Alpine Antics 2007.
For the last two years a large contingent of the club (and hangers on) have decamped to Landeck in Austria for white water fun in the sun, not that it was always sunny.
This year a ground swell of opinion seemed to want a change. Apparently it’s good for the soul.
So with Lucille spearheading the organising a master plan was hatched, the French Alps, cunningly timed to coincide with the schools half term during the week of 26th May – 3rd June.
Additionally last year a small group of Lucille, Dave Hodgkinson, Andy Newell, Dave Porter and myself spent the first week of May in Val Sesia, Italy. We were however too early to catch the best water and we left wanting to return to this stunning valley when the conditions were better.
So Dave H and I hatched a sub-plan to the master plan: We would head out on the 18th May to Val Sesia to spend a week enjoying the granite slides and pool-drop rivers of Italy before heading across to join the other in France the following week.
Two weeks of paddling for the price of just one ferry ticket, bargain!
Roll Call: The Italian Stallions
Andy could only spare one weeks holiday so elected to just do the Italian part with the possibility of taking advantage of the bank holiday weekend to steal a day in France at the end of the week.
Joining Andy for this section were Mike Neal, Martyn Read and Lee Gill. Meanwhile Dave and I were joined by Dave Surman for the two week jaunt.
Roll Call: The French Fancies
The French only crew was a mixture of KCC members and friends from around the country.
The Oxfordshire contingent: Lucille Savin, Iain Shield, Neil Murton, Ben Williams
The West Country Crew: Liz Garnet, Ernst Viljoen and Ol Rennison (day leave from the Midlands)
The Essex boys: Doug Johnson, Phil Baker and Steve
The London Brigade: James Crask and Doug “Aquaman” Whinstone
The Pangbourn Posse: Mark Wigglesworth and Jack Holdcroft
What Happened (non-paddling bits):
Taking advantage of modern mobile technologies we managed to update the internet with our activities daily if you really want you can read the full gory (libellous) details here: http://thedrownedfish.co.uk/alps-2007-italy-and-france/ what follows is an abridged version…
The week at work before we were due to leave was unbearable due to the building excitement, so much so that the delays leaving Oxford were excruciating. Never the less we managed to get to Val Sesia for around midday on the Saturday.
The weather was a very pleasing thirty degrees Celsius, however the water levels were worrying similar to last year e.g. low. Whereas last year we were too low it would appear that this year we were too late. Still we knew from previous experience that there still are some runs that go in low water and decided to make the best of it, after all there’s more to Italy than paddling, like coffee and cakes and pasta and pizza and… well you get the idea. Dave S was in food heaven and to our surprise speaks fluent Italian which, apart from ordering seven hot chocolates instead of seven pan au chocolates, came in very useful.
Food was indeed a highlight of the Italian leg of the tour. How could we forget Dave S and his first meal of horse? Well actually we can’t because Dave H keeps showing us the photos of the half digested mess that was left behind!
The campsite restaurant pizzas were nice and the hotel nearby which we found last year remembered us (and thought Dave and Dave were father and son!) which was nice. The best experince was, after discovering that much of the region closes on Mondays, sending Dave S to find us a restaurant to eat in; Dave H and Andy were a few minutes catching up with the rest of us. I only wish I’d had my camera with me to capture their faces when they walked in to see the rest of us scruffy paddlers sitting around the dining table in our own private room in a five star hotel!
We ran all the rivers we could considering the levels, including a few we didn’t do last year. A few minor trashing’s handed out but by the Wednesday meant we decided to decamp to France early.
The night before we spent perusing a detailed map of the area with a certain Mr S Westgarth and after taking advice of what might be running in low water and was on the way to France we decided to take a look at the Chiusella. After packing our kit we drove high in to the mountains to find a dry river but an amazing roman bridge and friendly locals.
One ice cream later we were back on our way to France and once we had pitched our tents at the slalom course in L’argentiere Dave H, Martyn, Andy and I did a quick run of the Gyronde to cool down. This is notable as probably the last hot day we had, despite the sun burn the thirty degrees plus temperatures were soon to be missed.
Our first full day of paddling in France took us across to the Middle Clareé which is on the opposite side of Briancon to our campsite. On the return journey we discovered the only road back was closed, along with the entire town for the Giro de Italia. This it appears is the Italian version of the Tour de France and we had come across the French leg of it. Anyway we had no choice so we found a café by the finish line and watched the cyclist come in whilst sipping a beer.
