"How bad is lava for your health, really? Like..." Kiwi pro skier Sam Smoothy broke into a grin and started laughing, then added, "This surfing holiday has really spiraled out of control."
In all fairness to Smoothy - and the French pro snowboarding brothers Victor and Xavier de le Rue who joined him in the South Pacific - what true daredevil could say no to surfing down an active volcano? The three athletes gathered on Tanna Island, Vanuatu, within view of erupting Mount Yasur. Not just a little active, either. It was "ground shaking, rains ash on your face" active.
"That was like 200 feet high!" Smoothy exclaimed in a video posted by The North Face about the adventure. He watched the volcano erupting at night. "There's lava right where we want to go skiing. You can see it, like, glowing." The trip was his idea, inspired by watching footage of a fellow Kiwi skiing on ash, he told The North Face in a Q&A.
Despite the obvious danger, the three guys headed to the base of the volcano during the day with their gear. The brothers each had a snowboard and Smoothy brought his skis. All three wore protective eyewear. Xavier donned a respirator, and the other two men relied on bandanas.
After they trekked up the ashy ridge to the exploding crater at the top, Victor briefly used his snowboard as a shield against flying rocks. Lightning flashed in the volcanic clouds. Just as they're conferring about when to push off and ride back down the ash, away from the furious white cloud, they hear an explosive sound. The volcano clearly wanted them to go.
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And boy do they book it. The run from the top of the 1,184-foot volcano to the base is actually super steep. This isn't the powder they're used to carving up, either. It's practically rubble.
"My skis were totally ruined, ground down to the core," Smoothy said in the Q&A. "The drones got pretty beat up trying to fly through ash clouds, but the worst was the cameras. The lenses got scratched, all the focus rings were barely turning, just stuck hard with grit and ash."
The mental aspect was also challenging, what with the wind whipping, the rock raining down, and the ground moving all at the same time. Smoothy tried to channel Hunter S. Thompson by wearing a camo buff and Hawaiian shirt. He called the results inconclusive, though. I'd call riding down an active volcano more bonkers than gonzo.