Jan 02, 2008
I'm supposed to be down here doing research for the Floatingman project (www.floatingman.org), but I decided to treat myself to an authentic Nicaraguan New Years in Leon, and a bit of Volcano Surfing. They advertise the trip as "volcano surfing", but really it much more closely resembles the far less cool sport of sledding. Who can say "no" to sliding down a regularly active volcano on a sled? Well.... I can't.
It's a nice ride to the volcano through cornfields and forest. Then suddenly, we turn a corner and Cerro Negro ("black mountain") is directly ahead of us; a black wall of rock.
The volcano appeared unexpectedly in 1850 in the middle of a cornfield, and it's been growing steadily ever since, standing now more than 2300 feet (700m) high. The entire region is super-volcanic. Cerro Negro is the 3rd in a chain of 8 volcanoes in northwestern Nicaragua. The volcano erupted in 1992, 1995 and 1999, which makes climbing it a bit more exciting.
At the bottom of the hill, we're given the sleds, which we're going to ride down the mountain, and protective suits to keep us from getting scraped up from the sharp rocks.
We follow a long, gradual route around the mountain, but still it's hard work. The rocks are mostly unsteady, so you have to constantly watch your step. And it's extremely windy, which makes it hard to hold the sled. For a while, I put the sled on my head exposing the edge of the board to the wind instead of the face. Then I try angling the board into the wind like a sail. It works great, pulling me up the hill, but the wind gusts and shifts around. After I almost get blown off a cliff I decide that sailing is a bad idea.
Two-thirds of the way up, we drop the sleds and take a break, descending into the smaller of the Cerro Negro craters. It's amazing to be in the middle of a crater of a live volcano with smoke and sulfur everywhere.
Then it's back to work, as we climb up to the summit. Along the way it's even more treacherous and windy. On the way up, we have nice views of the lava flow. It reminds me of spilt paint; the lava just crept outwards a ways then stopped.
Once at the summit, we get a view down the hill we're going to sled. The cliff face is super-steep; the world downhill mountain bike speed record was set here a few years ago. At first glance, it's pretty scary.
But then our guide explains in detail how to use the sleds, and sends us on a brief practice run. After that, I'm not scared at all. You hold on to a rope with your left hand. The right hand goes up for balance. If need be, you can try to steer or brake with your feet. Two by two we head down the hill. I hike a few feet down the slope to get pictures of the first sledders. Then I hike back up, and prepare to go myself, ending up last in line.
From the beginning, I can't seem to get the sled straight. I head a bit to the right, then I try to steer back to the left, then from there it's just getting worse. I put down my feet in an effort to stop, so I can straighten out. I grind, literally, to a halt with rocks covering the board and me. Then I start going again and cruise the last bit down the hill.
The environmentalists might hate me for this, but I really think that this place could use a chair lift. I certainly wanted a second chance down that hill without hiking back up it again.
Well a chair lift might be too expensive to build, but at least a pony tow. Would the excess of sledders damage the environment? This seems to be one of the few places on earth where we don't have to care. No matter how much damage people do to the surface of this volcano, an eruption in just a few years is going to wipe it all away.
Volcanic pony tow?
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