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The First Descents of Royal Robbins

March 10, 2017
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Royal the Adventurer not Royal the Climber is what we should probably call him. In addition to his pioneering climbing feats, Royal was also a pioneering white water kayaker, claiming numerous first descents in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s. Alongside climbing buddies like Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard, Royal moved from Rock to River in order to challenge himself once again.

Hands of Pain: Arthritis

Royal began kayaking in the mid-70’s, but in 1978, while running his climbing school in Telluride, Royal had a serious attack of psoriatic arthritis. When he returned home to Modesto, it got worse – he lost most of the use of his right hand and even had trouble walking. Climbing was definitely out of the question.

But “Royal could keep the pain hidden more easily in kayaking,” said his friend TM Herbert. Like climbing, kayaking required poise, courage and self-control, plus a strong desire the reach a goal. Arthritis was simply another ascent he had to make, and he did so by descending rivers.

The Triple Crown: Billy Goats vs. Hipsters

The late 1970’s and ’80’s featured an intense competition to notch first descents of rivers in California’s Sierras. Both technological innovations (plastic boats) and a race to be first drove the sport to new heights. The two top teams of the day were the “Billy Goat Crew” –  made up of Royal Robbins, Reg Lake, and Doug Tompkins – and “The Hipsters on the Move” –  Lars Holbeck, Chuck Stanley and Richard Montgomery. The Hipsters may have been superior paddlers (other than Lake), but the Billy Goat were adventure pioneers.

The Triple Crown consisted of the headwaters of the Kern, The Middle Fork of the Kings and the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin. Aside from roaring, technical whitewater, the Triple Crown was complicated but serious access issues: deep canyons with no escape, multi-day portages over mountains. In short, kayaking for climbers.

In 1980, after scouting the run from Tompkins’ plane Royal, Tompkins and Lake ran the middle fork of the San Joaquin from Devil’s Postpile to the Mammoth Pool Reservoir, 5000 feet lower and 32 miles away. The gorge is so deep and remote that the escape plan, should anything turned out to be unrunnable, consisted of a 150 foot climbing rope to scale the sheer canyon walls.

According to Holbeck, the San Joaquin “ is the most demanding run I’ve ever seen. In many places it is like Yosemite Valley, but the walls are only a river’s width apart.”

In 1981, the Billy Goats went to tackle the Kern, which falls off the slopes of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in California (14,495 feet). “The real zinger,” as Lake said, “was that we had to carry our kayaks and camping gear over the pass at 13,777 feet. We considered helicopters and aerial drops, but being in a national park, this was illegal.” The gear was extremely low-tech – the paddlers waterproofed their feet with  plastic bread bags under Converse All-Stars.

The trip almost ended early when Lake took an 800-foot fall down a snow-covered slope with all his gear. Thank God for durable plastic kayaks. After that, the river was a relative ease, and the team descended 55 miles down the Kern into Sequoia National Park to claim the first descent of Part II of the Triple Crown.

The final leg was the ultra-steep Middle Fork of the Kings, one of the most difficult and most remote rivers in California, that “even hikers and fishermen can’t reach it.”

Holbeck wrote, “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.”

Thankfully, the Kings only required a 12-mile hike over a 12,000-foot pass—a mere trifle compared to the Kern. But the river was brutal. Their first ascent (they were joined by Neusom Holmes) wouldn’t be matched again until 1995 by the legendary Scott Lindgren.

Later Firsts

In 1983, Robbins descended the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park from Tuolumne Meadows to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. He was accompanied by Reg Lake, Chuck Stanley, Lars Holbek, John Armstrong and Richard Montgomery.

As Pat Ament wrote in Spirit of the Age, “Royal then developed an interest in descending smaller mountain creeks by kayak during their flood stage following heavy rains. His first such project in May, 1984 was the descent of Sespe Creek, which runs through the Los Padres National Forest. He was accompanied by Yvon Chouinard, Reg Lake, John Wasserman and Jackson Frischman. Robbins called this type of trip ‘flash boating’, and later used the technique on the Fresno River, the Chowchilla River and the middle fork of the Mokelumne River.”

Still a Second Love

Did adventure kayaking mean as much to Royal as climbing? “No. I love it very much, and it is very rewarding, but I am first, last, and always a climber. I will climb until I drop, and it would be the last thing I would give up.”

 

 

 

 

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