Leaving home at 2200 on Friday 1st June, we set off for the short drive to the French Alps. With only three of us in the car, we were able to take turns spreading out in the back and catching some shut-eye during the 720 mile drive that would get us to our destination the following afternoon. Following a brief stop at the supermarket in Briancon, the highest city in Europe, we made it to our campsite at La Roche-de-Rame. The tents went up quickly and we headed to the slalom course at L’Argentière-la-Bessée for a gentle warm-up. Back at camp, we were joined by Ludo, Ruth, Guy and Gerb, who had spent a leisurely day avoiding toll roads where possible.
Sunday 2nd June:
Waking up on Sunday morning, Guy was suffering inflammation of his left eye. This required a trip to the hospital and, as he was unable to drive, Ludo volunteered to take him. Meanwhile, we loaded Gerb’s kit into our car and we set off for the Briancon Gorge. This was a river that none of us had paddled before but one that we all wanted to do. Knowing how long A&E takes in the UK, we assumed that we wouldn’t see Ludo and Guy until we had finished the river. However, it turns out that the French A&Es are slightly more efficient, as we passed them heading back to the campsite as we we on our way to the river! We met up at the get-in to discover that Guy had managed to get a laceration to his cornea, effectively putting him off paddling for most of the trip. He also looked like a pirate, as he had an eye patch to protect his eye! It was decided that Guy and Ludo would head back to camp, in order to collect Ludo’s paddling gear, before meeting us at the get out. The Briancon Gorge section turned out to be a great paddle, and the high levels making for a sporty first time down. Gerb was unlucky near the start and, after practicing his freestyle moves in a hole, took a little swim – thus kicking off the swim tally for the week. We arrived at the get out to see no sign of Ludo. Assuming that they would be back soon, we sat in the sun and enjoyed a few minutes relaxation. After approx 20 minutes we called one of the groups who was travelling across from a week paddling in Italy, found out they were only 30 minutes from Briancon and so arranged to meet where we were waiting for Ludo. Half an hour Ludo, we caught side of Ludo walking his dog along the opposite bank – it turned out that we were waiting for each other in different lay-bys. After walking back to his car, Ludo made it to our lay-by about the same time as the cars travelling across from Italy. Our group was now complete at 14 people in 4 cars.
After loading up our kit, we set off for the middle Claree. This is a section that I hadn’t done before and starts with a nasty grade 5 rapid. At the flows we saw it, I would put it at a higher grade as the main flow went into an undercut that was less than two feet above the water. Needless to say we got on below this! At this level, the middle Claree is a fast, furious paddle avoiding holes, branches and rocks. My group stopped to inspect one section and made another stop to empty my boat – I discovered that if I leave my bung undone then my boat fills with water. We collected a few more paddlers at the end of the middle section and continued down the easier lower section. As always seems to be the case with the lower section, there were few eddies to make and a number of trees to avoid. My group had a close call when we discovered that the main channel was impassable due to trees, requiring a furious breakout (which I managed to miss, requiring some assistance from Martyn!). We only paddled half of this section before deciding that enough was enough and headed back to camp for food and beers.
Looking down from the Briancon Gorge get-in
Continuing the theme of new rivers, this morning we headed off to paddle the Lower Guil, also known as the Mont Dauphin gorge. We continued down, passed St Clement sur Durance to the Rabioux wave. The wave was big and powerful at this level and, after getting held in the wave briefly, I escaped to see Ludo’s boat soloing downstream. We managed to get the boat to the bank about 500 metres downstream whilst Simon and Dave S managed to catch up with, and retrieve, his paddles shortly afterwards. By the time we had all managed to get back the cars, it was decided that the remainder if the afternoon should be spent at the slalom course at L’Argentiere.
Jethro on the Durance
Tuesday we headed over Col de Vars into the Ubaye valley. Most of the group decided to get on and paddle the Upper Ubaye, whilst Martyn, Jethro and myself decided to head downstream to scout some other sections. First on our list was Le Bachelard. Jethro and I have only paddled this once before, during the high levels of Summer 2008. We had a fantastic run down in 2008, were keen to introduce the rest of the group to this river and the level was looking good today. From here we went further downstream to have a look at the Fresqueire section. Last time I had seen this it was not a pretty sight – very high with lots of trees and holes to cause problems. Today it was also looking high – too high for us to paddle – so we headed back up to the Bachelard to wait for the rest of the group. Once the rest of the group had arrived, we headed up to the get-on. Getting down to river level is a task in itself – down a steep bank, holding on to branches and roots to prevent from sliding all the way down! This river did not disappoint. Admittedly, with a little bit more water it would have been even better, but it was still a great run with a nice little rapid in store right at the end (I had forgotten about this!). Following this, most of the group headed back to camp while a small group ran the Racecourse section of the Ubaye. Levels were still quite high, which provided some entertainment on the descent, including me getting back-looped in a hole!
