Packrafthiking the Verdon and its gorge

April 20-30 2012

Castellane, a medieval looking village in the south of France. We are not yet in the Provence, but it’s not really the Alps here anymore either. Crystal clear water flows through the river here and the water level is low. It looks at its limits for a fluent packraft ride. The Verdon river emerges from the snow loaded peaks of the Hautes Verdon massif in the southern French Alps, to flow between the foothills towards the limestone plateau of the Provence. On its way south the river squeezes itself in a deep and narrow gorge, one that is probably the most known gorge in Europe, the Verdon gorge.

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Couloir Samson, the entrance of the Verdon gorge from Point Sublime.

Upstream of Castellane the water is held in place in Lac de Castillon by a power dam. Due to the presence of this dam the Verdon river looks very differently during the spring once upstream from the lake. A grey and silty high volume river is leaving the Alps here due to the huge amounts of snow melting high in the watershed. Once downstream of the dam only a bashful amount of the actual discharge is left over and the water is cleared from any sediments.

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Pont du Tusset.

Due to the low water levels I decide to start my trip with hiking from Rougon near the entrance of the Verdon gorge, a day paddling downstream from Castellane. The sky is dark blue, and a cool mistral breeze is blowing over the mountains. When crossing the Verdon over Pont de Tusset I’m regretting my decision to leave the packrafting for the end of the trip. The water levels are soon getting solid further away from Castellane for a nice ride in the raft.

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The view into the canyon from Rochers de Rancoumas.

Fresh baby leaves appear on the branches. Winter did not finish here long ago. I climb steady out of the valley, following the markings of GR49. 400m higher a superb view awaits me into the northern part of the canyon from the Rochers de Rancoumas. In a meadow below the rock ridge I pitch my tarp sheltered from the mistral winds between some bushes and start my search for water. The map shows a water source nearby but I have difficulties to find it bushwhacking through the scrub. Many bushes are armed with thorns. When I finally find the water source, wild boars seem to have rendered the place in a dirt pool of mud. I’m hesitating at first, but then eventually I fill my water bottles with the purest water I can find. Yet I decide to keep it for an emergency. I still have some good water left over and can use it sparingly till I would find a good source tomorrow. I have all the water sources on the map highlighted with a fluorescent marker. Finding water will probably be my biggest challenge during this trip as anything falling out of the sky rapidly disappears in the limestone surface and it is not recommended to drink the water from the Verdon river itself! Wastewater from the upstream villages is discharged into the river untreated.

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The surroundings of my camping spot seen from the canyon rim, Sommet de Breis (1280m) on the left.

Back at the tarp I have another challenge to cope with. Despite I have chosen a good sheltered spot, irregular gusts are rushing over the rock ridge coming from the canyon, still inevitably shaking the tarp once in a while. While preparing dinner one wind gust suddenly hits the tarp and is so severe that it manages to pull all the stakes out in less then a second. I have my pot lifted from the alcohol burner coincidentally and the tarp falls onto the small flame. In panic I rush for the tarp and manage to safe it from hitting fire. Thank God! My first job is now pitching the tarp low to the ground as I should have done straight from the beginning.

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The camping spot under the Rochers de Rancoumas.

During the night the gusts make way for rain and once the sun is rising during the morning the weather is clearing up again. After a few hours hiking with a dry mouth I find a good source of water on my way towards Trigance and exchange the muddy liquid for clear spring water. During the afternoon I arrive at a look out over the Clue de Carajuan with the Verdon river sparkling deep below in the canyon. Vultures are circling above Barre de l’Aigle.

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Hiking through the Jabron valley towards Pont de Carajuan.

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At a viewpoint over Clue de Carajuan and Montagne de Robion (1660m), the Verdon below in a canyon section.

Then I follow a path down to Pont de Carajuan where I meet the river again from close by. Despite the many shallow gravel banks I decide to give it a try and inflate my packraft for a short stretch through the canyon till Couloir Samson, the actual start of the Verdon gorge itself. Numerous small to medium sized rapids are encountered and they even get technical due to all the rocks in the river bed. Though the rapids itself are not yet really that challenging, the wind now does. The mistral has not been tamed yet and I have to paddle upwind all the time. In the narrow passages in the canyon the wind is blowing so powerful, I’m blown back on the quiet parts between the rapids so that I have to bundle all my forces each time the wind is temporary taming to succeed paddling passed the constriction. I can tell you, it is a strange experience when the wind is slowing you down in a rapid and eventually you are getting stuck in the rapid for a while.

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A nice forest floor while descending to Pont de Carajuan.

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A lizard on the banks of the Verdon river near Pont du Carajuan.

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The Verdon with shallow gravel banks near Pont de Carajuan. On the right the Jabron river joins.

At the entrance of Couloir Samson I’m putting out. The limestone walls in Couloir Samson are up to 450m high while the gorge is at its narrowest point here, being only a few meter wide in the lower parts at some points. The river is strewn over with boulders in the couloir and dangerous to packraft, so I exchange the river for hiking deeper into the canyon.

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Last rocky rapids from the put out on the gravel bank before Couloir Samson.

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Putting out on the gravel bank, the entrance of Couloir Samson in the background.

To get into the canyon I have to follow the path through a series of dark tunnels, carved into the limestone. I keep hiking deeper into the gorge till the evening in search for a spot to spend the night. The last tunnel in the canyon is carrying the name Tunnel de Guègues and is isolated from the path but still easy to find if you pay attention. I decide to spend the night in the entrance of this tunnel as there is no other place to find here on the bottom of the canyon to lie myself down to sleep unless I would try to sleep on the hiking path itself. The day is ending with heavy rain.

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Through the first tunnel.

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A part of Couloir Samson from the window in the tunnel.

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The end of Couloir Samson.

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A bivouac in the entrance of Tunnel de Guègues.

The next morning the sun is shining again and I start early to continue hiking over the Sentier Martel trail. At Brèche Imbert the route climbs steeply over a series of stairs in a rock gap to be able to pass the sharp limestone ridge. At the other side of the ridge I follow a side trail that comes to a dead end where the Verdon gorge makes a bent of 180° and the Artuby gorge meets the Verdon. The Verdon river is flowing peacefully here in the canyon. I take a lunch in the sunshine and quiescently enjoy being deep in the canyon isolated from the outside world while the birds are singing their spring songs, uplifting tunes that reverberate loudly between the canyon walls.

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The Rochers de l’Escalet lit by the morning sun.

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Side trip to the river from the Sentier Martel.

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At the foot of the stairs through Brèche Imbert.

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Looking back through Brèche Imbert.

Then I prepare my packraft for a sequel in the gorge, a sequel to continuous pristine enjoyment. The river has become slow by now, only now and then disturbed by quiet swifts and only exceptionally by a disturbance in the water level that can be called a rapid. It’s so blissful here that the mistral breeze, still blowing through each constriction, will not hurt me. But all this changes abruptly when the metal arc of the Passerelle de l’Estellier appears above the river. The river rapidly gains speed in a narrowing funnel and there is the first boulder garden. I step out in time and store my packraft again in my backpack. From this point in the canyon, the river is incessantly running into narrow boulder gardens and dangerous rapids. I’m switching to hiking again.

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In the Verdon gorge looking towards the Artuby gorge.

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Easy paddling between the Artuby and Passerelle de l’Estellier.

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The foot bridge Passerelle de l’Estellier where one can find the starting point of the Sentier de l’Imbut trail.

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Technical boulder gardens in the river seen from Passerelle de l’Estellier.

Crossed the bridge I turn to the right to follow the Sentier de l’Imbut towards the wild heart of the Verdon gorge. In a narrow turn in the canyon, large boulders with dimensions exceeding houses are thrown together in a heap on the canyon floor. Here the trail stops at a dead end. Even the Verdon river itself disappears underground into the boulder heap for a while. To reach this wild spot I follow the challenging Sentier de l’Imbut which is often washed away close to the river by the last winter flood.

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Boulder hopping on Sentier de l’Imbut next to the river.

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Caverns galore.

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High vantage points galore.

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Wild parts from Sentier de l’Imbut.

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Looking back through the gorge from the entrance of the Styx.

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The Styx

Near the place called the Stix, where the river runs through a narrow craggy ravine and temporary dives into a cavern, the trail continues over a carved path in the limestone wall. My bivouac spot for the night is found under a cavity in the canyon wall high above the river.

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Wildness abound: the cavern following behind the Styx.

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The secured path carved in the limestone wall above the river.

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Approaching the wild heart of the gorge.

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Standing at the boulder heap in the wild heart of the gorge.

Today I did not found any drinking water and the source shown on the map near Passerelle de l’Estellier was actually dry. I still have some water left from the source near Trigance. This evening I’m eating pemmican for dinner to further limit my water consumption.

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Evening campfire in the gorge.

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Campfire and bivy night.

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Good morning!

