French Alps 1999

Written June 1999 by Mark Rainsley

Back from France and still buzzing! I was really impressed by the range and variety of rivers around Briancon, we had a great trip. I'll briefly outline what we did.

Day 1 - Saturday

Turned up on the Sat evening (and met up with a certain Dave Francis and friends/ family....jolly good folks and jolly good paddlers!) and 4 of us went for a quickie down the lower Guisane. It was actually high and bank-full, not the best warm-up on one hour of sleep? I enjoyed several miles of continual grade 4 without eddies....following Chas's empty boat...

Day 2 - Sunday

We started on the Durance from somewhere or other (St Clement's?) down to the Rabioux rapid, this was an opportunity to get everyone on the water. The famous rapid itself was a bit of a let-down, there was too much water for the wave to work well. Next stop was the Onde, a steep Grade 3 bimble which was flowing well but didn't really set me on fire...what you saw at the get-in was pretty much what you got throughout, very little variation. Then we had a whizz down the Gyr, this was impressively fast but technically straightforward. Rob did a bit of unintentional playboating to keep us amused. We ended the day on Briancon Gorge, this was was really high and chuntering down into town, big waves and holes to avoid which stretched the Guidebook's definition of Grade 3 somewhat. We all put our nose-plugs in after passing a certain outflow pipe...

Day 3 - Monday

In search of adventure, a few of us headed up to the very top of the Guisane valley. We put in where the river emerged from the snowpack. Comedy moment of the day was when Chris seal launched down the ice towards the river, however thirty metres of ice collapsed into the river around him...a mini-avalanche! The comedy certainly ended there, as the following section was a bit of a nightmare. Painful steep bouldery pinball 'paddling' lead us to a big Grade 6 portage, then tree limbo hell completed this section which is simply not worth the grief. We carried on down the guidebook 'Upper' and lower Guisane into Briancon with the rest of our group.

Day 4 - Tuesday

We headed over to the Guil valley, an inspired decision. It was running at 110 on the gauge, apparently a good medium-high level. We ran the upper section down to Chateau Queyras, this was lovely sunny grade 3. After lunch we had a look at the CQ gorge. Only two of us were up for it, then something hilarious happened....our 'novice' Chas said he was going to do it and before you could say 'peer pressure' there were now eight paddlers getting on above it!

Mark R in Chateau Queyras, May 1999.

The gorge was just like the guidebook said, easier than it looks....but quite a few people seemed to have lost track of their boats by the time we reached the exit. Two of us ran it again as someone had carelessly left their paddle in the gorge (no names) and then we headed off to the grade 4 Middle Guil. No doubt about it, this was simply fantastic, among the best quality trips I've ever done. The last few miles below the 'letterbox' portage were playboat heaven, blue waves, holes and splat/ boof spots galore to carnage on....beam me back there, Scotty...

Triple Step on the Guil, May 1999. Paddler Mark Rainsley.

Day 5 - Wednesday

We made the trek to the Ubaye...and paddled the Racecourse section twice. This was running quite high, with a few powerful holes lurking around. I suspect we could have fitted more into this day (we heard good things about the Bachelard?), but some of our group were rafting and it was fun just to paddle down and irritate/ splash them. We also fancied some of the harder Ubaye sections, but apparently they were all running too high.

Day 6 - Thursday

Three of us went to look at the Biasse, a reputedly hard run. As we arrived some French paddlers were leaving ("It eez much too high, we are beeg cheeckens!") and perhaps we should have heeded their warning... The river was fabulous paddling, full-on and pushy but almost all runnable. However the banks were hopelessly overgrown and inspection/ portage/ protection/ rescue was a slow painful nightmare. One paddler walked out after a dodgy tree pin leaving two of us. I had my come-uppance shortly after running a steep series of drops....I backlooped in the last drop and rolled up just in time to sink under a tree-choked syphon. Oops, I didn't have to think too hard or long before breaking my 18 month no-swim record. Unsnagging the deck from tree branches in the undercut wasn't a barrel of laughs either. After this, we spent an hour retrieving my boat (most of this time spent just getting to it along the banks) and proceeded with more caution. There is a final mega-rapid at the take-out which had looked straightforward in the morning, but now the water level had risen at least foot we lacked enthusiasm somewhat and called it a day. The Biasse is great steep read-run paddling, but someone needs to take a hedge strimmer to the banks...

Day 7 - Friday

The last day, we had to do something special so we went to look at the Durance Gorge. The guidebook was pretty off-putting, suggesting that the water level we had was too high, but thankfully it somewhat overstated the difficulties of this trip. You begin with a long portage along a loose footpath. Annoying, but easy enough. Below in the gorge is long section of top quality grade 4 paddling, I would even hazard a suggestion that it was of Nepali quality, big, blue and read-runnable. We bottled out of one rapid, called 'slot and drop' this level it was a river-wide hole that was clearly going to cane you, nobody fancied losing their boat and having to scramble out of the gorge. This trip is definitely recommended if you are confident on grade 4 water, more serious than difficult but worth the hassle for the great paddling and scenery. In the afternoon we went up and ran the entire Claree from Nevache down (portaging the Grade 6 bit!!) and carrying on down the Briancon gorge into town. A lovely mellow end to the trip, but Simon definitely said something like, "foring as buck" on Lower Claree. I'll definitely be going back to this area, there is loads of variety and I think all of our paddlers found something as their level.

Mark Rainsley

See also...2001 trip report.