Volcano boarding is something I knew I would do when I came to Leon. The Cerro Negro volcano is the only volcano in the world where you can do it, and I was headed to the city of this sport’s invention. How could I not give it a try?
But I woke up the morning of my volcano adventure thinking twice about whether or not this was a good idea. My stomach was twisted in knots. How steep was this volcano anyway? How fast would I be going again?
I’ve tried and enjoyed a number of adrenaline sports before, but never for the adrenaline. I love to ski – but especially on freshly groomed trails. Climbing is fun, but I’m attached to a rope, how much trouble could I really get into? And my love for hiking? I’m more of a slow and steady kind of gal. This though – this volcano boarding thing – it isn’t regulated by any larger organization and there aren’t a whole lot of safety standards to hold it up against. Was this really the opportunity of a lifetime? Or was it just a really dumb way to get seriously injured and/or die?
I was still unsure as I loaded on to the truck that would take us to the volcano.
It was about an hour or so ride to the base of Cerro Negro, much of it on bumpy dirt roads. We were a big group (30+ brave souls boarded that day), and the mood was light. I started to calm down.
Until, that is, we got our first glimpse of the volcano.
It’s impossible to be graceful about this: I just about crapped my pants.
I mean, wouldn’t you? That’s a freaking volcano! And they wanted me to slide down it on a formica-lined slab of wood. Shit.
Sorry for the profanities Mom, there was just no way I could get through this day without them.
At the base of the trail we learned a bit about the mountain we were about to climb. Cerro Negro is Nicaragua’s youngest volcano and one of the most active in the region – it has erupted 23 times since its formation in 1850. Not to worry, encouraged our guide, Cerro Negro was carefully studied, and we wouldn’t be allowed there that day if there were any chance of eruption.
Does this make me feel better? I thought to myself.
Yes, but only a little bit.
I had read a number of conflicting reviews of the trail – some people online said it was very easy, others said it was very difficult. My opinion? While I’m not sure what the exact elevation change is to the top, you can see from the photo above that there is a good amount of distance top-to-bottom. It’s a climb, and on the day we went it was very hot. It didn’t kill me, but it did hurt. It took about 45 minutes bottom-to-top, with two 10 or 15 minute breaks, so we hustled up pretty quickly. Plus the bags they give you to carry your equipment in are awkward to lug up the trail. You have the option of carrying up your own board or having a local porter do it for you for five dollars US. I happily went with the second option and don’t regret it one bit.
Once at the top, we dropped our bags and wandered around the crater. While there is no visible magma (this volcano actually spills magma from its base during an eruption, while spewing ash out of its crater), there were quite a few steam vents, and digging just a few centimeters into the earth revealed an intense amount of heat radiating from the ground. Plus, the views were pretty spectacular. From the top of Cerro Negro we could see two other smoking volcanoes, as well as a gorgeous view of the green rolling countryside. By the time I got up there, I was thinking that these views alone were worth the hike and the cash.
I was feeling pretty good as we suited up in our orange jumpsuits and goggles. It turns out, sliding on a board down a volcano is dirty business, and it was nice to have the jumpsuits for protection, even if they were a bit large.
But then it was time to go down.
There is no breaking mechanism on the board. You simply hold on to a rope handle and steer with your feet. The volcano is so steep that you cannot see the bottom from the starting point. My heart was racing a gazillion miles an hour as my turn came and I shimmied my board into place.
Crap. Crap. Crap.
One guide stayed at the bottom of the volcano to signal to another guide at the top when the coast was clear. A third guide walked halfway down to take photos. I received the go-ahead sign. I scooted forward slowly, but soon I was flying past the point of no return.
Several of my fellow boarders told me that they had gone so slow down the slope, they had even stopped. That was not my experience. I was going much faster than what I was comfortable with and spent most of the first half of the ride totally out of control. The guide posed to take photos didn’t get many of me because she was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t hear her.
I definitely did everything wrong. They said not to attempt to use your hands to slow down, and I almost immediately threw mine out into the volcanic sand. They said not to dig your heels in, to keep your toes pointed down the mountain at all times. But my toes kept flying out to the sides due to the speed and friction of the slope, and so I dug my heels in in panic anyway.
Finally, at some point during the second half of the decent, something clicked. I’m not sure if the slope mellowed out or if I just finally got it. Either way, I was able to keep my feet in the right position and maintain some semblance of control and maybe even a bit of grace (probably not though) for the last bit of the decent.
It was in this way that I sped past the guide holding a radar gun. They clocked me at 32 kms an hour (just under 20 miles an hour), which fell at about the center of the speeds clocked that day and that was fine with me. The fastest person clocked 53 kms an hour (that’s about 33 miles an hour!), the slowest 0, and two people wound up walking down after they fell off their boards. And all of that with no injuries at all!
Our guides gave us beer and cookies at the bottom, and the hour back to the city passed quickly. Everyone was on a high from the ride, and the back of the truck felt less like the crowd of strangers it had been on the way there and more like we were all old friends. It’s funny how easy it is to connect with someone over the shared possibility of imminent death.
So now that it’s over, how do I feel about my volcano boarding experience?
I really am glad that I did it. While I spent a good deal of time terrified, the hike was beautiful and the last 30 seconds or so of the slide actually turned out to be a little bit fun even! Plus, it’ll be a cool thing to brag about once I’m back in the States.
But would I do it again?
Let’s put it this way: I think I’ve got enough volcanic rocks in my shoes to last several years at least.