Late summer whitewater 2011

August is usually still sea kayaking (and inland fishing) season, so we expect a bit of a rest after returning from the summer trip to the alps. 2011, however, has been one of those summers with no respite and besides the normal snatched Upper Tees trips (we’ve managed five since April, three in August!) some quite unlikely rivers have come into condition, including the Tees Greta and the North York Moors Esk, which the club hasn’t paddled for ages.

First up, August 11th and heavy rain brought the Greta up to a barely paddleable level (a quick check by car gave a better impression than the EA gauge updated at 06:45). By the time we actually got to the put-in, it was pretty high (just shy of 0.9m at Rutherford weir).

Fast flowing water, just below the put-in

A group of six put on just above Rutherford bridge and found the river fast and brown. It’s tempting to burn down quite fast in conditions like this, but we were all aware that the Greta is a place where newly fallen trees are always a hazard, and there is the narrow slot drop not too far from the start which has been known to cause carnage, so we were making plenty of eddies.

Blasting through the slot drop, not far below Rutherford

The huge dead tree looming over the slot drop was not actually in the way at all, and lines either straight on or hard into the eddy left both proved successful, so we were all down upright and in good order. Still cautious down the section below steep wooded banks to Brignall, then the river widens out a little with better forward visibility. A lot of this section is actually easier than when at a lower level, but there are a few major tree blockages – nothing new since last time (in January). Two of these involve small channels river left to avoid the tree, and the second one of these proved a bit difficult with boats getting hung up and low branches trying to make life even harder, but everyone involved was able to muscle their own way out of the difficulty. That left us with the final whoosh down through Hell Cauldron, round a blind bend, so we took the time to inspect this as new trees here would be really bad news ! The final stopper ate two playboats – one who went back to play and one who failed to make his intended line far right (those who went for the straight-on approach were fine). There’s a big pool here for picking up swimmers, so we were soon back on the water and on down to Greta Bridge. We’d chosen not to shuttle to Whorlton, so got off here – though perhaps this would have been just a good level for the final grade 4 section into the Tees. It’s always going to be there for next time !

Two days later, we were out again with the Tees at 0.97m on the Middleton gauge, making the Racing Section quick and technically quite easy. It really is a short trip at this level, so passed with virtually no photographs.

The levels continued dropping and we weren’t sure that the Upper Tees would go on the next day, but, in fact, it proved to be a nice level, with just enough water at Low Force for the far left drop to be run. Francis also did the left-hand drop of the main fall, and one or two members of other groups (being a weekend and the only viable river, it was really quite busy) almost did this backwards, which is always unnerving to watch.

Carving the boat away from the left wall avoids the major hazard of Low Force left-hand drop

Another week, another batch of rain, and off we went to do the Upper Tees again, this time with the whole Waddington family, Iggy, Lizzie and Carwen and their novice (!) Chris at what proved to be a very similar level. Whilst it’s not an ideal trip for beginners, everything hard can easily be portaged, and swimming at the bottom of Low Force is not a big deal (as demonstrated by those who feel paddling is not enough and a few jumps are required for a refreshing day out).

Having been there before is the best way to spot the line over the Wynch bridge drop

The next batch of rain, duly timed for the next (bank holiday) weekend, was a bit patchy and the Tees didn’t come up. Nor did rivers we were keeping an eye on in the west, but near the east coast, over two inches had deluged in over 48 hours, so we headed off to do a river SOC hasn’t visited for several years- the North York Moors Esk. We briefly considered putting on at Castleton, but as the level was dropping we headed on down to Houlsyke. This was very fortunate, as even this put-on involved us in what seemed an eternity of low-gradient paddling with numerous tree blockages, some requiring portages. There’s a lower put-on at a footbridge at NZ747073, and the river comes very close to the road even further downstream, which might be an option. As near to the top of Crunkly Gill as possible would be best as this flat section seemed to take forever.

Crunkly Gill itself proved much more interesting, with lots of non-obvious routes round boulders, and still a few trees in the river to make things more complex. The old Yorkshire Rivers guidebook says “routes must be forged, rather than found” and this does rather sum it up.

