The Ascent Of Mount Sneffels
From: A Journey To The Centre Of The Earth
The huge volcano which was the first stage of our daring experiment is
above five thousand feet high. Sneffels is the termination of a long
range of volcanic mountains, of a different character to the system of
the island itself. One of its peculiarities is its two huge pointed
summits. From whence we started it was impossible to make out the real
outlines of the peak against the grey field of sky. All we could
distinguish was a vast dome of white, which fell downwards from the head
of the giant.
The commencement of the great undertaking filled me with awe. Now that
we had actually started, I began to believe in the reality of the
Our party formed quite a procession. We walked in single file, preceded
by Hans, the imperturbable eider-duck hunter. He calmly led us by narrow
paths where two persons could by no possibility walk abreast.
Conversation was wholly impossible. We had all the more opportunity to
reflect and admire the awful grandeur of the scene around.
Beyond the extraordinary basaltic wall of the fjord of Stapi we found
ourselves making our way through fibrous turf, over which grew a scanty
vegetation of grass, the residuum of the ancient vegetation of the
swampy peninsula. The vast mass of this combustible, the field of which
as yet is utterly unexplored, would suffice to warm Iceland for a whole
century. This mighty turf pit, measured from the bottom of certain
ravines, is often not less than seventy feet deep, and presents to the
eye the view of successive layers of black burned-up rocky detritus,
separated by thin streaks of porous sandstone.
The grandeur of the spectacle was undoubted, as well as its arid and
As a true nephew of the great Professor Hardwigg, and despite my
preoccupation and doleful fears of what was to come, I observed with
great interest the vast collection of mineralogical curiosities spread
out before me in this vast museum of natural history. Looking back to my
recent studies, I went over in thought the whole geological history of
This extraordinary and curious island must have made its appearance from
out of the great world of waters at a comparatively recent date. Like
the coral islands of the Pacific, it may, for aught we know, be still
rising by slow and imperceptible degrees.
If this really be the case, its origin can be attributed to only one
cause that of the continued action of subterranean fires.
This was a happy thought.
If so, if this were true, away with the theories of Sir Humphry Davy;
away with the authority of the parchment of Arne Saknussemm; the
wonderful pretensions to discovery on the part of my uncle and to our
All must end in smoke.
Charmed with the idea, I began more carefully to look about me. A
serious study of the soil was necessary to negative or confirm my
hypothesis. I took in every item of what I saw, and I began to
comprehend the succession of phenomena which had preceded its formation.
Iceland, being absolutely without sedimentary soil, is composed
exclusively of volcanic tufa; that is to say, of an agglomeration of
stones and of rocks of a porous texture. Long before the existence of
volcanoes, it was composed of a solid body of massive trap rock lifted
bodily and slowly out of the sea, by the action of the centrifugal force
at work in the earth.
The internal fires, however, had not as yet burst their bounds and
flooded the exterior cake of Mother Earth with hot and raging lava.
My readers must excuse this brief and somewhat pedantic geological
lecture. But it is necessary to the complete understanding of what
At a later period in the world's history, a huge and mighty fissure
must, reasoning by analogy, have been dug diagonally from the southwest
to the northeast of the island, through which by degrees flowed the
volcanic crust. The great and wondrous phenomenon then went on without
violence the outpouring was enormous, and the seething fused matter,
ejected from the bowels of the earth, spread slowly and peacefully in
the form of vast level plains, or what are called mamelons or mounds.
It was at this epoch that the rocks called feldspars, syenites, and
But as a natural consequence of this overflow, the depth of the island
increased. It can readily be believed what an enormous quantity of
elastic fluids were piled up within its centre, when at last it afforded
no other openings, after the process of cooling the crust had taken
At length a time came when despite the enormous thickness and weight of
the upper crust, the mechanical forces of the combustible gases below
became so great, that they actually upheaved the weighty back and made
for themselves huge and gigantic shafts. Hence the volcanoes which
suddenly arose through the upper crust, and next the craters, which
burst forth at the summit of these new creations.
It will be seen that the first phenomena in connection with the
formation of the island were simply eruptive; to these, however, shortly
succeeded the volcanic phenomena.
