km vs 0.6km just to cut out that tiny bit at the beginning. But I did it because I understand about erosion and about tourists causing permanent trails a blind man can follow in the dark and even I cut off that sharp corner where Eldfellsvegur meets Fellavegur.
This is approximately where the two trails meet. Eldfell (literally Fire-Mountain) was briefly a nice cone but then it got too deep, the walls got too thin and fragile and a chunk fell out. It happens pretty often with volcanoes. But in this case, you’ve got half the town standing downwind of this, spraying the lava and suddenly there’s a huge chunk of volcano coming at them – the most dangerous moment of the entire eruption. I don’t think it came to anything in the end. I think that massive slab of rock just slithered down and came to a halt somewhere just above town. What it achieved was to open up the cone, turning it into a bowl with an open crater in the middle and now that it’s cooled down a lot, you can walk up the broken side.
It’s very interesting. It’s all scoria, all red and black, all crunchy and crumbly and so dusty.
Here are my feet before and after. I just happened to take a photo of my feet on the ferry that day. I don’t usually. And then I got to the top of the mountain and discovered everything from the knees down was covered in reddish-brown volcano dust so now I have a before-and-after photo.
Incidentally, I’d been wearing my mountain sandals all week. I’ve climbed mountains in them, I’ve crossed rivers in them, I’ve washed them in city centre fountains. They’re tough. But I chose the boots today because I know this volcano is still hot. It stopped erupting in 1973 and it’s still dangerously hot. I met a family at the top who were taking temperature readings in various holes around the summit. They’re now down to “only” about 180 or 190°C. And that’s less than a foot deep, in an open hole. Dig a metre or so down and I’d bet it’s still 400°, 500°, 600°. Get any deeper and you’re going to need a very specialised thermometer. The locals use the volcano to bake volcano bread. These people I met at the top were putting bread in the hot holes and making toast. I don’t know if they were eating it, because it was cooked in sulphur gas and placed directly on dusty gravel but I watched and the volcano was definitely cooking the bread and doing it pretty quickly.
I found a nice ledge to put my camera on for a timer selfie and immediately realised that was a mistake. It was over a hot vent and it was so hot that it would have melted the bottom off my camera long before it actually took the photo. It was so hot that I could hardly wave my hand in front of it to test the heat.
Once I’d taken in the view a bit and watched the toast-making, it was time to get that selfie. I’d just climbed a mountain, if a smallish one – Eldfell is only about 200m high but I’d climbed every inch of that from sea level – and I’d earned a mountaintop selfie. In fact, this was my mountaintop moment for my Girlguiding South West England Senior Section Centenary Challenge badge. I found a nice place to sit in the red scoria, put my bag out of sight and set up the camera to take half a dozen timed selfies. I think it came out pretty well.
It’s not a bad view, either. Red and black volcano, lava field stretching to the sea just a mile or so away, the town to the left and the cliffs in front, enclosing the harbour. That was the fear in 1973, that the lava field would cross that expanse of water and reach the cliffs on the other side, turning the harbour into a lake. Instead, it managed to form a curved breakwater, so the harbour is still perfectly accessible but it’s now more sheltered.
I took the wrong route down. I got lost. There’s one path up and I followed it up and somehow couldn’t find it to go back down. Oh, I found a path but I knew perfectly well it wasn’t the one I’d come up. It was narrow and it was covered in loose black stuff, the sort of stuff you can’t go downhill on because it slides when you put your foot on it. My journey down was very slow, with many slips, much swearing and several stops to tell the volcano “I can’t do this.” I stopped at the bottom to look back up at the path I really shouldn’t have taken. You can see that I shouldn’t have taken it.
I’d already made my way through the lava field. I’d got up close and personal with the lava field. I knew there was a way back to town around it but could I find it? Well, there was the road but the road would go all the way around it, right down to the very bottom corner of the island and I wanted a shorter route. Turned out if you wanted a shorter route, the shortcut was across the lava. This point where I took this photo is where I thought I’d had it, where I thought I’d have to take the road. Believe it or not, there’s a marked footpath across the lava right there in that photo. No, I can’t see it either. I couldn’t really see it when I was standing in front of it, assuring myself that I still had two hours until my ferry left and it hadn’t taken two hours to get to the top of the volcano and take photos.
I made it back into town with plenty of time to spare. Too much. I couldn’t have got the earlier ferry. I wouldn’t have had time on top of the volcano, I’d have been stressed and panicked all afternoon. But the later ferry left me hanging around the harbour with nothing to do. The boat trips had stopped an hour ago. There wasn’t time to walk up to the top of town to the volcano museum. So I collected a few leaflets for my travel journal/scrapbook in the ferry terminal and then went for a cup of hot chocolate.
I don’t drink hot chocolate often but the combination of “just climbed a volcano” and “bored waiting for ferry” led me there. First I had to scrape the squirty cream off into my napkin – I hate squirty cream and I hate filling a napkin with it – and then… well, it tasted of food. It wasn’t tasty, it wasn’t appetising and although I drank less than a quarter of the cup, it left me feeling a bit sick for a good few hours afterwards. No more hot chocolate for me unless I actually want it.
It was a lot colder on the ferry coming back than it was going over but I’m a person who needs to be outside on boats. I don’t like that slow-motion feeling when you try to move around inside and I don’t like being trapped with people who might be seasick. So outside, even if I freeze to death. Board the ferry, put on the windshirt, the two jumpers and the raincoat for warmth. Regret not bringing a warm hat. And take beautiful pictures of the view behind you.