Wednesday, June 10, 2015

So I Went Inside a Volcano...

Yesterday was an interesting day.

First there were the weirdos at the Copenhagen train station. Then there was the computer outage at the airport that resulted in a line that wrapped around the entire terminal. And then there was the uncomfortably turbulent flight.

...But I'll skip all of that, because yesterday I went into a volcano.

No, it wasn't an active one. It last erupted 4,000 years ago. There's no magma/lava - in fact, it was a cool 40 degrees inside. But it's still one of the coolest things I've ever experienced.


The volcano - the arrestingly named Thrihnukagigur - is only about 20 miles outside of Reykjavik. However, the crater itself was only discovered in the 1970s - and it only became accessible to the public (through a single tour company) in 2012. 

After the 30-ish minute drive into the mountains with the tour company, you're dropped off in a barren wasteland that apparently doubles as the world's ugliest ski resort in the colder months. (Let's be honest: Iceland as a whole is a pretty barren country. All the black and grey volcanic rock and the lack of vegetation - particularly trees - make for a pretty bleak setting. It's not too surprising that most of the astronauts who ended up landing on the moon came here to train in the 1960s.) 

It turns out that this is just the starting point for the hike - now accompanied by a guide, we get to go on a walk. "It's only 3 kilometers," she says cheerfully. 

"Only 3 kilometers" of trudging through snow, then some permafrost and mud, then some rough uneven volcanic rock. Then some more snow. Then some more volcanic rock. Uphill both ways, etc.

There's a strong cold wind blowing directly in our faces as we hike across the top of these low-lying mountains. They told us to bring warm clothing - I didn't pack a coat, so I have to suffice with a sweater and a hoodie. 

Worse than the wind, before long I'm starting to get snow in my shoes. And then the snow is melting. And then my feet are wet. And then my feet are really cold. ("Oh no, am I going to get hypothermia? Am I going to get frostbite? Am I going to be leaving some of my toes behind in an Icelandic hospital?!")

Walking in the snow is really quite difficult. But - spoiler alert! - I don't get frostbite. Yay!

As we keep trudging, the guide occasionally stops and points something out:

"That's a ptarmigan," she says, pointing to a good-sized bird hopping among the rocks. "It changes colors in the winter."

Can you see the ptarmigan? Can you? Can you?
"That sign there that says [unpronounceable Icelandic word] means 'deep wide crack.' It means that over in that direction there's a big crevasse in the ground that's up to 24 meters deep. You don't want to fall into that."

Apparently that means something along the lines of "fall in here and you'll die." Or maybe it doesn't - I don't know Icelandic.
Later on: "Up here we have to go around the usual path a little bit. There's another big fissure in the ground that we usually cross with a bridge we built, but we don't know exactly where the bridge - or the crack - is because they're both covered by snow." 

After a while, we can see the craters - there are actually three of them - off in the distance. And we keep walking. And walking. And walking.

The three unassuming craters - we'll be going into the one on the right.


Realizing that most people are going to be cold and tired by the time they reach the actual volcano, the tour company has helpfully built a little "base camp" house - complete with free tea and coffee (dangit!), souvenirs, surprisingly fast wi-fi, and, most importantly, shelter from the relentless wind. 

After giving us some time to rest and a brief safety lecture, it's time to go...

INSIDE THE VOLCANO!!!!!1!1  [imagine ominous music playing here]


That's the name of the volcano. 

From the outside, the crater is pretty undistinguished. Just one of several barren cones of black volcanic rock against a grey, snowy landscape. Have I used the word "barren" already? I think I have. How about "desolate?" 

Equipped with safety harnesses and helmets, we ascend to the top of the crater, where there's a hole. A small hole, with a small platform that will serve as an elevator. You can't see the bottom of the hole. You look over the sides of the platform (which you reach by crossing a sort of bridge), and see how the rocks are quickly swallowed by blackness. 

The lift operator attaches our harness to the platform - you really don't want to fall here - and then we begin our slow descent into the abyss. Very slow - it takes a full six minutes to reach the bottom.


Usually magma chambers collapse immediately after an eruption. For whatever reason, however, this one didn't. And that's why today we're able to descend 500 feet into the mouth of a volcano. It's apparently one of the only places like it in the world.

You descend below the level of the actual crater - the dome you can see from the outside - and go below the level of the ground. The rocks change from pretty typical rough igneous to something far more... Varied. And geometrical. And colorful. And beautiful.

The hole opens up after about a hundred feet, and - as your eyes adjust - you begin to understand the sheer enormity of the space. It's a giant cavern, several hundred feet in diameter and 500 feet from floor to ceiling. Quite a bit taller than the Statue of Liberty (which always seem to be the go-to example in cases like this, no matter where you are in the world.) 

My favorite part, though, is the water falling from cracks in the ceiling above. It's falling so far - and in such a small flow - that it breaks up into what seem like individual drops, each one illuminated by the spotlights on the floor of the cavern. It's a breathtaking sight - and one I couldn't really catch on camera. (Of course, I couldn't really catch most of the experience on camera.) 

There are a few moments during the descent when I get a little bit freaked out - it really is a long way to fall - but I get over it.

The platform finally lands, the guide gives a brief explanation of what we're seeing, and then we're allowed to roam freely (well, within the safety lines) for about 30 minutes. 


You get off the platform and look around at all the colors around you. You don't think of the inside of a volcano as colorful, but this one is. There's red and orange and blue and green and yellow ("...and scarlet and black and ochre and peach and ruby and..."), all caused by different minerals left behind by the last eruption. You look up, up, up and stand in awe of the sheer size of the space - and watch as the lights on the platform move higher and higher until they almost disappear completely on the way back up to the surface. 

At first I walk around and take as many pictures as I can. But then I realize that the pictures - even the few that turn out - aren't going to capture the feeling of the place anyways, and I put my camera away. 

The place is pretty quiet, except for the patter of the water falling on the rocks and the other visitors stumbling around on the rocky floor. 

I notice a smaller tunnel that goes even deeper into the ground, but we're not allowed to enter it.

I like to imagine that this tunnel leads to Oz or Middle Earth or somewhere like that...

After I've fully explored the perimeter of the accessible area, I sit down and just try to take everything in. It's slightly chilly (my feet are still wet), I'm a little worried about falling rocks, and I kind of want to stay here forever. 

My best attempt to capture the falling water.

Yes, I had fun with silhouettes. I think they help give a sense of scale.


Alas, our 30 minutes pass and we have to go. So it's back up on the platform, back to the surface, back into the howling wind. 

And then back to the base camp, where they serve us a surprisingly delicious lamb stew - and some more coffee and tea (dangit!) 

And then back across 3 kilometers of snow and volcanic rock and slush and permafrost and more snow. 

And then on the bus back to my hostel, where I can finally take off my wet shoes and socks. (Yay! No frostbite!)

Thank you for joining me on this journey Inside the Volcano.


  1. Oh my goodness, that is so so cool! I'm going to make it to Iceland someday.

  2. So, so cool! My kids are fascinated (and impressed)!

  3. Grandpa-Grandma CrainJune 10, 2015 at 2:49 PM

    Absolutely astounding. The gorgeous colors in the volcano, the rocks, and the water. Which you did an amazing job of showing in the pictures. So nice that someone has fixed it all up so they can get tourists down to see it. And the trek to get there; all I can say is I am grateful you were wearing wool socks since they protect your feet even if they are wet. What an adventure! (The picture of the water does show the individual drops.) Wow!

  4. Wow! Very cool! My kids will be excited to see this in the morning. We just watched the Caves episode of Planet Earth today and they will think it's awesome that you went in a big cave like this!