Sunday, 1 December 2013

Wye oh Wye?

It is 100 miles from Glasbury to Chepstow if you follow the course of the River Wye. For some reason the idea of paddling this distance in one go forms an attractive challenge, and one discussed with my good friend Martin on our recent glacier adventures. With the idea formulated it was just a question of when....

So it happens that a weekend in late November is free for both of us There's reasonable water in the river, a good but cold weather forecast and Martins wonderful wife Krysia is happy to provide some support. Game on! Oh yes, I forgot to mention, we were also paddling a tandem sit-on-top kayak – not the fastest of craft – but very stable!
Sorting kit!

We decide to go for a midday(ish) start from Glasbury. This way we'd paddle through the night with the aim of getting to the tidal section of the river for high tide at about 1100 the following day. After the usual faff and kit fettle we are sorted. The boat is carried to the river and we're off... chased by Martins dog, Roxy, who's not happy to be left behind!
Almost in the water... (picture Krysia Groves)

Roxy not impressed at being left behind! (picture Krysia Groves)

We have a crisp, clear Autumns day and reasonable flow on the river. This section of the river has regular little rapid sections, and the river is full of bird life. Soon we settle into a rhythm and are keen to use the daylight hours to get as close to Hereford as possible so trundle along at close to 6mph.

Sadly night does overtake us before we hit Hereford, one of the few bits of urbanisation along this river. We land at the rowing club to refuel and get more clothes on. It's already below freezing and stopping proves to become a rapidly chilly process. Krysia is about an hour or so downstream from us at this point so we soon plough on.

It's a clear night and the night vision is good, although the (half) moon is still some hours away from rising. However mist is starting to rise from the river – is fog going to be a problem? We paddle on, increasingly visited by will'o'the wisps swirling in the mist rising off the river.

We meet Krysia at the Holme Lacy Bridge – 42 miles into the journey. We stop to brew up some soup and chocolate, but soon chill as the cold night starts to bite. I throw a jacket over the top of my kit as I can't face the strip down to put another layer on. Martin does similar and these add-ons remain with us for almost the rest of the journey!

The chill urges us to get going again so we push on, sending Krysia home to get a little sleep and arranging to see her when we reach Monmouth. So on we paddle on into the night, and gradually the half moon rises to join us on the journey.
Brewing up on a gravel bank somewhere in the middle of the night...

We try to land and have a quick break every hour, though finding a landing spot in the dark usually proves entertaining! Somewhere near Hoarwithy we break the half way mark. The journey becoming a little more surreal as we start to tire with the weak moonlight, and interspersed sections of thick mist adding to the atmosphere of the night.

Every so often we'd encounter large groups of geese or swans on the river. We'd try to paddle quietly past so as not to cause too much disturbance, but one would decide to flap and off the whole lot would go, breaking the solitude of the night. Gradually they'd work out we were moving in the same direction and start to break behind us and peace would reign again, until we encountered the next flock!

In the early hours we paddled through Ross on Wye – over 60 miles gone. Then Lydbrook – over 70 miles gone. At around 6am we arrived at Symonds Yat – the 3/4 point. Tired we stopped at the ferry landing to brew up and shake the ice off our clothing. My bowels start grumbling and fortunately the public loos are open – I make good use of them!

Just ahead of us is the only notable rapid of the journey at a proper grade 2. Although straight forward, we're tired and we definitely don't want to get wet at this stage so I opt to inspect before going through. However the area on the right is flowing quite nicely so we just paddled through on this side instead!

As daylight forms we arrive at Monmouth and find Krysia waiting with hot soup, coffee and Bacon rolls – fantastic! We stop to refuel and up the caffeine in our bodies. Over 80 miles now done....
Distant light in the dawn - approaching Monmouth at daybreak (Krysia Groves)
Landing at Monmouth for food and coffee! (Krysia Groves)

Despite being knackered we enjoy the superb scenery of this section of the Wye. We arrive at Tintern at around the turning point of the tide. We had hoped to have got out here for a break, but with no proper public landing area, and very soft tidal slime covering the river banks, we opt to paddle on.
Leaving Tintern - only 6.5miles to go!

