nr's blog

What’s the worst that could happen? 16 September, 2014

Filed under: Outdoor climbing — nr @ 4:33 pm

This year’s Big Alpine Adventure took place several months ago, and it’s taken me quite a while to get around to writing anything about it. There are a couple of reasons for this mainly. Firstly, there’s just a lot of typing. And secondly, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go back over certain parts of it in too much detail. However, while out riding my bike the other day I realised that if I didn’t do it soon, I never would, and for good or bad, it was one of the greatest adventures of my life. So, I started writing, and here’s what I ended up with. It’s very long, and very self-indulgent.

Planning for the summer Alps trip had really started back in about November of last year, when Sol, Mike and I started emailing various ideas of things we’d like to do come the summer. Mike is quite an experienced Alpinist, and living just outside of Geneva, is ideally placed for keeping abreast of local conditions. Sol and I were looking to get back to where we’d left off last year, so much so that I’d spent some time looking around for a cheap(ish) s/hand ice-axe and pair of mountain boots. Eventually, after many mails back and forward, and a few long phone calls, we came up with the following itinerary:

  • Wed 23-Jul Drive to Saas Fee (2hrs), acclimatise overnight somewhere (cable car to 2300m and walk 1hr to Weissmies hut at 2726m?)
  • Thu 24-Jul Drive to Zermatt (30mins), take cable car to Klein Matterhorn, wander up Breithorn (4164m) – sleep at Ayas hut (3420m)
  • Fri 25-Jul Climb/traverse Pollux (4092m) and Castor (4228m) sleep at Quintino Sella hut (3585m)
  • Sat 26-Jul Balmenhorn (4194m), Schwarzhorn (4321m), Pyramid Vincent (4215m) sleep at Gnifetti hut (3647m)
  • Sun 27-Jul Ludwigshöhe (4321)/Parrotspitze(4432m)/Signalkuppe (4554m)/Zumsteinspitze (4653m) – sleep at Monta Rosa hut (2883m)
  • Mon 28-Jul Gorner glacier to Rotenboden train station (2815m) Lunch in Zermatt, drive to Chancy for tea and medals.

Yes, there’s no denying that it was ambitious, but we all agreed that fitness wasn’t a problem, so it was a case of booking flights, and mountain huts, and beginning the long wait for the summer. And while I was obviously excited about the whole thing, I was also disappointed to be missing Lexie’s birthday on 28-Jul.

So, on the evening of 22-Jul I finished packing stuff, and drove over to Sol’s, ready for the flight the next morning. It was to be the first of a string of early starts as the alarm went off at 04:00, and by 07:30 we were airborne, and heading towards Geneva. I’m not a big fan of flying at the best of times, but this was really a rather dull flight, so much so that I may even have had a little snooze. We met Mike at the airport, and began the long drive down to Saas Fee. It was good to catch up with Mike again, and the drive passed quickly, with a lot of pointing out of windows at mountains, and animated conversation about what adventures the next few days would hold.

We arrived at Saas Fee in the mid afternoon, and set about gearing up for the walk up to the Weissmieshütte – which wasn’t going to be particularly strenuous, and was almost entirely on rock, so there was no need for crampons or ropes at this point. The first half of the journey was in an alarmingly wobbly cable car, which took us up to about 2200 metres or so, where there was, slightly incongruously, a childrens play area and a café. I wanted to make the most of this by having a go at the kiddies climbing wall, but I was told that this wouldn’t be seen as acceptable behaviour in Switzerland, where the funny side most definitely wouldn’t be seen. So instead we sat down and had a coffee before starting the walk up to the hut. As already mentioned, this wasn’t to be a strenuous walk – just an hour or two on rocky ground, with no particular rush. The hut itself is located beautifully on a rocky spur, with great views of several mountains, the names of which all escape me now. Other than the Alphubel, which is still probably the funniest name ever for a mountain if you stress the middle syllable. We sat outside the hut with a cold beer, and watched the clouds rolling in. The weather was troubling us, and to be fair, pretty much everyone else attempting to climb anything in The Alps at this time. At this time of the year, normally the days would be dry, and the nights clear and cold, leading to a solid snow pack. Instead, daily snow was piling more and more soft snow on top of what was already there, and cloud cover was keeping the night temperature high enough that these layers were never getting a chance to consolidate. In short, walking anywhere in the snow was hard work, as the snow was soft and deep below a very thin layer of ice, and more worryingly, these layers of snow were unstable, and avalanche prone. Because we were down at 2800m or so, we didn’t get any snow – instead it just started to rain that kind of grey freezing drizzle that it’s impossible to enjoy yourself in. So we went inside, got the maps out, and went over the itinerary again while the hut slowly filled up with mountaineers coming either up from the valley, or down from the Weissmies. After food, we crashed out in the bunkhouse for an uncomfortable night of listening to a room full of mountaineers farting and getting up every 12 minutes to go to the toilet. To make matters worse, Mike had to evict an interloper from his assigned bed for the night, who really had no idea where he was or what he was doing there. Either the local beer was ferociously effective, or we’d stumbled upon an idiot looking for a village to adopt him. I was glad he wasn’t in our team for the next few days.

