It’s easy to forget, basking in the tropical sun of a 9˚C summer morning in Reykjavík, that just outside the city, summer is yet to arrive. But sure enough, one Saturday in May, after pulling on some hiking boots and taking the twenty-minute drive to the skiing area of Bjáfjöll, I find myself trudging across a tract of deep, slushy snow. Bulging white sacks have been dropped at intervals to trace the buried path over this eerie wasteland, which is enveloped by a soaking, drizzly, impenetrable fog. Looking back, I see a couple of our group, dressed in ankle-length high visibility jackets, staggering along gamely. Ahead is the red jacket of our guide, Gummi, who strides forth with trademark Icelandic stoicism.
I grit my teeth and power on. Because today is one of the first days of 2016 that the famous Þríhnúkargígur (“Three Peak Crater”) volcano is open to visitors. During the high season, we’re told, this one hour trek to the volcano’s mouth is quite beautiful, with rugged mountains and craters surrounding the high mossy plains. But today, it’s a relief when the base camp, made up of a few container units, appears through the baleful murk.
What lies beneath
After warming up with some hot soup and coffee, we ditch the raincoats, strap on helmets and harnesses, and head up a short path to the elevator. This small cage, studded with spotlights, hangs by several thick cables from a gantry positioned directly over the inky black maw of Þríhnúkargígur. The wind has picked up, and a fine rain comes down as we clip onto a zipline and cross the slick, swaying walkway, peering eagerly through the mesh floor for a first glimpse of what lies beneath.
The lift jerks suddenly, and the descent has begun. As the pale daylight quickly fades, the spotlights start to pick up the texture of the walls. At some point during the eruption that created Þríhnúkargígur, the pressure from below ceased, and the magma receded back into the earth, drying along the way into solid waves and ripples of rock, sculpted as if a comb had run gently down the cone’s interior.
The space broadens out, and we find ourselves, quite suddenly, hanging high in the cavernous magma chamber. The spotlit walls are a rough, natural cathedral in Rothko colours: meaty maroon, arterial red, viscous purple. It feels like we’re coming down the throat of the volcano, and as the 120-metre descent ends, we set foot in its belly.
A rain of diamonds
Our trusty guide points out the features, relating interesting facts, but I find myself too awestruck to concentrate, and drift away from the group, gawping upwards. The lift is winding its way up through the space, the lights illuminating the earthy spectrum of the chamber, and catching a shower of falling droplets that gleam like a rain of diamonds.
The floor of the cavern is a heap of broken boulders and shards of rock, with a rough, pegged-out circular path to clamber around. I hear Gummi’s echoing voice relating the story of one of the first visitors to the cavern: an old Englishman who’d been reading Jules Verne for many years. He sat still for a long time, absorbing the beauty of his surrounding with tears rolling down his face, and said: “Now, I can die.”
Today’s visitors are different—for several, the main aim of the trip is that perfect photograph, and they run down the thirty-minute clock by tensely adjusting their camera settings and positioning each other to the best advantage. I suddenly crave aloneness, and manoeuvre as far away from the group as possible, perching on a charred black boulder shot through with seams of metallic umber. I sit quietly, listening to the echo of the space, wide-eyed. Dark, inviting lava tubes begin at the edge of the cavern floor, and I wonder what sights lie deeper inside the volcano.
All too soon, the lift reappears. As we’re hoisted back up from this surreal and emotionally affecting environment, I don’t lament that it’ll live only in my memory. I find myself internally asking of my companions: “They might have the evidence to prove it—but were they really here?”