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

Alan Burt, 30, is a burly Scotsman who talks softly and carries his decade of guiding experience solemnly, if lightly. Burt was the first person I met when I went to the Adventure World "base"—a sprawling open-air bar, restaurant, and T-shirt shop with gymnasium-size locker rooms and gear rooms in the basement. He also turned out to be the only person employed by Adventure World willing to speak frankly and openly about the company and the accident. After five years with Adventure World, he had given his notice and was heading for Asia in three weeks with plans to start his own adventure company in Nepal.

"What I believe," Burt said, "is that there's an element of truth in what people are saying about the financial concerns overtaking the safety standards at Adventure World. But it wasn't only the money. There was a macho attitude in the company, an attitude that slowly turned into arrogance, which is very dangerous when you're taking people's lives into your own hands every day."

Burt echoed Erikson and Clarke's allegations about the prevalence of inexperienced guides at Adventure World. "I call it the Lowering Loop Syndrome," he said. "In the beginning, very experienced guides, guides with ten years' experience, teach novice guides. Once the novices have two or three years' experience—and if the older guides have been pushed out—they teach the novices. Pretty soon, with more client pressure, you have guides with only one or two years of experience teaching novices. Seven of the eight guides in the canyon on the day of the accident were first-year guides."

Burt sighed and dropped his head. He was speaking the truth as he saw it, but he knew he would be labeled a traitor by some of his former colleagues.

"With the experience those guides had, they couldn't have known what was going to happen," he went on. "It is the responsibility of the company to educate the guides about all the possibilities, and they did not do this." Burt paused and then said, "Even still, you know I have to say that Adventure World is, in fact, one of the safest operations in the business."

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