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Photos by Reg Lake • Story by
Reg Lake, Royal Robbins and Doug
Tompkins take the Triple Crown
The late 1970s and the early ‘80s were a time of fierce and friendly competition to claim first kayak and raft descents down hundreds of miles of unexplored California rivers. In order to make a successful first descent more likely, most boaters explored Sierra rivers in teams. Two teams stood out for the number and difficulty of first runs they made — the team of Reg Lake, Doug Tompkins, and Royal Robbins, which came to be known as the “Billy Goat Crew;” and the team of Lars Holbeck, Chuck Stanley and Richard Montgomery, known as “The Hipsters on the Move.”
“We had an interesting competition going with the Triple Crown crew,” recalls Montgomery. “In our superior, egotistic 20-year-old way, we viewed Reg Lake as the only real paddler of the bunch.” Arguably, the group of Holbeck, Stanley and Montgomery as a group were all-around better boaters and ultimately notched the bulk of California first descents as a result. Even so, the so-called Triple Crown, which consisted of the headwaters of the Kern, The Middle Fork of the Kings and the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin, was snared by the Billy Goat crew.
There were many reasons for their success at claiming these three highly desired first descents. To begin with, Robbins and Tompkins came armed with a long list of successes in a different realm, having already tackled
many first ascents in the world of climbing. Robbins had famously put up many routes in Yosemite, and Tompkins had completed an ascent of Mount Fitzroy, among others. “Both of them had been through the evolution in climbing and well recognized where these rivers would fit into the history of kayaking,” Lake explains.
Robbins, however, claims that “we were interested in adventure more than we were interested in kayaking. The goal was not to kayak a river, but to make a first descent, however it had to be done.” Their pursuit of the Triple Crown would require logistical ingenuity, solid river-reading skills, major gear schlepping and the ability to keep a secret. It would be hard to say which of these qualities was most important to their success.
The first jewel in the crown, the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin, otherwise known as the Devil’s Postpile Run, was attempted in September 1980. This 32-mile Class V run, which drops as much as 400 feet per mile, was unforgiving enough that Royal and Doug considered climbing escape plans if Reg was unable to find a run through a particularly harrowing stretch known as Granite Crucible. “We agreed that if necessary, we would abandon the boats and climb out of the canyonassuming we could finds a way up the 3000’ walls,” Reg recalled in the book California Whitewater: A Guide to the Rivers, by Jim Cassady and Fryar Calhoun.
Holbeck, in his and Stanley’s essential whitewater guidebook, The Best Whitewater in California, wrote of the San Joaquin, “This 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. The scenery is awesome as are the portages… The portage through the crucible area near Balloon Dome requires delicate friction climbing, lots of precarious rope work with people and boats, and flawless teamwork.”
What better team than the Billy Goats to handle a run that required those sorts of skills, innate to climbing. “New kayaking and rock climbing routes have in common the intoxicating quality of discovery, of doing and finding something new,” Robbins says. And finding something new was one of Robbins’ specialties.
After plunging and portaging through the San Joaquin’s granite canyon for six daystwo more than they had planned, requiring them to ration their food down to only about four ounces each per daythey finally were able to sit down for a midnight feast at Royal’s house in Modesto. After dinner, as Lake recalls, “Royal pulled a stack of topo maps out of the drawer and asked if I could keep a secret. I said no and he placed them back in the drawer.” But Robbins’ excitement wasn’t contained for long and the maps were pulled out.
They were looking at the Kern drainage area. Their eyes followed the river’s line to its headwaters, which drains the highest peaks in the Sierra, including the western slopes of Mount Whitney (14,495’). From there the river headed south off Triple Divide Peak at a gradient that seems almost leisurely when compared to the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin a mere 80 foot average per mile.
The put-in at Junction Meadow, however, involved climbing from Whitney Portal on the east side over the shoulder of Mt. Whitney laden with gear. As Reg recalls, “the real zinger 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. So the crux of the Kern is carrying over Mt. Whitney.” This trip demanded the logistics of a mountaineering expedition.
But they made it to the put in within a couple of days in 1981. However, they nearly lost their lead kayaker when Reg, carrying his then state-of-the-art 13’ plastic kayak, took an 800-foot tumble down a snow-covered slope below Whitney Pass. Tompkins went down to help him. “It’s a good thing he was dazed, otherwise I might not have been able to talk him into coming back up,” Robbins recalls Tompkins saying later. Even with an unintentional first descent with kayak down the snowy flank of Whitney, the Billy Goat Boaters were in their element and succeeded in claiming the Class V Headwaters of the Kern run.
Steep descents, after all, were what the three were seeking and it was only natural that the next stretch of Class V they would claim would be an unexplored stretch of whitewater that emerges from the deep granite walls of Kings Canyon. According to Cassady and Calhoun, the Middle Fork of the Kings is one of the two most difficult and most remote rivers in California, that “even hikers and fishermen can’t reach it.” Both the Hipsters and the Billy Goaters were keen to be the first to see what whitewater ran in this giant cataract, whose innards were hidden by the immensity and sheerness of its walls. With gradients ranging from 100- to 510-feet per mile, the Middle Fork of the Kings was quite possibly the most challenging and frightening of the three runs that made up the Crown.
Holbeck writes in his book, “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.” Even though Robbins, Tompkins and Lake, along with Newsome Holmes, did successfully run the forbidding Class V-VI stretch in 1982, it presented them with drops and holes that Robbins recalls gave it the feel of “a scary, deadly place.”
Though the Billy Goat Boaters had completed the Triple Crown, as Tompkin’s coined it, the two teams remained competitive for another year. With most of the main Sierra runs having been completed by 1983, however, the rivalry was coming to an end. That year, Robbins, Montgomery, Lake, Stanley and Holbeck joined forces and ran the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne in Yosemite National Park. It was, as Holbeck writes, “perhaps the last ‘obvious’ High Sierra run to be done.”
Ultimately, the members of the Billy Goat Boaters and the Hipsters on the Move all became legendary members of California’s whitewater community. But the Billy Goaters won their prize because, as Robbins
says, “we were willing to carry [the boats] all the way if necessary. It turned out, happily, that we didn’t have to do that. But we were willing.”