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Belly Of The Beast

6.7.2012
Words by Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir
Einar Stefánsson is the kind of man who whistles while descending into the mouth of a volcano.

I’m standing in an open elevator system with him and two other strangers, dangling—it would seem—above the 120-metre deep magma chamber of a dormant volcano.

Feeling the sharp, numbing waves of panic start to lap over my upper neck and temples, I close my eyes and try to think about anything other than the reality of the situation.

‘If you’re going to die somewhere,’ I muster, reassuringly, to myself, ‘it’s probably best that it be inside a volcano.’

I had just been standing in the sunshine—warm, delusional, happy—with a spectacular view of Reykjavík from one of the three mounts of Þríhnúkagígar, on the Reykjanes peninsula. Björn Ólafsson, one of a number of the dazzlingly tanned, robust-looking and all-around trust-inducing mountain guides accompanying us that day, had just been pointing to a wood carving of the volcano’s inner recesses.

He did say plenty about “descent.” He did say something about the chamber being longer than the Statue of Liberty. But it wasn’t until Björn had harnessed me to the railing and I had begun walking the plank stretching across the ominous, gaping free-fall below that it dawned on me:

I was about to go. Down there. Into that.

Einar hooked another clip to my harness before releasing me from the railing, and I stepped inside the metal basket.

“Are you scared?” says Einar—a man who, I would later learn, has climbed Everest.

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s better if you’re scared,” he says, and begins our squeaky, downward descent.

WITHIN THE WALLS

As we move down the slim tube of the upper crater—the neck of the bottleneck—Einar points out the icicle-shaped smears of lava on the wall an arm’s length away—thin-flowing basaltic magma that had spread in layers during the eruption 4,000 years ago; “like butter on bread,” Einar says.

The way down is a little crooked, and at one point we have to guide the elevator down at a slight diagonal by pressing against the wall. No natural light follows us down. The voices from our group below echo in such a way as to sound to be coming from within the damp walls.

Near the end of the upper tube, the walls start slanting away from us. Despite the scattered voices there is an eerie quiet below: the sound of water dripping; someone stumbling over a rock. Then we descend fully into the lit-up magma chamber.

Words cannot describe the magnificence, the illustrious expanse of the elfin temple of doom that came into view. We were being ushered into the mausoleum of a prehistoric monster. It was better than Jules Verne’s wettest dream. We were at the gates of hell, the centre of the earth; the beast had swallowed us whole.

As the basket touched ground, I moved quickly out of the ‘drop zone’ beneath the opening, as the guides insisted. The air was cold and entirely still. Like everyone else, I turned my face and my eyes upwards, towards the expanse above, and didn’t say a word.

ELFIN TEMPLE OF DOOM

“For 4000 years, this dripping has been the only sound,” our third guide Jón Gauti says.

The entire thing seems eerily implausible. The magma chamber itself was, for one, never meant to be. Caverns such as these, where lava seeps in from fissures and collects in preparation for an eruption, tend to close up following the inevitable eruption, once the lava begins to cool and harden to rock at the opening. But in the case of Þríhnúkagígur, the magma must have either hardened within the chamber or simply drained out of it, back into the depths of the earth. Making the fact of my being able to be here a bit spooky. Making the whole premise a bit super-natural.

No bones, not even of animals or birds, have yet been found inside the cavern, which sat untouched and unseen until 1974, when Árni B. Stefánsson—the aforementioned Einar’s brother—first touched the chamber floor after descending, ahem, the depths of darkness harnessed to a rope.

As the elevator brings the last of our group down, Jón Gauti begins to sing, demonstrating the echo off the rocks burned with a violent, dark rainbow of colours. Another five people from our group board the elevator and it begins to ascend, meaning I have about another fifteen minutes. Right before he disappears from view, Einar begins to sing as well in chorus with Jón Gauti. The walls stand indifferent to the warmth of the human voice. Stately. Immovably silent.

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The ‘Inside the Volcano’ tour was provided by 3H Travel. Travellers should note that though previous hiking or climbing knowledge is not required, a trek of around 45 minutes is necessary to reach the Þrúhnúkar area, across uneven terrain of rock lava and moss. More information can be found at www.insidethevolcano.com or by calling +354-863-6640
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