Outdoor operators learn lesson of managing risk

Canyoning guides help tourists take the plunge in the Saxet Brook Keystone

Ten years after six people were convicted of manslaughter for organising a deadly canyoning trip, a law to regulate the Swiss outdoor sports industry is finally ready to come into force.

This content was published on July 31, 2011 - 10:12
Dale Bechtel in Interlaken,

But until the law is implemented on January 1, 2013, anyone in the country can still claim to be a mountain, canyoning or river rafting guide.

It was arguably the unregulated nature of the outdoor sports industry that in the summer of 1999 made possible the chain of events that led to the deaths of 21 people while canyoning near the resort of Interlaken in the Bernese Alps.

Heavy rain from a thunderstorm created a wall of water that swept through the Saxet Brook killing 18 tourists and three of their guides as they were sliding and abseiling through the narrow gorge.

Headlines of the tragedy went round the world, leading to calls for the regulation of canyoning and other commercial outdoor activities that were rapidly growing in popularity.

It was revealed at the trial in late 2001 that the company responsible for the accident did not have written safety guidelines for its employees to follow, nor were these people – some working their first season in Interlaken – given any instruction on local weather conditions.

Despite the findings during the trial and the suspended sentences and fines handed down to the managers and lead guides, the Swiss parliament at the time could not agree on a bill to enforce safety standards in the outdoor industry.

Safety in Adventures

The authorities in canton Bern, where Interlaken is located, decided to take matters into their own hands and spearheaded the launch in 2003 of a voluntary label, Safety in Adventures.

Most if not all of the main commercial outdoor adventure operators in Switzerland have in the meantime been awarded the label after meeting stringent requirements including guide training.

“Companies have to go through a process to fulfil certain requirements, and they are audited annually to make sure it’s not just a piece of paper stuck in a drawer somewhere but that their safety concept is a living part of their company,” Jon Fauver, one of the founders and managers of Outdoor Interlaken, told

Lasting damage to the industry’s image was likely one reason many operators were keen to apply for the label.

Paradoxically, the outdoor operators in Interlaken did not feel the greatest impact -– probably due to the predominance of overseas tourists in the resort, few of whom had heard of the accident. The companies affected most were those selling outdoor adventures elsewhere in the country.


These firms were and still are more reliant on Swiss customers, who were confronted with greater coverage of the incident and its aftermath.

Risidual risk

Twelve years after Saxet Brook, 41 operators possess the Safety in Adventures label. Isolated accidents still happen but the Safety in Adventures foundation points out that a residual risk is always present in “adventure sports”.

The onus on companies is to “minimise the risks to guests as much as possible”. To that end, Safety in Adventures is meeting its targets, which begs the question, why is there any need for a law?

“It is not redundant,” argues Brigitte Buhmann, chairwoman of the board of the Safety in Adventures foundation. Buhmann told that the framework law will be an improvement on the current situation for many different reasons.

Level playing field

It would level the playing field by introducing uniform regulations and licensing procedures for companies offering tourists an adrenalin kick, as well as mountain and backcountry skiing guides.

“It would make no sense if all cantons introduced their own, varying laws,” Buhmann said, adding that the law would also prevent renegade operators from setting up shop and potentially smearing the industry’s reputation.

“Up to now, each canton has been able to do whatever they want. Some cantons have a law for mountain guides, others nothing at all,” said parliamentarian Viola Amherd, one of the key promoters of the new law. “Now a certain amount of training will be required by companies offering outdoor activities and they must have insurance in order to protect their customers.”

“It was scary because you are entrusting your life to a rope and leaning over ten-metre-high cliffs,” said one teenager speaking to recently after canyoning through the Saxet Brook.

But he added that he had utmost confidence in the tour operator. “I put my trust in the guides because they know what they are doing.”

New law

Under the new framework federal law, commercial operators of outdoor activities will require a permit, liability insurance and follow a set of standards.

Their guides must also be well versed in reading weather patterns. The law will also include an article on environmental awareness.

The law will not only regulate outdoor activities for tourists seeking thrills, such as canyoning, river rafting or bungee jumping, but also mountain and ski guiding.

The first bill was presented to parliament in 2000, in response to the canyoning accident in Interlaken.

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Safety in Adventures label

Label holders are subject to annual on-site audit. An independent inspection authority checks how the safety concept is implemented:

Have the guides undergone approved training?

Does the equipment comply with regulations?

Is the equipment in perfect condition?

Is enough consideration given to weather conditions, as well as the health and fitness of the

guests and the itinerary during planning?

Do emergency procedures exist?

Are guests given adequate information?

Does the company have liability insurance?

Members of the Safety in Adventures foundation include:

Federal Sport Office

Cantonal authorities of Aargau, Basel-City, Bern, St Gallen, Ticino, Vaud, Zurich

Swiss Accident Insurance Fund SUVA

Swiss Council for Accident Prevention

Swiss Tourism Federation and Switzerland Tourism

The industry association Swiss Outdoor Association

Swiss Insurance Association SVV

(source: Safety in Adventures foundation)

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