Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Suilven by kayak: a mini adventure

Sometimes you plan things months, even years in advance, sometimes you just go on a whim and hope for the best. This trip was a little of both.
Jon had been thinking about the Suilven kayak route for years and had a clear plan of where to get in and out, where we could leave a car, where to camp and roughly the difficulties we might face. On the other hand, doing an overnight trip out of our river boats was something we were completely new to and you might expect more than three days planning would go into the logistics of this. I actually arrived with no idea if all my stuff would go in my boat. Winging it at its very best, it all went surprisingly smoothly…
The route:

Map image from Bing maps - blame them for the squint.
Jon and I arrived late friday night at a car park just outside Inverkirkaig. Jen was already there, but there was no sign of movement in the truck - she was already fast asleep. We pitched the tent on a convenient bit of grass beside the car and dropped off with the sound of the Kirkaig to lull us to sleep.
The next morning was the big test: does everything fit in the boats? Turns out pretty much everything did, with only a bit of violent coaxing. Jen had to leave her sandals behind and we did put an awful lot of kit in Jon’s boat (thanks Jon). Piling all in my car, we headed for Elphin to put on at a bridge over the Ledbeg river. We dropped the boats, then I moved the car to a layby just up the road. We were off!

At the put in with Suilvin in the background
The boats felt quite weird with so much more weight, but we were soon getting into the flat water paddling down the river and out across Cam Loch to the Abhainn Mhor.

Cam Loch, a bit windy.
The Abhainn Mhor is mentioned on UKRGB as a set of grade 4 falls, however the combination of low water levels and loaded boats made us unwilling to run the slightly sketchy looking drops below the bridge, especially given the metal debris present in the second last drop! The defunct fish farm beside the drops at some point must have put a water intake in the fall which is now falling apart.

You can see some of the debris on the left of this fall, there's more on the right.
Not wanting to miss out though, we decided to run the grade 3 drops above the bridge. It was a good introduction into loaded boat paddling. Changing the speed and direction of the boat is much harder work!

Photo taken by Jon Harwell
Photo taken by Jon Harwell
The portage was hard work, but then we had fun messing about below the last fall.

The long Loch Veyatie was ahead of us - our big challenge of the day. We paddled about a km before hunger started to take over and we found a sheltered island for lunch.

Loch Veyatie, photo by Jen Hartnett
The head wind didn’t let up and paddling was hard, hard work. The final appearance of the Uidh Fhearna river between the lochs was more exciting than it perhaps deserved, given the scrapey shingle bed grade 1 rapids. But still, flow! The river dropped us into Fionn Loch and we found a nice bay to set up camp. Jon and I kitted up for Suilven while Jen decided to stay at camp and have a scout around for firewood (trees are in short supply around here).

Jen heading off into the distance to look for firewood.
Across the heather and bog we trundled, towards the intimidating wall of Suilven. This is not a friendly looking hill, but it is an epic looking hill. At 731m high, Suilven is far from a Munro (above 914m), however it’s unique shape and position in the wide open landscape of Assynt make it an iconic mountain. The usual route to climb it is nearly 10km of hacking across the heather and bog from Inverkirkaig, then the same back. Jon has done this route before and was so very happy not to have to do it this time.

The wall of Suilven.

The path up the side of the wall is very steep and eroded, and a little precarious in places.

"Very steep and eroded" - exactly as advertised!
Some minor scrambling bypassed some scree filled sections near the top and suddenly we were out on the ridge! We descended a couple of metres on the other side to hide from the wind and ate some cereal bars. Then it was up towards the summit along the narrow ridge.

That view...
Looking towards the other peak of Suilven (you need climbing gear for it),
photo taken by Jon Harwell
On the ridge to the summit.
If you ever wonder how someone could be so petty about something just remember: someone once built a drystone wall across the Suilven ridge, presumably just to say “That bit’s yours, this bit’s MINE.”

The summit is strangely flat after the narrow ridge traverse and we spent some time at the cairn pointing out glacial features like the geography nerds we are. Then it was was back down the way we came up, with some (mostly) controlled sliding in places.

At the summit cairn.
We made it back to camp at 7 to discover Jen had put risotto on and forgot to stir it, woops. Thankfully I’d brought enough food for us all, but Jen’s pan may never be the same again! My experimental moroccan lentil curry with polenta actually worked really well (recipe below if you’re interested). After food we set Jen’s fire alight, though the lack of wood meant we were quickly retreating to the tents in the evening cold.

Camp, waiting for dinner to cook.
Fire! Somewhat short lived.
At some unidentified time during the night Jon and I were woken by Jen slightly panicked in her bivvy tent after she was nuzzled by (probably) a deer!
The morning dawned sunny in the east with clouds approaching from the west. I made pancakes for breakfast! Packing up was a challenge as we tried to remember how everything fit in the kayaks the day before, but since I’d carried the food at least my boat was a bit lighter.

