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.
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  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."