Breakfast the next morning was, well, a bit rubbish really. Perhaps I was spoiled last year in the Moiry hut, but really, a slice of toast and a dribble of coffee isn’t what I need to start a big day in the mountains. A few mugs of tea, some bacon, eggs, black pudding, maybe a hash brown or some sautéed potatoes – that would have been entirely more fitting. I’m sure that Edmund Hillary didn’t make do with a small piece of toast. And while we really should have been on the road early, we hung around for a bit, chatting with people, looking at the scenery, and generally procrastinating while we should have been going down to the car.

Eventually, though, we got packed up, and began the trudge back down to the car, ready for the drive out of the Saastal, and down the Mattertal. While our ultimate destination was Zermatt, as it’s not possible to take a car there (the Swiss don’t allow cars into the town, as the attendant pollution would spoil their view of The Matterhorn – something I find entirely charming and agree with totally), and so we got to the train station at Täsch, and again, got prepared for the rest of the journey. Packing this time was a bit more serious. We needed to pack everything that we would use in the mountains, as the next time we would see the car would be on the way home again. So crampons, ropes, sunblock, glacier glasses, harnesses, ice screws etc. etc. all needed to be accounted for, and packed. It’s not possible to stress too highly the hazards of getting this wrong, as finding out that you forgot to pack, for example, your glasses would completely end the expedition even before it got going, as snow blindness isn’t something to be taken lightly.

Taking the cable car out of Trockener Steg

“Fuck. I forgot my glasses” I said, as we sat on the platform waiting for the train. Mike came to the rescue and offered me his spare pair, but because I’m a disorganised and half-witted pillock, I decided to go back to find them, as I was sure I’d left them on the roof of the car. Mike was less keen on the idea, but, well, they’d cost me the best part of £100, and I didn’t want to lose them. With hindsight, this was possibly the worst decision I’d made since the incident with the trampoline at James’ dinner party that time. So off Mike and I trudged back to the car, and of course, they were sitting on the roof as expected. And even more predictably, we missed the train when we got back to the platform, adding another 30 mins to our already delayed schedule. What was even more stupid about my petty decision was that as soon as we got to Zermatt, Sol went off to find a shop selling glasses, as he’d sat on his the night before, so I could have bought another pair anyway. Even as I type this, six weeks later, I can still feel the immense stupidity of this sequence of events coming back to haunt me. Anway… having spent 30 mins waiting for the train, and another 30 mins looking for a shop to sell glasses, and another 30 mins waiting for a bus that never showed, we decided that we really had to get a move on, else we’d be spending the night in Zermatt having never got to our first objective even. We caught a cab to the cable car station, and grabbed three tickets to the Klein Matterhorn station.

