Forest Canoe Club Alps Trip – France 2009

Written by Steve West

In mid-June of this year, Forest Canoe Club once again dispatched a group of intrepid paddlers to the Haute Alpes region of the French Alps. The group was nine strong, with abilities ranging from pretty darn good through fair-to-middling to “only been on the Thames”. Once again, the key challenge would be to ensure the better paddlers get plenty of challenging paddling in, and at the same time not scare the Bejesus out of the newbies and ensure they have an enjoyable trip. Mission Impossible?

Preparation, despite the best of intentions, was limited. Once again a few of the group only managed a couple of weekends on Dartmoor between Alps trips, and a planned trip to the Tryweryn never happened due to lack of time. Hambleden as usual provided the main opportunity to dust down the big boats, with a last minute trip to HPP to apply WD40 to those rusty river-running skills.

The touring party consisted of seven people who had visited the French Alps at least once before, and two Alps virgins. Two vehicles were making the long journey overnight on the Friday: Steve’s van with Mike, Ben and Mark on board, and Jim’s car with Chris, Andy and Nathan. Colin, as a late addition to the tour party, and because he had to be home early, flew into Lyon where he hired a car.

“The FCC Alps team 2009 l-r Steve West, Andy Fenney, Mike Berry, Nathan Woodhouse, Ben West, Jim McPherson, Colin Ray, Chris Davis (kneeling)”
With the exception of Colin ,the journeys were generally uneventful, with Steve finally succumbing to peer pressure and buying replacement wiper-blades to avoid waking up the sleeping non-drivers if it rained. Colin (despite flying into a French airport for a holiday in France), decided to take a detour via Italy and paid €40 in toll fees for his trouble (would have been only €20, but he had to pay to come back through the tunnel!).

Ben and Mark had previously purchased a Thomas The Tank Engine apron, to be awarded on a daily basis to that person who, as adjudged by the touring party, was either Dick or Gay of the Day. The court would sit over post-paddling beers, each person would make their nominations, then there would be a vote. Colin, for his geographical naivety, secured the first Dick of the Day award, and dutifully wore the apron whilst paddling the next day (tied to the rear of his BA to minimise snag hazards!).

Saturday 20th June

Rivers: Durance, St Clements – Rabioux

Award: Colin “Cosmic” Ray – Dick of the Day for sojourn to Italy

The tour party arrived at St Clements at lunchtime on the Saturday, and partook in the excellent pizzas at the restaurant above the Liquid Holiday shop. Colin arrived later, having stopped in Italy for a coffee. He’s fussy about his coffee.

Once fed and watered, the group set off on the Sunshine Run from St Clements to Rabioux. After some minor drama on the shuttle (newly-wed Mike thought he’d lost his wedding ring), it was good to get back on cold Alpine water in the warm sunshine, surrounded by stunning mountainous vistas. Marvellous. The run was relatively uneventful, with the newbies (Colin “Cosmic” Ray and Jim “Fearless” McPherson) getting used to the fast water and some Shepperton-esque boily eddy lines in places. Finally the group reached Rabioux, with some imaginative lines being taken due to the lack of visibility of the big rock on river-left which is the usual marker. Cosmic unfortunately took a swim here, but all was cleared up with minimal fuss, and everyone felt good to finally be there.

Once off the river, we headed off to Vallouise where we were staying. Vallouise is a lovely (quiet) village, situated where the Gyr and Onde meet to form the Gyronde. Our accommodation was two apartments, in the same medieval building on a narrow road running from the main square. The apartments were well appointed and comfortable, with a drying room and shared patio with BBQ. The only drawback was the lack of parking near the apartments themselves, but the local bar (Brasserie Alphand) with its own micro-brewery was more than adequate compensation!

After a good meal, a few beers, and what was to become a ritual viewing of Steve Fisher’s “Black Book” DVD, the group headed to bed, tired but looking forward to the following day’s paddling.

