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Memory of Girdwood backcountry legend lives on with Alaska adventure fund

Jenny NeymanRedoubt Reporter

For an adventure to live up to the Seth Holden standard requires meeting some steep qualifications:

  • It has to be big — week-long winter ski traverses, remote mountain climbs, explorations of backcountry terrain so way out and wild that few even fly over it, much less navigate through.
  • It has to be human-powered — climbing, skiing, pack rafting, hiking, hunting; wherever man provides the means, the mettle and the locomotion.
  • It has to be unique — an unclimbed peak, an untried route or some other feat rarely, if ever, attempted, much less accomplished.
  • It has to be a challenge — to skill, strength, smarts, resourcefulness and determination.
  • It has to be thoroughly enjoyed — in all the good weather, bad luck and ugly obstacles Alaska can generate.
  • It has to be so epic as to approach the mythological in becoming part of Alaska outdoorsmen’s lore, yet grounded by the fact that the quiet, introspective Holden not only never bragged about his exploits, but rarely spoke of them at all.

“I think for him it was just purely internal, for his own benefit, not to try and brag or anything. He did it because it was something important to him. He just had a deep love for being outside and pushing himself against the wilderness whenever he could,” said Clint Helander, Holden’s friend and climbing partner.

In his 29 years, Holden, who grew up in Soldotna, amassed an impressive array of backcountry adventures — climbing Denali, notching first ascents of peaks in the Revelation Mountains at the southwest end of the Alaska Range, scaling the South Face of the Moose’s Tooth, pack rafting the Aniakchak, doing solo Dall sheep hunts in the high country around Tustumena Lake. There’s no doubt that the next 29 years would have brought many more, as the only thing that could match Holden’s ability in the outdoors was his enthusiasm for it.

A plane crash Aug. 24, 2010, brought Holden’s adventure to an end, but his adventurous spirit and reputation lives on to inspire others following in Holden’s very large, very far-ranging footsteps.

And now his legacy will help others on their own journeys, through the Seth Holden Alaska Remote Exploration Grant, established through memorial donations made by family, friends and supporters.

“We had a lot of overwhelming support from his friends and family, from, well, really, just from all over the country. We had people come up and say, ‘What can we do?’” Helander said.

Friends and family decided to honor Holden in death by supporting what he loved to do in life, and created a fund that will help support others embarking on adventures in Alaska. The SHARE Grant was born, and is now taking applications for its first award this March.

“It’s been a cathartic way to kind of focus on making Seth come alive again, and see these cool trips that we could have done go to these younger climbers,” Helander said. “I just know that if he were here, this is something that he would think is really, intrinsically good.”

Anyone — solo or a team — in the U.S. may apply for a grant but it must be for a trip in Alaska. Applicants should submit information about themselves, their trip objective and an explanation of why this trip is in their crosshairs, by March 1. A group of friends and family who knew Holden best will choose the recipient and award amount, from $500 to $1,000, to be announced by March 15.

Helander said that priority will be given to younger, less-established outdoors enthusiasts looking to further their pursuit. After all, programs like the American Alpine Club grant enabled Holden and Helander to embark on many of their climbs, Helander said.

“We want to try to help somebody that maybe couldn’t otherwise have the means to afford it,” Helander said. “When we were young, that was really the only way that we could afford to do it, and it helped us do all these amazing adventures, so by having it go to younger climbers it can kind of come full circle.”

The committee will be looking for a Holden-esque adventure. They might skew toward climbing trips, since that was Holden’s primary emphasis, but grants could also go, for instance, to a team wanting to pack raft a new river, or embark on a long ski traverse. Another friend of Holden’s donated an Alpacka Yak Pack Raft that also will be awarded to an applicant. For the raft, applicants must be Alaskans no more than 25 years old.

“What we’re looking for is something unique and original and human-powered,” Helander said. “If it’s something we thought would be an excellent adventure for the team, that would probably get the award.”

Novices looking to expand their experiences are encouraged to apply, but Helander cautioned that the committee will want to see evidence applicants can handle whatever trip they’re proposing.

“We don’t want to just give somebody money to go do something foolish,” he said.

So says a guy who accompanied Holden on trips that could be considered much crazier than merely foolish. But that’s how Holden was — taking risks and pushing limits, but never beyond his limits.

