How Iceland’s baby volcano was born

In 1973, a 1,600m-long fissure erupted on Iceland’s island of Heimaey, spewing lava, ash and destroying 800 houses – and birthing a new volcano that remains live, and warm, even today.

On 23 January 1973 on Heimaey, the largest of Iceland’s Westman Islands, a 1,600m-long fissure split open and began spouting molten red lava. Most of the 5,300 inhabitants quickly evacuated. But the crisis wasn’t over. Two days later, a 200m high cinder cone appeared out of the fissure, also spurting lava. 

The eruption continued over the next five months, emitting both molten rock and more than 1.5 million tons of black volcanic ash. Finally, in late June, it stopped as suddenly as it had started. Around two-thirds of the island’s inhabitants were able to return to their homes, but nearly 800 houses had been destroyed or damaged. With the loss of buildings and the gain of a mountain, Heimaey was indelibly changed. Locals named the new volcano Eldfell: “Fire Mountain”.

At first glance, Iceland’s youngest volcano doesn’t look all that intimidating. At just 41 years old and 200m in altitude, in geological terms Eldfell is a baby of a mountain – and from a distance, deceptively meek-looking. But the fact that it is live, and still warm, drew me here. 

As a friend and I drove toward Eldfell from the west, leaving the quiet streets of the town of Vestmannaeyjar behind, we could see the volcano’s black and red gravel slopes lying as bleak as a quarry under an overcast sky. Too new to have grown the grassy skin of its 6,000-year-old neighbour Helgafell, about 1km to the southwest, Eldfell remains raw and ruddy: an open wound in the earth. If this didn’t make us trepidatious enough, the signposting for the path was near impossible to find.

We followed the faint but perceptible outline of a gravel path heading east. About 500m in, it started to narrow, forcing us into single file as it scythed upwards. Where other mountain hikes feel somewhat sanitised and safe, moulded and filtered through a raft of warning signs, health and safety regulations and the presence of other people, here it was just us two and an unforgiving landscape. The utter absence of life was disquieting.

Tephra, the rusted red colour of old blood, crunched underfoot. I resisted the temptation to look to my left, where a 100m drop into the crater beckoned. Below, in the crook of the valley, stood a large cross, a stark reminder of the island’s ordeal. The hairs on my arms prickled at the thought of the hundreds of homes buried beneath us. 

Muscles tensed to stay sure-footed on the precarious trail, we half-walked, half-scrambled up the inside of the crater, a fierce wind preventing any attempt at communication. Our eyes squinted for signs of the path, now just a tiny notch in the slope. We couldn’t have been on the mountain much longer than 30 minutes – but it felt like an age had passed since we first started out. 

At the top, fierce gusts were doing their best to demonstrate why the Westman Islands, located 10km south of the mainland, are considered one of the windiest places in Europe. To the north, we saw concave hunks of jutting green islands, their cliffs dense with sea birds in every cleft. Heimaey stretched out to the west and south; beyond it, the bubble of islands that formed the archipelago were just about perceptible. But east of Eldfell was altogether different. Here the earth was a dark, lumpy, moss-covered mass, sutured onto the grassy green of Heimaey like a clumsy skin graft. 

The heat that a local had promised would await us at the summit appeared to be non-existent – our hands, gamely pressed to the jagged sulphurous yellow rocks, felt nothing. Guidebook warnings of melting soles appeared to have been greatly exaggerated. Disappointed, I sat down on the ground to steel myself for the descent. Suddenly, a subtle movement caught my eye – the unmistakeable shimmer of hot air. 

All around us, nondescript vents in the earth emitted wavering ripples of heat. Tentatively putting our hands inside the holes, feeling the residual warmth that was about the temperature of a sauna, provided a little thrill. Tales of locals baking bread up here now seemed wholly believable. Dig just a metre down, we later learned, and the change would be dramatic: when the temperature of the slope was taken in 1998, it reached about 630C.

Visitors have several ways to learn more about Eldfell: in May, Heimaey opened its Eldheimar: Pompeii of the North museum, featuring both exhibitions and an excavation of one of the buried houses. But for those who want a close-up, the trek up Eldfell is a windier, wilder way to come face to face with nature’s awe-inspiring force.