The Hochschwab Salza loop – tramping through snow thunder and rain

Where did the crystal clear water go? Opaque grey silty water flowed past by through the Salza river when I inflated my packraft. Warm temperatures, high amounts of snow melt and the rainshowers of the days before had caused rather high water levels.

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Ready to hit the Salza just downstream from Gusswerk village.

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Flowers abound around the snow line.

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The Ennstaler Alps as seen from the Goss mountain pass above Hinterwildalpen.

The desolate Klausgraben canyon presented itself as a delight to the eye. Passed through the canyon several heavy rainshowers teased me on my float, but I paddled on till the evening when a layer of fog formed and draped the river bed. Now I could only hear the next white water coming and throw myself into it blindly. That wouldn’t be so clever, so I put out and hiked the remaining distance till close to the village of Wildalpen where I tarp camped in the forest. Distant lightning strikes lit the sky at dusk, soon it started to rain, often it rained heavy and it didn’t stop till late forenoon.

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The snow covered plateau under the scraping clouds.

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Wagnergraben from the Römerweg trail.

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Fobisbach down Hinterseeaugraben.

With the last rain droplets that fell in the morning, I made a cache in the forest to leave my packrafting gear behind for the remainder of the trip. The Salza river had swollen too much overnight so that any packrafting was irresponsible now. I climbed out of the Salza valley and wandered through vast mountain forest and some more heavy rainshowers that got my legs soaking wet until I reached the west part of the Hochschwab plateau in the evening. The sun broke through and I enjoyed watching the towering clouds over the mountains in the distance building the next thunderstorms.

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Looking down Hinterseeaugraben with Pfaffenstein (1871m) in the background.

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The bridge over Fobisbach appears from under the snow.

The plateau still had an almost 100% snow cover once above 1200m, but the snow had hardened enough during the last days thanks to all the rain that my snow shoes where now useless weight in my pack. Except from a few frightened chamois I seemed to be all alone on the deserted plateau. The weather improved on day four so that I chose to climb to the summit of Brandstein. A glider suddenly scared me while standing near the summit cross. Even though you can have the feeling to be all alone up in the mountains in the early season, suddenly there might always appear some company from an unexpected side in the Alps. It’s so typical.

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The plateau seen from Brandstein summit (2003m).

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Looking back onto the south face of Brandstein (2003m) from the plateau.

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Entering the flowery Trawiestal valley.

The nice weather window only lasted one day as the next day I had to race against an advancing coldfront. I was now under Hochschwab’s summit but the mountain remained in the clouds all the time so that I had to leave the plan to climb any higher. The marmots were deserted looking around while keeping close to their den. With still so much snow cover everywhere around their den, there was not yet much delicious to find to satisfy one’s hunger.

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I just woke up after my half year sleep.

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And I stretch my legs for every photographer.

While I crossed the mountain pass on its south side it started to rain, cloud base lowered sustainingly and soon the first lightning strikes were flashing. I reached the valley bottom of Dullwitz valley just in time. The roaring thunder behind my back became loader and loader. Not much later I smiled and enjoyed the hailstorm that bombarded me. Lighting strikes hit the valley ridge above with for several times only two seconds that I could count between flash and the bang. It had been a long time since I got to experience a decent thunderstorm in the mountains.

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Descending deeper into the Dullwitz valley whith the thunder approaching behind my back.

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Rainy forest bivuoac.

I pitched the tarp in the forest while it kept raining in the evening and so it did during the night… and the next day… and the next night… Well, I just hiked through rain and fog the entire day after. Fortunately it became dry the last day after about 42 hours of continuous rain. I hiked upstream through the attractive Klausgraben canyon and soon finished the loop. Late spring is a beautiful time in the mountains as proved this trip again.

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Hiking through the Klausgraben canyon…

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… with the Salza river now showing its green waters.

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Timid forest dweller.

This trip took place May 06-12 2013.
Watch the gear list for this trip.

