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Nov 23

Volcano Boarding.

Climbing along the ridge of Cerro Negro

After Somoto, Tony and I made our way down from the highlands of Nicaragua to the colonial town of Leon, perched near the coast and within striking distance of several Volcanoes.  One of those volcanoes is Cerro Negro, which means “Black hill”.

Cerro Negro is the new kid on the volcanic block, having appeared only 162 years ago, and he is also on of the most active, having erupted 23 times in that period – the last time in 1999.  There is something else that sets Cerro Negro apart though, it is the birthplace of a new extreme sport: Volcano Boarding.

As with most extreme sports, there is a crazy Australian involved, and in this case the man goes by the name Daryn Webb.  It was 2004 and Daryn had just opened Bigfoot Hostel in Leon, when he began to develop the sport.  Here is the history of the sport – ripped from Bigfoot Hostel and Volcano Boarding’s Website:

“Daryn and his crew endured a fair share of trial and error, testing everything from picnic tables to mattresses until they arrived to a sit-down, wooden toboggan, made of metal and Formica-reinforced plywood. The adventure sport was born!

Volcano boarding was a world first. León became the only place in the world you could slide down the side of an active volcano. By 2009, Bigfoot Volcano Boarding sent 10,000 boarders down Cerro Negro. Today, over 15,000 people have sled down its slope at up to 90km/hr!

Volcano boarding quickly gained the attention of international media. The New York Times, BBC and Survivor Nicaragua came to Bigfoot for the tour. CNN named Bigfoot’s Volcano Boarding Tour as #2 on the “Thrill seekers bucket list: 50 things to do before you die”, Reader’s Digest rated the tour #4 on the “10 Death Defying Travel Destinations”. Volcano Boarding and Cerro Negro became celebrities.

In León, Volcano boarding is more than a sport. Volcano boarding has not only given travelers an attention-gripping story to tell, but it’s also become a part of the culture here in León. The tours have resulted in hundreds of jobs available to locals, a popular activity for young people to enjoy, and a way to raise awareness for local projects in the communities.”

—-

First sight of the slope

You now know more about the sport than I did when I booked a trip to the volcano with Bigfoot.  I was going up with a Colombian friend of mine whom I had met several times earlier on the trip, and so we had a few beers the night before and chatted about the adventure in store for us the next day.

“I want to break the record.  I’m going to break the record.”  He told me confidently.

I shook my head at him and replied, “I don’t know man, 90 kph is fast!  And it is down a slope filled with sharp volcanic rock.  I just want to have a good go and get down in one piece.  The last thing I need right now on this bike trip is an injury.”

“You might be right” he conceded, “but I am going to go for it.”

—–

Manuel ready to roll

The next day, about 30 thrill seekers piled into the back of Bigfoot’s truck and we headed for the volcano.  It was a long and uncomfortable ride along a bumpy dirt rode with trees branches slashing at the sides of the open truck, occasionally smacking someone in the back of the head, but eventually the volcano came into view, and we all began to realise the scale of what we were getting ourselves into.

Cerro Negro had been aptly named as it was quite simply, a large black hill.  But what we were all staring at was the long straight track left behind by the thousands of volcano boarders before us.

“It’s a lot longer and steeper than I thought”  Manuel said quietly.

“Yes, yes it is.” I replied back, still staring at the menacing sight before us.  It did look intimidating.

Boards and protection suits were distributed to the group of thrill seekers – who now seemed slightly less confident about their decision to partake in this adventure – and we began the 45 minute hike to the top of the volcano in the extreme Nicaraguan heat.  Didn’t somebody say it was 45 minutes up and less than 45 seconds down?

As we walked along the ridge at the top of the volcano, looking down at bottom, the mood was definitely a bit more subdued.  The large orange truck we had arrived in had been reduced to a tiny, barely identifiable speck parked at the bottom of the mountain, and the slope looked a lot steeper from here than it had on the ground – you couldn’t even see the steepest part of it as dropped out of view about half way down.  I felt my adrenaline kick up a notch.

