"There it is," the woman to my right nervously mutters. Peering over my shoulder, I catch a glimpse of the active volcano Cerro Negro, rising like a charcoal-black spike on the horizon. My breath quickens when I spot a tiny groove worn into the slope. I remind myself of this: In about an hour, I'll be hurtling down the 1,600-foot incline on a piece of plywood, carving my own trail to the bottom.
I've signed up to go volcano boarding, the newest adventure sport to gain notoriety in western Nicaragua. Since Cerro Negro's last eruption in 1999, its conical slope, covered by a deep, slippery layer of ash and stones, has beckoned daredevils worldwide. In 2001, a French mountain biker clocked speeds of 106 mph before his bike split in two. (He broke several bones.) And a few years later, an Australian sand-boarder devised a rudimentary luge-like wooden sled with a metal bottom and rope handle attached to the nose to zip down the mountainside feet first. His invention became so popular that the Bigfoot Hostel in the nearby town of Leon now runs a few trips a week, and other outfitters have followed suit.
That's how I've wound up bouncing in the back of a dusty truck, clutching onto the rail with white knuckles. Let me first say that I'm no Evel Knievel. Roller coasters make me nauseous, and I stick to the green slopes when snowboarding. I'm here because it's one of the activities in my beginner surf-and-adventure camp, led by pro surfer and part-time Nicaraguan resident Holly Beck .
"You guys are going to have so much fun!" Holly says. Enthusiasm is spilling out of her mouth. I nod, trying to forget the video clip that she played yesterday -- the one where she tumbles off her board at 46 mph, ultimately breaking her foot.
Before any of the 14 daredevils in our group has a chance to reconsider things, we pile out at the volcano's base. Five-pound boards in hand, we make the strenuous 45-minute climb to the summit. The trade-off for our sweat? A spectacular view: the surrounding mountain chain on one side, the pockmarked black crater on the other. Our guide, Mike, interrupts our photo-taking. "Take a look," he says, gesturing to the slope. As I peer down the 41-degree incline, the jittery excitement tickling my stomach turns into the cold jab of fear. I hear more than one "ohmygod" and take solace in the fact that I'm not the only one who's terrified.
We pull on our prison-style orange jumpsuits and green goggles -- to protect against flying debris -- and listen to Mike's instructions:
"Your feet act as the brakes, so you can go as slow as you want," he says. "So ... who wants to go first?"
Two brothers from Texas bravely volunteer. They fly down the top of volcano in a streak of color, and then gracefully slow to a stop as the slope flattens out; the whole ride takes a few short minutes. Our group erupts into cheers.
Soon it's my turn. My heart is racing as I slip on the scratched-up plastic goggles.
"I can't see anything," I shout, desperately.
"That's a good thing," Mike says. "Now, go!"
I grip the rope handle, lean back and let my board cruise down the first stretch, kicking up a cloud of volcanic pebbles and dust around me. After getting the hang of tapping my feet to steer and slow down, I gain confidence and pick up my legs entirely. Gravity takes over and propels me downward. As the mountainside whizzes by in a blur, I let out a scream of joy -- and get a mouthful of gravel -- before reaching the bottom.
When I jump off my board in one leap, adrenaline is soaring through me. The guy with the speed gun shows me mine: 27 mph. Respectable, but far from the record of 51 mph set by an Israeli woman a few years back. The other boarders, their faces flushed and caked with soot, chatter excitedly. "That was incredible. I want to do it again," I say, a little surprised by how loudly I'm talking. "Only this time, I want to go faster."