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

It was raining and there was lightning as we drove up to the canyon," says Kelly Brajkovich of the day 21 young people died this summer in Switzerland's canyoning disaster. "There were four groups, and we were the first group to go in. By the time we were in the canyon, it was raining hard and it was very dark. I didn't have any idea what canyoning was—a lot of people had no idea what it was. It just sounded fun. We were just trusting our guides."

On the afternoon of July 27, the 21-year-old Australian and 44 other tourists paid $60 each for a two-hour canyoning trip with Adventure World, a guiding company based in Interlaken, Switzerland.

Canyoning—or canyoneering, as the sport is called in the United States—combines the outdoor skills of climbing, caving, and reading a river. The goal is to descend the section of a small river that drops through a walled canyon. The river is too steep to kayak or raft, so you walk, wade, swim, rappel over waterfalls, jump off boulders into deep pools, float through rapids, and slide down rock chutes. Participants wear wetsuits, helmets, life jackets, and climbing harnesses. Given good weather and experienced guides, canyoning is no more dangerous than rock climbing. A few choking mouthfuls of water, bumps and bruises, perhaps a sprained ankle are typically the worst mishaps that befall canyoneers.

Brajkovich, accompanied by ten friends and two Adventure World guides, entered the Saxeten River at 4:30 p.m. Over the next 45 minutes, three more groups each consisting of ten to 12 clients and two Adventure World guides—53 people in total—began a descent of the Saxeten River.

At 5:40, Brajkovich's team was trying to cross a rough section of the river the guides call The Fridge, a place where you must lower yourself into the freezing water until your head is just above the surface, press your cheek against a streaming boulder, and then pull yourself along behind a pounding waterfall.

"I volunteered to go first," Brajkovich recalls. "One guide, Karin Müller, was on the opposite bank, and the other guide, Mike Abbott, helped me get under the waterfall. But I didn't make it across. I got pushed under about four times and was almost drowning, so Mike pulled me out."

Brajkovich had collapsed on the bank and was trying to catch her breath when she heard Abbott scream, "Get out of the water!"

"I looked up and saw a two-meter high wave, like an avalanche, brown thick water with everything in it, boulders and logs, coming right at us," says Brajkovich.

Müller jumped in and dragged a client named Nigel Mitchell out of The Fridge, and the group scrambled up the banks as the wall of dark water and deadly debris bulldozed down the river. Brajkovich saw four or five people from the next group upriver tumble past in the torrent. Abbott and another guide who had managed to drag himself out of the deluge began running downstream toward an eddy where they guessed survivors might get stalled. When they slid down the mud walls they found three clients circling in the whirlpool, barely alive, and pulled them out.

Meanwhile, at the waterfall, Müller jumped back into the thundering flood and pulled another client to safety. Almost immediately, the 30-year-old guide turned around and did it again. The fourth time she entered the dark water to try to save a victim being carried past, the current caught her and swept her away forever.

The youngest to die was 19, the oldest 31. Eighteen clients and three guides. Fourteen Australians, two Swiss, two New Zealanders, two South Africans, and one Brit. It was the worst canyoning accident in history. At least initially, the flash flood that came tearing down Saxeten Canyon seemed to be a random natural catastrophe—an act of God as unpredictable and unforeseeable as an earthquake. But it may have been something worse.