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.

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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."

Fourteen intrepid adventurers listen intently as Matthew offers safety tips and riding instructions. The group has been up since before sunrise for the bus ride from Bolivia's capital, La Paz, to La Cumbre, a mountain pass almost 16,000 feet above sea level. Most are in their 20s and 30s, and from the United States. Canada, Europe, Australia and are all pumped for what they hope will be the ride of a lifetime down the World's Most Dangerous Road. (CLICK HERE to watch Jeffrey Kofman's report).

Matthew has been guiding adrenaline addicts -- more than 30,000 of them -- on mountain bikes down this road for the last 10 years. Last year his company, the ironically named Gravity-Assisted Mountain Biking, had 6,000 customers. That road is almost certainly Bolivia's fastest-growing tourist attraction. We wanted to find out why, so we tagged along for a day's ride.

We wanted to know why the road has become so popular.

"It's called bragging rights," says Matthew with a sly smile as he explains the road's popularity. "It's all about being able to go back to work, putting our map on the water cooler and going 'There I was, mountain biking down the World's Most Dangerous Road,' as opposed to your normal travel story which is, 'I went to this museum,' and then everyone's eyes roll to the back of their heads and you hear snoring sounds coming from the rest of the office."

'Death Road'

Jeff Klassen, 24, from Regina, Canada, knows exactly what Matthew is talking about. Klassen arrived in Bolivia from Nepal, where he climbed to the base of Mount Everest. He's doing this for an encore.

"When I first knew we were coming to South America," he says, "the first things we had to check off were the Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu, and when we knew we were coming to Bolivia, it had to be death road."

That's a literal translation of the Spanish: "El Camino de la Muerte." A seriously menacing name for what we would soon discover is a seriously scary road.

It is little more than a narrow ledge carved into the mountainside. A two-way road often no wider than a single car, a rocky ribbon of blind corners and hairpin turns. It has been the only route from the farmlands of the Yungas Valley up to the capital, La Paz. And there has been a staggering death toll: in one year 300 people died in cars, buses and trucks that plunged to over the sheer cliff side.

Which explains why in 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank labeled this route "the World's Most Dangerous Road." The label stuck. And for thrill seekers it has become a big part of the attraction.

"These brakes are really, really good, so you want to apply them calmly and gently while singing a happy tune, ok?" Matthew tells me as he introduces me to the mountain bike I will be riding for the day. "On every single corner you're changing which foot is where," he tells me as he lifts his left foot and leans to the left. "It helps you get round the corners. If you don't go around the corner you go off the cliff."

The irony cuts the tension.

The emphasis on safety is reassuring.

Rachel Stuttard, 32, was persuaded to travel to Bolivia from Birmingham, England, by her husband, who first rode the road nine years ago.

Stuttard confesses she is "a little" frightened.

"It's a fear, but it's a fear that I still have to do it because I know that at the bottom I'll pat myself on the back and feel proud of myself."

Yes, but first she had to make it to the bottom.

"So what we're gonna do now is one of the most important safety techniques in Bolivia," says Matthew as he unscrews the cap on a small plastic bottle. "We're gonna share a little bit of a blessing with Pachamama who is the Bolivian earth goddess."

He takes a swig and pours a splash on the ground. He instructs all of us to do the same.

"Pachamama's gonna be happy with us," adds Matthew. "She's not going to need a blood sacrifice today."

He smiles. I take a swig and wince. Nothing like a little rubbing alcohol to get you going.

Pushing the Limits

The ride begins gently enough. We will cover 60 miles and drop from almost 16,000 feet above sea level to 5,000 feet, traveling from the high planes of the Andes through the clouds to the subtropical jungles that lead to the Amazon. The first 15 miles are paved, which gives us all a chance to get used to the bikes and the terrain and the traffic. Trucks and cars barrel past us, but with the steep mountain road in our favor, we zip past the slower vehicles.

It is not the kind of day they show you in the travel brochures: We are cycling through dense fog, cold sleet and pelting rain on a wet slippery road. The thin air means it takes a huge amount of effort just to catch your breath.

Even going downhill is hard work.

Thankfully, there are regular stops, giving the laggards a chance to catch up and Matthew a chance to brief us on the adventures ahead.

"The bad news is we're at 11,400 feet above sea level here, which means there's very little oxygen," he says. "You are gonna find it tough on this section, it's about 3 miles, 3½ miles of pedaling mostly uphill."

Some bikers opted for a free ride uphill aboard the bus, but most came here to push the limits, and that's exactly what this grueling stretch of road does. Human legs were not designed to pedal bikes at this altitude. The muscles in my legs scream for oxygen as I inch up the hills.

For Stuttard -- or her legs -- it was too much. I pass her as she is walking her bike up the hill.

"There was no oxygen in the air," she tells me at the summit. "I just couldn't breathe. I was really, really tired. I had to get off my bike and walk."

But she hasn't lost her sense of humor. "Shame," she says in her English accent with a little smile. There is no shame. This about testing limits.

'The Scenic Side'

The fun part ends with the pavement. We turn off onto a narrow, rutted road and stop for another briefing.

