by Diarmuid Ryan
For two weeks between May and June 2016, UCD Kayakers (Ailbhe, Derv, Diarmuid, Greg, Ross, and Simon) invaded the French Alps. We travelled there for the (pretty much) guaranteed water, great rivers and, as a bonus, some beautiful scenery.The trip was a great learning experience for us (and a great holiday to boot), running rivers none of us had been on before and experiencing how different French rivers are to their Irish counterparts.
For the travel over, the six of us split into two groups, Derv left two days early, directly from the RDS, driving with her passenger, Simon, across France, having a fun-filled (and totally not uncomfortable) experience sleeping in an over-packed car somewhere outside Poitiers. Their deep-set hatred of Poitiers’ road network and parking availability has absolutely nothing to do with their inability to find accommodation for the night. The rest of us had a nice couple days rest following exams, and flew to Bergamo in Italy. Upon arrival Ross and I set out on a sweaty walk along some dodgy Italian roads to reach the car rental place, only to find that it had moved back to the airport (oops). Eventually, the car was rented, overpriced roofracks were bought, boats and gear were collected from the airport and we drove to Vallouise in France where we’d spend the night in a hotel, awaiting keys for our apartment.
The following day we eventually found the Immobilier, hidden in a corner of the abandoned (in summertime) ski resort, and collected the keys of our fine apartment which turned out to be on the 7th floor of a block in which one other person lived. The resemblance of our new accommodation to the set of a million horror movies was quite apparent so we decided to go paddling for the day.
They say “start as you mean to continue”, so Greg broke a set of paddles on the slalom course in L’Argentière-la-Bessée. We then decided that the slalom course was too long of a walk back up and just ran the rest of the Middle Durance instead. Day 2 continues as before, while Derv and I are off doing the car drop, Ailbhe finally decides to outfit her boat. Unfortunately, Ailbhe’s from Clare where they don’t have knives so she never learned not to cut things towards her own hand (you see where this is going). Following plenty of duct tape and bandages, the hand is cleared as “grand” and we got a nice paddle in on the Sunshine Run (the Lower Durance).
On Day 3, we decide to step it up a notch to push the group and head to the Upper Guil. After a bit of leapfrogging practice on the relatively flat first section, the river narrows into a more technical gorge and Ross takes the lead as we eddyhop and scout our way down. There’s a few nice rapids in the gorge, which then slowly opens back out into a nice wavey river again. As is expected when pushing a group, we have a couple of swims in there but the two paddlers are out of the water nice and quick and boats and (almost all) gear retrieved. Unfortunately, we lose a set of paddles (which were later found). The local kayak shop did pretty well out of us.
Day 4 sees us step back a little bit to let everyone relax after the previous days antics. We run a flat section further up the Upper Guil and Simon takes a chunk out of his boat flaring an unusually spiky rock. We continue to a nice handy Lower Guil where, for once, nothing eventful happens.
Day 5 is Derv’s birthday so we try to get done nice and early so there’s time to go to a restaurant and shop for drink before they close, but we’re back to eventful again. We decide to step up again and run the Upper Guisane, followed by Briancon Gorge. The Guisane is a nice straightforward run with only one major rapid, the S-Bend. At the get on we met some nice German paddlers who offer to do the car drop for us. On to Briancon Gorge which starts out nice and bouncy, followed by a slide down the right of a dam and then the river gradually narrows into a gorge. As we’re coming into the gorge, we spot a girl hanging out on a gravel bed in the middle of the gorge with no boat or group. Eventually it’s discovered that she swam on the way into the gorge and her group chased her boat down the gorge. She wasn’t able to climb out (it’s a gorge) and was pretty stuck for options until we arrived. We found a way out for her on the other side of the river, roped her across the river (including having to provide her a rescue harness) and while Ross and Ailbhe waited in case her group came down the river again, Greg and Derv climbed out of the gorge with the girl and Simon and I ran the rest of the river to collect the car and meet them when they got out. The girl’s group were eventually found much later. The whole scenario made us much happier about how we run rivers in comparison to those guys. We eventually get on our way again, stop in the shop for some snacks, cake and drink, then try to find ourselves a nice restaurant that won’t ruin the bank accounts, a task that proves rather difficult so late in the evening. Restaurants are either full, expensive or closed. Eventually, we find a restaurant in L’Argentière-la-Bessée, pretty much our last hope and our non-french-speaking paddlers struggle to order dinner. Following a delicious dinner we head back to our apartment for a “quiet” night…
Following a nice rest-day trip to a glacier feeding into the Onde and some intestinal rumblings from an accidentally spicy dinner, it’s back to paddling. On our way to the glacier we had a little look at the river and a read of the guidebook. It seems like a friendly little run. It is quickly apparent that this assessment is completely inaccurate. The river starts out rocky and awkward as it braids through gravel beds. Following this, lots of shallow rooted trees appear on the river bank (and appear to be in the river at higher levels) with some down in the flow. After cutting one tree out of the river, we spot more around the next bend and decide to give up on it and walk off instead.
