A Storm in the Distance

The come-on: Grab two hours of challenging fun and fast adventure. But when a dark wall of water swept away lives and reputations, the question became: Why?

Nov 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

Was the Saxeten canyoneering tragedy preventable? Ultimately, a Swiss court may offer its answer. Whether or not there was "culpable negligence," up until this accident Adventure World had an almost flawless guiding record. Now it has become a symbol of the disasters that lurk when the explosive popularity of high-risk recreation undermines simple safety standards.

In part due to magazines like this one, adventure travel has become big, big business. According to a new report by the Travel Industry Association of America, almost 31 million Americans have been on a "hard adventure" trip. More and more beginners are trying mountain climbing, caving, and kayaking, sports where proper training and experience are a matter of life or death. With skyrocketing participation, the number of fatalities also continues to rise. In Switzerland alone, 106 people died in the mountains in 1998. Adventure, by definition, entails risk, so some accidents are inevitable, but many others—including several recent, extremely well publicized disasters—have clearly been preventable. Which means that the onus falls on the industry itself to adequately protect nascent adventurers.

How? First, adventure companies must require that their guides be highly trained and highly experienced. There are no substitutes for miles in the mountains (or on the rivers or in the canyons). This combination of experience and expertise must be verified and certified. A paradigm already exists in the standards set by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association. It takes three to seven years to become a certified IFMGA guide. It is as difficult as getting a college degree. You must log not hundreds of hours, but hundreds of days in the mountains. The best IFMGA guides become masters of all aspects of the alpine experience—downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, mountaineering, ice climbing, rock climbing, and glacier travel. Most important, they learn how to read the weather, how to read the conditions, how to read their clients, and how to know when—if any one of these factors is not right—to turn around.

Second, it is morally imperative that all outfitters create an atmosphere in which guides know they'll be backed up if they pull the plug on any trip, at any time, when they believe the risks have become too great. As for the guides, they must have the courage and integrity to live and work with a code of professional ethics that puts reasonable client safety above any other goal, no matter what the boss says.

Finally, for those of you who are planning a guided adventure, the job of a guide—lest we forget—is not to get you up a mountain or down a canyon, but to take you as far as you are physically and technically capable of going, and then get you home alive. Don't expect a guide to know your limits, and never give up your most fundamental outdoor asset: common sense.

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