I’ll cut straight to the chase with the video you probably want to see, full description below but this is probably the worst possible way to run Chateau Q whilst remaining upright…
One morning of the Regents Canoe Club trip to the Alps at the end of June the majority of the group ran the Guil Gorge. This was a fun section of grade 3 white water through a gorge that feels pretty committing and has a few blind corners that are hard to see around as you paddle down. I’ve got some video footage of that run, but I’m haven’t managed to finish editing it yet.
After we got to the bottom of the section we came to the famous Chateau Queyras, a great chateau above a gorge. This is where everyone got out and had a bite to eat and swapped stories of their excitement of the Guil Gorge. Three of us, Raph, Ryan and myself, decided we were going to run down the very narrow grade 4 section of white water around the chateau, nicknamed Chateau Q.
We had a brief look at the section before we got on, but it’s hard to see all of it and impossible to get any kind of scale as to how big it is. We discussed that at some point before the crux of the rapids you had to turn left a bit. Honestly, I didn’t really understand this at the time but decided that I’d probably figure it out on the way down – in hindsight this may have been a mistake! I’d hoped to run the section in my playboat, but unfortunately there wasn’t space on the car that day so I’d have to take my bigger river-running boat. The problem with a longer boat is that the gorge is narrow, I mean, really narrow. In fact, it’s narrower than my bigger boat is long, which turned out to be a bit of an issue.
Once we’d organised that some of the rest of the group would kindly run safety at the bottom of the gorge, to catch whatever bits of us came out, we got ready to go. After another quick discussion about how it was impossible to climb out of the gorge we set off, Ryan’s parting words were “Let’s not be silly about this, if anyone swims; they’re on there own. Stay clear of them and leave them to swim all the way down, there’s no other way.”
As we paddled down into the entrance of the gorge there was a formidable sense of commitment and uncertainty. Luckily I’d been paddling well and had some (misplaced, but essential nonetheless) confidence in my ability to deal with what came up as I saw it. As the river narrowed I reached a point that I thought was where I was supposed to turn left. Turns out I was wrong. I got spun around and found myself heading backwards down a section that was too narrow to turn back around. I knew that boat speed was essential and began paddling backwards until I reached a point that was just wide enough to quickly swing my boat so it was pointing forwards again.
My little backwards episode had killed my speed and I paddled into the crux too slowly. I dropped into the large hole in the middle of the crux rapid and found myself surfing it. This is where I truly believe what little playboating experience I have saved me. I knew how to surf a hole, I could do this. I relaxed, and tried not to panic and began to evaluate the situation and how I was going to get out. I looked to my right (river left) and decided that side of the hole would probably be easiest to get out of. Just as I started to move that way I saw Ralph round the corner, I knew he’d have little option but to crash into me (and most likely my head) if I spent any more time in the hole. I quickly surfed over to the side and managed to get the front of my boat out of the hole and spin round and paddle downstream. Skilfully, Ralph managed to catch an impossible eddie under the under-cut of the rock above the hole, which gave me just enough time to get out the way.
Once I was out the hole I saw that Ryan was no longer in his boat. I paddled after him but kept my distance, remembering his parting words. We reached an eddie and I stopped (having got a thumbs-up from Ryan to say he was OK and going to continue swimming down). Once Ralph and I were together again we paddled after Ryan. Just as we were reaching the exit of the gorge I caught up with Ryan. I knew Olga and Jim were ready to catch him and I could still see his paddle so decided to try and recover it for him. I paddled hard after it and grabbed it, I threw it as hard as I could onto the rocks. Stupidly, in the process I let go of my own paddle. I made a split second decision to hand-paddle to the side before heading down the next grade 4 section without a paddle. I was tantilisingly close to grabbing mine again, but opted for the safety of the side. Ryan’s paddle had bounced back into the flow off the rocks but thankfully Olga managed to grab it and hand it to me. I paddled out down the last rapid using Ryan’s paddle. Mark ‘The Don’ Donaldson had managed to recover Ryan’s boat so all that was lost downstream was my paddle. Luckily that was recovered later and all was well. There’s another story to be told about the guys that came down behind us, and how one of them required at least 8 mountain rescue team to help after he’d tried to climb out the gorge, but I’ll save that for a different time.