Through the newly formed openings, escaped the marvelous mass of
basaltic stones with which the plain we were now crossing was covered.
We were trampling our way over heavy rocks of dark grey color, which,
while cooling, had been moulded into six-sided prisms. In the "back
distance" we could see a number of flattened cones, which formerly were
so many fire-vomiting mouths.
After the basaltic eruption was appeased and set at rest, the volcano,
the force of which increased with that of the extinct craters, gave free
passage to the fiery overflow of lava, and to the mass of cinders and
pumice stone, now scattered over the sides of the mountain, like
disheveled hair on the shoulders of a Bacchante.
Here, in a nutshell, I had the whole history of the phenomena from which
Iceland arose. All take their rise in the fierce action of interior
fires, and to believe that the central mass did not remain in a state of
liquid fire, white hot, was simply and purely madness.
This being satisfactorily proved (Q.E.D.), what insensate folly to
pretend to penetrate into the interior of the mighty earth!
This mental lecture delivered to myself while proceeding on a journey,
did me good. I was quite reassured as to the fate of our enterprise; and
therefore went, like a brave soldier mounting a bristling battery, to
the assault of old Sneffels.
As we advanced, the road became every moment more difficult. The soil
was broken and dangerous. The rocks broke and gave way under our feet,
and we had to be scrupulously careful in order to avoid dangerous and
Hans advanced as calmly as if he had been walking over Salisbury Plain;
sometimes he would disappear behind huge blocks of stone, and we
momentarily lost sight of him. There was a little period of anxiety and
then there was a shrill whistle, just to tell us where to look for him.
Occasionally he would take it into his head to stop to pick up lumps of
rock, and silently pile them up into small heaps, in order that we might
not lose our way on our return.
He had no idea of the journey we were about to undertake.
At all events, the precaution was a good one; though how utterly useless
and unnecessary but I must not anticipate.
Three hours of terrible fatigue, walking incessantly, had only brought
us to the foot of the great mountain. This will give some notion of what
we had still to undergo.
Suddenly, however, Hans cried a halt that is, he made signs to that
effect and a summary kind of breakfast was laid out on the lava before
us. My uncle, who now was simply Professor Hardwigg, was so eager to
advance, that he bolted his food like a greedy clown. This halt for
refreshment was also a halt for repose. The Professor was therefore
compelled to wait the good pleasure of his imperturbable guide, who did
not give the signal for departure for a good hour.
The three Icelanders, who were as taciturn as their comrade, did not say
a word; but went on eating and drinking very quietly and soberly.
From this, our first real stage, we began to ascend the slopes of the
Sneffels volcano. Its magnificent snowy nightcap, as we began to call
it, by an optical delusion very common in mountains, appeared to me to
be close at hand; and yet how many long weary hours must elapse before
we reached its summit. What unheard-of fatigue must we endure!
The stones on the mountain side, held together by no cement of soil,
bound together by no roots or creeping herbs, gave way continually under
our feet, and went rushing below into the plains, like a series of small
In certain places the sides of this stupendous mountain were at an angle
so steep that it was impossible to climb upwards, and we were compelled
to get round these obstacles as best we might.
Those who understand Alpine climbing will comprehend our difficulties.
Often we were obliged to help each other along by means of our climbing
I must say this for my uncle, that he stuck as close to me as possible.
He never lost sight of me, and on many occasions his arm supplied me
with firm and solid support. He was strong, wiry, and apparently
insensible to fatigue. Another great advantage with him was that he had
the innate sentiment of equilibrium for he never slipped or failed in
his steps. The Icelanders, though heavily loaded, climbed with the
agility of mountaineers.
Looking up, every now and then, at the height of the great volcano of
Sneffels, it appeared to me wholly impossible to reach to the summit on
that side; at all events, if the angle of inclination did not speedily
Fortunately, after an hour of unheard-of fatigues, and of gymnastic
exercises that would have been trying to an acrobat, we came to a vast
field of ice, which wholly surrounded the bottom of the cone of the
volcano. The natives called it the tablecloth, probably from some such
reason as the dwellers in the Cape of Good Hope call their mountain
Table Mountain, and their roads Table Bay.
