I’m out in the Alps with a bunch of paddling friends. It’s the holiday I’ve been working towards for the last few months, fighting my fears and getting back to kayaking in a big way. During the run up to the holiday I’ve been too busy to get very nervous about it, thinking more about making sure I have everything I need (including a slightly expensive shopping trip for some new shiny kit!). I decided before we left, I’ve done all I can do to prepare, paddled as much as I could and pushed myself as far as I dared. I had been assured before I left that I was plenty capable of running a lot of the rivers out here, and I was determined that I wouldn’t do anything I didn’t FEEL capable of. Often our perceptions of our capability and our confidence in any given area, will differ from our actual capability. In my case I feel less confident and capable than I’m told that I look; better in my opinion than being over confident and ending up in dangerous situations.
The travel over here was a long trip. We set out at 6am on Friday morning, we had a Ferry, a mishap in directions for 2 of the 3 drivers as we arrived in France, an overnight stop at a little road side ‘motel’ and lot of driving in between, to arrive around 3pm Saturday afternoon. The chalet is not what I had imagined from the descriptions given to me before we came out, but over the few days being here it’s started to feel like the home away from home I’ve been told about.
On arrival in Briancon, we stopped at the house to drop off a few pieces of kit to lighten the cars, and went straight out again to get the first paddle of the holiday under our belt. I had thought I might be too tired to paddle on the first day, but after all that driving it seemed daft to pass up on the first short jaunt, that I was assured was very tame and a really ‘easy’ introduction to alpine water. The get on was also only 5 minutes down the road from the house so if I changed my mind last minute, I wasn’t far from ‘home’.
The run was on the Durance River from Briancon to Prelles. It’s only been a few days and my recollection is already a little hazy. Having not paddled for 2 weeks (being too busy and stuck with work to get out on the river) I was a little shaky about getting on to some fast-moving water with small eddies. The group I’m paddling with have some experienced leaders though, and they arranged for myself and Sam to get on last with Keith and just get going rather than having to worry about catching an eddy straight away. Sam is a more experienced paddler than me (and has lead me at times) but her nerves sometimes get the better of her, and with the long travel she wasn’t feeling her best just yet.
I can’t tell you much about the run, I know I did a fair amount of swearing, I was tired and feeling wobbly, the waves and the speed of the water was quite daunting and I was concentrating so hard I didn’t take in any of the scenery. At the get out Keith commented that in the ‘section under the green bridge’ I’d picked a really good line and done very well (he had let someone else lead me by this point). I returned, ‘The green bridge?’, ‘Well it was a bit faded but kind of green…’, ‘I wasn’t disputing the colour of the bridge, but the existence of any bridges!!’. I had been focussing so hard and had such tunnel vision from the adrenaline and fear factor, that I had missed that we had gone under several bridges on the way through!!!
Chucky had stayed back at the house to deal with ‘checking in’ with the house keeper, and done our first night’s cooking so we came straight back to food and drink. A chilled out evening and a few of us staying up in to the night, as the adrenaline of getting on to the alps water had given us a ‘second wind’ and we no longer felt so tried.
On Sunday it was a trip down to do ‘The Sun Run’ as is tradition in this trip (the trip has been running for about 6 years already, although this is my first time joining). We had organised to begin on the Lower Guil, then join the Durance to do the Sun Run down to Rabioux Wave. I was again feeling a little wobbly to start and as we hit some bigger wave trains I took the advice I had been given in the past, and started to sing. The singing lightens your mood and takes your mind a little off the problems you are creating in your mind. I have no idea why, but at that moment the first song that came to mind was ‘Do your boobs hang low’. The most daft song and I’ve no idea where it came from, but it worked. I made it through some big wave trains and reduced the swearing and panicking too!! Keith and I had already decided that although we could stay in the same group to paddle, we would keep a paddler or two between us. This also helped as I’m less inclined to transfer blame for my panic to another person, when they aren’t so close to me (the dynamics of partners coaching and working together is one for a psychologist to explain, I just know that it makes a difference. You may well have noticed this with activities of your own, you may get more frustrated or nervous with family members or close friends around).
