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‘Death Road’ claims life of U.S. mountain biker

A U.S. tourist has been killed after losing control of his mountain bike and plunging off a cliff while biking down Bolivia's treacherous "Highway of Death," rescue officials said Monday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A U.S. tourist killed in a Bolivian mountain-biking accident was a casualty of what is quickly becoming one of the country’s leading tourist attractions: a thrilling ride down the so-called “Highway of Death.”

Kenneth Mitchell died Saturday after tumbling from his rented bicycle and falling down a 60-meter (200-foot) cliff, said Alistair Matthew, founder of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, the La Paz-based outfitter which led Mitchell’s trip.

Mitchell is the 12th cyclist to die on the road in the last decade.

The cause of the accident was unknown. Mitchell’s bike, left behind at the cliff’s edge, was still in perfect working order, Matthew said.

“It is a shock,” Matthew told The Associated Press. “He was not riding crazy. He was riding confidently.”

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz confirmed the 56-year-old Mitchell’s death but declined to release his hometown.

The highway east from La Paz — the world’s highest capital city — winds dramatically down the face of the Andes, dropping 3,600 meters (11,800 feet) in just 64 kilometers (40 miles).

The narrow dirt track earned its macabre nickname for the frequency with which Bolivian buses would plunge off its 1,000-meter (3,300-foot) cliffs, killing hundreds a year until a new paved highway opened 2007.

But the old route’s stunning vistas and hairpin turns are drawing a growing number of thrill-seekers from around the world.

Matthew’s company was the first to turn the highway into a tourist attraction, leading just a few hundred daring cyclists down the road in 1998.

Ten years later, he estimates some 25,000 riders of all experience levels braved the road last year with as many as 15 different outfitters.

In hostels and bars throughout Bolivia, travelers rave about the ride and proudly sport their souvenir T-shirts. But for some cyclists, the “Camino de la Muerte,” or Highway of Death, lives up to its name.

Mitchell’s death is the first fatality for Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, whose guides plan a team ride down the road later this week to reflect on the accident.

“The risks can be minimized. They can’t be eliminated,” Matthew said. “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.”