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Reporter's Notebook: Surfing the Volcano

Zoltan Istvan
National Geographic Today
November 5, 2002
 
Two seconds before I pushed myself down the 1,000-foot (300-meter)
pumice slope of Mount Yasur, Vanuatu's famous active volcano, I wasn't
thinking about the extreme sport I was about to launch.

I was thinking about Russian Roulette—with lava bombs the size of Rottweilers occasionally flying over my head and onto the slope below me. Volcano boarding is a gamble.

The locals can't remember a time when Mount Yasur wasn't coughing up its entrails. Even in 1774, when Commander James Cook sailed the HMS Resolution near Tanna Island, Mount Yasur was putting on a show. In his journal, Cook reported a great glow emanating from the eastern shore.

Since then Mount Yasur has gained a reputation as one of the world's best volcanoes to visit. It's reliable and easily accessible; you can drive a truck right up to the base of it.


Of course, that doesn't mean it's safe. The trail up to the rim passes by memorials for travelers who were struck by lava bombs—a daunting reminder that this volcano kills.

I first visited Mount Yasur in 1995 while cruising the South Pacific on my sloop. Any snowboarder seeing the volcano's northern slope is bound to think the same thing I did: there is a virgin slope waiting to be carved.

For years I planned a return trip to Tanna. When National Geographic Today gave me the opportunity to film my adventures in Vanuatu, I knew volcano boarding's time had come. With two bags of camera gear and a snowboard, I took off for Tanna.

Lava Bombs and Sulfur Fumes

In a country that never gets any snow, it wasn't surprising to see the locals curiously examining my snowboard. Some thought it was a field-plowing device; others, a surfboard. When I explained what it was and how I wanted to use it, I received only blank stares.

In Tanna's main town, Lenakal, I rented a motorcycle. After strapping my board to the back of the bike, I took off across the highlands. In a few hours Mount Yasur came into view, pouring black smoke and dominating the eastern side of the island's landscape.

Near the volcano the jungle gave way to a barren ash plain. As I rode to within half a mile (a kilometer) of Mount Yasur, I had to start dodging hardened rocks of lava on the ground.

After checking in at a nearby guesthouse, I started hiking up to the volcano's rim without my board. It seemed sensible to first check out the conditions.

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.

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