“This is gonna hurt,” I thought as I peered down the steep face of the Cerro Negro volcano. Marble-sized black lava rocks blanketed the volcanic terrain that sharply descends 2,382 feet from the peak to the base. With the smell of sulfur filling my nostrils, I sat on a small wooden sled teetering on the ledge preparing to race down at highway speeds. All I could think was, “This can’t be safe.”
A few days earlier, I arrived in León, Nicaragua after several hard days of drinking, including a costumed Halloween party, in its rival city Granada to the south. In terms of Nicaraguan politics, Granada is the more conservative city with more affluence and colonial architecture, while León is the more leftist city with such PETA night terrors as cock fights and iguana cooking classes. Though iguana probably tastes like chicken, my interests veered toward volcano trekking. Though more expensive, I connected with Quetzaltrekkers non-profit, volunteer-run trekking association in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Guatemala—since the proceeds from my adventures would benefit local children.
I booked a pair of two-day treks. On the first outing, I got to look down upon the bubbling lava of the Telica volcano. On the second trek, I conquered three volcanoes, which included swimming in a large crater lake and riding down the smoldering Cerro Negro.
The history of volcano boarding dates back to 2004 when an Australian thrill seeker named Daryn Webb opened the Bigfoot Hostel in León. Originally for personal amusement, Webb and his cohorts tested the Cerro Negro riding down on mattresses, picnic tabletops and even a small refrigerator lifted from a hotel minibar. After a series of oft-painful trial runs, Webb eventually built a wooden toboggan out of metal and Formica-reinforced plywood that provided the ideal high-speed ride. He created what was arguably the first nationally recognized volcano-boarding site.
Bigfoot, which Webb no longer owns, started taking tour groups on boarding adventures, and the hostel claimed it topped 10,000 riders by 2009. That number is now several times higher, and I joined the ranks (albeit with Quetzaltrekkers) in 2011.
When we arrived at the volcano, we were told to leave our bags in the bus, and the riders were broken into two groups. The first group was only doing the boarding, and they would have two goes at it. The second group was on the two-day El Hoyo trek, and we would only have one ride before starting our ascent up the Las Pilas-El Hoyo volcanic complex.
After everyone stashed their bags in the bus, the guides passed around the boards—small, flat wooden sleds—followed by workshop-style safety goggles and green-colored jumpsuits that an inmate might wear picking up trash on the side of the road. A guide told us the prison jumpsuits and glasses protect us from the small lava rocks that will fly into our bodies and faces as we descend the volcano. Perfect.
Then came the board-riding instructions.
“Use your feet to steer, lean back to go fast and lean forward to slow down,” said our lead guide, Sarah, from Washington state. “You can tap your left foot to go right, your right foot to go left and never dig in your heels.”
Several more instructions were given that few people remembered, and we finally started heading up Cerro Negro. With intense heat coming from the sky and the volcano itself, it felt a bit like climbing a stair machine in a sauna. Near the summit, it got worse as sulfur fumes tainted the air with the smell of rotten eggs, and the hot rocks under our shoes produced a whiff of burning rubber.
“Don’t stand in the same place for too long,” added Sarah, knowing the hot rocks could melt the soles of our shoes.
The Cerro Negro has not erupted this side of Y2K, but it blew its top three times during the Clinton years. In 1992, a massive five-day eruption sent a column of ash more than five miles into the air, and the entire area was evacuated as large piles of ash collapsed roofs. In 1995, a series of eruptions lasted 79 days often topping more than 100 daily explosions, and three months later, a second string of explosions spewed out large volcanic bombs. The most recent volcanic activity occurred in the summer of 1999 when three back-to-back-to-back earthquakes triggered a smaller eruption creating new fissures and liquid lava fountains nearly 1,000 feet in height. Cerro Negro is a young volcano, less than 170 years old, but it has erupted dozens of times, and some experts believe another large-scale eruption will occur in the near future. All this activity covered the volcano in black lava rocks and limited any possible vegetation.
“This thing looks like it could blow,” said one of the trekkers as we walked past a stream of sulfur slowly emanating from some rocks.
The ascent was rather difficult carrying the board and wearing the jumpsuit, but once atop the summit, it was nice to know we could ride down it in a hurry if necessary. Experienced boarders with the proper technique reach speeds of up to 60 mph, while the average rider hits up to 40 mph. Ironically, though, the fastest ride ever was on a bicycle, and it topped both of those speeds combined.
French daredevil Éric Barone already held the land-speed record for snow (138 mph), but he set a personal record of 81 mph descending Cerro Negro in late 2001. Six months later, he revisited the volcano hoping to beat that speed. He reached 101 mph on his first attempt, but Barone still wanted to go faster. On his second attempt that day, he reached an incredible 107 mph before a gradient change broke the bike in two and sent the daredevil flying. Torn shoulders, a broken femur, broken ribs and infection were among the litany of serious injuries. And yes, the guides shared this story before we made our attempts.
When it came time to ride, I certainly was not going to lead the pack, but I gleaned little insight watching the trailblazers in our group. Even in colorful jumpsuits, the riders were difficult to follow between the trail of dust kicked up by the sleds and the sheer height of the volcano. Several riders preceded me, but as the group rapidly thinned out, I had nowhere to hide.
“David, you’re up!” said Sarah.
“Oh hell,” I thought.
As the guide watched, I sat my ass on the board, grabbed the support rope and pushed myself toward the ledge. Naturally, I had to look down the volcano face, and the distance and gradient both gave me pause.
“You ready?” Sarah asked.
“Hell no,” I thought before nodding and pushing off. The adrenaline kicked in almost immediately.
On the rocky slope, my first realization was that this was nothing like snow sledding. Not that I ever sledded down a 2,000-foot mountain, but if I did, the snow would provide a smoother ride than thousands of tiny lava rocks. Most people have experienced driving a car across a bumpy, rocky gravel road, but now imagine driving across that same road at 40+ mph in a Scion iQ. As this online video demonstrates, that is what the volcano ride feels like. As the wooden board picked up speed, it shook wildly, and bumps in the mountainside made it feel like I was catching air. Adding to the chaos, the board kicked up tiny rocks that stung my face, and the combination of dust and goggles made it difficult to see more than 25 feet ahead of me. For most of the ride, I felt as if I were on the verge of wiping out.
Approximately half way down—if I had to guess—I proceeded to pull my body forward in an attempt to slow down. It only made the ride more woobly. I then touched my heels ever so slightly onto the ground ahead of me, but this merely brought more flying rocks. At this point, my best bet was to lean back and hope for the best. Surprisingly, I made it to the base of the volcano without ever pulling a Barone.
As I waited at the base, more riders came down, and it was actually a thrilling sight. The boards cut a series of trail-like lines in the tiny rocks along the slope, and like exhaust spewing out from the back of a 1970s drag racer, large yet narrow streams of dust followed each rider. It was quite a sight.
All the riders seemed to make it down unscathed, so it was ironic the only person who fully bit the dust was our Evergreen State guide. After the last boarder descended, Sarah attempted to run down the volcano, and she took a nasty tumble about two-thirds of the way down. Despite the volcanic rock face-plant, she got back up and continued running until she reached the base. Everyone immediately checked to see if she was okay.
From wide-smiling lips, she said, “That really, really hurt.”
At this point, everyone going on the El Hoyo trek already had their gear, and we set off on our two-day hike with a guide named Brennan from San Diego. Everyone else headed back up Cerro Negro with good-spirited Sarah for a second ride. She stayed with the boarders, but it is probably safe to guess she rode down the volcano the second time.
Photo: Jean-Marie Prival, CC-BY
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.