Mike & I in the cable car

Mike & I in the cable car

Whilst in the cable car we took stock. We were a good two hours behind schedule, and conditions weren’t good with low cloud obscuring visibility, and snow flurries occurring regularly. We took the decision there and then to skip our planned objective of getting to the top of Breithorn, and instead, to concentrate on getting to the Ayas hut instead. There’d be plenty of further 4000m summits to pootle up over the coming days, so this really wasn’t a hard decision. It was slightly disappointing as we were all looking forward to completing the classic tour of the Monte Rosa massif, but, well, safety first and all that. The cable car took quite some time before we got out of the little cabin at Trockener Steg at 2900m and into the big cabin to continue the lift up to Klein Matterhorn, at 3800m.


Looking back towards the Trockener Steg station.

Finally, we were disgorged from the cable car, and wandered outside, where the ski lifts start. There were warning signs everywhere telling people not to go off-piste and onto the glacier, as there were crevasses, and it was a dangerous environment. We looked at this, and felt slightly more manly as we pointed out to each other that in fact, that is exactly where we were going, and hey, what could possibly go wrong? As if to bolster this feeling of invincibility, a steady stream of tourists were coming up to us as we were roping up and getting crampons and harnesses on.

“Are you guys going out onto the glacier?”

“Yup” (said as nonchalantly as possible)

“Hey, that’s so cool. Hey Marge, come over here. These Australian guys are going out onto the glacier!”

“Yes, we are” (said in an accent of the finest English)

“Hey, can I get a photo with you guys? What part of Australia are you from?”

“Cambridge, where the old university is” (stressing the old)

“Hey, can I get another photo to send to my daughter in Ohio. She once went to Brisbane, that’s pretty close to Cambridge, right?”

“Yes mate. Throw another shrimp on the barbie” etc. etc.

On the plateau below the Breithorn.

On the plateau below the Breithorn.

After about the seventh photo call, we forced ourselves away from our bunch of admirers, and started the long walk. The conditions were pretty bad – not quite a whiteout, but not far off. Our best chance was to follow the tracks of other  mountaineers, remembering to branch off right where the trail split – right to follow the path under the Roccia Nera to the Ayas Hut, left to go up the Breithorn. We got our heads down, and trudged through the snow. Mike was first on the rope, Sol in the middle, then me on the back. About fifteen minutes after leaving the station we broke through the top of the cloud, and into beautiful, crystal clear sunshine. The view of the Breithorn above the clouds was breathtaking. Fine ice crystals filled the air around us, leading to a huge halo around the sun, the first time I’ve ever seen this phenomenon. The sun was absolutely blinding. I took my glasses off for a couple of seconds to see what the effect would be if I was stuck up there without them. Totally catastrophic is the simple answer. Surviving in such a hostile environment without glacier glasses and sunblock would be painful, and probably lead to permanent eyesight damage. I was so glad that I’d gone back to pick up my glasses, but suddenly remembered I’d not put on any sunblock.

“Mike – we need to stop to put sunblock on”

“Good point – I need to do the same”

Sol & Mike, before we broke through the cloud.

Sol & Mike, before we broke through the cloud.

So we stopped, Mike pulled out his sunblock, and I dived into my sack. To cut a long story short, I’d lost the sunblock, Mike didn’t have enough for the three of us, and Sol was relying on mine, which is what we’d agreed previously to stop us carrying extra weight. Dammit. I had a quick rummage, and couldn’t find anything. Not to worry, it was only a couple of hours, and I wouldn’t burn in that time. Just to be sure I pulled my buff up over my ears, as I’ve had crispy ears in the past, and it’s really not pleasant. Again, looking back, I cannot believe the total stupidity of this decision. The sunblock was in my sack – just not in the place I assumed it would be. I should have packed it somewhere I could get to it quickly and easily, rather than buried in my toiletries bag at the bottom of my sack.

As we carried on walking it was obvious that at this altitude, cloud wasn’t going to be a problem. Rather, sun was causing us all to overheat slightly, so gloves came off, and stopping every 30 mins to rehydrate was the order of the day. Snow conditions were getting worse and worse, with deep snow making walking very hard physically, and mentally it was quite a challenge as every few steps my foot would go through the thin crust of ice, and I’d bury my leg up to my knee and need to drag it out again. After 600 times this became tiresome. Occasionally a group would pass us going the other way, and all of them said the same thing, that the snow further ahead was worse. Finally, we stopped to allow a group past, and it was obvious that the old guy in the middle was in real trouble. Their guide was trying to chivvy him on, but it looked for all the world like the poor devil was on his last legs, puce in the face, hyperventilating, his gaping mouth rasping for the thin air.