Sunday 21st June

Rivers: Argentiere slalom course and Durance, St Clements – Embrun

Award: Steve “The Don” West – Gay of the Day for framing artistic photographic shots of the mountains over breakfast all arty-farty-like, and retorting to group piss-taking by stating that “great artists are never recognised whilst they are alive”.

“Team Sanatogen at Argentiere.”

Sunday morning saw the group have their usual warm-up and rope practice at the Argentiere slalom course. The rope practice was unusually good by FCC standards, apart from Cosmic pulling on the rope before Steve had actually got hold of it. Steve assured Cosmic after the resultant self-rescue that he didn’t bear grudges. No, really.

“The Don wowing the crowds at the top hole at Argentiere.”

Only other notable events were Colin’s first proper whitewater swim, which left him a bit shaken up and emotional (counselled by The Don, once he got back from chasing Colin’s boat past the road bridge with a couple of others), and the carnage that followed a six-man crew led by Westy Junior, attempting to pilot the Gumotex down the course; there weren’t six people still onboard at the bottom of the course.

“Ben and Mike putting the Gumotex through its paces at Argentiere.”

After a light lunch, the group headed off to St Clements to run the Durance down to Embrun. This was a pleasant run in the sunshine, but time had marched on, and a couple more swims by poor old Cosmic (one after Rabioux, he did the hard bit ok, and one in an eddy after a text-book ferry-glide), meant that this became quite a long day, and the sight of the old bridge near the get-out was very welcome.

That evening Ben, Mark, Mike and Steve introduced the others to the fine beers brewed by the Brasserie Alphand. This was a mixed blessing, as the beer is very good and the van group felt compelled to have one of each flavour during each visit!

Monday 22nd June

Rivers: Upper Ubaye

Award: Mike “Café au Gay” Berry – Dick of the Day for deciding to put-in over a cliff, and involvement in the misreading of the guidebook? Ben and Andy got off lightly!

On Monday the group decided to head over to the Ubaye as none of us had paddled any sections of this river. The plan was to start with the Upper, and for those that wanted to, have a crack at The Racecourse. After a later than planned departure from Chez FCC, the journey up over the Col de Vars took much longer than expected. Plans were further disrupted when a road closure was encountered, which in fact was only about 50m long and as it turned out not far from the put-in. As the backed-up traffic built up (the group was comforted by the fact that no-one else had taken any notice of the “route ferme” signs on the way), it was decided to stop for a coffee and re-assess the plan. At the café at the top of the Col, a sign was displayed stating that the road would be open for a short period at 1pm (presumably to coincide with the digger operator’s lunch break, incredibly for France only an hour). The decision was made to have a coffee, and then head down to do the Upper Ubaye.

By the time the team finally got on the water, it was past 2pm. It would have been earlier, but Mike “Café au Gay” Berry (named after he ordered a “skinny caramel machiatto” at the Eurotunnel café at the start of last year’s Alps trip) chose a put-in point that would have involved abseiling down a 4m cliff.

“Team FCC head off down the Upper Ubaye – or is it the Upper Guil? Whatever.”

The Upper Ubaye was a pleasant paddle, and passed without incident (apart from Cosmic pressing the eject button and finding himself stranded on the other side of the river to his boat and the rest of the group).

The real drama happened after we got off the Upper. Time was once again moving on. Some people still fancied doing The Racecourse, so after some studying of the guidebook by Ben, Andy and Mike (Nathan declined, claiming he was a minor and therefore irresponsible (sic)), this small select group of elite paddlers set off, whilst the others sacrificed their own aspirations in order to run the shuttle. As this selfless group packed away, Chris suddenly became quite animated and asked Steve to check the guidebook to ensure he wasn’t going mad. In Steve’s view, Chris’ marbles were all present and correct and packed away in his satchel. It was in fact the elite paddlers that had momentarily lost their marbles. Having misread the guidebook, they had set off on a 20km expedition to The Racecourse that included a grade 5 section not far into their run that the guidebook was less than enthusiastic about. A car-chase reminiscent of The French Connection ensued, and the group was headed off in good time amidst claims that the guidebook should write the sections of the river up in geographical order. It was pointed out that there was a map.

