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

Over the past decade, Interlaken, an idyllic Swiss town in the heart of the Alps, has become the adventure capital of Europe. On any clear summer day you can watch adventurers falling slowly from the sky suspended below nylon pillows, catch the screams of helmet-clad rafters hurtling down the Lutschine River, or pick out spiderlike specks scaling the surrounding rock walls.

"For college-age kids, Interlaken is on the circuit," says Julie Paterson, 32, a rafting guide from New Zealand who works for Alpin Raft, another Interlaken adventure company. "They go to Amsterdam to do drugs, Munich to drink beer, Pamplona to run with the bulls—and they come to Interlaken to have an adventure." It's all here: bungee jumping, river rafting, canyoning, mountaineering, sky diving, paragliding. From late May through late September the hostels and hotels buzz with young people anticipating the intoxicating rush of adrenaline—and the chance to tell their tale over multiple mugs of beer in the bar. No experience necessary, just the ability to sign the Visa receipt.

"Our goal," says Georg Hoedle, 35, cofounder of Adventure World, the largest adventure corporation in Interlaken and one of the largest operations in Europe, "is to bring the sensation of nature to a broad audience, not just to climbers, but to everybody. Our company targets ordinary people who have no previous knowledge of the activity. We supply the gear and the guides. They can go for an adventure the same day they sign up."

Hoedle, a square-jawed, handsome, former Swiss mountain guide, started Adventure World with two partners, Peter Balmer and Stephan Friedli, seven years ago. "We've had over 100,000 clients in the past six years," he told me when I visited Interlaken in August, "and up until this accident, a broken leg was the most serious injury."

When I asked him to outline the accident, Hoedle became much more circumspect. The subject seemed to exhaust him.

"We are under criminal investigation by the Swiss police, and I can't talk about it," he replied, adding that the company is cooperating fully with the authorities. "All I can tell you is that it was a freak accident, completely unpredictable, similar to a rockfall. Adventure World is the safest, most professional water adventure company in the world. We ran over 35,000 people through the Saxeten before this accident occurred."

Adventure World employs 44 guides. I asked Hoedle how those who do canyoning are trained.

"First, they must have some background in river sports—usually kayaking or rafting. Second, they must take a one-week intensive course in Corsica, where they are trained in such areas as water dynamics, rescue, leadership, first aid, and rope handling. Third, they must make 20 to 50 trips down the Saxeten River as an assistant guide working with a more experienced guide."

Later, however, as I investigated the history of Adventure World and its policies, I heard allegations that cast doubt on the picture of experience and competence that Hoedle had painted.

When the company started in 1992, the only offering was bungee jumping. Two years later, Adventure World hired two professional guides from New Zealand, Dave Erikson and Jeff Clarke, to set up and run its canyoning and rafting programs.

"Jeff and I explored the Saxeten Canyon and put in the bolts and the safety lines," says Erikson, 42. "That first year, canyoning became so popular we were soon running three trips a day, plus we had all the rafting. It was a very busy place, and we were making great money."

Erikson and Clarke returned to Interlaken in the summer of 1995, but that season, Erikson says, he began to see changes in the company. "We were pushing big numbers now, sometimes 500 people in one day. Because of the pressure of the numbers, the top guides couldn't handle it all, and we started using secondary guides. Things were getting out of hand. Jeff and I basically wrote the safety and evacuation procedures, and I was concerned about the safety of the clients." So concerned, in fact, that Erikson quit before the season was over.

But the following year, after Adventure World owners promised to hire more experienced guides and purchase better equipment, Erikson was persuaded to return. Both he and Clarke worked through the 1996 season. It would be Erikson's last with Adventure World.

"I could see something bad was going to happen, and I didn't want to be part of it," says Erikson. "There were just too many clients for the number of experienced guides. The company kept pushing less experienced guides. The owners were getting greedy. You don't have to pay inexperienced guides as much as experienced guides. Also, inexperienced guides will do just what you want them to do. They're yes-men."

Jeff Clarke says that he had the same worries, but he returned for two more summers because the money was good and he thought he could reverse the trend.

At first, "all the guides had six or seven years of experience and the company had very high standards," Clarke told me in a telephone interview from New Zealand, where he and Erikson currently run an international adventure safety consulting firm. "But then management saw they could hire new guides for less and the older guides started getting pushed out. There was so much overbooking that there was pressure to go when the weather wasn't right, and the company knew the new guides weren't going to stand up and say, 'No, I won't go.'

"I tried to tell them they were putting themselves further and further at risk. After five years, my reputation and my conscience got to me. The safety standards we set at the beginning had dropped so dramatically, I just left."

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