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.

Canyon de Tramouillon

Canyonning was one of the aims of the Canoe-section-organised trip to the French Alps in summer 2010, although we were unable to tempt any regular caving section members to join us, or we might have managed a few more. Paddling actually took up most of our days, but we did get a flavour for the character of the canyonning trips with one sunny canyon towards the end of the holiday.

A reccy after the Upper Guisane paddling trip gave us an idea of what a “PD” canyon looked like, but we decided that it was a bit far to drive to Canyon Pont de l’Alp for only a couple of hours of trip. Instead we picked the Canyon de Tramouillon, much nearer our campsite, and billed as an ideal place to introduce people to abseiling. We ended up with three families in three cars, and set up a shuttle with two cars left at the bottom (a bit lower down than the correct place, as it turned out).

The canyon is escapable early on before it drops down a series of pitches between cliffs, and this proved to be a useful feature as assurances that one family had done “lots of abseiling at the climbing wall” turned out to be based on a bit of a misunderstanding of what was involved. After two pitches, Westies decided that things would go a lot quicker if they took the escape option, leaving us down to seven.

We were very pleased to have brought more rope than strictly needed, as this enabled us to have the next pitch rigged whilst the group was still getting down the previous one. In fact, at one time, we had three pitches on the go at once, with ropes of 50, 40 and 30m all in use. This was useful, as another (smaller, and therefore faster-moving) group caught us up towards the end and the only reason that we were not holding them up badly was because they had only a single rope.

We found a sling round a tree to rig what the guide book showed as a 15m first pitch. This consumed all our 50m rope, only to reach a more vertical bit of waterfall with another sling, which we rigged with a shorter rope. It was possible to scramble up or down the side of both of these, but difficult to see where you would rig something to make it just 15m.

Beyond the first drop, a scrambly streambed led for some way among trees to where the canyon started to cut down and take it more seriously. A bolt-and-chain rigging point was found at the top of a broken sloping cascade, but almost everyone got on at the ledge a little way down, as that was where the path seemed to lead. The guidebook shows this as a 9m pitch, but from the rigging point to the bottom, on a slope, was quite a lot more than this and we again used our 50m rope without feeling that it was overkill. The photo shows Mary finding enough footholds to keep herself out of the main flow of the water.<br clear="all"

This landed us in a splashy pool with a series of pitches continuing below in fairly quick succession. The guidebook lengths of these were in the 8 to 14m range, but in every case, these seemed to be the vertical height rather than the length of rope needed – all the drops in this particular canyon being quite sloping. The Photo (by Rosie Florence) shows Andy on the first of this series of pitches.

The second of these pitches was the most vertical and probably the most intimidating for anyone relatively new to abseiling. As it was also very slippery, we used a separate lifeline on this pitch for anyone feeling a bit nervous.

The landing for this pool was out of the water on rocks river right, so one could actually stay reasonably dry.

The next pitch, in the guidebook as 14m, proved to need more rope than we had put on it. A broken drop had a deep pool halfway down, over which the stream was spouted by a little ledge just above the waterline (the French refer to these formations as “geysers”). Although the pitch could be descended dry, the pool and geyser was harder to avoid. Various ways of getting across were tried, but giving yourself not quite enough slack and ducking under the geyser proved to be a good way of dislodging a contact lens. Although in the guide as part of the same pitch, two bolts on the right of the ledge meant we could rig the next bit on a separate rope. Since the amount of dry space on the ledge was limited, this was one place where having more than one rope, and thus being able to rig the two sections simultaneously, made life a lot easier.

A deep pool at the bottom could be traversed on the left to reach another bolt takeoff for a straightforward 10m drop where the main water flow was off to the right, and just a splashy trickle accompanied the canyonneer down the drop. This debouched onto a short section of streambed where scrambling over rocks led to another pitch, marked as 14m in the guide and again was rigged out of the water on the left. Some quite awkward scrambling over polished rocks now led on down for some distance, and the view back with the sun behind was very atmospheric with spray glinting in the sunbeams.

Below the scrambling was another pitch which looked quite spectacular from above, though proving to be less than vertical once you got on to it. With the 50m and 30m ropes still in use above, we rigged this with a 40m rope which should have been enough (the guide shows this as 18m, the longest pitch, though at the time we had rather lost track). Doug found that the get-off at the bottom was a little awkward (getting off a too-short rope into swimming depth water) and after two more had descended and everyone was down the pitches above, we decided to swap over to use the 50m rope, which did make it a lot easier.

The canyon was now showing signs of opening out not far below, and a big orange cliff which we knew was quite near the cars, seemed to be getting a lot closer, so we were fairly confident that we didn’t have far to go. The next pitch is 14m in the guidebook, but we could see a short drop, with a fixed piece of orange rope below, and our shortest rope proved easily enough to reach this. The orange rope led to bolts on the right for a final 11m drop, which was spectacularly wet (although those with good soles could avoid most of it). Since this was clearly the end of the ropework, and the sun was still shining (yes, we had taken quite a lot more than the 2-3 hour guidebook time), some of us were a bit more blasé about this, getting very wet indeed for the camera.

A bit more scrambling over rocks and under trees led to a path out left, which reached the road just above a large layby which we had noted (but ignored) on the shuttle. However, the walk down the road to the cars didn’t take long and the scenery overlooking the Durance valley was magnificent among the alpine meadows, so we didn’t mind, and the bonus was that the car was now in the shade !

Additional Info:

Guidebook: “Les Canyons des Hautes-Alpes: Topographies” by Henri Vincens, Henri Vincens auto édition, 70 rte des Clots, 38250 Villard de Lans. ISBN 9782952944502. Available locally in Argentière.

Little Wild Horse Canyon

We knew we weren’t supposed to take our hired RV off the paved roads, and, at 8m long it certainly felt a bit exciting when we needed to do so, but this wasn’t going to deter us from getting to a parking place as near as possible to Little Wild Horse Canyon in Utah’s San Rafael Swell. There was a moment crossing a draw when we feared we’d get stuck in soft sand … but it was OK. Phew !

This is not a place to visit if there’s any chance of a sudden downpour – it’s normally dry, but from its confines you’d never see gathering clouds, and its narrows, cut in slickrock, would offer no escape from a flash flood. It is never too narrow, however that you can’t get through with a small daughter in a backpack, as we discovered, though some climbing up and traversing ledges was needed in the narrowest section.

Fantastic rock sculpture

At the top of the narrows, the canyon opens out, reached by a couple of short bridging climbs, and becomes a wide sandy draw below a desert-varnished cliff.

The water table is near enough to the surface to support shrubby vegetation like Cowania mexicana and Fraxinus anomala in the shade of the cliff, from both of which we collected seed. We grew several plants back home – but they didn’t really like the Pennine climate (no real surprise) – the Rockrose have all died though we still had a couple of the Single-leaf Ash in the greenhouse in 2012 and rather to our surprise they have survived being left outside over the last two winters to 2014.