Notes on the Tenth International Symposium on Vulcanospeleology

© 2005 by John and Susy Pint

Photos by J. Pint

It’s a long way from Saudi Arabia to Iceland, especially if you are flying via Mexico. So it was a joyful moment when the Icelandair jet touched down on the runway at Reykjavik. It was also an inspirational event because the sun was just rising, kissing the clouds with subtle tints of pink and purple.

Somehow, the sky seems much bigger at the top of the world! 

The symposium began appropriately enough, with a visit to a lava tube. In the bus we were greeted by Sigurdur Jonsson, who immediately became “Siggy” to everyone... 

...Well, let me tell you, Siggy is a one-man army if there ever was one, amazingly well organized as well as gracious and imperturbable. He was assisted every day by Jakob Thor Gudbjartsson, who was also amazingly talented and amiable.

That's Siggy on the left and Jakob on the right.

By the way, I should mention here that in Iceland, a person’s official name is his or her first name, so if you look for Sigurdur Jonsson in the phone book, you’ll find him under S, along with an awful lot of other Sigurdurs.

As we drove along, I learned about stratovolcanoes (like Mt. Fuji), phreatic volcanoes that spew away under water, shield volcanoes that look something like a round loaf of bread and table volcanoes that poke up through a glacier and deposit lava on top of the ice. And when the ice melts, you’ve got a table left.

The bus made its way off the main highway to a vast sea of lumpy, spongy, green moss. Well, as we trudged across it in a cold but light rain, I could see that there was a lot more than moss underfoot. There were small leafy plants of red and yellow hue, dark little edible berries, plus lots of other growing things.

“There are 575 kinds of moss in Iceland,” said Siggy and I realized that what I was walking on was a kind of miniature rain forest. Speaking of forests, Siggy asked us if we knew what to do if we should ever become lost in an Icelandic forest. How do you find your way out?  “Just stand up,” said our host, with a smile...

And here you have it, an Icelandic forest 20 cms high... 

Of course, this miniature forest was growing on top of a lava field, which in Saudi Arabia would have been utterly barren of life.

At last we came to a depression and climbed over slippery breakdown into Leiðarendi Cave...

The entrance to  Leiðarendi Cave. By the way, the letter "ð" -- much beloved by linquists, is pronounced like the th in "them" so this cave is called "Lay-thar-END-ee"

 Unlike the tubes we found in Arabia, this one contains practically no sediment, so I could see that the natural floor of these lava tubes is flat, a detail we had been unable to verify in Arabia. Also, the shapes were different, the Icelandic tubes being relatively narrower and higher with ceilings curved in a tighter arc.

In this cave I saw my first long, squiggly lava stalactites and lumpy lava stalagmites. Some broken pieces of stalactites, lying on the floor, show that these formations are hollow. 




A couple of stalactites in Leiðarendi Cave. . 





The stalagmites, instead, are the result of blobs of lava falling one on top of another and are reminiscent of disgusting scenes at the bottom of deep outhouses.


Nine hundred meters inside the cave, we discovered why it is called Leiðarendi, which means “End of the Road.” A dead sheep lay on the ground, quite intact but reduced to bones....

The End of the Road for one unlucky sheep.


..Apparently, even though it found itself inside a long narrow tube, with daylight rapidly fading, it didn’t have the smarts to turn around and go back out, preferring to starve to death rather than try something new.

After crawling about in a cold, wet cave, there’s nothing quite so nice as a dip in a hot spring. But it wasn’t to some ordinary spa that we went. No, it was Iceland’s world-famous Blue Lagoon...

A pleasant soak in the Blue Lagoon as storm clouds gather overhead. 



..Ah, but what you may not know about it is that these soothing waters contain the impurities removed from the thermal water that is sent through pipes to heat homes in this part of Iceland (thus preventing corrosion in those pipes). Yes, someone discovered that this hot, natural sludge is good for skin ailments and now people pay to soak in the stuff.

The next two days were devoted to twenty-minute presentations coming fast one upon the other and overwhelming somebody like me who am not all that familiar with volcanic matters. However, some things impressed me and here they are:

  • Icelander Arni B. Stefansson spoke movingly about the breaking and taking of speleothems from Icelandic caves. “By 1982, sensitive formations in all known Icelandic caves had been either severely or totally damaged.” Since that year, gates have been installed in some of the caves, a step which we cavers in Saudi Arabia still have not succeeded in accomplishing.


