Whitewater Kayaking in the French Alps
We love gear testing, but we hate doing gear tests! Why? Well, gear testing involves putting stuff through its paces out on the water, using it for its designed purpose and generally using and abusing it to see if it stands up to every day use and is good for the job. Putting together a gear test, on the other hand, involves photographing said gear out there in the wilds and in some suitable location. The trouble is, much as the Paddler testers love to get their mugs in front of a fisheye getting the planets of sun, water and paddlers to align in the UK is nigh on impossible. So what to do? Well during another après cancelled due to rain photo shoot coffee the suggestion came up that maybe we should just load up a van with a shed load of gear and go somewhere hot! Seemed like a reasonable idea, a quick chat to the gang at our sister publication Climber revealed that they had the same problem. A plan was hatched, forces were joined, the powers that be were convinced and that was it. Sorted! We loaded up a bunch of deviants, otherwise known as the Paddler and Climber test teams into a hired LWB transit and we were off… French Alps and the sunshine here we come!
Two Minutes to Midnight
Well one minute actually, that was the time our ferry was due to leave Dover. After a frantic loading session and a gathering of the gang we’d made the drive down to Dover to catch the graveyard shift ferry. The plan was to catch an hour’s ‘shut-eye’ at sea and then take it in shifts to push on through to dawn, and finally our intended destination of L’Argentière la Bessée. Alpjim and Wiggs where driving the van, Black dog and myself were in the CK wagon and Kate and Toby from Climber were piloting the Climber car, with Alex asleep in the back for most of the journey! The rain seemed to have followed us across the channel as we worked our way down the auto-routes fuelled by espresso, cola and the sounds of Led Zeppelin and the Beastie Boys ringing in our ears, well at least in our car. The boys in the van only had one CD and I think by Lyon it was sending them a bit doo-lally. It’s a long old haul but eventually we found ourselves winding along mountain roads and craning our neck to look down at mountain streams with a promising amount of water in them. As afternoon started to look a bit like evening we finally rolled in to the Camping Les Ecrins campsite on the banks of the River Durance.
Out of the Frying Pan…
To get everything done we’d be working to a fairly tight schedule over the next few days, but Wiggs and Black Dog where in no mood to rest. Despite a full day at work, followed by a ‘through-the-night’ 20-hour journey they where dead keen to fire it up and hop on the Gyronde before the six o’ clock curfew. Jim decided to drop us off and then go to sleep, Jim is a wise man! The rest of us piled in to paddling kit. As we disembarked we could hear the river rumbling ominously with the sounds of boulders being rolled along. Late afternoon runs are always higher as the rivers are swollen with melt water and it was honking. Enthusiasm was less in evidence as we carried our boats down to the put in. Was this really such a good idea? As we peeled out of the micro-eddy it was like grabbing hold of a passing freight train. No time to warm up you had to be on it instantly. No matter how many times you paddle in the Alps, the speed of the water always takes you a little by surprise on the first run of the trip. Black Dog paid the price for hesitation with a short, but nasty swim and we all received a lesson in humility and patience.
Time to Go to Work
The following morning the rigours of the previous day faded as the bright, hot sun shone down upon the campsite. It was tempting to sack off the gear testing till later and head out on to the rivers, but much as we wanted to, there was work to be done. We unloaded the huge pile of boxes and kit bags on to a ground sheet and set about sorting it all out in to categories. It was a useful exercise and having a schedule and plan of action was key to squeezing as much out of our time as possible. First up was a spot of modelling for the boys. I’m not saying they’re vain, but when the tins of water-proof hair gel started to appear out of buoyancy aid pockets I had to tell them that it would only be their hands in the shots as we were kicking off with a head to head throw-bag test. We rattled through the product shots, and once that was done it was time to shoot sequences for a throw-bag technique article. This was more like it and the test teamers threw themselves in to character with some fine acting that would have put Laurence Olivier to shame. They became the ultimate ‘Rescue Rangers’ as they threw line after line out across the river. Standing around in the baking sun in boating gear can get a bit warm, so when it was announced that the next job was going to involve them swimming they seemed more than keen to volunteer. Again and again they entered the river and took textbook swims down the bouncy waters of the Durance, while groups of bemused German boaters in full wetsuits and motorcycle helmets looked on. Self-rescues and throw-line rescues were acted out, and it was practice that would come in very handy later in the week!