Over beers and BBQ the group decided to get more paddling in the following day, after the time tribulations of earlier.

Tuesday 23rd June

Rivers: Gyr and Gyronde

Award: Mike “Café au Gay” Berry – Gay of the Day for forgetting Thomas, delaying the group to return to the apartment to find him, only to not find him, and in doing so providing the opportunity for an elderly French gentlemen to reverse his car at speed into the front of The Don’s van.

The group headed off early to look at the Onde. It would have been earlier, but Mike managed to forget Thomas the Tank Engine apron. Whilst the group waited in the village square in Vallouise, taking in the tranquillity of the surroundings, and elderly French gentleman and his wife attempted to park their Renaut Clio in between Jim’s car and The Don’s van (if it had been Nicole …). First attempt: complete miss. Second attempt: managed to get in the space, secured position with hand-brake, into gear, rev the nuts off the small 1 litre engine, dump the clutch, bang into the front of the van. Try 1st instead of reverse, Monsieur. The Don surveyed the van, thankfully the only damage was to the Clio, and then made plans to obtain a horse’s head for the elderly gentleman’s bed.

And then Mike reappeared sans Thomas. He skilfully deflected attention to his lack of a culinary protective garment by relaying the story of Cosmic grappling “manfully” with the lock on his apartment.

Finally the group was on the road towards the Onde. Things did not look good from the road, and it was confimed at the put-in that the level was far too low to paddle. The grade 5 track back to Vallouise involved some skilful manoeuvring to avoid oncoming vehicles, including a certain Mr Catterall driving a Porsche 4WD. Pay’s good at Plas-y-Brenin.

The decision was made to let the young guns have a crack at the Gyr, and report back as to whether the run was within the compass of the senior contingent. As the crack team of Ben, Andy and Nathan made themselves ready, the others headed down the track to offer some safety support equipped with helmets, BA’s, throwlines, and …. flip-flops. Not far from the put-in, a tree across the river caused some consternation as a route past could not be seen from the high bank. Mike was dispatched to shuffle at speed back to warn the paddlers; he made it, just short of having a coronary.

“Junior in action on the Gyr.”

The guys decided to put in below the tree, which involved some abseiling, but finally got underway. 10 minutes later, and a short but exciting run was over! It was decided that some of the seniors could do this run later that day.

Then the faff-factor set in. The decision had been made to get on the Gyronde below the grade 5 at Les Vignettes. The youngsters planned to paddle on down and scout the grade 5, and then join up with the rest of the group. As this was being organised, some of the seniors decided to stop for coffee!

Finally the remaining members of the group headed off to the Gyronde. After checking out the normal put-in, it was decided to put in with the newbies a bit further down to allow them a gentler start. The whole process of sorting the shuttle, ensuring the youngsters knew where to stop by placing a boat as a marker, getting the remaining members of the group assembled in the right place, seemed to take an age, punctuated by Mark’s unscheduled “pit-stop” in the bushes, when he managed to choose a spot with no fresh leaves in sight.

Finally the youngsters arrived, having decided to walk the grade 5. A pleasant run was had down the Gyronde. Unfortunately Cosmic had a couple of swims, and decided to walk back to the put-in where he had left his hire-car. He was looking a bit jaded after his first two days, and having done an amusing impression of a cow being zapped by a cattle-prod when Mike screamed at him to avoid a mass of over-hanging foliage, decided to take an early bath. The epic lock struggle had taken its toll.

The group finally arrived at the slalom course at Argentiere, where a few people decided to have a play, rather than head back to the Gyr, as once again time had not been a friend.

Wednesday 24th June

Rivers: Upper and Middle Guil

Award: Andy “International Rescue(d)” Fenney – Dick of the Day for ignoring Ben’s signal to avoid a nasty hole on the Middle Guil, and instead following his maxim for life: “Go where the water takes me”, which in this case was to a damn good spanking.

