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Rockfall Caused Adventure Race Tragedy

By Rebecca Rusch: Captain, Team Montrail - January 5th, 2005

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Editor's Note: 

With the broadcast of last fall's Subaru Primal Quest adventure race
scheduled for late January, GreatOutdoors.com looks back to the race
itself with this first hand account of the tragic accident that
occurred during the event. Last September, Australian Nigel Aylott was
killed while competing in the adventure race in Washington state.
Subaru Primal Quest traditionally features co-ed teams of four racing
across a nearly 400-mile course requiring trekking, ocean and
down-river paddling, mountain biking, glacier travel, skating /
scootering, ropes work and navigation. Aylott's team, Team AROC, was in
the lead, along with Team Montrail, when the accident occurred. Team
Montrail Captain, Rebecca Rusch, an adventure racing champion, reported
on the accident for Montrail last month. This is her first hand report.

Team Montrail shared the lead with Australia's Team AROC when a tragic accident took the life of a participant during September's Subaru Primal Quest adventure race. Photo by Corey Rich. As followers of adventure racing are aware, the 2004 Subaru Primal Quest adventure race last September was disrupted by the tragic death of Nigel Aylott, the team leader for the Australian Team AROC, and the serious injury in the same incident of John Jacoby of Team Montrail.

The weeks since the accident have been rough and have left the members of both teams mourning Nigel's death and questioning where adventure racing safety will go from here. The following is a brief account of the accident from my perspective as a race participant.

Team Montrail was in the lead with Team AROC and had been having a fantastic race. Our two teams had been racing together and developing a strong lead over the rest of the pack.

We had just started an orienteering section of the race, located in the North Cascades, and our two teams were traveling together. We started the orienteering section at around 2:00 p.m., and were pushing hard to get through the five checkpoints in daylight. We knew that if our teams could do that, it would open up an even bigger lead on the rest of the pack who would have to do the navigation at night.

Around 3:00 p.m., we started ascending a rocky peak to a check point at the summit. We discussed the best way to approach the check point, and all agreed on the best path up to the summit. The terrain was very loose, slippery and quite exposed. We all discussed how technical the climb seemed and wondered why there wasn't a fixed rope in place. We also commented on how scary the terrain seemed and how we were glad that it wasn't raining or dark while we were on this section. AROC, with Nigel in the lead, arrived first and the rest of our team followed just after. Tom, AROC's navigator, and Novak, our navigator, checked out the possible options for getting down the other side of the peak and on to the next check point.

There were two possible gullies to descend the peak. Both were about 15 feet wide at the top. Tom looked at the first one and dismissed it because he couldn't see all the way down the gully. He was concerned we might get part way down and get cliffed out. We chose the second option, a steep rocky gully with quite a bit of loose rock, but one we could at least see all the way to the bottom. Nigel started down into the gully first and checked it out. We all followed in, one by one. With six of us in the gully, a large rock dislodged from the top, hitting John Jacoby in the leg and pinballing down past the rest of us in the gully. Nigel was furthest down, and the rock ended up hitting him in the head. We believe he was killed instantly. After that, it was a rescue situation to get the rest of us, especially John, out of the gully safely.

John had surgery on his leg that evening for a very large laceration on the back of his calf that just nicked the sheath of his Achilles tendon. He was, thankfully, ready to race in time for the Raid World Championship last November. In the week following the accident, we spent a lot of time with Team AROC, hanging out at the rest of the race progressed. Nigel's mother and brother flew in from Australia. At the conclusion of the race, with the event over but competitors still on Orcas Island in the San Juans, our two teams, along with our support crews and Nigel's brother, paddled Nigel's ashes across the finish line together.

After Team Montrail and Team AROC withdrew after the accident, first place was eventually shared by Teams Seagate and Nike ACG-Balance Bar. Subaru Primal Quest LLC stated the organization would donate $50,000 to a memorial fund for Aylott to promote adventure racing in Australia.


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