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Geo-Joint: Volcano Surfing

Posted on January 28 2015

Volcano surfing

Original Image: Ken Mayer

OK, maybe sledding is more accurate, but in Nicaragua there is a cinder cone named Cerro Negro where you can speed downhill sans snow. What is a cinder cone? It’s a volcano, for starters, but cinder cones, or scoria cones, start from small fissures and are usually found in association with other volcanoes, sometimes on their very flanks. They have the classic conical volcano shape with steep sides and a crater at the top. From that crater, basalt comes blasting out due to expanding gas in the molten rock. This forms a showy display called a lava fountain. As the plume shoots skyward, the little pieces cool in the air and fall as ash or small swiss-cheesy rocks called scoria, that don’t fuse together. They pile into a cone-shaped structure whose sides are at what is called the “angle of repose” – the steepest slope that the loose material can hold before sliding. Many are only a few hundred feet high, but Cerro Negro, the youngest volcano in Central America (“born” in 1850, with 20 eruptions since), rises to about 2400 feet. Its height above its local surroundings (its prominence) is about 1600 feet.

The material coming out of the vent can be sorted by wind, and as it turns out, the steepest side of Cerro Negro is mostly sand-like. This makes the sport of volcano surfing much less deadly, but no less thrilling. Considering that while standing on the summit you can’t even see the slope you will be going down, it is quite steep – up to 41 degrees! A wooden sled sheathed with a metal bottom is the vehicle of choice. At the back end on the bottom, a one-use sheet of plastic is attached, and by leaning back and pulling on the rope attached to the front of the sled, you can reduce your contact point to nothing but this slick surface, achieving speeds of 50 to 60 mph! Those who dare to go are issued a full-body suit and goggles for protection in the event of a spinout or bad bounce. Brakes are strictly Fred Flintstone-style, but reportedly fairly effective, allowing you to dial down from breakneck speed to merely going like hell. The downhill run, following a 45 minute-long hike uphill (sorry, no lift) takes from 10 minutes to half a minute depending upon your level of sanity. A French madman named Eric Barone did the run on a specially-built mountain bike and got up to around 107 mph before the bike became specially-unbuilt, he crashed, and pretty much snapped everything in his skeleton. To rub salt (and volcanic ash) into the wound(s), another guy made the run shortly thereafter, didn’t crash, and beat Barone’s record.

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