Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Death Road

Day 15: September 5, 2007
Camino de la Muerte, Bolivia

Last night I was up relatively late watching the news and whatnot and due to the time change (Bolivia is an hour ahead of Peru) it was very difficult to get up at 6AM Bolivian time to get ready for the ride. Feeling a little sick still, lingering food poisoning, sleep deprivation, or altitude sickness? Dunno. Took my last 2 imodium and hoped for the best.

Showered, put on a pair of jeans, T-shirt, sweatshirt, jacket, sneakers, etc. Got a call from the front desk at 7AM sharp that the van driver was waiting for me downstairs. Hurried down. We picked up four other backpackers who were going on the trek and then went to a restaraunt for breakfast. Altogether there was the guide, Angel, the van driver, Oscar, two swiss girls, a frenchman, and australian, and me. Breakfast was just toast and jam really with some tea and juice. I really hoped the water for the juice was filtered. Another incident of Montezuma's revenge would be quite unpleasant while trying to mountain bike.

We drove for maybe 40 minutes out of La Paz (starting at about 11,000 feet elevation where the hotel was) and up the mountain to an altitude of just under 16,000 feet. Quite a pretty drive. Riding out of the city there are sweeping views of the entire canyon which cradles La Paz and we also saw the dam, river, and some grazing alpaca herds on the way out of town. The mountains were awesome but there was also a lot of fog/cloud obstructing the view.

It got much colder as we ascended. When we reached the top where we were to start the ride, there was a lot of snow around and the puddles outside the van had a reasonably thick coating of ice over them. There was also a large, shimmering lake there, which was not frozen and even had a few water fowl hanging out on the surface. They looked a little like seagulls.

We got out of the van near La Cumbre and the driver unloaded our bikes from the roof. They were pretty serious looking bikes (American Trek 4300s); a good thing too, considering what we were about to do with them. We put on our gear (red wind breaker jackets, black pants, biking gloves, and helmets) and tested out the bikes a bit. My helmet didn´t fit very well so I wore my sweatshirt hood up underneath it to provide some padding. This may have saved my life later, or at least a good bit of skin.

The jackets, gloves, etc that we were given were not warm at all, they were just supposed to protect our clothes underneath from splash damage and we were shivering pretty well by the time we´d been waiting 5-10 minutes in the altaplana environment. The guide took pictures of us all (at the time I wondered if this was for identification purposes if one of us failed to make it) and we set off.

The first part of the trek was a fairly standard, paved, mountain road. It was steep, curvy, and had quite a lot of traffic, but in spite of the sheer drops it wasn´t really dangerous. The asphalt lasted for about an hour. The cold was absolutely biting and the wind cut through all three layers I was wearing. My hands were so cold and numb I could barely operate the breaks. Fortunately I didn´t have to shift gears much, or even peddle for the first 45 minutes for that matter. The road was so steeply graded that we were able to coast at about 80km/hr with little effort in spite of the drag from the gigantic offroad tires our bikes were equipped with.

The other cars on the road put out a lot of exhaust, particuarly the ones chugging up the hill, and it felt a bit painful to breathe the air sometimes. The altitude also took its toll on our lungs. Going up the few hills we had to climb was very tough and I got winded much faster than I normally would. There was about four miles of uphill climbing I'd guess. I still kept to the front of our line though, right behind the guide. The swiss girls tended to be a couple minutes behind and the frenchman and aussie were somewhere in between.

The fog was sometimes so bad we could only see about 50 feet ahead but at other times we were treated to gorgeous sweeping views of the mountains and canyons below. The high speeds were a thrill and I had to contain several cheers on the way down; didn´t want the others to think I was crazy. We took a snack break before starting the real Camino de la Muerte or ¨Death Road¨. As an aside, the road got its name for being the #1 most dangerous road in the world with an average of over 200 fatalaties per year. Over two vehicles per month go off the cliffs on average, resulting in fatalities of sometimes dozens of people at a time. Many of the vehicles that go over the edge are small busses.

