Summer in the Alps – Bofin’s style

Well it was the end of June, the sun was shining, there had been loads of winter snow so the stage was set for yet another Bofin’s adventure to the Alps. This year we upgraded the average age of the group to just north of 46 (the youngsters just can’t stick the pace!) and also planned to up the river grades as well.

Meticulous planning had gone into the route choice and transport so that all eight people scattered across the Thames valley and beyond could all be picked up by one of the two vehicles and still arrive at the Eurotunnel to get an early train.  Despite Friday traffic on the M25 both vehicles arrived within 10 mins of each other in time for the 8:40 train.

Cars loading on Eurostar

All was going wonderfully to plan until we stopped for 1st  breakfast about 7:00am and Geoff topped up his van with water. Five mins later BANG (or  “clack clack clack” with a French accent according to the breakdown guy.) It was the end of the road for Geoff’s trusty paddle wagon with a cracked block/holed piston or similar and time to call out the AA 5 star assistance and wait…….and wait……and wait.

Since there was nothing we could do the rest of us (Garry, Mally, Tim and Robin) pressed on to Briancon/Argentiere for the planned late breakfast and also a warm up run on the Argentiere slalom course and the Gyronde. The remaining four; Geoff, Bruce, Ash and Ken finally arrived in time for dinner at about 7:30 PM in a hired Hertz Vito van, having spent the best part of 8 hours waiting for the AA to sort its act out.

Scores for day 1 (Saturday) therefore :-

Rivers :- two (Durance and Gyronde)
Breakages :- one (Geoff’s van)
Coffee shops :- three
Swims :- none.

Day 2 (Sunday)

Given the trials of day 1 (at least for some) we decided on another warm up day. So back to the slalom course where Geoff proceeded to swim on his first run down.  This was a great chance to hone our rescue skills for the week ahead!  After a brief discussion we decided on another  run down the Gyronde and then a choice between a blast on the Gyr and/or a visit to the brewery in Valouise for some of the renowned local brew – Beer Alphand.

Only Tim, Mally and Ken took the Gyr option which proved to be prophetic given that they found a river wide strainer just at the start of the steep section with eddy service for just 3 boats above it!  The rest of the run was a full-on adrenaline rush that set them up very nicely for the beer.

Strainer at the start of the Gyr with three man eddy just above!

Scores for day 2 (Sunday) therefore :-

Rivers :  three (Durance Gyronde and Gyr)
Breakages : none
Coffee shops/breweries : 1 (Bar Alphand, Valouise)
Swims : two (Geoff – Durance, Gyronde)

Day 3 – Monday.

Time now to kick up a gear, so with lots of sun starting to bring down the meltwater we headed to the Ubaye race course. Slowed only by an unintended detour caused by 1980’s teenage reminiscing about Kate Bush and Debbie Harry from Garry and Mally (you needed to be there….) we found the river at a good medium/high level.

Unfortunately we forgot to warn Ash about the grabby little stopper in the middle of the first rapid that had caused Stav  problems last year and sure enough Ash was swimming to the side with a broken paddle. Oh well, with three sets of splits between us ( and a fourth set in the van just in case – wisdom comes with age you see!) we pressed on. A few rapids downstream and with the gradient building nicely, Garry and Robin bounced through a large wave train and found it sufficiently “interesting” to make them head for the bank and get a rope out, and sure enough first Geoff and then Ash came through upside down. Geoff invoked the trusty Pawlatta roll and it was Ash who was hauled out on the end of a rope. Things went downhill from there as Ash was holding his arm in a very funny way and going very “pale and wobbly.” Tim and Mally set to with first aid kits and all the training you would expect from experienced river runners and rapidly diagnosed a suspected broken arm, while Ken, Robin and Garry set off to find a realistic way out to the road. Five minutes later we had a plan. Despite Ash’s protest that it was only bruised and he would be fine tomorrow, when given a straight choice between calling a helicopter or climbing out of the river via two 20 Meter throw ropes he went for the throw rope option. Twenty minutes later we had Ash out of the gorge accompanied by Ken and Bruce.  Either no one had wanted to risk getting their phones wet on the river,  or we are just a bit old school and don’t see the need to have phones permanently attached to our bodies. The result though, we did not have a phone between us on the river – what was that about wisdom coming with age?

It seemed like a long time but was in reality about an hour and a half before Bruce returned to say all was good and that Ash was on his way to Urgences. So all that was left to do was for the rest of us to paddle the rest of the river and pick up the shuttle. No particular drama apart from a quick OBE (Out of Boat Experience) for Geoff to make Ash feel a bit more part of the team.   We then set off to Gap where Ken and Ash had been entertaining the French nurses with their strange rubber clothing. Result one broken Ulna and a fancy plaster cast that effectively put an end to Ash’s boating week.

