Not your average travel report.
Racing down the volcano slope.
Assaulted by rubble and debris, I find it hard to see anything at all – despite wearing safety goggles. Small bits of lava have found their way into my shoes and overall. I guess I am doing around 35 to 40 mph, racing down Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro volcano. Suddenly, my board starts to lurch; and when I adjust my centre of gravity for better balance – I immediately do a somersault.
A mere hour or so ago, I had joined 13 other participants at the foot of the Cerro Negro to pick up an orange tote and overall, check my water supply and grab a bespoke volcano sled – a narrow wooden board featuring three low-lying cross braces to support my feet and back for balance. Add a piece of plastic for extra speed and you have a simple, yet effective sledding device, as I was to find out later.
Heat all around.
After all, the Nicaraguan climate promises 30 degrees Celsius in the shade. And the latter is non-existent, while the volcano’s black igneous rock stores and releases extra heat. High above, the sky is dotted with few, but picturesque cumulus clouds. And what had promised to be a pleasant stroll has given way to a more strenuous and ambitious route: rising up ahead – and getting increasingly steeper – our path disappears in a field of magma filled with chunks the size of gravel. Now, the only way forward, and up, is on all fours. Here, it is easy to lose your footing and kick off fickle mini-avalanches of slippery pebbles, tumbling down the precipitous mountain flank. Finally, we have reached the top – the crater’s impressive brim – and get to enjoy the stunning view. In 1971 a stream of hissing lava had forced its way across the landscape and left a massive basalt tongue in its wake.
The local farmers soon reclaimed the land and planted the fresh flow with peanut bushes, one of the region’s main cash crops. Rooted knee-deep in the grey sand disgorged by the mound during eruptions; the shrubs are accompanied by a smattering of tiny manioc plants. Looking north and south, our eyes find the volcanic chain’s foothills – Nicaragua, after all, is the land of lakes and volcanoes.
Smoke and ash.
Lined up like pearls on a string, the range comprises 13 active volcanoes, overshadowed by the impressive Momotombo at almost 2,000 yards. This prime example is easy to spot – we have a clear view of the white smoke emerging from its active vent … a visual reminder that volcanoes tend to erupt spontaneously. On our way up, Marko had made a brief stop at an unassuming hut fashioned from rusty corrugated iron and studded with spikes jutting out in all directions.
“Sorry to disappoint you, guys, but that’s not the last restroom before the summit,” he had grinned, “but a volcanic observatory.” The humble structure records seismic disruptions and forwards them to a control station in the valley.
Smoke is emerging from the Cerro Negro’s two craters; a distinct stench of sulphur reaches our nostrils. Some of our group chuckle nervously when our guide mentions that the Cerro Negro counts among the world’s most active volcanoes. A relatively young addition to the earth’s volcanic community, it only emerged 160 years ago and tends to erupt every seven years or so. With the last outbreak dating back to 1999, “it is long overdue” according to Marko, causing some novice ashboarders to catch their breaths. Some of these eruptions hurled rocks almost half a mile beyond the crater’s edge and the resulting fallout covered the entire landscape in a thick cloud of ash, reaching five miles up into the atmosphere. Roofs collapsed in the colonial town of León, almost 20 miles away. And all surrounding land was buried under three feet of grey ash.
Crazy or courageous?
Nevertheless, all of this is just a little thrill, a fleeting side show, so to speak. The real excitement is yet to come – our improvised race down the steep slope. Even standing up, we can hardly make out the truck that marks the finish line a good 650 yards below – that’s how steep the course truly is. Everyone dons their overalls and goggles, all vibed up and ready to go.
The run is notorious for its steep angle of up to 41 degrees and a shifting ground composed of sand and small gravel. An ideal mix for a racy downhill dash, according to Frenchman Eric Barone. In 2002, this particular cyclist broke his own speed record: riding a standard mountain bike, he topped 100mph on his way down.
For his next trial run, he put on a special, air-cushioned outfit, tightened his helmet and tried his luck on a hand-made, carbon-framed mountain bike. Even now, the jury is still out whether this was an incredibly courageous – or incredibly insane – stunt.
The dangerous piste.
Existing videos show Barone’s bike accelerating during the schuss; cameras capture him as a swift shadow, trailing dust. Passing a speed trap two-thirds down the way, he had already passed 106mph. And then: the accident. Barone hits a soft sand pit edged by large boulders.
While still doing more than 60mph, Barone’s bike crashes into the rocks, is literally pulverised, and catapults the rider through the air. Onlookers are stunned; nobody knows if he survived this spectacular crash.
But then, Barone opens his eyes. He has broken several ribs and suffers from countless of other injuries. His recuperation takes months.
and no speed record.
I am about to head down the same piste. Marko dispenses last-minute instructions. “Keep your feet off the board, hovering just above the ground – this will help to stabilise it during the ride. And keep your backside, your body’s centre of gravity, right in the middle of the board.” So, off – and down – we go. Seconds later, I have already forgotten all about his advice and plant my feet on the board to gain speed. A few hundred yards on, I reap my just rewards – and fly off the piste. I am not about to break a speed record anytime soon. A little later, passing the pickup truck scheduled to take our group back to the town of León, I am still doing a respectable 26mph, though – without any major injuries.
Back in town, organiser Phil Southan welcomes the dust-covered crowd with a Mojito. Today’s fastest run: 45mph. No record, but still a considerable feat. A nearby chart lists the sport’s all-time high scores. A woman from Israel tops the list at a cool 55mph.
Test driving with
a fridge door.
Then again, ashboarding is still a relatively young sport, according to Barbados-born Southan. Around five years ago, it was bored surfers at the nearby Pacific who started using a variety of objects to conquer the slopes of the Cerro Negro. “We started with snowboards, but those gave out far too quickly on the sharp volcanic rocks. Then we graduated to surfboards, but that wasn’t exactly ideal, either.”
In-between, intrepid thrill-seekers also tried more exotic substrates like fridge doors (“too heavy and slow”).
Cycling through a hundred or so board designs, they finally arrived at the current model. Its piece de resistance, a piece of plastic below the sled where the main weight rests, makes the board really slippery on the way down. It works just like soap – and wears down equally fast.
According to Southan, there have been no serious accidents during the current tally of 15,000 downhill rides. Even a couple of 65-year-olds enjoyed the fleeting rush. Our tour guide, who takes a group up the Cerro Negro almost every day, chimes in. “I still get a kick out of the ride, the view and the wind that threatens to blow us straight off the top.” And, naturally, the pure adrenaline kick of standing on top of an active volcano.