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.