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Fatal Path

Oct. 11, 2004
Oct. 11, 2004

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Oct. 11, 2004

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Fatal Path

The death of Primal Quest competitor Nigel Aylott raises the question: Has adventure racing become too intense?

THE ROUTE did not look safe. Eager to find out and keep making good time, Team AROC's Nigel Aylott offered to climb down into the narrow, steep gully to scout the way. Slowly he descended a slope covered with loose, jagged boulders. After a few minutes of examining the terrain, he looked up at his teammates and the members of Team Montrail, all waiting together on the peak. "It's fine," Aylott called. "Totally easy." Minutes later the decision would cost Aylott his life. ¶ It was a sunny afternoon on Sept. 21 when AROC, an Australian adventure-racing powerhouse, and Montrail, a top U.S. team, reached the midway point of the Subaru Primal Quest. On Day 3 AROC and Montrail were leading the 400-mile expedition race in the Pacific Northwest and were the first of 56 four-person teams to begin the orienteering section. ¶ After reaching a mandatory checkpoint marked by a wooden cross atop 5,944-foot Illabot Peak near Rockport, Wash., the two teams, working together, discussed their next move. Their first option appeared too dangerous, and their second too time-consuming. Their only other option was to follow Aylott into the gully.

This is an article from the Oct. 11, 2004 issue Original Layout

As the racers peered down the south face of the mountain, one noted a large boulder the size of a washing machine sitting precariously near the top. "Where are the fixed ropes?" said Novak Thompson of Montrail. "Why aren't we wearing helmets?" Despite Aylott's assurances, the competitors began climbing down one by one with reservations. Montrail's John Jacoby grabbed the suspect rock with his left hand. Suddenly the boulder pulled away and tumbled down the gully. "Rock!" he shouted. "Rock!"

The six others below had only a few seconds to react as the 400-pound boulder came crashing down. AROC's Tom Landon-Smith ducked as the rock flew over his head. "I heard this low rumble. It seemed to go on forever," he says. "I yelled, 'Nigel! Get out of the way!'"

But the 38-year-old Aylott, the farthest down the gully, was unable to move in time. He was standing on a small, unprotected ledge when the boulder hit him, crushing the back of his skull and propelling his body a few hundred yards into a ravine below.

Covering her face with her hands, AROC's Alina McMaster screamed in horror. "No! No! No!" she said. "It hit him! It hit him!"

"Who?" Thompson said.

"Nigel!" she said. "Nigel's dead!"

Three years ago race director Dan Barger founded the Primal Quest, intent on attracting the world's best teams. His event quickly replaced the then eight-year-old Eco-Challenge, which ended in 2002, as the preeminent expedition race. Barger offered a $250,000 purse, with $100,000 going to the winning team, making his race the richest in the sport. The Primal Quest also offered something that neither the Raid Gauloises nor the world championship did--major U.S. exposure. CBS has scheduled a two-hour taped presentation of the event for just before the AFC Championship Game in January.

This year, the 39-year-old Barger, a veteran racer who began organizing events at age 18, tried to set his race further apart by establishing a particularly impressive course. In a prerace briefing he told the assembled athletes that this year's edition would combine the best elements of the past two Primal Quests. Last year teams had complained that the course near Lake Tahoe was boring, with too much paved road. This year Barger served up a beast. "This certainly is not a walk in the park," Barger said a couple of hours before Aylott's accident. "I set this up to be very challenging. My fondest memories of adventure racing are [from] the [2002] Eco-Challenge Fiji. It took our team nine days to finish. It was the hardest stuff I've ever done in my life."

This year's Primal Quest started on Sept. 19 with an idyllic 51-mile paddle from the San Juan Islands to a spot near Bellingham, Wash. Then things turned brutal. During Day 2's 75-mile mountain-bike leg through Mount Baker--Snoqualmie National Forest, competitors spent most of their time carrying their bikes as they bushwhacked through dense vegetation. In some sections the lead teams moved less than a mile per hour during the night. "It was the worst experience of my life," says Mike Kloser of Nike ACG/Balance Bar, who has been on all three Primal Quest winning teams. "This was, without a doubt, the toughest race course."

It was intended to get even tougher. But the accident that left Aylott dead and Jacoby injured cut the expedition short. The race was halted and restarted 30 hours later with one of the gnarliest sections removed, a projected 24-hour trek along knife-edge ridges in the North Cascades.

Still, teams felt Barger did not have a full grasp of how difficult the race was. "It was an ambitious course," says Billy Mattison, captain of GoLite/Timberland. "If we had done the whole course [as planned], I would have been surprised if more than five teams finished. Dan thought we were going to finish in five days. It would have taken at least eight."

Says Montrail's Rebecca Rusch, "Dan wanted to make a real wilderness race, and to his credit, he did. [But] he took it too far."

