Friday, 5 September 2014

Les Alpes Part 3 - Day 6 and 7

Day 6 (3rd July)

Upper Ubaye put in

Today we’re heading to the Ubaye! About an hour’s drive south from our campsite, it’s the furthest river in the Durance area. We stop in Guilestre to pick up food, then head up, up, up and over the mountain pass into the Ubaye valley. It’s a long way up and we get left behind by the other cars as they definitely win on power.
Finally we’re going down again! The put in for the Upper Ubaye is nice and obvious since all the others are already there. We park up, get changed and then all the others drive away before me and Rory are ready. Slight problem – we don’t know where we’re going. Downstream seems like a good bet though. John phones me to say he’s forgotten his helmet, thankfully I can work out how hands free works on my phone. We stop in a layby and Rory comes and has a chat, worried that we’ve driven too far. Probably not? We haven’t seen anywhere likely and the take out is definitely a town. Nobody else who’s on the shuttle has their phone on. We decide to go a bit further. Typically, the town is just round the corner!
Unfortunately when we get there the others have left and Chris’s car is locked. Sorry John, we tried. Back to the top! John looks so sad that Chris donates him his helmet, stating that he’s run the whole of the Roy without a helmet, so this grade 2/3 run isn’t very hardcore for him! Soon we’re off, bouncing down in the sunshine. It’s super relaxing and while some people practice skills, others (including me) just float most of the way. At one point, on a stretch with loads of big boulders to eddy hop around, we are overtaken by a huge group from another university with Tom Parker (of don’t you know) shepherding them along. We catch up with them again as they’ve eddied out in a giant eddy further down, so we say hi.

Soon we’re at the take out and hungry for lunch. The large grassy bank by the car park is soon strewn with kit drying in the sun and kayakers making manwiches. There is one tree providing shade and it gets really crowded! The plan is to head to the racecourse, but Chris starts talking about an awesome, amazing section that’s so cool and fantastic and wow, it’s really good guys. So we stop at the put in for the Fresquiére section and have a good gape at the scariness below the bridge. Some other paddlers are just putting on, so we watch the entertainment, though no carnage is forthcoming.

The gnar hungry boys are uber keen, though pretty nervous. Much discussion and line picking ensues, and it takes a while for the exciting bit to start. Eventually they’re on the water and we watch, gasp, take pictures and wave from the bridge.

Discussion time!

Put in for the grade 4/5 Fresquiere section.

Through the first drop.

Heading off! Apparently it gets harder just round the corner...

Then we’re off to the cars and down the road to meet them at the put in for the racecourse. We get about half a km and get stopped by a guy who tells us that they’ve just been blasting the cliff and we’ll need to wait until the road is clear. He then proceeds to kick some small rocks around at the side of the road for about five minutes before talking into his radio then waving us all through. Huh.
The put in for the racecourse is mobbed with kayakers, rafters and white water racers. We manage to sneak parking spaces and get kitted. Some of the more nervous paddlers have decided not to go along, so we don’t need to run a shuttle. Just as we start to get worried the gnar hunters appear floating down the river looking ecstatic.
I’m in Chris’s group with Cami, James, Jon, John, Jonny and Andre. Jon and I are pretty nervous in the first eddy. This river is supposedly grade 4 with grade 2/3 rest breaks in between. The volume is much bigger than the other rivers we’ve done, although there are more large eddies around.

Racecourse put in, Andre still buzzing from the Fresquiere section.

We set off, straight into the first rapid. This is bouncy grade 3 and gives us a nice intro into the volume and power of the river. We gather in an eddy at the bottom, then immediately we’re off again, floating down the grade 2. We eddy in and out, following Chris in a line like ducklings. A bit more grade three and suddenly on an innocuous looking rapid I see James shoot skywards nose first, a little panicked. Jon drops in behind him, does some crazy mystery move that’s too fast to follow and pops out backwards, looking shocked that he’s still somehow upright. Too late now. The hole opens up and I charge it as best I can. Water gets in my contacts and I’m briefly aware of tail squirting through the first hole, only to land in the next one right behind it. Reflex takes over, thankfully, and I blindly surf for a few seconds before I’m spat out and downriver. I clear my eyes as quick as I can, but the worst is over and I break out into an eddy. The initial conversation with Jon goes something like:
And repeat.
So that was a bit of grade four, just for funsies. But we’ve got the measure now – don’t trust the nice lead in, it’s sneaky like that. We keep going. We’re at Chris pace, no time to stop and reflect on near trashings. There’re more grade fours, big boulders planted all across the river, forcing desperate ferries, eddying with eyes on stalks, charging holes. It’s intense and terrifying and exhilarating. At one point James remarks that “It’s a bit chunkier than last time I was here”

The banks start to gorge up a bit and Jon and I are getting pretty scared. How far? No idea. Chris’s gone again! Yeah, which way? We paddle nervously after him, but it’s all good. Grade 3 at most! We have a giggle and gaze up at the cliffs with the trailing ivy that nearly reaches river level and the old roman bridge arcing across the gorge.

