Packrafting the Swiss Grand Canyon

End of August and I receive a last minute invitation from Waluyo to join him on a yet to define packrafting trip in Switzerland. By chance I can take a few days off. Same so for Eraz. The three of us are heading to the Swiss Alps September 1th and decide to take the alpine headwaters of the Rhine river as our target. The Hinterrhein and Vorderrhein rivers join near the village of Bonaduz to form the upper Rhine upstream of Lake Constance. The lower part of the Hinterrhein looks like a nice warming up for the somewhat more challenging whitewater of the Vorderrhein, the latter wriggling itself through a 20km long canyon before meeting the Hinterrhein. The canyon bears the local name Ruinaulta and is also known as the Swiss Grand Canyon because of its size (of course by far not to be compared with Arizona standards).

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On late Sunday we meet each other in Bonaduz. Our trip starts at the confluence of the two rivers. We hike upstream along the Hinterrhein at dusk and soon it is too dark to keep our head lamps in our packs. Waluyo has found a perfect camping spot on a small strip of meadow surrounded by woods and at the edge of the abysm to the river. We put our tarps and inspect each others lightweight gear, but it is Eraz his super light MYOG that receives most attention. We talk till almost midnight and finally creep under our down bags while some light rain is tapping on our tarps.

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Ruinaulta 201309

The morning is dry again. We warm up after breakfast with an hour playing frisbee, something we will repeat for the next mornings… and not only during the mornings. We continue our hike upstream and soon we encounter the rocky rapid in the Hinterrhein near Rothenbrunnen. We decide to inflate our packrafts on a small gravel bar in the river bed just below the rapid. The lower Hinterrhein reveals itself as a rather fast flowing river with some rather modest wave trains and a few easy swift currents. The water level in the river is lower then average and so it becomes a relaxed ride on the river. After about one and a half hour we reach the confluence with the Vorderrhein, put out and let dry our gear on the river bank with the noon lunch.

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Ruinaulta 201309

For the remainder of the day we hike to the west, climbing to the forested south rim of the Vorderrhein canyon with from time to time some budding views down to the river. Eraz suddenly stumbles upon an edible mushroom and is already dreaming about its delicious dessert for this evening. We eventually descend into the canyon to reach the narrow side canyon of the Rabiusa creek. Here we make our camp on the gravel bottom of the canyon and lit a camp fire. Soon the sky is dark with countless stars flickering above the chasm. A curious fox pays us a visit in the dark.

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Ruinaulta 201309

Ruinaulta 201309

The sun rays take a long time to reach our cold camping spot at the bottom of the canyon during the morning. In order not to get cold, this means frisbee morning!

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Ruinaulta 201309

The day becomes warm as we continue our trip hiking to the west. After some views over the canyon, we mostly continue inside the canyon near the river during the afternoon, scouting some of the rapids. At Schwarze Loch, the most impressive rapid in the canyon, we keep a long break and discuss the ideal line to be followed through the whitewater. Afterwards we hike all the way to Ilanz and finally put in on the Glenner before its confluence with the Vorderrhein.

The water level we encounter on the Vorderrhein has become very low however. Unfortunately that’s what you can get with regulated flow by hydropower dams upstream. However, the river gains some discharge again as we float downstream and the rapids we encounter offer already quite some fun. When we finally reach Schwarze Loch, the river its water level suddenly rises with about half a meter. We decide to take our packs from our packrafts and try to run this longer white water section. None of us has issues with taming the waves.

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Ruinaulta 201309

We camp at a barbecue area next to the river near the entrance of Schwarze Loch and continue on the river the day after. The rapids that follow after Schwarze Loch also make the cruiser decked packrafts of Waluyo and Eraz swallow a few buckets of water repeatedly. We regularly stop to empty the rafts, except for me. The white water spray deck on my packraft proves its functionality once again. We reach Reichenau at the confluence with the Hinterrhein before noon and decide to leave our backpacks with camping gear behind at the confluence to head to the nearby train station with only our packrafting gear for another run on the Vorderrhein, but now obviously without excess gear stowed on the bows of our rafts.

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Once again in Ilanz, the water level now shows a decent level. The second run becomes pure joy. We play, try some harder lines and linger for a moment on a nice wave surfing spot. After only a few hours we reach the confluence again and leave the river, this time permanently.

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After a camp in a small meadow in the forest above Bonaduz, we hike back to our starting point the next morning and say goodbye. This has been such a great adventure that we definitely should make a similar trip again in the future. Who wants to join next time?

