It was on Washington State’s Mount Adams that I first got the idea that I should try backcountry skiing. I was on foot, but there were tons of backcountry skiers. On the descent I kept thinking why am I walking out when I could be skiing? I’ve since taken up backcountry skiing, but it turns out that the principal isn’t limited to snow covered mountains. While on vacation during the winter of 2012 in Nicaragua I tried volcano boarding, and had the opportunity to slide down the slopes of a coal-black cinder cone mountain on a glorified sheet of plywood.
I booked the trip through my hostel in the city of León. Myself and the other participants were loaded in the back of a truck and driven out to Cerro Negro, approximately thirty miles from León. Cerro Negro is a great heap of black ash and rock. It’s one of the newest mountains in the world, only first appearing in 1850. It’s still very active. It last erupted as recently as 1999. The crater and summit were covered with steam vents and the mountain reeked of that rotten-egg sulfur smell.
From the base of Cerro Negro it was a forty-five minute hike to the top. In addition to the usual water bottles and cameras we were all lugging up a bag with our protective gear and our volcano boards. The volcano board is a sheet of plywood approximately the length and width of a snowboard. It is reinforced with sheets of metal and a Formica-like plastic strip is glued to the bottom. The plastic strip will be mostly ground away on the descent, but it’s there to keep the metal from overheating from friction. It was extremely windy at the summit and you had to be careful what angle you held your volcano board or it would catch the wind and knock you off balance like a sail.
We all donned the provided orange jumpsuits that make everyone look like convicts and covered our eyes with chemistry lab goggles. We then descended Cerro Negro two at a time like drag car racers. You ride the board sitting down. The board has a cord attached to the front that you pull on to keep the nose up and increase your speed. You steer and break by tapping your heels into the dirt. Tapping is important, if you dig your heels in you’ll crash. The catch is that every time you tap the ground you throw up dirt and gravel into your face. At the bottom of the mountain our truck driver was waiting with a radar gun to clock our speed.
It was intimidating, but they make all the women go first to shame the guys into trying harder. When it was my turn I told myself it’s just like skiing, you pick your line and commit. I took it a little easy the first half of the way down trying to get the feel for the board. The rest of the way down I tried to speed up and felt like I was going to crash. I was going fast and was desperately trying to keep myself in a straight line, tapping my heels frequently and throwing so much gravel in my face I could barely see where I was going. There was a good run-out at the bottom so I focused on my line and tried to keep the heel tapping to a minimum. When I finally ground to a halt I could not believe that I had made it to the down without crashing. At the top our guide warned us not to touch the bottom of our boards at the end of our run and he was right, I could feel the friction-generated heat radiating off the bottom. Inspecting my board I saw that a good half of the plastic strip had been ground away. The truck driver with the radar gun showed my speed, I had clocked a respectable sixty-nine kilometers per hour.
A few people crashed on the way down, but fortunately no one was seriously hurt. One girl who was wearing shorts got a bad scrape on her calf, but that was the worst of it. Volcano boarding was a total rush and I would do it again, but next time I’d make sure to bring a bandana to cover my mouth and nose. Despite my best efforts to keep my lips closed I still ended up with dirt and gravel in my mouth and the same up my nose.
I was staying at the Bigfoot hostel in León and booked my volcano boarding through them, but volcano boarding can be arranged through most travel agencies and hostels/hotels in León.
Volcano board, jumpsuit, and eye protection. These will all be provided by the guide service.
What the guide service does not provide, but is highly recommended is a bandana to cover your nose and mouth. If you don’t protect your face you will end your run down Cerro Negro with mouth and nose full of black dirt and gravel.
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