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French Alps 2018

Day 1: This is a picture of me and Mamba Gascoigne doing... well, bugger all really, but how gorgeous is it?! First day, and we did the lower Guil and the Sunshine Run on the Durance. The river wasn’t challenging, the water was so blue, and the mountains were absolutely spectacular. Oh, and the temperature was at least 30°! Amazing day, frankly. Might give the shortie cag a shot tomorrow...


Days 2 and 3: (two for the price of one!) Yesterday we went to the Upper and Lower Clarée. I skipped the Upper and did the Lower. The Lower Clarée was pretty trees-y, and honestly, a bit dull, but I took two important things from it. The first was skills based - it's a twisty river, so I really needed to extend my line of vision and set my angle carefully, because although there were few features, the water was swift and the risk of entanglement quite present. The second thing was about not being lazy. I think you're absolutely fine to skip a trip if you're not 'feeling it'. However, I wasn't particularly off form, and I regretted not going for the Upper afterwards, particularly as I watched a party of kids ducky-styling it while I was getting eaten alive by mosquitos at the get-in. C'est la vie, as the French probably say less often than us.

Today we did the Upper Guisane, then the Briançon Gorge. Just like the first day, the sun was blazing, the river was blue, and the scenery as extraordinary. The Upper Guisane was a step up from the previous days, lots of continuous grade 3 with one fairly long 3+, and it was definitely within my capabilities. I keep thinking back to Italy (I went on an ‘Intro’ to Creeking course in June which turned out to be completely full-on because of massive water levels), and the coach Jakub saying 'On Alpine water, you need to keep moving - it almost doesn't matter where you go as long as you keep moving your boat. No lazy British floating.' Only half our group did the Briançon in the afternoon, and I was really pleased at myself for having the energy and concentration to deal with the speed and rocks - 4km in 30mins including a portage (there's a supposed 'canoe slide', but it was pretty darn rocky underneath and no-one was keen to trash their boat).

Chilled beer and bbq now, and hopefully a good sleep before tomorrow.


Days 4 and 5: we've fitted a lot in! On Thursday we did the Upper Durance and part of the Lower Guisane. Day four of this type of trip usually comes with warning light for me because, basically, I'm not very fit, and four days in I'm physically knackered. Was acutely aware of my lazy paddling in the morning (the easier stretch of river). Then, in the afternoon, three of us met another part of the group partway down the Lower Guisane. True to form, I had a mini swim, but it was an out-and-in within 10mins job, including scrambling along the bank and boat emptying. I think one unexpected consequence of kayaking (maybe not for everyone but definitely for me) is that you get to know your body really well - what you can realistically expect from it, and when it performs best. Anyway, for me, physically, I'm wasted after four days, and I'm generally useless after 3pm. Came home and SLEPT - massive sleep before dinner, then a solid sleep after 📷:D

Friday: Upper Ubaye in the morning, Ubaye Racecourse in the afternoon. We set off early because it's comparatively far away, and the drive was freaking stunning, over a twisting mountain road, dodging road bikers, with spectacular views high over the Alps. The Upper Ubaye is about 12km long, not terribly demanding, and very much the character that most rivers seem to be out here: blue, shallow and swift. Shallow is a new one on me: it's not dog low, but there rarely seems to be a time when you couldn't put your paddle on the bottom if you really wanted. Also, the eddies are generally very small, and rarely 'real' eddies - you need to find something to grab or you're off again. Both of these things make practicing rolling awkward, and make it a lot more desirable just to stay upright. Afternoon, Ubaye Racecourse. I was a little reticent about this, as it's the hardest piece of water I'd tried and by this time it was 4pm, but after my mahoosive sleep I gave it a shot anyway, and it was just fantastic. Completely backtracking on what I just said a minute ago, this water is unusual up here in that it's higher volume, which is what I feel more comfortable on tbh - big holes, but long, defined V's that you can pick out from a good way back, and plenty of time to slide your way around them. Nothing here yet has terrified me in the way that Italy did, but I'm not sure if that's just the blazing sunshine, lowering everything by a grade?! I'm certainly... pinker than I should be.

Proper easy day tomorrow - three more people joining our group, so maybe an easy paddle, maybe just dicking about in Briançon. Looking forward to finding some ice cream.


Day 6: Did not a damn thing. I'm on holiday!!


Days 7 and 8. Last time I had a course with George Fell, he told me I paddled like someone who'd bumped into a lot of rocks. Although I'd like to be someone who *hadn't* bumped into a lot of rocks, it's probably my favourite backhanded compliment. I've been thinking a lot about rocks out here. They're generally my downfall. In fact, I think 95% of the times I capsize, one of those buggers is involved. The Gironde, which we did yesterday, is full of them. I did fine (well, I've paddled into a lot of rocks), but it made me think there might be ways of grading your progress as a paddler according to rocks. At first, you don't notice them, and when you hit them you fall in. Then you notice some, but often fall in when you hit them. Then you notice most of them, and can usually avoid or deal with them, but still get blindsighted and screw it up. After that you notice most rocks, and can generally deal with them. Finally, you actively seek out rocks, and use them to your advantage (or to show off). I still get blindsighted on a regular basis, but I'm managing better to deal with them. Incidentally, we went to look at the Gyr after the Gironde, and it was full of trees, so bit of a short day.