“We did things that most people would consider very dangerous — doing big, remote trips on unclimbed mountains and faces, but Seth was always that voice of reason and safety,” Helander said. “He was always the first person willing to turn back. He was never afraid to back off a pitch or change a trip if he didn’t feel like it was going to be completely safe. He was very willing to take a risk, but he had to have outs.”

Some of the most legendary Holden stories stem from his ability to come out safe when circumstances go awry. After an avalanche took out his base camp while hiking Ruth Gorge in Denali National Park, he and his hiking partner walked all night, at minus-40 F, with just their day gear until they found and followed ski tracks to another camp. And those are just the details of which people are aware. Holden’s reticence to talk about himself was as legendary as his accomplishments.

“He had some pretty crazy things he did. He went out and did solo sheep hunts at the back of Tustumena Lake. He’d have some piece-of- crap boat that barely floated and go out across the lake and hunt for a week by himself and almost get attacked by a bear and carry out this huge, huge ram. And I’d say, ‘How was your trip?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, it was good.’ And that’s all he’d say,” Helander said.

If there was an Alaska epitome of actions speaking louder than words, Holden could be it. The zeal in how he lived his life and pursued his goals described him better than he ever tried to do verbally.

Holden grew up on the central Kenai Peninsula, with his dad, Pete Holden, mother and stepfather, Leslie and Roger Boyd, and sisters, Lindsay and Chelsea Holden. He graduated from Skyview High School in 1999 as a top-flight Nordic skier. He graduated from the University of Alaska Anchorage with degrees in finance and economics, took a fancy suit-wearing office investing job then quit to unchain himself from desk life, showing up at the airstrip in Talkeetna still wearing his suit in order to take a trip climbing Moose’s Tooth. He excelled at many jobs, including guiding, carpentry work and foreign securities trading. His latest aspiration was to open his own restaurant, and so he was working as a baker at Orso in Anchorage to learn firsthand the ins and outs of the business.

Whatever snagged his interest got his full, intense attention — photography, cabin building, gourmet cooking, woodworking and, especially, anything to do in the outdoors.

“He didn’t have to say much, but he always had a good time, in the good or bad,” Helander said, remembering one of his favorite pictures of Holden being swarmed by hundreds of mosquitoes and just smiling away like he didn’t even notice the buggers crawling on his face. “That’s pretty much how he was. Whether it was cold and miserable or calm and blue he was always having a good time. He just loved being out there.

“He was just a real inspiration to me and to all of his friends. That’s why this grant came about,” he said.

Helander knew Holden since 2003. They met through the UAA Outdoor Club. At the time, Holden was a far more experienced mountaineer than Helander.

“I asked him if he wanted to go for a day hike with me, which for me at the time was a pretty big mountain hike, but for him was kind of like hiking Flattop or something. He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go with you.’ That, to me, was like getting to play hoops with Michael Jordan or something. As we kept doing more and more serious stuff together I gauged my strengths next to his and he got to become a friend and a partner and that just brought me a lot of pride,” Helander said.

They went on to do six climbing trips to the Alaska Range, including two to the remote, inhospitable Revelation Mountains, which Holden loved.

“He was motivated by what other people did and, in turn, I was really motivated by him, and I know that he had a lot of people who really looked up to what he did,” Helander said.

Holden died with a friend, Brandon Reiley, 28, also of Anchorage, on Aug. 24, 2010, when Reiley’s plane crashed into a sandbar along the Susitna River. Holden had climbed Summit Peak in Girdwood earlier that day, and was likely scouting for moose with Reiley when the plane went down .

“I know he had so many trips left that he wanted to do, and crazy things he’d never even talk about that I only found out about after his death,” Helander said. “I would just like this grant to be kind of a continuation of his life, and preserve his memory and see some really good things come of it. I would like to look back in a decade and see a list of all these cool things that have been done through this small amount of money that we were able to award annually.”

The SHARE Grant will be awarded each March. So far the fund is large enough to continue giving grants for several years, and Helander said the organizers are planning to hold fundraisers in the future. Donations to the fund can be made on the project’s website.

For information on the SHARE grant, the accompanying pack raft grant, how to apply for both, or to donate to the SHARE grant, visit www.sharegrant.com.