Walking French Alps 2015

With the low water levels, I did a bit more walking on the alps trip this year, though the heat did make for rather hazy views. We started off at the top of the Onde Valley, above Vallouise, with a walk up to the Réfuge des Bans. This is past the end of the road, and well beyond any part of the Onde which is paddled, even at grade5+. There are canyons to be run up here, though unfortunately, none which we could see into from our walk, whose main objective was, of course, to justify a cold beer at the Réfuge.

Wild scenery just before climbing steeply up to the hut

The edge of the Ecrins National Park is just at the parking place, so this is a protected area with plenty of wild flowers (probably better earlier in the season this year when there was more snowmelt in the streams) and wildlife.

Lots of butterflies on the alpine flora

The next venture was on a day when I really didn’t want to mess about at the St. Clément slalom site or take part in a mass trip down the Sunshine Run. The Three Lakes Walk last year had made the idea of driving deep into the mountains on steep forest tracks seem rather fun, and I found my way to a considerable height (2380m) above St. Clément, although not without some difficulty, as a couple of the tarmac roads around Réotier were closed for roadworks and the diversion signs weren’t really designed for someone with my destination in mind. Once I’d managed to reach the end of the surfaced road, it all got easier. The road ended at a couple of small buildings very much in the middle of nowhere, so I was surprised to find my phone telling me that there was free WiFi here !

Looking to the Ecrins, and peaks I’d climbed in 1984

The path climbed fairly gently to the west, offering improving views, but nothing very spectacular until a col on the SE ridge of my objective, the Tête de Vautisse. Here a view opened over the Couleau valley, bounded on the far side by some fairly impressive crags. Unfortunately, the route to the peak now involved a descent, as the ridge is not quite continuous. This proved not to be as much of a height loss as the map seemed to indicate and I was soon at the foot of the final ridge. This was steep and somewhat loose, with quite a bit of exposure over the southern side above Le Couleau, so I was quite surprised to find two Mountain Bikers heading downhill towards me from the summit. They did dismount for one or two particularly awkward bits, but mostly hurtled down in apparent control…

I had chosen this peak as the highest in the group of hills west of the Durance valley with almost no higher peaks between it and the main Ecrins Massif to the NW. The only thing distracting me from the very extensive view was a glider (from the airfield at St. Crépin) using the uplift on the south side of my ridge by repeatedly flying past very close to the cliffs. He started out well below me, but after a few passes gained enough height to be well clear of the summits. The summit was soon reached, at 3156m, the first 3000m peak I’d climbed for almost twenty years.

Tête de Vautisse, looking towards the Ecrins

No other path appeared on my map, but it was clear that a way had been reasonably well used off the NE ridge, which split into NNE and ENE ridges a short way down. Although the ENE ridge was bounded by steep rocks, I could see enough to deduce that the path came off that and back down to the valley from which I had ascended, so I varied my route by descending this side. Rather to my surprise, it proved less steep and loose than the main route I’d followed on the way up, though a bit harder to follow. Coming down this way avoided almost all the reascent to reach the col, and I was soon back on the main footpath. The grassy areas had plenty of Marmots to scold me on my way back to the car.

A couple of days later, Mary and I had a shorter walk onto the ridge separating the Guisane from the Clarée, north of Briançon. This time, a surfaced road got us most of the height, leaving only a short way along a rather rough track to our starting point. Since this was, again, at about 2400m, the total climb to the Croix de la Cime, at 2613m, was fairly minimal.

Many well-defined paths and prayer flags on the cross suggest this is a much more visited summit

We continued southwards along the ridge, taking in a couple of smaller peaks, before retracing our steps and then dropping off the western side above St. Chaffrey. This led to a well-defined path traversing below the ridge, but still offering fine views into the Ecrins, where the weather looked a little more threatening.

Cloud boiling over the higher peaks of the Ecrins

There was but a short reascent to the car (still the only one which had made it up to this particular parking spot, though we’d met plenty of people on the ridge).

Whitewater French Alps 2015

As is becoming almost routine, we started our alpine paddling this year in the Durance valley, camping at Argentière la Bessée. The West, Adams, Waddington and Graystone families, and various individuals: Bill, Niki, Penny, Lisa and Richard, paddled over a two week or so period in late July which started with temperatures up to 40°C and didn’t get much cooler except during brief storms.

Snow had been in short supply last winter, so water levels were on the low side, though those odd localised thunderstorms did keep one or two rivers topped up from time to time. Consequently, we spent quite a bit of time on the Argentière and St. Clément slalom sites.

Playboating is all about getting wet - Alastair on the top wave at St. Clément. Photo: Andy Waddington
Playboating is all about getting wet – Alastair on the top wave at St. Clément is certainly doing that…

Glacier melt in the extreme heat seemed to be providing a bit more water than we’ve had for the last couple of years on the Upper Guisane, which should have made the S-bends easier, but we still managed to have a couple of upsets – there are still enough boulders that it doesn’t pay to get sideways! Alastair’s boat navigated itself very neatly to the eddy where Andy was waiting to grab it, whilst Penny’s made a bid for freedom incurring a bit of a chase. All reunited, we continued without incident down to St. Chaffrey.

