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Miles, Pliny, 1818-1865. / Norðurfari: or, rambles in Iceland (1854)

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[Chapter XI.]

  [p. 95]  


Thule, the period of cosmographie,
Doth vaunt of Hekla, whose sulphureous fire
Doth melt the frozen clime, and thaw the sky;
Trinacrian Ætna’s flames ascend not hier;
These things seem wondrous.

Old Ballad.

Heigho for Hekla! Thursday, July 29, was a lofty one in my calendar. The sun had many hours the start of us, getting up as he does here at two o’clock in the morning. An early hour, though, found us in our saddles. The morning was magnificently bright, the mountain being visible, clear to the curling wreath of smoke on the summit. Little patches of snow, here and there near the top, made a break in the broad, black streams of lava that covered every part of the mountain. We provided ourselves with every requisite for a long day’s journey. My knapsack was well stored with good things—solids and fluids; and then I had my old Scotch companion, the tartan plaid, to keep the cold away; and each of us had a fine staff—what the Swiss travellers call an Alpen stock, but ours were Hekla stocks, Iceland staffs—some six feet long and armed with a strong, sharp, iron pike. My travelling guide, the farmer of Nœfrholt, and the reader’s most humble servant, made up the party—not quite a princely retinue, but enough. Yes, and there was our dog, Nero. The top of the mountain was distant about seven miles, of which we could ride nearly four. Away we galloped through some fine green meadows, till we came to a mountain gorge on our right, down which in numerous cascades poured a   [p. 96]   small river. Several ducks and water-hens flew away as we approached their mountain home. Passing through this gorge, we came into a circular meadow entirely shut in by mountains, like an immense amphitheatre, and this was the last bit of productive land on our way towards the summit of Hekla. A hut was erected here, as a temporary residence for the farmer while gathering his hay. High, precipitous hills of red lava overhung our path on the right, but the ascent for some distance was gradual. For near a mile, we galloped our horses over a gently ascending plain of fine volcanic sand. High up the mountain side were several sheep, but scarce a blade of grass could be seen where they stood. Perhaps they went up to enjoy the prospect of the green meadows far in the distance. We soon found our mountain climbing was not going to be play. Our ponies found it so too. Our route was intercepted by a broad and high stream of lava that extended six or seven miles from the summit of the mountain. We turned to the right in a southerly direction, and for four or five hundred yards found it about as steep as our ponies could climb. We took a zigzag course to relieve the animals, and after half an hour’s climbing found ourselves on a level table-land, nearly half a mile across. We were now about a thousand feet above the lower region, where we left the farm house; and here we were obliged to leave our horses. The Icelanders have an ingenious way of fastening their animals so that they cannot stray away. They fasten all their horses in a circle, tying the head of one to the tail of another, and bringing the head of the first round to the tail of the last. If they choose to travel, they can; but like John on his rocking-horse, they may gallop all day in one interminable circle, and not get far. Near where we left the horses, extending away to our right, was a large stream of lava—one that came from the eruption of 1845; and though seven years had elapsed, it was not yet cool, and smoke was rising from it in many places. The “streams of lava” that run from the craters of volcanoes, and which here in   [p. 97]   Iceland are seen on the plains as well as on the mountains, are usually from twenty to forty feet deep, from a hundred yards to half a mile in breadth, and from one to ten miles long. They are vast ridges of rough, black rocks, of a most forbidding aspect, the largest masses weighing from one to three or four tons. When it flows from the mountain, it is a stream of molten mineral, and its progress generally rather slow, but dependent on the steepness of the mountain, and the size and the force of the stream. Melted lava often does not move more than from fifty to one hundred yards in a day, but in some cases it may run several miles. It soon begins to explode and break up, by the expansion and escape of the air within it, and by the force of the steam created by moisture on the surface of the ground beneath. While the lava is breaking up, for several days it keeps up a terrible roaring. Then this rough mass, as black as charcoal, lies unchanged in appearance for centuries. After a long time, it begins to turn a little brown, and on its surface appears in minute particles one of the lowest order of mosses.

