French Alps in Spate, May 2001
Just returned from Briancon. Water levels are huge (and rising) making many major rivers unpaddleable and the others very dangerous at best. Tree hazards in particular are awful. Conditions very poor for less experienced paddlers.
Even so, we scraped a good week from what was on offer.
I've divided my vague ramblings about the trip into sections. Read no further if you've heard enough!
...as we approached Briancon, it was clear that the rivers were all high but just short of flooding. Hot weather and massive amounts of snow were to blame!
We met up with Chris 'Magic Knees' Wheeler at Briancon (along with Kel, representing Team Zimbabwe). They were fairly wide eyed, having just 'warmed up' on the Guisane which was storming high. Chris being Chris, he'd just arrived and gotten on the nearest river without checking the level or guidebook. Kel was rather stressed out by the experience!
I didn't fancy the Guisane as a first trip in my new untested 'park-n-play' boat, a lovely shiny Perception Amp. We headed off to the Briancon Gorge and did this instead...some easy warmup! The guidebook amusingly describes a half hour grade 3 paddle 'if there is water'. Ho hum. With huge amounts of water, it's a pushy ten minute grade 4+ blast ('like being flushed down the toilet' - Chris) with no warmup and a ridiculously dangerous tree dodging first hundred metres. Fun in a masochistic sort of way. At least, the Amp turned out to be a surprisingly predictable and reliable river runner...a good job really as I realised I wasn't going to be enjoying glassy blue water playspots this week...
...we had the 'proper' warmup paddle where all of our groups got together on an easy stretch. That was the plan, but Simon forgot his kit...anyway eventually about 20 of us wound up straggled along the Durance on the section down to the Rabioux campsite. This didn't take long as the water was streaming thru the trees at a fair old rate.
After lunch at the getout, a few of us went elsewhere, whilst the majority carried on down the Durance to Embrun. We went to the Gyr first...this glacial ditch turned out to be the only low water trip all week, still good fun and powerful enough to generate a few backloops!
We then got on the Onde, rather high and infested with trees. Rob managed to get nastily pinned under one crossing the whole river, thankfully he's a big strong bloke and fought his way out. From the bottom of the Onde we carried on into the Gyronde, which none of us had done before. A few weir shoots/ portages and a long portage around a massive grade 6 rapid were annoying, but otherwise this was a surprisingly challenging and steep little river. Then the Gyronde flowed into the Durance and the trip finished with a descent of Argentiere slalom course...this turned out to have munchy pourovers to dodge at this level, not for Div 5 paddlers! Chris summed it up, 'Bloody hell, I'm taking up slalom now, I always thought it was boring as **** before.'
...a trip to the nicest river I know in Europe, the Guil.
Aaaarrggh! The Guil was flooded out and unpaddleable, with grade 5+ sections along the 'middle Guil' section. In addition, the ravages of last year's flood were obvious with wood and metal junk lurking in the river everywhere. Even the easy upper Guil looked lethal and horrible. Dammit!
Triple Step on the Guil. Shower Curtain on RR completely submerged. River unpaddleable.
The Guil emerges from Chateau Queyras, May 2001.
We eventually ate humble pie and put on the lower Guil, a rather dull grade 2 tree dodge down to the Durance. We stayed on the Durance past the Rabioux down to Embrun, a section I hadn't done before. This was more interesting, with wave trains and scenery to enjoy. Certain members of my party afterwards dismissed the day as, 'a rest day' however...
...we decided on the Guisane. I had bad guts and didn't mind at all when it turned out that I'd left my helmet back at our chalet. Whilst the others did the upper Guisane, I read FHM under a tree and revelled in the fact that gorgeous babe Willow beat ugly mug Buffy in FHM's Most Beautiful Women Top 100. Do I need to get out more often?
After a 'Le Big Mac' lunch I ran out of excuses not to paddle and found myself on the lower Guisane. Oh yes! At 120 on the gauge it was fantastic, stoppery and continuous grade 4 boating without eddies or annoying things like that to detract from the experience.
...we looked for something vaguely hard to do. The Biasse was at suicidal levels so we showed up at the Rabioux river, an obscure little ditch running a couple of km down to the Durance near the famous rapid of the same name.
The Rabioux turned out to be not too hard and excellent fun, a grade 4 (4+) steep blast, but it was a bit of an epic anyway...two of our group wandered off to inspect it and somehow didn't return for two hours. Loads of people who had decided the river was too hard then, lemming-like, decided that the river (now higher from snowmelt) was actually fine after all.
We got on in three small groups. The first hundred yards was fairly outrageously steep and nasty, after that the river mellowed off. Unfortunately by then Kel from our group already had a dislocated arm...oops. He evacuated to the hospital (muttering about the lack of rocks in the Zambezi) and we retrieved his gear and finished the 15 minute run 3-4 hours after we first arrived at it. The other group had two swims.
In the afternoon we returned to the Gyr to find it now fairly high. It was fantastic! I took the lead (or more strictly speaking, I happened to be at the front) and had the sadistic pleasure of regularly glancing back over my shoulder and enjoying all the carnage my poor lines had caused. One pourover I lead into, had Doug stuck in it cranking ends...until Andy landed on him and pushed him out, and was stuck there until Simon boofed into him, etc...splendid fun but there were wide eyes afterwards!
...We went up and looked at the Cerveyrette River near Briancon. This looked fantastic but had waaay too much water for safety. Instead we ran the upper Claree a couple of times. This was high but unusually not brown; nice to paddle clearish water. I had rather bored memories of this alleged 'grade 4' section of water in lower water. This
time the river didn't disappoint; it wasn't in spate like most local rivers, but it had enough water to keep the blood flowing, presenting some interesting tight 'tree or stopper' choices.
Chris Wheeler on the Claree.
Mark Rainsley, Claree.
Upper section of the Claree.
In the afternoon we wound the day down with a second run on Briancon Gorge. Stonking.
Oh yeah...on this day a couple of Brits apparently decided to do the waterfall upstream of the putin (which I haven't seen). I understand that they both swam, one of them BEFORE the fall, who broke his leg and a few ribs. Not the only epics noticed going on this week...Stuart Woodward told me of encountering a group of Brit novices begging their instructor in vain to let them get off a river.
...final day, we hoped for something good to end on. No worries!
We started on the upper Guisane, which I'd missed earlier in the week. I had to stop and remove an infestation of biting ants from my Amp. The other gits didn't wait so I soloed the whole section. The one grade 4 rapid was pretty lumpy at this level (10 cm up on last run down the Guisane)!
The group thinned out dramatically and a few of us continued down the lower Guisane. It rocked! Big holes and waves, no eddies but no real nasties lurking...apart from an abandoned throwline which momentarily wrapped around me...frightening. I was glad I'd run the section in slightly lower water earlier in the week to 'warm up' for this. A mile was possibly continuous grade 5 and a swim would have seen you reach the Med but we had no mishaps. Fantastic frantic paddling, and full marks to the Amp for behaving just like a bigger boat when I needed it to. Incidentally, we believe we were the only paddlers to run the section all week.
Guisane, May 2001. 130 on the Casset gauge (100 is supposedly 'high')!
On return, we found that a member of our group had lost his boat just running the slalom course in town. Very annoying for him I imagine!
We finished the trip with another blast thru Briancon gorge in the afternoon, marred slightly by Rob's attempt to paddle straight into a huge tree block.
Conclusion: A good week of paddling, given the limitations and danger posed by the high water conditions. The less experienced group members were left with even more limited possibilities.
Looks like the Froggie Alps will not be short of water for some time to come...
Mark Rainsley June 1st 2001