Resuming the ascent we rounded the spur of the mountain, and entered the defile. Its direction is from N.N.W. to S.S.E.; and it is about half a mile in width throughout its whole length, which I should judge slightly exceeds two miles; a steep ice-covered declivity between two mountain walls whose jagged peaks rise on either hand to a height of nearly a thousand feet. Several small crater-cones built up of a peculiar bright-red lava-slag crop through the ice, extensive tracts of which were quite black in colour owing to the immense quantities of volcanic ash embedded in it. There was not nearly so much ice in the pass this year as in 1878, the present and preceding summers having been unusually hot, but what there was was about forty feet thick, very rotten and dangerous, and full of crevasses, which enabled us to perceive, as we dragged our ponies reluctantly by their bridles after us up the slippery incline, that we were passing over the roofs of icy caverns, and that a considerable stream of water was coursing impetuously through them over a rocky boulder strewn bed lying in some places fifty to sixty feet below.
East of the pass there is a grand Alpine valley filled with a glacier at least three miles in length, and half a mile in breadth. In 1878 Einar, instead of heading south through the pass, turned to the left and took me for a couple of miles over the glacier in this valley before he discovered that he was going in the wrong direction. This mistake is not likely to be made by future visitors who may have other guides than Einar, if it is borne in mind that the highest part of the pass is marked with a peculiar rocky pinnacle, visible from where we turned astray. This pinnacle stands quite isolated, slightly to the right of the middle of the pass, and rests upon a low rocky ridge that intersects the ice at right angles to the acclivities on either hand.
By 3 a.m. we were abreast of this landmark; and a few hundred yards further brought us to the southern end of the pass, where it terminates abruptly in a precipitous declivity of ice and ashes. From the verge of the precipice a splendid view over Askja's weird amphitheatre is obtainable. Notwithstanding that this was the second time I had looked upon this terrible arena where for countless ages two powerful gladiators, Fire and Frost, have been struggling for the mastery, I could have sat upon my steed and gazed for hours upon the scene. The huge crater lay wrapt in deep shadow some eight hundred feet below, the highest peaks of its mountainous periphery on the farther side alone as yet illumed by the rising sun. It required no great stretch of one's imagination to fancy the two gaps nearly opposite each other in the crater's encircling wall openings for the admission of the combatants, and that a brightly-illumed cloudlet which at this instant streamed through the one in the north-east was the chariot of the Fire King, who was hastening to renew the conflict which had been taking place here at intervals for ages, and that the vast columns of steam ascending in the south-east part of the crater marked where his antagonist awaited his coming upon the very spot where the last struggle had taken place.
Having gazed for some minutes at the indescribably weird scene that Askja presents when seen from the pass, we prepared to descend into its depths. My former experience had taught me that this was no easy matter, for the descent is first down a steep icy declivity for three or four hundred feet, and then for a like distance down a steep slope of loose ashes. Leading our ponies we made our way without much difficulty down the ice, to discover, however, that it terminated in a sheer precipice thirty feet in depth. We were completely at a nonplus; but fortunately after a short search we found a breach in this, and were able to scramble down to the ashy slope below. i had a narrow escape from being crushed under my pony during this part of the descent, for he lost his footing, and as I was going first leading him by the bridle, he fell heavily upon me, and we both slid down the ice until we brought up in a bank of ashes. It is almost unnecessary to observe that I drove the brute before me during the remainder of our descent. The ashy slope being very steep, it abounded in yawning rifts where ' slips ' had taken place, accordingly our progress at times was far more rapid than safe or pleasant; our poor steeds in their descents into the rifts being several times nearly buried beneath the ashes that accompanied them. Only Icelandic ponies, which it has been truly said will safely traverse places that would shock the nerves of a goat, could ever have been led down such a precipice.
Fortunately we succeeded without any more serious mishap in finally reaching the floor of Askja : we had not done so badly, having accomplished the journey from Svartdkot in eleven hours.
Before proceeding to cross its lava-covered floor, it will perhaps be as well to more fully describe this vast crater than I have hitherto done. It is almost circular in shape, quite seventeen miles in circumference, and encircled by a somewhat jagged mountain wall varying from 800 to 1,500 feet in height above the superficial lava in the crater. This mountainous periphery is highest on the south and north, and lowest in the north-east, where it does not rise more than 800 feet above the floor of the crater for over a mile ; at least three of its highest hollows contain true glaciers, and its peaks are snow-clad ten months out of the twelve. East of the lowest part of the wall there is a gap to the level of the surface-lava in Askja, through which lava has coursed down the outer slope, and spread over the Oddftahraun. There is also another gap almost directly opposite in the south-west, but whether lava has ever found an outlet there I am unable to say, not having been in that part of the crater. Mr. Watts is the only person who has been through this gap, and, as before mentioned, he says he descended 1 over a lava-stream which here enters from the O.dadahraun, and had run for some distance uphill.' From the appearance of the gap in the north-east, and the altitude of the lava deposits in Askja that have issued there, 2,300 feet above the Oddfahraun, I am inclined to the belief that Mr. Watts must have been deceived by some peculiarity in the appearance of a lava-flood from the south-west gap, or that his 'vision distorted by fatigue and sleepiness ' saw things as in a mirage reversed. It is possible that my surmise is correct, and that a lava-flood flowed out of the south-west gap in the following manner, and now presents the appearance of one that had ' run a considerable distance uphill.' It issued in the winter season, and its outer surface congealing rapidly, a covered way was formed, through which the molten flood continued to course downwards until the supply ceased for a short period, when the tail end of the flood congealed, and formed a core within the covered way by which the lava was stopped upon the flow recommencing, and this remains piled up in Askja, and now appears as if it had flowed-I had a good mind to have penned flown-upwards from the plain. If my memory does not play me false, i saw a small lava-flood as above described among the volcanic mountains east of Myvatn.