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24 Grevelingen

Lake Grevelingen is the biggest non-tidal saltwater lake in Western Europe. Located in the southwest of the Netherlands, it was formed after the damming of a sea strait in the river delta of the Meuse and Rhine rivers during the Delta Works in the ’60s and ’70s. Winds were not too strong by the end of August and so I decided to make a packrafting overnighter on the lake.

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The mainland from Hompelvoet Island.

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Arrived on Hompelvoet.

I visited several of the many small and uninhabited islands in the lake. On the second day the wind picked suddenly up to a steady 4 Beaufort and waves appeared while I was about in the middle on the lake with the nearest shore of the mainland several kilometers away. No time to waist!

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Exploring the islands on foot.

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Icelandic horses maintain wild trails through the shrubs on the islands.

Back on shore I hiked towards the North Sea and played a bit on the sea. Waves were too low for surfing however and so I amused myself by paddling deep into the sea for several times, then capsize my boat and swim back to the shore with my packraft kept on the leash. It was a good workout.

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Reaching the other side of the island after partly bushwhacking through the wild inner.

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The sea, the beach and dunes.

A getaway on the Escapardenne Eisleck trail

Few weeks ago I had a relaxed hike on the Escapardenne Eisleck trail (EET), a 104km long and new hiking trail in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the south of Belgium. A friend joined me on the trail during the first day. For the remainder of the hike I walked solo, making wild bivouacs in the forests. Deer and wild boars passed by during most of the nights. The trail made me enjoy some corners in the countryside of the Ardennes that were completely new to me, even though the trail coincides a lot with the GR57 trail which I already section hiked several times in the area before. The pictures give you some further impressions of the trail.

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The west entrance of the tunnel of the Channel of Bernistap. This channel was build in the 19th century to make a connection between the watersheds of the Meuse and Rhine rivers. However, the project was never completed due to the growing benefits of rail transport at that time.

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The countryside on the plateau of the Ardennes around the border between Belgium and Luxembourg.

Foxes playing on the banks of the Channel of Bernistap.

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One of many small frogs at the Weiler ponds.

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Nice evening in the forest under the trailstar.

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Backlit in the forest.

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Somewhere on the plateau south of Clervaux after a rainy morning.

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Approaching Kautenbach through a nice valley.

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Pink colors in the Ourthe valley where I followed the GR57 trail from Gouvy to Houffalize to join the EET again.

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Following the markings of the GR57 trail.

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Crossing the young Ourthe Orientale.

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First time I encountered such a big one in Belgium.

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On the plateau above the Ourthe valley.

Smells like North Sea

After some sea packrafting in Norway and France years ago, a friend and I met at the Belgian coast yesterday for some sea packrafting on the North Sea. It was the first time ever that I took my packraft to the Belgian coast. The weather forecast predicted a weak wind (3 Beaufort is definitely weak on the sea) slowly veering from west to north and only 30cm high waves, ideal circumstances to prevent any danger to be blown away from the shore or to be swallowed by giant waves. We started east of the port channel of the port of Ostend, crossed the port channel just before a ship entered and had to fight the tidal current which was strengthened by the restriction of the port channel. Then we watched the city from the sea and after a while turned our packrafts 180°.

North Sea packrafting 201308

After we crossed the port channel again, we paddled further away from the shore to take a look at the Flansea wave pioneer about 1100m from the shore. The tidal current (about 5km/h yesterday) made us almost miss the large drifting obstacle. We played a bit in its wake and both tried to circumnavigate it, which was not without danger with the strong current. Then we let us drift eastward in the current and wind, passed small fisher boats. Slowly we came closer to the shore, the rescue teams on their red lifeboats each after one visiting us to check us out and to ask what kind of strange boat we were using. As long as we did not interfere with the bathers we were fine to do what we wanted.

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After a rest stop on the beach, we tried to paddle back towards Ostend against the current and the wind. We succeeded but became nevertheless so tired that we decided to stop and play a bit in the breakers. After a few pints of beer at the beach house we walked the last two kilometers back to Ostend. Next time trying to paddle the whole 67km of the Belgian coast from De Panne to Knokke with a moderate and stable WSW wind? That would be a real challenge!

