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Italian Alps by Driller

The Italian Job

I blame PK, for sure, this was his idea.Hes got us into this situation, or at least its him thats getting the blame right now.Things are starting to get a little tricky, the whole group is on the edge and if we dont make the right moves just here we really could be in trouble.

Perhaps I should explain, weve just finished the last two bottles of another selection from the excellent wine list and were in imminent danger of the waiter bringing the Grappa bottle back to our table again.

Its Friday evening.Were sat in the campsite restaurant and as its our last night were having a big blow-out feast.Ok, so its not exactly the first big blow-out feast weve had in here, but when a campsite has a restaurant this good (or rather a restaurant this good has a campsite) then it really would be rude not to.Looking back over the past week, the eight of us have had an unbelievable time paddling the steep granite bedrock creeks and deep, crystal clear gorges of Val Sesia in the Italian Alps.

We arrived here last Saturday.The two Focuses full of paddlers, boats and kit made the long but happily uneventful journey through France, the Month Blanc Tunnel and then the enormous 180mile u-turn that took us to Campertogno in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy.

Our first put-on last Saturday afternoon saw us taking advantage of the warm welcome extended to paddlers in this region, getting changed in the log-cabin shelter by the signposted put-in for the Sesia Gorge.

A short ferry-glide from the put in saw us inspecting the first rapid of the week.100m of grade IV holes and rocks, leading to 1.5m plunge into a deep pool with a big towback. An immediate river-left eddy followed by a break-out into a big ferry on the tail-end of the towback, which needed a cool head to make the river-right entry line for the first elbow-drop into the gorge proper.The scene was set, this was going to be a tough week, and we couldnt wait to get stuck in.

Lots of inspecting, protecting rapids, some mandatory portaging and one huge seal-launch later saw us at the get-out almost three hours later, very happy indeed to be boating in Italy.

The owner of the campsite, Alberto, had invited us to dine in this restaurant the first night.A log-chalet building on three or four storeys, with breathtaking Alpine views from huge windows on every side, there isnt a bad seat in the house.The great food, free-flowing wine and beers were demolished amid excited talk of the paddling to come.

So on Sunday we set about the business of exploring a region new to us all, in fact new to many paddlers.The compact area isnt exactly over-run with boaters, but at the paddler-magnet that is the campsite at Campertogno weve bumped into loads of paddlers, many who we know, all of them keen to share their knowledge of the area and its rivers.

That day we found the Sorba slides, right next to the road leading up the forested sheer-sided valley.Breathtaking and ever so slightly lump-in-throat-inducing.A series of bedrock slides with clear pools between, and saving the biggest drop for last.Classic Park N Huck.

We kitted up, big boats and elbow pads all round, and spent quite some time discussing the lines, I say lines but at some points the river drops into boat-width chutes that leave really no choice of route at all.The rapid loss of altitude into the pools between the three main drops made for great photo and video opportunities.Multiple runs left the whole team grinning from ear to ear with the satisfaction of nailing something completely new to us all.A theme weve continued this week with every paddler raising their game and hitting the lines with style when it has really mattered.

As always on trips like these, the days go by too quickly.Every river was a big day out.Detailed inspections, lines memorised down to the crucially timed last stroke, and visualised over and over to dial the mind into the task in hand.And the steepness, always there was a huge loss of altitude, gradients on rivers like we have never encountered.Short paddles contained more drops, boofs, flares, hammers and slides than an entire season in the UK.

As we ran rivers more than once we became more confident, playing the rivers, freeboating.Weve really felt the benefit of being two strong groups on the water this week.Everyone, whilst always looking out for everyone else, has felt free to run the big lines, paddle for themselves and really enjoy the rivers.

The Euga was a highlight, everyone agrees.The first rapid and drop is described in the guidebook as an outrageous gutter leading into a four-metre drop, all within sight of the get-in.The drop ramps down initially [see the picture on the front cover] and then a sweet kicker sees you airborne over the pool below, the perfect place to throw a totally clean hammer.Indian and Lew led the way and Stevie and I followed up with our first ever, but totally sweet, hammers.

After that the Euga looks almost un-paddleable from river level, the water weaves its way through a maze of rocks and house-size boulders.How a two and a half kilometre paddle can take over four hours gives you some idea of the inspections and route-finding involved.Hidden between the gutter into ramp start, and a finish that is probably the biggest waterfall most of us have dropped are too many slots, dog-legs, squeezes and long rapids falling over slabs to mention.At one point a complicated rapid leads you almost blind to a clean four-metre curtain waterfall for the boof of your life.

Around the dinner table even now, were still discussing whether the Euga deserves its Class V rating, personally I think the fact that we all nailed the lines when it mattered, and enjoyed it so much makes us think it was easier than it really was, it could have been different, but it was all good, and were all stoked to have been there.

The middle and lower Sermenza are different.Deep rivers in wooded gorges with a remote feeling and some serious moves that you really have to make.Undercuts, some big tow-backs and absolutely essential boofs really get the adrenaline flowing.Almost every drop or rapid the equivalent of the crux of a hard run in the UK.The kind of rivers that really test your skill and nerve, and the euphoric feeling at the get out as the adrenaline subsides tells you exactly why you made the long drive from the UK.

We've had post-paddle beers at bars in mountainside villages and the hamlet above the campsite and weve eaten in this restaurant a few times.Small cafes that make a cup of coffee into a caffeine-boost art form and delicatessens selling un-pronounceable bread, ancient cheese, and ruby-red tomatoes have fuelled our week of adventure.Even Dobbin was hoofed onto the barbeque to be washed down with copious glasses of local red wine.

So were all agreed around the table, this has been a week to remember.Its easy to say, especially as you finish yet another bottle of Vino Tinto, but weve all pushed our limits, weve all run some serious white water and weve all walked away smiling.There are lots of different kinds of boating to do and here are lots of places in the world to do them.But this time, with this group, this was the place to be.Now pass the wine if you would.