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The Edge of the World

Sprawled on my back at 18,000 feet I realized the horrible truth: there is no air here. Zero oxygen was reaching my dazed brain. Oxygen masks would drop if a plane decompressed at this altitude, but no matter how perfectly I visualized it -- little masks, giant masks, rows of dancing masks -- none would drop for me. Which is easily explained by the fact that I was not in a plane. In fact, only minutes before I had been on my bike and in a few more minutes I would be on it again. We were perched atop Mount Chacaltaya amidst a profusion of glaciated alps looming over dark ragged canyons. Beyond the sierra a thick, cottony cloudcover shaded the lowlands of the Amazon Rainforest.

“Let’s go mate,” Alistair’s voice penetrated the dizzy mush; though “going” seemed impossible as gravity had me firmly in its swirling grip. Above, clouds shifted mesmerizingly through space. Actually, lying on my back feels just fine thanks. Alistair was strapping on body armor and peering over the edge of an 800-foot scree slope, after which another vertical mile of descending would bring us directly into the urban chaos of downtown La Paz. We were in Bolivia -- land of the Andes, Amazon, Incan highways, and the biggest, wildest descents on earth.

The highest and most isolated country in South America, Bolivia, called, “The Himalaya of the New World,” by European explorers, has approximately 1,000 peaks over 16,000 feet. One of the poorest and least-developed nations in the world, it boasts foot and llama paths older than history itself. Some regions have yet to be accurately mapped, much less mountain biked. I’d traveled here years before, a young, errant backpacker with a thirst for exploration, and vowed to someday return and change that.

Alistair Matthew had the same idea. He gave up a comfortable corporate life in New Zealand, moved to La Paz -- the world’s highest capital at 12,000 feet and one of its most spectacular cities -- and launched Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. A tightly-wound yet good-humored former adventure racer, he’d been pouring his seemingly limitless energies into building a guiding business and exploring epic rides for more than a year by the time I made it back down. He was eager to show me what he’d found.

Joining us for a 2-week expedition were three hard-charging adventure hounds from New Zealand, Dave, Pete, and Guy -- all on light-weight, straight-barred cross-country steeds; all, under their skin, comprised entirely of lung; and all with one perogative: ride, ride, ride until your guide and the magazine guy have fallen over dead. Our collective mission: to search for new routes across the Bolivian Andes, to seek out never-before-ridden Inca trails, to descend 72,000 feet in 12 days.

Alistair privately admitted later, “My main goal is for no one to break any bones.”

But before we were going anywhere I was due for a surprise all-night, multi-orifice jamboree with a hard-partying intestinal guest. Wild stints of volcanic expulsions are the norm in Bolivia, where hygiene is a trend that hasn’t quite caught on and the bacteria live free. The next day as we all piled in Alistair’s jeep, my stomach muscles felt like they’d done a thousand sit-ups with a cinder block lashed to my forehead (10 Ways To Tighter Abs Today! Step One: 12 hours of violent vomiting!).

Off we sped, a gringo-packed jeep under a gear-laden behemoth roof rack, through villages of ribby dogs and dirty-faced children. The Kiwi boys grabbed their bikes at a high pass and pointed down hanging footpaths, while I slumped in the jeep and visualized lunch remaining in my body. We rejoined in the quiet, idyllic village of Sorata nestled in palm trees at the base of an ice-covered 21,000-foot massif, and our home for the next two nights. Sorata was the kind of place a writer could spend his later days taking walks and filling notebooks. Our next-day’s plan was equally simple -- drive up a thin-aired pass and ride footpaths back to town.

Team Orange -- my handle for the lung-men in honor of their radioactive, visible-from-space orange windbreakers -- chose instead to pedal up the 6,000 feet. After lunch, looking down on the sky, we dropped onto a rocky, off-camber singletrack into Incan stairways and frequent dismounts. Streaking downward to the green valleys of earth, Alistair and I flew into an open pasture of tight, smooth grass -- a succession of smooth lips and ledges launching us down a perfect green velvet runway. Looking beyond Alistair’s gleefully bobbing figure ahead, hazy valley after ridge after mountaintop stretched away to Peru.

Pedaling into Sorata’s weathered-stone streets at ride’s end -- brightly-clothed Indian women selling goods from rickety roadside stands, a stooped, wrinkled couple building a home of earthen bricks, laughing children scampering everywhere -- we were aliens on parade. Our super-wicking space-age clothing and marvelous, unfathomably expensive bicycles were costumes from another world. In short, we were super geeks. Which is a small price to pay, I guess, considering there were more jolly endorphins swimming through my bloodstream than the average heroin addict.

