By Tyler Williams
Photographs by Reg Lake and Royal Robbins
Smooth granite rose in graceful arcs over the San Joaquin River, pinching a tumult of whitewater between vertical walls deep in the backcountry of California's High Sierra. From a clinging perch just upstream, three kayakers gazed beyond the gauntlet to a calm pool in the distance. If they could just get there, the canyon would open, and they would be free. But there was no avoiding the boulder-strewn mess at their feet. Even with the climbing rope and pitons they carried, a portage was not an option here. It was time to send in the probe.
The "probe" in this case was Reg Lake: the youngest of the group, razor-sharp paddler, professional river bum. After rappelling into the gorge, the men reasoned, he would be able to paddle off the first drop, somehow stop himself above the next, and get a glimpse of what lay below. If it was no good, his companions could maneuver farther out onto the cliff, get him the rope, and haul him out. Deep in the gorge, surrounded by Sierra granite, Lake thought he saw a line through the rapid, and an opening beyond. He signaled to his partners above, who rapp'ed in and pulled the rope.
Doug Tompkins was already a millionaire when he began barnstorming the Sierra with Robbins and Lake in his private plane, searching for new runs.
It was an audacious bit of river exploration to be sure, but it was hardly new ground for Lake and his partners, Royal Robbins and Doug Tompkins. Tompkins was a venerated adventure junkie: pilot, skier, climber, paddler. Robbins was, well, Royal Robbins—a living legend among rock jocks. He redefined the rating scale while still a teenager by climbing the first 5.9 route in the United States. By his early 20s, he was putting up the first Grade VI climb on the continent. The first to solo El Capitan, pioneer of low-impact, clean climbing, the list goes on. But 20-some years of hard-charging ascents had taken their toll. At age 43, arthritis was making life difficult on the rock, so in 1978 he turned his focus to whitewater kayaking.
Robbins had been nibbling at paddling for several years, but in the late 1970s his singular drive and athleticism began to tear into the sport with starved intensity. He ran the Bio-Bio with Tompkins in Chile, where the two met Lake. Soon after, in May 1980, Tompkins invited the others to "fly the Sierra and look for new runs." The trio bonded instantly.
The time was ripe for river exploration. Plastic boats had been around for a few seasons, and although debate still raged over the virtues of the new material versus the fiberglass of old, plastic boats had proven their worth on difficult whitewater. The new material was key, because it could withstand the abuse wrought by steep Sierra Nevada rivers, especially on portages. Robbins remembers, "We rejoiced at plastic boats because we could throw them down cliffs."
Besides technological advances of the period, an unspoken competition for first descents was pushing the protagonists into new river canyons. During the spring of 1980, Lars Holbek, Chuck Stanley, and Richard Montgomery had knocked off Golden Gate, Bald Rock Canyon, and Generation Gap—three Sierra runs that significantly raised the whitewater bar. If Robbins, Tompkins, and Lake wanted to be the first to paddle any major Sierra river, they would have to act soon.
* * *
From Tompkins' plane at 12,000 feet, the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin was a ribbon of glittering water broken into strands of white and patches of dark blue. In a few places, the river was lost altogether in shadowy depths. It was an intimidating sight for any kayaker, but the climbers Robbins and Tompkins saw the problem differently. At low water, with a 150-foot climbing rope and a small climbing rack in their boats, they could run most of it and climb around the rest.
The first few miles of the San Joaquin, with the notable exception of 101-foot Rainbow Falls, are relatively flat. Then, with little warning, the river abruptly turns south and tumbles almost straight down the mountain, through a continuous jumble of boulders. For the next three miles, the gradient is over 400 feet per mile. Even the strongest and most portage-averse parties of today walk most of the section. It was somewhere in here, just after dark, when the trio called an end to Day One. Robbins had gotten ahead during the free-for-all portaging of the late afternoon, and the other two had to shout through waning light to locate him and make camp. They agreed, after that, always to stop an hour before dark.
“He was the most driven,” says Royal Robbins of Doug Tompkins's desire to explore uncharted Sierra Nevada whitewater.
The next day allowed for more paddling and less portaging, but their progress remained agonizingly slow. River-level gorges forced up-and-over portages through manzanita thickets, and precarious scouts along slick granite proved even slower. At the end of the day, they had made only four more miles, far short of the their daily quota. The men sorted through their paltry stock of dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, and Earl Grey tea bags, and reduced their daily ration to a handful of nuts—about 4 ounces—per day.
