The Ride (and Risk) of Their Lives

It was, sadly, only a matter of time. Bolivia's most popular tourist attraction has claimed 10 more lives. During one deadly week in April an American tourist plunged to his death and a young British cyclist and a vehicle filled with passengers tumbled over the precipitous cliff side of what is popularly called "The World's Most Dangerous Road." It is a well-deserved moniker, as I discovered when I rode the road while on assignment for "Nightline" in December.

Since tours began in 1998, more than 70,000 thrill-seeking tourists have biked the narrow road that plunges more than 11,000 feet in just 40 miles. They are drawn by the breathtaking scenery, the lung-sapping altitude and the bone-rattling journey. Not to mention a very real flirtation with mortality. Our guide was Alistair Matthew, the playful but deadly serious owner of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. His company -- the biggest and the oldest -- boasted a perfect safety record after guiding 30,000 cyclists down the road.


Until April.

According to reports from Bolivia, 56-year-old Kenneth Mitchell, from California, tumbled from his rented bike and fell down a 200-foot cliff. Mitchell is the 12th tourist to die on the road in a decade.

"It is a shock," Matthew told the Associated Press. "He was not riding crazy. He was riding confidently."

Just a few days later 22-year-old Tom Austin, from England, was biking down the same road when a Toyota Land Cruiser tried to pass his tour group. According to a friend who was with him, the Toyota blew a tire on the rocky road, lost control, hit the cyclists and plunged down the steep mountainside. Austin and eight people in the Toyota were killed.

It's not hard to see how it can happen. Most of the journey is on a single-lane path that is little more than dirt and rocks and most of it is lined by sheer cliffs. There are no barriers.

It rained for the first few hours of my trip down the road, turning the dirt and rocks into a toxic stew of slime and mud. One wrong move and…

In fairness, Matthew does not take safety lightly. He relentlessly focuses on caution throughout the journey, stopping regularly so that the group stays together and so that he can monitor people's behavior. I remember when he sternly warned that anyone caught cycling recklessly would be put on the bus for the remainder of the ride. No second chances.

"The risks can be minimized. They can't be eliminated," Matthew said to the AP this week as he reflected on Mitchell's death. "We're not selling a ticket to sit on a couch to watch a video of someone mountain biking. We're going into the big outdoors."

On our trip he stopped near a particularly precarious corner and showed us where a woman had died when her brakes apparently failed.

It was a sober reminder that something so exhilarating could be so dangerous.

And, yes, having survived the ride I can report that it really is a thrill.

But it's a dangerous thrill.

Here's my original dispatch, posted on Jan. 11:

Three miles above sea level in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia feels like the top of the world. But it's hard to savor the surroundings when your lungs are gasping for air and the morning cold is rattling your bones.

"Some of you may not have seen one of these for a while. This is called a bicycle," says New Zealander Alistair Matthew in his deeply accented, deeply-ironic voice. "We're gonna run through some basic techniques."

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