Sunday, 21 December 2014

Les Alpes Part 4 - Day 8, 9 and 10

Day 8 (Saturday 5th July)

Today we head to the Guil, a classic Alpine river. This river has six very different sections before it empties into the Durance near Guilestre (the clue is in the name). The Upper Guil, where we’re headed, is classed at 3+ and is open alpine bounciness with a short gorge section. Below this is the famous Château Queyras box canyon, then the hard and committing Guardian Angel Gorge. Next is the Middle Guil, classic alpine grade 4/4+ continuous water. Below this is a hydro reservoir above the Guil Gorge, rarely run due to spontaneous water releases from the dam making it a little like Russian roulette. The final section is the Lower Guil, a beginner run down to the Durance. Apparently people have actually paddled the whole thing in one day…
Anyway, today we are going to paddle the Upper section in the morning, then decide on the afternoon’s entertainment at lunchtime. Emily is just about throwing up every so often, so decides not to paddle, trying to reassure everyone that it probably wasn’t the food last night.
En route to the put in we stop at Triple Step, the put in for the middle section, and watch some random paddler style it as his friends stand around faffing.


Random guy, looking cool.

We put in by a ski complex, abandoned and kind of sad looking in the sunshine. The public toilets located round the back, for reasons unknown to us, are accessed through a large, solid cage. Preparations for the zombie apocalypse?

The put in is the standard alpine territory of balancing precariously on some rocks, hoping not to fall in before you can get your deck on and grab your paddle. Then a scramble for a micro eddy and wait for the rest of the group to get in. The first part of the run is bouncy grade 2/3 and we muck about a bit doing boofs into eddies and grinding off boulders. The sun is shining and the water is really blue and really cold. Soon, the banks start to gorge up and we eddy hop down, following John R. I bring up the back of the group, constantly entertained by the faces Jon W pulls as we paddle around blind corner after blind corner, never finding anything too scary. The eddies are clean and the moves super cool. Too soon the gorge walls fall away and we bounce down the last of the section towards an amazing view of Château Queyras.

Paddling down towards Chateau Q.

We have lunch beside the cars at Château Queyras. Opinions differ on what we should do next, so we split into several groups. Some head back to the river to paddle the Château Q box canyon then the middle Guil. Others are up for a chill and opt to watch then head back to camp.

Team Chateau Q gear up.

John, Chris, Amy and me all head into town and hire some via ferratta kit. Chris drives us up a tiny mountain road until we can’t go any further, then we get out and walk to the foot of a huge cliff up a relatively small alp. We clip in and climb, way way up! It’s great fun, though I’m pretty sure it’s not made for someone who’s 5’3’’… The views from the top are amazing, and the walk back is super scenic so I take way too many photos.

Walking in.

Dat view...

That's our Alp to climb!

On the top!

Walking back out.
Driving back down alongside the deep Guil Gorge.

Back at the camp site I make a tasty stir fry while Izzy tells us about how Rory may have forgotten about stopping for the biggest rapid on the middle Guil.

Day 9
Today we learned a valuable lesson. Rest days are dangerous.

The morning starts off with some of the group heading to a water park and luge near Guilestre. We see them off then drive to the Fournell. Lots of the group get on and paddle down while Dave, Jon and me sit at the bottom of the biggest drop and grade them on their entertainment value. Unfortunately there is some carnage and Izzy has a nasty recirculation swim in the top drop. Thankfully, rescue is on hand and she gets back on. Jon and Rory both manage snazzy hammers off the big drop, to many cheers.

Hammer time.

With the promise of ice cream we head to Briançon old town. Parking is our first challenge, thankfully we spot another car just leaving a spot. We entirely fail to find the others, so Jon, Dave, Raffa and I wander into the fort and look for a café. We soon find out that we have arrived in the middle of a medieval festival.

Narrow streets full of straw! Photo by Dave Manley.

Jon and Dave are grumbling about the fact that the fort is Napoleonic, not medieval. We find a café and have coffee, lemonade and Orangina (not all together).
Now, France has a lot more smokers than the UK, for some reason, so by this point I’ve used my inhaler twice. That’s more than in the last month. I probably should have taken this as a warning sign.

There’s a big movement out towards the moat – apparently there’s a big show about to start! We decide to go have a nosey. We find some grass by the fence and eagerly await the spectacle. And keep waiting. And waiting. Some people ride horses in a circle a few times. Some guy talks a lot in French. Still waiting for a spectacle.

Waiting for a spectacle...

Eventually Dave, noticing that I’m on about five uses of my inhaler and still wheezing, suggests that maybe we should just go. We leap on the idea and quickly make tracks. At the city gate we run into Rory and his car – apparently he’s been stood on by a horse. Before things get any worse, we head back to the campsite!
The water park/luge goers are back and making a “peasant stew” for dinner. Andre’s sunburn can probably be seen from space, and John had a fun trip to the hospital after falling off the luge and losing a large proportion of the skin on one of his arms.

An interesting point – we had more carnage on the rest day than on the entirety of the rest of the trip.

Day 10
Today, since are supposedly rested from yesterday, we head up to the Guisane which flows into the Durance in Briançon. The Guisane has two sections, the upper easier than the lower. We put on at the top of the upper, sliding into the fast flowing river directly from the car park. I’m just glad to be out of the red car after the shuttle. It smelled like something died in there.
Worryingly, thunderstorms are brewing at the valley head, and the rumble of thunder accompanies us down the river.

