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

After the accident, the police closed off the Saxeten River to canyoning, but Burt and a fellow guide agreed to take me down the canyon. As canyons go, it was a piece of cake: a couple of whippy rock slides, a couple of big jumps, a slick 25-foot rappel, a few cold waterfalls to squeeze behind. The trip took less than two hours. I could see how it could be the highlight of someone's European vacation. But the Saxeten, like every other wild river on earth, is not an amusement park water slide.

Burt had been the first person on the scene after the accident. He halted where each group had been hit by the flash flood and explained in minute detail what happened. His voice was almost inaudible over the roar of the river. His sentences sometimes trailed off in grief.

On the day of the accident, the weather report called for localized thunderstorms. Shortly after four that afternoon, according to Burt, Adventure World senior guide Benny Steuri and operations manager Beni Gafner drove up to the Saxeten Canyon and gave the go-ahead to the groups waiting to descend. (On other occasions, Adventure World had canceled trips due to a threat of high water.)

The Saxeten Canyon is not a slot canyon. Only in a 100-meter-long middle section does the river pass through a true canyon, where exiting up the cavernous sidewalls is impossible. When the wave struck, Kelly Brajkovich's group was in the lower third of the river, and the last group in was descending the top third of the river, which is why guide Karin Müller was the only fatality from those two groups. Horrible timing caught the other two groups in the only part of the canyon where it is impossible to clamber up the banks to safety.

Just minutes earlier, as group four was entering the canyon, it was stopped by Martin Seematter, a volunteer firefighter from a village upstream of the canyon. Seematter says he told the group that there was a severe thunderstorm higher in the valley and that they should not enter the canyon, but the guides told him they knew what they were doing, knew this canyon, and were going in.

At about the same time that Steuri and Gafner were giving the Adventure World guides the green light, Hienz Loosli, owner of Alpin Raft, the only other company that offered canyoning excursions down Saxeten Canyon, canceled his late-afternoon trip. "It was black as hell up there," he recalls. "We could see it. There's just one rule: Never be in a canyon in a storm."

Loosli, 36, has been operating in Interlaken for 11 years. He employs 20 guides, most of whom, he says, have at least four or five years of experience. He runs his company out of a space hardly bigger than a storefront and still regularly guides personally.

Despite criticism from some members of the Interlaken business community, Loosli insists on speaking his mind. "I believe we are responsible to get the truth on the table for those parents who lost their sons and daughters," he told me. "The main point is this accident didn't happen on the 27th of July. It was created over years."

Shortly after the accident, a rumor started circulating in Interlaken: A natural dam high in the Saxeten watershed had burst, sending the deadly wave down the canyon. Loosli rejected this rumor.

"In this kind of storm, a wave is not unusual," he declared. "I have seen it before. It just pours down and the ground can't absorb the water so it all runs into the gorge and the wave starts to build up. Water comes from all sides and starts pushing gravel and boulders, even trees. The wave grows bigger and bigger. Everybody knows about the wave phenomenon in Saxeten Canyon. It was not a freak accident."

The Swiss police agree. A month after the disaster, they released a preliminary report that repudiates rumors that the brook could have been dammed up by rubble or tree trunks before the accident, which would have caused the wave that surprised the participants on the canyoning trip. The report states, "Based on careful and precise investigations, this thesis is not legitimate; furthermore, 'the wave' occurs annually, sometimes several times a year in the Saxeten Canyon, and is a well-known phenomenon....The thunderstorm was the cause of the wave and the accident."

"Felix Oehler and Beni Gafner, the operations managers at Adventure, and the lead guide, Benny Steuri, definitely knew about the wave," says Dave Erikson. "Perhaps the guides in the canyon didn't know. They were told to go, so they went."

The police report goes on to say that the three owners of Adventure World, two operations managers, one lead guide, and the five guides who survived the accident are suspects in the ongoing investigation. Among the possible criminal charges is "manslaughter through culpable negligence."

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