Reporter's Notebook: Surfing the Volcano

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The hike from my bungalow took more than an hour. As I neared the rim, closer to Mount Yasur's deafening explosions and heavy smell of sulfur, I became queasy and nervous.

Toward the Rim

The crater mesmerized me. It could hold all of Madison Square Garden.

Within minutes, lava bombs jettisoned hundreds of feet into the air crashed down 80 feet (25 meters) behind me, forcing me to retreat. Gradually, amid the intermittent activity, I crept back to the edge.

It's not that difficult to avoid lava bombs if you can see them, but in volcano boarding you move downhill with your back against the mountain, meaning safety is left to fate.

I don't really know what qualifies as a new extreme sport. Some people argue it involves competition; others say it depends on the number of people who engage in it. A few base jumpers I know say a new extreme sport must be unique, repeatable, and dangerous.

This fits the bill.

Before I started my climb up the northern slope, I sanded my snowboard's sharp metal rails hoping I would have an easier time cutting through the pumice, which would naturally be thicker than snow. It was the only modification I made to my equipment for volcano boarding.

After a tiring climb in the oven-like tropics I arrived at the top of Mount Yasur's highest and most northern peak. Strapping on my board, I prepared for the descent.

When a huge wall of billowing brown smoke appeared just meters behind me, I turned my back to the eruption and pushed off.

Ice vs. Pumice

It took only a few carves to realize the main difference between boarding down snow and boarding down pumice. Snow doesn't require much effort to make turns; pumice, by contrast, is thick and sticky, giving my calves and thighs a punishing workout. Just performing simple S-turns felt as though I was fighting a grueling mogul run—without the moguls.

Besides lava bombs, the other serious hazard of volcano boarding is the jagged rocks scattered on the slope. Dreading a face plant on one of those razor-sharp pieces of hardened lava, I concentrated on navigating a path far away from them.

A quarter-way down the volcano, I miscalculated a tacky ash patch, crashed, and rolled. It was a good chance to catch my breath and get the pumice out of my ears.

A moment later, a massive blast erupted from the crater. I turned to the rim, looking for lava bombs. None came, but I started toward the base immediately.

One of the downfalls of this sport is you don't want to hang around on the mountain enjoying the view.

Four minutes later I slid to within a few feet of my motorcycle. It was a wonderful feeling turning my eyes upward and seeing what I'd imagined for seven years: a huge groove zigzagging down Mount Yasur. I loaded my motorcycle and headed back to my bungalow.

When I was out of Mount Yasur's range of lava outbursts, I stopped and took a long look at the coughing mountain, thinking about the future of volcano boarding. I don't know if it will ever become popular, or even if it is really even a new extreme sport. But with hundreds of active volcanoes around the world and 10 million snowboarders in the United States alone—most of whom have to wait out the summer—I'm willing to bet that zigzagging tracks are going to start appearing on active volcanoes everywhere.

National Geographic Today, 7 p.m. ET/PT in the United States, is a daily news journal available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to learn more about it.

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