Ash’s arm after the Ubaye Race Course incident

Scores for day 3 (Monday) therefore :-

Rivers :  One (Ubaye race course)
Breakages : Two (Ash’s  paddle and Ulna)
Coffee shops/breweries : None
Swims : Three (Ash – twice, Geoff – one)

Day 4 –Tuesday

Day 4 dawned and Geoff decided he needed to hit the phones to sort out his insurance and replacement vehicle, and with Ash confined to the sick bay we were left with just six boaters.  We were ready to up the ante  and headed for the middle Guil, which at these levels we expected to be full on Grade 4 /4+ with a couple of 5’s thrown in for good measure. About an hour later we parked up at the side of “Le Tunnel”, one of the Grade 5’s,  having a long hard look at a nasty  stopper 50-70 meters after a blind bend and with a fairly tricky lead in, limited eddies and an “S” shaped exit around a mid stream boulder with a big cushion wave. The level of chat in the cars was lower than previous days and people were clearly getting more involved with their own thoughts – the adrenaline was kicking in.

We drove on and got a glimpse of another hard section, the Labyrinth, before reaching our intended put in just below the Triple Step rapid. At these levels even Ken accepted that the first step was “not wise” though he and Mally were ready to run the next two.  Their decision was vindicated when two local French hair-boaters got on at the same point, saying “this is your warm up? you want me to run first?  I don’t give a sheet!” (French accent required).  Bruce decided to rest his dodgy knees and took control of the van and the camera for the rest of the trip that day!

We also  picked up our first stray of the week when Frank from Germany turned up and announced he ran the river last week and could he tag on whilst his wife and two children followed in his camper van. Our initial reluctance faded within the first few hundred yards when it was clear that he could paddle and he knew what was round the blind bends. So a full on Grade 4/4+ staircase of stopper after stopper and rapid after rapid followed before Frank broke out and announced we were at the Labyrinth and that he was carrying around it.  Robin, Tim and Garry needed no more info, but Ken and Mally insisted on looking first, before reluctantly deciding to walk too.

The steep continuous water resumed immediately.  Robin was flipped into the wall and after a valiant attempt at rolling was out of his boat.  He made the side, complete  with boat but was struggling to hold on to it as it slipped over a big stopper. Garry dived for an eddy but was not quick enough to get a rope on the boat before Robin had to let go due to sheer force of water. We then noticed the marker that we had placed earlier to show the entrance to the Tunnel rapid, at which point Robin was glad he had made the bank and Mally decided that chase boating was not a good plan. Unfortunately Robin had taken the lesson about phones on the river from yesterday to heart and his phone was now in his boat heading downstream.

Frank  was all for walking this one but Ken being Ken trotted out his standard line “I can see a line through that” and whilst last year we would all have given the standard answer of “don’t be silly Ken” this year we had Mally who was prepared to humour him and give it a go. So with safety set Mally broke out in the eddy above before hitting a line hard river right of the stopper. Ken was next but he was so eager to make the break out that he snapped round so fast  he found himself side surfing the hole at the top of the eddy across to the wrong side of the river. Breaking out for what was probably his most important “high cross” for a long time Ken just made it back to sneak the edge of the hole and punch through.

Ken “emerging” from the hole on the Middle Guil.

With a long walk to get back in after this rapid for Garry and Tim, and Robin with no boat, we decided to get the shuttle at this point and pick up the others at the bottom.   On the way down we found Ken on the road, hauling on a rope that was attached to Robin’s missing boat. They had found it snagged by its throw rope in an eddy.   Ken and Mally had been unable to empty it completely so with  the extra weight of water in the boat Ken now had it about 5 metres above the river but unable to haul it any higher and reluctant to drop it back down onto Mally who was sitting on a narrow rock ledge, leaving him pretty much stuck. Thankfully with Tim and Garry pulling on the rope it was soon hauled out complete with phone in its dry box all intact.

Scores for day 4 (Tuesday) therefore :-

Rivers :  One (Middle Guil)
Breakages : None (though one  “temporarily misplaced” boat)
Coffee shops/breweries : None – too much tension at the put in to think of coffee!
Swims : one  (Robin)

Day 5 – Wednesday

With everyone still buzzing from the run on the middle Guil, and with Geoff now planning on paddling again, we decided on an easier day. We agreed on the upper reaches of the Guil with the option of a blast through Chateau Q gorge to finish. With both vehicles packed and ready to roll and Ash along for the ride we were all set to leave when Geoff’s insurers called back effectively unpicking his carefully crafted plans, so again he decided to bail and hit the phones. The rest of us pressed on and 40 minutes later we were at the coffee shop in Abries for a warm up and “mental preparation” in keeping with the day’s mellow theme.