The Bachelard valley
Wednesday we headed to a completely new valley to start with. The Romanche has been on all of our lists for a number of years and, seeing as we were on a roll for ticking off new rivers, decided that this was going to be the year. It turned out to be a good fun run – it is quite a narrow river with a crux section in the middle. We were pleased to have checked out the get-out in advance, however, as it turned out that the hydro was releasing – if we had jut got on without checking first I am pretty certain that we would have been in trouble!
We decided to do the Lower Guisane on the way back to the campsite. This had dropped considerably since we had looked earlier in the week, and it was now a nice level. Despite this, a number of us messed up our lines on the harder rapid and yet came through unscathed.
I had managed to hurt my neck / shoulder somehow paddling Le Bachelard on Tuesday and decided that I was going to sit out today to let it rest. As it turned out I didn’t miss much paddling as the others only managed about half an hour in total.
We started the day with another look at the Durance Gorge, which was still too high, and from here headed up to look at the Onde. This was too low, as was the Gyr and Gyronde. Next on the list was the Cervyrette – another new river. It looked good-to-go at the get in, so I watched them all off downstream and headed to the get-out. The guidebook mentions a spillway to the left of the get-out ladder, but I didn’t expect it to be quite as close as it was and with water going over it! (There was an alternative get-out a few metres back up the lake)
The Cervyrette get-out – up the ladder and avoid the 100m drop!
I settled down to read my Kindle and wait for the first group to appear at the top of the lake. Next thing I knew was my phone ringing – it was Dave informing me that they had all made a decision to get off and that I should head back to the get-in to meet them. It turned out that Fred had managed to have an incident with a tree only 200m from the start. This shook everyone up and led to the decision not to continue. As we headed back to town, a decision was made to have a quick blast down the Briancon Gorge, which would be a new river for most of the group (only four of us had paddled it on Sunday). Twenty minutes later they were pulling their boats out of the river at the get-out. At this stage the group split, with the cars heading to the slalom course and my car heading up the Fournel valley to see what all of the fuss was about. After a bit of time trying to find the section containing the interesting weirs, we decided not to get on as it didn’t look that much fun after all. Seeing as we had scouted a number of rivers today, we decided to continue the trend and head up to look at the teacups on the Biaysse. None of us expected the drive up the valley to be quite so long – you had to drive as far as you can up the valley until the road comes to an end, and then walk from there! It was well worth the drive, however, as the falls and teacups were stunning. After spending a long time looking and throwing sticks in, Jethro came to the same conclusion that we all had not long after we arrived – there was too much water today – and so we headed back to camp.
The Biaysse teacups
On Friday we headed up the Guil valley. My neck / shoulder was still not feeling better, so I had another day as shuttle bunny. The day started with a run down the upper Guil down to Chateau Queyras, which proved to be a good run, before we headed down to look at Triple Step. This was too high, so a group of 6 got on immediately below to paddle the middle Guil. This section was higher than I had seen in previous years and this made for a trickier descent. They walked around the staircase rapid, and eventually arrived at le tunnel rapid. It had taken them almost four hours to get to this stage, due to the continual inspection required, and they made a decision to call it a day here rather than continue to the normal get-out.
Martyn on the middle Guil
The rest of the group left early on Saturday morning to head back to the ferry port. This left our car with a few hours to kill as our ferry wasn’t until Sunday morning. Our aim was to paddle something on the route back to Dunkerque, so we headed to the Veneon. This was another new river for us, in a new valley. As we arrived to inspect the crux of the main Veneon section, a local paddler pulled up to warn us that the barrage immediately upstream of this section was likely to release due to the hot weather, making the run too dangerous to paddle. We decided to pay heed to this advice and headed upstream to do the rafting section, which is above the barrage. This was a great fun grade 2/3 run, in brilliant sunshine with amazing scenery and the freezing cold water reminding us how high up the valley we were – there were even a couple of times where we paddled past snow, sheltered in crevices! Martyn was lucky enough to enjoy a bit more scenery than Jethro and I as he (was) volunteered to run the shuttle. This was a nice was a nice river to end the week with and set off on the long road back to Dunkerque.
Looking back upstream on the Veneon
More photos are available at http://photos.andywicks.com/Alps2012.