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Chilling Debut
E.M. Swift
September 17, 2001
The inaugural Discovery Channel World Championship lived up to its billing as one coldhearted adventure race, but it took a tragic toll in doing so
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September 17, 2001

Chilling Debut

The inaugural Discovery Channel World Championship lived up to its billing as one coldhearted adventure race, but it took a tragic toll in doing so

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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 World Championship.

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 "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."

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� 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� and 45�. 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."

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