14 December 2009

River running in Spain...

Northern Spain, summer 1995. I have just returned from a field season in Utah were I got my first taste of rafting on the mighty Colorado. Sat in a large rubber raft, piloted by an experienced guide the whole think seemed rather easy.

So now I am back in the Pyrenees, looking at some of the best structural geology I know. The Galleago gorge is an amazing cross section through the external sierras guarded by with the mighty conglomerate towers of Riglos. I have climbed on these 1000 ft monsters but today I have a different plan. Today I will take what I have learnt from my rafting experience and run this punitive river with it’s little rapids. How hard can it be?

I get 4 inner tubes from a garage in Jaca but the students who I am supervising are not interested in this adventure. That’s there loss. So I head off on my own to the bridge below the dam. I arrive and there is a professional rafting company setting up, Their clients in wetsuits, helmets and life vests carry the boats from the roof of their van. In contrast I am in shorts and sandals with a inner tube under my arm and a piece of wood, found at the side of the road to use as a paddle.

The guides look at my in confusion, which quickly morphs to compression, followed quickly by anger. The guides obviously don’t want me to humiliate them or their paying clients, my lack of expensive kit is underlining the validity of their operation and they are pissed off. They shout at me in Spanish but I ignore them, throw the tube off the bridge and vault the rail, casually taking the 10 m to the water. In the water I climb into the tube and set off downstream on my adventure. I sit in the tube and go with the current. My arse bounces off the odd rocks but I am happy, I am on the river and the sun is shinning. This is the life.

At the first rapid I fall out, its harder than it looks, but I float the rapid into the eddie and climb back in. A quite section follows and I admire the familiar geology. More rapids and I am starting to get a technique, I still fall out occasionally but its all going well. I laugh at the students stuck back at the hotel and I laugh at those stupid people with all their gear. What a bunch of idiots, what a waste of money.

My progress continues, through rapids followed by gentle sections. I see the towers of Riglos and feel sad that my tour is almost over. The gorge is narrowing for the last bit, maybe there is still some fun to come? I wish it had been just a bit more exciting. Then I round a corner and I hear the roar, maybe its not over yet? The best is obviously still to come, I am more excited than scared and I make it my goal to try and stay in the ring.

The roar gets louder but I still can’t see too much. I am wandering what to expect as I go for the falls. They are only about a meter high but I am immediately out of the ring and in the water. I splash and paddle as amusement turns to anxiety and then to full on fear. I am bounced off large boulders, fighting to stay above the water. I go over another drop and I don’t come up. I start to fight and swim hard but I can’t even tell what way is up. Just as I am getting really scared I am spat out to go straight over another small drop into a pool. I go under again but surface quickly, right next to the rubber ring, which through its own adventure has ended up next to me. I grasp it and use it to keep me afloat has I am carried further down the river, bashing and bouncing off the boulders.

I am pushed against a large boulder in the middle of the stream. Initially it threatens to pin me down but as I climb up the back of it the water pushes me up on the top. I grab the ring and I am safe, temporarily at least. I take stock of the situation, a few cuts and bruises but apart from that I am ok. I sit on the rock, with the water roaring either side and, without warning I throw up! Probably a combination of the water I have swallowed and a delayed reaction to the fear. The retching goes on from a few minutes until my stomach is empty I sit there cold and shivering.

It takes me 20 minutes to sum the courage to do what has to be done. The only way off the boulder is back in to the raging river. I have no idea what is down stream but I can and starting to get really cold and I know I can’t stay here.

I tentatively ease my way into the water, all the bravado and bullshit has been washed away. I don’t even try to ride the ring, I just clutch it and let the water take me. Its not as bad as I had feared and in a few minutes its all over, I am spat from the rapids into the deep running smooth waters.

I climb in the ring and float for about a kilometer, before I find a good spot to get out. Climbing the side of the gorge is steep and treacherous but I hardly notice as I scramble up, leaving the river below me. At the half way point I stop and I look back, staring at the rapids. Scouting them would have been a good idea, but then again if I had done that, I probably would have stayed back at the hotel with the students.

I watch the guided tour appear around the corner. They stop at the top of the big rapids, the clients get out and walk around as the guides run the boat down on a line. Finally I laugh to myself at myself and my ridiculous adventure.

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