My thru-hike of the Tour du Mont Blanc

Ever wondered what would be the most popular, the most frequented hiking trail in Europe? I think the answer is simply the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB). Eleven years ago after I finished the Stubaier Höhenweg in Austria, that was my first multi day hike ever, I was indulging in the TMB as a possible next destination but soon lost my interest in it. During the last week of June I had eight days off but I did not found any inspiration to search for a possible trip and decided to better stay home. At the last minute I changed my mind and decided to go for the TMB. I was unprepared, even did not have a map of most of the Italian part but I thought this trail would be so well marked that in fact I should manage to thru-hike the entire trail unprepared. Fortunately that perfectly proved to be so. The TMB is a very easy hike (except from the Arpette variant) and also quite varied. Because of the large amounts of snow that were still lingering in the mountains this year, I took ice axe and crampons in my pack even though I was not sure I would need them.

I was surprised how many people actually hike this trail. I knew it would be many, but I had never thought it would be this many! There were days I passed over 300 people! Americans, Englishmen, Russians, Poles and Japanese were the most notable nationalities I encountered during the hike. I did not hear a lot of French and sometimes I even did not feel to be still in Europe.

I took all higher variants of the trail, except from the variant over Tête Bernarde at the Italian side (obviously because I had no map of this area). That means I hiked over Fenêtre d’Arpette, passed Lac Blanc, over Col de Tricot and Col des Fours. It was striking that these variants were not well marked or even not marked at all compared to the main route. As a result almost nobody seemed to hike the variants, which is a shame I think because all the variants have more interesting views to offer.

I thru-hiked the trail with a more leisurely pace than usual and finished in 7 days of which I hiked only a few hours on two days because of bad weather conditions. A lightweight or ultralight hiker in good shape will be able to thru-hike the trail in 4 to 6 days I think. I started in La Fouly in Switserland and hiked the trail counterclockwise. Landscape wise the trail has beautiful parts to offer, but it is certainly not more special than elsewhere in the Alps. This trail is much overrated internationally, though I’m still glad I did not stay home.

You can have a look at my TMB gear list.

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Cold morning in Val Ferret just after the start in La Fouly.

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Through cozy alleys of the Swiss village Praz-de-Fort.

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Flowers abound at the end of June.

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First snow on the trail in Val d’Arpette.

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Climbing towards Fenêtre d’Arpette.

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The east side of Fenêtre d’Arpette (2665m), a rather steep slope still completely covered in snow in June.

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Looking back down while arriving at Fenêtre d’Arpette.

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Markings at Fenêtre d’Arpette. It was freezing with light snowfall when I arrived at the col.

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Ibex playing on the snowfields.

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Who’s the strongest?

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The dominant male of the group.

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Looking back at Glacier du Trient.

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Improving weather after ten hours of continuous rain in Val de Trient.

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At the Trient river and it is raining again.

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The stone stairs at the Arpette variant.

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A lot of snowfields on my way to Col du Balme (2191m).

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Frosty sky clear morning after a windy and rainy night above Col the Balme, Aiguille Verte (4122m) in the background.

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I encountered this marmot along the trail. He remained so quiet I almost did not notice him.

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Aiguille Verte (4122m).

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Mont Blanc (4807m).

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Descending from L’Aiguillette des Posettes with the suburbs of Chamonix visible in the valley.

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Lac Blanc still well covered with snow and ice.

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A view towards Grandes Jorasses (4208m) and a Mer de Glace.

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The Aiguilles Rouges massif and Mont Buet from Le Brévent in the evening.

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Evening glow on Aiguille du Chardonnet and Aiguille d’Argentière.

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Aiguille Verte just before sunset.

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Mont Blanc at sunset.

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A night under the stars in my bivy bag at the mountain station of the gondola at Le Brévent (2525m), Mont Blanc in the back.

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Sunny day on the trail with splendid views onto Mont Blanc massif.

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The trail through the snow at Col du Bonhomme (2329m).

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Flower fields in Val des Glaciers.

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Looking back at Col des Fours (2665m) which was very easy passable through the snow.

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Arriving at Refuge des Mottets with Aiguille des Glaciers (3816m) in the background.

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The dirty trail in the snow at Col de la Seigne (2516m).

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The flow of debris from Glacier du Miage.

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Through the narrow alleys of the Italian village Courmayeur.

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Finally Mont Blanc becomes visible at the Italian side after a rainy and foggy day in the mountains.

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Under the countenance of Grandes Jorasses.

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Delipidated mountain cabin from ancient times under the face of Pointe Walker (4055m) and Aiguille des Leschaux (3759m).

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Through the Italian Val Ferret.

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Looking back at the rolling terrain around Grand Col Ferret (2537m) before the final descent to La Fouly.

This trip took place June 28 till July 04, 2013.