Kayaker Lars Holbek Pioneered Sierra Rivers and Wrote Whitewater’s Bible


Amongst whitewater paddlers, Lars Holbek is remembered because the principal creator of the Bible.

Printed in 1984 and formally titled “The Greatest Whitewater in California: The Information to 180 Runs,” the ebook Holbek wrote with longtime paddling companion Chuck Stanley is each information and origin story to one in all whitewater’s promised lands, the product of a interval that paddling historian Tyler Williams referred to as “maybe the best exploratory episode within the historical past of kayaking.”

Holbek was born in 1957 in Santa Rosa, California. The Holbeks had been an outside household, and Lars started climbing with the native Sierra Membership at 13. Quickly he and a highschool classmate, Michael Schlax, had been hitching to Yosemite to climb and dream of larger things. The first obstacle to their ambition was an absence of the requisite gear—an issue solved by joyful coincidence when a vacationer talked about he’d seen a sleeping bag suspended excessive on a granite face. Schlax and the 16-year-old Holbek went to research and located not a sleeping bag, however a haul bag loaded with the whole lot they wanted for a multi-day climb.

The 2 headed on to El Capitan’s Dihedral Wall and began up the 30-pitch, 5-day climb, Williams wrote in a 2008 profile for Kayak Session journal. On the second day, Holbek dropped the lid of his water bottle, forcing the boys to drink half their water on the spot and ration what little remained. They ran out on the fourth day and topped out the subsequent afternoon, dehydrated and ecstatic.

Later that very same 12 months, Holbek paddled whitewater for the primary time, charging by means of Class II rapids and not using a helmet, lifejacket or a lot of a clue. It was 1973, and the toddler sport of whitewater kayaking was poised for an enormous development spurt. Holbek and Schlax constructed fiberglass kayaks and developed their expertise on California’s coastal rivers and in Idaho, beneath the tutelage of an older paddler, Jim Smith. The Excessive Sierra was nonetheless largely terra incognita for kayakers, although a handful of visionaries had been starting to probe its huge potential. Amongst them had been Richard Montgomery, a arithmetic grad scholar with a depraved Class V talent set, and Stanley, a champion slalom racer with a style for tough whitewater. Holbek started paddling with them in 1975, and although far much less skilled on the time he rapidly proved a catalyst. The duo grew to become a trio, and California’s steep creeks started to go down, one-by-one.

An episode throughout the first descent of Bald Creek Canyon on California’s Center Fork of the Feather in 1980 illustrates Holbek’s function within the crew. The river was larger than anticipated, and the 2 older paddlers took one have a look at the whitewater pummeling by means of a maze of slick granite boulders and made the smart determination to hike straight again to the put-in. Holbek stared on the drop slightly longer and quietly introduced his intention to run it. The others adopted. “As soon as once more, democracy failed, and we headed into the canyon with huge foreboding,” Stanley wrote later of the epic. The whitewater was within the books earlier than darkish, however the trio nonetheless needed to paddle 14 miles of flatwater. They reached the takeout street after midnight and bivouacked, ready for first gentle so Holbek might discover the bicycle he’d left close by and start the lengthy journey to retrieve his van.

The tempo of exploration elevated as one other California trio started notching spectacular first descents. Royal Robbins and Doug Tompkins had been already legendary climbers after they turned their consideration to whitewater, and the daring and proficient Reg Lake offered the identical type of spark to their crew as Holbek did to his. Tompkins had based The North Face and Esprit and was by then a millionaire (he went on to earn billions and develop into one of many world’s main conservationists) who piloted his personal airplane on scouting flights over the Sierra, looking for rivers that performed to the group’s climbing expertise and urge for food for lengthy, tough approaches. The “Billy Goat Boys” notched scores of first descents, together with the so-called Triple Crown of California whitewater.

Holbek and his associates saved tempo, although in a decidedly extra terrestrial vogue. They often traveled in Holbek’s VW van and ran shuttles on his trusty 10-speed. For a time, Stanley and Montgomery lived in a subject sublet from a farmer, which they referred to as “Protein Farms.”

Kayaker Lars Holbek Pioneered Sierra Rivers

Rob Lesser’s van en path to the primary descent of the Stikine, 1981. Picture: Rob Lesser

“For a short interval from 1978 to 1980, Protein Farms grew to become the whitewater paddling capital of California,” Montgomery wrote in a 2009 tribute to Holbek. “Lars would go to us there in his VW van, parking simply outdoors the wood-and-tin carport which doubled as our kitchen, generally dwelling there for weeks on finish, cooking with us, making gear, poring over topos within the library, planning journeys, doing automotive repairs, and coaching slalom gates with Chuck within the duck pond simply throughout the creek.”

Holbek had gone straight from highschool commencement to Yosemite’s Camp four, starting a lifelong sample of climbing and operating rivers for so long as his funds held out, then stopping simply lengthy sufficient to earn extra. Within the early days he’d go north and choose fruit; later he labored on geothermal subject crews with Schlax, making $90 a day plus bills. He might work for just a few months and paddle and climb the remainder of the 12 months.