The next day our driver piloted a road that threatened to throw us all to our deaths as it climbed a steep-walled valley to the base of glacier-smothered Mount Ancohuma -- quite possibly the unacknowledged tallest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas, though no one here seems able to prove it. The driver possessed just the right combination of skill and absolute lack of fear behind the wheel to navigate Bolivia’s rough, ledgy jeep roads (Discovered! A bungee-jumping mountain goat’s paradise). She drove us deep into high Andean nowhere, past grazing llamas, stone and thatch huts, a ghost-town of wild dogs and an abandoned church, and finally a frigid creek-side camping spot.

I woke before the sun the following morning and took a walk deeper into the valley. Came upon a forgotten (who’d ever known?) little mud-brick home built on the steep base a sharp green pyramid of a mountain. A frozen pond lay nearby with several llamas scattered about chewing grass. The valley and mountains and cold sky spread out forever from the front door. Faint wisps of smoke floated out of a thin metal chimney. A tall wooden pole was planted next to the home with a white cloth tied to the top blowing in the wind like a flag for a country of one.

As I walked by, all of the llamas cocked their necks, stood perfectly still and stared, their protruding lips sloppily masticating huge mouthfuls of grass and moss. The voices of young children playing carried from the home. They sounded happy. I stood and stared at the scene, enrapt with its hard, beautiful simplicity.

Had a good all-is-right-in-the-world walk back to camp were a disgruntled Team Orange was breaking down my tent, “Where have you been? We want to get going.” An hour or two later, bikes over backs, feet crunching atop green-yellow-purple brillo moss, we were marching slowly in a mountaineering half-step up a deep, craggy bowl. Our goal: follow a vague trail that scales the bowl’s wall, reach the ozone-piercing pass at its apex, and bomb down a jungle-bound footpath on the opposite side. A mountaineering friend of Alistair’s had tipped him off to the route. There was little doubt it had never been ridden.

Behind us llamas ruminated in the sun and beyond them brillo meadows stretched to lakes reflecting the sharp stabs of rock and ice towering above them. Moss turned to talus and Team Orange charged ahead. Lungs heaved in futile attempts at sucking oxygen from nothing. The climb was about as much fun as doing your own dental work, but when we gained the pass all was forgotten -- the nether opened to a gaping maw of a valley beset by icy plaque-encrusted black granite canines. Our trail appeared to drop through gentle pasture before hurling itself into an abrupt chasm the nature of which was concealed by an uproaring profusion of thick cloudrush. The edge of the world perhaps? It wasn’t hard to imagine a land of dinosaurs and saber-toothed tigers hidden below, undiscovered by man. Until now.

The meadow was smooth, undulating and fast. Everyone seemed to take a different line, weaving between llamas and a steady fusillade of rocks and small boulders. The best rocks allowed you to pop off into grassy-soft landings. We blew massive quantities of film, pausing in giddy awe every few minutes and looking at each other, as if to confirm that, yes, this is the most incredible place I’ve ever ridden too.

We stopped at the chasm’s edge, cloud threatening to engulf us, snow-frosted rock spears peering through the mist, and saw the trail drop its rocky haphazard course into the abyss. As we descended the valley grew sharper and squeezed in on us, our path barely etched into its walls. The trail was getting ugly, tumbling down rock staircases and sharp, water-slicked ledges. Riding trails like these, far from doctors who don’t believe dancing naked around dried puma testicles can cure shattered collarbones, the wise rider reins in the adrenaline and plays it safe.

Picking my way down a chaotic jumble of stone, my front wheel stopped sharply on a high flat-faced rock. Suspended in space, I had a second to ponder my soon-to-be-incredibly-painful lack of wisdom -- perched in a precarious nose-wheelie, body tensed, hoping somehow...The flip came violent and fast. Into a steep rock field, bike crashing over from behind.

Pete, ever compassionate, complimented my form, “Well, it looked good.”

But it wasn’t worth it. My right hand was mangled. As Alistair prepared dinner that evening, our camp a grassy river-side clearing deep in the cloudforest, I sat in the jeep cursing the evil sport of mountain biking. My hand looked like a discolored plum with fingers. The worst had happened -- I was off the expedition.

