The kayaking world lost one of its grandest legends March 13 when Durango, Colo.’s Lars Holbek lost his fight with cancer at age 51.
Considering that he’s one of the most prolific whitewater kayak explorers the world has ever known, logging more than 70 first descents, those who didn’t know him might be surprised to hear that he passed away at home, lucid and with humor until the end and surrounded by family and friends, instead of on some hairball river. But Lars was always in control, whether it was in a kayak or facing his bout with cancer.
“Lars gave his life to the outdoors, whether it was skiing, climbing, hiking or kayaking,” says paddling partner Phil Boyer. “Some bit of Lars is in and with all of us. He helped open up paddling around the world, claiming first descents in several countries, and created one of the most fabled kayaking guidebooks in the world.”
Adds brother-in-law Andy Corra, co-owner of Durago, Colo.’s Four Corners Riversports: “He was a true pioneer and explorer who led the way and opened the doors to modern river running and Class V expedition paddling.”
Lars was born in San Francisco, Calif., Oct .25 1957, and grew up in Santa Rosa. He was one of the most accomplished whitewater explorers of his time, producing “The Best Whitewater in California,” a guidebook that is still today’s standard. His whitewater heyday spanned the 1970s and ‘80s, opening up new horizons boaters everywhere.
“Lars originally resisted the idea of writing a guidebook on California Rivers,” says longtime acquaintance Kent Ford. He thought that if anyone ever wanted to run those rivers, they could just call him up. And he thought that it would take away time from him paddling. It’s a good thing he worked on the book, as it remains a classic.”
Lars was also one of the first explorers of rivers in Peru and Chile, also penning a guidebook to Chilean Rivers. It was in Peru in 1986 that he began a lifelong friendship with Nancy Wiley, blossoming into a partnership for life 13 years later.
As for making a living, he kept things as simple and controlled as running Class V, a passion for the outdoors evident in every venture. He worked in the paddling industry as a filmmaker (in front of and behind the camera), instructor, guidebook author, and even a model in Japan. Most recently he worked on preserving the desert tortoise in the Mojave Desert.
“Lars mastered being elegantly frugal,” says 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.”
“I was very fortunate to have met Lars early in my kayaking career, but only after years of looking at pictures of him on my walls at home running waterfalls throughout the world,” adds Boyer. “Shortly later, he became one of my paddling mentors, not just for paddling but also for the safety aspect of running hard white water. He was always watching out for the others, and when on a river with him you felt his eyes on you and knew that help was only a throw bag away. I am sure that without his influence, I would not have come as far as I have or have the desire to travel the world in search of the next great adventure and for that I am truly grateful.
“He just always had the 110% positive outlook on life and adventure,” Boyer adds. “Nothing stood in his way. Rain or shine he was ready to go out for the next trip.”
It was only fitting then, he adds, that the Sunday after his passing, over 40 paddlers converged on the North Fork American for an impromptu Memorial Paddle for Lars. “It began to rain, which filled our souls with liquid sunshine as we floated downstream on one of his backyard runs,” he says. “You will always be with us — paddle hard and boof right. Thanks for being an inspiration to us all and showing us what it means to live the dream.”
Lars is survived by his life partner Nancy Wiley of Durango, Colorado; his mother Miriam Holbek of Durango, Colorado; father Erik Holbek of Glen Ellen, California; brother Suren Holbek of Mt. Shasta, California. Donations can be directed to: San Juan Citizen Alliance, High Country News, La Plata Open Space Conservancy. Celebrations of his life will be forthcoming in Durango, Colo., and Coloma, Calif.
A Tribute by Richard Montgomery
Lars grew up in Santa Rosa California. He started climbing at 13, and paddling a year or two later. Every summer from age 16 to 19 he and his older classmate, Michael Schlax, would leave Santa Rosa to Idaho for extended paddling trips. Their paddling mentor was Jim Smith, then in his early 30s.
I met Lars through my future wife, Judith, who had befriended Michael in elementary school. Judith and I were students at Sonoma State University, 10 miles south of Santa Rosa. My main paddling partner was slalom champion Chuck Stanley, who was then living and working in Oregon and soon transferred to Sonoma State. With an assortment of others, we lived in a field, sublet from a farmer, which we called `Protein Farms’. 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, pouring over topos in the library, planning trips, doing automotive repairs, and training slalom gates with Chuck in the duck pond just across the creek. For a brief period from 1978-1980 Protein Farms became the whitewater paddling capital of California.