It will all fit back in, right? Photo by Jen Hartnett
We paddled about 3km of flat in the morning, still facing an irritating head wind. Getting into the flow of the Kirkaig was quite a relief and we quickly came to the first grade 4 rapid. Jon styled it first, then Jen followed and I came down last, taking advantage of the heavy boat’s straight line momentum.

Rapids with Suilven in the background.
Jon nails the line
Grade 2 and 3 water lead down into a gorge and we closed in on the Falls of Kirkaig which we knew were going to be a portage.

The gorge above the falls.
Last few eddies before the falls
Three 15m hauls up a steep bank got us to the path, high up on the gorge rim.

Long way up!
Two pyranhas and a tuna climbed out of a gorge.
The short walk was somewhat educational in how heavy the boats were and how much more you sink into the mud when carrying them!

The bog was deeper than it looked!
The descent to the pool below the falls does have a path, but it’s not great and requires a bit of sling lowering to get the heavy boats down the rock steps. We gathered on the ledge opposite the falls and had lunch as the rain started to pour down.

Falls of Kirkaig
After lunch we had a fun seal launch into the pool.

Seal launching below the Falls of Kirkaig, photo by Jen Hartnett

Down into the gorge we paddled. Most of the rapids were grade 3 with a bit of 4. We portaged one with serious pinning potential that would probably clean up with a bit more water. The level was a bit on the low side and there was a lot of rock dodging, though we didn’t have to get out and walk until some shingle bed rapids nearly at the sea forced a quick hop out and drag. Inverkirkaig bay was looking a bit dreary in the rain but we were happy to have made it all the way!

Inverkirkaig bay, tired but happy paddlers.
Jen jogged up the road to get the truck and we packed up and drove back to Elphin to get my car. Onwards to the next adventure!

Thanks to Jen and Jon for being my (usually) tireless adventure companions and helping me with all the carrying and hauling!

A few lessons learned:
1. Make sure your dry bags fit in the back of your boat. We had a number of bulky dry bags that were of no use.
2. Head winds are hard work.
3. Watershed drybags make good pillows.
4. Lots Most of our drybags leak.
5. Waterproof socks are not very waterproof.
6. The "real" tent was so, so, so much better than the bivvy tent.
7. Loaded boats do not like to change what they're doing which is good for holes but bad for eddies.
8. Learn effective forward paddling!

Moroccan lentil curry with polenta
Knorr vegetable stock pot
Most of a tube of tomato puree with garlic
Block of ready made polenta (find it in the pasta aisle)
In a zip-lock bag:
1 cup dried lentils
Handful of dried sultanas
Handful of chopped dried apricots
Handful of chopped sundried tomatoes (you can get them just dried without the oil)
Coriander, cumin, ginger, leaf coriander, mint, paprika (just chuck a bunch in)

All the ingredients fitted inside the pot I was going to cook in and they’re all in waterproof containers, so they don’t need to go in a good dry bag.

Pour the contents of the zip-lock bag into the pot and add the stock pot and tomato puree (half the tube to start with).
Fill 1/2 of the pot with water and put on to boil with a lid.
Chop up the polenta into bite size bits.
Once the lentils have been bubbling for a few minutes you might need to add more water, keep checking this. Add the polenta to the pan as well.
Simmer until the lentils are cooked.
Serves 3
Gluten free and vegan

Packing list
I used the guide written by Jake Holland here as a vague idea of what to pack.
Back left:
Dry bag - Sleeping bag, toothbrush/toothpaste, waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers, contact lens kit, head torch.
Bottle of water for cooking (ideally I would just take a filter) and Ribena to keep me going on the flat.
Back right:
Dry bag 1 - spare fleece and thermal leggings.
Dry bag 2 (leaky) - pot with frying pan lid, dinner ingredients, sporks x 2, 250ml pancake mix in plastic bottle, maple syrup, oil.
Dry bag 3 (also leaky) - hummus and pitta bread for lunch, cashew nuts for snacks, extra cereal bars.
First aid kit (small).
Throw bag
In front of the footrest: Dry bag with hiking boots, spare socks and spare leggings for the walk.
Between my legs:
Watershed dry bag - Thermarest, primaloft (fake down) jacket, camera.
Lifestraw water bottle.
On me:
Phone and car keys in aquapacks.
BA pocket: Cereal bars, Karabiners, sling, pulley.

Group kit in Jon's boat:
Lightweight 2 man tent for Jon and I, stove and gas, pot scrubber, lighter, split paddle, first aid kit.