I was feeling even more nauseous after breathing so many car fumes on the way down. Almost at the point of vomiting. I forced down some water and a banana anyway, figuring I would need the fluids and energy for the next segment. It was still brutally cold, though the air slowly warmed and became more humid as we descended. There was even a bit of rain from time to time. While we made periodic stops for water and I would usually remove my gloves and helmet at these points, I continued to keep my sweatshirt hood up while riding.

The Death Road itself was really something. It was built over 100 years ago by prisoners of war from Paraguay and one gets the impression they had it in for their Bolivian masters. The road was unpaved, a mix of large rocks, potholes, loose gravel, and mud where falling water from above turned everything into a slippery mess. There was also lingering evidence of periodic rock slides. It was pretty steep for the most part and full of hairpin turns bordered by sheer drops of well over 1000 feet. In many places the road was only 2-3 meters wide.

We started out descending carefully. We were already sore from the hard bike seats on the way down the paved road and we tended to hover over our saddles as even our giant rock shocks failed to adequately absorb the vibrations from the rubble-strewn road. Better to take it in the quads than our more private areas. Our arms and hands quickly became fatigued from the strain of constantly clutching the brakes and absorbing the shock coming through the handle bars. In spite of its difficulty for riders, the road is incredibly beautiful, quickly transitioning from icy mountain to stunning rainforest.

After a few miles, the temptation of the large rocks in the road and our hovering riding style became too much for the Australian and I to resist and we began bunny hopping off some of the larger rocks. In retrospect, this was not a bright idea. We were descending at a pretty good clip, probably about 20km/hour on average, which was about as fast as we could go without losing control given the road conditions.

I actually did lose it at one point when the rocks in the road formed something of a rut that my tire got stuck in. I half came off the bike and bruised my leg against the bike a bit but managed to recover before totally crashing. The next time I wasn´t so lucky.

I was behind the Australian at this point and he got a good deal of air off a rock as he bunny hopped down the trail. Going over the same rock I caught the air as well, but as I came down I hit some gravel and my back break was a little too soft. I lost it and my bike began swerving uncontrollably and it was all I could do to keep upright. My last thought before going off the cliff was "Oh man, this is going to hurt a lot!"

Oddly my life didn't flash before my eyes and the fact that in a moment I might be flying thousands of feet down to my death didn´t occur to me. There was no time to really think about it. It was less than 50 feet from the rock I jumped to where I went off the cliff and due to the speed I was traveling at, it took less than 2 seconds before I went over. As my bike hit the edge and went horizontal I just shut my eyes and braced myself for whatever sort of impact was coming my way.

As it turned out, I got extremely lucky. You probably guessed this by now from the fact that you're reading my account of the tale on a blog and not the obituaries. I landed about 15 feet down in a mass of thorny vegetation. I got tangled in the sharp, thorny vines and my bike, which was pinning down my right leg to the cliff face.

My first thought was how much it sucked that I had just gone off the edge and that this was pretty serious. My second realization was the sharp pain coming from my right knee. Then came a third thought: the danger I was still in as I started to slide down the cliff face. I grabbed on to the vegetation and tried to shake out the cobwebs a bit. The Frenchman who was riding pretty close behind me shouted "STOP!" to the others at the top of his lungs and lept off his bike to see what fate had befallen me. The guide and Australian were already too far ahead to hear him I think.

I told the Frenchman I thought I was ok, even though based on the pain I wasn´t really sure yet. My helmet absorbed a lot of the shock, though I´m convinced that without the sweatshirt hood it would have been next to useless. The hood also prevented my face from being scratched up by the sharp brambles. Fortunately the many layers I was wearing absorbed a lot of the blow from my landing. Bruising from the impact was pretty minimal except for my right leg. Unfortunately the thorns did their job on a lot of the rest of me, along with some sort of biting insects whose nest I must have disturbed in my crash. The thorns pierced through my riding pants, practically shredding them, tore at least one hole through my jeans underneath as well, ripped 3 large slashes in my gloves, and went through my jacket and flesh in many places as well. I also got a pretty good road rash from my right hip up my abdomen and my right knee was bruised and cut from being pinned between my bike and the cliff.