Pinhole repair

Recently on a trip on the Ourthe Orientale river, I got a small hole, about 15mm wide, ripped in the floor of my packraft. The damage already occurred about 200m on the river after the put-in. I’m quite sure I didn’t hit a rock but that it was a metal rod or something instead. I had my camera tripod stashed on the floor of my raft between my legs and this sure was the cause for the occurrence of the leak in the collision as the rod bumped against the tripod and pinned the hole in the floor. Besides the leak, there are also long scratches carved in the floor around the leak. If I didn’t kept my tripod on the floor inside the raft, chances were high I only had some scratches and not an additional leak. Again a lesson learned. Upon closer inspection I even noticed I had two leaks, the second one being very small.

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I’ve repaired the leaks and the scratches with Aquaseal by the method described by Alpacka Raft. The pinholes got a thicker layer of Aquaseal on top. This movie also shows the rejuvenation method by Alpacka Raft. An almost pinhole on the tube now also received a thin layer of Aquaseal.

A small additional note: Mcnett’s Aquaseal is sold in Europe under the name Aquasure. You can easily find it at scuba diving shops like this one for example or you can try the alternative Stormsure glue from Packrafting store. When the repair is done, store the tube in the freezer or use it further to reinforce the seams on your new trailrunners. ;-)

My Llama is ready again to re-enter the water and that should happen already next week in the Austrian Alps!

The Magic Packraft Circle

Last weekend 19 outdoor enthusiasts gathered along the Semois river in the south of Belgium to take part in the first packrafting weekend organized by Hiking Advisor, a Flemish online social hiking medium. Willem and I were the guides on the water while Debbie was involved in all the camping related affairs. A few of us had our own packraft, while the rest of us had never touched a packraft before and now borrowed one from the European packrafting store or from Off-Trail.

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The Semois river near Lacuisine, our put in.

We had a lot of fun and the group learned what packrafting is like. For many it became clear that blowing up the raft for the first time is not so easy if you don’t know the proper technique, that putting in on a steep bank or with a fast current can use some help from another person, that it is possible to accidentally have your paddle blades reversed and that the river always asks for attention or the sooner or later you will hit a rock. The swans were also present and were not always happy with our presence now the breeding season had started. Kevin almost got a kamikaze attack on him.

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Paddling break at noon.

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Lunch.

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The Semois river from the vantage point near Roche Brulée.

At noon we put out in the forest to take a lunch break in the sun. Afterwards we hiked onto the ridge and visited a vantage point overlooking a meander of the river. Then we put in again and paddled passed the picturesque village of Chassepierre to Camping de la Semois, our stay for the night. After dinner we parroted with some strong Belgian beers at the local pub and when the pub closed its doors some of us could not get enough from the Jägermeister after party in the tipi tent.

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Let’s stick close together.

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In the pub.

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Debbie has some work to do tomorrow.

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Belgian beers for you to cheer.

Not surprisingly a few of us awoke with a heavy head the next morning, though that changed rapidly when we started paddling again in the fresh air. We amused ourselves with sticking close together and creating a long multi packraft raft. Then the idea arose to form a circle on the river with our packrafts. This didn’t look so easy to accomplish at first until Debbie found the key. Keep the butt of your neighbor further away from you! And so suddenly the magic packraft circle appeared!

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Putting in again after portage of the weir of Bois de Ste-Cécile.

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Again lunch break.

In the last kilometers on the river we had a small accident as someone accidentally ripped a long tear in the tail of its raft when hitting something sharp while coming down a weir. Everybody got worried when we saw the person fighting against getting trapped in the raft as it lost all its air. Fortunately everything went off well and the group learned to better never trust all human made obstacles in the river when packrafting.

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The magic packraft circle!

We put out eventually, folded and packed our rafts and then hiked out towards the nearest train station. The end of an enjoyable and successful packrafting weekend!

Packrafting the Ourthe – a 30 hours hike and paddle in the Ardennes


A few days of rain filled the buckets again and so I went to the Ardennes. The Ourthe river had already been a playground for me a few times. Last year I paddled the river till the confluence with the Amblève river starting from its west fork. The east fork, Ourthe Orientale, was yet unexplored terrain for my packraft.

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The Ourthe valley from Rocher de Hérou.

Friday I started at the Rochers de Hérou and hiked upstream for a day, passing the Nisramont reservoir and made a nice stroll along the Ruisseau de Martin Moulin to bivouac in the forest on the plateau. Rain and hail showers were alternated by sunny spells. The showers continued throughout the night while passing deer kept me out of my sleep several times.