Edit October 2017: I finally remembered to put up a guide for the river on UKRGB

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Val Sesia and the South French Alps Part 2

Day 8: Saturday 28th May
In the morning we packed and left our orchard campsite as soon as possible - the bathrooms were pretty sketchy and smelled awful every time you turned on a tap. Also, the orchard was full of wildflowers and Paul and I were suffering major hayfever and associated grumpiness (especially at Jon and his sensible immune system).
We drove to Aime to look at the rapids there which looked like nice bouncy grade 4 and nothing like they did in the guide book. It appeared the river was quite high!

Walking up to look at the Aime rapids

All the rapids have names, but they were essentially one long rapid at the level we were paddling them at.

We went and got shopping in Bourg St Maurice then headed to the slalom site. While Paul was cycling the shuttle on the handy river-side cycle track, Jon and I met another small group of British paddlers who were on a one car trip and had a chat. Paul arrived back before their shuttle driver did since they were doing the longer stretch.
The slalom site in Bourg St Maurice was really big water and Paul was absolutely loving the eddies all the way down. The river down to Aime was bouncy grade 2/3 wave trains - nice and relaxing. The fun really started at Aime though, one really long big water grade 4, a bit like a smaller version of the Lower Oetz. We ate and packed up in 33°C heat!
We decided to avoid the expensive tunnel to Briancon by heading round by Grenoble. Unfortunately, it turned out the pass from Grenoble to Briancon which had been closed due to landslides last year was still closed and we ended up having to drive all the way round by Gap. It was a really long way.
We were so happy to make it to La Roche de Rame and Camping du Lac - nice bathrooms! Jon made a tasty one pot rice and beef dish for dinner.

Day 9: Sunday 29th May
Since it was Sunday, I had to hurry the boys a lot to get to a supermarket, but we made it to the one in Briancon with 25 minutes to spare! The Guisane was looking very very high, so we thought we could do the Briancon gorge.


It was also very very high. As in the next eddy is the get out and it’ll hold about half a boat. Turns out a couple of very hot days then a day of rain makes everything enormous… Later on we learned that the gorge had a few trees stuck in it, so walking away was a very good decision!
An impromptu rest day seemed to be on the cards, so we walked up and had a look at Malefoss, the section of the Durance above the gorge - it was huge and awesome to look at.

More random waterfalls beckoned, so we headed to the top of the Claree. We couldn't really see what was obviously an impressive set of falls, however the alpine flower meadows were very pretty.

Top of the Claree

Alpine flower meadows

Then, on a half conceived idea, we decided to go and find the Biasse teacups that are vaguely mentioned in the guidebook. As it turned out, they are a very long way up a spectacular valley where you continually think you can’t get any further until finally what was definitely a road when you started becomes a tiny path going up a mountain. Then you park and walk a bit and there’s the teacup falls! Next to them are some much much more impressive falls.

The end of the drive-able road

The Biasse tea cups, way too high to paddle

First descent anyone?

It should be noted that off roading in a very low slung estate car is a nerve wracking experience and 4x4s are for sissies.

Saying "It's fine" a lot totally makes it ok.

Back at the campsite Jon made us lemon (soy) creamy sauce for dinner which was very tasty.

Day 10: Monday 30th May
With everything very high, we decided to try the Ubaye racecourse as we reckoned it would still be ok with lots of water. It was reading about 50 cumecs on the gauge, so very high! The waves were massive and bouncy and scary and I was exhausted, but we managed to get down all fine! Grade 4/4+ with some easier sections to get my strength back enough for the next bit. I had an encounter with one hole but yelled my way through it! Paul was commenting at the end that the sections in the guidebook that were described as flat were distinctly not flat.

The put in for the Ubaye

We went and ate lunch at Fresquiere, looking at the gnar filled section downstream. I had some very weird gluten free biscotti style things that were a bit like eating rock hard dry toast. So instead I ate a whole pack of salami.

Food time

Scary Fresquierre section

We also went and looked at a tributary of the Ubaye that is in the guide book, but given how much water there was around, it looked a little on the low side and a bit meh.
We drove back to Guilestre over the col de Vars, looking at all the ski villlages that look really sad without a covering of snow.
I made sweet and sour sauce for dinner.

Day 11: Tuesday 31st May
I had the day off from paddling since I’d been so exhausted the day before. The boys paddled the Gyronde in the morning. Paul capsized and punched a rock and complained that the guide book had misled him into thinking it was grade 3+ (Jon had got them on at the 4+ bit). Jon also got some grit in his eye at the put in and couln’t see very well for most of the river! We met Edinburgh Uni at the put in, but they were faffing.


Down at the slalom site in L’Argentierre I found some postcards and tiny kayaks on keyrings for the boys.