There’s another flat section in the middle after Lealholm, which wouldn’t be so bad if we hadn’t already paddled so much, but there are fewer trees and odd faster bits, and eventually more “proper rapids” appear. Again, at this level, route finding was a bit hit-or-miss with apparently good lines running out into shallows occasionally. A weir provided a short diversion with a nice playstopper, but tired arms can’t afford to waste too much energy, so we hurried on. The final section down to Egton bridge proved quite exciting. A tree blockage provided one interesting pin, soon sorted, but in the meantime Francis’ boat had got bored and decided to set off on its own. Francis set off in pursuit, whilst Andy and Dave rapidly shifted boats to the downstream side of the blockage to follow. A big eddy with another tree caught the boat and Francis rapidly reoccupied it whilst the rest of the group paddled down. By the end, the level had dropped below optimal and a large shallow concrete shelf seemed likely to require people getting out to get back off it, but most shuffled off with a bit of plastic left behind. Another rapid looked likely to be Ann’s nemesis, but she rolled up very promptly, finishing with a huge grin !

Forging a route through boulder gardens on the Esk

Perhaps a party of nine, none of whom had done the river before, on a falling level with a more upstream put-in than the best was not quite the ideal way to do this trip – it took us five and a half hours (the UKRGB guide suggests two – I blame Jim), but all agreed that the final set of rapids made it worthwhile.

Alpine paddling 2011

A lot got done apart from paddling, despite the trip being almost entirely populated by S.O.C. Canoe Section members. This page is all about the paddling, whilst the canyonning trips (four this year) are written up elsewhere.

The journey out went well for the first arrivals, although there was a minor glitch in that we had known the Tour de France was in the area on the Thursday as it had been warned about in UKRGB. We’d failed to spot that it was still on our route on the Friday, though we thought it would have finished before we got to the Col de Lautaret. Being earlier than we’d expected, we followed diversion signs to Bourg St. Maurice, hoping to get onto the proper road after the cyclists had gone, but realised that the diversion dropped back into the valley down a steep winding narrow road that we really thought it would be antisocial to take dragging our wheeled shed, if not, indeed, positively risky to life and limb. So we diverted via Gap and found that we hadn’t lost all that much time.

We opted for our usual warm up venues, whilst waiting for others to arrive, heading for the St. Clément slalom site on the first day, and then doing the Argentière slalom site and down to Roche de Rame with a cycle shuttle the next. With the arrival of more paddlers, we had a more serious bash of playboating on St. Clément, then ran on down the Sunshine Run to Embrun. Both Sarah and Michael went in for some surfing here, but Sarah swallowed enough water to make her ill for a day and a half later in the week, which was a bit unfortunate.

Michael on his most successful surf – a flat spin and off the wave intact!

We’d had a bit of rain, which compensated slightly for the lack of snow feeding the rivers, so found that the Upper Guisane, whilst lower than last year, was still possible, and had far less trouble with the entry rapid to the “S” bends, having figured out a better line this time. In fact the whole river seemed easier, so we figured that just maybe we’d got better !

Bouncy rapids below the S-bends on the Upper Guisane

The next day one group went off to run the Middle Guil, which resulted in a lost paddle and a bit of lost confidence, whilst others stayed at Argentière for some coaching on the slalom course. It rained, and the river started to colour and come up a bit, whilst we tried to practice boofing (with limited success). Mary found herself doing battle with a stopper which really wanted to be her friend and was a bit clingy, but eventually she fought free and even made the eddy she’d set out for.

Gail on the steeper initial section of the Gyronde below the old Canoe Control campsite

The rain meant that the Gyronde was up, although a slight scrape in places, and the weir was definitely a portage this time. The bit of the Durance that this drops you into seemed to have changed – what happened to the weir with spikes that gives a looping wave ? As this was a fairly quick trip, we had it in mind to do the Briançon gorge in the afternoon. The river above the little barrage had lots of water, but below, it had all been taken, and the little Glissière landed on rocks, so we retreated to St. Clément again for an an hour or two playing.

