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

Among whitewater paddlers, Lars Holbek is remembered as the principal author of the Bible.

Published in 1984 and formally titled “The Best Whitewater in California: The Guide to 180 Runs,” the book Holbek wrote with longtime paddling partner Chuck Stanley is both guide and origin story to one of whitewater’s promised lands, the product of a period that paddling historian Tyler Williams called “perhaps the greatest exploratory episode in the history of kayaking.”

Holbek was born in 1957 in Santa Rosa, California. The Holbeks were an outdoor family, and Lars began climbing with the local Sierra Club at 13. Soon he and a high school classmate, Michael Schlax, were hitching to Yosemite to climb and dream of bigger things. The primary impediment to their ambition was a lack of the requisite gear—a problem solved by happy coincidence when a tourist mentioned he’d seen a sleeping bag suspended high on a granite face. Schlax and the 16-year-old Holbek went to investigate and found not a sleeping bag, but a haul bag loaded with everything they needed for a multi-day climb.

The two headed directly to El Capitan’s Dihedral Wall and started up the 30-pitch, 5-day climb, Williams wrote in a 2008 profile for Kayak Session magazine. 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 next afternoon, dehydrated and ecstatic.

Later that same year, Holbek paddled whitewater for the first time, charging through Class III rapids without a helmet, lifejacket or much of a clue. It was 1973, and the infant sport of whitewater kayaking was poised for a massive growth spurt. Holbek and Schlax built fiberglass kayaks and developed their skills on California’s coastal rivers and in Idaho, under the tutelage of an older paddler, Jim Smith. The High Sierra was still largely terra incognita for kayakers, though a handful of visionaries were beginning to probe its vast potential. Among them were Richard Montgomery, a mathematics student with a wicked Class V skill set, and Stanley, a champion slalom racer with a taste for difficult whitewater. Holbek began paddling with them in 1975, and though far less experienced at the time he quickly proved a catalyst. The duo became a trio, and California’s steep creeks began to go down, one-by-one.

An episode during the first descent of Bald Rock Canyon on California’s Middle Fork of the Feather in 1980 illustrates Holbek’s role in the crew. The river was higher than expected, and the two older paddlers took one look at the whitewater pummeling through a maze of slick granite boulders and made the sensible decision to hike straight back to the put-in. Holbek stared at the drop a little longer and quietly announced his intention to run it. The others followed. “Once again, democracy failed, and we headed into the canyon with enormous foreboding,” Stanley wrote later of the epic. The whitewater was in the books before dark, but the trio still had to paddle 14 miles of flatwater. They reached the takeout road after midnight and bivouacked, waiting for first light so Holbek could find the bicycle he’d left nearby and begin the long ride to retrieve his van.

The pace of exploration increased as another California trio began notching impressive first descents. Royal Robbins and Doug Tompkins were already legendary climbers when they turned their attention to whitewater, and the bold and talented Reg Lake provided the same sort of spark to their crew as Holbek did to his. Tompkins had founded The North Face and Esprit and was by then a millionaire (he went on to earn billions and become one of the world’s leading conservationists) who piloted his own plane on scouting flights over the Sierra, searching out rivers that played to the team’s climbing skills and appetite for long, difficult approaches. The “Billy Goat Boys” notched scores of first descents, including the so-called Triple Crown of California whitewater.

Holbek and his friends kept pace, though in a decidedly more terrestrial fashion. They usually traveled in Holbek’s VW van and ran shuttles on his trusty 10-speed. For a time, Stanley and Montgomery lived in a field sublet from a farmer, which they called “Protein Farms.”

Photo: Rob Lesser

“For a brief period from 1978 to 1980, Protein Farms became the whitewater paddling capital of California,” Montgomery wrote in a 2009 tribute to Holbek. “Lars would visit us there in his VW van, parking just outside the wood-and-tin carport which doubled as our kitchen, sometimes living there for weeks on end, cooking with us, making gear, poring over topos in the library, planning trips, doing automotive repairs, and training slalom gates with Chuck in the duck pond just across the creek.”

Holbek had gone straight from high school graduation to Yosemite’s Camp 4, beginning a lifelong pattern of climbing and running rivers for as long as his funds held out, then stopping just long enough to earn more. In the early days he’d go north and pick fruit; later he worked on geothermal field crews with Schlax, making $90 a day plus expenses. He could work for a few months and paddle and climb the rest of the year.