L'Argentierre slalom site

Sunshine at the slalom site

We bought some lunch in the supermarket then drove up to the top of the Gyr to walk up to the Glacier Blanc. It was raining when we arrived, but it cleared up and was actually fairly nice for the rest of the walk. We found some marmots on the way up that liked the gluten free biscotti a lot more than me! There was quite a lot of snow, but we got to the glacier view point and sat on the bridge for a quick rest, before running all the way back to the car.

Making friends with marmots, Glacier Noir is in the background

Glacier Blanc

It was surprisingly warm despite the snow

On the way back to the campsite we managed to get 126mpg, hee hee. I made curry for dinner then called Davey while the boys washed up.

Day 12: Wednesday 1st June
We woke up a bit late today - what the hell, we’re on holiday. We went and paddled the Lower Guisane, one of our must-do runs. It. Was. Awesome. A fantastic, fast, bouncy level where you feel just on the edge of control the whole time, yet everything is friendlier and smoother than you expect it to be. Still, super continuous grade 4 for a very long way in very cold water! Wheeee! I had a small encounter with a pourover, but nailed the paddle-frantically-and-hope-for-the-best recovery.

The put in for the Guisane

We acquired lunch in the big supermarket in Briancon then walked into the (napoleonic star) fort and found a bench to sit and eat at while we discussed the (im)possibility of attacking the pass at Briancon. Then we had a nice wander round the fort and down to the bridge over the Briancon gorge. Jon and Paul attempted to play poo-sticks, but since Jon was the only one to ever hit the water with a stick we had to declare him the winner.
We picked up the bike then headed back to camp where we cooked (soy) creamy paprika chicken with pasta, huddled in the mouth of the tent because it was raining so much.

Day 13: Thursday 2nd June
My lovely health problems finally hit today, so no paddling for me. The boys paddled the Middle Guil and I took a lot of photos! I also got to watch a raft paddle down staircase making it look pretty difficult. This was a very good test of the zoom lens on my camera, which it turns out works very well! The boys bravely portaged, but I got a great video of them running “Le Tunnel” further down and Paul having a little roll after missing his boof on the second drop. Jon rolled further down apparently, but I sadly missed it.

At the dam on the drive up, the gates were open and the Guil was pouring through into the gorge

Millenium rapid (grade 5+) above the put in has seen some very recent rock falls

The boys getting in below triple step

Jon in a grade 4 just below the put in

Bravely portaging Staircase

We had lunch at Chateax Queryas looking down into the box canyon, then the boys blasted down the upper Guil while I fell asleep in the car.

Chateaux Q box canyon

Paddle ninja?

Upper Guil put in

Back at the campsite, Jon and Paul made leek and bacon (soy) creamy pasta while I slept more.

Day 14: Friday 3rd June
Deciding that, to hell with illness, I was not going to miss the Guil, we headed back to Triple Step in the sunshine. Paul managed to hitch the shuttle from Staircase by flagging down the Edinburgh Uni guys who were having a photo shoot at triple then going to the upper to pile all their freshers down en masse.
The river to the top of Staircase is sort of pool drop grade 3-4 rapids which were amazing and a lot of the time mostly I could only see white, but I got down and had a great time. At the top of Staircase I was shaking with exhaustion, so walked out to the car with Jon carrying my boat. I got changed and drove down to catch Jon and Paul coming down Le Tunnel and styling it.

Jon in Le Tunnel

Paul in Le Tunnel

Looking happy at the take out
We had lunch at the take out in the sunshine, then the boys had another blast down the upper, managing to over take a group we saw on the drive up only a few hundred meters downstream from where we’d seen them!

Last run of the holiday on the Upper Guil

Chateaux Queryas in the sun

I met Edinburgh at the take out, chatting about their carnage in Chateax Q. We faffed about packing the boats then went back to Guilestre to stock up on raspberry juice and Haribo for the drive.
A final meal of fried rice with bacon and we were nearly packed for our long drive.

Day 15: Saturday 4th June
Off at 7.50am over the exciting Col du Galibier which had just opened a couple of days before. We saw some amazing views, some glaciers and lots of marmots running around.

At the top of the col du Galiber, photo by Paul

Once out of the Alps, France is extremely boring.
Got to the ferry in time to be told that the early ferry was full and we’d need to wait another 4 hours, only to be told by the greatest person in the whole world that they’d managed to squeeze us on! We were entertained on the deck of the ferry by a group of school kids bouncing egg-shaped bouncy balls around with the predictable consequences of the ferry leaving a trail of them in its wake.

Coming into Dover

Into Cambridge only a short time after Claire and Simon, who got stuck in the same massive traffic jam at the dart crossing. Collapsed into bed and fell asleep immediately.

The Dartford crossing...

Day 16: Sunday 5th June

Leisurely drive back to Scotland then dinner at Jon’s, cooked by Andre and company.