The learned Spallanzani, Brydone, Dr. Holland, and others who have investigated the subject, have all agreed that there are no data on which a rule can be established, or a judgment formed, as to the age of the lava. It is light and porous, usually not more than half the specific gravity of granite. Pumice, among other volcanic substances, is lighter than water, and will float. Very old lavas are often of a bright red colour, and soft and light, having something of the consistency of chalk. Much of the matter thrown out of a volcano, at certain periods of the eruption, is in the form of fine, black sand. We amused ourselves by rolling some masses of old lava down a steep declivity into a valley. It was very red, and so rotten that it broke into innumerable pieces. Leaving our horses, we commenced the ascent. While crossing a rough stream of lava, a mass, weighing one or two tons, rolled as I stepped on it, and threw me down, and I had a narrow escape from a severe accident. I got off with   [p. 98]   a bruised shin, certainly not so unpleasant a companion as a broken bone would be, especially in a region like this, where there is not a skilful surgeon within a thousand miles. Our ascent led up a valley, having on our left the stream of lava aforesaid, and on our right and before us a hill of volcanic sand. Into this our feet sank deeply at every step. Half an hour brought us to the steep front of the mountain, and now commenced the ascent in real earnest. There was no bilking it; climb we must. Up, up we went, like crows scaling Ben Nevis. How the guides travelled so easy I could not tell. They had a heavy knapsack and bottles of water and bottles of milk, and I had nothing; but they tripped lightly along under their burdens, while I found it hard work. At first I could go ten or fifteen minutes without resting; but after an hour or so I had to stop every five or six yards, throw myself on the ground and recruit. Though nearly “tired to death,” as boys say, yet in an astonishingly short space of time the fatigue would vanish. Here the surface was volcanic sand—beaten hard by the wind, apparently—and a good road to travel on. There were fragments of lava—“slag” and “scoriæ”—scattered over the ground. Some of these I started down the mountain, but they were so rotten that they broke into pieces before rolling a hundred yards. We were getting between two and three thousand feet high, nearly half way up the mountain; and yet vegetation had not entirely ceased. Now and then, we could see a bit of grass, and sometimes a very small plant. One tiny, yellow flower, not bigger than a gold dollar, I gathered and put in my pocket-book; and it proved to be the last flower that I saw in going up. While stopping to rest, I found I had frequent recourse to a certain glass thing that I carried—vulgo vocato, a “pocket pistol”—but what it was charged with is nothing to nobody! After about two hours hard climbing, we arrived at the top of an eminence where I had hoped we should at least see the summit of the mountain, and that not far off; but we were yet a long distance from it; hills peeping o’er hills,   [p. 99]   and one peak rising above another. The weather was beautiful; and, far to the west, we could see the rivers with their green valleys, and beyond them the snow-covered jokulls of the far north. To the south we could see the Atlantic, though more than thirty miles distant. But we must climb, and up, up we go. I noticed here and there, among the dark-coloured lava and sand, a white-looking boulder, bearing evident marks of fire; some the size of a cannon-shot, and some that would weigh nearly half a ton. They were not granite, neither were they chalk; but I could not break them or carry away a specimen; so I had to be content with knowing they were not ordinary lava, but still something that must have been thrown out of the volcano. Our ascent grew less precipitous, and we veered to the left, not going directly towards the summit. At the height of about 4,000 feet, we first struck the snow. This was the first snow I had trod since arriving in Iceland; and, as if the whole order of nature must be reversed here, this snow was black. This was not exactly the natural colour, but a complexion it had assumed from being so near the mouth of the volcano. Sand, ashes, dust, aud smoke, had coated and begrimed it so thoroughly that the whole surface was like fine charcoal. A long valley was filled with it. As near as I could judge, it was from five to fifty feet deep. We passed over several snow-banks that were many hundred yards in breadth, some of which had not lost their white colour. From the level country in the distance, these snow-banks looked like mere patches, but here we found some of them nearly a quarter of a mile across. We ascended the mountain from the west, but now we were north of the summit, and where most of the snow lay. Clouds now gathered round us, and we had to grope our way in the fog for some time. The ascent grew more precipitous, and the climbing was exceedingly toilsome. The earth and lava now appeared of a red colour. We seemed to be approaching the region of fire. Sulphurous fumes saluted our nostrils; the weather cleared a little, and, suddenly, before us   [p. 100]   yawned a deep crater. What a horrible chasm! Indeed, it seemed like hell itself. Fire and brimstone literally. Dark, curling smoke, yellow sulphur, and red cinders, appearing on every side of it. The crater was funnel-shaped, about 150 feet deep, and about the same distance across at the top. This was one of four craters where the fire burst out in 1845. After the eruption, they had caved in, and remained as we now saw them. In a row above this one, extending towards the top of the mountain, were three other craters, all similar in appearance.