“Bloody hell, I don’t fancy his chances much” I thought. They were hardly moving, and it was still a long way back to the cable car station.

Last photo taken before the avalanche.

Last photo taken before the avalanche.

While it was obvious that conditions weren’t great, given the amount of recent snowfall and high daytime temperatures, I don’t think any of us were prepared for the amount of avalanches we could hear around the valley. At first I thought the regular rumbling noises were aircraft passing overhead, but it soon became obvious to me that in fact, the noise was that of avalanches in the not too far distance. Just as we passed the group, a large crack grabbed my attention. I looked up at the source of the noise, and saw the side of the mountain sliding. Within a second, it was obvious that the slab that had detached was heading straight for us.

In that instant, I knew, that I had no control whatsoever over the sequence of events that was to unfold. I knew that the avalanche was heading straight for me. I just didn’t know how hard it would hit. 50 metres to my right I knew, from looking at the map, was a large drop. If the avalanche swept us over that, it wouldn’t be survivable.

“Fuck. That’s going to hit us” said Mike.

Nobody responded. I’d like to say that I responded with a cheery “well what’s the worst that can happen?!” but I didn’t. I stared open mouthed as the slab gathered speed towards us. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. I didn’t have a spiritual revelation. I just thought “so this is how it’s going to be” and hoped that it wouldn’t hurt too much.

I’d guess that only a matter of ten or twelve seconds passed, before it became apparent that the nose of the avalanche was now piling up, like a wave breaking onto a shore. What had started off as a big, but shallow slab had now turned into something two or three metres deep, yet slowing down.

Slowing down…

I thought we may have a chance. I decided that as the nose hit me, I’d try to run up it, and then lay flat on my back to spread my weight. And then, with crushing inevitability, it hit. My plan, obviously, didn’t work. I took two steps, then sunk up to my knees, and felt myself being pushed backwards, until I overbalanced, and waited to be swallowed up. For the darkness that would engulf me.


I cleared the snow from my face and glasses, and looked up, only to see Mike looking at me with a look of absolute and abject horror. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. Perhaps he had. Perhaps I just didn’t realise it yet. I looked to where I’d last seen Sol, half expecting to see a tangle of ropes disappearing into the snow. I could see Sol’s back and head, and he was moving, but at least one leg was buried up to the waist, and he was badly struggling for balance. As for me, both legs were buried up to about the knee, and it was obvious that I wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry.

And then, all hell broke loose as Sol, realising his predicament, totally lost it. I’ve known Sol for many years. He is the single calmest, most dependable person I’ve ever met. I once read a quote somewhere about the mark of the true master of a martial art is the ability to remain calm inside a burning building. This is Sol. I’ve seen him single-handedly fight off eight attackers while remaining totally composed at the centre of this maelstrom of violence. I know that Sol has a phobia of being buried alive, and this is what was manifesting itself here. Mike, immediately, and calmly took control of the situation.

“Right – I can still move. Neil, can you get yourself out, and then dig Sol out. I won’t come over to you in case we all end up buried”.

Crucially, he didn’t ask if we were OK, as answering that would probably have only wasted time, and possibly involved some very British gallows humour being wheeled out. Mike did, however, shout to the group we had just passed to ask if they needed help. And while the response wasn’t entirely positive, it at least meant that we wouldn’t be trying to dig out three bodies once we’d got ourselves out of the mess we were currently in.

First priority was to get myself out, so I started hacking at the snow around my legs with my ice-axe. This seemed to take forever, but I guess that about a minute or so later, I was crawling over the snow towards Sol. It was obvious now that things weren’t quite so bad as I first thought, as only one leg was totally buried, and Sol had managed to wiggle his other leg free. “OK mate, take it easy, I’ll start digging”… I started to hack away at the snow around his buried leg, acutely aware that we needed to get the **** out of there as quickly as possible, while trying not to stick an ice-axe through the back of his knee. It took a bit longer to dig Sol out, and to be fair, involved a fair bit of swearing on both sides as he told me to ****ing hurry up and I replied that I was digging as fast as I ****ing could – which was totally understandable, given the circumstances. But, a couple of minutes later, we both shakily got to our feet, looked up at the scene of the devastation, didn’t say a word, and walked over to Mike.

