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Tuesday 3 October 2023 Dublin: 11°C
# journey in bolivia
These Irish men drove Death Road, scaled a volcano... and made it home in one piece
The trio is already thinking of the next trip abroad.

014Wednesday Paul Doherty The road through the Andes Paul Doherty

‘You cover every possibility or everything that maybe could go wrong, but you’re never 100% sure of it’ – Les O’Donnell

THE INFAMOUS DEATH Road in Bolivia isn’t a place for nervous passengers – never mind nervous drivers.

The Yungus Road usually sees people travelling up it by bicycle, which makes it easier to stay away from the steep drops.

But three Irish men recently traversed it by jeep, during a three-part trip that saw them scale a volcano and left one of them suffering from altitude sickness.

The journey

Paul Doherty, Les O’Donnell and Denis Ferry had already taken in the Northern Lights during a 1,000-mile trek over Alaska’s ice roads (in the name of charity) last year.

This time, they headed to different heights: Bolivia.

They were already nervous about tackling the road – but when they got there, they discovered there had been a landslide about 5km from the top.

“Near the top of it is the most dangerous area – you can see all the crosses along the road where people have perished throughout the years,” said O’Donnell.

“We started at the bottom and worked our way up. It’s amazing – you basically start in the jungle and you work your way up and then you come into the clouds,” recalled Doherty.

When they reached the landslide, people told them “there is no way you are going to get through it” and “you might as well turn around”.

But still, they ploughed on – under waterfalls, along the narrow rock-strewn road.

Paul Doherty / YouTube

“It’s difficult to breathe”

They drove through fog for quite a bit of the journey, which surely must have made things even more nail-biting. “It’s good fun when it’s a 2000ft drop to your left hand side,
then you’re on top of the clouds,” said Paul, recounting how they drove from 1000 to 15,000 feet.

“It’s difficult to breathe at the 15,000 mark but we were OK because we were sitting in the jeep,” said Doherty.

“Donegal roads aren’t the best roads in the country, so we’re used to bad roads,” said O’Donnell, tongue firmly in cheek, about 60% of the roads. “The other 40% were terrifying.”

“It was a surreal experience,” remembered Doherty.

It got even more surreal when they travelled up the volcano on the second leg.

Volcano trails

014Thursday The mud hut they slept in

The second leg brought them to a Sajama National Park, and up a volcano.

They made the trip in a Toyota Land Cruiser, sponsored by Kelly’s Toyota in Letterkenny, and Les and Denis are both dab hands with mechanics.

They were thankful of that big car as they trekked through the park (which cost the equivalent of 20c to enter).

They stayed in a mud hut with a thatched roof in the park, and feasted on local food and drink that cost them €5 for the night. “It was amazing,” said Doherty, saying they went to bed fully clothed, wearing clothes made from deer fur that they bought locally. They also had clothes that were supplied by Carhartt.

Which is just as well, as one has to wonder how the clothing they bought there fitted, as the local people were extremely friendly – and small. “I’m not the tallest person going but I had to duck going into doors,” laughed Doherty. “The tallest person we met was abut 5ft.”

That was the beginning of their trek 17,541ft up the Sajama volcano – beating the Top Gear programme, which climbed a nearby but smaller volcano.

Journey to the ridge


Jason Black, an Everest climber, gave them tips on scaling the volcano.

“We didn’t realise until we were up there how the altitude sickness can affect you,” said O’Donnell.

He experienced a bleeding nostril for a week due to the altitude.

What was the journey like? “It was pretty intense,” said Doherty. “You are kind of on a buzz – you have adrenaline pumping through you.”

When they watched back footage, the could hear themselves breathing very heavily, which was due to the low oxygen levels up the volcano. At the time, they didn’t even notice they were out of breath.

But with all of his hopping in and out of the jeep to film and take photographs, Doherty ended up exerting a lot of energy, and wound up with altitude sickness.

They had brought oxygen and oxygen meters with them, so they could test their levels of O2. “Mine had fallen to 72, which is pretty bad,” said Doherty.

The altitude sickness started with a sore head. “What is actually happening is your brain starts to swell. You’re not just as sharp as you would be,” said Doherty.

The only cure for altitude sickness is to go down, and gradually the descent helped him feel better.

They certainly put the car through its paces. “We actually got stuck a few times and we had to lower the pressure of the tyre,” said Doherty. “We were basically driving on four flat wheels on the way up.” This helped the tyres get more grip.

016 Thursday 043023011607 043023011607

Doherty describes the journey as “great fun – something you will never forget”.

I could show you all the pictures in the world of the jungle and from the top of the volcano, but until you’re there and you can smell it… If you could take the smell home with you, you would.

One bit he wouldn’t bring home, however, is the mysterious hissing he heard while setting up his tripod to film in the jungle… “I moved to other side of road, and got camera set up very quickly,” laughed Doherty.

Les O’Donnell said that this trip was tougher than their ice trek journey. “It was definitely tougher from an altitude point of view, and the language barrier, and we just weren’t sure about the road network and security in the country.”

In addition, they only had eight days for the trip, with six on the ground and two travelling.

The three men have the full support of their family. “They know there’s a risk there but at the same time they know we’re not goin gto do stomething stupid,” said O’Donnell.

The adventurous trio is already thinking about the next trip, and expect it will be another charity venture – but it won’t be for another two years, the friends reckon.

Sounds like they’re due a good break alright.

Read:  “We like to challenge ourselves”: Donegal trio set to brave the infamous Death Road>

Read: Passengers watch as bus plunges from Bolivia’s ‘death road’>

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