A call came in the other day from a Washington woman with a question that reflects the high interest today in adventure travel — and some of the troubling concerns. Her husband weighs 200 pounds, the woman said, and he has a bad back. The couple had been invited to join an overnight white-water rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho this summer. Should they go, or is the activity too dangerous for someone who isn’t in tiptop shape? Certainly, adventure trips have piqued the interest of American travelers, who are signing up in large numbers for sometimes strenuous outdoor vacations in almost every corner of the world. Adventure outfitters are promoting three-week treks into the Himalayas, white-water rafting down the rivers of the Andes, trail riding into Rocky Mountain wilderness areas, bicycling on New England back roads and climbs to the summits of some of the country’s highest mountains. For most trips, there is no maximum age, and hardy seniors in their seventies and eighties are proving that adventure is not limited to the young and strong-muscled. If you think you can do it, say the outfitters, give it a try. Still, there are uncontrollable risks in any vigorous sport. Rafts are known to flip, spilling all passengers into the tumbling rapids; skittish horses can bolt or stumble; and avalanches and sudden snow squalls threaten mountain climbs. Injury and or death are always possibilities. They do occur, although infrequently. The safety of any adventure trip — whether you are an out-of-shape 200-pounder with a bad back, a senior with a yen for thrills or an athletic and trim young adult — depends primarily on two important factors. Are you fit enough to meet the challenges of a specific trip? And, how conscientious is the outfitter in taking proper safety precautions? Of course, unpreventable accidents can happen. To reduce the chance of mishap this summer, you can take steps both to make certain you are on a trip that is within your ability and to ensure that your guide is competent. Adventure travel is about as safe “as playing billiards,” says Rick Lindsey of Outfitter and Guide Underwriters of Salt Lake City. There may be a bit of hyperbole in his remark, but he is speaking from experience. For more than 20 years, his company has been providing liability insurance for outfitters — the people who run the adventure trips. He’s an adventure traveler himself. “It is so safe it’s unbelievable.” Hard figures about major injuries or deaths involving participants on guided commercial adventure trips — the trips under discussion here — are hard to come by. By industry accounts, however, the figures are very low. Certainly if you are inexperienced in an adventure sport, it is much safer to put yourself in the hands of a professional guide than to attempt a trip on your own or to go with friends who may have only limited outdoors skills. About 99 percent of the insurance claims processed by Lindsey, he says, are for medical expenses in minor injury cases such as a sprained ankle. Sobek Expeditions of Angels Camp, Calif., a major adventure firm representing 180 outfitters worldwide, says it has never had a fatality in its 16 years of operation, and other adventure companies point to similar fatality-free records. But deaths do occur. As recently as last month, a 45-year-old Pennsylvania man on a guided rafting trip was drowned when the four-person raft he was in capsized on the Upper Youghiogheny River near Friendsville in Maryland. Apparently he became wedged between two rocks and was pulled under, according to Carole Walker of the Maryland Natural Resources Police. The other three occupants came ashore about a half-mile downriver. The rafting company, Whitewater Classic of McHenery, Md., has been operating for three years. According to David Brown, executive director of Eastern Professional River Outfitters, there have been “one or two deaths a year” on guided rafting trips in the eastern United States for “the past three or four years.” At least one was caused by drowning when a participant went overboard. Others may have resulted from heart attacks. Perhaps this is because more older Americans are signing up for rafting trips, says Brown, whose Knoxville-based association represents 60 white-water rafting companies east of the Mississippi River. “It’s fair to say that it is impossible to control all the risks in outdoor adventure,” says Brown. But to reduce those risks, good outfitters make a strong point of screening their customers in advance. At the same time, they must make sure that their guides have sufficient training and experience. Most adventure trips are aimed at beginners. This is part of their attraction. Under the eyes of a guide, you get to accomplish some extraordinary feat — such as ascend a 14,000-foot-high mountain — that you wouldn’t and probably shouldn’t attempt alone. What limited skills are needed, if any, can be taught while the trip progresses. The only requirement on your part, therefore, is