The finish line had been strategically placed. After four
hellish days navigating through southern Switzerland, the
winners of the inaugural Discovery Channel World Championship
Adventure Race would cross the line with the Matterhorn looming
in the background. All that race organizers Geoff Hunt and
Pascale Lorre needed for a picture-perfect finish was the
cooperation of the weather. However, this was not a race blessed
by good fortune or clement weather. When the four haggard,
sleep-deprived Finnish members of Team Nokia Adventure clasped
hands and finally walked their mountain bikes across the line,
four days and 58 minutes since the madcap glacial start, the
most recognizable mountain in the world was surrounded by storm
clouds. The same could be said of the first Discovery Channel
The event had begun with sunny skies and promises. Boasting what
was billed as the strongest adventure-racing field ever
assembled, the race was the culmination of the Adventure Race
World Series, a consortium of seven smaller races that Hunt and
Lorre put together this year to lend badly needed structure to
the sport. The seven winning teams in the feeder races had their
$7,000 entry fees waived and were given $5,000 in travel
expenses to get to Switzerland; the seven runners-up were all
guaranteed spots in the field, and the other 27 entries were
each led by an adventure-race veteran. The best would compete
against the best.
Before the start Hunt, a New Zealander who has been involved in
adventure racing from the sport's fledgling days in the late
1980s, estimated that less than half the experienced field would
complete his predictably brutal course. "You expect a Kiwi
mentality in this race," said Martin Nieto, a native of Montreal
who was competing for Ukatak.com. "Really harsh, without much
support or safety."
Harsh was putting it mildly. The course covered 261 miles of
mountain-goat terrain that included 62,000 vertical feet of
ascents and descents through the Swiss Alps by foot, bike, rope
and raft. "Nothing is flat in Switzerland," said Rebecca Rusch,
33, the captain of Pearl Izumi/Sealskinz, the U.S. team that
would tie for third. "You're either going up or going down."
September 16, 2001
It was down to begin with, a big factor in the early attrition.
Yelling and yodeling and vowing to kick some butt, the 41
four-person teams ran down the Piz Corvatsch glacier, high above
St. Moritz, setting a ruinous pace. The first 35-mile trekking
section involved three major climbs and four long descents and
turned out to be the hardest stage of the course. Ten teams
dropped out the first night, with competitors suffering
everything from testicular hernias to blown knees to altitude
sickness and hypothermia.
At 1 a.m. on Sept. 4, the race's second day, Geoffrey Kronenburg,
a 28-year-old Malaysian on Team Toyota 2020, collapsed, and for
2 1/2 hours he sat comatose in the mountains, his eyes wide open
but unseeing. Fearing Kronenburg was dead, team captain Chan
Yuen-Li touched his teammate's open eyeballs to try to get him to
blink. He didn't. Kronenburg was eventually airlifted to a
hospital, where for 48 hours he was treated for dehydration and
hypothermia before being released.
Sadly, it was not the last time the medevac would be called upon
that day. The fastest teams were not expected to reach the
second stage, the Via Mala gorge, until 6 a.m. on Day 2. But
having set such a furious pace at the start, they began showing
up three hours earlier, in the dark, at which point they donned
wet suits and life jackets and rappelled 70 meters off a bridge
into the gorge. Glacially fed, the water that ran through the
gorge was between 39[degrees] and 45[degrees]. The racers would
have to swim nearly two miles of it, a madness that's better
known as canyoneering.
Race rules mandated that competitors had to wait until 6 a.m. to
jump into the icy rapids, so nearly a dozen teams were curled up
on the wet rocks at the bottom of the gorge, waiting for the
first gray of dawn. Damp and cold, few could sleep, and most were
shivering and spent from the 20-hour trek even before entering
the tumbling river. A competitor from San Diego, Rasmus Hellberg,
33, of Team Epinephrine, had been vomiting much of the night and
was so dehydrated that the medical crew at Via Mala hooked him up
to an IV, which was still in his arm as he was climbing into his
wet suit. Team Epinephrine co-captain Paul Romero, a ski
patrolman and paramedic from Big Bear Lake, Calif., later called
it "ridiculous" to ask racers to trek 24 hours through high
altitude and then plunge into a frigid river. The wet suits
themselves were three millimeters thick, the minimum required by
race rules, a weight more suitable for summer surfing than for
protection against an hour-and-a-half immersion in bone-chilling
rapids. "I was scared for my team members when I dropped off
their equipment and looked down into that river," said Jennifer
Gay, a support crew member for Team Toyota 2020. "I was glad when
I learned they'd already dropped out."
There are accidents, and then there are accidents waiting to
happen. The early reviews of the canyoneering stage weren't good.
Cathy Sassin, 38, captain of Team Wigwam/Ultimax and a former
Southern Traverse champion, said after her swim, "I've never been
so hypothermic. I had to warm up for an hour before I even
reached the stage of uncontrollable shivering."
"It was very dangerous," agreed Rusch, who, along with her Pearl
Izumi teammate Patrick Harper, is a rafting guide in Sun Valley.
"We're river guides, and we understand that even a trickle of
water can hold a person under. That's the most dangerous
voluntary swim I've ever had. You're so cold, and there are tons
of boulders you had to float through with lots of spaces for foot
entanglement under rocks. When we got out, we couldn't talk,
couldn't walk; we were right on the edge of hypothermia. It was
outrageous, really dangerous and scary."
