17 April 2007

Into the depths of yet another Gorge

Drive away from Spean Bridge through Roy Bridge on the A86, then north along the A9 before turning right onto the A938 and then left onto the B9007. Drive further north and where do you end up after two hours? The answer is a little bend in the road by a gate which takes you down to Randolph's Leap and the put-in for the lower reaches of the Findhorn where there is yet another gorge section. This for me and the vast majority of the group was a first descent. Last year we had never made the trek this far into Scotland as there had been so much water around the Roy Bridge area to keep us happy, but it was Tuesday and we had only been on one river. We were therefore willing to travel far to get the paddling fix needed to stop us going mad and knowing that the Findhorn would go (thanks to some positive beta from a raft guide in Pitlochry who had paddled it the day before) we made the trek north.

Once out of the cars we sauntered down the tourist path to the river to have a look at it. We took a brief glimpse at Randolph's Leap thinking nothing of it and instead scouted out the get-in. On the return to the cars I took a bit of a lengthy look at the Leap and after clambering lower down the river bank to scout the lines, with a bit more enthusiasm, I felt that maybe I could just about make it through. I shouted to the others "It'll go" and they joined my at river level for a closer look. They were adamant they would not paddle it, but they'd set safety up for me. We returned to the cars to change and sort the shuttle out. Whilst the shuttle was being sorted the remaining three paddlers, me included, carried the four boats down into the wood covered path system. Three boats headed to the conventional get-in carried by the other two paddlers whilst I took my boat to the top of the Leap and then set about some serious scouting of the extremely tight gorge. I walked up and down the banks, took video and pictures, making sure I got a look at the river from every conceivable angle and height until the line was firmly embedded on my eyelids.

Eventually the shuttle drivers returned and after pointing where I wanted my safety cover I took a couple of minutes to visualise the line once more and remove any external distractions from my head. Then, walking with a purpose, I headed back to my boat, got in it and ran the opening rapids which would lead into Randolph's Lead. I made a couple of break outs, gave a thumbs up sign to the camera man up high on the bank and off I went. The first narrowing of the Leap I negotiated fine, got the boat on the lateral wave I wanted to drop me diagonally into the gorge, making sure to avoid the rock on the right. I didn't quite get my boat moving far enough right after passing the rock and collided, bow first, into the gorge wall. I eventually made it out and then headed off down to the next narrowing, which was simple enough. I broke out in the Cauldron and let the recirculating eddy carry me to the top before breaking out to cross the current and make it through the final slot. I didn't quite make it with style, but I got through. My safety crew headed back up the bank to join me below the next drop. This drop was probably the best of the day. I scouted it from my boat; it had been pretty inaccessible by foot from river level, decided a nice boof would sort it out and hit the line sweetly. The rest of the group were still trying to get down to where they had left their boats so I popped out of mine to soak it all up.

Sat on the bows of the the Diesel after a successful descent of Randolph's Leap. The picture was taken by me - the camera was on delayed shot and I just propped it up on the rock wall. Not a bad picture considering.

The group were finally reunited on the water and off we headed downsteam into the unknown. The river at this point was fairly wide and with little water in the drainage basin it was a scrape at times, but we made it down.

Scraping down the opening rapids.

We eventually came to a point where we felt it necessary to inspect and out we all popped from our boats. It was fairly noticeable that we had now started entering the gorge. The banks were closing in slightly and they had grown quite considerable in height. On inspection of the rapid we all decided to run it with out any safety. Well there was some - me with a rope, but primarily there for video. We carried on downstream with out any problems. However, sitting in the boats was short lived because after passing a couple of cheery fisherman we were back out of our boat to inspect Triple Steps.

Inspecting the first drop of Triple Steps.

The whole group ran the first step. I took it on river left and the others took it on the right. We had no problems. At this point the other three got out of their boats and walked around the second step, which was a pour over. I decided to step up and run it. I wish I could say it all went to plan, but I didn't manage to pull off the boof I wanted and plugged it a bit more than I wanted. The bows reared up and I stomped them back down to float away from the drop. The group was once again reunited and after running the final drop of Triple Steps, after inspection, we floated through the flatter stretches of the gorge remarking on the pure beauty of this remote, inaccessible place.

Looking upsteam at the boulder chocked Corkscrew.

This moment of relaxation and contemplation was short lived as the opening rapids of Corkskrew bobbed up in front of us. Out we all jumped and off we sauntered to have a closer look at the rapid. It didn't look promising at first and the group was just getting ready to start the portage. However, I felt that there may have been a line down the river right of the rapid. Maybe it could have been classed as a Chicken Chute. Either way it could still be said that I ran the rapid instead of shouldering the boat and walking it. The other three paddlers decided to do this once they had got the line I decided to run stored on XD memory.

By now I think we were all starting to get tired and slightly hungry as none of us had, had anything to eat since eight that morning so once the portage of Corkskrew was over and we could gently float, relaxed, down the gorge we decided on the next inspection of the river we would have a quick bite to eat and see if we could get in touch with the two people that came along for the drive, but not the paddle to let them know everything was going well.

Walking down the river inspecting another series of rapids just before having dinner.

The next series of rapids looked like fun there was a small rock infested, river wide drop followed by about thirty metres of grade 2 water and then a pour over. We ate dinner by the pour over where we had managed to get a signal with Vodafone and then we set about running and portaging the rapid. I ran it first with some difficult on the first drop as I got spun by a rock, but managed to sort it out by the time I reached the pour over. I boofed it and rolled away from the drop and waited for a short while on the flat water below for the rest of the group to portage. It looked like it could take a while for the portage so I carried on further downstream to scout out the next drop, which on inspection was decided to be The Slot. A nasty affair with a huge undercut on river right. We all walked it and then headed on downstream.

Just after the slot. A picture showing the sheer scale of the gorge. There was probably another ten metres of rock, which I could not capture on the picture.

One of the closing rapids.

The gorge was now over. There were just a couple of closing rapids to run, which could all be inspected from the boat, but still they were of interest. Looking back on the day these last few drops may have been the most entertaining as by now we were all mentally and physically exhausted from the amount of effort put into paddling and the concentration needed to keep the group safe at all times. This meant that some mistakes were made on these rapids. For example I had a moment with the fishes as I flipped on a rather simple drop, which was a two tear affair with a break out half way down. This roll resulted in a cut thumb, but nothing major.

Paddling out of the gorge and down to the get out to tape my bleeding thumb.

Starting the long walk back to the cars.

Three days complete, two rivers done, another three days to fill.

More pictures can be found here and a video can be seen here.

Good lines, stay safe and see you on the wet stuff...

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