Iceland: Step into the mouth of a volcano

Lisa Young clips on her safety line to descend deep into Iceland's Thrihnukagigur, which last erupted 4,000 years ago

It's not every day you get lowered 120 metres – 400ft – into a vast dried-out magma chamber inside an ancient volcano, suspended on a mechanical window-washing platform normally used for cleaning skyscrapers.

The BBC is hotting things up with the Volcano Live series, which starts tomorrow. But Iceland is the only place in the world to offer paying guests the chance to see what a volcano looks like on the inside, by experiencing a new adventure called, yes, "Inside the Volcano".

For this summer only, those adventurous enough can descend deep into the dried-out magma chamber of Iceland's Thrihnukagigur volcano – translated it means Three Peaks Crater. This is a dormant volcano that last erupted more than 4,000 years ago. (You can be assured that following years of detailed research, volcanologists and geologists are confident there is no risk of it erupting any time soon.)

The Thrihnukagigur volcano is located in Blafjoll Country Park, just 20km (13 miles) from Reykjavik city centre. To get to the volcano's base camp, visitors must first take a 45-minute guided walk across a huge lava bed. I crossed over dried, jagged black lava that was less friendly to walk on than the deep spongy moss growing around it.

On arrival, the guides gave us a safety talk and explained what we could expect during the next hour. Dressed like miners, in waterproof clothing, a climbing harness and a hard hat and lamp, we then hiked 400 metres up the outside of the volcano's narrow cone.

Typically, the crater of a volcano closes once the eruption ceases and the lava cools to form solid rock, making it impossible to enter. But, here, volcanologists believe the lava must have drained away via another outlet, or solidified on the walls, thus leaving the magma chamber empty.

Guide Einar Stefansson first explored the volcano with his brother 19 years ago, using climbing ropes to rappel into the deep magma chamber. The planning stages for their big idea to take small guided groups into the volcano involved years of meetings and site visits by mountain guides, climbers, construction engineers, volcanologists and geologists, whose combined skills helped make sure the whole experience would be a safe one.

"Six years ago, a National Geographic crew was making a film about volcanoes in Iceland," said Einar. "They came to us and asked if we could assist them in accessing the crater. We had done this before with a film crew, using mountain-climbing techniques to lower the crew in and out on ropes. This method was too dangerous, with guys swinging on the end of ropes. I said I'd never do it that way again, and we came up with the idea of using a support across the top of the crater and some sort of mechanical lift attached, to gain access."

Thrihnukagigur's cone sticks 35m out from the surrounding landscape. At the top is a black hole, four metres square, a funnel-shaped opening that is the only way in and out of the volcano. Above the crater is a construction crane beam, which is laid across the opening of the crater and acts as a support for the lift mechanism and walking platform.

I was attached to a safety line before I edged along a platform that looked like half a bridge. I walked out over the crater, darkness below me, then stepped on to the open lift – the mechanism that is more typically used for cleaning skyscraper windows.

Our group of five slowly descended into the cone's narrow bottleneck, bumping and scraping occasionally against colourful rock walls. At points, we pushed the lift away from outcrops that jutted out from the sides. The temperature dropped gradually as we continued our 10-minute descent.

Einar explained how a particularly unusual formation that covers the inside of the cone was formed. "As the volcano pumped out lava it dried on the inside of the cone, creating a formation that resembles a stack of pancakes, it's an impressive sight."

The project is a work in progress; this summer's opening is a trial that could lead to bigger things. Einar told me about the team's plan, a huge investment to construct a tunnel from a plateau south-east of the crater that will cut through the volcano wall to a viewing gallery, 40 metres above the magma chamber. A sturdy circular staircase structure will lead down to the chamber floor. Their project is currently being reviewed, and is subject to an environmental impact assessment. They will know later in the year whether or not their plans have been accepted.

Clear of the narrow cone, we entered a massive vault. We stopped, dangling in mid-air to take in the vast size of the chamber. Bright floodlights brought the magma chamber to life. At the sides, the chamber's edges angled down another 80m, with long, dark passages penetrating further into the Earth.

What were arteries carrying lava through the rock are now thick black lines around the chamber. Psychedelic swirls of red, pink, orange, black, green and other colourful blends covered the walls. I craned my neck and looked up to see a tiny dot of daylight at the top. We were a long way down, deep inside the volcano.

Volcano Live, hosted by Kate Humble and Iain Stewart, is broadcast on BBC2 from Monday 9 July until 12 July

Travel essentials

Getting there

Discover the World (01737 218 800, discover-the-world.co.uk) offers a three-night Superjeep Volcano Adventure itinerary, including guided 4x4 excursions from Reykjavik to Strokkur Geyser, Gullfoss waterfall, and Thingvellir National Park, plus the “Inside the Volcano” tour, from £985 per person including flights with Icelandair from Heathrow, Manchester and Glasgow, and B&B accommodation. Departures until 17 August.

Suggested Topics
News
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager - Commercial Cable & Wire - UK

    £60,000 - £75,000: Recruitment Genius: As a top tier supplier to the major Aer...

    ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    Day In a Page

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes