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?


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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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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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