On our second full day in Iceland, Peter and I descended into Thrihnukagigur Volcano. As mentioned in my prior post, Iceland sits on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge making it a very active island as the two tectonic plates that Iceland sits on move around on the Earth’s lithosphere (the outermost shell of a planet).
Below is a screenshot I took from the Iceland Met Office showing the earthquakes that had occurred yesterday at the time I started writing this post. I also checked the stats page and in the last 48 hours, there had been 74 earthquakes in Iceland. On average, Iceland has about 500 earthquakes per week.
It’s no coincidence that the earthquakes occur mostly along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Here’s that plain English map I made of the ridge again.
In addition to earthquakes, there are a lot of volcanic eruptions in Iceland. Currently, there are 30 active volcanos in Iceland… and one dormant one. Four volcanos are overdue for an eruption and some experts believe that Iceland is about to see one of the biggest eruptions in history.
- Hekla Volcano erupts every 10 years or so and last erupted on February 26, 2000. Some quick maths tells me that she’s almost seven years overdue. Her eruption in 1947 lasted an entire year so we know this gal has stamina!
- Grímsvötn Volcano is located underneath Vatnajökull glacier and has the highest eruption frequency in of all volcanoes in Iceland. (Gosh, you’re learning so much about Earth in this post!) Most of his eruptions are contained beneath the glacier and simply melt glacial ice which then pools in a nearby lake. He last erupted on May 21, 2011, and the eruption lasted for four days and caused the cancellation of 900 flights across Europe. The 2011 eruption is his strongest eruption in 100 years.
- Bárðarbunga Volcano is also located underneath Vatnajökull glacier. His entire caldera is filled with glacial ice which I think is pretty cool. He last erupted on August 29, 2014, and that eruption lasted through February 27, 2015.
- Katla Volcano is located underneath the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap and she is considered “a very active girl” with an eruption frequency of every 13-95 years. This frequency range seems quite large but remember that this third rock from the sun is 4.543 billion years old and a range of 82 years really isn’t that big. Katla has had a few small eruptions in recent years but has not gone balls to the wall in 99 years so people are on pins and needles waiting for her to erupt!
Now you’re probably thinking, “What’s the difference between a glacier and an ice cap?”
- A glacier is a slow-moving “river of ice” formed by snow accumulation of surrounding mountains.
- An ice cap is a covering of ice (typically found in the polar regions) over of an area less than 50,000 sq km / 19,305 sq mi (roughly the size of Vermont + New Hampshire or Slovakia).
There are also ice sheets and ice shelves but the research of those things are on you.
Protip: If you find yourself near the vicinity of an erupting, or recently erupted, volcano, first, props to you! Second, seek high ground immediately. The fumes and smoke that is emitted during an eruption is toxic and will gather in low-lying lands. Basically, you will die so literally head for the hills but not the one with lava flowing on it!
Now that we are all up-to-speed on the effects of the crazy active lithosphere (new word, yay!) below Iceland, let’s get on with our adventure into Thrihnukagigur Volcano.
We were collected from our hotel at 9:30am via a mini bus and transferred to the Reykjavik bus terminal. We then transferred to a different mini bus and began the hour-long drive to a ski chalet where we met other members of our tour group (the smart ones who rented a car and drove themselves to the chalet meeting point!).
After a quick introduction and rundown of the 3 km / 2 mi “hike,” we were on our way!
We stopped twice during our hike. Peter believes (and I agree) that these were intentional stops to allow people to rest. On our first stop, our enthusiastic and very short guide taught us a few things about the barren landscape, like how we were standing on a bunch of lava tubes.
Below is a photo of an exposed lava tube. Our guide gave us the opportunity to go inside the tube on our way back to the chalet but I had to pee so bad that we had to say no and then fast hiked it back to the chalet toilets.
Much of Iceland, by the way, looks like the photo above. It’s a barren and rocky landscape with a few big hills and some occasional moss. Very Games of Thrones-ish.
Our guide also told us how lucky we were because there was no wind or rain on our tour. She said that usually there is wind and no rain or rain and no wind or both wind and rain but almost never is the case where there is no rain or wind. Had it been windy and/or rainy, it would have made the hike very unpleasant because we were 100 percent exposed to the elements and sans hats and gloves because we are idiots.
Our second rest stop was to learn about the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the notorious splits I spoke of in my prior post. Unlike at Thingvellir National Park the day prior, the split we were standing in front of on our hike to the volcano was quite obvious.
Our guide also let us know that it’s safe to descend into Thrihnukagigur Volcano because it’s been inactive for 4,000 years. I wanted to know how exactly they knew this because no human was alive 4,000 years ago but I kept silent and thought that if “Thri” decides to go ballistic while we’re inside then that’s on us.
We arrived at base camp about 40 minutes after setting off from the chalet. Zero hikers were winded and there were no injuries reported.
I was impressed with the base camp. It was big, there was lamb stew on the stove, and the outhouses were clean. As a side note, this tour was one of the most organized tours I’ve ever been on.
We received a short tutorial from one of the base camp lasses about “all things climbing gear” and then got dressed in our gear.
