The Swiss Mountain Guides' Association has highlighted safety improvements in the extreme sport of canyoning during an open day for politicians.
Demand for the sport dropped off significantly after 21 people were killed in a flash flood near Interlaken in 1999.
The guides invited several dozen politicians to take part in canyoning expeditions to draw attention to their profession and improve the image of the extreme sport.
The organisation said it wanted to prove to Switzerland’s lawmakers that canyoning, which involves diving, sliding, swimming and abseiling through a river gorge, is a safe sport when led by expert guides.
“We want to show how we work and that we work safely,” said Urs Wellauer, a guide and member of the association board, who led a group through a gorge below the mammoth hydroelectric dam on the Grimsel Pass.
“I’ve never done such a thing before and it’s a chance for me to see if what I’ve read corresponds to reality,” said parliamentarian Pierre Triponez, as he prepared to make a three-metre jump into a cold canyon pool.
Triponez, who had swapped his jacket and tie for a neoprene wetsuit, explained that he was opposed to a draft law to be submitted to parliament which would force organisers of extreme sports to adhere to strict guidelines.
In the aftermath of the 1999 tragedy, the authorities introduced a voluntary certification programme to increase the safety of extreme sports, including canyoning, bungy jumping and river rafting.
Triponez added that having experienced canyoning first-hand, he was further convinced that companies and guides were taking safety sufficiently seriously.
“Since the accident, we go more slowly through canyons and watch the weather more carefully,” admitted head guide Markus Weiss.
“The training has improved greatly as well,” he added. “And between companies there is greater cooperation and an exchange of experience.”
The guides’ association said the event was also its way of contributing to the United Nations International Year of Fresh Water, which highlights the need to protect the precious resource.
And Switzerland’s ambassador to the United Nations was keen to focus during the day on the politics of water rather than the debate over extreme sports.
“I think the message is to show the importance of water. We have to realise how scarce it is,” reflected Jenö Staehelin. He then showed his mettle by abseiling down a 50-metre vertical wall of granite to enter the gorge.
“We are very fortunate in that we are privileged – because of our mountains – to have a lot of water,” he added.
“It is water that goes to many other parts of Europe. Therefore we have responsibilities to neighbouring countries.”
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel on the Grimsel Pass
Canyoning was a growing and trendy sport in Switzerland in the 1990s before a flash flood killed 21 people taking part in the extreme sport in a gorge near Interlaken.
The accident hit the headlines round the world and led to a massive drop in demand, with, paradoxically, the exception of Interlaken where backpackers continued to come to try their hand at the sport.
In the aftermath of the accident, the authorities have introduced a voluntary certification programme to increase the safety of extreme sports, including canyoning, bungy jumping and river rafting.
A draft law regulating extreme sports is expected to be presented to parliament next year.
The UN has declared 2003 the International Year of Fresh Water.
About 60 Swiss politicians and business leaders took part in the canyoning event.
Canyoning involves abseiling, diving, swimming and sliding through mountain gorges.
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