The Ubaye Racecourse is a good blast and not too serious in late summer

Reports indicated that the Ubaye had good water (a bit more snow in its catchment than in some other areas) so we headed off to do the Racecourse section in the sun. The trip nearly came to a premature end for one member of the group who had managed to leave his buoyancy aid at the put-in and not spot the error until after paddling the bit where he swam last year. Oops ! But we were near the start and 15 minutes brisk walk, mostly on the road, saw him back on the river more properly equipped. There was a lot of traffic on the river, mostly rafts, and this really slowed us down on one section (the first group fared better than the second, and got a way ahead). But hey, fun in the sun and we had all day, and we soon had the river to ourselves again. No more unfortunate incidents until the very end when, having run the last big rapid, Andy relaxed too soon and capsized on a little rock/wave just at the entrance to the gorge under the Roman bridge, almost exactly where he’d done the same thing in 2008. Again, the first roll found a rocky wall not helping much, but this time a second attempt did bring the desired result.

After seven days paddling in a row, the pace now lessened a little, with some canyonning and via ferrata, but one party headed for the Lower Guisane and were more successful than our 2008 run. Not trying to do the Upper Guisane and a long lunch first must have helped, despite the level being quite a lot lower. Another party did the Lower Guil down to the St. Clément slalom site, joined on the latter after lunch by Andy who had been reccying a canyon on a solo trip to see if it was suitable for beginners. He decided it wasn’t.

Andy on a little drop on the Upper Guil Photo: Mary

We now had ambitions on the Chateau Queyras Gorge, an intimidating piece of grade 4 water in a deep gorge with many spectators hanging on the via ferratas above. We warmed up on the Upper Guil, with even lower water than last time, so we skipped the flattish section down from Aiguilles and put on just at the start of the more interesting little gorge. We also took off a bit early, to skip the weir above Chateau Queyras, which wasn’t what we’d planned on when we parked the cars, so there was a bit of grumpiness about the carry. Andy just went and fetched the car…

Mary starting down a little staircase of rapids on the Upper Guil

A reccy of Chateau Q now found some people changing their mind, and eventually a group of five set off. Andy had failed to persuade anyone to take his helmet with the video camera on, and the view from the road up above is not too good. The Florences got a better view from the via ferrata, but even here, you can’t really stop at the best viewpoint as there is a continuous queue of people moving along, and few passing places. Sarah (16) and Michael (14) formed the SOC contingent in the paddling group, both in playboats (as were all except one of those paddling). Despite having seen one swim, one impressive hand roll and a nasty-looking pin in a previous group, none of our lot seemed to have any bother – at least not where those watching from above could see. Apparently a tree much nearer the takeout had a go at Michael, but a bit of branch-breaking and a roll saw him free of the clutches of that particular hazard.

Not the easiest place to take photos (on or off the water), Chateau Queyras looks fierce from above

Flushed with success we returned to camp, and spent the last paddling day doing the Sunshine run in a big jolly group.

Canyons 2011

Canyon de la Fournel

We’d learnt a bit about canyonning on our Tramouillon descent in 2010, and were trying to avoid big novice groups in canyons with lots of pitches. We’d also concluded that carrying ropes in small tackle bags with some buoyancy in them was a good move. The result was a choice of the easier Fournel canyon for our big group with little abseiling experience. This can be done without rope at all, and club canoeists have done it in previous years with the aid of the odd throwline and nothing more. It’s easy to get to from the Argentière campsite just by driving up the valley side following signs to the Silver Mines. The parking for the mines is the takeout, and we continued towards the guidebook location for the put-in. On the left before we got there is a big layby with lots of signs giving advice on canyonning, and this is the current normal way in, so we stopped here, changed, and shuttled. The canyon is below a small hydro dam, and has the potential to be flooded in just a few minutes by the generators being switched off and the water diverted. To avoid a repeat of previous epics, the canyon is equipped with via ferrata steps and wires at several points, to aid rapid escape, and there are a number of solar-powered sirens to give warning if the stream is about to increase. This is all quite reassuring, and the canyon seems to be favoured by French guides with big groups of kids, but as we were fairly late starting, on this first trip we had the canyon to ourselves.

First toboggan as the canyon cuts down into the rock

Walking in a bouldery streambed in the woods soon leads into the gorge with bedrock and various small slides and little jumps. The first worthwhile jump offers a choice of shorter and longer drops (down with the water, or off a ledge higher on the right) of two or three metres into deep water and is soon followed by another one where a rope hanging off the left side makes it easy to get across a sloping ledge from where a slide is probably easier than a jump into the stream. The ledge gets quite slippery after a few people have been across, so the rope, which at first seems a bit superfluous, does help those coming later.

