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WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS ROAD

 

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Cal Poly professor bikes the Bolivian 'death road'

Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009

Cal Poly professor bikes the Bolivian 'death road'  Originally published in the San Luis Obispo Tirbune: http://www.sanluisobispo.com/living/story/889750.html

Norman Pillsbury is a professor emeritus of Cal Poly State University in forestry and hydrology. After viewing photos of biking the Bolivian “death road” on the Internet, he decided to take the challenge, completing the mountain bike ride on Sept. 2.

TUCKED HIGH IN THE MIGHTY ANDES OF BOLIVIA, an amazing riding adventure awaits the courageous mountain biker. Dubbed “The World’s Most Dangerous Road” by the Inter-American Development Bank in 1995, it has claimed more than 150 lives a year since opening in the 1930s.

This downhill route starts at 15,250 feet and drops to 3,850 feet in 40 miles, a whopping 11,400-foot descent. On the day of our ride, we experienced a temperature change from a wind-chilling 15 degrees Fahrenheit to a humid 94 degrees. It’s like starting 1,000 feet above Mt. Shasta and biking to the Oregon border, ending in a sauna.

He surveys the site of two fatal bus crashes along the ‘Highway of Death’ in Bolivia’s Andes Mountains.

SHEER ADRENALINE ON TWO WHEELS

HOW TO GET READY

• Take many layers of clothing, topped with a wind and rainproof shell. Stay in good condition and dress properly.

• If you are susceptible to altitude sickness, consider these tips:

Spend the week before you leave in the high Sierra. I spent five days at the Silver City Mountain Resort, hiking at 10,000 feet and riding my road bike at 8,000 feet.

Eat lightly for two days before arriving in La Paz — soup, pasta, tea, lots of water. Avoid heavy foods and alcohol.

Arrive in La Paz two or, preferably, three days before the ride.

TRIP LOGISTICS

• American Airlines flies from Los Angeles- Miami-La Paz, Bolivia. Round-trip costs can vary

from a few hundred dollars to $2,500. Plan ahead for cheap fares.

• There is a $135 entry tax for Bolivia and a $28 airport departure fee. A passport and visa are required. Check with a travel agent for current requirements/fees.

• On the ride, there is a required road improvement tax of 25bs (bolivianos), about $3.60, which must be paid in bolivianos.

• La Paz is about 40 minutes from the airport — prearrange transportation or get a taxi.

COMPANIES THAT PROVIDE TOURS OF ‘THE WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS ROAD’

• Gravity Assist Inc.: www.gravitybolivia.com. I contacted two people who had lived in La Paz and taken this ride. Both said Gravity was the best to deal with and had the best safety record.

The ride begins at La Cumbre Pass, 45 minutes northeast of La Paz — the world’s highest large city with more than 1 million residents. Herds of llamas and an occasional alpaca trek the mountain slopes near the pass.

Fortunately, a new bypass road constructed a few years ago has reduced traffic to locals and sightseers. Yet the old road remains a serious challenge even to the hardy and daring. Internet photos do little justice to what the rider will encounter. Both the danger and the beauty strain the capacity of the senses.

Living on the edge

Why would bikers fly to Bolivia to ride “The World’s Most Dangerous Road?” The hundreds of cyclists a year who have experienced it might say, “It’s an adrenaline rush,” “A great reason to visit South America,” and “It just sounded sound-like fun.” At least, those were answers provided by the Canadians, Irish and the German in my riding group. For me, I like living on the edge.

After months of planning, my wife and I flew to Lima, Peru, where she toured the city and browsed the museums while I flew to La Paz, landing in snow flurries at 1:30 a.m. In the rarified Andes air, planes come in fast — and that’s where the adventure began.

In order to avoid altitude sickness, light foods such as pasta and soup and lots of bottled water had been recommended. But with three hours of sleep, I still woke with a mild headache.

I dressed in three layers of insulating and wind/rainproof clothing before my short walk in the brisk morning air to Gravity’s La Paz office. Soon our group of 11 riders and three guides were at La Cumbre Pass, over 15,000 feet, where we received ample safety instructions about the ride ahead.

Then onto the bikes, with special goggles and face muffs in place, and we were off, single file, for the 15-mile paved section. Sailing at eye-watering speed down the mountain, it was like waking from a dream. Flanked on either side by treeless, snow-capped peaks of the Andes, rough and majestic, windswept and towering, I heard myself say, “I can’t believe I’m really doing this!” It was both magnificent and surreal. I was barely aware of the canyons below as I raced down steep pitches of road, concentrating instead on the edge of the road I claimed as mine.

Plunged buses abound

Reality rapidly returned when a taxi coming my way passed a car and squeezed me even farther toward the edge. Even with multilayered clothing, I was on the verge of very cold.