Dave probably got the best line on S-bends. Photo: Andy Waddington
Dave probably got the best line on S-bends.

We paddled several sections of the Durance, got just enough water one day to paddle the Gyronde, and following a visit to the (rather low) Upper Guil in two groups, Dave, Alastair, Johnny and Michael paddled the Chateau Queyras gorge.

Triumphant exit from Chateau Q. Photo: Andy Waddington
A triumphant exit from Chateau Queyras gorge with everyone upright (now).

Michael and Alastair went on to paddle the Middle Guil from below Triple Step, right to the end, joined for the first few kilometres by Mary.

Mary finding the Middle Guil slightly pushy
Mary coping with a pourover on the Middle Guil

After Mary took off, the boys continued, as we followed their progress as much as possible from the road, with various photo stops on the way.

Michael and Alastair boulder dodging their way down
Michael taking the alternative approach of avoiding a pourover on the Middle Guil

Staircase proved a little difficult in the low water, with one step in the middle having no feasible line, so a short portage ensued. Tunnel proved easier than it looked, but the supposedly straightforward run down from there to the end held one or two surprises.

Michael holding his line on Tunnel - Middle Guil. Photo: Andy Waddington
Michael holding his line on Tunnel – Middle Guil.

We knew from Sarah and the Leeds Uni paddlers that the Ubaye racecourse had, in June, been at the sort of level we normally expect at the end of July, but we had been assured that it still had enough water to run, so Andy, Mary, Michael, Bill, Niki, Iggy, Dave, Alastair and Johnny split into two groups. Only one brief inspection proved necessary (and only for the first group to arrive) and the run was pleasantly uncrowded and almost entirely successful, despite one or two people constantly expecting hard rapids to appear around the next bend. At this level, they never did.

Dropping in to the final gorge on the Ubaye Racecourse. Photo: Andy Waddington
Dropping in to the final gorge on the Ubaye Racecourse

Trying out the Nomad

While I’ve been paddling the Stomper quite happily for a while now, it did get split, and has been welded. The issue is that there’s another deep gouge that I think will split soon, and I can only take one creek boat to the alps – if that splits I will have a problem. So one solution that presented itself was to both weld and fibreglass the H2 (now eleven years old and getting a little thin) whilst the other was to take someone else’s boat. Most of those I wouldn’t fit, but a bit of trial showed that I did fit in Sarah’s Nomad. But would it have enough volume to cope with my weight in alpine water ? The only place to find out, in summer, was going to be the Upper Tees.

Dropping in to the top of Dogleg

The first run of Dogleg was not quite the line I’d want, though I did stay upright and didn’t have to do anything frantic to achieve that. I didn’t get stood on end, though it did feel as though the trim wasn’t quite right. I went a bit more left than ideal over the middle drop, so went back to see if I could get a better line.

Second time over the middle drop – a bit more to the right

Further right gave me a bit more time between the middle drops, though I didn’t get enough punch to get across the boily pool and make the eddy here. The second drop was a bit messy, too, but I wasn’t heeled as far over as on the first run, and it only took a couple of strokes to line up to the right of pinning rock. Two runs seemed enough, so we headed on down. This is all fairly easy stuff, but one little drop is quite a good indicator for turning the boat going off the drop – if all goes well, you end up tight into the eddy on the right, badly and you hit the rock or have to eddy left.

The little drop that needs a boof to the right is a good test

That landed me good and tight in the eddy right. Horseshoe is just a matter of being on line at the top, and then straight down, turning only as soon as needed to avoid Jacuzzi Chute. No problem. So Low Force is the boof test. It wasn’t rock bottom levels (which is good – I still haven’t quite got the hang of avoiding being kicked right by the rock lip on the left when it is very low). The camera on a pole is very good for showing the line and timing of the boof stroke (and you can see when the paddler has got his weight forward properly). All three runs worked well, though I failed to get my weight back forward quickly for landing on the third.

Straight down the water avoids the rock on the left, leaving the boof stroke to kick the boat out into the middle of the pool

It wasn’t really wet enough to carry on down to Newbiggin, but there was enough water to take the right-hand line on the drop before Wynch bridge. Getting there on line is a good test and this went pretty well.

Heading down the promontory to boof past the stoppers, Wynch bridge

So, the boat seemed to do the job (and will be going to the alps). The other test going on here was a new version of the GoPro on a pole behind the paddler. This was a bit less successful – the means of attachment to the boat was fiddly and didn’t look likely to cope with a lot of use. Video from the camera was distressingly wobbly – though still frames (as seen here) all seemed good. These were using one of the Hero 3 cameras (a Hero 4 being used for headcam) at 1920x1440p48, which gives only just over 20ms between frames, and can be used for x2 slow motion if combined with the 24 fps footage I was taking on the headcam. Unless I can make the pole a bit stiffer and the attachment mechanism a bit more usable, I think I won’t be using this system in the alps. Probably not a bad thing, as I do have a bit of a record of failing to roll with a pole-cam on the boat… This was also the first time I’d tried out paddling with elbow pads (potentially a good idea when it’s warm enough to paddle in a shorty cag). I wasn’t sure how much these would prove awkward or distracting, so I was quite pleased that once on the water, I hardly noticed they were there.