It is not possible to continue through the gorge on foot, so the next morning I take the Sentier Vidal, the path that climbs from the Sentier de l’Imbut through the canyon wall to the rim. Passages with cables and stairs ask for attention with my wide Pinnacle on my back, loaded with a paddle and 6 liters of now empty water bottles in the stretch side pockets. Once at the canyon rim it is a bit of a strange sight. The Verdon gorge is not embedded in a plateau like many other canyons do, but instead incised into a V-shaped valley with surrounding mountains in almost every direction.

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The view while climbing on the exposed trail towards the canyon rim.

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At the rim.

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Looking down from the rim.

Once at the rim the path keeps climbing less steep through a beech forest, home to the fluorescent green lizards, until I reach a gravel road. 250m from the junction a water source is marked on the map next to the road bearing the name Fontaine de Périer. I’m counting my footsteps towards the source while I’m simultaneously starting a prayer in my mind. Let’s hope this source is flowing, otherwise I would have a long strenuous day and a shriveled tongue till the next source of water. At reaching 200 while counting I can see the water flowing over the gravel road a bit further. Yes, finally tasteful fresh water! The water is captured in a gutter leading to a basin. I take the opportunity to wash myself and drink as much water as I can, to leave at the end with another 6 kilograms in my bottles.

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I’m invisible in the shadow.

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Finally fresh water!

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Fontaine de Périer.

Then I return over the gravel road till I reach the hiking path leading to Col d’Illoir. A pamphlet is met next to the trail head stating that the trail is now forbidden, signed by the mayor. Someone has written the words “50 years that I’m doing it and never had problems!” on it. I take the announcement with a pinch of salt and just carry on.

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The announcement of the mayor.

The trail wriggles itself through the bushes on the mountain slope high above the canyon rim. Unfortunately I never get a look into the canyon itself. The pamphlet seems to have its effect. At some places the path gets difficult to recognize and is often overgrown with shrubs. Clearly, not many people walk this trail section anymore.

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The lower part of the canyon from Cirque de Vaumale.

After more than an hour the trail turns left into the Cirque de Vaumale and the broader end of the canyon towards Lac de Sainte Croix is now becoming visible. Scrambling passages follow and scree slopes are traversed in the Ravin de Vaumale until I finally arrive sweaty on Col d’Illoire. It is still a long descent till the shore of the dammed lake of Sainte Croix from the other side of the col. The weather is slowly changing while I’m steadily going down. Incoming high clouds are betraying the arrival of a rain zone.

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Gradually descending towards Lac de Sainte Croix.

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Ready to re-enter the gorge over Lac de Sainte Croix.

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Deeper and deeper in the gorge.

At the shore of Lac de Sainte Croix I inflate my packraft again and start paddling towards the mouth of the Verdon river into the lake. Due to the increased water level by the construction of the dam, the last 2 kilometers of the Verdon gorge are actually standing under water. It starts to rain when I’m entering the canyon again on the water like many tourists actually do during the summer with a hired pedal boat. Today I have the water all for myself. There is hardly any flow on the river and the wind is now blowing in my back so I have an easy paddle upstream into the canyon. Once at the mouth of the Verdon river into the elevated flat water, I move further along the hiking path next to the river which soon climbs away from the Verdon to get over a rocky ridge in the canyon. It is late in the evening when I reach the dead end of this trail. I’m not far away from the other side of the boulder heap from yesterday in the canyon. I’m spending almost an hour searching for a spot to pitch the tarp. There are no two flat square meters to be found and I eventually end with digging my own flat spot in the humus soil between the trees, pulling out each annoying stone in the ground. The night even brings more rain.

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A lone piece of 2 square meters flat ground…

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…and the tarp pitched over it.

Snow has been falling on the mountains during the night. As soon as the clouds are lifting during the morning and the higher parts of the canyon rim appear, I notice a thin layer of snow on the highest parts of the canyon walls. I’m lucky to start the day dry once again. Today I will leave the canyon again by hiking all the way to the rim towards Col de Plein Voir. On my way higher I can collect fresh water at the vaucluse sources in a circ. The water simply flows out of the canyon wall on many places in the circ, merging on a wide ledge and eventually falling down deeper into the canyon from the ledge in a series of waterfalls.

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Cold windy day in the gorge after overnight snow in the mountains.

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A resident of the canyon.

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Vaucluse sources on a wide ledge.

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Fresh drinking water.

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A vibrant oasis high in the canyon.

On arrival at the canyon rim I immediately get a strong northwesterly wind in my face. It has become a lot colder again compared to the previous days. The mountains in the surroundings are now draped in snow starting from 1300m and in the north the mountain chain of Mourre de Chanier is hidden in de clouds. I can see the snow and hail falling down the clouds in showers over there.

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Hiking through the forest below the back edge of the canyon.

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The end of the canyon and Lac de Sainte Croix seen from the rim.

I move on over the ridge, keeping distance from the rim to avoid the furious winds rising out of the canyon, temporary walking through the lower lying and old looking pine forest. The day is ending on a nameless flat topped mountain south of the Plaine de Barbin and still close to the canyon rim. I’m unwillingly startling a chamois family while searching for a sheltered bivouac spot from the wind between the small scattered pines. A snow shower is passing by while I prepare dinner. The snow is melting away quickly when the sun finally appears through the clouds afterwards. The night is freezing cold and sky clear.

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Last melting snow flakes on the tarp.

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The bivouac spot between the pines.

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The snow covered mountain chain of Mourre de Chanier at sunset.

On day six I walk a long distance away from the Verdon gorge into the mountain chain of Mourre de Chanier, passing through long sections of forest and by the left overs of the medieval pastoral village of Châteauneuf-les-Moustiers. The village is abandoned and inhabited. Only ruins are all that is left today.

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The ruins of Châteauneuf-les-Moustiers.

By the evening I arrive at a wide alpine meadow at the foot of Mourre de Chanier (1930m). The last remnants of the snowfall from yesterday are lingering around, the mountain itself still well covered in snow on its northern flank. I meet a shepherds cabin on the meadow with a nice source of water near the cabin. The cabin is unlocked. The shepherd has not yet arrived in the mountains, neither have his sheep and his dog. Mice shit is scattered all over the floor and the shepherd has hung the mattress of the bed elevated from the floor before leaving the cabin during last fall to prevent the mice from ruining it. Despite I seem to be the unwelcome guest here, I decide to try sleeping in the cabin. It is still near freezing outside and a strong gusty wind keeps blowing through the mountains. I place the mattress on the bed and put all my stuff in my backpack which I hang from the floor to be sure the small rodents won’t put their teeth in my backpack and would steal any of my calorie rich belongings. The night belongs to the rampageous mice and I’m not able to catch sleep for long. Never before I have met such noisy mice in a cabin.

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The interior of the cabane under Mourre de Chanier.

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View to the north from the summit of Mourre de Chanier (1930m).

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The snow covered Alps seen from the summit of Mourre de Chanier (1930m).

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The Verdon mountains from Mourre de Chanier (1930m).

Day seven is ridge walking all day long! I climb to the summit of Mourre de Chanier before noon and get a wide panorama over the snow covered Alps, Mont-Ventoux in the west, also snow covered and well known from the Tour de France. The Verdon gorge in the south and the Mediterranean Sea hidden in a haze in the southeast behind the hills. The weather is clearing up and the ridge walking easy. The first flock of sheep I get to see is grazing close to the ridge. Later during the day the ridge walking becomes much more difficult. Impassable shrubs grow on the south facing slope and I’m forced to search for a passage on the tip of the ridge with an airy abyss just at the left under my feet.

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Looking back at Mourre de Chanier (1930m).

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Ridge walking with the Alps at the horizon. Sommet de Berbené (1771m) and Sommet de Pioulet (1744m) from Crête des Traversière.

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The first sheep in the mountains, the Verdon river visible deep below.

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The ridge walking is becoming more difficult.

From the saddle of Colle Basse (1446m) I’m climbing to Sommet de Pré Chauvin (1741m) and try to continue ridge walking to the east towards the Cadières de Brandis. The ridge walking doesn’t start easy over here either. I can only walk on the north facing slope and the slope is covered with beech and later on thick pine and scrub forest. I try to follow vague trails of chamois and boars. Later on I suddenly notice a cairn and find a well marked trail that isn’t drawn on the map. Swiftly I reach the rock towers and pillars of Cadières de Brandis and Tête de la Barre de Sapée (1622m).

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Griffon vultures circle around above the ridges every day.

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Clue de Chasteuil in the Verdon valley seen from Sommet de Pré Chauvin (1741m).

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The ridge walk from Sommet de Pré Chauvin (1741m) to Cadières de Brandis.

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The rock pillars of Cadières the Brandis.

