The Road of Death

The road, if you can call it that, from La Paz to Coroico has earned the epithet of “The World’s Most Dangerous Road” due to its morbid reputation for being the route on which the most deaths occur annually. It’s estimated that 200-300 people die or are seriously injured each year as a result of taking a tumble over the sheer drops, which are the main feature of the road’s 64km length.

Naturally, such a road attracts the attention of maniacs intent on mountain biking at speed along the narrow, crumbling, rock-strewn track and round the many hairpin bends into the path of the trucks and buses making their way up the mountain in the opposite direction. Idiots. Who would be stupid enough to do such a thing….?

Yes. That would be me.

I booked my trip with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, the company that first started taking bikes down the road and reputedly the best and safest company to do the ride with. I wasn’t going to take any chances on dodgy bikes, a lack of rescue equipment and inexperienced guides for the sake of saving a few quid.

The day began early with 8 of us taking a 7:30am bus ride up to the 4600m above sea level starting point. As we climbed into the mountains it started to snow and the temperature dropped below freezing. One of our guides encouragingly pointed out that this was the coldest and wettest conditions he’d had all year. Things did not bode well.

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After sorting out our equipment and getting a ride briefing our guide instructed us to each make an offering to Pachamama, the Bolivian earth goddess, for safe passage down the road. This involved pouring some of the strongest grain alcohol I’ve ever tasted onto our wheels before taking a sip for ourselves. Newly invigorated and slightly warmed, we set off on a stretch of road that precedes the Death Road, meant to build confidence in the rider as it’s all smooth asphalt, quite wide and the drop to the side would probably only injure rather than kill. Unfortunately, the ice on my goggles and the horrendous hail lashing at my face as I rode the first stage meant that I could barely see a foot in front of me and as I slowly began to lose the feeling in my fingers, braking became painful.

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Despite not being able to see, I managed to stay on the right side of the road and miss the oncoming traffic and after the 10 minute stage was completed I dismounted and almost threw up. I think that was due to the rapid change in altitude but possibly my body was trying to give me a reason not to continue. I did wonder what I was doing and whether it was all going to be like this, if it was, it was going to be a hellish day.

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Fortunately, things improved. After another 20 minutes of riding with my shoes filled with water and frostbite nearly setting into my fingers, we got back on the bus to warm up and drove the short distance to the beginning of the World’s Most Dangerous Road proper.

We had descended to 3700m and the snow had given way to a light rain that stopped completely by the time we started off again. We were in the clouds and visibility over the edge was zero, which was probably a good thing. The sheer vertical drop over the cliff at the start is 600m, and that’s just until you hit something. The fall continues at a steep angle for nearly 3000m into the valley below. The road itself is an average of 3m wide and is just loose gravel, rocks (nicknamed “babies’ heads” due to their size) and mud. There are few barriers along the edge and as the upcoming traffic pins itself to the cliff wall on the right, downward traffic must ride on the left, alongside the drop. It is terrifying but that’s what makes it a thrill, if you like that kind of thing. Conditions rapidly improved as we travelled down the road and we were able to see just what was in store for us if we went over the edge…

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According to our guide, the most accidents happen to people going too slowly, hitting a babies head and losing control of the bike. Riding with a bit of speed, with a relaxed posture, allows the wheels to pass quickly over the rocks and remain under control. One girl on the trip sadly panicked at the first bend when she hit some rough ground, jammed on her brakes (which are insanely strong on the bikes we were riding), flipped over the handlebars and landed right on the edge, very nearly going over. Her confidence in tatters she spent the rest of the trip on the bus following us down.

Our guide stopped us occasionally to brief us on the upcoming sections of road, some with nicknames such as “Collarbone Corridor”, so called because of the number of riders who take the slightly broader bends too fast, lose control and slam their shoulder into the road as their wheels slip from under them. “Death Dive”, a particularly nasty bend that has claimed several lives in the past, 2 this year alone and “Postcard Corner”, the bend that features in most pictures of the road as it best shows the sheer drop and narrowness of the track. Here we are going round it:

Our group was a good bunch of riders, nobody feeling the need to prove themselves and go hurtling into the corners too fast. As we descended the road we all grew in confidence and rode quickly but with control, taking the corners at speed but keeping the confidence in check to stop it from turning into recklessness. The precipitous fall was always there and a lapse in concentration could be fatal, as the numerous roadside shrines and crucifixes constantly reminded us. One particularly large cross was placed on a bend where a bus carrying 100 people tipped over the edge. Nobody survived the fall.