"Just around the corner, it's going to get one-third as wide, a little bit bumpier, slipperier and muddier," warns Matthew. "And the really good news is, off to our left, there will be anything from a 300 foot to about a 1,000 foot parachuting option for the next 42 kilometers or 30 miles."

There's that irony again. But we have to take him at him at his word. The thick fog obscures our view of the treacherous drop. All we can see is the pelting rain and the road covered in a muddy slime.

"The good news is that because the drop is on the left-hand side, we get to ride on the left-hand side. We affectionately call it the scenic side," says Matthew as he instructs us to suppress our instinct to cling to the safe side of the road when we encounter cars. "The reason we ride on that side is because all of the vehicles have their steering wheel on the left-hand side. The road is so narrow that the driver has to be able to stick his head out the window to make sure the wheels are on the road."

We bump, rattle and roll downward. It's true that you don't have to do a lot of pedaling, but it would be a mistake to think that going downhill is easy. It takes concentration. One wrong move really could be fatal. The mud makes it slippery, but it's those big rocks -- some the size of your fist -- that make it really perilous.

"It's quite nerve-wracking," says Studdart during one of the breaks. "It doesn't get any easier. I had a bit of a fall back there. I decided to say hello to the ground."

She confesses her pride was hurt, but she's determined to make it to the bottom.

For the adrenaline junkies it is a thrill. Especially when the clouds lift and the spectacular scenery reveals itself. But there's no time to let the scenery distract you: Keep those eyes on the road.

Jeff Klassen is smiling from ear to ear.

"It's unbelievable, more than I hoped for actually," he says. But even the veteran adventurer admits the corners are pretty frightening.

"It gets your heart rate going, but it's lots of fun."

Despite Matthew's admonitions, we don't run into a lot of cars. Because this is no longer the main road to La Paz.

Ride at Your Own Risk

In December 2006, a brand new highway opened, connecting La Paz to the Yungas Valley. It was a feat of engineering financed with millions of dollars of foreign aid. (But as Bolivians know all too well, Mother Nature just doesn't seem to want roads in these valleys. As we saw on our return journey, the concrete reinforcements that hold back the mountainside on the new road refuse to stay where they've been placed. The road is plagued with rock falls and mud avalanches. We drove the road at night in the fog -- not a good idea -- and dubbed it "the World's Second Most Dangerous Road.")

With the new road open the fabled old road is now the preserve of local farmers and a thrill for thousands of bikers. But just in case you're feeling cocky and overconfident, there are those small crucifixes lining the roadway in memory of the thousands who have died cascading over the cliff sides.

The road is still a killer. Since mountain biking began here 10 years ago, 11 bikers have died, two in the last year.

"The first person who ever died biking the road with a company pretty much drove straight off the edge," says Matthew as he points to a cliff next to the winding road below us.. "They'd been complaining pretty much all day that their brakes weren't working well. The group that they were with was well ahead of them. It had stopped there for her to catch up. She pretty much just rode straight off an 800 foot cliff right in front of them."

Matthew was quick to add that his company -- the largest and not the cheapest -- has never lost a cyclist. But they do fall. Regularly.

As I turned a muddy corner I came across Australian Paul Cheal sprawled in the mud. I stopped to help him up.

"I came around the corner and hit a loose rock," he tells me. "I tried to recover but couldn't. I was going too fast."

Cheal is OK. He's not bloodied, but he's bruised and little humbled. "I was finally having fun on the bike ride and then I fell. Too relaxed maybe."

At its best, a ride down this road is the essence of exhilaration: a Bolivian Rocky Mountain high. The adrenaline pumps, the clean air courses through the lungs (the breathing gets noticeably easier as you get lower) and the scenery is spectacular.

'Absolutely Stunning'

About 20 miles down the road -- halfway -- the clouds start to lift. The sun peaks through. You can see why people are drawn to this place.

It is so much easier when the road is dry and the sun is shining. Like the best of the theme park rides, the road saves a few thrills for the end. We ride through a fast-moving river, drenching our legs, but smiling all the way. Then there is some gentle coasting past lush jungle and tiny farms.

A chicken scurries across the road -- to get to the other side.

We get to the end of the road, safely.

Even Jeff, the guy who climbed to Everest's base camp, pronounces himself impressed.

"This could be the highlight," he says as he compares the experience to his Everest adventures. "It's not something that everyone gets a chance to do, and it's such a rush. I felt safe the whole time but you're that close [he holds his fingers up] with one error to slipping off the edge and you're done. It's a big rush."

Rachel is equally elated.

"It was good, it was good," she says with a broad smile. "Huge sense of relief. I'm so glad it's over. I loved it. Absolutely stunning."

But, she adds, maybe all that fog at the top of the mountain was good thing, because she couldn't see the steep drop into the valley that was just feet from her bike wheels. "I don't think I could have got down if I had seen that drop in the morning. No way."

We all assemble for a group picture. There are smiles everywhere.

After all, how many people can go home and say they biked down The World's Most Dangerous Road and lived to tell the tale?

Talk about bragging rights.

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