The last day before the French Fancies arrived saw a few epics on the Middle Guil and the great BBQ theft, but we’ll say no more about that.
Saturday was notable for several reasons; it was Andy, Lee, Martyn and Mike’s last day of paddling. The French Fancies were arriving and we paddled probably the worst river I’ve ever had the displeasure to run, the Rabioux, more of that in the ‘What We Paddled’ section. We were joined on this adventure by two other English paddlers that we met earlier in the week in Italy – unfortunately I can’t remember their names!
Anyway the others had arrived looking slightly frazzled but after a good nights’ sleep were all up for a paddle next day. Those that returned to Blighty managed it all in good time. It was about this time that word came through that Hurley was on four gates!
With the new arrivals Camp KCC was built from gazebos and tarps, despite the wind, rain, snow and hail that it would face it held firm. It was so sturdy I reckon it could withstand extermination by Daleks, in fact the only thing that seemed to threaten it was surmanation by Dave! Clarree
The Sunday saw us make some new friends; Chris and Keith (to be followed by Ian later in the week) from Friends of Allonby Liverpool Canoe Club who paddled with us most days. We also met Cas, Laura and Jane from Fort William who paddled the Ubaye with us and spent most evenings in Camp KCC drinking with us.
Other the next few days the weather got worse and the rivers more fun. Trashings were had and I managed to enjoy three things I’ve never liked before; Tea, Whiskey and McDonalds!
A rest day saw some of us doing the tourist thing around Valouise which was nice, and probably the only really hot day we had in the second week. Ernst car developed a fault and had to be taken to the garage, luckily Aquaman speaks French.
The arrival of the ‘Mad Yaker’ van saw Dave H and Team Essex get slightly over excited or maybe it was the presence of Kiwi Anna from riverside who was discovered with the van. Anyway they all came back wearing bright ‘Easyjet’ orange hoodies. Dave S went even further purchasing an entire new wardrobe!
Thursday saw an epic and reduced paddling. This was also James, Ben and Aquaman’s last paddling day so we headed to the railway station restaurant for a slap up meal. Thankfully Aquaman’s excellent French meant we all got our food. And despite a strange invasion of plastic dinosaurs and toy soldiers, great fun was had. We also discovered that fifteen people can fit into a VW Transporter van!
Our last paddling day saw us run the Lower Guisane. After this a meeting was held in a lay-by where it was decided that a) it was hailing and b) we wanted to run another river. So we ended up in Valouis with half the group in a car park and the other in a café.
Those in the café claimed they were going to run the Gyr. The rest of us (Dave H, Mark, Jack, Ernst, Ol, Liz and I) went in search of some rumored waterfalls at the top of the Baisse.
The drive up was outstandingly beautiful even if the road wasn’t as gentle to Dave’s car. The river itself looked like a great day mission for a small team who didn’t mind lots of inspecting and portaging.
At the top the falls looked stunning but, despite Mark claiming he would give a bit a go if he hadn’t got changed, un-runnable.
Finally the inevitable happened and on the Saturday we had to leave. Two weeks, nineteen rivers, around three thousand miles, sixty hours driving and eighteen toilet rolls and we were home…
What We Paddled:
For the most part the rivers in Val Sesia are snow melt or rain fed. Beautiful granite lined pool-drop rivers make up most of these. In most places the water was so clear we could see the bottom of twenty foot deep pools complete with trout swimming under our kayaks.
The levels were low when we were there so we made the most of those rivers that we new would run in these conditions.
Our runs of various rivers are described below; the grades given are from the guidebooks and may or might not be representative of the difficulty at the levels we encountered.
There are videos of some of these rivers available on the net here: http://thedrownedfish.co.uk/alps-2007-italy-and-france/alps-2007-video/
More photos can be found here: http://picasaweb.google.com/simon.knox/LeesAlpsPhotos and http://picasaweb.google.com/simon.knox/Alps2007
Lower Sermenza : From Biocciolto to Balmuccia, class 4(5-). This starts off with small rapids that build up to an eight foot drop with a massive pool beneath it. We spent a while here taking photos as the drop is ideal for boofin’ practice.
Following this is a boulder garden which leads into the gorge; this is completely inaccessible from the bank once you enter it due to the sheer walls. Contained within the gorge are about five drops one of which is classed a 5- and we decided to portage due to slight undercut. The fifteen or so Italian boaters behind us paddled straight through it, ah well.