At this point, we all knew that because there’d been one avalanche on this slope, there was a reasonable chance of there being another, possibly bigger one, further along our path. So our only priority now was speed. There were two refuges nearby. One was effectively just a bivouac spot, and nobody knew where it was. The other was the Ayas hut, which was well known, and probably about 2km away. There were two routes to it – either to walk along the known path, which would expose us to any more slips from the same ridge, or to take a direct route down a steep gully, and then onto some shallower angled ground, where there would be less risk. But, and it was a big but, if another avalanche hit us in the gully, we’d not survive. I’d already made my decision that if the other two went for the high route, I’d unrope and go down the gully and take my chances. But, after a lengthy chat, Sol and Mike decided that the gully was a more sensible option, as it got us out of the way of any danger more quickly. We walked quickly. Very quickly. And at 3800m, in waist deep snow, that’s not easy, believe me. The sun continued to scorch our skin, and every few minutes we’d hear another crack and a rumble as another avalanche set off somewhere in the valley. I don’t mind admitting that I really didn’t enjoy this very much at all. After 15 minutes or so I’d guess, we reached the point of no return. Right down the gully, or left up the normal path, which would eventually lead us to the hut, sure, but would expose us to avalanche risk for a longer time. We turned right, and started descending. For this, we stayed roped together, as there was every chance that there’d be a crevasse or two as the ice pack went over the lip of the gully, and was covered by rotten snow. In normal circumstances, we’d have really taken our time over route finding in this terrain, but in this instance, speed was vital. Nobody spoke. Mike took the lead, being vastly more experienced at travelling over glaciers. Sol followed, and I was tail end Charlie, getting ready to catch any falls. My mouth was dry. Mainly because of the nerves, but also the sun was still scorching everything below, and I was panting heavily with the exertion of travelling this quickly at this altitude. Once we’d passed the obvious crevasse risk of the change in gradient, we were faced with a long, 60 degree-ish descent, into a large open snowfield.

“Anyone fancy a slide?” side Mike, with a smile. The first smile we’d seen from anyone for a couple of hours. Ideally we’d have unroped and glissaded individually. Instead, we just slumped onto our backs, rolled onto our ice axes to use as brakes, and hurtled down the slope, barely in control. I did actually say “Geronimo!” at this point, which seemed rather childish at the time, but looking back, I’m quite glad I had the presence of mind to do it then. Half way down the slope, Sol lost control of his ice-axe, and it slipped from his grasp. No worries, I thought, I’ll just grab it as I go past. Which I did, with no problem whatsoever, until I let go of my own as I attempted to sling it over my shoulder. D’oh! At least I could use Sol’s axe to continue controlling the slide.

We all washed up at the bottom in a pile of crampons, rope, and exhaustion. I looked back up the slope at my axe, 100 metres up a 60 degree slope. I had no option. I unroped, and slogged my way back up to it. Acutely aware that I needed to get out of the gully as soon as possible, I grabbed the axe, and this time didn’t even attempt to slow myself on the slide to the bottom. I honestly don’t think I would have cared if I’d broken both legs – it would have meant a helicopter ride out of there. But of course I didn’t. I regrouped with Sol and Mike, and once we had re-roped and glugged some water, we set off for the hut, which we could now see no more than 1km away. This last kilometre took forever. We were out of avalanche danger now, on a largely flat snowfield, with just crevasses to watch out for. Step after step after step just hurt. My legs hurt. My back hurt. My shoulders hurt. My lungs hurt. My head was pounding from a combination of dehydration, sunburn, and two hours of adrenaline. Closer to the hut, until finally we got onto the rocks leading up to the platform that surrounded the hut, and wearily climbed the last staircase.

