Oct 12 2011

Ode to John Holleman (1960-2011)

John Holleman pauses on a powder trail above Lake Tahoe, March 2009 after 5 months of chemotherapy.

Nobody likes talking about it, so it’s weird when you have to deal with it regardless of what you know or, more importantly, what you believe about death. It is that season for my friend, and thus for me and a small group of friends who have rallied around John since he was diagnosed with colon cancer just over three years ago.

The day he found out was the day that my relationship with John Holleman was transformed from casual to close. My response has been the signature ingredient of our friendship ever since. My response was prayer. Some of you may think that quite appropriate, and indeed I agree, but at the time it was a very unnatural response, not just because of who I am, but also because of my relationship with John.

John was my ski bud, a man who had entered my life as a roommate when I first moved to Truckee to put Couloir magazine in high gear. According to my other roommate, Corey Stern, John was a ripping telemarker.

Shredding the effects of chemo, John Holleman rips fresh pow.

We didn’t ski together that much initially, but whenever we did we just made small talk on the trail, pumped each others egos and rarely discussed anything beyond the bro-brah level. But John and I had a deeper, unspoken understanding and agreement on other things. It was a sense, based on mutual nods of incidents we observed whenever we were together. Talk remained superficial because sharing the mountains was enough to sustain an uncomplicated friendship.

When John called in late July, 2008, I was shocked that he would call to tell me what was going on. I’d never heard that tone in his voice before but when he said, “I’m scared man” he was dead serious. And understandably so. He had just gotten back from seeing a doctor and was going in to surgery the very next day.

The doctors had determined the reason he hadn’t been able to go the bathroom for a week was because of a tumor. Then he reminded me of when he had gotten violently sick six months earlier. That had been the final warning in a decade long series of symptoms that something was wrong in his guts. But he didn’t investigate, he just toughed it out like we men do.

Trading chemotherapy for snow therapy.

I couldn’t do much. I felt helpless. I knew I needed to call in the big guns but felt weird about it. John knew I went to church regularly but never let on any interest or belief in such things. It was understood that he and I wouldn’t discuss that stuff. But I offered to pray anyway.

Again he shocked me when he say, “that would be awesome,” because I could tell he wasn’t just saying that to go along with me, he meant it. Then I was on the spot so I asked God for a miracle that the diagnosis was wrong, that it wasn’t a malignant tumor but if it were, to give the doctors amazing hands to remove it all and at all costs to bring John through the surgery alive.

“Holy Crap!” I screamed after I hung up.

That was three years ago. Several doses of chemo ensued after which the doctors claimed the cancer was gone only to remove what was left of his large intestine four months later still. The result of that second operation was for the doctors to call the family to say to hurry up and say your goodbyes because John won’t be leaving the hospital ever again. I’ll tell you more about that one later and you can decide for yourself if it was, as I believe, a bona fide miracle of God. Suffice it to say John walked out of the hospital five weeks later, Sept 5th, 2009 and did his darndest to live the best way he knew how until last June 2011.

Still makin' it look easy.

Since then his body has been on a downward slide towards the yawning crevasse of eternity. His determination to live has allowed him to beat the odds offered by the gods of better living through scalpels and pharmaceuticals, but not forever.

That’s the most interesting part of this whole drama. Since that day when John called unwittingly for prayer, that aspect of our relationship has dominated. Not like we are prayer warriors together. Not hardly. We’d still rather make small talk on the skin track and just enjoy the face shots. Except when it matters. And it matters now.

It’s hard talking to a friend about their imminent death. It’s hard when they look so unhealthy you can’t deny they’re dying. It’s hard to assure them with nothing more than words from a book that 90% of the people on this planet deny is anything more than flagrant fiction. Both of us once agreed with that perspective. But both of us now know that, but for God’s grace, we would have dealt with this conversation two years ago, or perhaps worse, have missed the ability to have it because our understanding of death was so unprepared.

So it is bitter sweet that a two year extension is now drawing to a close. But it seems that those two years were granted to allow John to come to terms with passing on to eternity, and having the faith, though it be as small as a mustard seed, that he will cross that expanse and land on the other side in the twinkling of an eye in better shape than ever before. Such is the hope of heaven.