Sesia Gorge: class 4(5). This is a short section of the Sesia River that runs well in low water. Martyn, Andy and I decided to run the rapid above the normal get in the results of which can be seen on the videos on the website.
The main gorge was easy enough (excepting the portage) only containing 4 drops. Unfortunately we completely forgot the first two were there (which are back to back) and bumbled straight over them. No swims but several rolls and both Dave S and Martyn gave a spectacular rodeo in the hole at the bottom of the first drop!
Half way down there is a portage that requires ropes to lower the boats to a pool beneath the drop. The drop being portaged looks like a nasty corkscrew slot; you wouldn’t want to run it.
Egua: class 5. Ah, the Egua, one of our favourite rivers from last year. And despite causing a couple of swims didn’t disappoint.
Descending a rate of about 50 metres per kilometre the Egua is made up of a series of steep bedrock slides and drops. It starts with a gutter/slide that ends up in a waterfall and ends in a slide/water fall. In low water like this its loads of fun finding channels through the rocks and running the drops.
Unfortunately one of these caught me out after accidentally running a drop backwards (don’t ask!) I fell out of my boat in about six inches of water. Mike had a slightly more painful experience on a drop near the end, face planting into a granite slide he cut his lip and exited his boat. Dave S and Lee portaged this drop after seeing Mike’s experience. The rest of us ran it but had a no less painful experience but managed to stay in our boats.
Sorba Slides: The Sorba Slides, about a hundred metres containing four slides. Their famous and no doubt in higher water a lot more fun. We ran them for completeness sake really.
Upper Sesia: Boccorio to Mollina, class 4+ (5). We hadn’t run this section before but a couple of Irish gentleman suggested that it was a goer so we gave it a shot.
What we found was a more French style river, fast continuous water with plenty of interesting rapids to run after inspecting. Mixed in with plenty of boulder gardens it was a fun river.
Incidents to note, Dave S swam on the very last rapid after hitting a wall. I hit the same wall but managed to finish the rapid upright, despite having lost my paddles!
Return to the Sesia Gorge: You can read the description of the river above. What you need to know is the levels were higher. Martyn, Dave S and I ran the section above the get-on again upright this time (except for Dave) and Dave H and Mike went up a mountain to look at some donkeys instead.
I also got two beatings in two different holes. I don’t know how it happened (obviously I got the wrong lines) but I spent rather a long time in them and had to swim out. Unfortunately the mechanics of boat recovery meant that I ended up doing large sections of the gorge on the back of Lee and Andy’s boats.
The rivers that we ran in France differed from the mostly pool drop rivers of Italy. Fast and continuous is the common theme here with grey coloured snow or glacial melt water.
Gyonde: Class 3+, we ran this late in the afternoon on the day we arrived in France. Gentle but full of cold water, it cooled down our bodies that were hot and sweaty after a long days’ driving in the blazing sun.
Lower Guisane: Class 4, a fast river that runs through woodland before entering the outskirts of Briancon. With lots of rock gardens to keep us on our toes this was an exciting and fun river rightly labelled as a classic.
Middle Clareé: Class 4, above Briancon is the Clareé, fast shallow and cold. Dave S took a swim here after an unfortunate encounter with a rock
Middle Guil: Class 4 (5), an epic. The book says three hours we took six. The levels were high, about eighty on the gauge. The river was continuous grade four.
Given all this and the fact that everyone else apart from Martyn didn’t want to risk the undercut on triple step, only Dave S can explain why he thought running it sans-paddle and spraydeck was a good idea.
Once Dave and his kit had been recovered we started the river. An few km later we came across an anonymous rapid which separated Dave S from his paddles leaving him clinging to a rock in the middle of the river. Though Dave H stabilized him and Mike returned his paddles the consensus decided that this counts a technical swim.
The next rapid of note ‘Le Tunnel’ all except Martyn decided to portage. Martyn’s run kind of went wrong, we fished him out on a rope and the boat recovery began.
Mr Hodgkinson ran the 2.5 km, Andy hitched a lift back to his car and drove to the bottom of the river where we fished out the boat (paddles had been retrieved earlier). Martyn went back and did the drop a bit more successfully. Kit retrieved Andy, Martyn, Dave H, Dave S and I decided to finish the last few ‘easy’ kilometers.
