The Lighthouse at the edge of the World
Lighthouses are often built in remote locations. In some ways this comes with the territory, given their purpose of warning ships that they are approaching a dangerous coast or reef. The Bell Rock Lighthouse, for example, was built between 1807 and 1810 on a reef in the Firth of Forth that only appears at low tide, a feat that was widely pronounced to be impossible at the time. Since then lighthouses have been built out at sea, or on top of rocky headlands often far from civilisation. But the title of most inaccessible must surely belong to Iceland’s Thridrangaviti lighthouse.
Iceland itself is remote, a land of ice and volcanic fire, set on the very edge of the arctic. Five miles off its southern coast, out in the North Atlantic, are the tiny Westman Islands. A few miles from them are four tall pinnacles of rock that rise directly from out of the stormy seas. They are known locally as the Thridrangaviti, a name that means three fingers in Icelandic (even though there are actually four columns in the cluster). On the tallest of them, 120 feet above the ocean and perched on a ledge previously only visited by seabirds, is a lighthouse.
The rational for building it was clear. The rock pillars lay close to the southern approaches to Reykjavik, and had claimed several ships and many lives over the years. How to build the lighthouse was not so obvious. Construction started in the summer of 1938, which was before the invention of the helicopter. This meant that everything required to build the structure - workmen, tools and materials, would have to come up the cliff from boats below. To add to the builders’ problems, the seas around Thridrangaviti are rough, which can produce a considerable swell. And even in calm weather, there was still the issue of how workman could climb up vertical cliffs worn smooth by the sea, and wet with spray, with an appalling fall onto rocks the fate of anyone who slipped.
The project’s director, an engineer called Arni Thorarinsson, concluded that the work could only be safely done by professional climbers experienced in working on sea cliffs. Fortunately, the diet of the Westman Islanders had long been supplemented by bird eggs gathered from the cliffs of their homeland. He recruited a small team of talented climbers, and when the sea conditions were right, he set out to start work.
The first task was to establish a safe way up to the top. Using drills and hammers, his team managed to slowly insert a series of clamps in the rock which, when linked with chains, gave better access up the steep cliff. After repeated visits, each adding a few more chains, a precarious route began to slowly twist its way upwards. In this fashion the team managed to get close to the top, but the final part was completely vertical, with no apparent grip at all. Undismayed, the climbers reverted to a technique they used when raiding bird nests. One man got down on his knees on a ledge. Then a second man stood on his back, and stretched up the rock face. A third climber then used this improvised human ladder to scramble to the top, while Thorarinsson held his breath on the boat below.
The ledge on which they were to build the lighthouse was so exposed and dangerous that the workers could not be left up there for more than a few hours at a time. Thanks to the state of the sea around the base of the rock pillar, the boats could only visit it infrequently for a quick burst of activity, prior to having to abandon the site whenever the wind got up. As a result, it took two years for the lighthouse to be built, even though the structure was barely larger than a single square room with a light on its roof.
When the tiny lighthouse was finally completed, the builders encountered another problem. While they had been working on their rock pinnacle, the rest of the world had gone to war. The mechanism for the lighthouse had been ordered from a Danish manufacturer, but Denmark had now been occupied by Nazi Germany, and Iceland itself, a potentially vital place to base aircraft for the convoy battles in the North Atlantic, was about to be occupied by first Britain, and then handed over to the US. As a result, it was not until 1942 that an alternative mechanism was supplied by Britain, hauled up to the top of the Thridrangaviti and the lamp finally lit.
The lighthouse is still active to this day. It was automated shortly after the war and then converted to solar power in 1993. The final improvement of all must surely have come as a huge relief to those tasked with maintaining it . Access via an upwards scramble using the rusting chains bolted into the cliff was finally superseded by the instillation of a small helicopter pad.