On Wednesday the group decided to spend the day in the Guil Valley, with everyone doing a favourite run (the Upper Guil), followed by Ben and Andy (and possibly others) tackling the Middle Guil. Given the step up in difficulty of the gorge section of the Upper, and the keenness of the new paddlers to tackle it, we spent more time than usual discussing safety strategy before we got on the water. Once in the gorge, the first objective was to get the new guys into the first big eddy on river left just round the first bend so that we could scout the first section with them; not necessarily that difficult, but the first “must make” eddy that they had been presented with. The group’s confidence grew as first Jim and then Colin made the eddy comfortably having tackled the entry rapid without mishaps. Colin especially seemed to take confidence from this, judging by the beaming grin he wore whilst sitting in the eddy.

“Cosmic having a Mick Jagger moment, obviously dreaming of Honky Tonk women.”

“Bezza heading towards the gorge section of the Upper Guil.”

The group then walked the next section of the gorge, discussing lines with the new guys as we went. The more experienced contingent discussed where we would aim to reassemble the group, what safety cover we would need, and devised a plan. A large eddy was chosen on river left on the bend before the next section, which was felt to be easiest to get people into. Two chase-boaters were stationed just below the eddy, with bank support along the rapid.

“Sparky skilfully captains the Gumotex into the gorge section of the Upper Guil.”

“Jim heads toward the unknown.”

It was here that the group learned some harsh lessons, namely that if you have agreed a plan you need to stick to it unless events force otherwise, that communication throughout is key, and that very quickly one small mistake can become compounded and result in events spiralling out of control. In this case, no-one was badly hurt (the only injury was Jim who sustained a badly bruised leg from a swim), and the group subsequently debriefed and discussed lessons learned. As whenever things don’t go according to plan, it is good to review and take positives, but we did end up with a mini epic on the Upper Guil!

Without going into detail, Jim had an unfortunate swim at the end of the first rapid, not quite making the eddy and capsizing over the rock at its bottom. He claimed that his deck had popped, and that the river had “sucked it off”. How obliging in his hour of need. For various reasons we had ended up with only one chase-boater, young Nathan, so when he headed off at speed after Jim’s boat (Jim had got himself and his paddle to the side), The Don decided he had better get in his boat pronto and in turn chase Nathan to help out. After an exhilarating solo run for each down the length of the gorge, Jim’s boat was finally apprehended and parked on the side.

“Nathan chases after Jim’s boat.”

“Steve chases after Nathan (who was chasing after Jim’s boat).”

Nathan and Steve then had a long walk back up the gorge to join back up with the main group. Events are a little blurred from here on in, but involved in no particular order another swim by Colin, Ben chasing his boat and Mike his paddle, Andy getting Colin back on the water and dropping him sideways into a stopper, Nathan then paddling Colin’s boat, and Mark in his newly designated Red Cross Gumotex transporting Jim and Colin, followed by a capsize which is when Jim hurt his leg and Mike thinking he had broken it! At this point Steve, who had been walking back down the gorge, met up with Mark and Jim with the Gumotex on one side of the gorge, and Colin on the other. The Don quickly made an executive decision that Colin should climb out of the gorge (we were very near the end, and the side Colin was on was now a slope albeit quite steep with foliage and trees) and walk the short distance to the get-out, whilst Steve would help Mark transport the wounded Jim down the rest of the river in the Gumotex; the fact that Steve was knackered from all the walking and climbing had no bearing on his decision.

Jim took some persuading to get back in the Gumotex, but with Mark at the helm and Steve at the front using Jim’s paddle, he eventually agreed to ride in the middle, holding onto the straps for all he was worth. Unfortunately for Steve, he continued to hold on stubbornly even when Steve was bounced out of the Gumotex by a rock and travelled for some distance clinging to the front of the boat half submerged, still with paddle in his hand, wondering whether the rock they were about to hit would hurt. Thankfully Mark managed to reach across and haul Steve up enough for him to regain his position as front paddler. Thanks Mark! The Don would need another horse’s head.