How dangerous was soon to be discovered. At 9:25 a.m., about two
hours after Rusch and her teammates had staggered out of the
water, a team from Great Britain called Mawn Y Wrach was bobbing
only yards from the takeout point. Carolyn Jones, 33, a former
British National Rowing Championships gold medalist from
Edinburgh, was floating on her back as she neared Discovery
Channel photographer Trevor Avedissian, who was filming that
portion of the river from a large rock in the middle. "She looked
disoriented and fatigued," said Avedissian. "She should have gone
to my right, but the current took her left. Two rocks were sort
of wedged together at the point where the current flowed through.
Earlier I was wondering what would happen if someone went in
Too late in recognizing the danger, Jones flipped onto her
stomach and weakly tried to swim away from the funnel. The
current, however, dragged her headfirst between the wedged rocks,
and she lodged there, her helmeted head submerged, the water
rushing over her back. Avedissian, who was working alone on that
section of the river, stopped filming and grabbed his radio.
"We've got a problem here," he called in, crying for immediate
help. One of Jones's teammates got caught in the same current and
was sucked in with her, but he was washed directly through and
spewed safely into the pool on the other side. Avedissian climbed
to a rock closer to Jones and, using the monopod attached to his
camera, reached out as far as he could to lift Jones's head out
of the water.
"I don't remember her struggling at all," he says. "If she hadn't
been so cold and tired, she might've had the energy to help
herself. That's when my camera broke off and fell into the river.
It was so frustrating because I had no leverage, and she was just
out of reach."
Responding to his radio calls, two other TV production people ran
down from their truck and tried to reach Jones by forming a human
chain. But the depth of the water and the power of the current
denied them. They had no ropes, no life jackets, no training.
Jones's teammates, Chris McSweeny, Keri James and Norman Dunroy,
were huddled on the shore, too cold to be of any help. "They were
watching in dumbfounded shock," Avedissian says. "They didn't
have any strength left."
By Avedissian's reckoning, it was 12 or 13 minutes before the
first safety officials arrived. (According to Hunt, three were
stationed on that two-mile section of river.) A few minutes later
race directors Hunt and Lorre arrived, too, having heard the Code
1 emergency alert while breakfasting at the Hotel Weiss Kreuz,
which is about 15 minutes away. Eventually seven or eight people,
including Hunt, a former river-rafting guide, attached a rope to
Jones's backpack and shifted the angle of her body so it popped
free. She had been underwater for 20 to 25 minutes.
For most of the next hour three doctors took turns applying CPR
to Jones's lifeless body. "One-two-three-four-five...
one-two-three-four-five..." could be heard above the roaring of
the river as they pumped on her chest. Jones's strawberry-blond
hair lay in a wet tangled mat on the rock beneath her bloodless
face, while her teammates, huddled beneath a wool blanket,
stared numbly at the rescue efforts. Paramedics who'd clambered
down the gorge from an ambulance administered an adrenaline shot
to Jones's heart, and between that and the CPR, they were able
to reestablish a pulse. Still, Jones lay motionless. At 11 a.m.,
an hour and a half after she first got wedged between the rocks,
Jones was airlifted to a hospital in Chur, where, as of Monday,
six days after the accident, she remained comatose, in critical
but stable condition.
The race continued, a blizzard forcing teams to lug their bikes
through deep snow in the high mountain passes. For the next two
days the lead rotated between Nokia and the top New Zealand
team, Pharmanex. However, the giddy joy had gone out of the
event. Swiss authorities, sensitive to the dangers of
canyoneering since the death of 21 tourists in an accident near
Interlaken in 1999, interviewed Hunt and Lorre for nearly six
hours over two days to determine whether the Jones accident was
the result of negligence. (A report is not expected for months.
In the meantime, this fall eight individuals will stand trial
for manslaughter in connection with that Interlaken tragedy.)
"Everyone enters these events knowing some risks are involved,"
said Lorre. "It's an unfortunate accident, but this is part of
the whole thing. You take risks in life when you step out on the
So canyoneering, like the days and nights of sleep deprivation,
will continue to be lionized as a macho necessity of this sport.
The winning Nokia team totaled only three hours of sleep per
member during its four-plus days on the course. "I've never been
in so hard a race," said team member Elina Maki-Rautila, 25. "I
was afraid the whole time."
Rusch related how the members of her Pearl Izumi team, roped
together on the glacier the final night, were literally falling
asleep on their feet as they navigated between crevasses,
shouting to themselves to keep awake. "People used to sleep four,
five hours a night," she says. "They'd stop and make tea. Not
anymore. The sport's really changed."
"This is the trend in adventure racing," says Jacques Boutet, a
45-year-old engineer from Anchorage who was on Hi-Tec/Wild Onion,
the eighth of the nine teams that finished. "They keep pushing
the envelope all the time."
Somewhat amazingly, there hasn't been a fatality in an organized
adventure race, though competitors can see the handwriting on
the wall. "Someone's going to die in one of these," says Nieto
of Team Ukatak.com. "Everyone knows it."
"Between the Raid Gauloises, the Eco-Challenge and this race,
everyone's trying to outdo the other to be the toughest," says
Bill Lovelace, captain of Team Nextel and a 54-year-old
insurance executive from Los Angeles. "It's become maniacal.
There were sections in that course a sane person would have
avoided. It's a level of madness that's rapidly escalating."
Ten teams dropped out the first night, with competitors
suffering everything from testicular hernias to hypothermia.
Competitors can see the handwriting on the wall. "Someone is
going to die in a race," says Nieto. "Everyone knows it."