During our recent visit to the Þríhnúkagígur volcano, the magma chamber was a hive of activity, with workmen busily preparing the space for the season ahead. The man leading the work is Árni B. Stefánsson, the lifelong cave enthusiast who was the first person to set foot in Þríhnúkagígur.
“I fell in love with lava caves when I was kid, over sixty years ago, at Kalmanstunga,” he says. “I’ve been exploring caves, and trying to protect them, ever since.”
When the Bláfjöll ski resort opened up in 1970, Árni heard about the cave at Þríhnúkagígur, and came to take a look. “I threw in a rock,” he recalls, “and it took four or so seconds to hit the bottom, meaning it was 100 metres deep, or more.”
He plumbed the cave, then borrowed a 200-metre rope for the first descent. “It was midsummer eve in 1974—nine of us came. I was lowered into the crater, to explore it. I wanted to know where the lava went—it must have drained for one reason or another.”
A rather big, ugly hole
Árni’s high hopes for what he would find were initially dashed. “I’d dreamt about it for a whole winter,” he smiles. “I imagined a huge drainage channel, with lava falls and ponds, stalagmites and stalactites, and formations never seen before by human eyes. But I was very disappointed. There was no beauty—no formations. It was just bare rock, and a heap of rubble on the bottom. So, I decided it was just a rather big, ugly hole. I didn’t think what an achievement it was to be the first person to go into it.”
When Árni’s brothers Einar and Björn returned from a mountaineering trip in Russia, the three decided to further explore the volcano. “They’re longtime companions and were, at the time, the best mountaineering team in Iceland,” says Árni. “We made two expeditions in the spring of 1991. We published articles in cave magazines about what we found, and came to realise this is one of the most remarkable phenomena of its kind on earth.”
Today, Árni spends his time protecting Icelandic caves—both Þríhnúkurgígar, and the many others that dot Iceland’s lava fields. “Iceland’s lava caves have been severely damaged,” he says. “We used to have lots of beautiful and pristine lava caves filled with formations like stalagmites and stalactites. But people tend to collect these things, and take them away. They clean out the caves over time. The caves are like medieval castles—the inventory is slowly removed, until it’s an empty castle.”
“From my point of view, our work here is about preserving the crater, and giving people the opportunity to experience it,” he finishes. “But it must be done respectfully—with respect for the nature, for fellow humans, and with respect for life in general.”
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