“mental warm up” in the café at the top of the Guil.

The top section of the Upper Guil, though very scenic, was even more mellow than we expected and was all over in about 20 mins.   The guidebook recommended 2 hours for the next stretch down to Chateau Q, so we pressed on but apart from things stepping up a bit in the Gorge to 3+ and us having to sort out a few stray boats from a group ahead of us we found ourselves approaching Chateau Q after only 40 mins.  This section had  ideally suited our mood though, so we decided to quickly re-shuttle and do it again. At the put in we met our second stray of the week,  “Dave” the Irishman. We explained that he was welcome to tag along but we had no intention of hanging around. So 31 minutes later we had run the section again, blasting through the gorge section and once more pulling out stray boaters on the way, but by blasting this we had left time for Ken and Mally to run Chateau Q.  So with Tim and Garry at the end  to pick up any pieces Ken and Mally shot through the Chateau Q Gorge in double quick time with Mally in particular emerging with his now characteristic “big run face” of broad grin and tongue hanging out.

Scores for day 5 (Wednesday) therefore :-

Rivers :  Three (ish) Upper Guil and Upper – Upper Guil plus the Chateau Q gorge
Breakages : None  (though one very hot car over Col D’izoard)
Coffee shops/breweries : one
Swims : none

Mally in teh Chateau Q Gorge.

Day 6 – Thursday

Geoff had volunteered to run Ash to Turin airport, which though very public spirited, left the rest of us with a bit of a shuttle problem. Still since our chalet was just a few minutes walk from the Durance below Briancon we hatched a plan. Even with one car we could all get to the top of the Upper Guisane, and then paddle the full 17+ miles down the Upper and Lower Guisane and into the Durance all the way back to the chalet. By which time Geoff should have returned to allow us to collect the car left at the start.

If the Guisane was in the UK,  canoe clubs would travel miles to use and it would be fuller than the Dart on a Gene 17 weekend. It starts in a high alpine valley with glacial blue water at Grade 2 ish, builds to grade 3 and then to a short section of Grade 3+/4 before settling back down again to 2+ as it passes behind the houses and hotels of the Serre Chevalier ski resort. You can get out here or, like us press on beyond Serre Chevalier to the Lower where the river steepens up (after a couple of compulsory weir portages) into a continuous steep Grade 4 for about 4Km of really good alpine boating before depositing you in the new part of Briancon and straight into the top of the Durance.

As for our trip, all was going to plan until we got out for lunch to find out that the coffee shop was closed so we had to make do without a second coffee for  the day. Pushing on to the Lower after Lunch we ran the main technical grade 4 section in two groups of 3 because the eddies were small and few.  Mally was running point on the second group and suddenly broke out above a gnarly looking stopper. Garry was a bit too close behind and skipped the eddy to run it straight through –bad choice – because he missed the quick edge transition needed to make the main route and promptly ended up upside down in a shallow rocky stopper which also snapped his paddles into two. Following a rocky swim he jumped straight back in with his split paddles only to swim again on the very next rapid. This time Mally insisted on a bit of recovery time and a chocolate break to get things under control, before running the rest of the river without further incident.

In case anyone thought the drama count was getting a bit low though, later that evening Mally got a message from home that not only was his daughter down with swine Flu but now also his wife was sick and struggling to cope, so a few quick Google checks later we had 20 minutes to get Mally into Briancon, onto an overnight train to Paris and then to the Eurotunnel to enable him to run through his front door early on Friday morning. After what we had achieved all week this was a piece of cake and he was duly delivered on time.

Guisane Photo?

Scores for day 6 (Thursday) therefore :-

Rivers :  Three (ish) Upper Guisane, Lower Guisane, part of Durance
Breakages : one  (Garry’s paddle)
Coffee shops/breweries : one but should have been two.
Swims : Two (both Garry)
Departing Bofins : Two (Ash in the morning, Mally in the evening)

Day 7– Friday

The last paddling day dawned and we were determined to get Geoff on the Upper Guil today.  Arriving in time for elevenses it seemed rude not to take the opportunity to support the local economy and head for the coffee shop first. Duly fortified we reassured Geoff that we were not planning on beating our 31 minute descent record from earlier in the week. This time we had lots of safety strung out along the eddies in the Gorge section but still Geoff decided that it was a nice day for a swim. With our safety in place we soon reunited Geoff  with his boat though.  This was a really nice section of river but the gentle start seems to lead to the gorge section being underestimated by many groups. We ran it three times and every time we fished out boats, blades and paddlers from other groups.