The rest of the river passed without incident, and a very weary group finally arrived at the get-out. Spirits were soon raised, however, and whilst we agreed a debrief was needed, we had a good laugh about our mini epic, and also the people who wouldn’t believe Steve when he said that the water in the bottle that had been on the van’s dashboard all day was very near boiling point, and ignored the screams of pain from previous people who had allowed Steve to pour the water over their hands, and offered their own.

Although the Upper Guil had taken a lot longer than anticipated, it was decided to look at the Middle Guil, and if people wanted to run it they could. Ben and Andy at least were keen. When we got to Triple Step, the level seemed reasonably high, at least higher than the year before. Given it had already been a long day, and that the level was “chunky”, the aspirant hard-core paddlers decided that donning BA and helmet over their civvies and offering some bank support suddenly looked more attractive, telling each other that “there’s always next year” and “I would do it, but the old shrapnel wound is playing up”. Which left Ben and Andy.

“Junior tackles the first drop of Triple Step.”

Whilst some members of the group found vantage points for photos and video, Steve and Mike posted themselves by the bottom drop on Triple Step to mop up if need be. Ben descended first with a few carefully chosen paddle-strokes, looking like he ran such rapids daily before breakfast. Andy’s run was slightly less graceful. A capsize at the bottom of the first drop saw him edge perilously close to the curtain on river right whilst upside down. The crowd that had gathered looked on, their collective breaths held, willing the blue Gus to resume the posture it had been designed for, viz hull facing down and paddler up. After what seemed like an eternity, or at least the time it takes to create a hard-boiled egg, Andy reappeared from the boily mess. The next two drops were then tackled as Willie Kern had intended, ie right way up, albeit with some shameless whooping. Shame on you, Mr Fenney. Once it was established that the Dynamic Duo were ok, they headed off down the river as the remainder of the Group sped off to Le Tunnel to protect the feisty hole that had been Andy’s nemesis the year before.

“Andy drops into the first drop of Triple Step.”

Once parked up, the group again donned BAs and helmets and clambered down to river level armed with throwlines. From there, the almost river-wide hole looked truly horrible; a deep gash across the river with an evil tow-back and a tight must-make line river right hard up against a boulder. The anxious wait was broken by shouts from up on the vantage point on the corner that the boys were on their way. But as we positioned ourselves to get a better view upstream, we saw the sight of the underside of the blue Gus just behind Ben. It quickly became apparent that Andy was no longer in his boat and that Ben was trying to position himself to get Andy’s boat to the side. This was confirmed by Ben as he made the line beside the Hole from Hell, telling us that Andy had come out on The Staircase and he wasn’t sure where he was. He was obviously concerned, and this concern quickly spread to the group. Whilst Mike and Mark sped back up the road in the van, dumping the clutch, several pints of oil and assorted inlet and exhaust valves on the hot tarmac, Steve bounded off on foot down-river like Usain Bolt after a four-pack of Dark Dog, trying to find a spot to get down to river level to help Ben get Andy’s boat out of the speeding river. Several hundred metres later, he managed to scramble down the slope where the steep walls relaxed into scree slopes, and waited patiently for Ben, wondered whether he had stayed ahead of him or had missed him.

“Ben wonders where Mr Fenney has gone.”

To cut a long story short, Steve finally hauled himself wearily back up to the road to find that Ben had indeed got Andy’s boat out just below Le Tunnel, and that Andy had been discovered well and in characteristic rude health on the bank just below The Staircase. The only casualty, apart from The Don’s lungs and the van’s drive-train, appeared to be Andy’s paddles which were somewhere between The Staircase and the lake, never to be seen again.

With the group reunited with plenty to talk about that evening, they headed back to base. The evening debrief started in our favourite bar where Andy was unanimously voted Dick of the Day. A good meal to mark Cosmic’s last night (he was due to fly back to the UK on Thursday evening in order to take his wife on a romantic anniversary weekend in Barcelona …. where undoubtedly he regaled her with stories of his daring deeds on the ice-cold Alpine waters of the French Alps), followed by a cheeky night cap or two, finished off this year’s Epic Day. We were too tired to catch up with our hero Steve Fisher, so he and Dale Jardine would have to go to their garage and eat popcorn by themselves.

