Friday, 19 August 2016

Val Sesia and the South French Alps Part 1

Day 1: Saturday 21st May

Ready to go!
Drove from Kennoway to Cambridge - somewhat unexciting. I finally got to meet Jon’s twin sister Claire, though, and she and Simon cooked very tasty steak for dinner. Packed the car and set a scary alarm for 4am.

Day 2: Sunday 22nd May
Up and away in the dark, picking up Paul from his house on the way. So. Very. Early.

Waving goodbye to Dover

Caught the Dover ferry at 7.40am to Calais, then drove through the boring flatlands of Europe - France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, France again, then finally Switzerland. I got a year’s motorway pass for just €40, sadly they don’t sell them in any smaller denominations.
We arrived in Lauterbrunnen just as the sun was going down and the valley looked spectacular. Think Rivendell, but in real life! It was 23°C as we put up the tents, so we had high hopes for paddling the next day as we went to bed.

Day 3: Monday 23rd May
At about 3am, Jon and I both woke up and hastily shoved more clothes on as it was suddenly very cold. Later that morning at the more civilised time of 11am, we finally emerged from the tent to discover an inch of snow sitting on top of it. Turns out my tent is not that great at dealing with snow!

Jon in the winter wonderland

The car was showing 0°C when we hid in it to escape the snow. Paul managed to get internet on his phone and uploaded some pictures of us in the snow for people to laugh at on Facebook. We also had a look at the forecast for Val Sesia, which showed sunshine and 25°C, so we decided to leave immediately. Unfortunately, the campsite owner would not be back for about an hour, so we found a bank and got some Swiss Francs to actually pay with, then had a nice wander around in the snow looking at the waterfalls and the pretty snow covered Swiss village. Unfortunately we couldn’t see any of the Alps through all the snow clouds.

Snow on the Alps

The famous waterfall in Lauterbrunnen
We set off for Italy on an exciting 6 hour drive where we had to go a rather long way round due to most of the passes being closed with the snow. Thankfully, there was a Swiss tunnel we could go through which, since we had already paid our €40, was (kind of) free.
It was 30°C in the lowlands of Italy, the heat was amazing.

Look, sunshine!

We arrived in Campertogno with enough light to pitch the tents then hang around in the communal area and hear the Aberdeen and Strathclyde uni guys tell stories about the rivers they’d done.

Day 4: Tuesday 24th May

Campsite in Italy

Looking at Little Canada on the Lower Sesia

Getting ready to paddle in the sunshine

We finally went kayaking! Straight into the action on the Lower Sesia which starts with two small grade 3 rapids then Little Canada, a grade 4+ that looked big from the bank and much bigger in the middle of it! Lots of white, some frantic paddling and everything went well - good to know we all still remember how to do this kayaking thing. The rest of the run was relaxing grade 3 in the sunshine.
We went to the town of Varallo to try and find a supermarket, however the whole town was closed because they were having a market. Or rather, they were packing up a market and we had to walk across the whole town to get to a supermarket that was closed for siesta. Thankfully there was another one across the road that didn’t believe in siestas. Lunch!
In the afternoon Jon and Paul paddled the Alpin sprint section of the Sesia above the campsite while I took pictures.

At the put in for the Alpine Sprint

"The next bit is steep!"
"It's all steep!!!"

Mollier Falls (the nastiness continues downstream)

Jon just above the first rapid after Mollier falls, a bouncy grade 4

They then portaged the nasty Mollier falls and paddled the short section down to the campsite through Campertogno while I discovered that the campsite has very nice showers.
We made a tasty bolognaise for dinner with gluten free pasta (which the italians do very well).

Day 5: Wednesday 25th May

Campertogno in the morning sunshine

A bit of a lazy start for Jon and I as we paddled the Middle Sesia from the campsite, so we got to wait around in comfort (i.e. mostly asleep) while Paul cycled the shuttle. The Sesia had fairly continuous grade 4 rapids down to the portage at Quare Falls (grade 5+), it was amazing. The portage was straightforward and we had a good look at the rapid which looked horrendous.

Quare falls

More exciting grade 4 down to the next portage at Piode Falls. I capsized on the rapid right above the falls and scared Jon a bit as I pinballed off a few rocks while I was upside down. Thankfully I rolled up, just with a very bruised shoulder!

Piode Falls

A bit more grade 4, then we got to a long grade 4+ with a nasty hole at the end which after some umming and ahing we all decided to portage. We were just getting back in when some German (?) paddlers came along and showed us how it was done.

It looked a lot harder before he paddled it

More grade 4 down to the take out town of Scopello where we had a quick look at the final grade 4+ rapid. Jon and I got less than great lines and I capsized again after getting rammed into a boulder the size of my house. Helpfully I rolled up in an eddy in time to watch as Paul cleaned the line.
We sat in Scopello and ate our lunch in the sunshine, then headed to Varallo to get food - it was much easier when we could drive through town, though a bit stressful, italian drivers are scary. We decided to be tourists and drove all the way to the end of the Sesia valley just to see what was there (pretty much nothing).
I made lemon chicken-like-bird (turkey) for dinner then we played card games in the tent until we fell asleep.

Day 6: Thurday 26th May
We went to the Sorba slides in the morning - big, very picturesque and definitely the easiest paddling we did all holiday. The first drop is big and autoboofs if you hit it right. The second is the trickiest and requires a boof on the left into an eddy in a cave. Then break out wide and drop over the right side of the final long slide to the bottom. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

Top drop

Middle drop

Final drop

We had lunch lazing about at the campsite then headed back to the Lower Sesia because it had been so much fun the first time. It was slightly lower, so Little Canada felt marginally more in control!
We headed back to our trusty supermarket - I was getting better at the Italian driving thing (expect anything and trust no-one). I found some gluten free gnocchi, so Paul and Jon made a bacon (soy) cream sauce for dinner.

Day 7: Friday 27th May
We got up early (ish) and tackled the Alpin Sprint in the morning, continuous, extremely technical grade 4/4+ and so, so very steep all the way. I was very scared and having so much fun!
We portaged Mollier Falls then paddled down to the campsite through some more big grade 4 rapids and a tight tunnel.
We packed the car and headed west towards France, with a stop at a viewpoint to look at Mont Blanc.

The picture doesn't quite capture the hundreds of meters of drop under my feet

The road up and over the Alps (missing out the super expensive tunnels) was very long and very steep and there was a lot of snow at the top! We stopped at the Col du Petit St Bernard at 2188m. It was 9°C at the top and we were wandering around in shorts and sandals with 2m walls of snow beside us. It was a little surreal.

Lots of snow!

We didn’t use much fuel on the way down, but we did use some brake pad, and made it to Bourg St Maurice in time for the supermarkets to all be closing. We then drove around the Isere valley looking for a campsite that was open and failing miserably. Finally we were close to giving up when we found the owner of a somewhat dilapidated looking campsite that was clearly closed and had been for years. She was a tiny old French woman who spoke zero english, but I managed to somehow convince her to let us stay in her orchard overnight by saying “C’est OK?” to basically everything.

Hayfever nightmare
At least it was cheap!

We dug out our leftover italian pasta and a jar of free from pesto and decided that was a good enough dinner.

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