Our progress now was one of great danger. At our left was the north side of the mountain; and for a long distance it was a perpendicular wall, dropping off more than a thousand feet below us. A large stone thrown over, never sent back an echo. The craters were on our right, and between these and the precipice on our left we threaded a narrow ridge of sand, not wider than a common foot-path. A more awful scene, or a more dangerous place I hope never to be in. Had it not been for my long staff, I never could have proceeded. The dangers and terrors of the scene were greatly increased by the clouds and cold wind that came up on our left, and the smoke and sulphurous stench that rose from the craters on our right. One moment we were in danger of falling over the perpendicular side of the mountain on the one hand, and the next of being swallowed up in the burning crater on the other. Our path was exceedingly steep, and for nearly a quarter of a mile we pursued it with slow and cautious steps. Old Nero saw the danger, and set up a dismal howl. A few moments after, he slipped, and was near falling into the fiery pit. In five minutes, an animal or a man would have been baked to a cinder. Pursuing our way by the four craters, our path widened, and half an hour more brought us to the top of the mountain. Our purpose was accomplished; we stood on the summit of Mount Hekla. A toilsome journey it had been for us. I threw myself on the ground, and took a look at the scene before me. The top of the mountain was not   [p. 101]   a peak, but broad and nearly flat, with here and there a little irregularity of surface. It was about a quarter of a mile across in one direction—from west to east—and some fifty rods the other way. In several places were deep snow-banks, but as yet we saw no crater on the summit.

It was now two o’clock, it having taken us about eight hours to make the ascent. Though we saw no crater, we had very direct evidence that we were in close proximity to volcanic fires. Little eminences of lava stood up around us, from which smoke issued; and the ground under our feet felt warm. On removing the earth to the depth of two or three inches it felt hot; and on digging down any where to the depth of six inches, smoke would burst out. Six inches deeper, and no doubt a man might light a segar. I went close to a bank of snow—to have something to cool my punch—spread out my tartan plaid on a warm piece of lava, opened my knapsack, sat down and dined. That was the loftiest dinner I had ever partaken. I had nearly a bottle of claret left, and a small drop of something stronger. The guides had a bottle of milk, the snow did the cooling, and I made a capital lot of milk punch. I drank several toasts; gave “the good health of all creation,” toasted “the girl I left behind me,” and “a health to all good fellows.” Yes, and I thought, too, of my friends far, far away; and the distance I had travelled, and must travel again before I could see them. In that half hour—in that dinner on Hekla’s smoking summit, I seemed to enjoy a sociality in the thought of friends and home, that I would not suppose a communion with one’s thoughts in solitude would bring. Nero lay at my feet, the guides were conversing at a little distance, the lava around me was warm; and after a little time the weather cleared up, and left a blue sky and clear atmosphere, with a full opportunity to survey the wondrous panorama of nature that lay spread out below and around us.

A little way to the east was a slight elevation. To this I directed my steps. Here I stood on the highest summit of   [p. 102]   Mount Hekla. A more magnificent prospect was never seen. Iceland was spread below and around me like a map. We were more than six thousand feet above the level of the sea, and higher than the tops of nearly every mountain in Iceland. To the west and north-west were vast green tracts of meadow land, checkered with hills and surrounded by mountains. White shining rivers intersected the valleys and plains like long silver ribbons. Far in the north, and to the northeast, were the snowy mountains, not in peaks, but stretching away in immense plains of brilliant white, and glistening in the sunshine.

