William Lord Watts
Across the Vatna Jökull
Toiling up the sides of the mountain, the mist thickened, while dense clouds settled around us as though they would draw us into the volcano; the smell grew sickening, and the pumice more muddy. "What was falling, rain or sand? Neither; it was a kind of fatty loam, falling in coarse granules, the smells from which were most offensive, and it was very fortunate we were almost to windward of the volcano, or progress would have been impossible. My aneroid here marked 3500 feet, and as higher and higher we climbed the mist cleared a little, until we stood upon the top; while beneath us lay a pandemonium of steam and hideous sounds. Suddenly a fearful crash made us stand aghast; it seemed as if half the mountain had tumbled in upon the other side of this horrible valley, and for some time we could see nothing for the dense clouds of steam which seethed up before us, and the heavy rain of loam which was falling, while the most hideous shrieks, groans, booming and screaming sounds rose from all parts of this terrible depression, the bottom of which was now utterly obscured. Again and again came a crash and a roar from the opposite side, and also occasionally from the side we were standing upon. The sides of the crater were evidently falling in, and huge wide cracks, even where we stood, showed us that our position was not altogether a safe one; but the wind was clearing the clouds away, so, seating ourselves upon some large blocks of pumice, we lit our pipes and waited until we could obtain a better view. One thing was certain, this was evidently the volcano of the Öskjagjá which had wrought so much devastation in the Jökuldalr and its vicinity, and we were upon the eastern wall of its crater! Presently the clouds lifted in the distance, and as gap after gap, and space after space cleared, we could see the scorched and blasted country which stretched for many a league behind us. Mountain after mountain gradually shook off the clouds in which the night had enfolded them, and as the mist cleared toward the north we could distinguish a three-cornered plain, encircled except at one point, N.N.E., by semi-detached sections of volcanic mountains, some of which had broken out in ancient times, and by their insignificant lava streams had helped to swell the widely-extending lava stream of the Ódášahraun.
The crater upon the eastern edge of which we stood was situated in its southern corner. This plain was the Askja (or oval wooden casket). It is about six miles long, and from three to four broad, and at this end was some 4000 feet above sea level. I believe it could be easily reached by a glen upon the N.E. side of the Dyngjufjöll . Presently, apparently about a mile away to the north, we could see the rim of the crater, at a great depth beneath us, and while we were looking at it, a great crack opened upon the margin, and a huge slice slipped with but little noise into the crater, deep down beyond the range of vision. The mist, however, somewhat cleared away, and then a shaft, like the mouth of a large coalpit, was disclosed to the N.N.E. comer of the valley  , but beyond the rim of the crater, from which a straight column of pitch-black vapour was issuing. Boom, boom, from its hoarse black throat, was succeeded in a few seconds by a heavy shower of the coarse earthy granules before mentioned; then a long line of chasms and holes burst to view in the dark floor of the crater, from which issued screaming noises, intermingled with inky vapour, patches of steaming ground, and gaping rifts and chasms . The sun now broke through, and almost simultaneously the clouds lifted from the valley, shaking off the Plutonic vapours which had chained them during the night, and, as if ashamed to own their temporary bondage in the presence of the lord of day, they slunk away to windward. By this time we could see the whole of the crater and its surroundings, except in places where the thick smoke and steam intervened. I felt it was well worth taking the journey from England to stand even for a moment and look into the abyss which opened at our feet, with its black pits and grim chasms all contributing to the general aggregate of steam, and loam, and stench, and horrid sound; while behind us stretched a wild waste of glen, desert, and mountain, a country moaning in ashes, and howling with desolation.
The eastern and western sides of the crater converged towards the south, being shut in by lofty mountains, which rose in some places to the height of 1000 feet above the plain of Askja; so that they appeared to be shorn of their inner faces by the violence of the eruption, which had left perpendicular cliffs of great height. The edges of the crater, too, were rapidly tumbling in, and had formed in several places steep slopes of pumice and debris, which it was quite possible to descend; all access to the floor of the crater, however, was prevented by an interior rim of precipice immediately at the bottom of these heights. How long this shape will remain unaltered is, however, a matter of great doubt, for during our stay there, sometimes scarcely a minute elapsed between the roar of the stony avalanches, which increased the din and gradually altered the form of the crater! Three principal lines of fissures, pits, and irregular openings diverged from the centre of the crater to the south-east and west respectively. These, together with black patches of steaming ground and several minor cracks, were all that remained of the huge chasm which at one time must have occupied this valley.
I now selected a spot where there had been a considerable fall in the wall of the crater, forming a slope of a much smaller angle than anywhere else, and exposed a stratum of the previous winter's snow which enabled us to obtain sufficient water for our breakfast.
My men slept here while I posted up my diary, but I was presently disturbed by a peculiar rushing sound. I instinctively looked towards the crater, and there saw what at first sight seemed to be a fog-bow amongst the steam, but presently the increasing noise gave sufficient evidence of its true character. It was a huge column of water springing up from a fissure in the bottom of the crater, which, being ejected in a slanting direction, almost described an arc, rising to a much greater height than even the level of the spot we were encamped upon, was, of course, converted into spray long before it reached such an elevation, and falling with great violence upon the opposite edge of the valley, caused a great portion of the wall of the crater at that point to fall away with a prodigious noise, the concussion of which produced a series of avalanches in various other parts of the volcano. One could imagine, from the effect of such a comparatively small body of water, what a terrible scene must have presented itself when the mountain was in a state of general activity, and when the entire crater vomited a vast volume of pumice, mud, and water, and the whole valley beneath was a seething cauldron of fire and water! We next removed to the lee of a large rock of agglomerate, and having scooped a bed in the pumice, slept comfortably, with the tent spread over all of us like one large blanket.