Team Orange blazed on, exploring the Andes under Alistair’s lead, while I holed up at his apartment roasting marshmallows on unused spokes in the fireplace. It was depressing missing the trip, but wandering the streets and slums of La Paz shooting photographs, dining on $1.50 4-course lunches, getting caught in tear-gas attacks on rioting students, and sparking an epic, rambling fireworks battle with a group of fellow traveling malcontents across the streets and plazas of downtown, kept things interesting. And then, plum returned to hand, it was again time to ride.

In an effort to ease back into the game, I opted for a road ride. A ragged, serpentine road of mud and dust that rockets down 11,000 feet in 49 miles, from a frozen, desolate pass through cloud and cloudforest and waterfalls that land mid-road, into muggy tangles of jungle that spill over the roadside like groping green tentacles. Road biking Bolivian style. Tagged the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” by the Inter-American Bank, it features 10-foot widths, sheer 1000-foot drops, and a multitude of small white crosses to remind drivers of the motorcycles, jeeps, and buses full of people that routinely pitch off its precipices. In short, it’s a bitch to drive, but a rip-roaring hoot of a ride.

Three of Alistair’s guides -- Aaron, G, and Baron, the last of whom had apparently had Sammy Haggar’s cryogenically preserved hair from the “I Can’t Drive 55” video grafted to his scalp -- decided to join me. The very top section is paved black and smooth and we tucked tightly in streaking competition for pole position, leaning turns hard as the road snaked through rows of hulking gunmetal grey mount after peak.

Then we saw it. Ahead where the valley floor greened and broadened, a mountainside rose wall-like for a near vertical mile into a savage cluster of peaks -- and up its face carved a trail. Everyone stopped and stared. It was a horrible, magnificent etching, cutting back and forth on itself up the impossible. We later learned it was an old mule trail locals had made to reach a high cirque, where they chipped ice from a glacier for the multi-day haul back down to the La Paz markets. But all we knew in that moment was it had to be ridden.

Muscling our way up felt like a form of Incan punishment: “Now the white men will climb the impossible mountain carrying on their backs the specially designed pointy metal torture devices. Ha, ha, ha...” The bad news was our incredible distance from the earth’s core wasn’t diminishing gravity’s vicious pull on our slowly plodding bodies. The good news was that the trail beneath our feet was the sweetest slice of plummeting hairpin-switchbacking world-falling-away-into-Andean-mountainscape mountain-biking nirvana imaginable.

A day later, high on the summit of Mount Chacaltaya, the highest altitude of my Bolivian odyssey, that familiar tag-team of rarefied air and incessant gravity had me pinned in the aforementioned swirling daze. Come feed Bolivia’s newest tourist attraction: the shale-eating gringo who lives sprawled on his back atop Mount Chacaltaya! Alistair and I had already hiked and skied a glacier on the mountain’s south face -- technically the world’s highest ski area -- that morning, but now, once again, mountain-biking nirvana beckoned.

Alistair, after helping peel my spine from the mountain, dropped into the scree slope first. Seat lowered to toptube, he locked his rear wheel and attempted valiantly to control his slide. I plunged after him in a screaming straightline, eventually catapulting over the bars while attempting to rein in speed. The only way to restart was to point your bike down the fall line, plant your butt on the rear tire, click one foot into its pedal and, while choking down any insurgent fear, lift off with the other foot.

Shot straight onto an old mining road coiling up the mountain’s base and streaked for hours down a virtual BMX course of banked turns and perfectly sloped airs, along snow-fringed lakes and towering cliff faces; towards the ever-nearing city below and into its outskirts of Indian women herding sheep, dogs scavenging in trash heaps, and ramshackle factories; through unmarked alleys and footpaths and culverts down canyon walls into the fast entropic streets of central La Paz where bikes are unheard of; ducking between cars and veering buses, slicing through pedestrians-children-police, airing speed bumps -- surfing beautiful, ugly Third World chaos the way only a bicycle can.

After a night of intensive pizza gorging and a deep coma we took a day to rest life into legs and dial our bikes for the last ride of the trip -- Alistair’s biggest score in his year of scouting routes, the granddaddy kingpin of Bolivian downhills -- the Taquesi Trail. One of a mind-boggling network of pre-hispanic “paved” trails that web Bolivia’s mountains, it cuts up and across a 15,000-foot pass before plunging through cleavered cloudforest valleys for more than 9,000 ferociously-technical feet in less than 17 miles. Take the steepest, rockiest trail you’ve ever ridden; combine it with the tightest, most exposed trail you’ve ever ridden. Throw in the ghosts of an ancient civilization and the biggest, most-savagely beautiful landscape imaginable. Shake, stir, and descend for 12 straight hours. That’s the Taquesi.

