Alps – a raft report

ghost castleChateau Queyras is a beautiful gorge snaking around a castle hill. Its a special place, which can only really be seen from a boat, or by negotiating the via ferrata (wired climbing route). Based on my excellent head for heights (er, not), and rather “plateaud” kayak abilities, I’m pretty much never going to be able to see it… except that, as luck would have it, a mad raft company called Queyraft run a trip through Chateau Queyras Gorge and Guardian Angel gorge and Triple step! (Pics Helen and Sara)

ghost castleCQcastle

rafting

Swallows and Amazons

The starting section of rapids under the bridge is interesting and already pushy. In these top 100 yards under the bridge, we are quickly noticing the differences between kayaking and rafting – the best line for the raft can differ somewhat from the best line for a kayak, which feels odd. There is also often a need to slow down relative to the flow when going over drops, which takes some getting used to. And being under someone else’s instruction, rather than a free agent, is a new feeling – odd not to be in charge of your own fate, but quite comforting that Vincent, our captain, knows what he’s doing.

Despite these new things to concentrate on, its really important to look around, because the scenery is fantastic, the raft being swallowed up immediately into the steep gorge of CQ.

Vincent Lhôte has been running raft adventures on the Geil, Ubaye and other rivers of the region for some 20 years, and he shows no signs of being bored of it yet. He’s rafted all over the world, but this gorge, with its technical nature, remains favourite and challanging.

Vincent continually gives instructions for steering, or eddying, from time-to-time with some urgency: Sometimes this is because there is a must-make-line. Other times, its because he wants to get to an exact spot where he can show us a swallows’ nest tucked into the gorge wall, just above the waterline.

We eddy-out several times through the gorge, follow instructions for some nifty menoevering, and with a buffeting ride over drops and between closed-in walls, we are gasping by the time we reach the end of the section. Note to self: Remember to breathe.

“Breathe in” and “Banzai”

And later on, not just breathe, but also breath in. After not much let-up and we are already into the second gorge section, Guardian Angel. There are some parts which are narrow in the extreme, at least one place where the gap is smaller than the raft. So, lining up at the right speed to tip sideways just enough (and no more) is quite … interesting. We also learn a new word, which is “BANZAI!”

“Banzai!” means “Dive down into the bottom of the raft and feel very, very mortal.”

Millenium rapid and Triple Step

Pre-2000, the rapid upstream of Triple step contained a terrible syphon, with almost all water going under a bungalow-sized rock, making the rapid absolutely unrunnable. The huge floods of 2000 changed all that, somehow shifting this rock down and round, so that there is no longer a syphon – “just” a huge, swooshing corkscrew of water shooting past and down. Banzai, anyone? Yes, thanks, I’ll take two.

At most places on this trip, the water feels “unstoppable,” mainly because it is, er, unstoppable. And the curving path from Millenium down to Triple step is a perfect study in can-we-stop-here-I might-want-to-get-off? No. You can not get off. Follow the instructions, back paddle exactly to line up ready, and maybe you’ll survive the total submersion, then total fear, then total submersion again, then total fear, was that two drops? Yes, two, so now we’re still due a……. oh look, there’s that huge curtain of water with a frightening undercut, how exciting …. total submersion.  Quite suddenly we’re through, floating, and eddying out river left into a conveniently-placed pool of spent adrenaline.

Fantastic trip!

Logistics

Queyraft, run by Vincent Lhôte, has a hut directly opposite the river-steps at Chateau Queyras, at the get-out for the Upper Geil. There is plenty of parking alongside the river.

We just chanced it and turned up, and fortunately, after a while, Vincent turned up with some other punters and we were able to book for later in the day. However, the hut is not always manned, and they do get busy, so its much better to ring in advance to book. Bear in mind that its better to ring early-morning, before trips have started – later on, everyone may be on the river.

The rafts were specially made for the CQ run – they are smaller than usual, to be able to fit down the narrow gorge, and for menoevreability. Each raft seats a maximum of 6 punters + guide.

Vincent and his raft guides speak French, English and Paddlish.

The paddling moves that need to be made are most often steering adjustments (one side drawstrokes, while the opposite back position does forward strokes), and back paddling on one side or both. It makes a difference whether all positions work together.

For an easier trip, e.g. for non-paddlers the Upper Geil section is maybe a better choice – runs from the same centre.

The trip described and pictured here is for the section – Chateau Queyras + Guardian Angel + Triple step run in one go. It demands actual participation by the punters working as a team, under instruction from the guide. For this reason, depending on prevailing conditions, the guides may well restrict this trip to those with paddling experience of some kind.  Guardian Angel contains one portage – a syphon on river right must be portaged on river left. The get-out for this portage is a reasonable-sized eddy, and its easy to clamber the 15 yards or so over the rocks to the next get-in. There are no other portages.

An alternative trip, again, restricted to conditions of less than 75 on the guage, is the  Middle Geil, including the Staircase rapid.

Each trip costs in the region of 35-40 euros per person, depending on how many people in the raft (up to 6). So that is cheaper than rafting in the UK. Oh, and a lot more interesting to paddle a spectacularly technical rapid in Alpine sunshine.

On Thursday, Helen, Dom, Kev, Bob and Wigan Andy did the trip. The following day, 12 more folk took two rafts, in rather higher and even more exciting conditions.

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