"The main thing I remember was the lack of food," says Lake, "and a quick pace. Our mantra became 'keep moving.' They [Robbins, Tompkins] figured, let the next guys come in and portage less and do it with more style." Subsequent parties have chipped away at the portage total, but the essence of the San Joaquin remains a grueling wilderness adventure that requires calculated decisions, and plenty of portaging. Lars Holbek, who with Chuck Stanley was the first to repeat the descent, called it "the most demanding run I've ever seen."
By Day Four, when Lake signaled his partners to rappel into the walled-in rapids and pull the rope behind them, they knew they were on the cusp of something historic. After emerging from the cleft, Royal looked back and dubbed it "The Crucible." It remains the quintessential must-run in all of expedition kayaking.
Two days later, as the bedraggled explorers relaxed after a post-trip midnight meal prepared by Robbins' wife Liz, Robbins pulled out a stack of topos and asked the others, "Can you keep a secret?" Moments later they were hunched over a map, following a little blue line south through the heart of the southern Sierra Nevada—the Kern River.
* * *
The Kern would become the second jewel in the so-called Triple Crown of California Whitewater. "As climbers, Doug and Royal could see the challenge and significance of completing the last major rivers that hadn't been run," Lake says. "I just enjoyed seeing new places." Whatever their motivations, the trio had an insatiable appetite for new adventures.
Robbins had founded one of the country's first climbing schools, Rockcraft, in 1967. Recognizing the possibilities of the outdoor industry before that industry even existed, he next started Mountain Paraphernalia, a practical adventure clothing line. The company saw moderate success until Robbins staff convinced him to change the name, piggybacking his climbing fame. Re-branded as Royal Robbins in 1981, sales soared. Today, legions of consumers know Royal Robbins as a brand name, with little notion of the actual person—much less a renowned explorer—behind the title.
Doug Tompkins was already a millionaire when he began barnstorming the Sierra with Robbins and Lake in his private plane, searching for new runs. A high school dropout, he traveled west from upstate New York with dreams of making the U.S. Ski Team. Instead, he began an outerwear company that reflected the essence of core alpinism: The North Face. Tompkins sold his share of the company just as it was building momentum, and with his first wife Susie Russell, began a new clothing company called Esprit. From the back room of a friend's photography studio, they built the company into a giant. By the late 1970s, annual sales exceeded $100 million.
The Middle Fork of the Kings only required a twelve-mile hike over a 12,000-foot pass—child's play compared to the Kern. It was the river descent that didn't add up.
Tompkins made social consciousness a central part of the Esprit brand throughout the 1980s. The company launched the "real people" campaign, replacing anorexic catalog models with Esprit employees and customers. They devoted a full page of their color catalog to AIDS awareness. They placed an ad challenging over-consumption in the progressive Utne Reader.
Soon after splitting with Susie and Esprit in the early '90s, Tompkins flew his plane to South America, passing over a primeval wilderness of rainforest valleys and alpine lakes. Much of the verdant landscape, he learned, was for sale for $500,000. He bought the Shangri-La immediately. It was the first of many land deals in which Tompkins secured huge Chilean tracts for conservation. Today, many of his purchases constitute Pumalin Park—a cooperative enclave of sustainable farms and untracked wilds.
The leap from making millions on stylish clothing to spending millions on raw backcountry didn't happen overnight, but Tomkins began moving in that direction soon after the big three Sierra descents with Lake and Robbins.
"He was the most driven," says Robbins of Doug's desire to explore uncharted Sierra Nevada whitewater. But it was Royal who gathered maps for the Kern, a trip that clearly appealed to his climbing background. The put-in entailed hiking from the east side of the range over the shoulder of Mount Whitney—the highest point in the Lower 48—to reach a place called Junction Meadow where they could launch the boats.
Tompkins convinced several Esprit employees to help with gear schlepping, but other than that, the approach was remarkably low tech. The paddlers carried their own boats and wore Converse All-Stars over feet waterproofed with plastic bread bags. "We thought about bringing ice axes, but we didn't ever get any," Lake says of the decision that almost cost them the expedition.
At a couloir near the Sierra crest, Lake stepped on a patch of snow where someone had glissaded, creating a slick, hollowed chute. His foot slipped, and he was instantly hurtling down an 800-foot slope attached to an 11-foot kayak that acted like a plastic sled. He tried repeatedly to dig his heels into the hard-packed snow without success, and as he quickly gathered speed Lake realized that his situation was deadly serious. He rolled onto his belly and used the only thing that would give any purchase to slow his slide—his exposed skin. The ploy saved him from piling into a terminal minefield of rocks, but he was far from unscathed. Abrasions on his torso plagued him for the remainder of the trip, and six days later he was treated for third-degree burns where he had skidded on the crusty snow. Tompkins jogged down the trail and carried Lake's boat back up the mountain. By the time Lake had regained his wits, they were over the pass.