This section proves terribly slow. The tide is yet to make its mind up which way to flow and we end up slogging along at a very slow rate. In need of a leg stretch we eventually find a spot where some quarry rubble and blocks form the river edge and provide a point where we can clamber out. Suddenly the tide has obviously turned and is dropping fast... time to paddle!

Now with some obvious downstream flow we start to regain some pace. Despite our tired and knackered states we still take time to enjoy the place we are in, trying to find the entrance to Otters Hole and spotting the classic routes on Wintours Leap.

At the final bend we officially break 100 miles. Ahead is the grand sight of Chepstow Castle and our journeys end. Krysia is waiting on the road bridge and guides us in. There is no decent slipway at Chepstow so we make use of a bit of fixed ladder to gain a landing before making our way up the gluppy mud of the river bank. The boat is hauled out using the throw line rope, and then its over... 100 miles done! Roxy was very pleased to be reunited with Martin!!
Looking for somewhere to land at Chepstow! (Krysia Groves)

Sorting the boat out for hauling up the bank (Krysia Groves)

Finished - Roxy pleased to have Martin back on dry land! (Krysia Groves)

A big thanks to Krysia for the brilliant support and driving us home!

And finally at the time of writing, Krysia considered the misery to be worthy of some sponsorship and has been using it to raise funds for a disaster charity operating in the Philippines, Relief International. If you feel the effort worthy of a bit of cash towards this charity (and the donation site is still live) then visit - Diolch yn Fawr, Jules.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Gorner Glacier explorations 2013

Back to the Gorner Glacier, Zermatt, to once again explore the 'moulins' or sink holes in the glacier. I wasn't sure if I could make the trip this year but literally at the last minute managed to steal a week and join good chums Martin Groves and Gareth Davies on the second week of this years trip to the Gorner Glacier.

Arriving in Zermatt on a damp Saturday evening I had unfortunately missed the last train up the mountain. In addition the useful shops had already shut... So it was either back down the valley to Tasch to a campsite, or try and find some over priced bed in Zermatt, or start walking. I opted to start walking.

What daylight had been left was gone by the time I entered the trails in the forest. One of those damp but muggy nights which made the steep lug up the track very sweaty, especially with a big pack. The idea was to bivvy down somewhere on route, but a nice flat spot just wasn't appearing in the gloom as I slowly stomped up the mountain.

Rather surreally I arrived at one of the higher stations for the mountain train and was suddenly in the grounds of a luxury hotel! Definitely out of my price bracket but also felt very wrong. I walked past to escape the opulence and noise.

The map suggests a possible good spot. Flatter contours and a small stream - a little alpine meadow. The rain and mist reveal enough to suggest this is the case and I quickly set up the tent and can escape the damp. Sadly I have no stove - the boys have enough with them and it saved trying to find fuel the other end of the flight - but sadly this meant no hot brew or food. Just water and some breakfast biscuits. Somehow this didn't matter - I was alone in my small spot on the mountain.

Morning arrives and I lounge in the sleeping bag not terribly keen to get up! But sticking my head out of the tent and glimpsing the Matterhorn through breaks in the cloud spurs me to get the back side in gear. I pack as the first mountain trains make their way up the mountain.
Morning with the Matterhorn pocking out of the clouds.
A steep stomp brings me to the next station on the mountain railway. Here I take advantage of a civilized toilet and the sale of some coffee! I move on keen to find the others on the glacier.

A few hours later I'm at the camp on the glacier. The day sees a changeover - and effectively seven is reduced to four. The tent is soon set up and before long it's off to explore an ice cave. Martin is keen to do more science and wants to go survey a site called the 'Balrog'.
Camp by the glacier - scarily somewhat reduced in just two years.........

