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An Unnatural Pursuit: Volcano Boarding

We hung around in León for a few days to partake in the most unnatural of pursuits. Cerro Negro (Black Hill) is an active volcano about 45 minutes outside of the city. It is a relatively new one at only 161 years old. Because the cone is primarily made up of small grains of volcanic rock, it’s possible to ride or surf down the steep slope on a wooden sled. Supposedly this is the only place in the world where you can do this - go volcano boarding. I figured hey, we’re here so why not. Boarders hurtle down the active volcano’s bald, steep slope on a piece of plywood, at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. It sounded only slightly insane.

The before picture. No lacerations...

Darryn Webb, a tour guide from Australia, started this ridiculous sport back in 2005. After a lot of trial and error with sledding vessels — he tried boogie boards, mattresses and even a minibar fridge — he settled on plywood reinforced with metal and augmented with Formica under the seat. Because of the fierce winds on the volcano, the sled also acts like a sail so we had to be careful not to let it sail us right off the edge as we hiked up.

Starting the hike with my volcano board (a.k.a. sail board)

Rocks, plywood and speed. Great combination.

It was wiiiiiinnnnddyyyyy.

The hike up to the top takes about an hour. Less if you really move which our guide seemed intent on not letting us do. The ride down is less than a minute so we got the sense the tour companies try to milk the experience into something more than just bombing down a volcano in less than a minute. I just wanted to get to the top and bomb it down.

We hiked up a fairly steep trail of pebbles, rocks and dust to the crater rim and then along the ridge to the chutes carved out for sledding. Impatient as I was, the views were stunning: on one side, the gaping black craters; the Los Maribios volcano chain on the other. White pueblo villages directly in Cerro Negro’s lava path below us, and the city of León under a haze in the distance. At the top our annoyingly detailed guide dug a small hole and instructed us to put our hand into it. But as we reached toward the earth, the ground radiated so much heat we couldn’t actually touch the dirt.

Not far beneath our feet, this mountain is on fire.

At the rim we peered over, scanning the slope for the ride to come. I held back a few steps. I was careful not to go to close because between the drop off in front of me and the wind behind me, the only thing worse than going down this volcano with a sled would be going down without one.

Finally at the top, making our way to the boarding chutes.

Hot, black and steep.

We were given a thin one-piece coverall suit for “crash protection”. We also got protective goggles and work gloves for the same purpose. While the volcanic stones are very lightweight and easy to break apart, they are also very sharp. They can tear holes in clothing or skin pretty easily without the protective gear. Different tour companies use different coveralls for protective gear. Some look like mechanics in blue, others are convicts in orange. We were green and yellow clowns.

Let's do this!

Once we were all suited up we were instructed on how to use the board. The rope is only to hang on to…there is no steering. Braking is done with our heels so we should keep our feet on the sides of the board. One foot off was disaster. That was it. I climbed onto my board and edged forward. The world tilted downward, and I felt air start to wiz by me. As I gained speed, little black lava pebbles began to hit my face slowly at first, then faster and faster. Even though I had on goggles on, I instinctively closed my eyes but realized quickly it was more prudent to try and keep them open. Rocks shot up my pant legs, down my back, and in my mouth, which I couldn’t keep closed due to my uncontrolled laughing. My smooth soled running shoes provided no braking as promised, so the best option seemed to be to just hold on and hope I didn’t turn which would likely mean a wipe out. In a blur, and what felt like an instant, I was at the bottom. I looked up to see John careening straight at me with the same stupid grin on his face.

And yes, we got video:

Video is bravely provided by John, who had one hand on the sled and the other on the selfi stick (we went at the same time and I'm on the left in front - throwin' out my rooster tail!).

After pic. No lacerations, just lots of rocks in our hair, teeth, shoes, shorts...and yes, underwear.

Pure ridiculousness. It was never on the bucket list but...check!

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