Upon awaking I ascended the highest point in the wall of the crater, which was almost its southern extremity, and there I found its height by my aneroid to be about 4500 feet above sea level, the angles by my azimuth compass being from Heršubreiš 40° west, Skjaldbreiš 103° east. From this point the floor of the crater appeared more bent about and upheaved, while many of its gaping fissures seemed much wider than before, doubtless the result of the longitudinal view of them which the position commanded; in fact, each fissure seemed trying to excel its neighbour in making the most horrible noise, while emitting the most nauseous smell. I doubt if even Cologne, in all its former nastiness and "thousand well defined and separate stinks," could have produced anything so utterly putrid and abominable as the effluvia which were wafted to the summit we were standing upon! At one point it seemed just possible for us to reach the floor of the crater, and as it would save us a considerable detour if we were able to cross it, we packed up and began again to descend a very precipitous slope of pumice. From thence we descended as far as 750 feet, and then found our way barred by the interior rim of precipice before spoken of.
Hitherto we had been unable to see its full extent from the overhanging wall of the crater, but from this vantage-ground it seemed to be about 300 feet deep, while the floor appeared to be dark mud: many of the fissures must have been twenty or thirty feet across, and others at least a quarter of a mile in length. I tried to measure the precipice by flinging over a large lump of the heaviest pumice, but it gave no sound as it reached the bottom, for it was so light I could not fling it far enough to see where it struck, hence we were afraid to go to the extreme edge of the precipice on account of the loose and crumbling nature of the rocks. Nothing now remained for us but to climb back again. This was no easy matter, because of the great angle of the slope, so I was compelled to dig my sore toes into the pumice with all my might; and in one place, for a distance of some 200 feet, to dig steps with my ice axe. We reached the summit at last, very warm, but very glad to be at the top instead of at the bottom of those 750 feet, for had we slipped, we should in all probability have fallen to the bottom of the crater. At last we arrived at the plain of Askja by following along the top of cliffs upon the eastern side of the crater, and there we found everything covered with a dark brown loam, which was still falling thickly around us.
I next inspected the pit  I had noticed in the morning, which was situated by itself at the top of the precipice, and found it about a quarter of a mile in circumference. Upon looking into it, for a long time nothing could be seen but dense clouds of steam and loam which were rising from it with intermittent violence; but after a while a large portion of the margin slipped in, and stopping the steam for a few moments, enabled us to discern a black funnel-shaped pit tapering towards the bottom, from which huge volumes of steam were again begining to rise; then came a sudden burst of hot steam, loam, and stench, which again compelled us to make a precipitate retreat. I next investigated every part of this side of the crater in order to see if I could by any means descend to the floor of it, but I found the interior precipice extended all round, and at every point prevented my doing so. We therefore camped but a short distance from the pit, that we might be the better able to watch the wonderful and varying manoeuvres which from time to time were enacted.
The worst of our position now was, that it lacked both snow and water, but the loam made us a tolerably nice soft bed, and we slept soundly. Soon, however, a heavy fall of loam upon our tent awoke us, and our eccentric friend outside was uttering such fiendish noises, and giving off such a putrid stench, that we thought the better part of valour was to retreat; so we hastily packed up amid a copious shower of loam, our movements being quickened by the surmise that we might also be treated to a little pumice and hot water. Moreover, the stench was beginning to tell upon us, causing us to feel sick. We next proceeded along the N.N.W. side of the crater, as I wished to count the number of paces along it, in order that I might approximate the size, which I found to be about one and a quarter miles in length. The ground was now much fissured, and disclosed in many places the snow of the previous winter at the depth of six feet beneath the pumice, as well as a quantity of loam which had been flung out by the volcano. After breakfasting beside one of these fissures, at mid-day we turned our backs upon what I can imagine to be one of the most marvellous, and perhaps I may add, one of the most indescribable sights the world can anywhere present! On resuming our journey, we set our faces towards Skjaldbreiš, alias Trölladyngja , and the first part of our journey was across the little plain of Askja, over a lava stream, which here enters from the Ódášahraun, and had run for some distance up hill. The loam which had been showered down by Öskjugjá had taken the edge off the lava, which was a great source of comfort, and soon we were glad to sight the broad black desert of the Ódášahraun. There was the snowy mound of Skjaldbreiš, spotted with black lava, with its curious tuft of rock at the top, somewhat similar to that on Heršubreiš. Before us there was Kistufell, by which we had first descended into Noršurland, and behind all, the broad expanse of the Vatna Jökull, sweeping the horizon from east to west, where it appeared in the distance to be joined by Tungufell  and Tindafells Jökull  . From here, we could not see the Sprengi Sandr, which lay between them, but perceiving through my telescope a patch of snow upon the hills which almost joined Skjaldbreiš upon the east, I determined to strike a line across the Ódášahraun to it, that I might take another rest and relinquish all our loads before we ascended Skjaldbreiš the next morning.