Normally descending these holes is left to the night when temperatures drop, water levels reduce and the metal work doesn't melt out of the ice! However as the day was cloudy Martin thought it would be worth looking at descending into the Balrog. The original choice of route was quickly abandoned by the very large boulder on the lip of the ice shaft held in place by a melting step of ice... hmmm. Instead we descended an open canyon in the ice and climbed into another entrance rigging the rope off ice screws deep in a melt hole and down in the good ice, a traditional ice bollard and some additional icescrews placed after hacking away the poor ice, and then recovering the screws with the displaced ice!
Placing icescrews out of the sun!

Entering the Balrog

Inside the 'Balrog' was very atmospheric with the large open entrance we had entered by, and the light from the shaft we had wisely decided to avoid! Progress was soon halted by a lake, and we set about surveying and placing in markers to allow for future monitoring of the site. However the Balrog started rumbling and we decided it was time to leave!

Midnight and its little rest. Three of us are up and away - me, Martin and pro photographer Robbie Shone. A thick mist is down making navigation necessary. We head off for 'Son of Monster' Moulin. Monster Moulin had been an epic two years ago but was now a former shadow of itself. Instead 'Son' was forming behind. I was given the task of rigging. The entrance was the normal severe ice hack to find good ice, but once in the hole the ice was soon superb. The shaft was a superb fluted rift, rigged with regular rebelays to allow a descent along the rift. At the bottom a false ice floor would have resulted in very wet feet except I was wearing canoe dry pants which proved to be a great be of kit choice! I pushed along the bottom rift, down a short pitch and gained the stream... but then it just got too tight. That was it. We headed out. Martin surveyed and held the flash gun, while I posed and Robbie took some very cool piccies! We exit the hole to the first hints of the dawn.
Martin ascending 'son of monster' moulin

..with Robbie ahead taking some proper pictures!
A misty walk back.

...which clears as we arrive at camp
The weather deteriorates, and the next couple of days proved a little vexing for getting down ice holes, but does mean some sleep! The plan was to go back to the same area as 'Son' and explore some of the other holes. We ended up doing a morning daylight trip. Results were mixed. Water was too high in some, although myself and Gareth revisited a hole we'd be in two years go. It was still recognisable, but bigger and we could get further. With water levels getting noticeably higher, and icescrews getter looser we head for home!
Gareth rigging

Martin on the descent

Surveying the hole

Robbie heading up hoping to get some piccies!
Exploring canyons on the glacier on a wet day
Sadly mid way through the week we said good bye to Robbie, giving him a hand getting his kit to the mountain rail station, whilst stashing some of our extra kit on the way.

With a cold night promised by the forecast we had our next Moulin in sight - the 'Growler'. This looked ominous in the day with water thundering down. So with some trepidation the three of use set off to explore. Martin started the rig. The cave proved to be a superb trip in the end. A 10m pitch dropped into a fine meandering canyon in clean white ice. Deep pools required traversing, and Martin set me the task of rigging as I could wade straight through them!

Another fine pitch was descended and we explored a little further, but with ice screws running out we opted to started the survey out, ascending to a cold and clear night.

All that remained now was to pack up a ridiculous amount of kit and head home! We got up very early again and started the first kit shuttle, exploring some contact caves on the way.
Contact cave with stream

Ice shapes

Monster bag man

Gareth with very big bag!

Ascending from camp

Some of our kit!
All in all an excellent and tough trip - cheers chaps!

And to finish some random pictures of pretty flowers and other nice shots...

Three stooges at dawn

Friday, 5 April 2013

A long way to paddle... the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race

The Devizes to Westminster Canoe race is a bit of a classic. This year was its 65th running - an event with pedigree! Its not an event I would have originally thought of doing, but a couple years back the idea was raised (in a pub of course...) by my good friend, and companion on many an adventure, Simon Nurse.  A battered, but usable K2 kayak was found but the reality of life kicked in and the K2 remained unused, lying in my garden annoying the missus......