I finally pitch the tarp in the forest on the north slope of the mountain in vicinity of La Bonne Font, a named water source on the map. The air has become noticeably warmer today and for the first day of the trip the mistral is absent. Though I’m confronted with a problem. All the matches have gotten wet and I’m missing a hot evening meal. I always store my matches in a small plastic pot but it seems as of today it isn’t entirely waterproof. I’ve no idea how they could have become so wet. I don’t succeed lighting any of them despite I have so to say waterproof matches. I didn’t took a back up with me to lighten a fire. Instead of a warm meal I’m eating tour bread for dinner and decide to make a detour tomorrow searching for a lighter in Castellane.

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View onto the Alps from the path near Cadières de Brandis.

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The Verdon valley in the depths from the path near Cadières de Brandis.

I go to bed with sunset but it takes awhile before I can really catch a deep sleep. But then suddenly something stops me back from my sleep. I hear two wolves howling from a distance that doesn’t even seem to be so far away. I’ve never heard a wolf howling before and at first I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Wolves are found sparsely over almost the entire French Alps and its foothills. Only in the southern parts of the Alps and in the foothills north of the Provence the wolf densities are high enough to often notice their presence. I get out of my sleeping bag to enjoy this wonderful moment as intensely as possible. The night is illuminated by a pale moon, shining through the branches and throwing dark shadows around me. The wolves stop their howling. The night is even better in the forest.

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Collecting water from the source La Bonne Fonte.

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Bivouac in the forest near the Source La Bonne Fonte.

Around sunset I’m awakened by an approaching grunting sound. A lonely wild boar is passing by the tarp. The day begins as nice as yesterday’s end. I immediately jump out of my sleeping bag and take the shortest route to Castellane. Down the village I find a mini bic in a small grocery store and take the opportunity to buy some fresh fruit. At noon I’m back at the bivouac spot where I’ve hidden my filled water bottles so I didn’t had to lug around with the weight to Castellane. The detour has asked me half a day. I make up for yesterday by preparing a hot noon meal. That will be two hot meals this day.

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A hot lunch for once.

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Fossils in the limestone along the path.

The sun burns and the day becomes hot. On my way north through the mountains I don’t meet a single lonely soul. Later in the afternoon I stumble upon footprints in the dried mud on the trail. They seem like dog tracks but by closer inspection I can only conclude to have discovered the footprints of a small pack of wolves. I can recognize the footprints of several individual animals by their different sizes and because I cannot find any human footprints in the neighborhood, this could be very unlikely a group of dogs wandering around alone in the mountains. By carefully inspecting the size of all the footprints I believe to recognize the footprints of four individual wolves. Moreover, the neighboring mountain ridge in the northeast by coincidence bears the name Crête du Loup on the map. Yet another sign I wasn’t dreaming last night.

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Wolf prints in the mud.

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Collecting water in the Ravin du Teil.

My water bottles are almost empty again but I can refill them instantly in Ravin du Teil. By the evening I pitch the tarp in a small meadow on a mountain ridge northwest of the ruins of the abandoned shepherds village of Courchons. The wild upper part of the Verdon valley is visible in the north and the snow covered peaks of the Alps are now very close behind. The night is again clear but warm.

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Bivouac in a small meadow on a ridge near the ruins of Courchons.

The next morning I descend into the Verdon valley and visit the village of Saint-André-les-Alpes. When I finally reach in front of the river I’m looking a bit desperate at the high volume flow. The Verdon river is a completely other river over here. Grey silty melt water is rushing at speed in numerous braids through the river channel. Frequent wave trains up to one meter high, the fast speed of around 15km/h and the impossibility to get out of the river easily at some points make this section of the river not immediately a favorite choice for a not so expert packrafter, even though I’m really excited to try it. Actually I have not planned to run the river so far north but as I have been progressing faster then I had thought beforehand, I feel difficult to resist the temptation to try the Verdon river also over here in its upper part. However I realize I can better try to scout the river as much as possible to study any dangerous spots since I haven’t searched any information at home about this section of the river before leaving. So that’s what I’m doing by following upstream, though it becomes impossible to throw an eye on every part of the river. From what I get to see on my way north, there don’t seem to be any insurmountable dangerous obstacles in the river bed and by staying attentive on the water I should be able to ferry along the higher wave trains. I decide to go for it.

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A view over the upper Verdon valley.

Six kilometers upstream from Saint-André-les-Alpes I prepare to put in near Pont du Brec. Precisely at the moment I’m ready to put in, three whitewater kayakers are passing by. They stop to make a chat. It is David with his client and a friend. He has a whitewater kayaking school based in Rougon where I started my trip. He immediately points me on my poor safety precautions and I tell him I definitely agree with him. Going as light as possible on a trip split between hiking and packrafting is incompatible with running such whitewater. He is a nice guy and I see he understands why I’m here with such light gear. Then he asks me if I know the river where upon I answer I wasn’t able to scout every part of it. Just downstream of Saint-André-les-Alpes seems to be a life threatening back current under a bridge at a place I haven’t been scouting. He assures me I should portage here in time or otherwise I will be dead. I feel as if I just met my guardian angel. He proposes to run the river together and to drive me to the dangerous back current with his car so I can put in again safely behind it. That sounds like a very good idea to me.

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The wide braided valley of the upper Verdon.

We leave the four of us. Even though the river is very fast, the higher wave trains appear to be perfectly avoidable and I’m thinking is this it? Kilometers pass in only a few minutes and we put out before I realize it. At the cars of David and his friend I wait till everyone has changed clothes and the kayaks are mounted on the roof of the cars. In a moment we arrive at the bridge with the back current. David throws a stick in the water and we see it going under and rolling back in the back current over and over again. David tells a dozen of people have died here in the back current over the past ten years or so, unknown of the danger that was coming on their way. I realize I’ve made a serious mistake today. I’ll never run a river again without properly retrieving information from the internet or whitewater guides beforehand. Before we say goodbye to one another David gives me some more tips and his phone number so I can call him anytime to ask for information if I would plan to packraft another river in the French Alps in the future.

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Bivouac at Lac de Castillon.

Eventually we separate and I go back to the river. From here it is not far anymore to the mouth into Lac de Castillon. The river has immediately grown bigger by the confluence with the Issole river just upstream of the bridge. The current remains as fast and now the fast high volume river starts to feel a bit out of proportion compared to my tiny raft. Some channel braids are blocked with strainers while some wave trains depass a meter in the main channel. Soon I flow into the lake and now I can feel what paddling really is. Flat water and a strong wind in my face don’t make it easy to cover a respectable distance quickly on the lake. I seem to get the wind in my face each time I start to paddle on this trip. It takes me four hours to only cover as many kilometers. The lake is nine kilometers in length and I will have to paddle all of it as there is no trail on the shore. Steep mountain slopes fall into the lake. Between the bays I need all my forces to keep from blowing back with the wind. I stop to stow my backpack in the raft instead of on the bow to try to catch less wind. It helps a bit, though a few moments later it doesn’t withhold me from trying to walk on the short gravel beach that has formed on the steep slope along the lake formed at times when the water level of the lake was bank full. Halfway I stumble upon a small flat spot in a bay where I can pitch the tarp between the trees. I don’t hesitate a single moment. The tarp gets pitched low to the ground. The wind gusts don’t cease in the evening and the weather evolution in the clouds is forecasting rain for the night. During the night the rain soon becomes a downpour which doesn’t seem to end.

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The intermittent creeks are now filled with brown water on my way to Castellane.

During the morning I’m waiting for the rain to stop, though it seems to take a while. A few hours after sunrise the rain then stops abruptly and in a moment the sun appears behind the clouds. When I’m ready to go on the water again a fair weather day seems to break through, the smell of summer rain still in the air. Fortunately the wind has calmed down too. At the shore I notice the water level of the lake has risen around 10cm. I paddle the last kilometers to the south end of the lake not far from the dam. From there I follow a local trail till Castellane and notice brown water flowing out of the mountains in every intermittent creek bed I encounter. Arrived in Castellane, tourists are now all over the marketplace and the main street. I spend the time walking around in the village and to visit the Notre Dame du Roc. By the end of the afternoon I prepare my packraft again to leave the village over the water searching for the next camping spot. The river has changed however compared to a week before. The water level is still almost as low as before. What has changed is the color of the water. No tidy crystal clear water anymore. All the intermittent creeks are now feeding the river with brown muddy water. The Verdon now doesn’t look so nice anymore here.

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The Verdon valley and the village of Castellane from Notre Dame du Roc.

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The medieval village of Castellane.

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Local childen playing in the alleys of Castellane.

The packrafting is immediately a lot of fun. The water level is at its ideal level for packrafting. Numerous easy rapids follow and at the end I keep going further than necessary. Five kilometers downstream from Castellane I put out, pitch the tarp next to the river and try to make a fire to dry my socks. All the wood I can find is still moist from the rain, but with some more effort I manage to get the fire going and have a nice joyful last evening on the trip. The night becomes a repeat of previous night.

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The now silty Verdon at Castellane with view onto Norte Dame du Roc.