Second jump in the Fournel

Not too far beyond is a bigger waterfall, which you can scramble down to in the streambed, for the shortest jump, or approach via some descending via ferrata to a bolt on the far wall, which would give an abseil close to the water, or a good take off for a higher jump (this is the route a lot of the French were using on our second trip). Up some via ferrata steps is a big ledge with two more possible abseil points, and on our first descent, we rigged the more distant one of these, which gives a good (though short) dry pitch. On our second trip, some scrambled to the waterfall and jumped down past the French kids to avoid being mired in the queue.

Abseil bypasses jump on our first descent

Just beyond is a choice of steep toboggan down the water, or a climb up via ferrata steps on the left. These can be used to bypass the next deep pool entirely via a muddy scramble down, or can be used to get to the takeoff for a fine jump which avoids getting your bottom ripped up on the toboggan. On both trips, we shared ourselves out between all three routes, though the jump was most popular with the French, so most of us avoided queueing for this.

Roped scramble down right in the water – you can’t rush it as the rock is quite sharp!

These two drops take up a bit of time, and this part of the canyon is the deepest and most shady, so it’s good to blatt on through the next narrow section and back out into the sun as the canyon opens out. Another deep pool with a small jump gave us the excuse to play at back somersaults and the like, then there is a bit of streambed leading to another drop. A knotted rope lets you scramble down steeply right in the water, but it’s not very committing as to the left is a straightforward dry climb which we tried to ignore. One more short scramble (not recommended as a jump unless you know exactly where the water is deep) leads to a deep bit you have to swim, briefly, then steel steps appear on the left (leading to the silver mines) and a steep path back to the cars.

Canyon de l’Ascension

After the first Fournel trip, we were looking for something a little harder, but still suitable for people who hadn’t done much abseiling. The guidebook reckons Canyon de l’Ascension fits the bill, so Andy set off to reccy this. The book says half an hour to walk in, but if one person is carrying all the kit, 45 minutes is still quite a hot slog. A faint path down into the woods brings one to the cool stream and it’s only a minute or two to the first pitch. This has an easy bridging take-off, down a dry slot, then a ledge leads back to the water where only a short further abseil reaches the bottom.

There’s then quite a lot of little scrambles, mostly with a choice to stay out of the water, before the canyon starts to cut down. A traverse line on the right is a clue, and leads to two good bolts from where the rope hangs out of the water, with the bottom of the pitch in deep shadow, making it look deeper than it is. This take-off is also not too bad, and most beginners would be OK. It’s a very fine pitch, not vertical all the way, so the water splashes about quite a lot at the bottom, but there is somewhere to stand to unclip.

Vertically down the second pitch in l’Ascension

Another traverse line on the right leads to a similar takeoff for a shorter pitch, but from the bolts, one can see across to a fixed rope on the left, so I scuttled across to this. It’s easy to clip on for an abseil, which is what I did, but a short way down it becomes clear that this is mostly used as a handline as the rope becomes a knotted one. There’s enough of a ledge to unclip a descender, fortunately, then an easy enough scramble on down, and a little path on a ledge which makes an easy route down the next bit.

Heading out to the bolts for the biggest and finest pitch in l’Ascension

Now there’s a scramble up to reach the next traverse line, which leads to two bolts in an exposed position with not an enormous amount of room. This is the bit that would be a bit of a hassle if you had beginners who weren’t confident in clipping everything in themselves. It’s the biggest pitch, with the rest of the canyon laid out below, stretching away into the Durance valley. It’s also a very fine abseil, just clear of the water, but landing in a deepish pool. However, it’s easy enough to get to the far side before unclipping from the rope and pulling it down.

The canyon now opened out, and although there were bolts for more pitches, these both proved to be optional. The first one looked nice, so I abseiled, but the second looked to have some sharp edges, so I chose to scramble down on the right. Most of the way down is steep path on sharp scree with occasional forays into the stream, and eventually a stream crossing leads back to the path I’d used on the way up, and so to the car. The walk-in might have been slow, but the descent was inside guidebook time.