Here, to our mutual surprise, we found an actual flight of stone steps,
which wonderfully assisted our ascent. This singular flight of stairs
was, like everything else, volcanic. It had been formed by one of those
torrents of stones cast up by the eruptions, and of which the Icelandic
name is stina. If this singular torrent had not been checked in its
descent by the peculiar shape of the flanks of the mountain, it would
have swept into the sea, and would have formed new islands.
Such as it was, it served us admirably. The abrupt character of the
slopes momentarily increased, but these remarkable stone steps, a little
less difficult than those of the Egyptian pyramids, were the one simple
natural means by which we were enabled to proceed.
About seven in the evening of that day, after having clambered up two
thousand of these rough steps, we found ourselves overlooking a kind of
spur or projection of the mountain a sort of buttress upon which the
conelike crater, properly so called, leaned for support.
The ocean lay beneath us at a depth of more than three thousand two
hundred feet a grand and mighty spectacle. We had reached the region of
The cold was keen, searching and intense. The wind blew with
extraordinary violence. I was utterly exhausted.
My worthy uncle, the Professor, saw clearly that my legs refused further
service, and that, in fact, I was utterly exhausted. Despite his hot and
feverish impatience, he decided, with a sigh, upon a halt. He called the
eider-duck hunter to his side. That worthy, however, shook his head.
"Ofvanfor," was his sole spoken reply.
"It appears," says my uncle with a woebegone look, "that we must go
He then turned to Hans, and asked him to give some reason for this
"Mistour," replied the guide.
"Ja, mistour yes, the mistour," cried one of the Icelandic guides in a
It was the first time he had spoken.
"What does this mysterious word signify?" I anxiously inquired.
"Look," said my uncle.
I looked down upon the plain below, and I saw a vast, a prodigious
volume of pulverized pumice stone, of sand, of dust, rising to the
heavens in the form of a mighty waterspout. It resembled the fearful
phenomenon of a similar character known to the travelers in the desert
of the great Sahara.
The wind was driving it directly towards that side of Sneffels on which
we were perched. This opaque veil standing up between us and the sun
projected a deep shadow on the flanks of the mountain. If this sand
spout broke over us, we must all be infallibly destroyed, crushed in its
fearful embraces. This extraordinary phenomenon, very common when the
wind shakes the glaciers, and sweeps over the arid plains, is in the
Icelandic tongue called "mistour."
"Hastigt, hastigt!" cried our guide.
Now I certainly knew nothing of Danish, but I thoroughly understood that
his gestures were meant to quicken us.
The guide turned rapidly in a direction which would take us to the back
of the crater, all the while ascending slightly.
We followed rapidly, despite our excessive fatigue.
A quarter of an hour later Hans paused to enable us to look back. The
mighty whirlwind of sand was spreading up the slope of the mountain to
the very spot where we had proposed to halt. Huge stones were caught up,
cast into the air, and thrown about as during an eruption. We were
happily a little out of the direction of the wind, and therefore out of
reach of danger. But for the precaution and knowledge of our guide, our
dislocated bodies, our crushed and broken limbs, would have been cast to
the wind, like dust from some unknown meteor.
Hans, however, did not think it prudent to pass the night on the bare
side of the cone. We therefore continued our journey in a zigzag
direction. The fifteen hundred feet which remained to be accomplished
took us at least five hours. The turnings and windings, the
no-thoroughfares, the marches and marches, turned that insignificant
distance into at least three leagues. I never felt such misery, fatigue
and exhaustion in my life. I was ready to faint from hunger and cold.
The rarefied air at the same time painfully acted upon my lungs.
At last, when I thought myself at my last gasp, about eleven at night,
it being in that region quite dark, we reached the summit of Mount
Sneffels! It was in an awful mood of mind, that despite my fatigue,
before I descended into the crater which was to shelter us for the
night, I paused to behold the sun rise at midnight on the very day of
its lowest declension, and enjoyed the spectacle of its ghastly pale
rays cast upon the isle which lay sleeping at our feet!
I no longer wondered at people traveling all the way from England to
Norway to behold this magical and wondrous spectacle.
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