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The last bivouac.

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A last campfire.

Heavy rain is falling from midnight and it doesn’t stop till noon at the last day. Packrafting in heavy rain is not that fun so I decide to wait and start to count the hours I still need to reach Rougon in time today. A little after noon it becomes dry and I throw myself in my packraft back on the river. The water levels have risen around 10cm again over the night even though the currents don’t seem to have changed since yesterday. Today there are a few dangerous rapids on the river that I should scout before eventually running them or portaging. The first one is the Barre de Saint-Jean rapid. It is raining again when I leave the river to scout the rapid from the nearby road. Two challenging rapids follow each other. The first one is a very fast and narrow PR4 where taking the good line through the wave train will be crucial for not hitting the rocks and possibly capsizing. The second one is the actual Barre de Saint-Jean rapid. The river here makes a one meter drop in a boulder garden. By studying the rapids I am confident that I can handle both of them and so I return to the place where I put out a moment ago to start paddling again on the river. Both rapids don’t give me major problems although my yak swallows quite some water in the last one.

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The fast and narrow PR4 wave train ahead of the Barre de St-Jean.

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The PR4 boulder garden of Barre de St-Jean.

Just downstream of the Clue de Chasteuil, a place where the river breaks through a band of limestone and is pushed into a short canyon, another boulder garden is encountered. I scout again from shore and successfully take a good line through the rapid.

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Mouth of Jabron river in the Verdon. The discharge of the Jabron was now even higher than the Verdon itself due to the heavy rains, more then doubling the discharge of the Verdon.

Though the river hasn’t really pose me a big challenge yet today, the rain doesn’t stop and keeps intensifying. The river slowly continues swelling and at the Pont de Carajuan where the Jabron river joins, a sudden surprise is awaiting me. On the second day of the trip I started to packraft here over the first section of the river till the entrance of the Verdon gorge. The Jabron river didn’t have a significant flow at that time. Now with all the heavy rain, dark brown water of an immensely swollen Jabron is joining the grey waters of the Verdon, its discharge even bigger than the Verdon itself. Once passed the confluence the Verdon more than doubles in size. It surprises me and I’m starting to hesitate what to do. While I’m thinking the possibilities I continue to drift away into the next canyon section. Before I come to the conclusion I should stop immediately, it is too late to put out. From last time I know there is a serious fall immediately following in the river and now with this high volume flow I don’t know what to expect. I’m approaching the rapid with increasing speed, fall down and almost tilt backward in the back current which washes over me as a wave. I forget to lean forward sufficiently and instinctively release my paddle with one hand to try to keep my balance. Fortunately I come out unscathed without swimming and leave the river at the first opportunity I get not many further downstream. I’m amazed my Yak hasn’t swallowed a lot of water despite the wave coming in. While I’m stowing everything in my backpack, I’m thinking why I was hesitating at the confluence with the Jabron river. Is it my sense of adventure that kept me on the river? Or was it the pressure to reach Rougon in time today? It probably was a combination of both.

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The PR4 fall at higher volume flow following after Pont de Carajuan.

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Looking back while hiking over the mountains to Rougon in the downpour, Verdon river below.

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The entrance of the Verdon gorge in the rains and Rougon on the right.

I climb to the road and walk back to nearby Pont de Carajuan. There I have to switch to plan B. From Pont de Carajuan a hiking trail is starting at short range, running over the mountains above the canyon towards Rougon. It will take me longer than over the river, however that should not make me worry by now. It is the only safe option I have left. The rain is now changing into a downpour. I start to climb at a fast pace while my legs are getting soaking wet. I’m no longer wearing my rain pants. I threw them off with purpose. No matter what, I’m going to end this trip completely wet and I feel I even enjoy it too. A few hours later I arrive in the small village while the rain keeps pouring from the sky.

I’m happy. This trip was a resurrection for me because of all the knee problems of last year which have prevented me making a serious hiking trip since last summer. Furthermore I’ve learned something during the packraft sections, mistakes I may make no more.

 

A brief packraft guide to the Verdon river

The passages mentioned in the description with a [ ] can be found at that point in the video.

The Upper Verdon contains the river upstream of Lac de Castillon. It has potential for experienced whitewater packrafters during the spring flood (April till June). During the summer months the water levels are usually too shallow. The Upper Verdon upstream of Colmars is a fast rocky single channel rated up to class IV for kayaks, alternates between smaller braids and a single channel between Colmars and Pont du Brec while then rated up to class III and suddenly changes to a wide braided channel from Pont du Brec (class III) where I encountered fast PR2-3 braids with up to PR4 wave trains [02:32-03:11]. Increasing risk of strainers towards Lac de Castillon. One life threatening back current is located at UTM 300555E, 4870606N which should always be portaged.

The middle part of the Verdon starts from Castellane and stops at Lac de Sainte Croix. Do not attempt the river between the dam of Lac de Castillon and Castellane. The river is possible downstream of Castellane for packrafts during spring and autumn in case there is no water released or not too much water released from the reservoir behind the dam of Lac de Castillon. During the summer the situation reverses as water levels are usually too shallow at days without water release and so you’ll need a bit of additional discharge from the reservoir but not too much. Water is released from the reservoir at irregular times, usually only at one or two days a week, sometimes even less frequent. Local kayak outfitters receive the schedules with water releases. Contact one of them for specific information. Once a reasonable amount of water flow is released from the reservoir the river becomes a higher volume flow and the bigger rapids change a lot in difficulty level, becoming less easily controllable in a packraft, only recommended for the very experienced whitewater packrafter. The same can be the case when heavy rains contribute a lot of discharge to the river through its tributaries further downstream. The following ratings are for the average water levels during spring when there is no water released from the reservoir:

  • Between Castellane and Pont de Carajuan: regular PR2-3 rapids, a PR4 boulder garden (Barre de St-Jean) at UTM 294634E, 4856325N [03:56-04:01], preceded by a fast PR4 wave train in a narrow channel at UTM 294711E, 4856345N [03:48-03:55], both can be scouted from the road by putting out at Pont de Taloire. Eddy with danger to get sucked under in a cavity at UTM 293998E, 4854592N [04:30-04:44], keep right as much as possible. PR4 boulder garden at UTM 293905E, 4854255N [04:46-04:57], possible to scout from the gravel bank on the right side.
  • Between Pont de Carajuan and Couloir Samson: regular rocky PR2-3 rapids, PR4 fall at UTM 293157E, 4851930N [00:13 & 05:14-05:32], a series of longer rocky PR3 rapids upstream of Pont du Tusset [00:30-00:45], another PR4 fall at UTM 290812E, 4851838N [00:58] and a PR4 rock garden ending in a tight corner at UTM 290647E, 4851828N. The river is flowing through a canyon already on this section so on most places it is impossible to leave the river.
  • Couloir Samson is at least up to PR4. You will know it when this is something for you.
  • End of Couloir Samson to Artuby: I did not run this section. By scouting from the hiking path I would say frequent PR3 boulder gardens at the beginning, gradually becoming gentler with regular PR2-3 rapids and a few last boulder gardens.
  • Artuby to Passerelle de l’Estellier only contains some easy swifts and a few PR2 rapids, you should put out on the gravel bar at UTM 286151E, 4846689N before Passerelle de l’Estellier.
  • Passerelle de l’Estellier to Maireste: up to PR5 boulder gardens with several portages, serious scouting necessary beforehand. You will know it when this section is something for you.
  • Maireste to Lac de Sainte Croix: regular PR2-3 rapids and boulder gardens changing to easy swifts and finally flat water.

The lower Verdon downstream of Lac de Sainte Croix is not very interesting due to frequent dams on the river.

Useful maps:

  • IGN 3541OT and 3540OT for the Upper Verdon
  • IGN 3442OT and 3542OT for middle part of Verdon

 

Pulk winter trip on the Vercors plateau

The night is falling when I park the car on the snow on the Col de Menée (1457m), marking the southeast border of a mountain region what is called the Vercors, limestone foothills of the French Alps. A large part of the Vercors mountains exist of a wide elevated plateau which is among all the limestone plateaus in the Alps the least undulating and thus the most popular for snowshoeing and backcountry skiing in the Alps, even with a pulk. One month before my solo crossing of Sarek I now have the time to test my pulk for a last time. After a very cold night in the car I pack my gear on the pulk, click my boots in the ski bindings and start to climb away from the col. The breakable snow crust immediately makes for a tough ascent. I’m well warmed up when I reach the ridge of the Crête de Grande Leirie. The snow crust is now mostly supportive and the skiing doable on the wide undulating mountain ridge. On the steeper slopes I start to make wide zigzags. My pulk sometimes slides out of my track, but I manage to keep going.

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Dragging my pulk over the steeper slopes of Crête de Grande Leirie with Mont Barral (1903m) in the background.