Into the gorge!

A few more corners of grade 2 and we see the others lounging on the bank. We hop out and take in these feelings. We survived, and it was awesome.

Happy tired paddlers

We load up and the car that’s on cooking duty whizzes off. Since we’re so much further west, downriver of where we started, the way back is round by the huge lake that the Ubaye and Durance empty into (Lac du Serre-Ponçon). We stop at a large dirt layby and wander down to take in the view of the sky blue lake. Then someone suggests a naked photo for next year’s calendar and suddenly there’s an awful lot of nakedness. A paraglider on the other side of the lake lands rather abruptly and we have a long discussion about whether the nakedness may have had anything to do with that.

At the lake.

Eventually we tear ourselves away and head back. The super market in Embrun is ginormous and Dave buys himself a chair, while I buy myself steak for dinner. We arrive back at the campsite only to discover that the car sent to buy dinner had failed to make it to a supermarket before the they all closed. In fact, they were the only car not to have gone to a supermarket. Apparently there was ice cream involved.
The dinner car strategically manoeuvre away to find themselves pizza, leaving us to pass on the message to the others. Since eating out isn’t really an option for me I get my stove out and start making steak fajitas, mmmmm. Dave takes my leftover steak and red pepper and combines it with random findings from the rest of the campsite to make a super tasty looking sauce. Meanwhile the others arrive back and are mildly less than impressed, but most head off to L’Argentierre or to the Pizzeria in La Roche de Rame. Chris and John make some incredible looking cous cous mixture, Sarah has a tin of Heinz Spaghetti and Sausages (since lactose free pizza doesn’t really appear much in France) and Raffa eats everyone’s leftovers and raids his car/tent for even more food. We chat about the day and other things, and muse on how much hell there will be descending tomorrow morning!

Day 7
Tempers are a little short today. Everyone is tired and last night’s food drama didn’t help matters. The sunshine run is the plan, but not everyone is ok with this. Jon, Raffa, Rory, John and Chris head off to a river called the Cerveyrette, described as an “overlooked, easily accessible esoteric gem” by the guide book. However it also says that “At times it feels more like cage fighting than kayaking”.
Feeling a bit icky, I elect to take the day off along with Jonny, Jon W and James. We watch the other guys play at the slalom course at St-Clément and take lots of pictures.

Once we’ve waved them off we have a nosey in the kayak shop and I buy a guide book so I can read up on the rivers we’ve done and add notes to them. My ickyness is definitely a coeliac reaction. Great…
We head down to the Rab “wave” and sit in the empty café, eating our own food since clearly business is slow and nobody could be bothered opening today. We start making sandwiches and relaxing, only to be rudely interrupted by the rest coming down the river. We sprint out to the beach, pulling out cameras and snapping/filming. The first casualty is Dave, who does an impressive backloop in the nomad. He’s soon followed by Jonty who clearly had gotten bored with just running rapids and does an impressive number of cartwheels in his Diesel before finally bailing out. Emily charges the hole and pops out the other side looking smug, only to realise in horror that she’s being sucked back in. A chaos of boats, paddles and paddlers spreads out behind the hole while we whoop and cheer with carnage hungry glee.

Emily, heading for trouble.


Soon enough everything is returned to a controlled state. Dave is bleeding copiously after apparently during his backlooping fun, the Nomad landed on his face. He opts to finish the river here. Andre, deciding that since he’s in a play boat he should really try out the play hole, drops into the meat of the wave and is played with for a while before being spat out.

The Rab wave playing with Andre

Tired but happy, he gets off the water with Dave and we wave the others off as they head for the take out further down. Andre and Dave get changed and Dave’s nose just about stops bleeding, so we drive down to Embrun and pick the others up.
Feeling pretty shaky, I let Dave drive for a bit as we head to the Fournell. A small river at the back of L'Argentierre that is controlled by hydro schemes, the Fournell is just lots and lots and lots of weirs. There are five that are regularly run by kayakers, although some, especially the first drop, are pretty sticky, so a good boof is an idea.
It’s apparently running a bit higher than usual, but James is keen and paddles down twice while we run the bank doing safety and camera cover. The second time down he does a sweet hammer off the big drop.

Hammer time!

Then it’s back to camp and last night’s dinner team is on tonight, though there’s some pointed reminders about supermarket closing times and “this better be good”. It has sausages in it, so I heat up a premade sauce packet and pasta that I brought with me. Probably a good idea on my delicate stomach today.

We get to hear all about the adventures on the Cerveyrette. Many, many trees and blind corners and dodgy moments! But it all turned out ok and everyone is happy. And apparently dinner is begrudgingly alright.

<- Part 2 Part 4 ->

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