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Nicaragua: Volcano boarding

Good grief, that’s steep. About 41 degrees, Roger helpfully informs me before pulling a jumpsuit out of his bag. I’m going down Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro the speedy way, on the board I’ve spent the past 45 minutes or so lugging to the top.

Nicaragua: Volcano boarding

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To all intents and purposes, the board is a rudimentary sledge. But the slopes of Cerro Negro are not covered in snow. It’s an active volcano, as was ably demonstrated by the hissing vents inside the crater passed on the way up.

The volcano was born during an eruption in 1850 when the magma couldn’t find a way out elsewhere. Through a subsequent 23 eruptions – the last of which was in 1999 – Cerro Negro has become bigger and changed shape. In 1971, lava rose to the top and broke the northeastern section of the rim. Since then, lava has always tumbled out that way, following the path of least resistance. The other side of Cerro Negro’s odd horseshoe shape, however, has been fashioned by the prevailing winds.

When Cerro Negro erupts, they blow sand and ash towards the city of León, choking the air and poisoning the water supply. But the winds also ensure larger rocks stay to one side and a significant chunk of the León-facing slope is made up of relatively fine ash.

In 2004, an Australian tour guide called Darryn Webb decided that said slope would be perfect for surfing down, and a deeply unofficial sport began. Specially designed boards were made for those wishing to tackle it standing up, vaguely as a snowboarder would. Sit-down affairs were designed for those without the boarding experience but willingness to have a go.

The activity was given grudging government recognition in 2007, and now dozens of adventurers trek up Cerro Negro every day with the express intention of throwing themselves down in one of the most dangerous ways imaginable.

Roger pulls more items out of his bag of tricks. Goggles, elbow pads, big red gloves that look suspiciously like they’re designed for pulling things out of an industrial kiln. It’s almost as if falling off will really, really hurt.

You don’t need to be much of a technician to operate the thing. Hold the rope attached to one end of the board taut as you sit at the other, use your feet digging into the slope to steer or slow down.

At first attempt, I’m overthinking it, oversteering in both directions and eventually so frightened about the gathering speed that I engineer a flapping, squawking wipe-out. Aside from getting an awful lot of ash inside of every orifice and item of clothing, it’s only pride that’s injured. But next time I know better — go gunbarrel straight, mildly dig heels in either side and pray.

You can build up terrifying speeds going down a 2,250ft slope, and it feels increasingly less smooth as you do so. Pebbly stones fire at my face like some grim combination of hailstorm and hurricane. It’s the world’s most brutal exfoliation treatment, and the reason for the goggles becomes abundantly clear. Screaming is counterproductive — it just invites a mouthful of volcano debris. There’s nothing to do but grit your teeth (and, believe me, there’s enough grit flying in there to make this very literal), hold on and hope you’re not going to die.

Roger meets me at the bottom, a look of concern on his face. I’m shell-shocked, my face ash-blackened. “That’s the fastest I’ve ever seen someone go down first time,” he says. “You must have been doing 45mph. Why didn’t you brake?”

Fear can make you do strange things. Remembering what you were told about how to brake is, seemingly, not one of them.

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