The strap thing we had to wear was very uncomfortable and unflattering (think camel toe) but I was all in since it would [possibly] save my life if the modified window-washer lift were to fail. The helmet was a joke but it had a light on top of it which I thought may come in useful inside the volcano so no complaints came out of my mouth.
The photo below is a classic Peter-taken photograph. When he is tasked with photo-taking, he never gives me any verbal cues as to when he’s actually going to press the button. He just stands there with a phone pointed at me snapping unbeknownst photos. And as is the case EVERY TIME, I wait a couple of seconds and then ask, “Have you taken the photo yet?” And he’ll say, “Yeah” whilst still taking photos which then capture me asking “Have you taken the photo yet?”
I shouldn’t complain. He’s come a long way since his infamous “cheetah with a fresh kill” photo in July 2014 whilst on safari.
Speaking of cheetahs, a safari friend of ours sent us the photo below yesterday. He’d been going through old photos and come across this gem from August 2013. Setting aside my bush-style nose wipe and the dumbfounded look on Peter’s face, this is a pretty cool photo. Our guide, Patrick, is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met.
I remember this cheetah day well. The photo above was taken moments before the cheetah jumped on top of another vehicle filled with National Geographic folks. Again, setting aside the ass shot, it’s a pretty cool photo but it is a photo that should not have happened. The guide of that vehicle should never have allowed the cheetah to get on the vehicle putting his clients in a very high-risk situation where the outcome could have been death.
I have digressed slightly but only because going on safari is really neat and I miss it.
Back to Iceland!
From base camp, we “hiked” up the steep-ish side of the volcano. We stopped halfway for yet another rest and to look at a map describing the volcano. Our guide (a new one who was of Viking height and very funny) explained somewhat how the Icelandic language works. He said that the Vikings were very simple people and therefore, Icelandic is a simple language. Basically, the Vikings saw the three peaks and said, “Three. Peaks. Crater.” And that’s how the area got its name.
When you break it down, Þríhnúkagígur (“Thrihnukagigur“) is composed of those three words smashed together +/- some letters.
- Þrír = three
- hámarki = peaks
- gígur = crater
This little lesson was key to starting to understand the Icelandic language. Simply memorize individual words and then parse those words from big words. As an example, “foss” of Gullfoss means “waterfall” so when us English folk write “Gullfoss Waterfall” it’s read by an Icelander as “Gull Waterfall Waterfall.”
One rare thing about Thrihnukagigur Volcano is that the top is not a crater like most volcanos. Experts believe that the arched interior of the volcano was strong enough to withstand cratering and that is why it has mostly remained intact. As best as I can describe it, the interior of the volcano is shaped like an upside-down funnel.
The hole at the top is incredibly tiny and as you descend into the volcano, it gets bigger and bigger. The photo below was taken from the volcano floor looking up at the hole.
On opposite sides of the floor of the volcano are two very big and steep lava tubes. Both Peter and I were surprised that there wasn’t more roping and lighting because one wrong step and you can say good-bye to your life as you free fall down the lava tube toward death. In general, the floor of the volcano was very dangerous. It was wet and there are big sharp boulders everywhere. Such an attraction could never exist in the lawsuit-happy US of A.
Here’s a view of the volcano from base camp.
This is what it looks like at the top of the volcano.
The above modified window-washer lift is what is used to transport people in and out of the volcano. It’s a tiny lift that can only hold seven people. The volcano’s hole is so tiny that the lift has been further modified to have wheels (right-hand side of the photo above) which glide the lift through the narrowest portion of the “funnel.”
The green stuff on the walls is bacteria is the only living organism inside the volcano.
It took about six minutes to descend 213 m / 700 ft to reach the volcano floor which is the size of three full-sized basketball courts. I felt small inside the volcano.
Below are a couple of photos we took while standing on the volcano floor of the lift coming down with a new set of hikers. The third photo is one of my favorites of the trip. I feel it best represents the grandeur of the volcano (the Statue of Liberty can easily fit inside the volcano) and I’m probably going to blow it up and frame it.
Protip: The interior of the volcano is very dimly lit. Peter’s phone took higher quality images than our point-and-shoot.
There is one very narrow trail on the floor which loops around from the lift landing/launch pad and allows for a few different vantage points of the colored walls.
Different elements in the rocks and the high temperatures of eruptions caused the rainbow of colors. For example, the rust-colored rocks contain iron. The colors were pretty!
We were left alone to explore the volcano for about 25 minutes which was too long 15 but with each roundtrip of the lift taking about 15 minutes, that’s just how the maths work out. Once we walked the loop, there wasn’t much else to do and that’s when I started to realize just how cold it was inside the volcano. It was below freezing and my hands quickly turning into icicles.
There was also light rain/mist inside the volcano. We never knew where it was coming from but it was there. Always. Just a slow trickle of quiet rain. It was kind of magical. Peter loved it.
Roughly 30 minutes after setting foot on the volcano floor we were back on top of the volcano and on our way back to base camp to eat lamb stew, release our camel toes, and warm-up before hiking back to the chalet and be bussed back to Reykjavik.
During our tour, we were told that Thrihnukagigur Volcano is the only dormant volcano on Earth that can be toured and I’m happy we did it. The price tag is high but given the logistics and personnel required to pull off a tour like this one justified the price.
Next up, a summary of Reykjavik and a trip to the Blue Lagoon.