In a valley, some twenty miles to the north-west, was a beautiful cluster of lakes, the water often of a deep, green colour, as they reflected the meadows on their banks. Now and then in the landscape would appear the Iceland “forest,” like patches of shrubbery of a dark green hue. Some hills and old lava districts were covered with heath, now in full bloom, and clothing the land in a robe of purple. The surface of Hekla itself, and the ground on every side, some distance from the base, was one black mass of lava. To the northwest, and near at hand, rising abruptly from the plain to the height of 2500 feet, was Bjolfell, a bold and singular-looking mountain. A dark cloud lay in the south-east, intercepting the view, but on every other side the sky was clear and the prospect uninterrupted. To the south, far out to sea—distant about forty miles—were the Westmann Islands, rising abruptly out of the water to the height of more than 2,000 feet, and showing their basaltic cliffs in a clearly-defined outline. Cities, villages, and human habitations, filled no part of the landscape. The magical purity of the atmosphere, and the singular character of this volcanic country, make a view from the top of Mount Hekla one of the most extensive and varied of any on the earth’s surface.[1*] The view from this mountain   [p. 103]   must extend more than 200 miles, showing a visible horizon of at least 1500 miles in circuit. Most fortunately the day was beautifully clear; and, after the first half hour on the summit—except a bank of clouds in the east—the whole country was visible. To the northeast, seemingly quite below us, in the valley of the river Tungná, was a landscape of tiny streams, little lakes, green meadows, and heath-clad hills. One small lake—the Grœnavatn (green lake)—was shaped like the moon when nearly full, and looked scarcely larger than a saucer. The mountains to the south, the lofty Tindfjalla and Eyjafjalla Jokulls, rose up in separate knobs or peaks, the latter justifying its name of “mountain of islands.”

I thought I never should tire of contemplating the varied scene around me,

“Though sluggards deem it but a foolish chase,
And marvel men should quit their easy chair,
The toilsome way, and long, long league to trace,
Oh! there is sweetness in the mountain air,
And life that bloated ease can never hope to share.”

Time sped too quickly. The day was fast wearing away, and much yet remained to be seen on the mountain top. As yet, I had observed no crater on the summit; but going to the top of a little elevation, about one hundred yards from my dining table, it yawned before me. This was the principal crater of the mountain, and larger than all the four that we had seen on our way up. It was of very irregular form, nearly a quarter of a mile in extent one way—a long chasm some two or three hundred feet deep—and not over one hundred yards wide. Some parts of the sides were perpendicular, and smoke was coming out of fissures and crevices in many places. There were several deep snow-banks in it; and though the entrance to a region of perpetual   [p. 104]   “fire and brimstone,” yet there has been no eruption from this crater for ages. We rolled some stones down the steep side of the crater, that crashed and thundered to the bottom, and were lost in a vast cloud of smoke. The guides now did nothing without urging; but I was determined, if possible, to go down into the crater. We went to the east end of it, where the descent was most gradual, and on a steep bank of snow, by a process well known to boys as “sliding down hill,” we soon found ourselves at the bottom. Rather a risky place, inside of Hekla’s burning crater; but if the lava and smoke proved too warm friends, we could cool off by jumping into a snow-bank.

