Alps 101 – throwing yourself in at the deep end

Simon Drayson shares his experiences from his first RCC Alps trip.

Simon reports:
Friday – the outbound journey

Having signed up for the trip under duress (we “newbies” made a pact that all or none of us would go), and following an interim period of nervousness and excitement in equal measure, this day arrived sooner that I thought. Even after paddling several rivers in England and Wales, a six week course at Lee Valley and a two day White Water Safety and Rescue course in North Wales, I did not feel as though I was ready for the Alps! After driving to Dover for the ferry, back to London owing to a forgotten passport (not mine!), and to Folkestone for the Eurotunnel, we finally arrived in France for more driving! Thankfully the other cars waited for us before eating dinner at the chateau outside Lyon where we would spend the first night.


Saturday – Espace Eau Vive

As a warm-up we spent the day paddling on this man-made course, which – unlike Lee Valley – uses rocks to replicate actual rivers. Lots of features on which to practice our white water skills, with relatively painless swims when things inevitably went wrong. The air was hot and the water cool, which made for ideal paddling conditions. After a picturesque drive through the mountains to Briançon, we settled in to our houses (all the “newbies” together in the ‘Lower House’), before heading into town for a pizza and a few beers…

Swim Count = 3

 

Sunday – Durance (St Cléments to Embrun & Briançon to Prelles)

To introduce us to the speed (fast) and temperature (icy) of Alpine water, we paddled “the sunshine run” which starts at the St Cléments slalom course and finishes after the Rabioux big wave. This was our first experience of Regents carnage on an Alpine scale, with lots of rolls and swims visible from the riverside café (for the record, I stayed firmly in my boat) [Editor’s Note: see Simon in his boat in the main photo!]. After lunch, we went on to paddle another section of the Durance, before heading into town for dinner (steak tartare and red wine).

Swim Count = 2

Bob & Gemma styling the entrance to the Rabioux Wave

 

Monday – Lower Clareé

Once the hangovers had cleared, we went on to paddle this beautiful stretch of river, portaging a couple of fallen trees along the way. I had an unfortunate incident involving a concealed tree stump, but this did not affect what was otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable river journey. We had the afternoon off from paddling so cooked dinner for the rest of our house (baked camembert and garlic bread followed by pasta bake).

Swim Count = 1

 

Tuesday – Upper Guisane

Sufficiently carb-loaded, off we went to conquer the Upper Guisane, including the intimidating Guibertes (or “Bear Grylls”) S-bend rapid. After much discussion, both with myself and others, I decided to run it. Much to my surprise, I made it down all in one piece… partly owing to Marcel’s (later given the accolade ‘Leader of the Trip’) perfect line, and partly owing to my new paddle song (Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” featuring Kate Bush). That evening, the ‘Upper House’ hosted a scrumptious indoor BBQ, owing to the rain.

Swim Count = 0

Cooking the BBQ in the rain

 

Wednesday – Gyronde & spa 

Still high on the adrenaline from the day before, we fearlessly paddled the imposing Gyronde. Before the get-off was the L’Argentière slalom course, where swimmers and boat rescues were plentiful. A small group of us practiced our rolls on the adjacent lake, which offered a welcome respite from the moving water. From there, some of us went to Les grands Bains du Monêtier (a spa built on thermal springs) to savour the views from the outdoor infinity pool. Once pampered, we went back to the house for some leftover pasta bake.

Swim Count = 1

 

Thursday – Guil

The more experienced members of the group had been paddling gorges all week, but the infamous Guil would mark our initiation into this type of river. In the middle of the run was a long stretch of lively rapids with sheer rock faces on either side, resulting in few opportunities for portage and lots of ‘must make’ eddies. There were numerous swims and even a couple of ‘walk-outs’, with lots of opportunities to put our safety and rescue skills into practice! Back to the house for homemade potato curry and lentil dahl.

Swim Count = 2

Inspecting rapids on the Upper Guil

 

Friday – Old Town & spa (again!)

We woke up to torrential rain and totally knackered from the past few days, so decided to have a well-deserved break from paddling by visiting the Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). In the afternoon, we headed back to the spa to sooth our aching muscles, our legs noticeably more bruised from the time before. That evening, we descended – en masse – to a local restaurant for a three course dinner (including the best lamb shank I have ever tasted!) and the awards ceremony.

Swim Count = 0

 

Saturday – Return journey

After crossing the border to Italy to drop Kathryn (the newly-crowned ‘Newbie of the Trip’) off at a train station followed by a cheeky cappuccino, it was time to hit the road again for Calais. The long drive offered plenty of time for reflection; the trip had been amazing in all respects, and I was a far better – and more confident – paddler that I was the week before. We “newbies” were now “intermediates”, and had the T-shirts to prove it!

Total Swim Count = 9

P.S. A big thank you to Gemma and Sean for organising everything, and to Liza and Tokie for being great (even if at times neglectful!) house parents.

Images by Tommo, Marcel & Sean