Phil, our Gravity guide, stopped to regroup a few miles down and explained what lay ahead. He pointed out the many car, truck and bus carcasses that had plunged off the road and fallen to their demise. Phil did this often throughout the day, each time with greater amplification. Littered with crosses, memorials and stone markers, the entire road is a tragic reminder of those who came before, and died.

We continued the downhill course, past fog filled side canyons and over washed-out road segments. Then, another surprise: The next four miles, at 12,000 feet elevation, were uphill.

Some riders opted for the bus, but an Irish biker and I were determined to go the distance. It was here I learned the difficulty of uphill riding on a mountain bike, without oxygen. We made it, and we made the next two uphill sections as well. At twice the age of the next oldest rider, it was satisfying, to say the least.

We bypassed a major tunnel to avoid a dark and wet collision area, and abruptly turned onto the Yungas Road — “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.”

Here we changed from a wide, paved highway to a rocky sliver of road built by Paraguayan prisoners during the Chaco war of 1932-35. It was one of the only roads connecting the Amazon rainforest and La Paz.

Speeding downhill

In many places it is etched into the side of a sheer cliff: vertical straight up and straight down. The straight down was on our left, so we were dumbfounded to hear that we were to ride on the left side of the road.

The purpose? So uphill drivers would have the maximum possible sight distance before bike-car impact. Not comforting. This also meant we had to dismount on the right side of the bike — opposite from normal. Another guide story — about a girl who dismounted left, then stepped back to make room for a car and free-fell 600 feet.

We took the next stop before an even narrower section. Here Phil walked us to the edge. What a breathtaking sight! There was nothing below except air for 2,000 feet.

Cyclist deaths are not uncommon; two were killed on this road the week before our ride, and at least 15 have died since 1998. We also heard about shattered wrists, broken legs and other mangled body parts. All were good reminders.

Down, down, we sped. Gravity propelled us through waterfalls and streams, all the while remembering to stay on the “wrong” side of the road. I found that by thinking one curve ahead, I was able to shift my weight in time to properly negotiate the curve. With practice I soon moved to the front of our group. But no one could catch Phil. I doubt his bike even had brakes!

A left bank corner, another left, another left, a hard right and “easy” on the disc brakes. Those brakes would stop on a dime on dry pavement, but on a rutted, rocky, dirt-packed road with a loose, coarse gravel covering, front-braking meant disaster.

Fortunately, only one member of our group took a spill, resulting in cut arms and knees. He kept going and finished with the rest of us.

One of my goals was to make a movie of the actual ride. I rode with a point-of-view camera strapped to my helmet. These are nifty devices that record everything you see in 720-by-480 video and sound. Also, I brought along a good quality video camera and hired one of Gravity’s staff to shoot our group. Gustavo ( “Goose”) raced ahead to a strategic location, set up and filmed as we cycled past. He repeated this leap-frog process, successfully capturing much of our ride.

Adrenaline rush

How do I describe the feeling, the adrenaline, the realization that one mental lapse could have sent me off the road into an abyss of no return? I was not used to riding on the edge of the world for hours on end. While speeding downhill with only a few feet of dirt on the right, it takes serious concentration to ignore that on your left is —nothing, not even guardrails. I think each ride like this has a defining moment. Mine came about halfway along the Yungas Road.

Normally, with an approaching right-hand curve, I would lean left and “push” the bike right to bank around the curve. Leaning left, toward a chasm, is not a natural reflex. This is where I had to override my protective instincts. With practice, I became more adept at negotiating curves. For most of the ride, curves were sharp. But, with few exceptions, they followed a smooth arc.

One curve did not. I started it as usual, leaning enough to track its path — not too much, not too little —when suddenly it ran straight for about 40 feet, then curved again. Keeping my current trajectory would send me into the unknown. I fought the urge to jam both brakes — ensuring a straight line to disaster — and instead applied the rear brake moderately with gentle pumps on the front, slowing enough to narrowly clear the precipice by the thin edge of my tire.

No time to reflect on a most important moment of my life — the next curve had already begun!

As we neared the pueblo of Yolosa, our ending point, we descended into the lush, subtropical forest and passed houses where chickens, pigs and small children could dart into our path. We caught glimpses of Inca descendants selling their wares in their traditional dress as we rode quickly past.

Then, five and a half hours later, the epic ride ended — far too soon. We dismounted with a sense of relief and accomplishment. The conversation was animated and energetic at the picnic tables of the local outdoor cantina where we ate a traditional Bolivian meal. I didn’t know anyone before the trip, yet felt a sense of camaraderie with the other “survivors.” An afternoon storm surprised us, as it cooled the air and drenched the road.

After a hot shower we piled into the bus for the return trip to La Paz — back up in the rain, on “The World’s Most Treacherous, Most Fatal, Most Dangerous Road.’’


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