From the picturesque Swiss town of Interlaken, the craggy thrust of Jungfrau peak looms almost 12,000 feet overhead. Around 4 p.m. on Tuesday, July 27, Heinz Loosli looked up toward the peak at a formation of clouds gathering. For Loosli, 36, this was a bad sign. His company, Alpin Raft, one of a handful of adventure-sports outfits that have made this Alpine hamlet a mecca for adrenaline junkies, had contracted to take a group of young travelers into nearby Saxeten River Gorge, a steep, narrow canyon just south of the town. The ravine is one of the world's most popular sites for "canyoning" (canyoneering is the American term), the new high-risk, high-thrill sport that combines rock climbing, hiking and white-water river running. As he saw the clouds forming, Loosli considered the odds. In a gorge that narrow, any flash storm could be a disaster. He canceled the trip.
At about 4:30 p.m., eight guides employed by Adventure World, a rival outfit, led a group of 45 travelers, dressed in wet suits, helmets and life jackets, down into the ravine. Most were young tourists from Australia, New Zealand and England, whose numbers swell the area's youth hostels and pubs all summer. With varying levels of outdoors experience and, according to one, no special instruction from Adventure World, the group members paid about $60 each for a 90-minute spree through the white-water spills of an Alpine canyon. They split up into four groups of 11 or 12, each with two guides, for the wet and exhilarating 400-yard descent to the calm waters of Lake Brienz. As they began their trek, the sky opened briefly, but the rains ceased almost at once. From the bottom of the canyon, they had a limited view of the weather conditions overhead or any activity in the river upstream. But history was on their side. Since 1993, Adventure World says, it has led more than 36,000 canyoneers, with no mishap more serious than a broken leg. As the outfitter's literature beckoned, "Our veteran guides will ensure your safety as you have the time of your life." But on this day, the company that usually photographs Adventure World trips withdrew its photographer because of the weather.
At around 6 p.m., Andreas Haesler was jogging alongside the Saxeten where it empties into Lake Brienz when he noticed a cluster of strange shapes in the water. The current coming down the river had turned black with mud, and was carrying rocks and huge pieces of wood. Gradually, Haesler was able to make out two bodies, one on its stomach, one on its back. They were held afloat by their life jackets, but they were both dead. More bodies followed. In the next few hours, teams of emergency-rescue workers found a total of 19, some so badly disfigured that they will have to be identified by DNA or dental records. Another body was found four days later, and at press time one person was still missing. The survivors told a harrowing tale of a river turned suddenly malignant. As Dr. Manfred Studer, who treated survivors at Interlaken Regional Hospital, told reporters, "They heard no noise. All of a sudden they saw a wall of black water coming on them and that's it."
As searchers continued to comb the river, locals wondered how an experienced operator could have led a group down into the canyon under such precarious weather conditions. Swiss authorities say they have launched an investigation into whether to charge five of the surviving Adventure World guides with criminal negligence. The company declined all requests for interviews, saying in a statement that it was "sincerely interested in having the investigation proceed as fast as possible, so that we can give answers to the question posed to us by [the] authorities."
Canyoneering is a sport so new it lacks even a coherent definition. In the United States, only a small handful of outfitters lead organized expeditions, mostly in Utah and Arizona, and usually in dry or flat-bottomed canyons. Inside the steep-walled gorges, hikers walk, swim or rappel to ever more remote stretches of wilderness. "It's definitely an adventure sport like rock climbing or mountain biking," says Rich Carlson, who leads trips in the canyons of Arizona. "But I don't consider it an extreme sport. To me, those are the nuts who jump out of airplanes with snowboards." Its appeal, he says, is to serious outdoorsmen and -women who want to explore unspoiled natural areas, away from the crowds now glutting national parks.
Even at its gentlest, canyoneering can be unpredictably dangerous. In 1997, 11 hikers died during a flash flood in the Lower Antelope Canyon in Arizona, ordinarily a dry, easy hike favored by families and neophytes. When an unexpected storm flooded the canyon, the hikers were trapped. In canyons with streams, hikers look out for telltale traces of mud suddenly churning in the water. Once they appear, says Cheto Olais, chief ranger in Utah's Zion National Park, "it's not a matter of minutes. It's a matter of seconds [before] a big wall of water is coming at you." Because the sport is so new, the tour operators are wholly unregulated. "To be honest," says Matt Moore, who runs an outfitter called Desert High Lights in Moab, Utah, "anyone can go to the chamber of commerce and get a business license and start a guiding service.''
In Europe, the action is vastly more popular. And it's a lot hairier. The Interlaken area alone boasts three outfitters offering quick canyon thrills: afternoons spent rappelling over waterfalls, sliding down white-water rapids and plunging into still pools. Because outfitters take care of all the details, the sport has become a draw for thrill seekers whose appetite for adventure often exceeds their skills. "[Europeans'] idea of extreme is different," says Bethany Jenkins, an Oregon climber who hiked in the Swiss Alps last fall. "They go for more of an adrenaline rush than for a wilderness experience. You go to a resort area, and you see ads for parapenting [parachuting off mountain peaks] and ice climbing with chicks in sports bras. It's advertised like an amusement park."
In Saxeten Gorge, the first challenge for canyoneers comes just a few minutes into the Adventure World itinerary, as they rappel 35 feet down a rope fixed to a sheer cliff face. But for most of its course, the canyon walls are gradually sloped, giving hikers a chance to scramble to safety if the river suddenly surges. "There's about 100 meters [330 feet] where there's no possibility to [climb away from] danger," says Otto Von Allmen, head of the police investigation team on the gorge. "The problem is [being there] when big waves of water arrive."
Adventure World touts its track record for safety, especially given the inherent risks. But last week a former guide named Dave Erikson told reporters that he quit the outfitter in 1996 after it started employing guides who lacked proper training or experience. "They were pushing younger, inexperienced people into the canyons to work," he was quoted as saying. "An experienced guide knows when to get out." At the same time, the Swiss Mountain Guides Association criticized the outfitter's training programs for its guides as "crash courses" and "inadequate."
Most troubling, a local fire official told reporters that he warned the Adventure World group about the approaching storm. "I couldn't stop them," said Martin Seemater, 43. "The leader said to me, 'We know what we're doing. We know our job'." Perhaps so. Swiss authorities say their investigation may take weeks or months to complete. "The question is whether they had knowledge of the weather conditions," says Stefan Blattler, head of the recovery and investigation effort. In the meantime, the ravine is closed to canyoning groups. Without the rowdy yells of thrill-seeking adventurers, its glacial grandeur is almost idyllic. Meanwhile, the business in neighboring canyons continues apace. And for those others who like their nature trips even more extreme, Loosli and others are happy to provide bungee jumping or parapenting a hilltop away.