Thunderheads gathering...

Bouncy grade 2/3 leads down until we reach the grade 4 “s-bend” marked on the guide. We hop out where the group in front are getting back in and wander along the shingle bank. We can kind of see down the rapid a little bit, but the next bit of the inspection looks like it might involve some effort. The group that were just getting in paddle down and don’t have any major incidents, so we figure it’s probably fine.

"Gina got to the bottom fine, it can't be too bad." Sorry Gina.

Patsy follows me while Emily follows Rory. We skirt a pourover on the lead in and slide into it. I’m vaguely concentrating on the river in front, mostly on what Patsy is doing, so I just bounce happily down, occasionally sideways, mostly backwards. It all goes fine! Fast and bouncy and full on but still friendly. Soon the river quietens back down and we revert to floating with occasional bits of paddling. The take out appears in the form of a car park beside a bridge. We stack the boats up in a colourful array and get on with the important task of eating lunch.

After many manwiches have been consumed, the group split into a team heading with Chris to the Gyronde and team hardcore, off down the lower Guisane. I am teamed with Rory, Andre and Jonty. We hop back in boats and head off as team number one.

The first couple of kilometres are gentle grade 2 and we float, feeling more and more nervous. Then Rory signals and we eddy out. We are approaching Shelob’s weir, a nasty mess of concrete and spikes (apparently). As we’re walking round I have a peak into the darkness under the bridge, but it eludes inspection – supposedly people run it, but it certainly doesn’t sound friendly.
After this is a nice grade 3 boulder dodging section before we eddy out again to portage a marginally more friendly weir which Rory decides to run “because Jonny made him run it last time”.

I have a suspicion that sticker came from a Pyranha kayak.

The river starts to step up a bit from here and rock dodging moves come faster and harder. Big boulders, tight drops, spinning, boofing, oh look Jonty is perched on a boulder, I’ll not go that way. Seconds later I look back upstream to see Jonty’s boat upside down and Jonty getting bounced bodily down the river. He makes it to the bank fairly quickly as Rory chases down his boat and Andre lobs his paddle on the bank. I make an executive decision that I’m scared and I want the bank now please!
I run downstream through the woods to see if I can help, pulling Jonty’s paddle out of the trees on the way. The group behind us have caught up and Raffa helps Rory get the boat off a rock and onto the far bank. A super slick throwline-boat-pull and Andre, Jonty and I have the boat on the other side.

Boat retrieval take 1.

I run back up to my boat and nervously bounce down to the others. We head off again, back into the maelstrom. I’m concentrating hard, so I don’t see what catches Jonty out the second time, but he gets a proper beating before he gets to the bank. Rory and I empty the boat and we do another awesome boat-across-river-throwline thing.

Boat retrieval take 2.

Intrepid kayaker emerges from a grumpy stomp through the woods.

Look at all the sunshine that's not here.

We’re all in the “eddy” or more accurately water that’s moving a bit less quickly downstream. Jonty is grumping because the river stole his sunglasses. Rory gives us a pep talk.
“It’s all good guys, there’s nothing harder now, you’ve done the worst bit.”
Liar, liar, pants on fire.
We drop round the corner into an incredible non-stop grade four whoosh. It is steeeeeeeep, you can see the rapids spread out below you as you desperately try to find a route down and through without hitting too many rocks. At one point I go through a chute that I have to angle my paddles along my boat it’s so narrow. I scream several times. We pass the other two groups, just fly straight past, no idea what they’re doing at the time, but they’re all over the banks at one of the really scary bits.
And then somehow we’re in an eddy. Quite a large one where the water is pretty much still, a strange experience on this river. There’s quite a bit of incoherent babbling, then Rory paddles over to talk to someone from one of the other groups. Andre, Jonty and I continue a bit of babbling. We head downstream to float with Rory – it’s grade 2 from here and Patsy in the other group has lost her paddles, so he’s going to paddle on to the get out to see if he can spot them.
We float down in a daze. Soon, we came upon the last obstacle, a small weir that can be scraped over on the right. In a case of amusing coincidence, just as I drop over the weir there comes a massive crash of thunder from upstream. A more amusing coincidence is that at the time we were at the weir, Patsy, who wasn’t having the best day ever, had just asked Jon what was round the corner. Jon, knowing it was grade 2 from there, had, in classic Jon mode, said “The rapid of Doooooooom!!!” to coincide beautifully with the thunder crash.

Floating through Briancon in the rain.

We’re floating through Briançon when the three of us realise we don’t actually know where to get out of the river. We kind of hope Rory will be obvious, but we do have a quick check at a random bridge, just in case. When we come out of the Guisane into the Durance and realise it’s the same take out as the Briançon gorge we all feel just a little silly.
It takes the others a while to arrive, so we’re hiding in the car when they pop into the layby. It’s pouring with rain! When the shuttle is run, apparently the river at the top of the run is very high, brown and churning – I’m glad we’re not too much slower!

(I don’t remember what dinner was, but I do remember it took a long time to arrive and we all sat around in discussing various people going to the Verdon gorge the next day at stupid o’clock in the morning.)

<- Part 3 Part 5 ->

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