“OK Guys. To break the ice, everyone do a quick intro – your name, where you’re from and one fun fact about yourself.”
We could barely make out what our Bolivian guide was saying because the van we were in, which was loaded with a dozen bikes on its roof rack was throwing the passengers inside around like a tumble drier. We had managed to navigate through the streets of La Paz to find ourselves at the base of the mountain. The climb was steep and there were potholes that could swallow a truck in one gulp. However, our friendly and somewhat manic guide tried to calm our fears by striking up the conversation noticing everyone’s apprehension at the task ahead. ‘La Ruta de La Muerte’ aka Death Road aka The World’s Most Dangerous Road.
As he pointed around the group it was suddenly my turn to speak and I turned to the group as best I could in the little cramped van.
“I’m Aidan from Ireland. I’ve been travelling for around six months now.” I said. “Fun fact? Last week I had the craziest experience of my life in a Peruvian jungle where me and a buddy took some hallucinogenic medicine with a local shaman.”
A young Australian, a surfer type with blonde hair who was seated at the back suddenly looked interested. He pulled back his legs that were stretched out over a chair across the aisle and shouted up at me.
“Yes” I said, giving him a wide smile.
“Sweet. I hear that shit’s wild!” He faced toward his friend and they started jabbering away to each other. Wild, yes. Definitely not sweet though I thought.
When we had done the game of ‘Who’s who?’ Eddie, our guide decided to give us a brief history of the road. Or to be more accurate, the deaths that had occurred on the road. He told us how he had specifically lost people on the biking trip, people like us – tourists. He also said that typically every year, 20-30 vehicles fall over the edge. This could be due to ambitious drivers overshooting bottle neck paths and suddenly faced with oncoming vehicles. Or in some cases drunk drivers, not helped by the altitude of 12,000 feet, misplacing confidence and careering over the edge. You tend to get a lot drunker, quicker at such heights.
During the drive, Eddie continued to regale us with story after story with such relish and excitement he could have been Santa Claus reading to a group of excited children the night before Christmas. He certainly made us very nervous, but that was probably the point.
“But there is one rule we have on this road.” he said becoming serious for the first time. “Don’t. Be. A. Bloody. Idiot.”
That brought welcome laughter from the group. We were a young bunch in our twenties and thirties. If I was going to bet on anyone at that moment to be the idiots, it surely had to be the two young Aussies who had been laughing all the way through Eddie’s account of the deaths.
When we arrived at the top of the mountain, we got accustomed to our bikes, taking them out for spins around the flat muddy plain. The weather was a bit nippy being so high above sea level, but we were assured that for the descent we would pass through pockets of clouds and come out the other end where the sun would heat us. I took the time to thoroughly test my cycle, relearning a skill that hadn’t been used in almost twenty years. The bikes were in great shape to be fair and we were all given appropriate jackets, safety gear and helmets.
When the practice was complete, everyone huddled together in a horseshoe around Eddie. He gave us a team talk – where to cycle (keep to the right), how to overtake (holler PASSING), scheduled stops (every couple minutes on average and at guides discretion) and general rules. Before we set off, he whipped out a small clear plastic bottle from his back pocket.
“It is our custom to give a blessing to Pacha Mama, Mother Earth before we cycle. It also helps you keep warm and you can bless your bike with it too. This is 90% alcohol so be careful not to take too much.”
He took a tiny sip, sprinkled a few drops over the brakes of his bike before capping the bottle and passing it to the next person. People weren’t sure how to react. Surely it couldn’t be a good idea to have a drink of hard spirit before tackling Death Road with it’s winding, thin path cut into the mountain? In some places the road was only two metres wide with a drop of several thousand metres on one side.
Nevertheless, peer pressure was a powerful thing and everyone took a tiny sip to wet their lips, faces souring with the strength of the drink. The poor girl that took it from me began retching violently before it even touched her lips. The smell alone was enough to upset her. It smelt like paint stripper.
We set off at our own pace, gently curving our way along the big tarmac roads still open to traffic. The starting point was about ten minutes descent from base camp, all freewheeling in big long languid loops around stunning countryside. I really enjoyed it, almost too much at some points. It was very easy to get carried away with the sun on your scalp and the wind in your face. The guide made us stop twice. The first time for an over eager biker crashing into one of the other tour groups. The second time was when one guys bike literally caught fire – friction with the rubber on the back wheel caused it to alight and he had to be signalled to stop, and swap for a new bike.
Each bike had a little face picture on the front – most of them were playing cards except mine. On the framework of my bike nestled between my thighs was a picture of The Joker from Batman. Heath Ledger’s version. Funny at first, until my anxious mind started playing with it thinking maybe it to be an omen of some kind.
I put all that to the back of my mind as we finally got to our starting position which was a little dirt track where we parked up our van. It would follow us from the rear, picking up any stragglers, fallen bikers or corpses in a hush hush manner.
There was a real sense of excitement and slowly everyone settled into their own groove. The Aussies set the pace and shot out of the tracks like it was the Tour de France. I wasn’t certain I’d see them again. I fell into the back of the pack of twelve simply taking in the sights and being careful in the early stages to pace myself.
The route was all downhill, and no pedalling was required really. The road was a nightmare to navigate, like cycling on wet slippery cobblestone that dislodged easily and you’d need to correct course mid flight and check your balance. Probably like wearing heels navigating Temple Bar, Dublin at 2am on a Saturday morning I’d imagine.
