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A volcanic urge…to suffer injury

A high-altitude branch of Starbucks is opening soon near the summit of Mount Everest. Well, I may not have got that quite right, but the idea isn’t outlandish because with so much traffic going up and down the peak, it’s only a matter of time before somebody builds a bijou coffee shop on the Hillary Step. There, trekkers, bored with queuing for summit selfies, can sip a warming yakachino – made from the fermented milk of Himalayan bovids − and check their emails.

With around 640 people in 2016 alone having trudged up the corpse-and-litter-strewn slopes of the sacred mountain, it’s clear that a contemporary ascent of Everest does not so much represent a triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity as invite the inference that boredom sweeps many people up there. You needn’t be gripped by the spirit of adventure; just pay a holiday company some cash and they’ll have you up there come hell or high (and frozen) water.

But now it seems that climbing Mount Everest could soon be passé. After all, why climb a mountain when you can go volcano-boarding? This activity involves hiking to the top of a volcano and whizzing down it again astride a piece of wood. For example, according to the website “Volcano boarding is an absolute must-do when travelling in Nicaragua!” Prospective volcano-boarders are encouraged – for a price – to trek to the top of the 728m high Cerro Negro where they’ll step aboard a board. Assuming they’re facing away from the mouth of the volcano, participants will then descend. But at what speed? “Well it really depends,” the website gushes, “on how fast you want to go!”

Perhaps it’s me, but the deployment of exclamation marks by adventure companies emphasising that Fun Will Be Had makes me lose interest, especially because some human experiences are best measured by depth, not width. In any case, volcano-boarding is tame stuff compared to my adventures decades ago when I belonged to a gang of daredevil 10-year-olds who hurtled down our steep North Belfast street, each of us perched – legs straight out in front − on a Beano annual balanced on a roller skate. The challenge was to abort our ground-level, high-speed descents before reaching the main road. Experiment proved that this was best achieved by falling off sideways, at the expense of cut knees, skinned knuckles and sore heads.

But at least we didn’t get histoplasmosis. That was the presumptive diagnosis for a Dutch couple who had been … guess what? The clue is in the title of a recent article in the journal Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease. In Fever and arthralgia after ‘volcano boarding’ in Nicaragua, Araiaans et al describe how the couple presented to a hospital in the Netherlands a fortnight after returning from a three-week round trip to Nicaragua, where “… the couple reported to have had massive soil exposure during volcano boarding from the Cerro Negro Volcano near Leon … Speeds up to 90 kph can be reached and our patients reported to have inhaled considerable amounts of volcanic dust.”

Displaying exemplary restraint, the authors forbore from adding an exclamation mark, and not only explained that the results of lab tests suggested exposure to the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, but that histoplasmosis is widely endemic in Central America, with exposure to contaminated soil a well-known risk factor for infection; something perhaps worth bearing in mind when returning Irish volcano-boarders turn up at your clinic with fever and arthralgia.

Of course, exposure to molten lava from erupting volcanoes is a more direct threat to health, and prospective volcano-boarders or other visitors to geologically volatile regions should pause and take sensible precautions … such as enrolling for a night class in Danish instead.

But lava lovers, whose passion for pyroclastic phenomena draws them inexorably to hot inclines, should learn when to stand back. For example, when Baxter et al considered Human survival in volcanic eruptions: Thermal injuries in pyroclastic surges, their causes, prognosis and emergency management, recently published in Burns, they highlighted what happened to a group of onlookers watching the eruption of Japan’s Unzen volcano in 1991: they “moved in closer to get a better view only to be killed and injured when a surge suddenly detached from a large, channelled pyroclastic density current and overwhelmed them in the new location where they had believed they would be safe”.

But if a pyroclastic surge doesn’t get you, volcanic dust might. For example, Hlodversdottir et al, writing in BMJ Open (2016, 6: e011444) considered the long-term health effects of the Eyjafallt − no, the Eyjafjalljo − no … ack, it was the volcano in Iceland that erupted in spring 2010 causing airline mayhem, and the authors found that three years later, residents from the surrounding area experienced symptoms such as skin rash/eczema; back pain; and a greater use of medication for asthma and other respiratory conditions, compared to before the eruption.

So that’s that decided: this summer I’m bringing my Beano annual and roller skate up to the Mount Everest branch of Starbucks; whizz down to base camp; and all being well I should be back home in time for my night class in Danish.

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