Where the two rivers joined was the first challenge for me, that I have not experienced before (aside from the sheer size of the waves and speed of the water, and river running in general being a very new experience too!). Gregg gave me a little advice on this on the second river joining, and well, I was just pleased to make it through while still upright in my boat. I decided to portage at the St Clements slalom course as my leg was dead and my back was hurting. Today was not my day to go through this, and although I was frustrated at myself, it felt like the right choice at the time.
The next challenge was Rab Wave which was the last feature before the get out. Had I decided it was too much, it was simple to portage and just get out for lunch, but I decided I may as well try. If had messed up and had a swim, I would be straight out and drying while we had lunch anyway. Much like my first ever short run at the Tryweryn, it looked big and intimidating, I was shaking and unsure but I decided to go ahead anyway (with a lead of course). Surprisingly I had no tears or big breakdown, we had a quick look at the wave and I just made a snap decision to try. The run in was big and bouncy, again I can’t even remember who I was following at this point, but I made it through the wave. We took a slight right-hand line to avoid the stopper and the messy part of the wave, but still a ginormous step up from anything I’ve done before.
The group split up then and the ‘big boys’ went on to the Onde and the others went to ‘Le Lac’ (the Lake) for a swim and sit in the sunshine.
Monday - We had decided to make the trip over to the Guisane. This is a much colder river due to the source of the water being closer to snow melt than the other rivers where we had joined them. Luckily for me the weather was also a little overcast and that made my decision to use my dry suit a more favourable one. Sam was shaking here before we had even kitted up. Last year she had had a nasty swim on the river and, as with anyone, her mind was of course re-living the experience even though she is more accomplished now than she was then. I tried to reassure her as I reassured myself, that all would be well.
Unfortunately this was not so… Getting on the river was a little more difficult as eddies at the get on were few and far between and could barely hold one boat. But with a little organisation and the groups staying as yesterday this was quickly sorted and we were away. I started up my singing fairly quickly, the same song being stuck in my head, but then within a few minutes Sam had a momentary panic as she drifted towards a tree in the middle of the river, and ended up hanging on to it. We were still quite bunched up together so Gregg had little time to react and went straight in to her. I just managed to get past them and made an excellent eddy on the left side of the river opposite Chucky who had stopped when he heard a commotion behind him. Chucky came across to me and got me safely on to the beach area so I was safe, at the same time as Keith got an eddy on the bank near Sam. Keith and Chucky were then quickly into rescuing Sam from her predicament, Gregg managed to push away and join me in the eddy but Sam had unfortunately dropped her paddle which had disappeared off downstream. Sam calmed down quickly and was all ready to get back on the river but unfortunately her paddles were gone and we couldn’t find them.
This made me a little unsettled, as my comfort blanket (Sam) was no longer on the river with me. However, with Chucky leading and Gregg between him and me I quickly settled and focussed. We rejoined the remainder of the group at the group of features known as ‘S-Bend’. This is a grade 4 section which Gregg, Dean and I decided to portage (get out and walk!), while the other more experienced lot ran through. It was a big step up for me on the whole river. There were some big wave trains and some technicalities to the run (avoiding rocks = technical!) and I was doing well and not feeling entirely terrified the whole time. I even looked up a couple of times to look at the scenery and considered a play in a tiny feature (although I decided not to tempt fate). There were no Type 2 fun moments although I wouldn’t say it quite got to Type 1.
For those who don’t know Type 1 fun is where it’s all fun and enjoyable while you are doing whatever it is you are doing. Type 2 fun is where it is scary/terrifying at the time, but is fun on reflection and you are glad that you did it despite the fear.
In the afternoon the big boys went off again to find something more challenging and a small group went out to find a Via Ferrata. These are climbs in the mountains that have big metal staples in the rock and a wire to clip in to. You have a special ‘cow tail’ to clip on to the climbing harness which has two clips so, where the wires are bolted to the rock you go past this without ever being unclipped. Today was not our day though as some ominous weather had made it’s way down the valley we were looking to climb in, it is unsafe to be clipped on to the metal wires when there is a storm, so we headed back to the house.
TBC..... Part two here
TBC..... Part two here