When people thinking of riding the Death Road the words that come to mind are usually downhill mountain biking, Top Gear, worlds most deadliest road. What they don’t usually talk about is climbing down the cliff side which gives the death road its name and rescuing a dog!!!! It was certainly a more unique experience to say the least.
The day starts with an early set off (7am) driving through the always at rush hour La Paz, to reach the police check point, before heading off into the mountains and racing ahead of the 20 or other so buses heading in the same direction. The start point of the ride is at about 4,800metres, where the majority of the biking companies will start, with some (from what i can gather) cheaper companies starting further down. Once the bike preps and briefings have been made about how to ride the tarmac section of the ride, its down to blessing our bikes and giving thanks to the ‘pacha mama’ or mother earth. This comes in the form of not only pouring 92% proof alcohol on your bike, but also having yourself a little swig!! Remember this is 9am in the morning and were about the hurl ourselves down a road at 40-50mph!! Only in Bolivia.
Once we had all blessed our bikes, geared up, briefed and got liquored up, it was time to hit the ‘easy’ section of our ride for the day. Which was a downhill tarmac road, giving us plenty of time to get used to our bikes, smooth out any issues there might be with the bikes and get our adrenaline flowing and wake us up. We also got to take in some awesome scenery and as the road was a nice easy ride with not too much traffic, you could actually see some of the scenery as well, unlike what we would on the Death Road where our absolutely every bit of our attention would be needed. Our guide even took some down time to show off a few wheelies and supermans, which it was tempting to try, but I did actually want to make the deathroad!
We reached the start of the actual Deathroad around about 10:30am, as we had made really good time, took over some other groups and luckily nobody had fell off or give up. So we were given a good briefing about how this road would be different a) being completely gravel, therefore punishing on the arms and b) its the death road, ‘death’ meaning its fairly dangerous! Where we started also gave us a great view down the valley, where we could see a huge chunk of the ride we were about to do, including the lovely trucks, coaches and vans we were going to be running into! My initial thought was, they shouldn’t be a worry because obviously they will go snail pace, along the tiny one track dirt road with a massive drop on one side, how wrong I could of been, how stupid of me to forget that this is Bolivia and nobody EVER drives slow!! Instead what they do is drive as they would on a normal tarmac road but stick to the inside, away from the drop, which means when two cars meet, its all about slamming on the breaks as fast as you can or swerving and not driving off the cliff like a rally car driver!! Still can’t see where the name comes from huh!
Luckily for us the guide had split the ride into small sections, so that we didn’t ride for any longer than 15mins at a time, which trust me on a gravel road were you either go fast and don’t break or break the whole way, either way its punishing on the legs and arms. I opted for the bat out of hell, shut off a stick, no breaks approach were any hiccup resulted in the backend sliding out and me constantly fighting with the bike to keep it in check. It was fun as f*ck though and got the heart racing to say the least. The stops we made were usually places of significance or awesome view/photo points, one of the first stops being where a Canadian girl managed to over judge the corner, ended up at the bottom of the cliff and after 3-4hours of silence came through, started screaming and was rescued by guides from different bike companies! They were all astounded that she was intact, let alone alive! Another stop was a awesome photo point, where the ledge overhangs the cliff, so you can dangle your bike over, sit on the edge or just do your favourite ‘trend’ holiday pose. Just before we were about to set off, before all of the other companies turned up, our bus driver and I thought we could hear barking, which I thought nothing off, but then when the driver said the nearest village is over 1hrs drive away, it caught our attention a bit more. It turned out that there was a big black Rottweiler at the bottom of the cliff, which as soon as we started looking down at it, stopped barking and just sat and looked at us! Before we knew it, everyone was intrigued to know what we were looking at and once our guide saw, it was action stations, after obviously getting the all clear from all of us, to stay around and try and rescue the dog from the bottom of a 100metre high cliff, which has no obvious way of getting down or getting a dog up!!!