Next stop was the finish eddy above Chateau Q, but no real drama and a quick pause for the shuttle run gave Kenny time to set himself up for a solo run through the Chateau Q gorge.  He emerged at the bottom but we had not seen his capsize and subsequent rollathon after hitting the cushion wave in the middle of the gorge. Three attempts before he was upright and he was apparently sideways and upside down at one of the narrowest sections!

It may have been the last day and getting on for 3:00pm but Garry and Tim at least were not prepared to stop there (although Chateau Q was not to their liking).  They both agreed on the need for a “warm down paddle to finish off the week”.  So back for a late afternoon blast down the Gyronde.  Ken assured us it was possible to get in just below the nasty Grade 5/6 rapid and with just three paddling, both cars were dispatched to the slalom course to await their return.  Tim and Garry then found themselves confronted with what has become known as a “Pugsley put in” (named after Ken). This is where Ken says that it’s fine but it actually requires least one rope to access the river followed by a full on technical and steep blast down a minimum Grade 4+.   Not quite a gentle warm down after all.  All three of them commented though that in spite of the extra water in the Gyronde, the slalom course at Argentiere seemed to be a lot smaller and gentler than at the start of the week – perhaps all those “Pugsley put ins” and “Kenny’s lines” through the week had had an effect after all!

Scores for day 7 (Friday) therefore :-

Rivers :  Three (ish) Upper Guil, Chateau Q and Gyronde
Breakages : none
Swims : one (Geoff on the Guil)
Coffee shops: one at top of Guil.

Day 8 Saturday

Just the drive home left to do but with Geoff, Bruce and Ken tasked with doing a relay race with the various hire vehicles that involved:-

1.    Run from Briancon to Chambrey  (2 hours plus changeover) with hire van and boats to leave boats in his, now dead, original van for later repatriation to the UK.
2.    Pick up new car in Chambrey to transport people only to Calais (10 hours plus changeover.)
3.    Pick up yet another hire car (this time with English plates) at Calais for final run home (isn’t insurance wonderful!)

they decided to head off a couple of hours early at 06:30 French time. Leaving Garry Tim and Robin to follow at 08:30.

Check ins through the day revealed a hare and tortoise approach,  with Geoff getting ahead only to be thwarted by hire car changeovers, dashing  ahead again, getting  thwarted again  (something about “Blue lights, cameras and trips to cash-points?”) meant we arrived at Eurotunnel within five minutes of each other after 12 hours of driving. So with both vehicles and the remaining six people safely loaded on the Eurotunnel, the last of the kitty blown on fuel for the last leg home, we went our six separate ways back to family, normality and work. Ah well there is always next year to look forward to………Same location……North Alps/Austria…….. Norway………..Grand Canyon……??

Who are the Bofins?

We are a loosely connected group of paddlers, who tend towards the older age range in this sport of ours (at least for white water/freestyle) but whose only real common linkage is a love of freestyle boating in the Thames valley. We are regularly on the Thames weirs at weekends, particularly Hurley on Sunday mornings, but we also occasionally get our act together and get out on some rivers, and we also try and organise at least one big trip away. Previous trips have included Scotland, Dartmoor, Wales and the French Alps. Exact numbers of us vary from trip to trip but this years trip involved :-

Garry Miller – a founding Bofin as chief cook and bottle washer for this trip, sometime scout leader and kayak coach for Bucks Scouts CC

Bruce Simmonds –  associated with the Bofin’s for a long time, he is always calm in spite of everything the rest of us are doing around him and so acts as chief calming influence on the rest of us.

Robin Gould – another long serving Bofin who seems to be spending increasing amounts of time visiting the dark side (i.e. fishing!) hence the need to drag him to the Alps to see the error of his ways.

Geoff Pyket – another founding member, as chief worrier, insurance negotiator and of course his honorary title of “expert swimmer.”

Ken Pugsley– As hair  boater in chief (and at 35 he also helps to keep the average age down a bit – though now officially a “veteran” for the Hurley classic.)

Jonathan Males aka. “Mally” – ex international standard (Australian) “stick chaser” now reduced to slumming it with the rest of  us, and Ken’s chief accomplice in the hair boating stakes.

Tim Ward– Chairman of UK Freestyle/President of assorted canoe clubs etc. along to keep the rest of us sensible on the river.

Ashley Mead aka. “Ash” – Newly inducted into the strange world of the Bofin’s earlier this year, and after this trip might not be allowed out with us again.

Oh and By the way it stands for Bucks Old Farts In Neoprene.

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