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View over the Nisramont reservoir from the hiking trail.

Next day was dry and sunny and I descended down the valley again to meet the Ourthe Orientale in the village of Houffalize where I put in. Already during the first minutes I suddenly banged onto something below the waterline. It sounded more like a metal rod than a rock. Only half an hour later I realized there must have been beaten a hole in the bottom of my raft since I suddenly felt sitting with my butt in a pool of cold water.

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Crossing the Belle Meuse creek before it joins the Martin Moulin.

At leaving Houffalize I suddenly scared a beaver sitting very close at the waterline below a bluff. I didn’t notice him until he made its move towards me. The animal jumped against my raft, then dived underwater and kept sticking stiffened onto the bottom of the river as I watched him behind my back. He scared me too to say the least.

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At the banks of Ourthe Orientale.

Many kilometers downstream a tree strainer forced me to make a short portage. While pulling my packraft out of the river I noticed the hole in the bottom. It was only so small that it took an hour or so to fill the raft with water. Moreover I wore my drysuit so I didn’t really bother about it.

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The Ourthe river under Rocher de Hérou.

Passed the reservoir of Nisramont I quickly arrived at the rock cliffs of Hérou were a famous boulder garden is encountered. Yet I succeeded again to be so inattentive that I suddenly parked my raft atop of a boulder, just like the last time on the river. A little further I could enjoy playing in a surf wave before I put out. Then I climbed the rocky ridge of Hérou and completed this attractive 30 hours loop.

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Somebody has polished its teeth.

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The surf waves under Rocher de Hérou.

Up and down the canyon of the Ardèche

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The mouth of the canyon near Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche.

Two weeks ago a made a short but powerful visit to the canyon of the Ardèche in southern France. The Ardèche river has its sources in the limestone Cevennes ranges of the Massif Central and wines its way southeast in search for the Rhone river. On its way the river cuts itself through a short beautiful canyon. This canyon is very popular during the summer months when the river has almost no water left in its stream bed and each day a horde of tourists floats the river through the canyon in a rented kayak.

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Many caverns can be explored down the canyon.

During winter however, the canyon is an empty place for you to discover in all peacefulness. There is a reason why it remains so quiet down there during winter.

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While entering the canyon, the trail immediately runs along a passage over a steep rock slope above the river.

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A portion boulder hopping is not lacking either.

A hiking trail runs through the whole canyon, but as is usual with a trail through a canyon, there are a few difficult sections where the trail passes over small ledges or tries to bridge steep rock faces. The trail even so does not stay along the same side of the river throughout the whole canyon. To be able to surpass beyond some vertical rock faces one should ford the river at least twice as there are no bridges. During the summer months these river fords are most of the time an easy and fun undertaking. During winter however, the higher water levels and the stronger current will take you straight away if you would be so fool to try to fight or swim the icy cold water. But for all those with a packraft on (or in) their pack, this deserted place may still be a little adventure to discover during the winter as the river is the packrafter his friend and not an enemy.

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Looking back through the first meander bend in the canyon.

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The trail continues over this fantastic narrow ledge which was very slippery at some places by the seeping water.

All the time a strong mistral breeze was blowing in my face while I hiked upstream through the canyon. On many occasions the winds were too strong to be able to packraft the river. Luckily I had studied the weather forecast beforehand and knew the mistral would die after two days so I could packraft back through the canyon.

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A little further another narrow ledge above the river leads you towards a chimney by the use of secured cables and pins. The chimney is left through a natural tunnel in the rock. I had to take my backpack of and lower it down to clamp it between the rocks in the foreground of the photo to be able to make this passage safely and retrieve my pack later.

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The trail continues along cable section in the rockface.

However, during the weekend a lingering coldfront would probably bring several tenths of millimeters of rain and temporary rising temperatures which would partly melt the snowpack in the upper reaches in the Cevennes range. The Ardèche river is known for its rapid rise in water levels during such events of heavy rain. Water levels can rise with several meters in just a few hours down the canyon and the relatively quiet river with its small class II rapids then changes into a turbulent brown stream full of treacherous whirlpools.

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Another grateful shelter from the mistral wind.