“Were you the guys in the avalanche?”

Sol and Mike went to chat with the Dutch team who had seen everything, and raised the alarm to the hut guardian. Unbeknown to us, he had already been on the radio to the mountain rescue team to come and recover us, but had told them to stand down again once he’d seen us moving. Knowing this now is immensely comforting.

While Sol and Mike chatted animatedly to the Dutch team, I just couldn’t. I sat in the corner, and started shaking. When, some indeterminate time later, I realised that I was now curled up in a foetal position and slowly rocking back and forward, I knew I’d best go and get a cup of coffee and some human interaction.

The location of the avalanche, and our escape gully.

The location of the avalanche, and our escape gully.

The three of us went inside the hut, took off our boots and waterproof layers, and went and sat down. Conversation was actually rather difficult, and revolved around repeatedly asking each other if we were OK, and looking out of the window back up towards the avalanche debris. Eventually, however, I started to relax a bit, and beers were ordered, and consumed with great relish and not a little relief at still being in a fit state to enjoy them. The late afternoon passed in a haze of recounting our versions of events, and debating whether we should tell our wives what had just happened, or play the “what happens on tour stays on tour” card. And of course, we all decided that being totally honest about things was the best policy. It was also painfully apparent that all of us were badly sunburnt – already, my lips had blistered, and I could feel skin peeling off my nose.

Sol. Sunburned.

Sol. Sunburned.

We had to make a decision on how to proceed with the rest of the itinerary. And it was obvious that snow conditions were bad enough to make the full route unacceptably dangerous. So, a compromise was reached. Tomorrow, we’d have a push up Castor or Pollux, and then come back to the hut for one more night, and then head back the way we’d come. This had one great benefit – because we were now staying for two nights, not one, the hut guardian upgraded us to our own room, rather than the bunkhouse, at no extra cost. Sleeping in a bunkhouse with 30 other flatulent mountaineers is never an enjoyable experience, so I was very pleased with this turn of events. What we didn’t know, however, was the conditions on either of these two peaks. So once a few more teams had made it into the hut, we started to ask opinions, to see which would be the safer option. This was deeply worrying, as some teams said that Castor was the safer of the two (it’s traditional to do both of these peaks in a single day out) while other teams said exactly the opposite. What was abundantly clear was that neither of them were in particularly safe condition. We tucked into big bowls of pasta, and soup, and bread, and a hearty stew, and made plans for an early night and equally early start. I was already worried about my sunburn, but decided to sleep on it.

Next morning, the alarm went off at 03:30, and I looked out of the window to see more fresh snowfall – which is the last thing I wanted to see. I’d like to have seen a cold night taking the temperature down to -5 or so, to give everything a chance to freeze solid again. We scooted downstairs for some breakfast, and to decide on a plan of action. I wimped out of proceedings fairly quickly, as I really didn’t fancy pushing up any peak in questionable conditions, whilst sporting a freshly peeling nose and chronically burned lips and hands. This left Sol and Mike, who decided that Pollux was probably the safer of the two options, given that it has a less avalanche-prone approach, and once you’re on the ascent, quite a lot of it is rock scrambling, rather than plodding up snow. I wished them well, and at 04:00 or so, they left, and I went back to bed. It’s a sign of how comprehensively knackered I was, that I didn’t stir again until 10:00 when Sol and Mike returned. They had got to the first rocky section of the climb, and backed out at that point. We went at sat downstairs in the hut, all feeling rather glum at the way things were turning out.

Salami, bread, cold bottle of white. And sunburn.

Salami, bread, cold bottle of white. And sunburn.