Chuck and Lars trained and on long weekends they would drag me out of my math and physics books for exploratories or flood runs. John and Eric Magnusson also attended Sonoma State and competition with them — and with the “Billy Goat Boys,“ Reg Lake, Royal Robbins, and Doug Tompkins — helped spur Chuck, Lars, Michael and on as a group. First descent fever took over. In the winters we 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).
In the spring we went up to the Trinity Alps and Sierras. Our big first descent safari happened during spring break in 1980. 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. 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. Those two years based out of Protein Farms laid the foundations of his and Chuck’s guidebook, first published in 1984 and on its 3rd edition. It is still referred to as `the bible’ by many California paddlers. My friend Dave Steindorf who works with AW, had sent a letter to Lars recently, which unfortunately Lars never got to read. Dave wrote: “There is no hydro relicensing in the State in which your book is not referenced. PG&E, Southern California Edison, and every other dam operator in California owns a copy of your guidebook. This might be a surprise but I’d venture to say that it may be the single-most owned book by dam operators in California. I’ve watched them pull their pristine copies out of their briefcases, not a smudge on the cover, not a smear on a page. Certainly not the well tattered copy that sits on most of our bookshelves or on the dash of our cars as we drive to a new run.”
Lars pioneered first descents all over the world. He ran the Stikine in Alaska, the Pacartambo in Peru, and numerous firsts in Chile. He taught himself Spanish by sneaking in to the language lab at Sonoma State. With Eric Magnussen he did exploratories in Costa Rica. He wrote a guidebook to Chilean whitewater, and made whitewater videos, including `The Wild Americans’ where he reveled in the boyhood-style-humor of the videos he had made with his brother, Suren, while growing up in Santa Rosa.
From the late ‘80s to the mid-90s he and well-known paddler Beth Rypins became partners and paddled throughout California, Chile, and took a long trip to paddle in Siberia. In the early ‘90s he and Mark Kocina got into speed descents, redoing many of the runs in “the bible” in hours when the first runs had taken a full day, or even multiple days. The standard Middle Fork of the Feather run is usually done in three days. Lars and Mark did it in 8 hours.
He helped numerous young boaters, including Charlie Center, get to their cutting edge. Up until the end of the 90s he continued to keep up with the young guns of the up-and-coming generation, being part of first or second descents on the highest reaches of the American River in the Sierra, including the Royal Gorge.
His name is also well-known in climbing circles and is attributed to first ascents in Yosemite and at Joshua trees. In the mid-90s he took up paragliding and converted a number of friends to this sport. He flew in California, Mexico, Peru, and Brazil. In the spring of 1999 he reconnected with Nancy Wiley and the two became partners for life. In the early part of the current decade he and Nancy were on a trip to Peru when a freak downdraft folded Nancy’s wing and sent her for an 80-foot fall. She broke several vertebrae and shattered an ankle. Doctors told her she would never walk again. We all got to see another side of Lars emerge: a nurturing, caring side, which worked in concert with his persistence, humor, and can-do-attitude, and aimed towards Nancy and her
healing. Coupling Lars’ nurturing with Nancy’s indomitable spirit, somehow it did not seem like a miracle that within a year and a half of the accident Nancy was again mountain biking, skiing and paddling (though the couple did quit paragliding.)
Over the last few years Nancy and Lars built an off-the-grid passive solar house on property outside Durango. He continued to get out on the water, but his passion turned more towards living off the grid and converting cars to run on vegetable oil. He had, with Nancy, a small fleet of vegetable oil-powered cars. For months every spring for the last 6 years the couple walked parts of the California, Nevada, and Arizona deserts looking for desert tortoises as part of EPA-funded endangered species remediation projects. Through that, they developed a whole tortoise community which folded in with their paddling, and ying communities.
Lars died the night March 13, 2009, after a four and half month battle with an aggressive lymphoma that settled in his abdomen. He was one of the smartest people I’ve known, one of the most persistent, and one of the most self- sufficient. He loved being on the learning curve, or “being a gooner” as he put it. He had an indefatigable sense of humor. He kept it to the end.