…the whole mountain glowed like a pyre


Aurora´s ninth expedition to the remote Norwegian arctic island of Jan Mayen (70°59′N 8°32′W) started with a slow sail up from Iceland in contrary winds. But spirits were high onboard when we spotted the mighty Beerenberg (2277m) more than 70 nautical miles away, shining in the evening sun. Indeed a rare sight, as more often it is shrouded in fog or clouds. This northernmost active volcano is the most dominant feature of the island and a fantastic peak to climb.

Could it be that the legendary Irish monk St. Brendan (appr. 489-580) came to Jan Mayen and saw Beerenberg on his epic skin boat (curragh) voyage in the north Atlantic? The story of St. Brendan´s voyage is described in the latin manuscript Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis and in chapter 23 he tells about how he found this island “… full of slag and forges, without grass or trees. Brendan was worried, but the wind blew them straight toward it, and they heard the sound of bellows and thud of hammer and anvil. An islander came out of a forge, caught sight of the curragh, and went back indoors. Brendan told his men to row and sail as fast as they could to try to clear the place. But even as he spoke, the islander reappeared and hurled a great lump of slag at them. It flew two hundred yards over their heads, and where it fell, the sea boiled and smoke rose up as from a furnace. When the curragh had gone about a mile clear, more islanders rushed down to the shore, and began hurling lumps of slag at the monks. It looked as if the whole island was on fire. The sea boiled; the air was filled with howling; and even when they could no longer see the island, there was a great stench. Brendan said they had reached the edges of Hell” (Tim Severin, The Brendan Voyage).

… or is he describing an island off the south coast of Iceland?

Next scene seems more to resemble Jan Mayen because “on another day they saw through the clouds to the north a high smoky mountain. The wind drove them fast toward it, and they ran aground a short way from land. Before them was a coal-black cliff like a wall, so high they could not see the top of it. The third of the latecoming monks jumped off the boat and began to walk towards the base of the cliff, crying out that he was powerless to come back. The monks saw demons carrying him off and set him on fire. Then a favourable wind blew them clear, and looking back they saw that the smoke of the mountain had been replaced by flames which shot up and sucked back, so that the whole mountain glowed like a pyre.”

Historians and explorers disagree on where Brendan´s smoky island could have been. Many believe that he was describing first an undersea eruption to the south of Iceland and in next chapter a volcano on the Icelandic mainland. But, could it have been Jan Mayen as French explorer Dr Charcot seems to have believed? What do you think?

I don´t know if there are demons that keep carrying Aurora to Jan Mayen but it certainly seems like we are powerless to resist it´s magical pull. This despite very challenging conditions for sailing here, landing, camping and climbing.
Fortunately we are often rewarded with fantastic experiences and early Sunday morning (June 21st) eight member of this years expedition stood at the top of Beerenberg. At 2277 meters above the sea, on Haakon VIIth peak, the sun was shining and there was no wind at all. This mountain stands alone in the vast sea. The nearest land is 500 km away on the east coast of Greenland.

Around one hundred people have participated in Aurora´s expeditions to Jan Mayen and we have supported more than 60 successful ascents of Beerenberg.

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