Sitting at the pass after the requisite lung-busting hike (much eased for me by the Indian boy from Heaven who’d carried my bike for $2), we gazed out at sharp ridges rising above as they spilled off frozen peaks both seen and unseen and sank into the labyrinthine blue depths of misty cloudforest ravines and, in the distance, the soft white cloudcover of the Amazon. Tumbling through it all an ancient trail -- and nearly 10,000 feet below, a rickety wooden bridge spanning a rush of whitewater awaited our arrival.

After several miles of steep zig-zagging stone paving we came to the village of Taquesi. Llamas grazed, a woman and her small children tending a patch of potatoes tried not to stare as we passed. Little more than a small cluster of stone and thatch huts, life there has changed little since its ancestors built this trail. Though the Incas ruled here 800 years ago, archeologists agree much of the paving in Bolivia pre-dates their empire. To Bolivians the trails are as old as the mountains themselves, used for untold centuries by llama hooves and sandaled feet to move across this impassable land.

And down its twisted path we plunged. Alistair suffered a total front-disk-brake meltdown. “Well this is going to be interesting,” he decided, and had to ride the lower half with only a rear. The air turned liquid, trailside grew into cloudforest, and our paved path transformed into a thin dirt seam overhanging the jungled depths below. And we rode and rode, picking and jabbing forever down until muscles we didn’t know we had screamed for mercy and this writer wore blisters on his braking fingers.

After crossing the river at trail’s end, riding the last stretch of dirt road to our jeep -- twilight air turning a cool misty blue, jungle spilling and arching over our heads -- fireflies sparked along the greenery like dancing beacons. Above, back from where we’d come, a snow-mantled peak emerged through dark blue clouds and night’s eager stars began pricking the sky. Though we were all utterly and completely shattered, all thoughts of “must...reach...jeep” were lost in the pure perfection of the moment.

Waking up the next morning in a $2 room in the village of Yanacachi, a breeze blowing the songs of birds and frogs through the open window above my bed, I looked out across towering green valley walls and smiled as my mind flashed back on the previous day. Damn if I hadn’t just ridden the best downhill on the planet. And I had the blisters on my fingers to prove it.

411
Getting There:
While riding your bike is undeniably the coolest way to get to Bolivia, flying there in airplanes seems to fit better in most people’s schedules. American Airlines is the way to go. They offer one flight a day from Miami and have a convenient office in downtown La Paz if you need to adjust your itinerary.

When:
The rainy season lasts from November to March, give or take a few weeks, when daily downpours are the norm. Cool sunny days the rest of the year are ideal for riding. It gets cold and windy in the high mountains and muggy in the cloud and rainforest year round.

Guides:
The beauty of Bolivia is its omnipresent network of foot trails and Incan and pre-Incan pathways. No one knows them better for biking than Alistair. He has a 13-day trip that covers the rides you just read about and a variety of ripping single-day trips down The World’s Most Dangerous Road, Chacaltaya, etc. Kona, Hayes, Marzocchi, Dragon and 661 keep him dialed with bikes and good parts. Contact him at (591-2) 2-313849, gravity@unete.com, or view www.gravitybolivia.com

Gear:
It can be hard to find basic items in Bolivia. If, for instance, you lose your fleece, destroy your headset, and snap your Oakleys, all in the first three days of arriving (thank you very much), you are up a certain well-known creek. If, on the other hand, you need llama fetuses, coca leaves, Panoasonic (sic) radios, simply head to the street markets. In other words: bring all your own gear, for bike and body.

Money, Accommodations, and Culture:
Bolivia is one of the cheapest countries in the world to travel in and often the accommodations are clean and comfortable. Other times they are not. This is particularly true outside of the cities, where life is simple and the people are proud -- and often misinterpreted as cold. They are warm to travelers who treat them with respect. Please do so.

NOTE: The Taquesi trail is currently closed to mountain bikers during discussions with park officials about access rules. However Gravity has recently been granted limited access to help develop the trail for mountain biking. Please email us in advance if you would like to ride this incredible trail and we will negotiate an access permit.

To contact the author of this article email: digaaron@yahoo.com


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