We went through every part of this wonderful pit, now holding our hands in a stream of warm smoke, and again clambering over rocks, and standing under arches of snow. The ground under our feet was principally moist earth; the sides of the crater, rock-lava, and in many places loose slags and scoriæ. One most remarkable basaltic rock lay near the centre of the crater. It was spherical, nearly as round as a cannon-ball, and about twenty or twenty-five feet in diameter. It lay, apparently, entirely on the surface of the ground; and though of compact and solid structure, there were small cracks all over it, from the twentieth of an inch to a quarter of an inch across. Out of these cracks on every side of the rock, smoke and hot steam constantly issued. The ground all round it was moist earth and volcanic sand, and showed few signs of heat. Not ten feet from this rock was an abrupt bank of snow, at least twenty feet deep. In one place under it was a crevice in the lava, where the heat came out; and it had melted away the snow, forming a beautiful arch some ten feet high. We walked under it, and found streams of clear water running from the snow. At these pure fountains we filled some of our empty bottles. For the benefit of any future travellers here, I will mention, that had it not been for my own curiosity and perseverance, I never should have gone into this crater, or even have seen it at all. My mountain guide, the farmer of   [p. 105]   Nœfrholt, seemed to think his duty performed after we were once on the top of the mountain. I hunted up the crater, quite out of sight from where we arrived on the broad summit of the mountain, went to the brink, and then insisted on descending into it. After getting down to the bottom of the crater, a way selected entirely by myself, he very coolly informed me that he had a short time before gone down into it with some Danish gentlemen. After I had satisfied my curiosity in varied explorations, the guide proposed a place for our exit on the west, but where I am sure, had we attempted an ascent, we should have broken our necks. As we could not well slide up the hill where we had slidden down, I proposed an egress just to the north of our enormous smoking boulder; and it was so terribly steep that I thought we should inevitably tumble back into the crater after we were nearly to the top. “Festus,” while traveiling with Lucifer, says,

“Let us ascend, but not through the charred throat
Of an extinct volcano.”

Not so with us: we did come straight out of such a “charred throat.” We emerged from our warm pit, directly on the north edge of the mountain, where it fell off a vast distance in one perpendicular crag. There’s a kind of fearful pleasure in gazing from a mountain’s craggy summit.

“And there’s a courage which grows out of fear,
Perhaps of all most desperate, which will dare
The worst to know it:—when the mountains rear
Their peaks beneath your human foot, and there
You look down o’er the precipice, and drear
The gulf of rock yawns—you can’t gaze a minute,
Without an awful wish to plunge within it.”

The little green lake lay in its nest like a drop of water, some ten miles away, and the majestic Bjolfell reared its black form in solemn state nearly half as high as Hekla itself. We walked clear round the crater, and came to a deep, broad crack in the lava, that we had to leap across, and then returned to the place of our ascent, crossing a broad field of snow.

  [p. 106]  

This snow was many years old, and from five to thirty or forty feet deep; and in several places heat came from the mountain, and melted it out in a great hole—the shape of an inverted potash-kettle. I thrust my pike into the snow; and on withdrawing it, it showed that deep blue tint which I had supposed was only seen in new snow. Having gathered samples of all the lavas that I had seen, and loaded the guides with them, we prepared to descend. Our last six hours of the upward journey, in going back, was performed in two hours. Perhaps the loads of lava that the guides carried, increased their speed, urging them along in their down-hill course. The narrow pathway between the craters and the north brink of the mountain, we found far less dangerous on returning, as the weather was clear and the wind had gone down. When we came to the steep, sandy side of the mountain, it would be safe to believe that we went down pretty fast. Perhaps we didn’t run exactly, but it was a specimen of rather “tall” walking. About half-way down, I drank the last drop of ————, the contents of my pocket-flask. “Farewell, thou lingering sweetness!” Our horses—condemned to fast or eat lava—had gone round a few circles, circumnavigating one another by chasing their tails; but they had not journeyed far. Leading them from the table-land down the steep acclivity, we mounted: their hunger gave them speed; and after a sharp gallop, we arrived at the farm-house about ten o’clock, a little before sunset, having escaped the dangers, and enjoyed the novelty of the loftiest journeying I had spent in all my travels.


[1*] Since the above was written, the writer has ascended Ætna in Sicily, and Vesuvius in Italy. Though these countries are far richer in natural productions, and abound in towns and cities, and the bay of Naples is proverbial for its beauty, yet   [p. 103]   he must say that the view from Mount Hekla is far more varied and beautiful, on account of the clearness of the atmosphere, and the variety of the mountain, valley, and island scenery.

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