Incredibly after looking myself over, there didn´t seem to be any permanent damage and all my limbs still worked. When the world stopped spinning I passed up my bike to the frenchman who was still gawking down at me from the road in disbelief, and I managed to climb back up the cliff.

Our van, which was bringing up the rear, caught up along with a van from another tour group and both drivers seemed rather amazed to see me alive and climbing up the cliff side. The other tour´s van driver actually even took my picture when I got back to the top. My brakes left an impressive skid mark from the rock I hopped to the cliff edge. You could see where my wheels kept leaving the ground because their were breaks in the skid mark and you could see how I was swerving too.

After assuring everybody I was ok, I got back on the bike, which seemed little worse for wear, and continued down the road. A few minutes later I caught up to the rest of the group (the guide and Australian had been taking a break about 5 minutes down the trail and the Swiss girls were with them already after having passed me by). The guide checked my bike and tuned it up a bit and then off we went.

I did learn my lesson and stopped bunny hopping for the remainder of the trip. The Australian continued however. I had a little less control than normal due to my minor injuries so I figured it was best to take it down a notch, go a bit slower, and not do anything fancy to avoid a less fortunate repeat performance.

We made it down to the bottom of the mountain without any more serious problems, just one section where we had to go through a shallow river that was very rocky and a few of us lost control. No real danger of falling off the cliff there though, just getting wet and scraped. When we reached the bottom, 69 kilometers and over 10,000 feet in elevation later, we piled our gear back in or on the van and drove up to Coroico for a buffet lunch, a swim in the pool, showers, and some time just to rest. Apparently we were a very fast group, having made it down in 3-4 hours. 5-6 was more normal according to our guide.

The buffet lunch was wasted on me, I still wasn´t hungry. Mostly just sat in a chair on the patio overlooking the mountains and jungle to rest. The right side of my chest was pretty sore from a combination of the fall and the shock of the road traveling up my arm through the breaks.

I called Megan on the way out of town from a pay phone to say I´d driven off a cliff but was ok. I figured pretty much anyone else I could call (I don't have many phone numbers memorized) would freak out, so she seemed the logical choice. I then promised her not to do anything else stupid, said I´d had enough, and that I would stick to shopping for the remainder of my trip.

Then we proceeded to do something stupid again. Instead of taking the newly built safe road back to La Paz, we drove back up the death road again. This time we did it in the van and we got an even better perspective on how nuts it was to use this gravelly mess as a road for cars. Our right wheels were nearly off the edge of the road several times on the way up and looking out the windows we could examine the precipitous drops much better than we were able to while concentrating on our biking on the way down.

We stopped for pictures in a few spots, including where I went over the edge. When we got back to La Paz the guide gave us CDs with the pictures from our trip that he had taken along the way and T-shirts.

Exhausted, I went to a place called Ja Ja Ja Chicken for dinner. Kinda like a sketchy version of KFC. There are tons of these chicken broaster restaraunts all over La Paz. Apparently they´re the typical cuisine. I meant to call Megan back after dinner but was too tired. No hot water in my shower so I quickly gave up on that too. Simply collapsed into bed and passed out.

I examined my wounds the next morning. Found lots of itchy thorn punctures. Kind of like mosquito bites but with blood. Guess I am allergic to whatever the thorn bush was or it had some sort of toxin or something. Still feeling kind of lucky I landed on the thorns though rather than the alternative. Feels like I have rocks in my lungs too. Not sure if it was the panting at high altitude yesterday or just soreness from the handle bars. Lots of bruises and scrapes on my right side. Good times.

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