Richard, our tour guide, walked us through the technique of volcano boarding.  “Sit on the back end here with the board pointing out in front of you.  Grab this rope with you hands to hang on, do not let go of this handle unless you crash.  Your feet don’t go on top of the board, you steer and brake with them, so you hold them up in the air on either side of the board.  Tap left to turn left.  Tap right to turn right.  Tap both to brake.  Don’t over do it.  When you get going fast all it takes is a little tap to turn, any more than that and you’ll be rolling the rest of the way down the hill.  Don’t forget to wear your googles, there is going to be a lots of bits of volcanic rock peppering you face.  And very importantly… don’t open your mouth.”

How do we go fast?  Or how do we go slower without braking?” Someone asked.

“The more you lean back, the more weight will be on the slippery formica on the back end of the board.  So lean back to go faster, lean forward to go a bit slower.  Honestly guys, don’t be shy.  Almost everyone who goes down the slope carefully gets to the bottom wishing they had gone faster.  You only get one shot at this, so make it a good one.  If you lean back good and don’t brake too much you’ll get a good ride going 50 or 60 kph”

“Do people crash a lot?” An American girl asked.

“Oh yeah, I have seen some pretty crazy wipeouts”

“It’s got to hurt when you crash going 60…”  This was me.

“Oh yeah, people go flying.  ALRIGHT! LETS GO TO THE SLOPE!”

I felt a tap at my elbow.  “Hey, que dijo el?”  It was Manuel, whose English was not that great in group situations.

Dijo que tienes que poner tu culo aqui, agarralo con los manos como asi. Frenas y doblas con…”  I ran him through the instructions whilst climbing into the massive one-size-fits-giant protection suit.

OK,” he said when I had finished “Podrias dar me un empujon?” Can you give me a big push?

“You really want to break that record huh?”

“Of course!  But seriously, I want you to give me a push.”

“You’re crazy man.”

—-

Can you spot the truck at the bottom? Eammon sit on his board at the top of the slope, ready to go.

Soon we were all lined up at the top of the slope.  An Irish friend of ours, Eammon was going second, Manuel was third and I was fifth.  The whole group had gone quiet, alone in their nervous thoughts.  I had butterflies in my stomach, a feeling I now almost always associate with jumping out of airplanes, and one that I perversely enjoy with a certain sense of nostalgia.  I was getting excited.

Kara discovers a new meaning to the term “one size fits all”

Richard, our tour guide had walked half-way down the slope – the point where the slope goes from being steep to being almost vertical.  We would be going down one at a time, and because we couldn’t see the bottom of the hill, he would be signaling each rider when it was their turn to go.

First up was another irish lad, he had gone on the tour the day before and had only clocked a speed of 36 kph, so he had come back today at the reduced rate, to give it another go.  He laid his board down and sat down on the back end – careful not to let it slide away without him – before saying goodbye to his girlfriend and lifting his feet off the ground…

It was a surprisingly slow start as the board scraped noisily along the gravelly volcanic ash, but in just a few seconds later he had gained speed.  When he got down to the halfway point though, he suddenly veered to the right and went for a small tumble before getting back on board and starting back down again, all we could see was a trail of dust in the air after he dropped down out of view on the steeper slope.  Later we would find out that he had only clocked 24 kph this time round.

Ready to rock! Ready to …. er …roll?

The speeds were being clocked by our radar-gun wielding driver at the bottom of the hill.

Next up was the Eammon, “See you boys at the bottom!” and he was off, but he too had a slight tumble at the half-way point before disappearing from view.

“I wonder if it’s hesitation that is making people crash at the same place?”  I wondered out loud.

“Yeah, maybe..”  Alyssa, a smoking-hot canadian girl agreed.

It’s was Manuel’s turn.  “You still want a shove?”  I asked him.  “I think form and not crashing are more important than a quick start…”

Manuel speeds down the slope. He would hit 60 kph

“I still want a push” he said.

I handed my board to the german guy who’d be going after me, and braced myself behind him to give him a shove off.

