Rifts, Rain And Rebirth: Up Close And (Very) Personal With The Þríhnúkagígur Volcano

Poppy Askham
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Childhood adventure books led me to believe that descending into a volcano would be a far more frequent occurrence than it has proven to be in my life so far. Today, with the help of the Inside The Volcano tour at Þríhnúkagígur, I will begin to right that wrong.

Þríhnúkagígur—which roughly translates to “try to pronounce that you English-speaking sucker” (or to be pedantic “three peak volcano”)—is a geological oddity. When magma cools after an eruption, it solidifies and fills the volcano’s cone. But after Þríhnúkagígur erupted, the magma simply disappeared as though someone had pulled out the plug, leaving a uniquely preserved cavity, ready to be explored by wannabe spelunkers like myself.

When it rains, it pours

Much to my dismay, on arrival at Bláfjöll Nature Reserve, I discover that a 3.5 km hike lies between me and my childhood fantasies.

“The Highlands are Iceland’s wettest region,” our tour guide announces as we set out into the mossy lava field. As if to prove her point, the heavens promptly open, releasing that special kind of Icelandic rain that defies the laws of physics to ensure you get soaked from every angle.

Halfway through the trek we cross a small wooden bridge over an unassuming fissure in the lava field. In fact, we learn, it’s the architect of today’s escapade: the Mid-Atlantic Ridge—a diverging tectonic plate boundary that is pulling Iceland in half at a rate of roughly two centimetres a year, thrilling geography nerds in the process.

Journey towards the centre of the Earth

Eventually we reach base camp and promptly don our unflattering mustard-yellow helmets and harnesses, ready for the real adventure. Sartorial concerns are soon replaced with a giddy excitement as we reach the crater. A metal bridge juts out over the abyss, leading to a souped-up window-cleaner’s lift that will transport us into the bowels of the earth.

It’s at this point that fear should probably kick in. We are suspended in a tiny open-lift above a 198 metre drop—for reference that’s the height of 666 puffins—but it appears my self-preservation instinct has momentarily stopped functioning. There is in fact little to be scared about; we are trussed up in safety equipment and accompanied by a trained rescue worker. What’s more, Þríhnúkagígur is dormant; the most recent eruption occurred some 4,000 years ago. Somewhat disappointingly, it seems the greatest threat to my life throughout the trip is probably my own clumsy feet—a detail I shall neglect to include in future dramatic retellings of this adventure.

After six minutes of steady descent through the layers of the earth’s surface, we are untethered from the metal cage and can step out into the chamber. Free to roam the cavern’s rock-strewn paths, I marvel at the shadowy lava tubes and jewel-toned mineral deposits daubed on the walls. It’s hard to imagine the cathedral-like cavity once filled with magma, especially given the fact that the temperature has dropped to just 2°C.

A turn for the hippier

“When you get to the lowest point, look up at the vent, you might recognise the shape,” our guide says with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “Well?,” she demands when I return. My British prudishness suddenly kicks in. What if I’d misinterpreted the long thin slit in the ceiling surrounded by layers of rock tinged red with oxidised iron? I mumble something lame about a certain anatomical likeness.

“Exactly!,” she enthuses. “I like to think that we’re standing in Mother Nature’s womb and that when you emerge from the volcano it’s like being reborn”.

It’s an image that is impossible to dislodge from my brain as we make our shuddering ascent back to rain-soaked reality. Spiritual rebirth was conspicuously missing from the trip’s online itinerary. I guess it’s just another one of those thrilling unexpected extras—like the bowl of steaming vegetable soup that awaits us at base camp.

Þríhnúkagígur Tour provided by Inside the Volcano.

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