The annoying descent from the ridge into the Vallée de Combeau doesn’t go as I’ve hoped. The slope is too steep. Surely I haven’t chosen the easiest approach to the plateau. I fall a few times in the snow before I realize I have to take off my skis and walk straight down with the pulk pushing in my back. Luckily my feet don’t sink too deep in the powder.

Below in the Combeau valley I put the skis back on and slide deeper through the valley, passing by the Refuge de l’Essaure, one of the many shepherd’s cabins on the plateau which are often home to multi day snowshoers and skiers during the winter nights. I’m not interested in the cabin today. Today I want to get as far as possible on the plateau. Within sight of the cabin I pull the pulk over the last steep slope in the head of the valley to finally reach the actual limestone plateau of the Vercors. The weather is deteriorating while I ski to the west deeper onto the undulating terrain. On the Plaine de la Longue Fissolle, an elongated depression on the plateau, I set up the tent between the scattered pine trees. The first snowflakes are falling out of the sky when I retreat into the tent. The night is dominated by wind and snowfall.

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The bivouac spot under a layer of fresh powder on the Plaine de la Longue Fissolle (1620m).

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Gliding between the pines with a first glimpse of Mont Aiguille (2087m) on the horizon.

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Looking back over my incised track with Tête des Baumiers (1876m) and Tête des Chanaux (1888m) at the horizon.

I welcome a 20cm layer of fresh powder in the morning. The weather is rapidly improving by noon and the fresh powder is sparkling exuberantly in the sun on my way north while the last low clouds are lifting from the plateau in the distance. I notice I now need a lot more effort to pull the pulk through the powder even though it doesn’t bother me. Mont Aiguille and Grand Veymont are dominating the horizon in the north and east while passing along the foot of Sommet de Tourte-Barreaux, an isolated hill on the plateau. It’s a fine day to ski unbeaten on the undulating snow.

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Crossing a small karst depression.

A cold breeze is sweeping across the Plaine de la Queyrie, so I start to search for a sheltered bivouac spot which I find at the edge of the plain on the foot of Tête de la Graille, another isolated hill. I climb to the summit of the hill in the evening, something I repeat the next morning. A fantastic view awaits me over almost the entire plateau. Descending back to the tent on my backcountry skis asks for caution over the rather steep slopes of the hill.

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The Plaine de la Queyrie is a wide karst depression on the plateau, seen at sunset from Tête de la Graille (1885m).

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The second bivouac spot, at the foot of Tête de la Graille (1885m).

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Wooded and least undulating, the northern part of the plateau with the open plain of La Grande Cabane (1563m).

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The highest mountain of the Vercors, Grand Veymont (2341m) seen from Tête de la Graille (1885m).

I ski passed the Cabane de Pré Peyret to Col de Pison (1655m). The sun is really burning today and during the afternoon the top of the snow layer starts to get soft, immediately slowing down my progression. Soon I notice the dry powder snow under the soft top layer is sticking to the wet bottom of the pulk. In fact it is not sticking to the pulk itself but onto the aluminum bars instead which I constructed under the Ice Blue sled for better tracking. The bars definitely are not offering any advantage in these snow conditions. For the rest of the afternoon I’m regularly making a stop to scrape all the sticky snow from the pulk time after time. When I reach a nice looking bivouac spot above the Ferme des Bachassons I stop for the day and pitch the tent. There is a well and water source near the shepherd’s hut (which is locked to hikers by the way). The water is still running which saves me from another evening melting snow.

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The cliff face of the plateau under Montagne de Glandasse from Rocher de Plautret (1827m).

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A view over the Drôme hills in the south from Rocher de Plautret (1827m).

In the evening I climb to the summit of Rocher de Plautret (1827m), a rocky summit on the steep edge of the plateau. Beyond lies the Drôme valley 1400m in the deeps below. A cold breeze almost makes me shiver in my vapor barrier clothes. I watch the sun setting before returning to the tent. The way back to the tent becomes a fast ski run down the moderate slope of the mountain.

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Morning on the bivouac spot near the Ferme des Bachassons.

The next morning I pack my backpack but I’m leaving my tent and pulk behind. Today I want to climb the Montagne de Glandasse and make a ski traverse of this mountain ridge away from the plateau. Reaching the crest of the ridge becomes harder than I’ve thought, winding myself in numerous zigzags on the steep slope between the pines. When finally on the ridge I can admire the wild views over the plateau, over the Drôme hills in the south and the alpine peaks of the Alps in the east. Groups of chamois have found refuge on the Montagne de Glandasse, fleeing away whenever they get me in the eye.

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The Cabanes de Chatillon (1795m) on Montagne de Glandasse, my next stay for the night.

From the summit of le Dôme (2041m) a long descent awaits me to the Cabane de Chatillon. The snow is often a hard icy crust on the south facing slope so I switch a few times to walking in stead of skiing. The Cabanes de Chatillon are half buried in the snow. One of the shepherd’s huts is never locked. It is quite dark inside but it doesn’t matter. I have found my next stay for the night. In the evening I descend over the steep path into the cliff face on the south face of Montagne de Glandasse. I know from an earlier trip during late springtime, there is a source of water in the cliffs which can be reached over a ledge in the cliff face. However I’m not successful this time. Too much snow has accumulated on the narrow ledge and I immediately realize it is too dangerous to try searching the spring. That makes another evening melting the snow.

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De steep south face of Montagne de Glandasse, vainly searching for the water spring on the ledge.

The next day I ski the whole way back to the tent over the Montagne de Glandasse. Luckily I find my Soulo the way I left it behind yesterday. The sun is yet high above the horizon, so I pack the tent and put all my stuff back on the pulk. For the rest of the afternoon I ski in southeast direction over the plateau, mostly through dense pine forest. It’s tiresome to maneuver through the woods on the unbeaten powder dragging a pulk behind. The night falls before I can find a nice satisfying spot for the tent.

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Skiing back over the ridge of Montagne de Glandasse, view onto Roc d’Ambane.

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Tedious skiing over Montagne de Glandasse, dominated by a hard and irregular snow cover. Grand Veymont (2341m) and Mont Aiguille (2087m) are towering above the plateau in the background.

Between the summits of Tête de l’Angelet (1782m) and Rancou (1882m) I pitch the tent for the last night of the trip on the plateau. On the following day I visit the edge of the plateau above Cirque d’Archiane and once again have to deal with sticky snow under the pulk by noon. The sun keeps burning and temperatures reach well above freezing. At the Bergerie de Tussac I encounter the winding path leading down the plateau. 650m lower the path ends at the narrow paved road which comes to a dead-end in the Combeau valley. I hoped the road would still be covered by snow but I’m in no luck. I decide to leave my pulk behind, hide it in the woods and walk to the car to catch my pulk again later. Upon reaching the dead-end in the Combeau valley after about an hour of walking on the road with the skis attached on my backpack, the snow returns under my boots and soon I can start to ski again. The night falls when I ski over the Crête de la Grande Leirie back to the Col de Menée where I find the car again. After another nights sleep in the car I catch my pulk in the morning and return home from this nice and educational pulk trip.

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At the edge of the plateau above the canyon of Cirque d’Archiane.

Packrafting the Ourthe – gentle whitewater in the Belgian Ardennes

The bus is overloaded with school children. I have to stand upright in the bus. After a long ride through the Belgian Ardennes I ask the bus driver to put me off at the closest bus stop to the West Fork of the Ourthe river. Everyone is watching me with disbelief when I step out of the bus in empty fields in the middle of nowhere in the valley and I see them thinking “What are these paddles doing on his strange backpack?”

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The first camping spot on the river bank near Lavacherie.

I walk on foot towards the river. The Ourthe Occidentale, as the river is named here in French, looks a perfect challenge to packraft, the water flow seems fast though. I follow the river upstream for the rest of the day until I reach a perfect bivouac spot a few hours later at dusk next to the river with signs of beaver presence all around. It is dark outside when I go to sleep under the trailstar. Just before I fall asleep I hear a beaver splashing in the creek a few meters from the tarp.

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First flowers after winter on the banks of Ourthe Occidentale.

It is overcast and misty during the morning with light drizzle falling down from time to time. I break up camp and decide to follow the river back downstream on foot. The rocky river bed seems too shallow here in the gentle rapids for a smooth passage. Frequent remnants of snow patches on the river banks recall of the winter weather from last month.

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Rest stop on the banks of Ourthe Occidentale.

A few hours later I’m inflating my Denali Llama and start to paddle. The river is still rather small, the flow rather fast but the rapids are easy and never ask for a challenge. Rapidly I pass the latest hamlet of Wyompont and from now on the valley changes dramatically as I’m leaving the edge of the plateau of Saint-Hubert. The river wines itself in a deep V-shaped forested valley. Except from two roads crossing the river and a dam, there will be only wilderness for the upcoming 35km. For a densely populated country like Belgium that’s rather unique. The paddling is a delight.

