Of lava and pandemics: Flying to Iceland for a volcanic adventure
Flying to Iceland for 48 hours during a global pandemic to see a volcano may not be the craziest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s probably in the Top Five. This trip came together in less than two weeks and everything about it was a whirlwind.
I’ll come back to the Covid thing in another post. For now I want to talk about the lava.
My friend Heather and I took a red-eye to Reykjavik and most of our sleep over the course of about 36 hours consisted of a nap in the hotel lobby while we were waiting for our room to be ready for check in.
Still, when we started our adventure, adrenalin gave us all the energy we needed. The hike to the “summit”, a mountain that overlooked Fagradalsfjall and the volcanic plain, happened in three chapters — each one with its own reward.
Chapter 1: The hike
Chapter One started from the parking lot, which was literally just a flattened area of field at the end of a long drive off the empty road that crossed the Geldingadalir plain.
To reach the newborn Fagradalsfjall eruption, we had to hike across a small, barren mountain. Like much of the rocky landscape I saw in Iceland, there is no vegetation to hold the soil in place; and recent rains had turned most of the trail into a river of mud.
The trail rose quickly, steeply, with sloppy footing underneath caused by dozens of other shoes churning up the mud.
Rain chilled our fingertips even as our bodies steamed from exertion. The wind howled in our ears and challenged us at every step. It felt like a chaotic imp sent to keep us from reaching our goal. At times it blew directly at us in a sustained gale that literally stopped us in our tracks; when that didn’t work, it switched to sharp sideways gusts that seemed certain to blow us off the side of the mountain. Still, we persevered through the wind and the rain until we reached the first summit: a massive black lava field, still smoking in places and glowing with a fiery heat in the cracks.
The smell of charcoal stung our noses. In the distance, across the expanse of obsidian, we could see the edge of the volcano puffing and smoking.
Chapter 2: Oh, those photo ops
Heather and I stopped for lots of photos in front of the basalt lake before continuing on to Chapter Two – a short but steep climb to another plateau. When the ground leveled out we found ourselves in front of a river of fire.
Here the lava from the volcano flowed down the mountain onto the plain below. It looked like we had wandered into hell.
The hot red flood of magma bubbled and curdled and spilled down the hillside, incandescent and deadly. It was absolutely mesmerizing.
Heat from the torrent of slag warmed our faces even as the rain seeped through our clothing and chilled our bones. The rush of fire and brimstone sounded like the ocean crashing in our ears.
It took a long time to pull myself away from the hypnotizing beauty of this molten cascade of destruction. But in the end there was something even more magnificent and surreal to see:
Chapter Three: The volcano
Yet another short but leg-burning ascent brought us to the final peak. Here the wind escalated from a howl of warning to a roar of fury; and the rain that had pelted us froze to sleet, slashing at our faces like shards of glass.
I raised a gloved hand to wipe my eyes and was a little surprised when it didn’t come away covered in blood.
But here, from this crest, we could see the volcano in its full glory. We stood on one mountain to watch a new one being forged.
As we stared, transfixed, lava began to bubble out of the cone, faster and more ferociously until it was spewing crimson jets of molten rock and fire straight up into the steely grey sky.
New earth created
I’ve had many adventures and seen so many wonders, but in all my days I’ve never seen anything like this. New earth was being created in front of our eyes. The forces of nature were on full display and they were truly incredible.
The dictionary can’t seem to provide me with adequate superlatives to define this experience – I think I need a new language for it.
I use the word “awesome” to describe everything from socks to hot dogs, but if I had known I would ever be here in this place, watching this phenomenon, I would have saved that word for this day and this day alone.
The volcano erupted roughly every 15 minutes, giving us plenty of opportunities to marvel and fill up our cameras with photos and videos. Our vantage point was probably only a quarter mile from the actual eruption.
The acrid tang of sulfur and carbon scratched our lungs. Nearby, a pair of park rangers monitored the gas levels for safety; allowing us to focus on the spectacle without too much concern for our well-being.
Heather and I stayed for a long time, snapping photo after photo from every angle and helping each other with photo ops. But before leaving, I put my camera away so that I could watch one last eruption with my own eyes, etching the experience into my brain and my heart.
It was around 10 p.m. when we started down off the mountain to take the trail back to our car; but the sun was still up – though it continued to hide behind the rain clouds.
We stopped for a break at the lava field we had first come upon, where Heather set up a special treat. She had brought all the ingredients for s’mores in her backpack, and we crouched at the edge of the magma to toast our marshmallows in the glowing cracks of the smoldering basalt.
Frankly, that lava field toasted my marshmallows better than any campfire ever did. And the chilling wind and frigid rain – not to mention the dazzling scenery – made those the best s’mores I’ve ever tasted in my life.
Angie is a Franklin County native living and working in Philly, with a penchant for adventure. Her hobbies include hiking, bird-watching, and travel. She has been to 27 countries on 4 continents. Favorite country visited so far: Madagascar. Dream destination: Papúa New Guinea to see the Birds of Paradise.