Role on 12 months and the idea again gets raised, this time by fell running chum and adventure racer Gary Davies. However I was due to be away over Easter 2013 when the event is held, so again the idea died...

A couple of months before Christmas, the original plans for Easter (back to Castleguard Cave in Canada) were on hold so randomly I mention to Gary 'oh I'm about at Easter, we could do that canoe race....'. Thus starts an adventure!

Even though the timescales to get ready for such a race are tight, we are still slow to get going. The first challenge was refinding the boat - it had been removed from my garden a the request of my good lady and hidden in a boatyard off the River Ely!

First attempt at using our training boat!
The boat was successfully tracked down and finally late November I got my first taste of K2 kayaking - blimey they are wobbly!! And this was with a K2 with no seats....  After a few miles of successfully keeping a K2 the right way up, our training for the DtoW was off.... sort of!

Christmas slowed further progress, but come January we started to get out more, regularly getting trips of 10-12 miles on the local Rivers Ely and Taff. The key problem with the boat though was the lack of seats. Using just foam pads, bum-ache was rife - a few miles of paddling turned to agony.

It was time to upgrade boats. Our good friend Nick Dallimore, our mentor and advisor, also had a Marsport Falcon we could use. We started to use this boat, initially with just foam pads, to improve stability. Initial sessions were a bit wayward - I was in the front steering and we seemed to be zig zagging across the whole river! Later we swapped roles, useful to do anyway, but steering was still wayward and in the end we realised the problem was with the boats steering mechanism and not us!

Dont let a little snow stop training!
The proper seats then got put into the boat. The extra height proved demanding for me and for the first time we started to get wet - not fun in cold weather and in cold water. Many evening sessions were at temperatures below freezing.... all good misery training.

Events for Gary, and ski holidays in February for me, put a gap in this training. Gary was able to fill this in with training in K1s but whilst I had a few K1 sessions I wasn't confident to go too far from a pontoon in such boats!

March arrives and D-Day approaches. We need to get some long sessions in. With less than a month to the race we get onto the actual DtoW course for the first time. Joined by one of our friends also doing the race, Roly, we managed to get a car shuttle in place to do a 36miles section from Woolhampton to Boulters Lock on the Thames.

Roly on the canal after Woolhampton

The trip proved worthy training with about 10miles on the canal, and the rest on a pretty racy River Thames, including doing the last few locks in the dark. However all was not well.. physically I was fine but mentally I was shot. We used the Falcon with the proper seats in and I never got comfortable in the boat. The constant feeling of not having the control and feel needed for such a boat pushed me, and having a couple of swims in the Thames didn't help. If we were going to do DtoW we were going to need a more stable boat.

Quickly Gary found a Kirton Mirage (a 'wobble factor 5' boat as apposed to 'Wobble factor 4' for the Falcon) based at the Cardiff International Whitewater Centre and owned by Canoe Wales. Waterside D race, 34 miles from Devizes to Newbury, was on the following weekend and we arranged to use this boat for the race.

Lacking support we again met up with Roly who was doing the event with his DW partner Dave and shared their support for the race. Arrival at the race was somewhat fun as the promised rain turned first to sleet and then snow! By the time we were on the water it was snowing pretty heavily and was very cold.

The first 15 miles of this race are without any portage break and are pretty tedious as a result. Matters weren't helped by the weather or the fact I get us wet twice quite early on - once trying to get under a swingbridge and the other catching the wing paddle at the wrong angle in the water as we came to the side. Not good for my confidence.

The rest of the race started to go much better. Paddling technique improved and our portaging technique got pretty effective. Going through the 480m long Bruce tunnel was also quite an experience! Water levels on the canal were pretty high and as we arrive at the finish in Newbury the canal is racing along, but we successfully cross the line without further mishap in a little over 7 hours.
Packing up at the end of the Waterside D race
Again physically I'm fine, but I still not convinced I have the skill sets to properly take on the DW race in a K2, especially as it is looking very likely conditions could be pretty challenging. Somehow I'm convinced to continue and a very last minute entry is accepted by a very busy but accommodating race secretary.