In the later afternoon I reach the reservoir of Nisramont where the west and east fork of the Ourthe river join. After the short portage along the dam I put in again on the Ourthe river which has now doubled in size. It’s getting dark and I paddle in a fast pace to reach an interesting bivouac spot at the rock ridge of Le Hérou. Too late, it’s dark before I reach the place.

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Mouth of Ourthe Occidentale in the reservoir of Nisramont.

At five o’clock in the night I’m awakened by a man in an excavator. I have pitched the trailstar next to the river at the edge of a place with felled trees for forestry. I try to fall asleep again but don’t succeed. The excavator is taking three to five trees each time with its gripper and dragging them away out of the valley. After about twenty minutes he returns each time. At dawn I take my stuff and jump back into my packraft.

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Second bivouac, in the upper reaches of the Ourthe river.

A bit farther downstream I arrive at the rock ridge of Le Hérou and moor my packraft to a tree. I climb to the ridge over the cable route in a ledge of the rockface. From a certain spot on top of the ridge you can see the river deep below five times in different incised meander bends. Today the clouds are scouring the hills and a fog layer is swarming below over the river, so I only get to see three of them.

Back on the water the most pleasant section of the river begins. Numerous small rapids follow with a lot of boulders just under the water line in the river bed asking for attention. At noon I reach the hamlet of Maboge. Passed this small village the valley becomes wider and the wilderness feeling disappears gradually. The river gradually changes its character too and becomes deeper, the water flow slower on the flat water sections and the rapids are now more of the wave train type. I jump three weirs, pass more villages and put out at the village of Melreux to search for supply in a grocery store.

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In the evening at the third bivouac under the trailstar by the river near Deulin.

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Ready for a last long day to the confluence with the Amblève river.

In the evening I put the trailstar in a wide field a bit further downstream close by the village of Deulin. From here the river leaves the Ardennes and flows through the Famenne and Condroz regions. The last day I continue to the confluence with the Amblève river. Last December I already ran this section of the river together with Willem. We had high water levels that time so many rapids were leveled out. I’m surprised how different the river is now at moderate water levels. There are more rapids now and from time to time islands now appear in the river bed which were flooded last time. The wave trains are getting bigger the further downstream. At the confluence with the Amblève river the Ourthe doubles again in size and it starts to feel the river has become a dimension too big for my tiny raft. Just passed the confluence I put out of the river. Further downstream towards the city of Liège, the valley gets too civilized and dangerous by multiple dams which are difficult to portage. I walk to the railway station nearby to return back home. The Ourthe river is one of the finest rivers in Belgium for packrafting and it is a journey on its own to see the changing landscape and water with the flow of the river. Now, what will be next?

A ramble from summer into autumn

In August and September 2008 I went to Sarek national park for the first time. Sarek is a small and beautiful mountain wilderness area in Swedish Lapland which seems to reassemble very well the Brooks Range in Alaska and is therefore sometimes called European Alaska. For me personally, it is my favorite area in Europe for wilderness backpacking so far.

Sarek 2008
Upper Rapadalen from Spökstenen.

During the years I have developed a rather unusual way of making wilderness backpacking trips. When looking at the maps while planning at home, I can almost never choose a straight line through a certain mountain area. There are always too much places on the map which look so interesting that it would be regrettable to skip those places. Therefore I developed myself the habit to plan rather complex looking criss-cross routes through each area on which I’ve put my mind for a long wilderness backpacking trip, trying to see as much as I can by following such a complex route. When I was planning my first trip in Sarek, I couldn’t change that habit either.

Sarek 2008
Moose with calf in the forest of Rapadalen.

Eventually I made a trip of 27 days with only one small resupply at the mountain hut of Aktse just outside the park. My pack weighted 32kg at the start. Today I start to dislike such heavy weights to begin such a long trip, but back than I was still in perfect shape and strong and didn’t mind walking with weeks of food in my pack. Back home I spend one month writing my story about the trip based on field notes and my valuable memories. This trip report looks at the end more like a book than just a report. Unfortunately it was written in Dutch but those really interested can try to use a Dutch to your language translator and read the story here.

Sarek 2008
View over Rapaselet in Rapadalen valley from the mountain Låddebakte (1537m). Is this not like a packraft paradise?

Honestly, I’m a person who doesn’t really like to meet other people on a wilderness trip (but I’m not going to run away if someone appears). I like solitude, even for weeks in a row. I came across different opinions concerning whether you can experience a feeling of solitude on a trip through Sarek or not when I was preparing my first trip. In my experiences you can experience both solitude here as well as meet several people each or almost each day during the summer months. It just depends on which route you choose to take. There are eroded trails in the valleys which are frequented rather regularly, lets say daily during the summer months. But once you stroll away from these popular routes you can be alone for days or even more than a week. While walking during the day I have the habit to count the number of people I meet and happen to see from a distance each day, as well as the amount of wildlife I see. In the table below I have listed the number of people I saw each day on the trip. With the routemap you can have a better idea which part of the area has more frequented routes. Note that I walked on the very popular Kungsleden trail for two days just past halfway on the trip. The number of people you can meet here is certainly out of proportion compared to the popular routes in Sarek itself.

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Northern lights above Tjuoldavagge.

Date Number of people met
20 Aug 8
21 Aug 7
22 Aug 0
23 Aug 5
24 Aug 4
25 Aug 8
26 Aug 0
27 Aug 3
28 Aug 1
29 Aug 8
30 Aug 2
31 Aug 5
01 Sep 0
02 Sep 3
03 Sep 47 (all of them on Kungleden)
04 Sep 38 (all of them on Kungleden)
05 Sep 0
06 Sep 0
07 Sep 0
08 Sep 0
09 Sep 0
10 Sep 1
11 Sep 0
12 Sep 0
13 Sep 0
14 Sep 13 (all in Kvikkjokk)
15 Sep 1 (in Kvikkjokk)

Snowstorms, aurora nights and arctic summit bivouacs

After 48 hours on trains and busses I finally arrived in the small village Kvikkjokk in Swedish Lapland south of the Laponia wilderness. It was around sunset and getting dark on this evening, one day after the March equinox. No single sign of human life was noticeable in the village. I immediately prepared my pulk, put my skis on and left the village in northeast direction over the Kungsleden trail.

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Night on the Kungsleden trail outside Kvikkjokk.

This famous long distance trail turns into a snow scooter track during the winter and is easy and fast to follow on skis. I skied about 5km in the dark under the stars till I encountered an open spot in the forest. Here I pitched the tent in the snow and went to sleep. A few times I looked outside through the tent door to see if there would be northern lights active but the moon and the stars were all that remained visible in the night sky.

During the morning my outdoor watch was showing -12°c inside the tent. I stowed everything back into my pulk and continued with skiing northeastward over the Kungsleden trail. The Bårdde mountain massif made the horizon in the north. Today I wanted to reach the foot of the mountains in Sarek. Sarek national park counts one of the most desolate mountain terrain in the whole of Scandinavia and that’s the area through which I now wanted to make a crossing on this winter trip.

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A curious Siberian Jay in the taiga forest.

Few kilometers farther I arrived on the frozen lake Stuor Dahta. Here I left the Kungsleden behind and entered the taiga forest north of the lake to climb through the forest to the Pårek plain in the south of Sarek.

Progression became immediately very slow. I sagged till my thighs in the soft powder snow which is so typical in the taiga forests. I almost never saw my skis except from the tips. My pulk was drifting behind me through the snow, often buried in the white mass. It was difficult to find a good way up through the forest. The climb through the forest was only 2km long but it took me four hours to cover it.

After hours I reached the tree line and the snow immediately changed composition. A hard snow deck covered the tundra hills of Lulep Vardo and I could make fast progression by now. I climbed till the ridge of the hill where I had a fantastic view over the surroundings and on the southern mountains of Sarek.

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Footprints of a wolverine in the snow.

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The view in southeast direction from Lulep Varddo (785m) with the white lake Stuor Dahta (526m) and the hills of Gablla.

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At the hill Lulep Varddo (785m) with view on part of the Bårdde mountain massif with the mountains Tjievra (1692m), Loametjåhkkå (1871m) and Bårddetjåhkkå (2005m).

After descending the hill I crossed the Pårek plain in a pretty fast speed. North of the plain I reached the foot slope of the Bårdde mountain massif. An abandoned summer Sami settlement is located on the foot slope where I found a turf hut where I could sleep at night.

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Continuing my way north over the Pårek plain with the Bårdde mountains on the horizon.

I collected firewood from the scattered birch around the settlement and made a campfire in the hut. But then something unexpected happened inside the hut. At a certain moment my Petzl head lamp fell open and the batteries fell into the fire, immediately exploding. This was a serious setback since my head lamp was the only light source I had with me on the trip. How would I be able to find my stuff inside the tent at night? The disaster made me feel a bit anxious and I told myself to stop early enough before dusk each evening from now on to have enough time to pitch the tent in the remaining daylight.

