'Yeah, it'll be fine... just like snowboarding without the snow,' I said. I was wrong, very wrong, and my knees will never forgive me.
Just below the rim of the Cerro Negro volcano stand Carlos and I, man to man, arms wrapped around each others midriffs in a seemingly tender embrace. This particular clinch, however, is born more of expediency than affection. With his heels dug into the crumbly ground and forehead pressed firmly against my shoulder blade, my diminutive tour guide is currently the only thing preventing me from falling another 50 metres down a live volcano with a piece of modified plywood strapped to my feet.
Volcano boarding was meant to be easy. Like snowboarding minus the cold, right? Wrong. As I survey the perilously steep, charcoal black terrain over Carlos’s shoulder, the folly of my earlier confidence begins to hit home.
Surfing down the Cerro Negro volcano has become something of an obligation for visitors to Nicaragua since the sport was invented by an Australian expat back in 2005. At the time, Darryn Webb was managing the BigFoot Hostel in the neighbouring town of Leon in Nicaragua’s mountainous North West region. As a keen snowboarder, Webb saw the potential to create a piece of equipment that could slide down the thick layer of volcanic ash that covers the 500 metre high volcano.
After experimenting with mattresses and boogie boards, he finally settled on a plywood board reinforced with metal and Formica on which participants would sit, as on a sled, and hurtle down the volcano at speeds of up to 50mph. Since then, tens of thousands of backpackers and holiday makers have slid, slipped and fallen their way down the Cerro Negro. Its popularity is such that other tour operators – Tierra Tours in my case – have recently taken the concept a step further and begun offering trips on stand-up boards.
These boards are, to put it bluntly, rudimentary in their design. The edges are rough and because of the crude materials used in construction the weight is considerably greater than that of a modern snowboard. There are no bindings to speak of; your feet are kept in place by nylon straps meaning no specialised footwear is required. In truth, the finished product looks more like a constituent part of an Ikea wardrobe than a piece of sporting equipment. The standard issue uniform, meanwhile, is a fetching one piece, yellow and green boiler suit complete with knee and shoulder pads and laboratory goggles that, when I climb into it, makes me look like a cross between a giant canary and Evel Knievel.
Following a challenging forty five minute trek to the summit, Carlos gives our group a crash course in the art of volcano boarding. The first thing he stresses is not to try to snowboard. Although volcano boarding evolved from snowboarding the different characteristics of both board and terrain demand a unique technique. The key is to face up the volcano with your weight on the front edge of the board then, by rotating your knees and shoulders first to the left and then back to the right, you are able to zigzag you way down the volcano. Or so the theory goes. First out of the hutch of our six strong group, I confidently tip my board off the edge of the rim and promptly flip forward onto my face, gulping a mouthful of ash in the process.
The biggest danger you’re ever likely to face, however, is the threat of the volcano erupting, which last happened in 1999, although tour operators work closely with the national park authorities to monitor its activity.
Attempt number two is barely more successful as I briefly achieve downwards momentum before pirouetting inelegantly and crashing to the deck. Now facing down the volcano with the board two feet above my head I’m effectively incapacitated and, after several minutes of flapping around like a fish trapped in a net, it takes Carlos’s intervention to haul me back onto my feet and support my frame while I reposition my board.
By this stage, my knees are starting to really ache, a sensation I last experienced learning to snowboard in the French Alps. Although the techniques may differ slightly, the potential for discomfort or injury is broadly the same on ash as it is on snow, save for the inevitable cuts and grazes that can be more acute on the gravelly surface of a volcano. The biggest danger you’re ever likely to face, however, is the threat of the volcano erupting, which last happened in 1999, although tour operators work closely with the national park authorities to monitor its activity. Stories do the rounds about people boarding down through thick, sulphurous smoke into the crater itself but it’s not something the tour companies promote or are prepared to admit has ever happened.
Essentially, this is a relatively safe new pursuit and one not to be taken too seriously. There are no volcano boarding professionals and no official competitions, chiefly because the Cerro Negro is currently the only volcano in the world that offers the surfing experience. But, of course, some people are more adept than others as I’m currently discovering to my cost.
I’m now halfway down the volcano and still spending more time on my backside than on my feet. Another pep talk from the admirably patient Carlos instils in me the determination for one last big effort and, with his instructions rattling around inside my head, body and board finally achieve synchronicity and I’m soon careering down the volcano like a marauding sherbet lemon, advancing the best part of 200m before the strain on the knees becomes too much to bear and I collapse in a crumpled heap still 100m shy of the finish.
I shall return to Cerro Negro. Maybe not this year, or the next, and I’ll definitely take something to wear on my knees. Cast iron kneepads perhaps.
Volcano boarding might not be that clever, but it is certainly big and hard.
Two out of three ain’t bad…
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