For centuries people of different cultures have believed that below are very feet dwells a domain created for the torment and agony of damned souls. It was also thought that there were actual gateways from the surface that lead down to these realms of fiery. Mount Etna in Sicily, Mount Hekla in Iceland, and Mt. Masaya in Nicaragua are all active fire-breathing volcanos which have been documented in history as being entrances to hell. Last summer while I was in Nicaragua I happened to find my gateway to the underworld and its name was Telica.
Pretty much my entire life I have always wanted to see lava up close. Living in Oahu, Hawaii in my early twenties I dropped the ball and never made it to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. But during my stay in Leon, Nicaragua I found a tour company that not only allowed you to see lava but see it from the edgy of the crater at night.
After a quick ride out-of-town, a cruise along a gravel highway and a drive down a forest road that looked and felt more like a river bed we made it to the trail head. The weather was looking so so with some rain clouds in the distance but clear over the volcano. It wasn’t a very long hike and after couple hours we reached what I would call the no mans land, which was a barren landscape with nothing but rocks and volcanic debris. At this point I started to smell the pungent stench of sulfur coming from the crater up ahead of me.
As I reached the edge the first thing that hit me was the loud sound blasting from the depths of this cinder cone volcano. Being an Aircraft Mechanic the only way I could describe it was that it sounded like I was standing next to a Boeing 747 with one of its jet engines running at Idle. Made me a little home sick 😉 With daylight beaming down on us and smoke billowing out of the crater you could not see the lava at this point so we sat down for a tasty snack of coffee and cookies to wait for darkness to fall.
After watching a beautiful sunset over the other volcanos of the range we crawled up to the edge of the Crater and peered down into the abyss. The site was one of awe and amazement and the cropped photos taken from my non zoom lens couldn’t come close to showing how my eyes perceived this awesome spectacle of nature. Looking down into the pit I could see the bright red lava in patches in the shape of a large circle. The lava would go from red to black as it bubble up, burned and cooled. It was like a living organism ever-changing. With the red glow shining from the crater, the lava churning deep below, the blasting noise surrounding us, and the strong smell of sulfur it totally made for exhilarating experience!!
In a time when legend and lore explained the mysteries of nature not science it is very easy to see why people living in the distant past could mistake volcanos as being a gateway to hell.
- (Pic from wikimedia commons)
When trying to explain my experience of volcano boarding to my friends back in the midwest I usually tell them to think of those cold winter months when you pulled your sled out of the garage or basement dusted it off and headed for the local sled hill. Usually you had to climb to top yourself pulling the sled behind you. When you reached the top you turned the sled around aimed it the straightest you could down the hill, sat down, grabbed the rope and if you had a good buddy with you he would give you hard push that sent you sailing down hill in white furry of snow for a short ride.
Volcano boarding- Replace the cold winter month with a hot sun blazing day and instead of a 1 pound plastic sled you have a 10-15 pound plywood laminated board. In Nicaragua your local hill is named Cerro Negro which happens to be 2,380 feet high and is not covered in fluffy white snow but sharp marble size gravel called volcanic scree. When you get to the top you do sit on the board about the same way aiming it down hill holding on to the rope. You might even get a push from your friendly tour guide but when you go sailing down this hill you’re in a black furry of dust reaching speeds excess of 50 mph. Oh and did I mention that the hill is the most active cinder cone volcano in the world that last erupted in 1999…..eeek!
Cerro Negro 1968 eruption (wikimedia commons)
Ok enough with the dramatics, the first time I heard about volcano boarding was from a website while I was in El Salvador. For some reason I was not really interested until I found out there is a tour group called Tierre Tours that would let you stand up and use boards that are very similar to the shape of a snowboard. Me being a somewhat avid snowboarder the idea of riding a make shift snowboard down an active volcano really excited the crap out me. So when my partner in crime and me got into to Leon, Nicaragua we met up with our friends Alex and Ashleigh and booked our trip for the next morning.
After some highway travel and 4 wheeling down a road that resembled a river bed in a sweet old school Toyota diesel landcruiser (I want one!) we made it to the base of Cerro Negra. The 50 min hike up was somewhat strenuous with backpack and board but I didn’t really mind because the views were spectacular. After getting to the top we dropped our gear and made a short trek to the crater of the beast to take a look. Once back to our steep volcano death slide we immediately began suiting up in our brightly colored jump suits as Miegel our guide busted out a good old military style safety brief.
Dawn choose to do the sit down sled board and went first being the brave women she is. In a matter of seconds she was out of sight in cloud of black dust. Ashliegh went second on a snowboard style and then there was two… Alex and me. Once Miegel strapped me in I wasted no time at the top and down the volcano I went. The first 50 yards was about a 20 degree slope after that it dropped off at a stomach wrenching 41 degree angle for 2000 feet. At first my body naturally tried to manuever like I was snowboarding which ended in me crashing and cart wheeling multiple times down the first 40 yards. Finally I realized if i crouched in surfer stance put most of my weight on the back of the board and pointed it at an angle down the volcano (no carving) I could get some wicked speed and not smash my face in to the scree every 10 seconds. Thank goodness you could still brake like a snowboard so I could control my speed on the way down. As I got a hundred yards from the bottom I let loose and bombed it the rest of the way down. Amazingly enough I stopped standing up with only fee scratches and bruises. Few minutes later Alex made it to the bottom with a big smile on his face cover in black soot looking like he had been a chimney sweep for a day. With some luck we all had made it down in one piece!
The day turned out to be another amazing adventure that we got to share with our friends Alex and Ashleigh which made it even more enjoyable. In the end I’m glad I did the stand up for the experience but if I would do it again I would pick the sit down. The snowboard style is more changeling but you can get way more speed with the sled style which in my crazy mind equals more fun!!
Here’s good vid I found of volcano boarding on Cerro Negro (Air Wolf theme music!)