The first time you break out into alpine whitewater is like taking the wheel of a sports car when previously you have only driven family hatchbacks; it is still essentially driving but wow, there is now so much more power to play with! The pressure of a large volume of impatient meltwater in its rush down the valley can at first be a little unnerving but when you get used to it you’ll want to come back time and time again for the sensation…
The French Alps is not just a classic paddling destination, in many ways it is a rite of passage for UK whitewater boaters developing their skills. Once you have spent a winter or two testing yourself against some of the home nation’s best rivers you are ready to fill a car to the brim with friends, paddling kit, camping gear, balance as many boats on the roof as possible and head across the channel. It is a long drive but you arrive to find a near perfect whitewater playground and although there is a lot of focus on the more difficult rapids, it is also a great place for intermediates to sharpen their skills on higher volume rivers in the sunshine.
This article does not intend to duplicate or replace the great guidebooks available for the area which will give you detailed accounts of each river section. Instead I aim to draw upon ten summers of whitewater boating in the French Alps to give you some tips on how to make your first trip to the area fabulous.
So, how do we do this?
When to go? The paddling season generally runs from late May when the rivers are high and quite a challenge to early August when the volume has eased off and the rivers are much easier propositions. But within this scale two changeable factors come into play; how much snow was there over winter, and how warm has spring been? Lots of snow over winter and/or a cool spring and the season shifts right, the opposite and the rivers get low early. I personally like to head out in late June or early July to hedge my bets, where although the exact levels will vary, all of my favourite sections should be running.
Where to stay? I have almost always camped on French Alps trips and base myself mostly in the Durance valley between Briançon and Guillestre. This leaves you well placed for a good number of fabulous local rivers within a 30min drive and most of the best runs in the region within a 90min drive. There are several great campsites, one right opposite the slalom course at L’Argentiere, and the summer weather is perfect for camping. However, there are plenty of alternatives ranging from staying at a “gîte d’étape”, which is quite similar to a hostel, or more popularly, renting a chalet which is often surprisingly cheap in June and early July. Beware that the French tend to holiday en masse from mid July to late August so if you are visiting in this window prepare to pay slightly more and book in advance.
What kit to take? Whatever boat you use for running rivers in the UK should be your boat for the Alps. If that happens to be a playboat then fine, but be sure that the group are happy with your limited capacity to carry gear and take part in rescues and that your skills in the boat match the grade of river. When it comes to kitting up, the contrast between the air temperature and the water temperature creates dilemmas. My perspective is that swims are generally very short and you warm back up quickly in the sun, whereas, spending hours boiling in a drysuit is uncomfortable and dehydrating, so I encourage my groups to dress for the paddle. Besides, if you are swimming that often perhaps you are on the wrong river?
You are my favourite…
There are so many river sections, covering all grades and types, and the White Water South Alps guidebook is essential reading. I simply mention here a few of my favourites to give you some ideas…
Briançon Gorge – A lot of the gorges are Grade 4/5 intimidating affairs, but this one is fun from start to end. Almost the perfect alpine continuous grade 3, this is short and sweet and, with an equally short shuttle, it is not unusual to run it a couple of times back to back. I have fond memories of a high water impromptu boater-x race down it with friends!
Lower Guisane – The Guisane is a great river but the very best section is the lower. Getting in just above Le Post Carle and running down to Briançon is fast, continuous Grade 4 and a real test for your skills; this is not a river for just getting away with it, you need to be in control and have a confident roll. But, have a good run and you’ll finish with a beaming smile.
Ubaye Racecourse – A great gateway section for those wanting to try a bit of alpine Grade 4, this is a wonderful day out on a river that has a bit of everything. I would say it is mostly Grade 3/3+ but has a couple of notable Grade 4 rapids to add spice, a few play spots and a spectacular gorge towards the end.
Middle Guil – This is a top contender for what the perfect local run would look like. A fun day out if done in its entirety, or a great end of day blast run from ‘Le Tunnel’ down. Rarely dropping below Grade 3 and Grade 4+ in places, it is a wonderful alpine test piece and for a skilled paddler it will be a highlight of any trip.
Isere – I mention this even though it is not close to the Durance valley because it gives you options. It is a lot further north (3 hours or so via a spectacular drive), so means moving to a new campsite. However, it is dam released throughout the summer so guaranteed water, the slalom course at Bourg Saint Maurice is testing and the paddle down to Centron is super fun! I often use it as an end to a trip, especially if the Durance Valley water levels are dropping off.
You got skills?
Clearly, this article is aimed at people who would already class themselves as pretty competent paddlers (I would not recommend going out to the Alps without a coach if you are not) but there are a few points worth making about the paddling style on these bigger rivers.
Get deep into eddies… This British habit of spinning on the eddy line, born out of the fact so many of our eddies are small, works against you in the Alps where eddy lines are wide and/or powerful. Try to cross the eddy line and continue deep into the eddy, using either the right combination of angle and glide speed or employing a stern squeeze to control your spin angle.
Run the river ‘Alpine Style’… The water speed is swift in the Alps and quite often this means river sections cover big distances. So get out of the habit of stopping in every eddy you see and let the boat run, resting in the flow between rapids. Of course, I’m not suggesting you run into things blind, so if you cannot see the line then slow things right down, but building confidence to read and run more often will make for fun days covering multiple sections.
Think rescues through… If somebody takes a dip it is important to have a plan of action as once a flooded boat gets up a head of steam on an alpine river it can be difficult to stop. Know the skillsets of your group and plan how you will deal with incidents, especially if not everybody in the group has a solid roll. And, if that is the case, and nobody in your group is confident of chase boating on the river you plan to run, then you might need a new plan…
A little something extra…
Finally, I would remind you that sitting in a kayak isn’t the only way to have fun in the Alps. It is an outdoor adventure playground and pretty much any sport you want to pursue will be available to you, from paragliding to rock climbing, alpine mountaineering to lift assisted mountain biking. So, if you enjoy a bit of variety, see if you can squeeze a bit of extra kit in the car for some off the water activity too!