Thursday 25th June

Rivers: Rest Day – Durance St Clements to Rabioux, play at Argentiere

Award: Nathan “Bill Oddie” Woodhouse – Gay of the Day for activities of the chunder variety the previous evening.

The excitement of the Guil had left the group emotionally drained, so it was decided that an easy day on the Durance and at Argentiere was called for. The highlight of a chilled run down the Durance from St Clements to Rabioux was Cosmic managing to roll up successfully having run Rabioux itself.

Once we had got off the water, Colin packed his kit, strapped his boat onto his trusty handirack on his hire car, and headed back to the airport, no doubt via a number of other member countries of the EU. A few of the group decided that a quick play at Argentiere would be a fun way to finish the day.

Unfortunately The Don was too relaxed. Wowing the assembled crowed with his Pop-Outs in the hole at the top of the course, he then floated casually down the course, soaking up the plaudits … only to broach embarrassingly on a rock above the next hole. He may have got away with this had Mike not followed his line to join him, getting some Werners round his chops for his trouble. With the crowd now sensing some real entertainment, the two intrepid paddlers dropped into the hole, by now with The Don’s knee out of his thigh-brace and sitting over the back of the seat whilst upside down. After much thrashing about on his part, the pair managed to re-group in the eddy, only for Mike to see his paddle disappear down the course whilst he had been stablising The Don’s boat. The crowd had sensed blood, so the pair disappeared sheepishly down the course in record time!

After a game of Gladiators on the lake, the group returned to base for a quiet night in with Steve Fisher and his chums.

Friday 26th June

Rivers: Upper Guisane

Award: Jim “McFearless” McPherson – Dick of the Day for electrocuting himself on an electric fence after swimming the S-Bend.

The final day saw a by now fairly tired group head north of Briancon to tackle the Guisane. The plan was to do the Upper, and then the Lower or Briancon Gorge depending on how much time we had.

The day got off to a slow start, with some confusion over where to put in (Steve’s memory playing tricks). The group finally put in just below the village of Le Casset, narrowly avoiding a diplomatic incident with a local fisherman. The Upper Guisane was a very pleasant paddle, although the S-bends rapid caught Jim unawares. A combination of overall tiredness and a badly bruised leg saw him take a couple of swims, the second one resulting in him losing his recently purchased carbon Werners (later, after a posting on UKRGB, they were reunited with their owner by a top chap called Ed from Bournemouth – thanks Ed!). Having got his boat onto the bank, Jim then managed to stumble into a collapsed electric fence, performing a strange ritualistic dance reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video each time a pulse of electricity passed through his sodden limbs.

Once Jim was sorted, the rest of the group headed off down the rest of the river without incident (apart from Steve forgetting where he’d parked the van). After driving back up the valley to fetch Jim, and The Don waiting for an important call from work that never happened, it was decided that it was too late for either the Lower Guisane (disappointingly) or Briancon Gorge, so it was agreed to have a final Sunshine Run before heading back to the accommodation to pack. Unfortunately the Sunshine disappeared, replaced by a mean and frankly spiteful storm gathering over Embrun. Numerous spectacular forks of lightening spotted as the group drove south persuaded them that this year’s Alpine paddling adventure had come to an end, and so they headed back to Vallouise to pack the vehicles and head back to Blighty.

The journey back overnight was relatively uneventful, apart from Mike driving The Don’s van, whilst skulling cans of Dark Dog (Red Bull French-style), like he was competing in an edition of the Mille Miglia. As daylight broke for the last stretch through the Pas de Calais, the conversation turned to next year. This year’s trip had been a really enjoyable one, great company with lots of fun and two new paddlers introduced to the joys of Alpine paddling. But it was agreed unanimously that one or two Dart trips in between Alps trips is not good preparation, resulting in too much time spent remembering how to run rivers. A pact was made for the group to get out onto rivers in the UK during the winter months, so that we can stuck in sooner during next year’s trip. Well, the intention is there!

Thanks to all the guys for a great trip, and especially to Ben for looking after us all!

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