that you possess the physical capability to tackle a trip without endangering your life or the other participants. Generally, it is your decision whether you are physically qualified, though you may want to consult your doctor and the outfitter before signing up. Most outfitters rate the difficulty of their trips, as Sobek does, from Class I — “easy,” short hikes and gentle river floats — to Class V — “strenuous,” may demand previous experience and special skills. Details of the challenges on each trip are spelled out. Occasionally, someone will attempt more than he or she can handle but, says Ben Wallace of Himalayan Travel, “Most people tend to pick a trip a little easier than they can do — on their first trip anyway.” Himalayan is a Greenwich, Conn., adventure travel firm that specializes in mountain trekking in Europe as well as remote areas of the world. Should you seriously overestimate your abilities on a trek, you could be sent back to base camp — accompanied by a guide — until the rest of the group returns, perhaps several days later. “If the trip leader feels a person is going to injure himself or the group,” says Wallace, “the leader must make a decision to say, ‘You’re not going to proceed.’ The leader really is God.” Vacationers interested in making a guided climb of California’s glacier-glad Mount Shasta, a 14,000-foot-high dormant volcano in the Cascade Mountains, are expected to undertake aerobic exercises such as jogging and cycling for weeks in advance, says Michael Zanger, director of Shasta Mountain Guides. No technical climbing experience is needed for the most popular route to the top — an overnight trip — but participants must be fit enough to make the long, uphill trudge in the thin air. Among the popular adventure sports, rafting and mountain climbing are the two where the competency of your guide is most important. On treks, bicycle rides and to some extent trail rides, people can use their own judgment if they mistrust the guide. But often you must rely almost entirely on rafting and climbing guides to negotiate you safely through the various hazards. When booking a climbing or rafting trip, ask the outfitter how long the firm has been in business and what experience and skill level it requires of its guides. An important factor is how often the guide has run a particular river or climbed the mountain that interests you. Ask for references from others who have made the trip. Check for licenses in the case of rafting outfitters and accreditation in the case of climbing firms. Most states license outfitters who run rafting trips on the state’s rivers, but it is up to the outfitter to make sure the guides are qualified. Also, since most rivers pass through federal land, one of three agencies — the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management — exercises some supervision over the rafting companies. You can check with the agency about the outfitter’s safety record. New York is one state that also licenses commercial climbing guides, but in most of the country there is no such program. However, the American Mountain Guides Association of Bellingham, Wash., began accrediting climbing outfitters two years ago; so far, about 15 companies have qualified. As with rafting, it is up to the company to make sure its individual guides are competent. (For a list of accredited climbing schools and climbing outfitters, contact the association at P.O. Box 4473, Bellingham, Wash. 98227, 206-647-1167.) By at least one account, travelers may be safer booking a trip with an American-operated company. Ben Wallace of Himalayan Travel considers some foreign companies he has observed — particularly those in Belgium, France and Japan — as less safety conscious than most American firms, meaning they might attempt riskier challenges without the proper equipment. To some degree, travelers may feel safer when dealing with large adventure clearinghouses such as Sobek and Himalayan, because they have screened the outfitters they use and have monitored their performance over the years. Other clearinghouses include Mountain Travel of El Cerrito, Calif.; Wilderness Travel of Berkeley, Calif.; American Wilderness Experience of Boulder, Colo.; and Overseas Adventure Travel of Cambridge, Mass. In addition, some conservation organizations sponsor adventure trips, often using the services of independent outfitters. Among them is the American Forestry Association of Washington, which organizes a summer-long program of trail rides and other activities in America’s mountain woodlands. Both the Sierra Club and American Youth Hostels offer backpacking, bicycling and canoeing trips led by experienced members. Recognizing the dangers inherent in their industry, most adventure outfitters will require you to sign a statement noting that you have been informed of the risks and are aware of them before you decide to sign up. Often there is a minimum age requirement for children. Among the considerations when choosing an adventure trip: White-water