The survivors stood in the gully in disbelief. Aylott had been killed instantly, but Thompson thought he saw him move. "Hang on, Nigel," he called. "We're going to come and help you." But no one could move for fear that one wrong step would trigger another rockslide.

The two teams had another pressing concern. Jacoby was bleeding profusely and needed to be evacuated. The 400-pound boulder had sliced his Achilles tendon as he tried to keep the rock from falling. Using a satellite phone, Montrail's Guy Andrews called race headquarters. A helicopter was dispatched 14 minutes later, but it took two hours for a rescue team to lift Jacoby off the remote peak and transport him to the nearest hospital, where he received 30 stitches in his left leg. Two more helicopters evacuated the remaining survivors just before dusk. Alyott's body was left where it had fallen, to be retrieved the next day.

The AROC team had led for the first 57 hours. Australia's top adventure racing team had finished second last year, and it returned as a top contender. Along with Aylott, the team consisted of McMaster, 35, and her husband, Landon-Smith, 35, both members of the 1994 Australian Olympic cross-country ski team, and Matt Dalziel, 32, a four-time Australian whitewater kayaking champion who finished third in the 2002 Eco-Challenge. The team won five races in its home country this year and took third at a Raid qualifier there last month; the team also won the '03 Wild Onion Urban Challenge in Chicago.

Last year Aylott, a resident of Melbourne who was single with no children, quit his job as a senior consultant for an Australian telecommunications company to race full time. He had finished third at the 2000 Eco-Challenge in Borneo, set three national ultramarathon records and won the 1998 world rogaining championship, a 24-hour navigation race. "This was a big year for him. He was winning, and doing what he loved best," McMaster says. "We were having a really good race. Everything was going as planned."

After the accident all the competitors were brought back to Steelhead Park in Rockport, where a memorial service was held the following morning. Racers walked a quarter mile in a silent procession to the edge of the Skagit River. There they dropped white, red and pink roses into the water. Meanwhile, a three-man recovery team undertook a four-hour mission to retrieve Aylott's body from the ravine. (His ashes were returned to Australia, where a memorial service was held on Tuesday.)

The race resumed at midnight, without the two leading teams. The remaining competitors attempted to put the tragedy behind them as they pushed on over a shortened course. On Sept. 24, in a show of respect and solidarity, New Zealand's Seagate team slowed to allow second-place Nike ACG/Balance Bar to catch up, and the two teams paddled across the finish line off Orcas Island together.

Still, pain and questions linger. Sleep deprivation, altitude sickness and hypothermia are the norm for the sport, but rarely does a competitor lose his life. Aylott's death was the second adventure-race-related fatality in the past decade. As racers continue to push for ever more grueling tests, race directors walk the edge between setting a challenging course and a dangerous one. "It's a real fine line between what's an adventure and what's an unsafe race course," says Nike ACG/Balance Bar's Danelle Ballengee.

Barger, who has set 198 courses over 22 years, insists that competitors must be held accountable for their decisions during a race. A majority of competitors agree that one of the attractions of expedition racing is the chance to take calculated risks. "There were two ways up and down that mountain that were reasonable options. They put six people in a dangerous gully and broke just about every rule of backcountry travel," Barger said in a phone interview after the race. "They chose to go in a really bad spot. They were racing for the lead. They were trying to rush.... Those guys walked in front of the truck. If you're standing on a street corner, you don't step out in front of the truck."

The surviving members of the AROC and Montrail teams argue that they would not have been in a bad spot in the first place had Barger not put them there. "That checkpoint should have never been there. It didn't provide any kind of basic safety.... It was totally ridiculous," McMaster says. "I don't think [Barger] understands the difference between dangerous and difficult. I truly don't believe it was our fault. Perhaps we were a bit hasty, but there's no blame anywhere with our team. I don't believe we did something stupid under the circumstances."

The boulder tumbled down the slope. Covering her face with her hands, McMaster screamed in horror. "No!" she said. "IT HIT HIM! IT HIT HIM!"
"It's a real fine line between what's an adventure and WHAT'S AN UNSAFE COURSE," says Nike ACG/Balance Bar's Ballengee.
TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotograph by Dan CampbellBEFORE THE FALL Members of Team Montrail prepared to follow the descent from Illabot Peak that had been scouted out by Aylott (inset) just moments before.COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Dan CampbellTHE ROCK Jacoby lowered himself from the boulder that, an instant later, would break loose. COLOR MAPCOMPUTER TERRAIN MAPPING, INC.COLOR PHOTOMatt Wallis/Skagit Valley HeraldMAN IN CHARGE Race director and course designer Barger says that competitors must be accountable for their decisions. COLOR PHOTOMatt Wallis/Skagit Valley HeraldALL IN THE FAMILY With the race halted temporarily, competitors gathered on the banks of the Skagit to memorialize Aylott.