Andes Accidents, Part 2: Death Road

The World’s Most Dangerous Road

Read Part 1: The Curse

“My boyfriend would hate this,” said Sarah fondly. “It isn’t his sort of thing at all.”

Sarah, meet Death Road. Death Road, meet Sarah.

We were geared up for the mountain biking, with helmets and protective clothing and elbow pads, and I was seriously wondering whether it was my sort of thing at all. To be completely honest, I’d visualised the Death Road cycle route as a wide, flat path, where we could pedal along at our own sedate pace and stay well away from the cliff edge. Nobody had told me that it was downhill, and so bumpy that we had to go very fast in order to clear all the stony obstacles. This involved lurching around an endless succession of fatal drops.

I’d never been on a mountain bike before. And I’m not great with edges.

Death Road is a day-trip from La Paz, which is on the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca. It winds precipitously along the side of a very steep valley, and on average more than two hundred people used to fall to their deaths here every year. A decade ago, a replacement road was opened, which our tour guides cheerfully referred to as the New Death Road. These days, the original Death Road is almost exclusively used by tourists on mountain bikes, about one of whom dies each year. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, with lush green forest cloaking the mountainsides and reaching up the impossibly steep cliff faces towards the dirt track. But the real reason people come is so that they can say they survived The World’s Most Dangerous Road.

There were twelve of us in the tour group, and Sarah was the only girl. The others were alpha-male Australians or alpha-male Scandinavians. There were three tour guides, and two support trucks creeping along the road behind us, carrying our stuff. Sarah was loving every moment. I was trying to remember the last time I’d felt so scared.

It was exhilarating. The scenery was extraordinary. I think I was having a good time. Kind of. But mainly I wanted to get Death Road over and done with. It was something I wanted to have done, but swerving away from all those cliff edges was exhaustingly nerve-wracking. I did okay for a while – we must have been more than three quarters of the way through when I had my accident.

A bog-standard Death Road precipice, photographed by the author

Things go a bit wrong

I came round a corner at speed, and found that the whole group had gathered for a break. There was scarcely any time to slow down, so I yanked on the brakes, and in front of all of them I did what was apparently a spectacular 360-degree flip, smashing arms-first into the stony path.

It could have been worse. Nothing was hurt, except for my arms. It was a significant exception, though. My left palm was throbbing so much I could scarcely move my fingers, and there was an ache deep in my right forearm which – I could immediately tell – was potentially quite serious.

At this point, the guides recommended that I should give up and ride in one of the support trucks for the rest of the route. It was probably the sensible thing to do – but pride and fear wouldn’t let me. I didn’t want to quit, and I really didn’t want to get into one of those trucks. Taking a bike along Death Road was one thing. Being a passenger in a truck sounded nightmarish.

So I hobbled along on my bike for the next ten kilometres or so. My sore arms severely restricted my mobility, so if I lost control even slightly then I’d be in a lot of trouble. The road started zigzagging down the cliffside in a series of hairpin bends, and I clung on for dear life.

Typical, I thought to myself. I’ve messed this up, I’ve injured myself, and Sarah’s just breezing through and having a great time.

That was when I heard her voice. “I’m over here! Help, I’m over here!”

Sarah had cycled off the actual cliff.

Things go extremely wrong

The vegetation had broken her fall about four metres down. She was still on her bike, and a guide started climbing down to reach her. “My legs hurt, and my back hurts,” she kept saying.

At this point, the guide slipped and fell down the cliff. He saved himself by grabbing a tree near where Sarah had landed. Reaching Sarah, he called for his colleagues to bring a stretcher.

Let’s not get carried away. This isn’t the cliff she fell off. Funnily enough, I didn’t take photos of that one.

The gravity of the situation began to sink in. If it hadn’t been for the vegetation on the cliff, Sarah would probably have been killed. We later figured out from her injuries that she had managed to smash into the rocks with both sides of her body, so her bike must have been spinning down the cliffside before it got wedged in the bushes. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, it wasn’t clear how badly Sarah had hurt herself, but spine damage seemed likely.

The stretcher was a plastic orange thing that looked like a surfboard, and it seemed to take them an age to get Sarah onto it. Meanwhile, one of the two support trucks reversed up the road and stopped just above the spot where Sarah had fallen, so it would be easy to get the stretcher into the vehicle. The overweight driver got out and came to peer over at the scene of the accident. I thought he looked a bit unsteady on his feet, but this was low on my priorities.

At last, the stretcher was hauled back up to the top of the cliff, and I saw her appearing over the edge, tied to the plastic board. The guides needed a rest, and they let her lie there for a moment. The unsteady driver took this moment to fall over, right on the cliff edge, and he landed on Sarah with all his bulk. The guides grabbed at them both, saving them from tumbling down the cliff.

Everyone seemed keen to pretend that the fat driver hadn’t just fallen on Sarah. They manoeuvred the stretcher into the truck, and I climbed in with her. The same driver got back behind the wheel and drove the two of us the rest of the way down Death Road.