rafting: Ironically, rafting is both one of the easiest of outdoor adventures and one where the potential for danger is among the highest. Basically, you sit in the raft and ride. But rafts can and do flip. In most cases, the degree of difficulty of a trip can be determined in advance. If you are concerned about a spill into tumbling white water, choose an easy trip where the likelihood of an accident is considerably less. River rapids are rated by degree of difficulty from Class I (smooth) to Class VI (to be avoided). When considering a rafting trip, ask what class of rapids you will be running. A river “float” trip is generally the gentlest of rafting adventures. The type of raft used also plays a role in safety. Generally, the most secure are the large rafts with motors that commonly are used on Colorado River trips through the Grand Canyon. The motor gives the guide extra control of the craft. Next in safety are “oar” boats — rafts in which the guide does all the work by using long oars. The least secure (but perhaps the most thrilling) are the small four- and five-passenger paddle boats. Passengers paddle along with the guide to keep the raft under control. To do so, you may have to sit on the rim of the raft. Also, you may forget to hold on while paddling furiously. As a result, your chances of falling overboard if the raft bounces suddenly are greater. “Even if you go into the water, it’s a perfectly survivable experience,” says John Wood, manager of Holiday River Expeditions in Salt Lake City. His firm is among those that trains its guides in river rescue techniques. All rafting companies should require passengers to wear life jackets, and a responsible outfitter will provide instruction in what to do if there is an emergency. General advice if you flip is to float feet first on your back — so you can see any threatening rocks — until you reach calm water. In rock-filled water, helmets often are recommended. Nevertheless, says Wood, you should check on an outfitter’s record for flips. “Flipping is something you can prevent to some degree, but not 100 percent.” A conservative outfitter will avoid dangerous thrills to provide a safer ride. “Different outfitters have risk preferences. For some, it’s okay if they flip every month. Others get upset if they flip once every three years.” You should make a point of asking the outfitter about current conditions on the river you plan to raft. Have recent rains — or lack of rain — made the trip more dangerous than usual? Some outfitters may hesitate to cancel paid-up river runs when conditions aren’t completely satisfactory. As for the 200-pounder with the bad back, he ought to be able to complete a trip down Idaho’s Main Salmon River if he really wants to go, says Dana Olson of Warren River Expeditions of Pocatello, Idaho. It is a rafting company that regularly runs the Salmon. Olson has supervised the white-water teaching program at Idaho State University for 10 years. Her concern, she says, is only that there is no heart problem associated with the extra weight. In the summer, the volume of water down the Salmon slackens, and the rapids are classed at a moderate III or IV. “The chances of getting knocked out are slim.” At night, the raft pulls up to sandy beaches, which means getting in and out of the craft is not difficult. Her company has taken many disabled passengers rafting on the Salmon — among them, some who have been blind, deaf or who regularly use wheelchairs. She, like other rafting guides, says most rafting accidents occur in camp, when somebody slips on a wet rock or stumbles over a fallen limb while looking for firewood. Trail riding: It’s “a fairly nonstrenuous activity,” says Dave Wiggins, president of American Wilderness Experience in Boulder. His firm offers a number of guided horseback and overnight camping trips in the Rocky Mountains, some of which have attracted vacationers in their 80s and 90s. On the other hand, check with your doctor if you think the jostling will aggravate any leg, knee or back problem. Some people worry about whether the horse will tumble from a high mountain trail, which can be narrow, steep and at cliff’s edge. But, says Wiggins, he has come to recognize the accuracy of a wrangler who once told him, “You couldn’t push that horse off that cliff. He’s got four-wheel drive.” Throughout the trail ride, the horse travels at a walking pace, and it probably has carried countless inexperienced riders over the same territory. Skittish horses tend to be quickly weeded out. A horse can be frightened under certain conditions — for example, says Wiggens, if a rider attempts to put on a rain parka while still seated in the saddle. If the wind catches the parka, it could flap over the horse’s head. A standard warning on trail rides is to dismount before you adjust your clothing. If you have never ridden before — no experience is necessary on trail rides — ask for a gentle horse. If you are more accomplished, get one that is a bit more spirited. People with a fear