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A view of Snæfellsjökull, Iceland's most famous volcano and the subject of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, from the village of Arnarstapi (Photograph by Arctic-Images, Corbis)

Journey to the Center of Snæfellsjökull

One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1864, the French novelist Jules Verne published one of his most ambitious works—Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Though Verne was widely regarded in his day for the meticulous scientific research that informed his writing, what he posited in Journey has been roundly rejected: namely, that volcanic tubes lead to the Earth’s core. Nevertheless, this dose of reality hasn’t stopped curious travelers from exploring the book’s geological protagonist: Iceland’s Snæfellsjökull.

Taking a cue from Verne, I traveled to Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland with my sights set on the iconic stratovolcano. This wasn’t difficult, given that Snæfellsjökull’s peak rises nearly 5,000 feet above sea level and, on a clear day, can be seen from Reykjavík—some 75 miles to the southeast. But seeing is one thing, and journeying quite another.

At more than 700,000 years old, the volcano last erupted in the third century. Today, it is hooded by a glacier that covers its summit crater to the depth of more than 650 feet. In addition, Iceland’s volcanic surfaces can be so puzzlingly alien—some say lunar—that NASA trained astronauts, including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, here in advance of the landmark 1969 moon landing.

On expedition day, I awake to fog. Gone is the looming presence of Snæfellsjökull, which had served as a directional reference point for so many of the days I have spent in this land of peaks and valleys. Undeterred, I begin driving toward the sleepy town of Grundarfjörður. Sheep feed and flit freely atop gleaming, verdant hills—my only visible companions as I make my way west along Snæfellsnesvegur and Útnesvegur roads in the morning quiet.

“Yet this part of the province, at a very small distance from the capital, is reckoned among the inhabited and cultivated portions of Iceland. What, then, must other tracts be, more desert than this desert? In the first half mile we had not seen one farmer standing before his cabin door, nor one shepherd tending a flock less wild than himself, nothing but a few cows and sheep left to themselves. What then would be those convulsed regions upon which we were advancing, regions subject to the dire phenomena of eruptions, the offspring of volcanic explosions and subterranean convulsions? We were to know them before long…” Journey to the Center of the Earth, Chapter XII, “A Barren Land”

To my right is a dark expanse of rolling sea; to my left, a series of plateaus with waterfalls cascading from precipitous heights. I slow to a halt at the gravel road that would take me 7.5 miles up and over the mountain long enough to read a bright yellow sign emblazoned with warnings in Icelandic, French, German, and English: “Danger! The glacier is a very dangerous area to cross. There are numerous deep chasms that are invisible until too late. Seek information.”

I breathe in and, with tires crunching, start my slow ascent plagued with the ominous sensation that I am creeping toward a giant I hope won’t wake. Up ahead, I edge past a handful of sheep and then a lone runner striking up the pass in small, focused steps, stones from his impact tinkling down the jagged escarpment into the abyss below.

“[Snæfellsjökull]’s snowy summit, by an optical illusion not unfrequent in mountains, seemed close to us, and yet how many weary hours it took to reach it! The stones, adhering by no soil or fibrous roots of vegetation, rolled away from under our feet, and rushed down the precipice below with the swiftness of an avalanche.” —Journey to the Center of the Earth, Chapter XV, “Snæfell At Last” 

I continue to move up the pass as if by inches, and am nearly an hour into my journey when I am stopped by a silver Land Cruiser, whose driver informs me that the path is inaccessible up ahead—too much ice, too much snow. Consulting a map, I chart my progress: halfway. Disappointed, I perform what seems like a 20-point K turn and begin a steep, shuddering descent. I again pass the sheep and the runner; both regard me warily.

Free of Snæfellsjökull’s slope, I find myself at the base of the gravel road, where I had begun my ascent two hours earlier. The fog has lifted, and the Midnight Sun glints off the Atlantic, beckoning me toward the coast. I decide to head for the town of Hellissandur in hopes of finding another way to Snæfellsjökull. Rounding a wide bend, I see it, and the experience is just as Verne described:

“I was thus steeped in the marvellous ecstasy which all high summits develop in the mind; and now without giddiness, for I was beginning to be accustomed to these sublime aspects of nature. My dazzled eyes were bathed in the bright flood of the solar rays. I was forgetting where and who I was, to live the life of elves and sylphs, the fanciful creation of Scandinavian superstitions. I felt intoxicated…” Journey to the Center of the Earth, Chapter XVI, “Boldly Down the Crater” 

Katherine LaGrave is a freelance travel writer and photographer who lives in Harlem. Follow her on Twitter @kjlagrave.