Perhaps letting Martyn blind probe was a mistake. One swim and another two km boat chase later we emerged at the end of the river
Rabioux: this runs into the Durance above the Rabioux wave. Dave S chose the river so it’s his fault. Selected comments about the river:
- “Worst. River. Ever!”
- “That wasn’t a river, that was hell on a hill.”
- “What a f****** rock, tree and s*** invested ditch.”
- “That’s the kind of thing Wheeler and Rainsley would enjoy.”
It’s a shallow boulder and tree chocked ditch. Suffice to say we didn’t enjoy it.
Gyronde: class 3, to enable the new arrivals a warm up we ran the Gyronde again. And warm them up it did, we ran two more sections after this.
Upper Guisane: class 3 (4-), long and frankly a bit dull. Still it was a step up from the Gyronde and left us in the right place to do the lower section
Lower Guisane: class 4, our second run of this section but not our last. Some of the new arrivals decided that the morning’s sections weren’t enough so we had a quick blast down this.
Ubaye Race Course: class 4, Last time I ran this section, back in 2003, the levels were dog low. Today it was honking down, big, bouncy and fast. It reminded me of some of the rivers we ran in Austria last year.
This obviously caught some people out with some swimmers taking an early dunking and a minor epic later one. So to cut to the chase, the swim count:
Phil – 2
Doug (aka Aquaman) – 1
Liz – 1
Jane (from Fort William) – 1
Laura (from Fort William) – 2
Aquaman’s swim obviously disturbed him slightly; the shock of it caused him to vomit on the river bank! I guess it was a full on river for his first of the trip. He says he enjoyed it afterwards though.
Liz’s swim was particularly horrendous, long and tiring, though the gorge section towards the end. Dave H made a heroic effort rescuing her boat and paddles just by the get out. Meanwhile Ol and I walked out with Liz, and then returned to get our boats and finish the river.
Despite this I thought it was a great river, really enjoyable.
Briancon Gorge: class 3, We went to look at the Middle Clarre. When we got to the get in it was 3.5 degrees, very windy and snowing. So we went to look at the Briacon Gorge instead.
This, it has to be said was a very picturesque grade three river, if a little low side.
Onde: class 3+, I didn’t run this opting to play the tourist instead but I’m assured it was good fun.
Middle Guil, class 4 (5). Every bit as exciting as the run earlier in the week despite the slightly lower level.
Although all twenty two of us did the Middle Guil in the end only a few ran triple steps at the start, all successfully. Dave S managed it with both paddle and deck this time, which was a bonus.
I ran “Le Tunnel” this time, without any problems. Dave S nearly took a line resulting in a pin, but he saved himself at the last moment. Lucile took a swim early on and Aquaman walked off after banging his head.
A minor epic was averted after James leapt to rescue a pinned Neil sending his boat down stream. Fortunately Mark and Neil caught it promptly.
Chateau Queayras Gorge: class 4+, Day fourteen and we did the run that last week Martyn said “We’d were mad not to do”. Well half of us did anyway. Those that didn’t join us on Chateau Queayras Gorge did the Upper Guil.
Those who did the gorge joined in another farcical epic. The brief version goes three swims, one walk out. The swims: Dave S, Ian (from Liverpool) and me.
The walk out: Dave S. I say walk, really it was a climb. After swimming Dave found an eddy and decided that rather taking the simple short swim to the end of the gorge he hung around on a rock.
Some say he was trying to signal the group behind, telling us the line down the next drop. All we know is he made no sense and the line wasn’t good.
Anyway, eventually the rest of us got to the bottom of the gorge and set up lines to fish him out.
One Irishman, his boat and paddles later there was still no sign of Dave.
The group who had walked up the top the gorge couldn’t persuade him to jump back in the water; he decided to climb the hundred foot gorge walls. Fortunately, Mark and the other managed to get a makeshift harness and rope to him.
After this, most of us decided to stop paddling. Mark, Jack, Doug and Ernst carried on by doing the Guardian Angel Gorge. They seemed to enjoy themselves whilst we made a fire waiting for them at the get out.
Liz, Neal, Ian and Lucile then went to the slalom course back at the campsite whilst the rest of us retired to the bar.
Lower Guisane: class 4, for our last run we all ran the Lower Guisane in groups of four. Low level meant a more technical decent than our previous runs. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, even Liz who had an emergency exit from her boat in an eddy.