of heights should question the outfitter about any cliff-hanging trails on the itinerary. Heights can be more frightening from atop a horse or mule. Trekking: “Trekking is a pretty safe endeavor,” says Ben Wallace of Himalayan. “We’ve never had a fatality in 11 years, and about six broken bones. They tripped over a rock.” Rather, trekking is more a question of endurance. Can you hike six or eight miles a day at high altitudes and make do in wilderness or primitive conditions for a week to a month or more? As in other activities, trips are rated by degree of difficulty. The “Class B” treks of Himalayan Travel are the firm’s least strenuous — “usually comprising four to eight days on the trail with a maximum elevation in the 9,000-12,000 foot range.” “Class D” involves “numerous daily ascents and descents, sustained at higher altitudes. Pass crossings in the 14,000-18,000 foot region.” What can go wrong? According to the Himalayan catalogue: “Washed-out trails or bridges and a myriad of situations that call for quick thinking and improvisation.” Of course, on some treks the wilderness isn’t really so wild. On its Asian trips, Himalayan provides a full trek crew that includes guides, cooks and porters. You are served morning tea in bed, and there are no camp chores in the evening. Instead, you get the “luxury of strolling through the highest mountains in the world.” If a trekker gets ill or the weather turns bad, helicopter evacuations are possible, although at a cost of about $2,000. Mountain climbing: For most travelers, this means the ascent of a difficult mountain without the need for any previous training, although some outfitters do offer excursions that require technical skills. Typical of the climb for inexperienced mountaineers is the two-day journey to the 14,000-foot summit of Mount Shasta, a symmetrical volcanic cone that rises in solitary dignity above the floor of Strawberry Valley. The trip is offered by Shasta Mountain Guides, which will provide you with a regimen weeks in advance to get you in shape. Some of your preclimb training should be at higher elevations. “We turn people away who are out of shape,” says manager Michael Zanger. “If they are 35 pounds overweight and smoking, we don’t want them on our climb.” The first day out, he says, there is a short but steep hike up to an 8,000- or 10,000-foot elevation, where the group makes camp. The company hauls the tents and food; you carry a pack with your personal gear. The overnight gives participants a better chance to adjust to the altitude. On the second day, the group continues to the summit for the views and the personal satisfaction. Afterward, it returns to the valley floor. “There are no glaciers, no roped climbing and no use of extra hardware,” says Zanger. The dangers, to which guides should be alert, are sudden threatening changes in the weather — snow can fall any month of the year — lightning, a rock slide or illness caused by exertion or the altitude. Inn-to-inn bicycling and hiking: These may be the softest of adventure outings, particularly if you carefully select an itinerary that wanders valley byways rather than climbs mountain passes. The dangers are the normal roadside variety — motor vehicle traffic and errant dogs. On a bicycle, wear a helmet; on foot or on a bicycle, keep out of the way of cars and trucks. What makes the trips “soft” is the so-called “sag wagon,” usually a van that follows the group and is available to pick up any cycler or hiker who has had enough for the day. In the evening, you stay in comfortable lodgings rather than in a tent. As in the more arduous adventures, however, you are going to get more enjoyment from the trip if you prepare with a regular routine of walking or bicycling well in advance of the trip. At the very least, you won’t suffer from blisters or saddle sores. For information: Among the clearinghouses for guided adventure trips: Sobek Expeditions, P.O. Box 1089, Angels Camp, Calif. 95222, (209) 736-4524. Himalayan Travel, P.O. Box 481, Greenwich, Conn. 06836, (800) 225-2380. American Wilderness Experience, P.O. Box 1486, Boulder, Colo. 80306, (800) 444-0099. Overseas Adventure Travel, 349 Broadway, Cambridge, Mass. 02139, (800) 221-0814. Mountain Travel, 6420 Fairmount Ave., El Cerrito, Calif. 94530, (800) 227-2384. Wilderness Travel, 801 Allston Way, Berkeley, Calif. 94710, (800) 247-6700. For trip outfitters and other adventure travel organizations discussed in this article: Warren River Expeditions Inc., 1219 East Lewis, Pocatello, Idaho 83201, (208) 234-7361. Holiday River Expeditions, 544 East 3900 South, Salt Lake City, Utah 84107, (801) 266-2087. Shasta Mountain Guides, 1938 Hill Rd., Mount Shasta, Calif. 96067, (916) 926-3117. American Forestry Association, American Forest Adventures, P.O. Box 2000, Dept. WP, Washington, D.C. 20013, 667-3300. Sierra Club, 730 Polk St., San Francisco, Calif. 94109, (415) 776-2211. American Youth Hostels, 1017 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001, 783-4943.