Today lovely Matt Haydock and his pal joined us, and it was yet another scorcher - I'm going to hate leaving here and not paddling in the sunshine every day. The Upper Guil was fine - a bit more to it than I'd anticipated (guidebook: tldr), and tbh I was pretty darn chuffed with myself, because I capsized in the middle of a rapid after not making a quick enough decision on whether to go left or right round a rock (what did I SAY?!) but, astonishingly, managed to roll up and keep going. I was all set to do Chateau Q (a 1km continuous rapid in a narrow, sheer sided gorge) afterwards - had been since yesterday, but then... at the last minute I bailed out. Partly I *was* a bit tired, but honestly? If you're anything like me, you have paddling pals who are a bit like a comfort blanket. Out of your group, there are the excellent paddlers, who you know will do "the thing" without issue; and the gung-ho ones who will probably do it without issue - and they don't influence my decisions one iota. The ones who DO influence me are the "sensible" ones who are better than me, and the ones I think are at the same level as me. I was fairly sure that if I'd swum there wouldn't have been any real consequence - a swift, wet k or so, but honestly, I've had worse. However, because none of my comfort blanket paddlers were doing it, I copped out. And that's right back to my Upper Clarée day. I wasn't really feeling scared (which I think is a viable reason), I was just giving myself an easy ride. I should just have done it. Hey ho. Need bigger ovaries next time. Notwithstanding, lovely day. Drove back via Col D'Izoard, which had the most amazing views. Whatsapped a pic to my other half, who immediately trumped me with a video of his brother, who'd just summited Mont Blanc. Arse.


Days 9 and 10. On Tuesday we went to the Middle Guil, which is one of the classics out here: approximately 13km of swift blue water running through a gorge, but with plenty of space for scouting. I paddled not badly at all. I had a 'moment' with a large hole, where I *just* about got past it, didn't, sculled sideways for a sec then capsized, but then managed to roll and get out. Now, I know for "good" paddlers, a capsize full stop is a failure, but honestly, it took me so damn long to get my roll, I feel a total sense of victory any time I don't swim. However, the bit I felt most chuffed about was a really small thing, a tiny combination of moves and reactions that I was over the moon about actually pulling off. Scooting down the river, I could see a big tall rock on my left, with a pillow wave on its right. When I got there, I mirrored my boat edge to the water and paddled on the right, which was one of the things we'd spent a fair bit of time talking about in Italy. However, I hadn't realised that the water did an immediate S after this, with a big pillow wave coming off the left of another big tall rock on the right. I managed to reverse my edge and paddle immediately to the other side and slide straight down the v, and it was smooth as butter - like magic. Not a big thing, over and done with in a second, and I doubt anyone witnessed it, but *I* know I did it and that's good enough for me. Unfortunately, not long after this, one of the group had an injury, and we all had a bit of an early exit. It'll be there to finish another day 📷:-)


Day 10: Yeah, so you know what I said a few posts ago about kayaking forcing you to get to know your body? This really comes into play every 28 days. Went to the Romanche, my head was all over the place and I had zero energy. Had another non-event swim, my boat loped off downriver, and I stumbled about for ages trying to find a way back to the water through loads of rose bushes, and eventually thought f*ck this. I'm a podgy 40yr old, not a ninja, and called it a day. If you're a sporting woman or you know one (and if you're reading this I'd be surprised if you didn't fall into either category) I heartily recommend watching the attached video. It's about losing weight, so it's not all relevant, but the main bit comes between 2:45 and 6:30, and it was a total revelation the first time I watched it. Not sure what the next two days will hold but I suspect less full-on kayaking, and more dossing about in the sunshine. And I am absolutely fine with that. https://www.facebook.com/JamesSmithPT/videos/1188042974633983


Day 11: Had a break from kayaking today, and tried out climbing. This has nothing to do with boating except that I wore my kayaking boots and helmet 📷:D


Day 12: Our last day. Went on the 'luge' in the morning, which basically amounts to strapping yourself to a plastic chair on rails and careering down a mountain. Was so much fun we did it twice. In the afternoon, we went to the Lower Guisane. I don't mind admitting that this was the first trip I'd been properly nervous about, for a multitude of reasons: it's the trip that had been built up in my mind as the hardest piece of water anyone on the trip had done: shallow, shadowed and fast, with that horrible tag 'technical'. It was short, though, about 35mins, and I really weighed that up in my mind. I figured I probably had the ability, but whether I was able to keep up the energy for a sustained period was the real crux. However, I figured the day before had been as good a rest as any, and with my Upper Clarée and Chateau Q regrets, plus the fact it was my last day, I decided to go for it. I also had a little cheat: a Berocca in the morning, and a gel sachet left over from my time working at the Bike Co-op, which I necked just before I got on the river. I repeated over and over, 'Paddle hard. Keep moving. Boss the rocks.' Then a wee voice came from somewhere else in my head: 'DO it. For the podgy 40yr old women.' The first bit was fine, nothing crazy beyond my capabilities, although I could tell from the boys’ reactions that after we portaged the weir it was going to get harder. And it did. Big fecking rocks that you simply catapulted at, with sneaky lines and complicated looking holes, followed by more, and more, and more. There were a few eddies on the way down, and I swear to God I nearly died in each of them, grasping for breath like an emphysemic walrus - it only dawned on me later that i'd been holding my breath the entire way apart from yelps of panic/relief. And then... it was over. No capsizes. Not even any near misses. And we paddled down the rest of the Guisane, then on down the Durance, and it was hot and blue and sunny again.


Maybe the best holiday I've ever had.




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Edinburgh Kayak Club 2017