During the week before the DW race start I'm back on the Kennet and Avon Canal, but this time in a Canal barge on a short family break. The weather is soddin' freezing, and on a number of mornings we are icebreaking through the canal. The race plays on my mind. Water levels on the Thames are still high, the weather is going to be very cold, and the issue of the K2 boats sits heavily on the my mind. Rarely have I been through such a psychological roller coaster ride for a challenge.

Suddenly during the week the race looks unlikely. Water levels on the Thames are high and the organisers have released a self assessment form to judge whether you should take part. Conditions have also affected our support team - two good friends who had kindly volunteered only a month or so previously, but without any experience of the event and course. Wisely they realise they are not prepared for the task and pull out. It looks like game over, and personally I can live with that!

My team mate Gary is more persistent. Somehow he manages to persuade an experienced hand at supporting the DtoW, Chris Gazeley, to help us out. Although it will only be him and Gary's wife Dawn supporting us, Chris seems to be willing to give it a bash - so the game is back on! Time to confront my demons...

A last minute change of boat completely changes my mental state on the event. It is decided to change tact and use a heavy but stable tandem seakayak, a Nelo Waterman, that Gary owns for adventure racing. This is great - no battling the demon of the K2 kayak for me! The extra misery of the weight is something I can happily handle. Roly is happy as well - he and Dave get to use the more stable Mirage instead of their Falcon!

So come Good Friday and I get home from Devizes and the family canal holiday, frantically pack and sort kit to travel back to Devizes for the race! We pick up Chris on route, check in to the travel lodge, and pop down the pub for food and a couple of beers, and to meet Roly and his crew.

The morning arrives, we sort out some breakfast before heading to the event start. Fairly efficiently we sort kit and the boat, get kit checked and then register. Definitely no going back now. We do a final check of the boat and then make a decision on how to portage a heavy boat especially on the long Compton section. We decide we'll run with it and dump the portage wheels.
Preparing the boat
We plan for an 0800 start time, with an overall plan to complete in 25 hours. We do manage to get on the water for about 0800, but as we hadn't used the boat yet we have a little additional faffing to sort seats and rudder lines. At 0823 we cross the start line.... only 125 miles to go!
Approaching the start line.......
The first few miles worry me - the right shoulder is hurting from the start. Gary is frequently telling me the paddle cadence is dropping but I'm focusing on micro adjustments of paddle style to shift the pain. After a few miles the ache subsides, although the arse and right leg start going numb instead. We have a couple of brief feed and drink stops which gives the chance to shake out the leg and bum, and then on we paddle.

After 3 hrs we hit Lock 51 - our first portage. Thankfully we have the chance to get the legs moving again. Chris and Dawn efficiently get some food down our necks as we carry the boat across the lock. We opt for a change round as well - Gary goes up front to see if the back is more comfortable for me, and off we go again.

This next section is going to be a tough grind. Over 30 portages will take us to Newbury at the 34mile mark. We hit the Bruce tunnel, and again have a disconcerting paddle through the dark tunnel! At Compton we run the 6 or 7 locks that are close together rather than keep putting in and out of the canal, which is the tactic most teams seem to employ around us. Being runners the tactic works well and we end up ahead of a bunch of teams that had recently passed us on the canal.
On the Canal
So we paddle on - hit a portage, get out, get in, paddle on. Suddenly disaster - after a portage our rudder goes haywire. We stagger on in a drunken swagging across the canal frantically trying to avoid other competitors. Eventually as we approach Hungerford we managed to locate some tools, We had fortunately come to a halt outside a Scout hut! 20 minutes of fettling and we are back in the race.

Newbury arrives, after close to 8 hours. Our average speed is only about 4mph but we knew this section would be slow. Chris emphasises strongly that we have to pick up the pace or we wont make the tidal window at Teddington.