As well as gear and technique articles we also wanted to paddle and photograph a selection of the regions classic whitewater runs for a series of river guides. This meant that we got to paddle some sweet rivers and still pretend that we were working! First up was the River Onde, a fast and fun run that’s a ‘club’ favourite to kick off any trip to the area. It’s a great little run with the hardest rapid close to the start. Nothing too serious though, it’s generally graded as a three, but its speed is not to be underestimated and eddies can be few and far between. It’s fairly narrow and tree lined most of the way down, and as the sun dappled the water it was a joy to nip in to ‘one-boat’ eddies and leap frog our way down. As the shadows grew long it was time to head back and hook up with our Climbing friends and head out to the local restaurant for some well-earned tucker and a glass of the local cider.
Things were going well, the ‘jobs to do’ list was getting ticked off and the weather and water levels couldn’t have been better. A tasty day of shooting, boat testing and river running on the Upper and Lower Guisane was on the menu for the day. We’d start with the scenic Upper section for hors’derves and after a quick break continue on to the meatier main course of the lower. Test teamer Steve is a fit sort of bloke and enjoys all sorts of weird and painful pastimes when he’s not in his kayak. Biathlons, triathlons, cycling, or running, up mountains those sorts of things. He’s currently working on a series of articles about staying fit for paddling, and recovering from injuries, so before each river he’d try a few of his tortures… I mean exercises on us. Core muscles of iron and washboard stomachs here we come!
The Upper Guisane is another favourite with visiting canoe clubs and with its breathtaking mountain views and open nature we can see why. The rapids are all fairly gentle, with one steeper section just after a right-hand bend, and we spent some time doing multiple runs of rapids for the camera. Next up was the lower. It starts off with a rather un-pleasant man-made drop under a road bridge called Shelob’s Weir. This can be sneaked, or portaged, on the right. There then follows some great bouncy water until you get to the second larger man-made barrage. This is a large sloping affair and is usually easily portaged on the right. Water levels were reasonably high and there was a clear green tongue running down the drop, over a curler and through two holes. It looked good to go and although I’ve walked past this on many an occasion Steve and I decided that this time we’d run the line. Jim and Wiggs took the portage and set about placing safety below the drop, just in case. As it turned out it was well placed, I entered the top of the drop exactly where I wanted to be and the line down was sweet. I busted through the curler and the first hole and went deep on the second, a bit disconcerting as I was in a big boat. I came through but got stood slightly on my tail and heading right. I wasn’t quick enough to adjust my edge and got slammed into the protruding rock shelf and pinned. I was stable, but didn’t feel like the boat was going anywhere so took the call to pull the tag and eject. Wiggs was there with a perfectly aimed line and I was on the bank. Safe and sound but with dignity slightly dented. The boys quickly recovered the boat and we were on our way again, Steve having seen my efforts had decided that the dry line was in fact the preferred option… Halftime score Paddlers 3 Lower Guisane 1.
The bouncy water continues for a while before things start to steepen up and take on a more serious note. We were running a swift read and run style and as Wiggs dropped over a significant looking horizon line he gave a right hand river signal. Steve was behind him and headed hard right but to no avail, he was upside down and taking a horrible head-ruddering into a vicious boulder choke. Jim was also upside down and I could tell by the way his boat was floating that he was no longer in it. I was out and running down the bank, bag in hand and I could see Wiggs on the opposite side of the river doing the same. I nearly ran in to a dazed looking Steve who having ditched his boat and paddle had made a self-rescue up the bank. Wiggs had nailed yet another great throw and bagged Jim at the very limit of his throw bags length. Both were out, but both had lost boat and paddle. Fortunately there’s a good path that run’s along this section all the way to the take-out at Briancon, so they began the walk of shame. Wiggs and I decided to continue as a pair and see if we could recover any of the boats and gear. The river continued to provide good solid whitewater and we eddy-hopped our way down scanning the banks as we went. Jim’s boat was lodged on a shingle bank not to far from the incident site and it was easy for the guys walking out to recover on their way out. We finally found Steve’s boat a fair way down, pinned against a rock on river right. We exited and with Wiggs on a line managed to clip to it and recover it. Unfortunately it was on the opposite side of the river and in a particularly awkward place to get it back across to the other side. We decided that discretion was the better part of valour and hauled it up the bank and tied it off to a tree. We would bushwhack in later and recover it then. After what was actually a pretty enjoyable paddle out we waited in the late evening sun for the boys to appear. As soon as they did it was off to the local hospital to get Steve checked out as he’d taken a big bang to the head and clearly had a mark on his forehead and temple. He felt fine but you can’t take any chances with head injuries so off he went. One clean bill of health later and it was off to the campsite with out tails between our legs. Our Climbing buds had taken pity on our sorry state and prepared us a lush dinner as we regaled them with ‘making like a fish’ stories and took turns to don the swim hat of shame. Final score Gyronde 3 Paddlers 1!