“Anyone for a game of Jenga then?” I proposed, seeing the game sitting unused on a shelf. Two hours, many games, one bottle of suspiciously good local white wine, and a marvellous platter of bread, cheese and salami later, our spirits were lifting. Yes, it was disappointing that we hadn’t climbed a single 4000m peak. Yes, it was bloody frightening to have been avalanched in the first place. But yet here we were, in the middle of one of the most beautiful places on earth, enjoying local salami and chilled wine at 3500 metres. Not a bad way to spend a few hours. We started to piece together the things that had gone wrong, and how a series of small events all adds up to a bad outcome:

  • We should have left the Weissmieshütte earlier.
  • We should have left my glasses in the car park. This was Zermatt. They probably would still have been there when we got back. Actually, they probably would have been placed in a case with a nice note saying “I suspect you didn’t mean to leave your glasses here, so I packed them in a case to stop them getting dusty or scratched”.
  • We should have got into the cable car earlier, rather than spending so much time in Zermatt.
  • We should have been quicker to kit up and get going at Klein Matterhorn rather than posing for photos with the constant stream of tourists who wanted to be photographed with a ‘real’ mountaineer.
  • We should have sorted out the sunblock, either in the cable car on the way out, or when we realised it wasn’t where I expected, I should have completely emptied my sack to find it.

All of these things meant that we were three hours later on the slopes than we should have been, in hot weather, with new snowfall. Ideal avalanche conditions, which we all knew at the time, but put to the back of our minds in our push for the planned itinerary. The sunblock was just bloody stupid. I’m still furious with myself for making such a stupid mistake that caused so much pain over the next few days. Were we lucky or unlucky to be where we now were? Well, I’m a bit of a believer that you make your own luck. Definitely we were in the wrong place at the wrong time to get hit by the avalanche, but as discussed, that was entirely our fault. Then again, we were lucky that the avalanche stopped where it did, and we weren’t swept over the cliff. We were disciplined and organised enough to be able to get ourselves out of the mess, and formulate a plan to get out of danger as quickly as possible, and physically fit enough to execute that plan. All said and done, we all agreed that we could learn from the obvious mistakes, take some comfort from the fact that we were able to get ourselves out of a bad situation, and probably have a cold beer now that the wine was finished.

The next day started again at 03:30, ready for the trek back to the cable car at Klein Matterhorn. The first part of the trail is pretty steep, and crosses directly underneath some threatening seracs on the way up to the base of the Pollux ascent, where it forks right up to the peak, or as we took, left, to cross back under the face of Roccia Nera where we were to come face to face with the avalanche debris. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the scale of the scene that we found. The slab was at least 400m wide, and the nose of the debris had piled up to about three metres I’d guess. And, crazy as it sounds now, I said a small Thank You to the mountain for allowing us safe passage in the face of all this. Continuing on the trail we found another two scenes of avalanche debris that must have happened after we’d passed through previously.

Some hours later, we collapsed through the doors of the cable car station, and Sol immediately went to find a toilet, while Mike and I started to coil the ropes and get ready for the cable car back to Zermatt. We were to share the cabin with a couple of coaches from the Canadian national skiing team, who were training in Switzerland. One of the team looked at the three of us looking a bit the worse for wear:

“So, you guys look like you’ve had a bit of an adventure”

In the cable car on the way down.

In the cable car on the way down.

Postscript. The remaining couple of days were spent in the Burgundian sunshine, courtesy of Jackie and Mike’s fantastic hospitality. We chopped down trees, caught up on some much needed sleep, and sampled local food and drink. In short, a splendid way to recuperate. Will I go back to The Alps? Yes, of course I will. In fact, I’m already preparing for next year’s adventure with the purchase of some warm socks to replace the rather worn out ones I’ve been campaigning for the past five years or so.


King Of The Swingers 14 September, 2014

Filed under: Motorcycling — nr @ 10:57 am

As previously mentioned, one of my goals with Project Adequate ZXR is to try and lose a bit of weight. There’s nothing actually wrong with the stock H1 really, but it’s a bit of a heavy old porker. And one of the areas that just seems to scream out for a bit of attention is the stock H1 swingarm. Really, it’s horrid. It looks like it was bodged together by a first year agricultural engineering student out of box section steel, and when it turned out to be a bit bendy, they just welded on a couple of big plates and a whole second layer of superstructure. Really, it’s horrible, and I reckon about 6kgs overweight. So, I decided to try to do something about it… I picked up a swingarm from an H2 model from eBay, and by the time I’d scraped off 25 years worth of road muck, I was able to measure it up. The good, and not entirely unsurprising news was that the length was close enough to work, and the width at the pivot end and mounting of the shock linkage were spot on. So, I enthusiastically set about doing absolutely nothing with it for six months while I got on with some weapons-grade procrastination instead.