My goal was not to procrastinate and hike quickly through the canyon and then packraft back over the river before the heavy rain would make it too dangerous. I passed many interesting ledges, steep sections along limestone faces where cables or pins in the rock secured the passages and sometimes explored a few of many mysterious caverns in the limestone rock where I was happy to be out of the mistral breeze for some time.

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Looking back through the Cirque de la Madeleine.

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Another point where you’re standing astonished in front of the next rock face while wondering how the route would continue this time.

At one spot just downstream of a rapid in the river, the trail went over a small ledge which was flooded by the higher water levels. It was impossible to pass this spot in my packraft as I couldn’t paddle upstream through the rapid. I didn’t want to return here and so I cautiously shuffled over the slippery ledge while wetting my feet in the icy cold water while searching with my hands to something in the limestone face to hold onto. And so I eventually hit the other dry side still well and truly.

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Approaching the river ford Gué de Guitard, now impossible at high winter water levels.

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Looking forward to a hot meal after a whole day fighting the cold channeled mistral breeze in the canyon.

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Delicious home made and dried spaghetti.

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The bivouac spot above Gué de Guitard.

Above the first river ford, named Gue the Guitard in French, I found my first bivouac spot for the night on a piece of sand under an overhanging rockface. Despite a few snowflakes that fell from the sky during the evening, I slept in my bivy bag and didn’t pitch the tarp. Temperatures dropped just below freezing during the night.

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I crossed the river in my packraft at the river ford which is impossible to even try during winter.

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A sign announces the ford. Note how great the French are able to write in English.

When packed during the morning my first task was to inflate my packraft and paddle to the other side of the river to continue the trail. Along the left side of the river the canyon showed its wildest side. The sun shone exuberantly and soon reached the bottom of the canyon. Time for a break. I laid myself down in the grass above a gravel bank and enjoyed the rushing river and the silence beyond the blowing mistral wind.

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Here starts the wildest and my favorite section in the canyon, upstream of bivouac the Gournier.

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After crossing the next ford.

After about two hours the trail ended again onto a vertical wall and so I inflated my raft again to paddle to the right bank. It didn’t took much time anymore before I reached a canyon like side valley where I left the canyon of the Ardèche. I explored a small trail through this valley and passed the Pissevieille cascade, an impressive looking waterfall that falls of the rim of the canyon into the deeps, at least on the picture of my hiking map as the stream was dry now and I only could spot the dry creek bed incised in the limestone on the rim.

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A vaucluse spring is wetting the trail.

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Through the beech forest above the canyon.

The path climbed out of the valley in a few zigzags and there I was, standing on the limestone plateau in a deadly looking landscape with the depths gaping behind me. I followed a 4WD track until I stumbled upon the markings of the GR4 trail, which I followed for some time into the beech forest on a narrowing path.

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Bivouac on the heights above the L’Ibie Canyon.

In a clearing in the woods I pitched the tarp and went to bed around sunset. During the night I got awake a few times, the first time by deer running through the forest. Later on by noisy boars that even came very close to the tarp in search for something nourishing under the grass.

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The L’Ibie river before it enters its short canyon.

During the morning I descended from the plateau into the valley of the L’Ibie river, a small side stream of the Ardèche. I followed the river downstream through its short canyon and hiked into Vallon Pont d’Arc at noon. The village looked dead now outside the tourist season. At the bridge over the Ardèche river I inflated my packraft and started the float downstream through the canyon. The weather has been changing rapidly now and the sun disappeared behind a thick layer of grey clouds that soon invaded the whole sky. I forgot to take my gopro at home and so was not able to record my float on the river unfortunately.

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Hiking back towards the Ardèche through the L’Ibie Canyon.

I passed under the famous arch just before the entrance of the canyon and then paddled through the easy rapids while enjoying the scenery from below on the quieter section in between. Passed halfway it started to rain and when I reached the last kilometer near the end of the canyon before Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche the wind became so fierceful blowing in the face that it became impossible to paddle further downstream. I put out and walked the last kilometer out of the canyon towards the village.

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Stop at the famous arch above the river Ardèche.

Arrived in the village the rain became a rainstorm while I could witness the rivers water level rise by each minute. At home I noticed online that the gauging station in the canyon had registered a rise of the water level with about 2,7m in just a few hours that followed, the river discharge rising from 65m³/s to a peak of 740m³/s. I had just finished in time.