Bring Me Sunshine
Next day was scheduled to be a gear testing day and a visit to the famous Rabioux Wave on the Durance, followed by the ‘Sunshine’ run in play boats, down to the town of Embrum. The Rab as it is usually known had been pretty trashy due to the high water levels and had handed out a few beat downs over the previous week or two, but it was just starting to work as we arrived and moves could be pulled with a bit of luck and some good timing. Despite aching bodies the boys did a good job of getting stuck in and as they warmed in to it some nice rides where had. After another runny cheese lunch it was off down the gentle waters of the Sunshine run for plenty of wave-wheeling, eddy-line cartwheel and even some nice play hole action. Mellow was the order of the afternoon.
Once we’d got back to HQ Jim decided that it was time to put the water-proof Olympus camera through its paces and the best way of doing that was with some underwater squirt boating shots on the crystal clear lake. We where knackered but it was a good giggle hanging upside down, or getting the boat under and posing for Jim as he sat on the bottom of the lake. The shots turned out great, so we retired happy to enjoy the generous helpings of swim beers that had been cooling in the river all day.
Whose Line Is It and Big Boys Toys
The morning was spent testing throw-lines. Throwing them, re-throwing them, measuring them, checking knots, taking them apart, inspecting stitching, you name it we did it. The test-teamers know a thing about gear and they take this stuff seriously, especially when it comes to safety equipment. So with the throw-line test done and a bunch of other head to head gear tests under our belts already, the rest of the day was all about getting some great shots of the ‘Big Boys’ boats that we’ve been testing for a forthcoming feature. We took it in turns to run a short section that had some nice river moves and a few cheeky play spots. We paddled hard until the sun dipped and the light started to fade then called it a day.
Guil We Go…
Our last day was spent on the most excellent River Guil. It is an absolute classic and its various sections present the paddler with a varied, but always fantastic, range of whitewater. The sun shone, the river glittered and we had an absolute blast from put in to take out. The rapids are enough to keep you on your toes and they’re interspersed with lots of free-riding, rock spin, splat, grind potential. Despite taking a long time over setting up images and running things over again we came to the end all too soon. After carrying the boats back to the van for the last time we got changed and started to prepare for our long drive home. We’d been discussing a possible feature about how not to run rivers/do rescues when a Czech group came in to site trying to rescue a swimming comrade. They managed to tick pretty much every ‘Don’t’ box on the list and we watched from on high as they finally re-united paddler and ridiculously small play boat. The swimmer and at least two other members of the group had bare feet. All were in freestyle boats, all had lines but most left them in the boats as they ran over the rocks like headless chickens and finally the rescuee put his arm through the loop of a throw-bag and then wrapped the line up his arm before jumping in and being dragged across… Nice! Think we’ll write that feature ASAP. The funniest thing was Steve calling down to the beach below where swim-boy was standing waving then making the international fish gill sign to our damp and sheepish brethren below.
That was it, the Paddler Editorial Alps Trip Done. Looking at the mountain of images and the list of features and tests that we have in the bag to bring you in forthcoming issues it certainly seems like a success, but the thing that will really stick in my mind is just how much fun you can have just enjoying flows with the bros on a sparking river with the sun beating down overhead… Anyone fancy Italy next year?