It’s all pretty grim and everyone doing the trip had a morbid fascination with the stories of accidents and the road’s death-toll but in truth, the combination of speed and danger gets the adrenalin pumping and it all combines to make the ride a thrilling and worthwhile experience. Everybody was grinning from ear to ear by the time we reached the bottom, where we were treated to a cold beer, a hot shower and a tasty lunch.

The smiles soon disappeared though when we realised the return journey involved going back UP the road in the bus. I’m not sure which was scarier, the ride down or the journey up, it was extremely hairy at times but fortunately, despite a few close calls, we arrived back to La Paz in one piece, exhausted and extremely glad to be alive.

More pics here.

15 Comments so far

  1. Mum and Dad C on October 4th, 2009

    Glad you made it in one piece. Well done. I should think the strong spirit is good for its antifreeze properties. Probably works better on the bike than your fingers. Good choice to go for up-to-date bikes with disc brakes. Always easier to back off good brakes than try to get more braking from poor brakes. I had to re-adjust my brakes after descending L’Alpe D’Huez and that was only 20km downhill. I guess you didn’t have any hairpins though. I don’t like the sound of the “babies heads” or the bus.  Well done again.

    Love Ric

  2. Stine on October 5th, 2009

    OMG, I was on the edge of my seat all the way through that! Well done both of you, absolutely top notch stamina and bravery! What an adventure.
    Miss you xxx

  3. Gude on October 5th, 2009

    Dad – Ise thought you would have insisted on cycling UP it!  😉
    xx

  4. Gude on October 5th, 2009

    Ha!  You don’t hink I was crackers enough to do that do you?!  NO WAY JOSE.
    Miss you too lovely x

  5. Mathew Fisher on October 6th, 2009

    This looks so awesome, definitely something to add to the list.  You guys look like you are having such a great time.  How will you both cope with reality?

  6. Anna Rona (newly married little sister of Nick & Cris) on October 6th, 2009

    Three words:

    oh…… my……. GOD!

  7. Bex on October 6th, 2009

    Jeez Gude I bet you were a bag of nerves waiting for Ise to return!! Well done Ise it was as bad as you described on MSN I was nervous just watching those videos am mega impressed you done it xx

  8. David on October 6th, 2009

    As I was reading the blog I was thinking “surely not Gude, surely not”. What a bloody mad thing to do Ise but what a fantastic story. You are officially my action man hero! I thought I was getting brave cycling on the roads of London but that rains all over my parade. Totally amazing. Phew…. I need a cup of tea now 🙂

  9. Isaac on October 7th, 2009

    we’re not thinking about reality yet, we’ve got Christmas in New Zealand before that, glad you’re coming too, it’s going to be loads of fun.

    xx

  10. Isaac on October 7th, 2009

    That’s pretty much all I was saying to myself the whole way down!

    Congratulations on your wedding, I’ve seen the photos on Facebook and you looked absolutely stunning.

    xx

  11. Isaac on October 7th, 2009

    IT was a hell of a ride, I’m glad I did it too.  Something to cross of the list.

    xx

  12. Isaac on October 7th, 2009

    Gude would have absolutely hated it.  It was an early start, freezing cold, strenuous physical activity and there was the threat of death.  Not exactly Gude’s favourite things!

  13. Mick on October 9th, 2009

    Is that man mad or what? (I have seen the boat pictures so I know!) Glad to see that health and safety was being observed with the orange jacket (so people could see you on the way down if you did fall off). Did the video make YouTube?
    Mick

  14. Kit on October 11th, 2009

    This definitely tops my bungie jump and skydive – looks absolutely terrifying! Crazy man! 

  15. mum H-G on October 16th, 2009

    i’ve just read your blog and seen your pictures – thank goodness I didn’t know anything about it before I went on holiday – I would never have had a moments rest! Yes, I know I should say well done and congratulations for achieving this but at the moment I’m shaking too much, you’ll have to wait!  Mx
    Well done Isaac – awesome! x D.