  • James Begely and Joao Paolo Constancia discussed cave data bases. They have gone several upgrades beyond the simple cave list we have all begun with.


  • The team from the Azores went even deeper, discussing the fine points of how to rate caves for various purposes as well as even more esoteric subjects such as a system for expressing in numbers the rarity of biological species found in their lava tubes. Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, we are still seeking a biologist to take a first look at the bugs in our tubes!


  • It was also the folks from the Azores who showed us how lava tubes can be used for educational purposes, a visit to a lava tube being included in the local school curricula.


  • Completely new to me were the megapillows presented by Francesco Petralia of Italy. These are huge blobs of lava which, upon encountering sea water, become inflated by gas expansion and contain small caves, one example being 14 by 2 meters in size.

A blurry shot of one of Francesco's slides, showing a megapillow being inflated by the vaporizing of water which has entered the hot blob.




  • A similar curiosity are the sub-crustal drainage lava caves presented  by Ken Grimes of Australia. These can be as simple as a single room or complicated systems of chambers opening into and dividing into yet more chambers, each successively drained of lava as the next room is being formed. I suspect that our Bushy Cave, which we didn’t bother to map for being so small, may be one of these subcrustal caves: the simplest sort, which is also called a blister cave.


  • Ken Grimes also described a dyke cave found in Australia. This formed when the pressure from below ceased and the lava on the surface of the dyke cooled while the lava below receded slightly. This cave is 17 meters long, about 1.5 meters wide and one meter high with a very small entrance hole. It would be interesting to search for this kind of cave in KSA.


On Friday there was an all-day excursion around southwest Iceland. We had the benefit of both Sigurdur and a professional tour guide and were thus able to learn a lot about the customs of Iceland as well as its geology. I was particularly surprised to learn that the average salary in Iceland is $2409 per month and that 38% of people’s income goes for taxes. It looks like it’s not the average Icelander eating the Big Macs in this country (which cost ten dollars!).

On this trip we visited a place called Geysir where we saw -- you guessed it -- a very famous geyser that can reach 30 m in height… and, yes, this one is the origin of our word geyser. Here I learned an interesting fact. If your geyser should someday fail to go off, you can either wait for the next earthquake, which may turn it back on, or you can cheat by pouring powdered soap down the geyser’s throat. It really works, says Siggy.


The Geysir geyser just beginning to erupt... 




..Before reaching the cave of the day, we stopped to see a beautiful waterfall and a “hornito.”   What’s a hornito?  Well, it seems to be a very tiny, splatter-generated volcano, shaped like a pointed hat....

Here you can see the silhouette of this curious formation with lots of curious investigators crawling all over it. 


 The hornito we visited is named Tintron and is about four meters high. There’s a hole in the top with a deep shaft heading straight down. This was once a lava channel.

...Finally, we came to a truly extraordinary cave called Arnahellir (Hellir, pronounced “hedler” means cave in Icelandic)... 

David Wools-Cobb squeezing through the gate under a cloud of condensation from our collective breathing.

...This is a one-room cave, but every inch is packed with wonderful things to see. Thanks to the efforts of the Icelanders, it is gated and yellow flagging tape indicates the areas where visitors may not wander.


Well, I didn't have a tripod along, so you'll have to bear with this slightly fuzzy picture. Still, you can see how one could spend hours just to see this one room.



...To help us appreciate the cave fully, the Icelandic cavers actually hauled a generator all the way to the cave, strung wires and installed a few lights. What the tape protects is a garden of stalagmites which almost fills the room. They are tall, skinny, knobby things which look like they were planted by a gnome. Overhead are long, delicate stalactites. These extend into the area where we were allowed to walk and it soon became obvious that we had to be extremely careful at all times to avoid breaking them.

Well, there were nearly 30 of us in that small area and the roof was low and of varying heights. All this really stacked the odds against the poor innocent stalactites. And, yes, at least one was broken – I saw it happen. Well, if that’s how it goes with seasoned cavers who love lava tubes, what could we expect from a gang of tourists? Speleo tourism is surely a tricky business.


