By Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)
It was a small five-passenger elevator, the sort of open-scaffold, spool-cabled rig that lowers professional window washers down skyscrapers. There’s nowhere else on Earth where they lower volcano sightseers.
After a few jolts and near-scrapes against the steep surface opening, we descended in the lift’s alternate speeds, slow and very slow. At 100 feet down the crater’s ever-widening dome, I was thankful we wore helmets and safety harnesses inside the metal cage. We were still a dizzying height above the dormant lava chamber’s floor, 300 feet over our destination. Falling to the rocks below would equal diving off the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
As we edged down the hollow, spotlights from the bottom revealed immense geological murals on the walls. Every direction showed an extravaganza of crystalline frescos. Each wall held plumes of ginger yellow, vibrant amethyst, emerald, coral orange and magenta. Dangling at breath-sucking altitude in the colossal space was like a spider hanging from a spectacular cathedral roof. If I trembled a bit, it was common Icelandic hypothermia as chill rain came showering down the overhead opening. So I said, anyway. In Iceland, you don’t act wimpy.
The tiny North Atlantic island draws adventurous visitors like an electromagnet. It’s an exotic Arctic remnant of the world’s last ice age: gargantuan fjords, massive glaciers, geothermal geysers, azure lagoons, gritty black-sand beaches, moss-covered lava fields and thundering multilevel waterfalls. The appeal isn’t all prehistoric. For the past 20 years, uber-hip Reykjavik has been acclaimed as the coolest bar-crawling city in the known cosmos.
But of all the haunting vistas I have encountered across Iceland, the interior of Thrihnukagigur is the most astonishing. Nowhere else can you take an elevator to the base of a volcano’s magma chamber or see an Icelandic panorama underground more bizarre than the landscapes above.
The 15-million-year-old cavern is also one of Iceland’s most exclusive attractions, only beginning to experience its potential as a tourist attraction. Depending how you tally the active mountains and fissures, Iceland has around 30 volcanoes. Some are temperamental leviathans famous for bang and boom fireworks displays and misty clouds of hydrochloric acid.
Thrihnukagigur was under-the-radar until the 1970s, a small 12-by-12 foot opening on a hilly landscape, no classic volcanic giant. It was first investigated by spelunkers lowered on ropes. The suspended lift was built to lower National Geographic Channel camera crews filming Icelandic volcanoes after a huge 2010 eruption made Eyjafjallajokull the world’s most famous. Thrihnukagigur has been open to public tours only since the summer of 2012, the hidden gem of a big tourism boom. Every year, more than 100 million people visit volcanic sites globally. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home of the Kilauea volcano, draws about 2 million every year.
Thrihnukagigur is located just a half-hour’s drive southeast of the capital. After you park, it’s a 50-minute trek from the road through a path across a ragged, rising lava field, the kind of bedrock NASA’s Curiosity rover enjoys on Mars. From mid-May through late September, base camp guides in the welcoming cabin serve tired arrivals local lamb stew at the steep summit of the two-mile hike. They say more people have reached the top of Mount Everest than the bottom of their subterranean site.
Reaching the end of the elevator descent, the shepherd unbuckled his four passengers’ harnesses, encouraging us to go ahead, scramble around and explore. We stepped out on the ground floor, a vast uneven pile of granite, big enough to hold three NBA basketball courts. Other than his general advice and some trivial rope barriers you might put in your garden, the danger guidelines were the general local attitude that visitors will make their own strategies and won’t do anything risky. In countries like Iceland that have no tort culture, tourists are largely responsible for their own safety.
The symmetrical cone-shaped interior is an enthralling museum of creation and destruction. Its rippling beauty is utterly undisturbed. Nothing interrupts the timeless and powerful visual spectacle of elemental art at the foot of the near-bottomless pit. It has no rise in temperature, no whiff of sulfur, none of the animal life you might meet in other caves. The only signs of life are the few humans hiking around the uneven walking paths, watching the barren interior’s shifting rainbow field of scalded and charred rock face with the hushed focus of spectators at a tennis match.
Unlike many Icelandic volcanoes, Thrihnukagigur is silent, fast asleep since its last eruption 4,000 years ago. While most volcanoes spew superheated magma as they break through the soil, creating major slopes, this was a lava hiccup. Thrihnukagigur was undiscovered when Jules Verne sent an exploring team down an Icelandic abyss to underground shoals of sea monsters in “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” but it feels like that strange subterranean world. It is lonely and beautiful, haunting and melancholic. With the sky only visible as a distant crack of light, the cave floor could be a passage to the core of the planet.
After almost an hour in a different world, it was time to move on. The five-hour tour is not for the faint of heart in terms of heights or expenses. It’s one of the priciest day trips from Reykjavik, around $300 — about half the price of round-trip airfare from Minneapolis — depending on the value of the Icelandic krona when you book. But it’s an only-in-Iceland adventure unlike anything I’ve experienced before. The volcano earned every penny.
“Inside the Volcano” tours are at http://bit.ly/18SVeNk.
(c)2015 Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: A small elevator lowers visitors into Icleland’s Thrihnukagigur volcano. (insidethevolcano.com/TNS)