The pit stops came thick and fast and Eddie stopped us every few minutes to mark the points where people had plummeted to their death. That was quite nice of him to let us know, although the scattering of graves were timely reminders if ever we needed one.
I was getting a bit frustrated with the stop-start sequence without getting a chance to really hit top gear, so following one of the stops I decided to burst past the girls in front of me and charged down one of the narrow straights that had a bend at the end. I should point out at this point that there was a second guide of sorts. He was the passenger in the initial van ride and his role was to take photos of our tour. That made things so much easier for everyone else because we could leave our valuable cameras behind. The camera man was at the front of the group specifically to stake out the best shots and prepare the camera as the bikes bounded around the corner or through the waterfall drops. This was one such case.
As I flew down the mountain, I was probably going a little too fast but still felt in control. When I saw the camera man at the far end as the road bent around the mountain out of view, I couldn’t help but get a little cocky as I saw him prime the camera and aim it my way.
‘I’ll give him a shot’, I thought to myself, and for whatever reason I decided it would be a good time to strike a pose. Specifically, Rodin’s The Thinker. For the life of me, I don’t know why I came up with that one. It was a split second decision. As I hurtled downward at 30 mph I took one hand off my handle bar for a fraction of a nanosecond about to assume the pose. ‘Ready for my closeup’ I thought.
Without warning I hit a loose rock and instantly lost control of the bicycle, and found myself thrown over the handlebars. As the ground came toward me, I tried to steady the fall with my outstretched hand and it took the full weight of my body. I hit the gravel hard rolling on the ground several times like a Spanish footballer before coming to rest a few metres from the cliff drop. The cameraman’s English wasn’t great and he began asking me in Spanglish if I was OK from the other side of the road. People were still hurtling down the mountaintop and it was too dangerous for me to be sitting there on my ass. I got on my feet and dusted myself down before looking up at him.
“I’m OK. But the most important thing is – did you get it on camera?”
I laughed but the gloves on my hands were torn to ribbons, and the skin underneath was exposed and bleeding. My knees hurt even more. I decided to get on the bike again pronto and cycle back down to the next designated stop point to assess the damage. The bike was still in good working order thank goodness, and I managed to take it down a few looping curves around the mountain until the group had assembled.
One of the girls who had witnessed my fall watched me hobble toward them and approached to see if I was OK. Her mothering efforts alerted the others and quickly I became the subject of preening and questioning. I tried to laugh it off and said I would be fine, even to the guide who questioned me and asked to look at the damage. I struggled to peel off the glove but showed him my right hand which had felt most painful. He asked me to rotate it which I did without any real problem. He asked if I could continue and my pride answered in the positive. He strapped up my hand and I hoped that it would have the same effect as the famous magic sponge in football. Mostly psychological. Little did I know at this stage it was the endorphins kicking in, masking the real pain below.
So, feeling sick and suddenly very light headed and body in shock, I got back on the bike and continued our descent, barely half way into the Death Road. The terrain below us became even more trickier which required a tight control of the bicycle. When I tried to get a firm grip I found the vibrations being sent up my arms were incredibly painful. I was slowing up badly and each pebble I hit was shooting flames in my wrist as my hand just dangled weakly from the handlebars.
At the next stop, I undid the strapping and assessed the damage. There was a large swelling on my right wrist and when I showed it to Eddie, his smile suddenly dropped. It was more severe than he originally thought. He signalled the cameraman over for a second opinion – who I secretly hoped had managed to capture the moment on footage. He confirmed that with a golf ball swelling that size, Tiger Woods could probably tee off from my wrist.
They pulled me off of the Road and I hobbled onto the van. I was gutted. My pride was hurt and I cut a sorry figure in the drive back, slowly trailing the rest of the bikers.
When we finally got back to La Paz that evening, I went straight to a private clinic that confirmed by X-Ray that there was a fracture and dislocation. The Doctor and I both agreed that it was probably not the smartest move to continue riding for ten minutes after the fall. He insisted that I check straight into the clinic, and that surgery was necessary after studying the x-ray.
Next morning I had a 45 minute surgical procedure and three metal pins were inserted. The staff said I was very lucky that the fracture wasn’t more serious (though 3 six inch tent pegs and a foot long cast fitted over my arm didn’t really make me feel blessed). Apparently Bolivia’s most prominent anaesthetist was in the clinic that weekend as luck would have it so I would be in safe hands. In any case, the staff were telling me all the right things and my mind was at ease.
The cast needed to stay in place for a month – not the ideal travel accessory for the solo backpacker. Nevertheless, I eagerly counted the days until I could get the cast and pins removed and that opportunity came when I was in Buenos Aires. Luckily, when they cut away the cast there was no infection and the bone had fully healed. Underneath, my flaccid, weak and visibly thinner right forearm was much paler and it’s taken weeks to build up any semblance of strength. Flexibility in the wrist increases day by day and it is a long process before it will ever be the same again. I have three little scars on my wrist to remind myself of my experience and that is something that money can’t buy. And all because I wanted to look cool on camera. What a bloody idiot.
N.B. The Cameraman did indeed capture the moment on video footage and shared it with me. Totally worth it! I have shared it on my facebook page for those who are interested in seeing me fall on my arse. Like my page to see it and regular posts in your newsfeed.