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
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
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

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

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

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

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering