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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on