“We’d boat each day. It was like a job,” Schlax mentioned of these early days. “It was an exploration. We didn’t know a lot about these rivers. We had been a few children operating round in a van with boats.”

Holbek’s expertise improved with fixed apply and beneath the affect of Stanley and Montgomery (“I used to be paddling Class V earlier than I met these guys, however I used to be a kamikaze spaz,” he advised Williams). Within the winters the trio paddled the flooding rivers and creeks an hour or so north of Santa Rosa (Sulphur Creek at 7,000 and the Russian at 50,000 sticks in my thoughts), and within the spring they explored the Trinity Alps and Sierras. Competitors with the Billy Goat crew and different pioneering paddlers of the period, together with John and Eric Magnusson, fueled a sustained bout of what Montgomery referred to as “first descent fever.”

Kayaker Lars Holbek Pioneered Sierra Rivers

Holbek, far proper, with teammates on the primary decesnt of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, 1981. Picture: Rob Lesser

“In a single three-day interval we made the primary descent of Golden Gate (on the American) and Bald Rock on the Center Feather, which have since develop into requirements,” Montgomery wrote of 1 such spree within the spring of 1980. “In between we acquired skunked on the Bear River. We bivouacked twice. And someplace in there Lars put a brand new clutch in his van whereas I completed a take-home midterm within the Foster Freeze car parking zone in Placerville.”

Kayaker Lars Holbek Pioneered Sierra Rivers map

After years of rivalry, the crews joined forces for the primary descent of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne in 1983. Picture courtesy Reg Lake

It went on that means for years, and the trio’s explorations shaped the idea for California’s Greatest Rivers, the west coast whitewater bible Holbek wrote with Stanley. Neither was notably enthusiastic concerning the process. Holbek was of the opinion that anybody with the chops to paddle cutting-edge California whitewater might simply name him for the beta, and in these days they typically did. However after they realized a less-qualified creator was at work on a information to California rivers, Holbek and Stanley thought it their accountability to publish a extra authoritative work.

Right here too, Holbek was the driving power. When Stanley fell behind on his assigned chapters, Holbek parked his van at Stanley’s home till the manuscript was completed. The ebook grew to become an prompt basic and launched a era of California paddlers to the game.

Holbek was additionally massively influential outdoors of California. He joined the pioneering descent of British Columbia’s Grand Canyon of the Stikine with Rob Lesser in 1981, for ABC Tv.

There was only one downside: ABC stopped filming at V-Drive, little greater than midway by means of the canyon, and choppered everybody out. So Holbek got here again in 1985 with Lesser, Bob McDougall and a group of rafters to make the primary full descent. Thirty-five years later, the Stikine stays the take a look at piece of North American paddling, mentioned expedition kayaker and Emmy-winning videographer Scott Lindgren. “It nonetheless defines the world of expedition kayaking. The Stikine is our proving grounds.”

Holbek explored whitewater all around the world. Throughout the Protein Farm days he would sneak into the language lab at Sonoma State College to apply his Spanish, and later piled up first descents in Costa Rica. He took half within the first descent of the Río Paucartambo in Peru, utilizing a topo map with 500-foot contours, and the Futaleufu in Chile. He started to spend winters in Chile, whose extraordinary rivers grew to become his obsession and the topic of his second guidebook.

He modeled for a Japanese cigarette promoting marketing campaign, insisting the shoots happen alongside Chile’s wild rivers. He by no means smoked and in reality competed on the TV present “Survival of the Fittest” within the mid-1990s together with his longtime buddy Nancy Wiley. They later grew to become companions, settling in Durango, Colorado. They purchased property collectively in 2002 and started constructing a passive-solar house in 2004, studying as they went.

“Simply soar in and do it,” Wiley advised the Durango Herald. “That’s how he was.”

The couple was dedicated to dwelling a low-impact way of life. Holbek transformed an outdated Dodge truck to run on biodiesel, and he and Wiley traveled every spring to the Mojave Desert to rely threatened desert tortoises. “Lars mastered being elegantly frugal,” mentioned his buddy Kent Ford. “His home is off-grid, and his automobiles ran on veggie oil. He found out tips on how to make good cash briefly intensive chunks of labor. Might all of us be reminded of how that permits extra time for high quality of life.”

In October 2008, the couple joined associates for a 15-day Grand Canyon journey. Every week in, Holbek skilled extreme belly pains and was evacuated by helicopter. Docs recognized an aggressive type of most cancers in his liver, for which Holbek underwent 4 rounds of chemotherapy in three days.

The illness unfold quickly, and Holbek spent his final months with Wiley, strolling, and snowboarding close to their house. He died there in March, 2009, surrounded by associates, lucid and with humor till the tip. He was 51.

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