Eventually, however, the time came when I had a spare day, and no excuses. So, I rigged up an entirely unsuitable and dangerous way to support the rear end of the bike while I worked on it, and came perilously close to losing a couple of fingers when of course it didn’t work. Champ then came to the rescue with the simple idea of using a couple of axle stands under the rear part of the frame, which of course was simple and worked perfectly. The old swingarm came out without a fuss, and with suitable lubrication, the new unit was swiftly slipped in from behind. The only fly in the ointment was that Kawasaki changed the bearing spacers inside the pivot between the H1 and H2, and also changed the pivot itself. It’s not a big problem, it just means that the pivot sticks out about 7mm more on the right side now. I’ll look to getting the shoulder of the spindle machined down at some point in the future. But for now, it’s in, and it works. Or so I thought…

While I had everything in pieces, I also thought it prudent to fit the NWS suspension rocker that I had kicking around. These little thingies are brilliant. Early ZXRs had a reputation for having very unforgiving ride quality, which was fine on a smooth racetrack, but bloody uncomfortable while pottering around The Fens, or practically any other road in the UK. There were several proposed solutions to this, but the best, I reckon, was when NWS changed the geometry of the rocker – I had one of these on my first couple of ZXRs, so was more than happy to pick one up for this one, given that they were pretty rare when new, and almost impossible to find now. And while I was doing this, it made sense to replace the bearings in there too – NWS had the foresight to use standard size bearings, rather than using the Kawasaki OEM ones, so replacing them all cost the princely sum of 12 quid.

So, once it was all nailed back together, it looked like this:


Which, other than obviously needing a bit of a clean and polish, looks OK. And more importantly, saves about 6kgs over the stock setup. Job done, you’d think.

However, all wasn’t sweetness and light… One of the primary rules of messing with motorcycle suspension is to change one thing at a time. I totally ignored this by changing the swingarm, rocker, shock, and crucially, tie-bars all at the same time. The tie-bars were swapped out for some slightly shorter items to raise the rear ride height a bit. I’m not sure that the ZXR actually needs this, but it’s something I wanted to try out. In stock trim it’s outstandingly stable, but a bit slow to turn, and the normal way to improve this is to raise the ride height. All looked good, until I realised that the torque arm was now clouting the exhaust at full extension. I scratched my head for a while, before looking at some old photos. Particularly, this one, of Scott Russell’s AMA winning bike:


You can see that the torque arm is connected to a lug on the swingarm, rather than the normal location, which is that little hole below the swingarm pivot. No problem – a quick message to the marvellous Spike, at Cambridge Motorcycles revealed that he’d be happy to modify my swingarm with a small lug. So, I picked up a new torque arm from eBay for three quid in readiness for this. And of course, Mr. Kawasaki had the last laugh, as I picked up a torque arm for an H2 rather than H1, and for some stupid reason the bush in the rear caliper is a different size between the H1 and H2, so it doesn’t fit. I have absolutely no idea why the H1 was built in this way, as the wider bush allows about 10mm of lateral movement of the torque arm. So while I’m getting the swingarm modified, I’ll also take the opportunity to take a few mm off of the bush. It’ll save another gram or two.

But, for now, it’s all good really. I popped out for a ride around Suffolk/Norfolk yesterday on some of the back roads of my youth, and the ride quality is way improved over when I picked the bike up. I suspect that 99% of that improvement comes from the NWS rocker and replacing the bearings, but still, I reckon I’ve saved a good 6 or 7 kilos by swapping out the swingarm, and another 3 or 4 by using the single seat unit and losing the rear footpegs. Also worth mentioning that the rear end also looks a lot cleaner now. I’m not going to fit a hugger, as I don’t think it needs one. I’ll bodge together an undertray to keep the electrics dry, otherwise I know I’ll end up sitting by the side of the A142 in a monsoon with a dead bike at some point in the future.


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