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The old sami hut at the edge of the Pårek plain where I lost the batteries of my head lamp in the camp fire, unlucky me.

The next morning the weather remained perfect. An exhuberant winter sun rose above the Pårek plain. I climbed over the southern foot slope of Bårdde into the valley south of the mountain Bårddetjåhkkå. Here I left my pulk and skis behind between some boulders and took my backpack on my back to start climbing towards the summit of Bårddetjåhkkå on my snowshoes. I had the tricky plan to pitch the tent on the summit of Bårddetjåhkkå and spent a night on the mountain if weather permitting. Two years earlier I had spent a night on the summit on an autumn trip through Sarek but did not saw any northern lights during that night. Since I found the summit panorama so overwhelming from this mountain, I had said to myself that night to keep returning to this mountain until I would see the northern lights from its summit.

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The locked red metal cabin below the summit of Bårddetjåhkkå (2005m).

The slope towards the summit of the mountain was not very steep and therefore perfectly feasible in winter. The view from the summit on all the other Sarek mountains and the taiga plains in the south is still one of the most beautiful summit panoramas I have ever seen.

Conditions remained perfect when I arrived on the summit. There was only a weak breeze and sky clear. Despite the favorable conditions I pitched the tent as secure as possible. By studying the weather forecast at home I knew the weather would probably deteriorate during the next morning.

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My Hilleberg Soulo pitched on the summit of Bårddetjåhkkå (2005m) with a beautiful view of the Sarek mountains in the background. The air was so clear I could see the Lofoten Islands rising out of the low clouds over the Norwegian Sea.

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Looking in northern direction from the summit of Bårddetjåhkkå onto Ahkka (2015m) 46km away in Stora Sjöfallets national park, the mountain which is also called the queen of Laponia by the Sami people. More in the foreground you can recognise the Sarek mountains Kanalberget (1937m) on the left with the summit of Nijak (1922m) just visible behind and on the right Dielmatjåhkkå (1659m), Axel Hambergs topp (1821m) and the western summit of Suottasjtjåhkkå (1822m).

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Mountains in the massif of Sarektjåhkkå in the evening light: Såltatjåhkkå (1928m), Gassatjåhkkå (1912m) and Gavabakte (1906m).

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The highest mountains of Sarek, from left to right Sarektjåhkkå Stortoppen (2089m), Sydtoppen (2023m) and Bucht-toppen (2010m).

During the night I woke up to search for the aurora and they appeared! It was -21°c and a moderate breeze from the west felt icy cold. I enjoyed the dancing curtains over the arctic mountains while jumping and sweeping with my arms to prevent shivering from the cold. Few hours later the night sky became entirely black again and I jumped back into my tent. During the rest of the night I could not find a good nights sleep anymore. I felt the cold reaching my body through the air mattress. The winds were further increasing towards the end of the night and when I got out of the tent around sunrise the wind was increased to stormy speeds. Low clouds were visible in the south but it was still clear above me and over the remaining Sarek mountains. When I broke up the tent everything changed at an alarming speed. In just one hour of time the low clouds reached Bårdde and I disappeared into a white out on the mountain, the winds increased to storm speed. I knew I had to be as fast as possible now so I did not take a breakfast.

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Northern lights above the moonlit mountains of Sarek.

I descended the mountain as fast as I could and made a pause in the lee side of the steel cabin on the ridge below the summit. Here I ate a quick breakfast and soon continued descending into the valley. Meanwhile it began to snow. Down in the valley I descended under the cloud base and could see the surroundings again, but all mountains were now hidden in the clouds. The winds were less heavy down here even though snowfall continued. I picked up my skis and pulk and started to ski towards the Njoatsosvagge over the mountain pass of Sähkok where I temporary disappeared into the white out again.

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Descending into the Njoatsosvagge in wind and snowfall.

Descending down into the Njoatsosvagge went fast. I had to ski in zigzags most of the time, otherwise I would gain too much speed and that would be unsafe as my ski techniques were not yet that experienced. On the valley floor of the Njoatsosvagge it started to snow harder and the wind seemed to increase again. I met a lot of snow fowls, loudly flying out of the snow deck whenever my presence felt too threatening for them.

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Skiing over the frozen river in the Njoatsosvagge.

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Bivouac at the mouth of the Luohttojåhkå into the Njoatsosvagge.

I pitched my tent against a rock wall on the edge of the valley floor where the canyon of the Luohttojåhkå creek runs from the Luohtolahkko mountain plateau into the valley. This way I was a bit sheltered against the wind gusts which were rushing from the Luohtolahkko plateau down over the slope into the valley.

The next day it remained snowing for a long time. Around noon the snowstorm ceased and it became quiet quickly with virtually no wind anymore. I skied into the Luohttojåhkå canyon which would lead me to the Luohtolahkko mountain plateau. The fresh layer of snow and a lot of powder snow had been accumulated in the canyon, blown here by the winds from the plateau. To my surprise the creek in the canyon was not frozen everywhere. I met a few tricky passages in the canyon where I had to find a way to pull my pulk over a slope above spots of open water.

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Hollows under the snow above the snow covered Luohttojåhkå.

Higher up the canyon turned into an open V-shaped valley until I could ascend out of the valley over the slope and reach the plateau. But this was not easy orientation wise as a layer of fog was now covering the plateau. I did not see anything. Everything was white. The snow and the sky before me were just one equal white display for my vision. I tried to stay on track with help of my GPS and compass. Later I climbed out of the fog and reached a hill in the middle of the plateau. This was an impressive place.

A wall of white mountains bordered the vast plateau where a trail of footprints of a wolverine was the only sign of life in this arctic winter wilderness. The weather improved so I decided to climb Nåite, an isolated mountain with a rounded summit bordering the Luohtolahkko plateau in the northeast. I left my pulk behind on the plateau and saved its position as a waypoint on my GPS. Then I climbed Nåite on snowshoes and made another summit bivouac. A layer of fog invaded the Luohtoloahkko plateau below at dusk while I tried to anchor the tent as secure as possible. The only reason I pitched the tent again this high was to get another spectacular view of the northern lights, but things did not evolve as I hoped that night.

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Bårdde seen from the Luohttolahko plateau.

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On the summit of Nåite (1620m) in the evening with the Luohttolahko mountain plateau in the background covered again under a layer of fog.

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Morning on the summit of Nåite (1620m) in fog and snowfall.

During the morning I awoke in a white out, light snowfall and increasing wind, but a next real snowstorm did not look to be on its way. I broke up the tent, descended the mountain and found my pulk and skis again on the plateau. Now I had to leave the Luohtolahkko plateau and descend into the Sarvesvagge. The only spot where this is possible during winter is through the Noajdevagge, a small canyon like side valley of the Sarvesvagge. From my earlier summer trip in Sarek I knew there is only one narrow strip on the valley slope where I could make a safe descent from the plateau down the valley. At other places the valley slope is too steep and avalanche danger too high. Reaching this only spot with help of my GPS was easy in the white out, but skiing down the slope on deep powder with a pushing pulk in my back was another story. Because it is only over a narrow strip that the slope is not too steep for a winter descent, I had to ski down in zigzags. Making a sharp turn with a pulk is not possible so I gained a lot of speed in each turn. Besides that, there was no possibility to orientate in the white out which made keeping equilibrium an impossible task for me. I fell several times and one time my pulk got twisted behind me. Luckily this slope was not that long and soon I could ski downward over the narrow valley bottom with ease. A reindeer herd had chosen the valley to search for food under the snowdeck. They were probably left aside by the Sami as the mountains of Sarek are not supposed to be their winter grounds.

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Climbing out of the river canyon of the Noajdevagge.

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Skiing between the birch in the Sarvesvagge with a view onto the river bed of the Sarvesjåhkå.

On the lower part of the Noajdevagge the river ran into a canyon with too many passages of steep ice and open water rapids in the river that were too dangerous to pass along. I had no choice than to search a way to pull my pulk out of the canyon as moving over the river became too dangerous. I succeeded with much effort. Further down the slope I reached the valley bottom of the wide Sarvesvagge, one bigger valley in Sarek and also one of the least frequented during the summer season. I was now below the cloudbase and could see the lower part of the valley. By skiing eastward I reached Rapadalen, the big main valley inside Sarek, where I pitched the tent in the birch forest. During the night the following snowstorm arrived, throwing a load of drifting snow on the tent with each wind gust and that kept me out of sleep for a long time at night.

It took till the afternoon the next day until the sun appeared. The wind however remained blowing strong. I decided to explore the slopes of Rapadalen on snowshoes and to wait till tomorrow to move on.

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Sitting out the snow storm in Rapadalen.

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The tent on a sheltered spot in Rapadalen after the snow storm with the mountain Låddebakte (1537m) towering above the valley floor.