Fortunately after Newbury the canal picks up pace. In fact there is quite a flow in a number of places, and our boat is able to pick up some extra speed. We plough on to Reading enjoying the extra pace and the handling of the boat on some of the racier sections.

Darkness arrives before we hit Reading. The canal is flowing fast here, and its quite surreal to be paddling through a civic centre. Soon we're through the portage at Blakes and out onto the Thames. Dreadnought, a compulsory checkpoint, is quickly reach and our support are ready and waiting amongst the chaos. Quickly we have pans of a tuna pasta concoction thrust into our hands and fruitcake thrust into our mouths almost simultaneously. Chris and Dawn ensure we feed and drink, and quickly pack us off on our way in the boat. Chris urges us to keep the pace up.... Just over 70miles to go....

The night is clear so night vision is good, although the moon is yet to rise. It also means its cold, very cold. The Thames is still flowing strongly and we can feel the pace of our boat pick up. Somehow we're still paddling quite strongly and progress feels pretty good. We gradually pick of the lock portages and generally without too much of a problem. Marsh is quite a long and awkward portage, and one where the cold hits us which leaves us keen to get paddling and sort of warm up again.

Every so often our fabulous support team of Dawn and Chris appear, throw food and drink down our throats and get us going again. We're grateful for our tub of a boat on the lumpier bits as we watch racier K2s struggle with some of the chunkier water, and even spot a couple go over (fortunately close to the river bank).

The moon rises and it becomes a very beautiful but bitterly cold night. We paddle on, time becoming a blur. One moment its midnight, the next three in the morning, and soon twilight is on the horizon. On we paddle, various aches and pains shifting around the body.

The sunrise is superb and soon we are in the daylight again. The boat has got heavier through the night as it now has a layer of ice covering it! We negotiate the ice covered 'rollers' at Molesey lock and its now a mere 5 miles to the tide way at Teddington. Baring no major mishap we'll hit the tidal window at Teddington for the final phase of the race.

Those 5 miles prove a grind as bodies really start to tire. We hit Teddington lock where our support gurus drag us out of the boat, thrust warm pots of porridge and tea into our semi frozen mitts and get us nourished for the last section of the race. Gary's shoulder is starting to hurt and a dose of anti-inflammatory is administered.
Feasting at Teddington

We push on through the 'roller' at Teddington, fitting spraydecks on the way, and it's onto the tidal Thames. This section isn't as dramatic as I imagined given the conditions, and is a bit of an anticlimax.
Heading for the portage at Teddington (Dawn Davies)

We have 17 miles left to the finish and its going to be a final hard grind. Initially we are very slow as Garys shoulder gives some severe gripe, but gradually he manages to get the paddling going again and we again make steady progress.

Unfortunately we hadn't really learnt the geography of this section so are unclear what sort of progress we are actually making. Bridge after bridge goes past, but no landmarks we recognise. The paddle grinds on.

Eventually a passing team informs us we're at Putney Bridge with about 7 miles to go. We paddle on. Central London starts to appear, and then we glimpse Parliament and Big Ben! Almost there! Westminster Bridge appears, and loads of cheering souls. We've made it, we actually made it.....

We cross under the bridge to great support from the crowd. The finish crew catch us as we flop out of our boat, and step marshals each grab us and assist us up the steps - we can barely walk. The boat follows us up and suddenly we are on the embankment in the tourist throng, all very very surreal.
At the finish!
Chris and Dawn are waiting and in true fashion Chris shoves foods into our mouths! It's all pretty fantastic! We stagger to the car, elated at finishing this extraordinary event. Clean clothes are grabbed, we change and shower and eat. The body hurts and we are all very tired. Chris and Dawn haven't stopped and without them completion would not have been possible. Diolch yn Fawr iawn team!

So the final question - would I do it again? Certainly, though I'd get myself properly sorted with K2 kayaks for the next time! Easier to carry :-)