The next day is another unsuccessful trip to a river. We make the long drive to the Upper Ubaye to scout it out and maybe have a run at it. The river turns out to be horribly flat and while I have a nap in the car, the rest go play in the playground. On the trip back we spot a beach on Serre-Poncon Lake and go for a swim and take some lovely embarrassing photos. Simon decides to fly his underpants out the window like a flag on the trip home which definitely resulted in more than a few odd looks.
Our last day’s paddling before Ailbhe, Derv and Greg leave us, we decide to head back to the Upper Guil, hoping that a better run down the section will be a nice boost before the split by conquering a river that had caused a little trouble before. This was 50% successful. There were no incidents to note but Ailbhe elected to walk off the river after the first rapid in the gorge, feeling to nervous to continue. Everyone (or at least most normal people) have those nervous days where being scared causes them to make mistakes and it’s just a better idea to not go paddling. The rest of us continued down the river and had great fun plugging holes! We had a few drinks to celebrate after this and the following day the guys headed off early to the airport.
Simon, Ross and Myself were a bit at a loss for what to do that day afterwards. We had a scout of a couple of Park’n’Hucks (or rather one Park’N’Huck and the wrong section of another river), the Bayass and the Fournel. Both looked nasty and not worth running so we decided to go for a scout of the Middle Guil. As we arrive at the get off, we meet some Scottish paddlers who appear to be shit hot. Scottish Guy #1 recognises my Magnum just by the hull (like wtf) and as I turn around to confirm, I notice an unusual bulge in the bottom. Time to go back to UL and borrow a heat gun, I’ve sprung a leak. Following some very ill informed repairs to the boat, it’s good to go. Now we had nothing left to do so we just went home, had dinner, played with trains and organised to go paddling with UL the next day.
We got out on Durance Gorge the following day, being led by the lovely lads from UL (thanks Conor, Howie and everyone). The guidebook I think has the best description of this river “a class 4 river with a class 5 portage”. There’s a nice couple of lead in rapids to get settled on, then there’s a nondescript eddy beside a clump of trees that signals the get out for the portage. This portage is the most terrifying walk I’ve done, a path the width of your two feet along a slidy scree slope, twenty feet above the “Crack of Doom”, the rapids that are being portaged for good reason. To top it all off, you have a boat on your shoulder and a paddle in your hand, not to be recommended for dodgy hill walking. There’s also a nice goat skull along the path to remind you that you’re way out of your depth, “if the goats can’t survive here, what are you doing?”. Eventually, the portage is over and you breathe a sigh of relief, the paddling no longer seems that scary, you can’t shit your pants paddling if you’ve already done so on the portage. The slot is the major rapid on this river, a squeeze past a boulder followed by a 4 foot drop that has a nice towback and then a run out rapid that bends right then left with plenty of diagonal holes to throw you off into the next one. The rest of the river is nice and straightforward barring constriction. This is an incredibly beautiful river, due to its location in a 12km long, very deep and steep gorge.
We had another day off the following day, after travelling to the Ubaye Racecourse to meet UL, who unfortunately had a little accident on the Upper Ubaye, the trip was cancelled. Nonetheless we scouted the river for future reference, and had a nice trip back from the river trying (and failing) to outrun the Wolves vans.
Our last day’s paddling did not start out well. We arrived out in the morning to find Derv’s boat missing from outside the apartment. The cable lock was still present and locked, so we simply assumed Derv had moved it. Upon her arriving down to join us it was immediately apparent that this was not the case, the boat had been robbed. The most unusual thing was that someone had robbed the locked boat (requiring unscrewing three grab-handles) instead of the three unlocked boats on the roof of our car parked directly beside it. Eventually deciding that there was nothing to be done bar go kayaking, we head to the Middle Guil with UL. This is a brilliant, continuous, Grade 4 river with big holes everywhere. A difficult enough run, but very rewarding. We then had a nice drive down to the Slalom Course at Saint-Clement and then to Roubaix wave with UL to watch the guys rund down first and then the girls have a ladies day on the water with Derv, some great new paddlers coming on there, we’ll hear of them soon I’m sure!
Thus ended our trip, we headed drove back to the airport the next day, returned the car, furiously reorganised bags to distribute weight from the boats and flew back to lovely Ireland.
I can’t recommend a trip to the Alps enough to anyone considering it, it’s a great place to learn and advance, it’s not all tough paddling either, there’s everything from Grade 2 to Grade 6 to be done.
Before I finish, I’d like to thank the lads from UL for accommodating us so much, they were happy to take us out on three rivers and were even going to feed us the last night (sorry for not taking ye up on the offer, we were just tired).