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Climbing higher through the powder snow in Rapadalen on snowshoes with Rapaselet and the Bielloriehppe mountains in the background.

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Snow drifting in the stormy winds over the valley slope of Rapadalen.

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Rapadalen with Dielmaskajdde, Rapaselet, Bielloriehppe and the drifting snow on the valley slope in the foreground.

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Rapadalen with Låddebakte (1537m) and Rapaselet.

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Sarvesvagge below and the mountain massif of Gådok and Bielloriehppe seen from the ridge of Dielmma.

The next day I skied upstream over the frozen Rahpaädno river in Rapadalen. Skiing over the ice went faster than through the powder in the birch forest on the valley floor. Around noon I left Rapadalen behind me and climbed over the valley slope to the wide saddle of the Pielastugan under the huge face of mountain Bierikbakte (1789m). Footprints of a fox led me to the frozen Bierikjavrre mountain lake. After crossing the lake I was heading for the hill Vuojnesvarasj and had to cross the frozen river Bierikjåhkå. Something unexpected took place while I crossed the river ice. The ice started to crack and before I really realized what was going on I immediately started to ran to the other side of the river to get rid of the collapsing ice. The ice collapsed under the pressure of my weight but by moving as fast as could I could save myself from sinking too deep into the water. My pulk however was floating behind me like a boat on the water between the broken ice. Once on safe ground on the riverside the ski bindings immediately froze solid and sticky ice formed on the skins as well as under the pulk. It was a hard work to get my boots out of the bindings with help of my knife and then scrape all the ice from the skins and the bottom of the pulk with my snow shovel.

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The upper part of Rapadalen with Skarjatjåhkkå (1647m) seen when climbing out of the valley towards Bielavratja.

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First view on Bierikbakte (1789m) when moving over a sastrugi field.

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Bierikbakte (1789m) when approaching the Pielastugan. This cabin belongs to the mountain association of Jokkmokk and is also locked.

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Looking towards the Basstavagge with Ähpartjåhkkå (1914m) on the left and Alep Basstaskajdasj (1766m) on the right.

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Following the footprints of a fox on Bierikjavrre (801m).

Hard work or not, I realized I had been lucky. By sinking deeper in the river water the consequences could have been much worse. One lesson learned: never cross a river downstream from a lake. Warmer water from under the lake ice seems to stream into the river which prevents the formation of thick river ice immediately downstream from the lake outlet.

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The collapsed ice on Bierikjåhkå.

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Bivouac on Vuojnesvarasj (1006m) at the base of Vuojnestjåhkkå east ridge while in the background you can recognise the cone shaped mountain Slugga (1279m) in Stora Sjöfallets.

On Vuojnesvarasj I searched a sheltered spot to pitch the tent. It was snowing again during almost the entire night. During daytime I waited for the weather to improve and during the afternoon it even became sunny and quiet again which made me decide to climb Vuojnestjåhkkå. And why not take the tent with me to the summit. I searched my way to the summit over the long and wide east ridge of the mountain which never becomes steep to be dangerous. On the summit I could admire another spectacular winter panorama. I studied the weather which remained pretty fine and decided to give it a try. So eventually I pitched the tent before dusk on the hard snow just below the summit ridge of the mountain. At sunset I went to sleep and decided to wake up at least once every hour to check for the northern lights to appear and to keep an eye on the weather evolution. Conditions can change very quickly in the arctic mountains and I wouldn’t get surprised by a snow storm in the middle of the night. A full moon rose above the mountains and gave me a lot of helpfull light at night since my head lamp was still useless without any spare batteries.

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View over the Vuojnesjiegna glacier with the mountains Spijkka (1976m), and Sarektjåhkkå Sydtoppen (2023m), Bucht-toppen (2010m), Stortoppen (2089m) and Nordtoppen (2056m) from halfway on the east ridge of Vuojnestjåhkkå.

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On the secondary summit of Vuojnestjåhkkå with view onto the main summit (1952m) and with Sarektjåhkkå Sydtoppen (2023m), Bucht-toppen (2010m), Stortoppen (2089m) and Nordtoppen (2056m) visible behind.

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The deeps towards Sarvajiegna on the southwest side of Vuojnestjåhkkå (1952m).

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The mountains of Ähpar and Skårki with the frozen lake Bierikjavrre (801m) below seen from Vuojnestjåhkkå (1952m).

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My tent on the ridge between the secondary and the main summit of Vuojnestjåhkkå (1952m) with the mountains in Stora Sjöfallets in the background.

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Ähpartjåhkkå (1914m) and Bierikbakte (1789m) from Vuojnestjåhkkå (1952m).

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Ähpar, Skårki, Bielloriehppe, Gådok and Bårdde with Sarvajiegna below from Vuojnestjåhkkå (1952m) at sunset.

Deeper into the night the green glow appeared in the sky, not very active but I was happy enough to admire yet another aurora night from a mountain summit. I did not feel so comfortable about the weather evolution though when looking at the sky in the southwest. Lens shaped lenticularis clouds appeared over the mountains overthere and grew into larger proportions. I was hesitating at first but than made the decision to listen to the rules I had set myself each time I would make such a bivouac on a mountain summit. Whenever hesitating about the weather evolution, just be better safe than sorry, pack and leave the mountain. While I was packing my tent and other bivouac gear the clouds were invading all the Sarek mountains one by one while the aurora disappeared behind them when the cloud sheet reached the mountain ridge of Sarektjåhkkå. It was a long way down again. My track in the snow over the east ridge was perfect to discern and to follow in the dark. At the time I finished pitching the tent again at the base of the mountain it was already past three during the night and when I could finally lay myself down in the tent it began to snow. All mountains were again hiding in a thick cloud deck. I definitely had made the right decision and on time.

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Night on Vuojnestjåhkkå (1952m) with weak northern lights above the mountains of Stora Sjöfallets national park.

The next day I did not move anything. It remained snowing the entire day while the winds were increasing too. The following night everything evolved into a third snowstorm and I had to come out of my tent in the middle of the night to close a gap under the flysheet through which the drifting snow was entering the tent. Weather improved slowly at daytime and during the afternoon I was on my way skiing towards Sjuodji, a long hill marking the border between Sarek and Stora Sjöfallets national parks. Here on the slope of the hill I waited for two nights in hope for more northern light shows. The weather did not cooperate in a positive way though. Two cloudy snowy nights were alternated with a sunny day in between. I made another lazy day, only exploring the hill and enjoying the lookouts onto the Sarek mountains and the plains of Stora Sjöfallets.

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Lifting clouds over the Ähpar massif seen from inside the tent on Sjuodji.

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Mountain massif of Sarektjåhkkå seen from Sjuodji (1089m).

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Slugga (1279m) seen from Sjuodji (1089m).

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Bivouac spot on Sjuodji with Vuojnestjåhkkå (1952m) in the background.

A long day followed when I skied through Stora Sjöfallets towards lake Langas where the small settlement Vietas is located at the other side of the lake, the end point of the trip where I needed to catch the bus. On my way I passed the volcano like mountain Slugga and met a Sami family ice fishing on lake Bietsavrre. By late afternoon I could start with the descend through the taiga forest towards lake Langas. A big surprise was awaiting me. The lake was not entirely frozen and I had to find a way to cross it! The outflow of the hydroelectric power station near Vietas brought a strong current into the lake with a big area of open water as a result. Further downstream the lake was frozen again even though the ice did not look very safe out there.

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Heading towards the volcano like mountain Slugga (1279m) on the border of Stora Sjöfallets national park.

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View over Bietsavrre (645m) in Stora Sjöfallets national park from the mountain pass below Slugga.

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View back over the Spadnejåhkå river with Slugga (1279m) behind.

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A reindeer herd in Stora Sjöfallets national park.

It was a nervous job to bring my pulk down over the steep descend in the forest where I met many traces of moose. I skied towards the Stora Sjöfallet waterfall which connects lake Vietas with the upstream lake Gårtejavrre. A narrow strip of land separates the two lakes from each other. The river connecting the two lakes was not frozen and therefore impossible to cross. Gårtejavrre, the upstream lake was frozen though. That saved me from an unsafe crossing over Lake Langas. I spent de last night in the Sjofallstugan, a small hut on the southern lakeside of Langas. The ice on the lake was making loud cracking noises all the time. It was a bit frightening to hear. Later during the night the northern lights appeared for a last time and remained active for hours till about four o’clock in the night. I remained watching the show in the cold till the very last convulsion. This was a memorable moment to end the trip. The next morning I skied over Gårtejavrre and the small strip of land to Vietas where I caught the bus at noon.

Man, this was a great Sarek winter crossing!

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Lake Langas (375m) not entirely frozen!

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Latest dinner of the trip in the Sjöfallsstugan.

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Northern lights above Stora Sjöfallets with the lights of Vietas at the other side of lake Langas.

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Northern lights above the Sjöfallsstugan.

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Northern lights above Stora Sjöfallets.