León: Volcano Boarding

Most of the time it’s easy to ignore the fact that the planet could extinguish us at any moment in one of a million creative ways. The ground beneath us could erupt, fracture, rupture, ignite or flood. We could be whipped away by catastrophic winds or buried in mud, snow or dust. Not to mention infestation and disease. We are rude guests living precarious lives on the surface of a living planet and if she chooses to shrug her shoulders, we vanish. Staring into the belly of an active volcano propels these thoughts into fierce clarity. A smoking caldera is a poorly veiled threat.

So who comes up with this stuff? Who thinks to themselves, ‘Oh, here’s a young volcano with a history of at least 23 eruptions in just 165 years and “another larger-scale eruption… expected to occur in the immediate future“, wouldn’t it be fun to climb it and then sled down the side?!’ Turns out volcano boarding was invented in Vanuatu by a nutjob/legend with the appropriately quirky name of Zoltan Istvan. Darren Webb is credited with bringing the sport to Cerro Negro in Nicaragua.

Sweet views for the hike up.
Hiking up an active volcano. No big deal.

Volcanoes are normalised in regions where eruptions are common. You can’t spit without hitting a volcano in Central America so actually avoiding them would be akin to a life-size game of Minesweeper. And if you’re surrounded by active volcanoes anyway, why not get up close and personal? With only one full day in León, Nicaragua, I have to try this crackpot sport. 

Cerro Negro means ‘black hill’ so as soon as we arrive in the national park it’s obvious which hill we are climbing. Everything in the park is lush and green except the ominous 728m of gravelly black basalt that is Cerro Negro. Why, you ask? Well my friends, it’s because the black stuff was VIOLENTLY DISGORGED from the BOWELS OF THE EARTH during RECENT ERUPTIONS and covered up all the lovely green stuff in the immediate vicinity. THAT’s why.

View from the top.
I am standing on earth innards. And that is totally okay.

Living in a ski town surrounded by adventure sports and activities, I consider myself an expert at filling out waivers. We sign waivers for skiing, biking, rental equipment, ziplining, snowmobiling, bungee jumping, bobsleighing, pooping… Of course in Central America there is nary a waiver in sight. Also missing are the safety barriers, danger signs and general supervision that accompanies anything even remotely risky in the developed world. For a moment I think it’s refreshing to be trusted with the responsibility of my own mortality. And then I remember that being trusted with the responsibility of my own mortality has led me here, to this ACTIVE VOLCANO that is well overdue for a good ol’ violent disgorgin’ of the black stuff.

The hike up is occasionally steep-ish but not particularly challenging and provides momentarily distracting views of the surrounding area all the way to León and the Pacific Ocean. We stop as the guide points out each of the FIVE CRATERS which have RECENTLY ERUPTED. To further underscore the fact that we are on top of an ACTIVE VOLCANO we leave our boards at the top of the launch point and take a short walk to the summit where the guide scrapes a few inches off the surface and digs out a rock. We pass the rock around and stare at each other in horror/delight as we realise the rock is hot. Not like, pleasantly warm, but hot. The guide digs down another few inches and a tendril of smoke appears from the bottom of the hole. Now let’s just take a moment to digest this. The ground that I am standing on is smoking. The GROUND that I am STANDING ON is SMOKING. 

Our guide demonstrates technique.
Our guide demonstrates proper volcano boarding technique.

Because I am not a complete moron I am now past ready for an immediate evacuation. The quickest way out is straight down. Good thing we have our volcano boards. Back at the launch point we don ‘protective gear’: denim coveralls (Canadian tux onesie, anyone?), gloves, goggles and a bandana. Our guide provides an entertaining demonstration of how to take off, accelerate, brake and steer. We set our boards at the top of the hill and stare at the crest a few metres ahead. Past that point the pitch steepens to 40 plus degrees and disappears from view. 

Someone asks jokingly if I’ll go head first. I respond with ludicrous bravado, “No problem. My face is impervious to volcanic rock.” I feel like Simba in front of the elephant graveyard.

Canadian tuxedo, all denim.
“To the launch point, Captain What-the-f%!@-am-I-doing-here!”

One by one the crew vanishes over the edge. I sit on my board, pull my socks up as high as they will go, tie my bandana over my face and pull my goggles down. Imagine Doc Brown in Back to the Future, but way, way stupider looking. As the guide yells out for me to go, I kick myself forward a few times before leaning back and hoping for the best.

My bandana immediately falls down and my goggles fill with dust. Despite my most coordinated efforts (not all that coordinated, to be honest) I end up descending fairly slowly. No matter how hard I kick and how far back I lean, my board just won’t go. Eventually I make it to the bottom and upon inspection realise that my board is missing a key piece of fibreglass at the back that minimises friction and maximizes speed. 

Not a bad view for the ride down.
It’s all downhill from here.

Overall the trip was rad. The views were gorgeous and the guides were great, but the actual boarding part was a bit of a disappointment. Even without the issue with my board the whole thing is just a novelty. It’s well worth doing but don’t expect the thrill of your life. Now if the volcano was erupting while you boarded down…

Soundtrack: The Raconteurs – Broken Boy Soldier

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