After the grueling approach, the river went with relative ease. The biggest whitewater came near the end of the 55-mile wilderness run, on the popular segment known as the Forks. "That was an eye-opener," Robbins recalls. "We saw some fishermen and knew the end was near, so we let down our guards." As the trio drifted, chatting, they realized they were at the lip of Carson Falls, one of the biggest drops on the run. "We all flipped and flushed out, then rolled up and looked at each other like, 'Whoops,'" Robbins says today, chuckling at the memory.
* * *
The Kern trip covered more terrain than any other Sierra Nevada run, and the sheer scale of the endeavor proved intoxicating. Another traverse of the range beckoned. The Middle Fork Kings only required a 12-mile hike over a 12,000-foot pass—child's play compared to the Kern. It was the river descent that didn't add up. The run averaged 160 feet per mile for 48 miles—steeper on average than anything they had done so far. Yet the Kings was especially seductive, and especially sought. Stanley sums up the attitude at the time in his California guidebook. "Many paddlers had their eyes on the Middle Fork, myself included … I mentioned my interest to Royal. He replied that he thought the river was much too steep—at that instant I just knew he was going to run it."
Robbins had been nibbling at paddling for several years, but in the late 1970s his singular drive and athleticism began to tear into the sport with starved intensity.
Joining Lake, Robbins and Tompkins in the August 1982 expedition was Neusome Holmes, a strong paddler from the Southeast who had paddled with the trio on an earlier descent of the South Fork Merced. Following a knee-jarring descent into the river canyon on Day Two, the foursome were anxious to let the water do the work, and they set off a bit hastily. Lake recalls, "Neusome broke his paddle right away, and there were some sloppy runs. At some point, we stopped and realized that we were being too casual, and we had to get serious."
The group adopted a quick-paced, lead-changing style in which one paddler would get ahead, scout, and signal the line to the rest. By the time he caught up at the next horizon, a new leader would be on shore signaling the line, or the portage route. There were no lengthy deliberations; you either saw a line and immediately went for it, or you walked. With gradients over 300 feet per mile, this meant that there was plenty of walking. It was a physically demanding routine: Paddle into last available eddy, exit small-cockpit kayak onto slippery rocks, scramble to vantage point, assess rapid, scramble back to shore, lift boat onto shoulder, walk over uneven boulders, wedge boat in rocks, delicately crawl in, shove off, paddle to next horizon, and repeat—no mistakes allowed. By Day Four, the scratched, bruised and weary paddlers emerged from the mouth of the canyon and exchanged handshakes, but cold beers would have to wait. Ten miles of formidable Class V in the main Kings Canyon was still below them. They spent one final night in the Kings gorge, paddling out on a rollicking 2,500 cfs.
Tales of their exhausting adventure kept other parties away for more than a decade before Scott Lindgren led an all-star cast through the gorge in 1995. This later generation cut the portage total significantly, but came away in awe of their predecessors' achievement. Lindgren says of the Kings, "It's action-packed for six days straight. There's not another run like it in the world."
The men sorted through their paltry stock of dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, and Earl Grey teabags, and reduced their daily ration to a handful of nuts—about four ounces—per day.
Conceptually, completing the Triple Crown of Sierra rivers was never a singular goal for Lake, Robbins, and Tompkins. The three runs fell unremarkably in line with numerous other rivers that the trio explored in the '80s. South Fork Kern, South Fork San Joaquin, Sespe Creek—any of these firsts might have become the jewels for which these three pioneers are remembered. But as the sport of paddling has developed to tackle increasingly daring runs, the three Sierra traverses have grown in mythic allure. Each holds a place in river-running lore for its defining characteristic: the Kern's brutal wilderness approach, the San Joaquin's committing gorges, the Middle Fork Kings' unrelenting gradient. The three of them together are the defining body of work of a seminal era in river exploration.
Several factors coalesced to enable the descents, including the emergence of plastic boats, the competition with Holbek, Stanley and Montgomery, and the world-class climbing skills of Robbins and Tompkins. More than anything though, the Sierra traverses were driven by desire. The rivers themselves will always be seamlessly matched with three extraordinary men who followed their hearts, laughed at their doubts, and lived their dreams.
–This story first appeared in the July 2010 issue of Canoe & Kayak.