Sarah was being nothing short of heroic. She was lying there uncomplaining, still fastened to the stretcher, and trying to crack jokes, even though it was clear that it was a serious effort just to keep herself calm. I did my best to keep her spirits up, but we were both thinking about how seriously she might have damaged her back.

At the bottom of the road, the driver came to a halt, and I was too busy tending to Sarah to see what happened next. Apparently the driver squeezed out of our vehicle, staggered towards the other support truck, and didn’t quite make it – he passed out in the road. The guides somehow carried him into the back of the other truck and left him there. He was still unconscious an hour later, when I found out about it. That’s all I know – but if he’d passed out two minutes earlier, our truck would have gone over another cliff. I reckon Sarah used up three of her nine lives in the space of half an hour.

Posting photos of Sarah injured seemed like bad taste. So here’s a picture I took of a South American grasshopper instead. Nicer, isn’t it?

Retreat to La Paz

There was much toing and froing at this point. The guides seemed very relaxed about the group’s two casualties, and in no rush to get Sarah medical treatment. They even asked us which hospital they should take us to. Eventually I made them order a taxi, which they did with inexplicable reluctance. When it arrived, the taxi improved things – in the company of the only guide with decent English, we were now zooming along the New Death Road back to La Paz – but this wasn’t unqualified good news. I found myself thinking, If two hundred people a year died on the old road, how many people die on this one – a hundred and fifty? In true Bolivian style, the alarmingly young taxi driver was overtaking the rest of the traffic, on blind corners around the mountainside, even though we were so high up that we were actually inside the clouds. I had to hold on tightly to Sarah’s stretcher to stop it from sliding around in the back of the taxi. I could see how dangerous the driving was; Sarah couldn’t, and I had no intention of telling her.

“So,” I said, doing my damnedest to sound cheery, “Tell me about your first date with your boyfriend.”

It worked a charm. Sarah started haltingly, but soon she lost herself in long reminiscences about her boyfriend, describing their most special dates and listing some of the romantic things he had done for her. I kept her talking, gripping the stretcher and the door handle as I gazed at the sheer drops we were hurtling past. Sarah seemed to forget where we were for a while, lost in her reveries – and I was very grateful for it. But as we stalled and stuttered through the traffic in La Paz itself, her morale began to drop. It had now been three hours since her crash, and I don’t know how she’d been able to put on a brave face for so long. She started to worry that she had lost feeling in her hands. By the time we pulled into the hospital, her mood was ebbing lower and lower. “I just want to know what I’ve done to my back,” she snuffled.

The Second Hospital

I hopped out of the taxi to deal with the hospital, thinking that my work was done. But no: a doctor who spoke no English explained to the guide, who translated for me, that Sarah couldn’t be admitted to the hospital until it received a letter from Sarah’s insurers.

For me, that was probably the lowest point of the whole trip. I was almost as wrung out as Sarah; but she was the one tied to a stretcher, and she was depending on me. I called the insurers.

The woman on the other end of the phone was a godsend. I battled through the questions that she had to ask me – “Was she wearing a helmet at the time of the accident? Were you with a reputable company?” – until I said that I had to nip out to the taxi to check on Sarah.

Look at the grasshopper. Look at it.

“Hold on,” said the insurer, in a tone of voice I hadn’t heard before. “I thought you said she’s on a stretcher…?”

“Yes,” I said.

“So she’s on a stretcher, in the taxi, in the carpark?”

“Yes! They won’t let her into the hospital until they’ve heard from you.”

“That’s not okay,” said the insurer. “They can’t refuse to admit her. They can ask you to pay upfront but they can’t leave her untreated in the street! Hold the line – I’m going to find a colleague who speaks Spanish.”

The Spanish-speaker came on the line, and I handed the phone over to the doctor who spoke no English. I don’t know what happened in that conversation, but the next thing I knew, Sarah was being wheeled into the x-ray room with all speed. What was more, the doctor suddenly remembered how to speak English. As he briefed me about Sarah’s condition, I didn’t know whether to throttle him or hug him.

The x-ray results came through. It turned out that Sarah hadn’t damaged anything. Her back pains and numb hands had been a false alarm. She was completely fine. As she lay in her hospital bed, giggling from a morphine injection, I collapsed into a chair and stared at her. I’d been expecting her to spend a few days in that hospital at the very least. Instead, the doctor said that Sarah could be discharged in an hour’s time. She dictated messages for me to send to her boyfriend, and I read her his worried replies. When the morphine had worn off, she was able to walk out of the hospital, and we caught a taxi back to our hostel, both very dazed.

We went up to the hostel bar in search of normality. The music was blaring, and dozens of travellers were getting very drunk. Sarah’s drawn face relaxed into smiles. Soon she was chatting away, making swarms of new friends in true Sarah style. She grew euphoric, and she even bought a beer – and the next thing I knew, she was up on the bar, dancing, bottle in hand. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life – two hours earlier, she’d still been in a hospital bed. For God’s sake, I was thinking, please don’t fall. But at the same time I was smiling. Go Sarah, I thought. You absolute star.

Part 3: Peruvian Perils

Our second Hospital Selfie… but not our last

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