Tuesday, July 09, 2013

2013: An Alpine Odyssey

This is how it feels
I've been meaning to write this up for a couple of weeks but hadn't got round to it. In all the hubbub since I got back, I've been gradually filtering through some of the stuff that I worked on and trying to process all the learning in amongst the fun. A bit like my camera taking a long time to process a long-exposure shot, it's taken me a while.

So, I went out to the Alps for a couple of weeks. It's not only the first time I had a 'holiday' holiday (as opposed to a working-on-events holiday) in a good few years, it's the first time I'd been away for a prolonged bout of boating in even longer. We headed out for the first two weeks in June, which also meant that, because of event work over most weekends, it was the first time I'd been in a boat in a couple of months. Plus, I was paddling with a bunch of (as I've phrased it before) 'gung-ho kiddies' all a good ten years my junior. Yes, I'm the old man of the group. But hey, it didn't cost anything to put me on the car insurance, did it? Age has its advantages...

I'm not going to go into the usual minute detail of each day and river, those are down in my river log and I've already picked them apart to see what I can learn. But some bits really stick out, at least to me!

The first day was nerve-wracking for me. While Oli, Tom and Simon had had a quick play on the Slalom course next to the campsite on the Saturday evening, Tash, Will and I were all pretty shot-at after the full day drive down from Calais so we'd left it. Sunday morning I had to keep reminding myself that the first run doesn't count, I was that shaky. Alpine rivers are fast, I knew that. Maybe it was the speed, the time off, etc etc. But I was excreting sizeable chunks of masonry either way. It took a while to adjust, but I started getting there - less moments of having my weight on the back of the boat, more controlled carving, faster ferries etc. Nothing revolutionary, but bit-by-bit improvements. All pretty good so far.

We'd talked as a group about what kind of stuff we were going to run, and the 'classics' were definitely on the register. A lot of grad 3/3+, though in comparison to the usual UK grade 3 that's a pretty meaningless number, few grade 3s in the UK have that much volume of water firing down them. The Lower Guil (Mont Dauphine Gorge) was a lovely cruising river, the Sunshine Run on the Durance was a great fun, if gentle, run with the sting in the tail - the Rabioux wave - that caught Tash out. I couldn't have been happier to make it through that one the right way up, knowing my roll was still a bit shaky.

We had a few moments of clashing and confusion on the Guisane - after spending an hour cutting a fallen tree out of it - when the whole 'eddy-hop' concept bypassed a couple of people - but it was a good run anyway. I portaged the S-Bend section, it looked like a lot of pinning potential for not a lot of gain. Though Oli and Will ran it and enjoyed it, my head wasn't there for it, and the walk-round was fine. The Gyronde had me going for every tiny micro-eddy and jet-cross with a massive grin on my face - what all those nights on the Washburn were training for, it seems. After we'd paddled down the lower-volume rock-dodge, the confluence with the Durance and the extra volume coming down the Slalom course was a wake-up call in itself. Lots of work on active blades and paddling aggressively needed to keep the boat running forward and the nose down. The group order had just kind of worked itself out - Tom led, usually Will seconding, Tash and Simon in the middle, then Oli or I bringing up the rear. Everyone seemed happy with that arrangement, and it worked well.

I took Wednesday off - tired old bones, I'm afraid - on the Wednesday and drove shuttle while watching the others run the Upper Guil. I guess that was the day where the group dynamic became visible to me, as I watched it from high up on the gorge wall, looking down at what looked like it could be a tricky, sticky little drop and seeing the guys come down, inspect, set up safety, probe, then run down as an amazingly well organised group. I felt proud, though I'd done little to influence any of it. Maybe it's just the 'being old' thing, feeling happy when the little'uns do a good job. Who knows.

Beth, Jamie and Rhi joined us on the Thursday night, along with Sarah, who's coming to Leeds Uni next year. They offered to run some slightly pushier stuff with us, so the next day we set off for the Briancon Gorge. I'd love to say that this was an awesome hit with me, but in the immediate aftermath it wasn't: It had pushed me, hard. I ran a lot of it right on the outer edge of my confidence and control, sometime a bit too reactively. I came out unscathed, no rolls, no swims, but it had pushed me right to the departure lounge of the comfort zone. Stood in the get-out layby I admitted as much, and felt a touch of relief flood over me, but also a wave of contentment: That was hard, but I did well, let's take from this what we can and keep learning.