I think everybody at the symposium signed up for the optional excursion on September 15, to Surtshellir and Viðgelmir Caves. A rather long bus ride brought us to a lonely dirt road just about the width of our bus. This road was in pretty bad shape but our bus driver negotiated the ruts, puddles and holes with cool aplomb as if we were arriving at just another tourist attraction.

Surtshellir cave had a big wide entrance with no gate and we were asked to pick up and carry out as much trash as we could… and I was amazed at how much garbage had found its way into such a remote cave.


The moment we passed the entrance breakdown, we came to a thick, solid floor of ice. This was covered with a few centimeters of water, creating very slippery conditions, especially at one or two points where the floor sloped...


A short distance inside the cave, parts of the ceiling and side walls were covered with what appeared to be brightly reflective white paint. This I had seen both in Mexican and Saudi caves. When you draw closer, you discover that the white is actually composed of countless tiny, separate drops of water. Bill Halliday pointed out that these drops lie upon a bed of  “cave slime” consisting of a gelatinous layer of bacteria and slime molds. When removed from the wall, this slime dripped from my finger with the consistency of watery mucous. I’ve only seen the tiny white drops in caves with pools of water below, but had never observed whether they were suspended on a coating of slime, as in this cave.

A little farther into the cave, we saw the first of many shimmering ice stalagmites. These were of various thicknesses and sometimes reached waist height. 

OK, I have to admit this is one formation we have yet to find in Saudi caves! 


No icicles could be seen on the ceiling and I suppose these ice formations on the floor could have been formed by simple drops of water falling into a passage in which cold air had settled at the bottom.

Here's a mini-grotto, deep inside the cave, shimmering with ice formations.




Next we came to Viðgelmir, the largest, but not the longest cave in Iceland. A long breakdown slope leads into the cave from a huge entrance collapse. At the bottom, you come to a wide passage whose floor is totally covered with ice.

Surprisingly, this cave, famous for big passages suddenly gets very low and narrow. Here a gate has been installed and the owner normally charges an arm and a leg to tourists who, I suspect, may never get anywhere near the end of the 1585-meter-long cave. I’ll explain why not in a moment...

...Crawling on hands and knees over the glistening ice floor, we passed through the little gate one by one.


This is Jan-Paul Van Der Pas, head of the UIS Volcanic Caves Committee, slip-sliding through the gate. 


“This tiny passage disappeared under the ice in 1972,” commented Siggy, "and for 19 years not a soul could visit Viðgelmir Cave.”

In 1991 members of the Icelandic Speleological Society steadfastly and patiently chopped their way through the ice plug and reopened the cave. What are the attractions of Viðgelmir? Well, once you pass through the gate, the passage opens up wide and there’s a long stretch of pure white ice, unbroken and gleaming and strongly contrasting with the dark ceiling and walls.

Then comes the first breakdown heap. At the edge of it, Siggy led us over to a side wall. He pointed to streams of pink and chocolate lava that appeared to have oozed out of the walls and run down them, occasionally dripping to the floor. I understood this was caused by certain components of the lava cooling more slowly than the larger mass, but a friend suggested it might simply be an aftermelt, when the floor was still hot enough to slightly remelt the surface of the side walls. Whatever the cause, these drizzles and runs are fascinating to see and one could spend hours just gazing at the strange patterns on the walls. But hours we did not have. “A round trip to the far end of the cave takes three hours,” Siggy warned us and I’m sure that did not include time for gawking at the weird walls.

We turned and began to pick our way up and over the breakdown. Anyone who has ever walked over loose chunks of broken lava, ranging from 20 cm to two meters, knows that you must give 100% attention to where you are putting your feet. This wasn’t much of a problem for the first collapse, but the first was followed by a second, then a third and on and on, and it soon became evident that only the fastest people were going to make it all the way to the end, with very little time for appreciating the cave. So, after battling umpteen collapses, some of us decided to stop and smell the daisies… well, you know what I mean. 

If  I hadn’t abandoned the mad rush, I’m sure I never would have discovered this charming little figure, but, of course, I was told I missed some nice stalactites at the far end of the cave. This situation, however, I always take to be a sign that I will someday return to see what I missed and I do hope this will come to pass because the caves of Iceland – like the country as well as its citizens – are truly unique and well worth the knowing...

Viðgelmir natural art - Eat your heart out, Henry Moore!


 John Pint