Alps 2017

When I joined UHCC two years ago (June 2015), my aspirations did not reach beyond a dry lap of the Dart Loop, and, maybe my BCU 3* white water. In the last 24 months I have achieved both those two ambitions, and joined the ‘big boys and girls’ on a never-to-be-forgotten trip to Briancon in the French Alps.

When the e-mail came out in December 2016 recruiting for a trip to the Alps, I was certainly in two minds about my ability to ‘cut it’ in such a challenging environment, but the team assured me there would be a variety of rivers of all levels to paddle and coaching included, so I signed up, and practise began.

I’m not sure how much the upper Tryweryn can actually prepare you for the speed and size of even grade 2 water in the Alps, but it was a necessary preamble.

Unfortunately I was unable to travel out to France with the rest of the team and was confined to following their progress towards the Alps via comments on a Facebook Messenger Group. I gather that some vehicles took a bit of a detour into Belgium (serves them right for following a sat-nav!).

When I arrived on Sunday evening (Thank you Ian for picking me up off the train at Oulx), the first day’s paddle was complete and a delicious spaghetti bolognaise in preparation in the kitchen of one of the two adjacent gites which provided our accommodation. I was delighted to find an ample stock of wine and beer available via a ‘kitty’, and looked forwards to my first day in the Alps on the morrow.

This is the view from the window of the room I shared. Beautiful countryside.

Like many first timers in the Alps, my first Alpine river was the Durance. Monday morning we put in below the slalom course at Argentiere and paddled down to Roche de Rame, a short paddle intended as a shake down for me to be followed by something else. Unfortunately, the shuttle car had an unexpected sump collision with a rock on the track to the get-out and most of the rest of the day was spent sorting out repairs, and working out how we could transport our coach group and instructor with only one car!

Nevertheless, we did also manage a cheeky late run on the Durance from Briancon to Prelles… approx. an hour paddle started at 5pm and ending just before the witching hour of 6pm when paddlers are obliged to be off the river for the fishermen (an arrangement that works really rather well in my opinion).

Tuesday saw us challenge gravity to load five boats, paddlers and kit in my care and set off for the upper Guisane.

What could possibly go wrong? Yes, that’s right! Fortunately no damage done!

Now I was able to begin to compare the Alpine rivers to that Tryweryn experience. The comparison is favourable. While the paddling up to now proved to be nothing too technical, I began to appreciate the importance of getting into an eddy out of the flow in a speedy and proficient manner: something I was not too good at before. These rivers played to my strengths as I’m not the best at making the top of the eddy, better at driving in a bit lower down. But I am quite good at hanging on to slender tree roots and bits of almost non-existent grass in the desperate hope that I won’t get flushed out of the back of the eddy, while peering through one eye over my shoulder to see where I’m meant to go next.

Having survived two days paddling, time for the ‘Sunshine Run’. This stretch of the Durance river is known for wide flowing, big and bouncy grade two paddling in the heart of the mountains, a perfect introduction to Alpine paddling. Unfortunately our introduction to this section was in driving rain amid a massive thunder storm with lightening forking all around. No pictures can do that justice! The weather was not conducive to pictures at all!

Our paddling group lived up to our nickname as the coffee and ice cream group by taking a break at the café in the slalom venue for coffee and ice cream!

Thursday saw us take to the Gyronde river: a completely different experience! This was a narrow, rocky stream by comparison to the Durance. Tiny eddies just big enough for one boat meant that we spent a lovely morning leap-frogging from one bank to the other in an elegant and well timed ‘dance’ which only ended when I took an unexpected swim! A very kind local gentleman who was walking his dog along the bank generously rescued and emptied my boat while Ian was ensuring that I was safely ashore (self, team, ‘victim’, kit).

My heroic rescuer on the bridge!

I enjoyed that swim so much that I felt obliged to repeat the experience just above the weir lower down, where a large granite cliff beaconed me to an unwelcome meeting which resulted in my paddle and Kirsten’s boat shooting the weir unaided!

Our final day paddling took us to the Upper Guil river high above Chateau Q: a gorge of scary proportions which we viewed from the road above in dumb amazement that anyone from our group would (and did) paddle!

Having decided that this section of the river was not for us, we drove back to the Gironde where I had a score to settle with a certain weir and cliff scenario. The same river one day later but barely recognisable as the level had dropped from nerve wracking (for me) to pussy cat level! Or maybe I just improved my paddling overnight?

It is now a month since our trip and the adrenaline level has just begun to drop back to normal in my system. I can’t wait for a chance to do it all (and more) again! Thank you to everyone who took part and made the whole experience so magnificent.

- Lyn.

Leave a Comment