“We’d boat every day. It was like a job,” Schlax said of those early days. “It was an exploration. We didn’t know much about these rivers. We were a couple of kids running around in a van with boats.”

Holbek’s skills improved with constant practice and under the influence of Stanley and Montgomery (“I was paddling Class V before I met those guys, but I was a kamikaze spaz,” he told Williams). In 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 mind), and in the spring they explored the Trinity Alps and Sierras. Competition with the Billy Goat crew and other pioneering paddlers of the era, including John and Eric Magnusson, fueled a sustained bout of what Montgomery called “first descent fever.”

Holbek, far right, with teammates on the first descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, 1981. Photo: Rob Lesser

“In one three-day period we made the first descent of Golden Gate (on the American) and Bald Rock on the Middle Feather, which have since become standards,” Montgomery wrote of one such spree in the spring of 1980. “In between we got skunked on the Bear River. We bivouacked twice. And somewhere in there Lars put a new clutch in his van while I finished a take-home midterm in the Foster Freeze parking lot in Placerville.”

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

It went on that way for years, and the trio’s explorations formed the basis for California’s Best Rivers, the west coast whitewater bible Holbek wrote with Stanley. Neither was particularly enthusiastic about the task. Holbek was of the opinion that anyone with the chops to paddle cutting-edge California whitewater could just call him for the beta, and in those days they often did. But when they learned a less-qualified author was at work on a guide to California rivers, Holbek and Stanley thought it their responsibility to publish a more authoritative work.

Here too, Holbek was the driving force. When Stanley fell behind on his assigned chapters, Holbek parked his van at Stanley’s house until the manuscript was finished. The book became an instant classic and introduced a generation of California paddlers to the sport.

Holbek was also hugely influential outside of California. He joined the pioneering descent of British Columbia’s Grand Canyon of the Stikine with Rob Lesser in 1981, for ABC Television.

There was just one problem: ABC stopped filming and choppered everyone out before the last canyon, leaving about a fifth of the whitewater un-run. Holbek came back in 1985 with Lesser and Bob McDougall to make the first complete descent. Thirty-five years later, the Stikine remains the test piece of North American paddling, said expedition kayaker and Emmy-winning videographer Scott Lindgren. “It still defines the world of expedition kayaking. The Stikine is our proving grounds.”

Holbek explored whitewater all over the world. During the Protein Farm days he would sneak into the language lab at Sonoma State University to practice his Spanish, and later piled up first descents in Costa Rica. He took part in the first descent of the Río Paucartambo in Peru, using a topo map with 500-foot contours, and the Futaleufu in Chile. He began to spend winters in Chile, whose extraordinary rivers became his obsession and the subject of his second guidebook.

He modeled for a Japanese cigarette advertising campaign, insisting the shoots take place alongside Chile’s wild rivers. He never smoked and in fact competed on the TV show “Survival of the Fittest” in the mid-1990s with his longtime friend Nancy Wiley. They later became life partners, settling in Durango, Colorado. They bought property together in 2002 and began building a passive-solar home in 2004, learning as they went.

“Just jump in and do it,” Wiley told the Durango Herald. “That’s how he was.”

The couple was committed to living a low-impact lifestyle. Holbek converted an old Dodge truck to run on biodiesel, and he and Wiley traveled each spring to the Mojave Desert to count threatened desert tortoises. “Lars mastered being elegantly frugal,” said his friend Kent Ford. “His house is off-grid, and his cars ran on veggie oil. He figured out how to make good money in short intensive chunks of work. May we all be reminded of how that allows more time for quality of life.”

In October 2008, the couple joined friends for a 15-day Grand Canyon trip. A week in, Holbek experienced severe abdominal pains and was evacuated by helicopter. Doctors diagnosed an aggressive form of cancer in his liver, for which Holbek underwent four rounds of chemotherapy in three days.

The disease spread rapidly, and Holbek spent his last months with Wiley, walking, and skiing near their home. He died there in March, 2009, surrounded by friends, lucid and with humor until the end. He was 51.

Top photo: Rob Lesser



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