“You givin’ him a push are you? Has the man lost his mind?!” The Irish girlfriend asked.

“He really wants to break the record…” was all I could say, shrugging my shoulders.

Manuel sat down on his board and spent a minute – a minute that felt like it dragged on for hours – rearranging his protection suit and back pack, tightening his shoe-laces, and fiddling with his goggles.  Finally I asked “Listo?” Ready?

Listo!”

And with that, he lifted his feet off the ground and I gave him a good hard shove forward.  He was off, picking up speed faster than the others, just seconds later he was racing down the hill, still gaining speed, and rapidly approaching the halfway point.  “He’s flying!”  The Irish girl exclaimed.

Right then, at the same spot as the others, something when wrong and Manual suddenly swerved to the right and came to a sudden tumbling stop.  “Oh no!” Irish lamented, “He really wanted to get that record… I feel bad for him.”

It was her turn now though, “Show them how it’s done.”  I told her.  She started her slow slide forward, tapping left and right, braking, getting a feel for the “controls” before straightening out and racing down the slope.  We all watched expectantly as she came to the halfway point, but there would be no tumble this time, and the red-head kept getting faster, flying past our guide at full speed before dropping out of our sight.  Behind her a massive trail of cloud drifted away in the wind.  The rest of us remaining on the top of the hill collectively released the breath we hadn’t realised we’d been holding.

Now it was my turn.

I walked over to the start point and did my best to stand nonchalantly with my board while I waited for the wave from our guide.  As I stood there looking down the slope, waiting those interminable seconds, I could feel my heart rate increasing, thumping away in my chest.  The butterflies in my stomach were in a frenzy.  Once again, I was standing on the edge of the void, but this time instead of jumping into open air with a parachute on my back I was about to race down a hill covered with abrasive volcanic rock and any mistake would certainly mean a painful crash.  Don’t worry Zack, just give it a good go, you aren’t trying to break any records here.

The wave from Richard came. and I plopped the board down and sat down on the back end of it.

“Don’t forget your goggles.” The german guy reminded me.

“Oh, yeah.  Thanks for that!” I pulled the goggles down over my eyes, “Right, see you down there…”

I lifted my feet off the ground, leaned back slightly, and started to slide forward.

What came next all happened very quickly.  Like so often happens to me in these situations, my body and mind went into automatic-mode, and soon I had gained a decent amount of speed.  I still hadn’t steered or braked, the board was going the right direction by it’s own volition.  Then suddenly, I was roaring down the hill, volcanic pebbles pelting at my face.  I wanted to whoop or scream or something, but there was no way I was opening my mouth in that hail storm.  I leant further back and saw richard whip by in my peripheral vision.  Oh shit, I remember thinking, here it comes, and the ground suddenly dropped out from under me and I began to plummet to the earth.

Richard gets a picture of me as I fly past.

In some part of my mind I was coolly noting that this was going to be good go – I knew I was flying – but really all I could think about now was trying to keep my feet in the air and avoiding a crash.  I wanted to brake, but at the speed I was going I didn’t dare try and “tap lightly” because I knew that the slightest attempt to touch my foot to the ground was guaranteed to send me tumbling and pirouetting the rest of the way down the slope.  So I was going to have to try and ride it out.

Easier said than done.  I have big, heavy feet and at the rate I was careening downwards my feet were bouncing up and down and all over the place.  It was taking every effort I could manage just to keep them away from the blur of razor sharp rock whizzing by underneath us.  I leant back as far as I could, trying to get them higher off the ground, noting as I did so that my back was now skimming the rocks behind us.

I was hurtling through a veritable vortex of wind, dust and debris.  It was an incredible feeling, like flying in free fall, but with your body plastered to a hard, rocky, extremely solid surface.  Something about it was completely illogical.

Looking past my feet I saw little people appear below me.  I might just pull this off! I thought.  The slope shallowed out a bit underneath me and felt the G-forces pushing me into the ground.  I might actually pull this off!