After our guides and and the driver pulled out the climbing ropes from the back of the van (saved for a rainy day), Scooby (as he goes by) took it upon himself to go recce the situation, as from above it looked pretty plain sailing, but if that was the case why the hell was the dog not coming to us! As this was a popular spot, he said his walkie talkie had fell down this area before and he had climbed down a small section with no ropes, by small section I mean the first 20-30 metres of flat rock face! After reaching this space, he found that indeed the next part was not flat, as seen from above (as expected) and was a sheer drop with different levels all the way down. We just so happened to have a guy from NZ, who was a climbing instructor and got stuck into the action along with the driver, to help set up a rig for the ropes, so that once Scooby had reached the bottom, we could winch the dog back up. After about an hour, he finally reached the area with the dog and thankfully it didn’t bite him, runaway or worse! Instead the dog was placid and relived to see somebody. After making acquaintances and checking he wasn’t going to be savaged, Scooby went for a look around, as for a dog to be all the way down there, so far away from any villages, the only explanation could be that a car had gone over and the dog was in the car. After searching for about 30mins around the surrounding area, we were relieved to hear that it was only the dog, which obviously made it a greater mystery as it was completely unharmed, but at least there was nobody hurt or worse.
After spending about an 1 1/2hours getting Scooby down there and checking the area, it was now time for the monumental task off getting the dog back up the sheer cliff face. Firstly Scooby tried putting the dog in his bag, throwing it on his back and then having the kiwi, driver and other guide winch him up, however by the first ledge, the dog ripped the bag because it was so heavy! So Scooby re-rigged the dog into a homemade harness and it would be dog first, throw the rope back and he would work his way back up using knots and footholds. I was getting itchy feet by this point and had done so well to not get myself involved and try climb down the cliff, but enough was enough and i couldn’t resist, it was only a matter of time! Plus the guys were really struggling with hauling up the dog, as that motherf*cker was heavy! To put it in perspective, it took 4 fairly strong guys 45 straight minutes of pulling and winching the rope to get the dog to the top (well to where we were!). When we eventually got him up, the poor thing was absolutely terrified and wouldn’t come near us, which I wouldn’t blame him. While waiting for Scooby to winch himself back up, we slowly got the dog used to us and although he was still very jumpy, he did allow us to give him a stroke and get really close, which was definately going to come in handy for the next part of the challenge.
The final section was the last 20-30mts that we had all scrambled down ropeless to get to the first ledge. Thanks to the awkward shape of the rock face and lack of options for anchors, we could only winch the dog about 30% up, which thankfully was the steepest part, however after that it was all going to be by hand, with brute strength and a lot of stability! We had the winching down to a T, so he was up in a matter of seconds, as we simply pulled up the rope without setting up an anchor and again went for the brute strenght approach. We then had to leapfrog up the cliff and two people would push the dog from behind while the other (precariously above) would heave him up. After about 20mins or so of this process, we finally got the dog to the top and he was very relived to have all his harnesses removed. It was a great effort by all 5 of us, but more so by Scooby our guide, who literally threw himself down the cliff, pretty epic experience and definitely not something I expected to do on the Deathroad! Scooby said he was going to take the dog in as his pet if he couldn’t find its owners and he would be called Rocky…nice.
As we had spent 3 hours rescuing a dog and all of the other companies had now long gone, we had to make up some time. Therefore our stops were very limited, although still happened and unfortunately our time at the bottom was now shortened, as we had to leave before it got too dark and cold on the mountain pass. We had anticipated going back to La Senda verda, as it was across the river from where Barracuda finish and therefore we could bob in for a few hours, see our old friends and our old monkey friends too. Now our time was down to 30mins and would be a very flash visit. The rescue mission was worth it though and its slightly ironic that in the process of rescuing a dog, we ate into our time at the animal rescue centre! It turned out perfect in the end, as the owner Vicky had just returned from La Paz as we were knocking on the door and had we turned up earlier, we would have missed her. So maybe it was meant to be. We still got to see all of our favourite animals, including my little favourite Combo, the baby capuchin.
It was certainly an eventful day and when I signed up for the Deathroad, definitely not was I was expecting. The ride itself was awesome and I would happily do it again, although I would advise anybody who decides to adopt the shit of a stick approach to get ready for a all out pounding on the forearms and legs, good workout to say the least! Please also make the effort to go and visit if not stay at La Senda Verda as well, not enough companies push it doing the Deathroad, but they all finish in the village next door and its shame that so many people pass every day and don’t know it even exists.
Its now safe to say that I have survived the Deathroad, done that and got the T-Shirt….