Beard wins race.
We headed to the Onde after that, which honestly I don't remember too much of. It was a good run, I'm fairly sure, but tree hazards leading to a walk-off kind of marred it. Such is early-season Alpine boating I'm told. Saturday's run of the lower Claree was the much the same, fun but ended with a walk-off. Somewhere amongst this we did an Inflata-Cross race, paddling rubber rings, kids dinghies and a paddling pool down the Slalom course, which somehow I won, with a bunch of beers as a prize. Another day we drove over to the Souloise, Drac Blanc and Severaisse. I didn't paddle for head and body reasons: it was cold, I was tired and mentally not with it. I half wish I had, but wouldn't have wanted to be a liability and wasn't feeling right.

The second week we started by heading back to some of the runs we'd done already, things we'd enjoyed and, since the levels were coming up a fair bit with the warm weather. A second run of the Gyronde (just in case there was a tiny micro-eddy I'd happened to miss somewhere) was a cracker, including boofing the weir we'd had to portage on the first go. The second run of the Upper Guisane was my kind of 'Bingo!' moment, nailing the S-Bend just perfectly, hitting a nice flare/boof at the bottom. I'd been hesitant at the top - though the extra water meant less of a pinning problem and it looked a lot nicer - but following Tom into the steep lead-in ramp, getting the first two or three moves out of the way, and then the instinct kicks in and everything just flowed, down to that bottom move, time the stroke just right and we're through. The words don't really express the feelings, but take my word for it, it felt awesome.

The Wednesday was another 'revisit something with a shedload more water in it'. Back to the Briancon gorge. Hmmm. The mindgames started running again: It had pushed me first time round, what would it be like with more water? I was on the edge of control last time, is it too much now? It took some fighting, mentally, but I got on, promptly missed the first eddy (as I had done last time round) and thought "oh Christ, here we go again..." How wrong I was.

Second time round it was an absolute blast. We ran as two groups of 4, and both groups went for the 'minimal eddy hop' option. The slide round the weir was good fun for a little kick of airtime, the landing a lot less bony than our first run. The crux section, where the river steepens and drops around a blind left-hand bend came up quickly, Oli skipped the eddy just above the curve and left me sitting higher up, on my own. Oh well, now for that gut check, then, I guess. I set off down, just trying to drive the boat through the waves and rocks, set up for the turn and the drops, and carve into the eddy at the bottom grinning like a crazy loon. Well worth getting on, well happy with the day, with a tangible feeling of progression. Not often you get that when your paddling days are weeks apart.

We had a rest day on the Thursday and went to do some bits of Via Ferrata and climbing at the crag below the clock tower in Argentiere. Climbing when it's 30+ degrees is a little silly. We spent the rest of the afternoon throwing fluids down our necks desperately trying to fight the dehydration. Still managed to do the small VF and second a couple of excellent shortish 5a graded climbs. But the initial plan to go do a bigger Via Ferrata in the Durance gorge was thwarted, just too damn hot. I did get on the Slalom course to work on some rolling in the current, though, thinking sticking my head into the raging waters of the Durance might help cool me down. It definitely did, and I got in my only rolls of the holiday. Since they were deliberate, they definitely don't count.

Friday was the last day, and the Ubaye was on the hitlist. The levels had been chugging up slowly all week and were headed off the charts, so we headed to the Upper and got on for a big, bouncy, massively high blast down to Jausiers. It turned out to be the grand finale of the week as the Racecourse section was far too high for any margin of safety, but all of us walked away from it with a big smile and pretty satisfied that we'd had an awesome fortnight.

For me, the whole thing was a big confidence boost, a new appreciation of just how good and how pushy some grade 3/3+ paddling can be, and a real boost on both a practical and a psychological level. Hopefully I can keep working on things over the summer, whether that's at the Washburn, Teesside, Tryweryn or, if it ever rains, on some real river. I know there's still plenty to play with, and there's still my 3 aims to work towards. And come the Autumn, there'll be a new bunch of freshers to work with and plenty of paddling opportunities to look for. For now, it's all good...