—-

Free Pumice Treatment?

Eamonn looked up from dusting off the grazes on his leg to see the next person come screaming down the hill.  That’s probably Zack.  He thought.  Holy shit he’s going fast!

He watched as the board and rider came to the end of the slope and hit the more level ground.  The rider’s feet bounced up high and fell back down hard, the right foot catching on the ground.  It all happened in a split second, but Eamonn’s mind saw it in slow motion.  In a cloud of dust, rider and board separated from each other and the limp body of the rider skidded across the ground, spinning once, twice, six times before finally coming to a rest 10 m from where the board lay.

For a moment everyone stood in stunned silence looking at the body lying there facedown in the dust.  Before anyone could react though, the silence was suddenly broken by loud maniacal laughter.

—–

I don’t why I laughed.  Probably I was just happy to have survived the crash.  It didn’t feel like anything was broken either.  I let out another whoop before hopping to my feet.  OUCH!  I stumbled as a sharp pain came shooting from my left arm.  My shoulder was dislocated badly, an anterior dislocation.  I cold see the ball at the top of my humerus bone bulging in a lower part of my shoulder.  I gave me left arm a slow tug with my right… that usually did the trick, but not this time.  I licked my lips in consternation, only to taste blood.

A few people ran up to me to see if I was alright.  “Holy shit dude, look at your face!”  Eamonn exclaimed.  Manuel said something in Spanish that I couldn’t catch.  “I’m alright” I told them, “but I dislocated my shoulder and it’s still out.”

The driver ran up to me, radar gun in hand, all excited.

Ochenta y DOS! Ochenta y DOS!” Eighty Two, Eighty Two!

“Bueno, pero podrias ayudarme con mi hombro?” Great, but can you help me with my shoulder?

Ochenta y DOS! Rapidisimo!”

Manuel was at my side.  “Do you know how to put it” he asked me in english.

“I know the theory”, I said back in Spanish.  “Help me”

I managed to move my forearm into the L shaped butler position and slowly tried to rotate it outwards away from me while holding my shoulder with my right hand.  “Pull here, slowly.”  “Huuuuuhhuhuhuhuhuhuhuh” I whimpered through clenched teeth, as he pulled my arm outwards.  I waited for the satisfying relief of it popping back into place, but it never came.

“Is it in now?” Manuel asked.

I shook my head and we tried again… still no.  I tried pulling down on my arm again… nothing but pain.  Finally, getting desperate,  I lifted my left arm over my head with my right arm, and pulled the left elbow slowly back behind my neck.  This probably isn’t recommended, I thought, but I ignored my thoughts and the wave of pain and kept pulling.  Finally, something shifted and when I released my elbow I felt a huge wave of sweet relief crash over me as my arm popped back into it’s socket and fell to my side.

—-

Third Place! You might be seeing “fifth place” but the top two slots (95 kph) were done on a special %100 formica board with two people sitting on it at the same time. Not exactly the same category.

I had suffered a seriously scraped nose and was bleeding from scrapes on my forehead and lower lip as well.  My left forearm and lower leg had “volcano rash” and I knew my shoulder was going to take a long time to recover.  That day there had been a couple of other big crashes, but surprisingly (or not) there was no first-aid kit on the truck, not even tissue paper, so all they could do was hand us our beers, and a bit of ice water to wash my face off with and tell us to wait until we got back to the hostel.

That day, no one else came close to my speed of 82kph – just 8 kph below the all-time record of 90 – and it was good enough to earn me a 3rd place spot on the Male Record Board (4th place overall).  I wasn’t going to be the only one celebrating that night though.  Alyssa, the Canadian girl, had been the second fastest that day and had earned herself a spot on the Female record board with her speed of 73 kph.

And she had done it without crashing.

——-

I highly recommend Volcano Boarding to anyone and everyone.  For more information check out the Bigfoot website at: http://www.bigfootnicaragua.com/volcanoboarding/

For all photo of this stage – Stage 6 – of the Tour de Zack go here

 

 

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