Thursday, June 21, 2007

Soca, the jewel of Slovenia

I don’t know what Soca means in Slovenian, but in paddlarian, (the language spoken by paddlars from Germany, Hungary, England and as far away as New Zealand) it has come to mean paradise. The Soca valley, in the gorgeous Julian Alps, is a little paddlars paradise that I won’t forget in a hurry.

The night we arrived in Soca it started to rain. Well not just rain but thunder. Infact the impressive thunder and lightning display kept up the entire next day. This gave us lots of water.. Amazingly, despite all the rain the water was still clear and green due to the filtering effect of the limestone rock. Yes, there’s definitely something special in the water here.

After the epics of the previous weeks, paddling on the Soca, was exactly what I needed. This was finally a place to relax and have some fun. The runs are generally moderate, (class II and III), but with a tricky rapid or two to keep some spice in the day. There’s also plenty of opportunity to train for the harder rivers, with the opportunity of choosing easy or hard lines on nearly every rapid. A special treat is the Soca canyon. This is even more narrow than the one on Le Guil, but just as pushy with high water.

And it’s a great place to go with beginner intermediate paddlers – you can have your fun while leading them down the river! If you are looking for a place to learn to kayak, (or a place to teach a special friend) then go to Slovenia. Honestly, the love affair starts here!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Fun and games in the dolomites

The Dolomites. The name brings sweaty palms to all those have ever dabbled in rock climbing. As we drove through Milan a blessed relief. After a couple of weeks of epic paddling it also felt like it would be nice to do something else for a change.

Driving though the Dolomites is probably the closest to the mountains a couch potato can get just sitting in the car. The roads are very slow going as they wind up their way up and down the mountains and the views are terrific. You find yourself straight across the to the imposing rock wall on the other side and it feels so close you can almost touch it.

I guess this is why so many people choose to come here cycling. Because despite the incredibly steep roads, where ever you go in the dolomites there are people cycling . One day we got caught up in a road cycle race. It included a 5km climb up to a path, for which our van didn’t get out of second gear the whole way. Impressive!

Of course, for us it wasn’t enough to just look from a distance. We needed to walk up the mountains, to touch the rock and to climb. After trawling through the volumes of the guide book we found our climb, the East Face Direct Route, on Catinaccio Central
Summit 2981m. It was a bit longer than we had planned to do, and a bit harder too but once we saw it, it was too late – we decided to give it a go anyway.

The next night after a long day we were still on the mountain, sheltering under a blanket of packaging foam listening to the lightening war above us. We had simply climbed too slowly and had lost the route mid way. After a week of bolted climbing in France we had been surprised how poorly marked the route was, and found our description was quite minimalist. In Summer, we would have been surrounded by many other teams on such a classic as this, but in late May we were very much alone as the thunder boomed around us.

The morning slowly dawned and after a time unfroze our bodies. Then when we started to look at the line of pitons we were following, we realised we were still off route. Dehydrated, and tired and lost, we decided to head down.

Five abseils of rock bulges, twenty abseils off pitons and two abseils off particularly bendy pitons later we finally made it to the solid ground again. We had spent 36 hours in our harnesses, survived two thunderstorms, been pelted by hail stones, lost several slings, one carabiner and one ATC, but we had made it down again.

There’s nothing like that feel alive feeling…

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A french lesson in river karma

After Italy we headed back to one of my favourite places, Briancon in the French Alps. You could spend a whole summer in Briancon as there is so much climbing, kayaking, and cycling, so with only a week to explore the area, it was hard to know what to choose. As fate would have it, I was also destined to learn a not so nice lesson about river karma.

With Adrian from Britain coming over to climb, and Sonja coming here for the long weekend it was real party. During the days the boys headed rock climbing we did some girlie boating. Then in the evening, we all joined up round the camp fire and tried to get to grips with the French language, smelly cheese.

I’d paddled once before in the area but this time it was just Sonja and me and that made it pretty exciting. The first day we warmed up with the Guisane and then headed to the Claree tibrt. Suddenly I began to understand the French paddler mindset a little more clearly as I slalomed unstoppably between the trees hanging over the water. At each bend there seemed little to do but to cross your fingers and hope that round the next corner the river would have a navigable path somewhere.

The next day we headed for Le Guil, one of my favourite rivers. I really love this river because there is so much varied paddling and also because of the castle on the hill above the put in. There’s also the excitement of jumping into a class IV gorge so narrow you can’t turn around, and I love that too.

After the gorge there’s only a few minutes relaxation before heading into another gorge where you can only see one rapid ahead and you know there’s some dodgy stuff coming up. Since we didn’t know the river very well it was pretty scarey stuff but we were coping pretty well with it all. Well that was until we came to the final rapid and were caught up by a team of local paddlers. At the point, ironically enough I must have let my guard down and felt a little safer. I missed my boof, landed straight in the hole and tried to roll several times before deciding it might be better to swim.

Now I don’t swim much, and I had never taken a swim on hard water, so when the hole started playing with me I got a surprise and I got really scared. It was several recirculations and a couple of throws later that I finally managed to grab the rope and drag myself out of the river, and once again get a good gasp of air. After getting my breath back I tried out my pathetic French to thank my lovely rescuers.

After that ordeal I decided to call it a day and try the French sport of Via Ferrata instead. But the next day we were back on the river, to finish off the lower section. Near the end of the run we came across several scared paddlers in the river and on the banks. I don’t know when they had first swum, but by the time we reached them only one of them was still in their boat. It felt like river karma had brought us there, and now it was time I repaid my debt. So we helped them to rescue their boats and made sure they all got back to the road safely. So it seems it wasn’t just me who the Le Guil river gods had decided to play with that weekend!

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