For now though, it remains a wrestling match between John’s fear of death versus a faith in what lies beyond. Dealing with the pain of a body rotting from the inside out, and daring to believe that there is a spiritual body awaiting is an amazing concept to consider, especially considering we can’t earn it and we don’t deserve it. So all I can do at this point for my friend John is to pray that the passages of scripture that I read and my insufficient explanations will help him, assure him and strengthen him for the path he is walking and the destination I believe he is bound for. Before long I believe we’ll be making turns together again in a far far better place than here.

John Holleman enjoys one of Tahoe's finest views.

© 2011

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JH rips tele turns during his chemo years (~ 5 min):YouTube Video

Additional comments at TelemarkTips.com


  • Brent

    Bro, I appreciate your blog big time, and scope it out daily, but above and beyond all the BC gear and stories it is so refreshing to see your faith. Praise God for the days he has given John, and all of us. I will be praying for John. Isaiah 40:31

  • Karen Liles

    I have expressed my comments when I signed on to this site. I will say again that your article for John is very well done. I am close with his daughter Sierra, and I know she will miss her Dad greatly and has appreciated the recent time she has had with him.

    Thank you for writing such a great article for her Dad. It will be something her family can keep and pass on to his Grandchildren. John will be in my prayers also.

  • KajGyr

    Well done Craig. Nice to have heartfelt narrative on top of all the gear gab.

  • Old Tele Guy

    Thank You Craig, whatever your religious bent you can’t say enough about Johnny’s indomitable spirit to live. There is no doubt that Johnny will land in a fine place when this ordeal is over and I will always miss my little brother and cherish the times we have shared.

  • powderpig

    Thank you Craig, for sharing the photo’s of that fine powder day we shared with John that day. Under any other circumstances, this was a powder day to be added in the best of a season…. A few feet of blower pow on top of a sweet Tahoe snow pack, dawn start on a blue bird day and the only people in sight were Great Friends. In retrospect, it was one of the most memorable days of my life.

    A few months before John was diagnosed with colon cancer we had hooked up to ski in the Sawtooth Range outside of Bridgeport. Preparation the night before consisted of a couple of beers, some ski porn on the tube and firing up the BBQ. A 4am start from his house, we hit the trail head early and started skinning. I kept him in my sights and caught up when he stopped at the top (approx 5000 vert later)… I had been earning my turns alot that year and felt strong, but John is different than most as he has shown us these last few years. He can reach deeper, be stronger, go longer.

    You will always be in our thoughts and prayers John.


    Oh gosh where to start? Well thanks Craig for the awesome diary of events about the bravest man any of our crew has ever known!!! Could leave it at that but not my way and I’ve known John way longer then the 3 years discussed. He is a brother, son, father and a grandfather in a wonderful tribe. We’ve prayed for John in groups at my house and made the journeys necessary to be at peace with our friend and his apparent destiny here on earth.

    I will add he gave me a perspective on my last three years that helped me keep grounded and confident things would be better as he did the same amazingly. I thank God for the times I was able to help him while at the same time he was actually being there for me… Funny thing about doing the right thing, it always comes back. So I’ll always be thankful to have met John, Craig and Corey back then in Truckee California! God bless the final steps of a journey of a great guy and most awesome tele skier! Thank God this is one time when he tops out on a mountain of glory I won’t be in a hurry to catch him. Too young but we’re all on God’s time and have to have the faith there is a plan.

    Life will not be the same with out him. Wadeski

  • https://www.earnyourturns.com Dostie

    John passed away this morning, 23oct11. He was only 51 years old. He leaves behind two daughters, a grandchild, a sister, two brothers, his parents, and numerous friends. We all miss him dearly already.

    There will be a memorial on Mt. Shasta, but when is yet to be determined.

    John Holleman’s family request that donations to Madrone Hospice be made in lieu of flowers. Madrone Hospice does a phenomenal job of easing the pain of dying for their patients, and John was another example of that.

    Madrone Hospice
    255 Collier Circle
    Yreka, CA 96097

  • telemike


    All past pissing matches aside…thanks for posting this. I was lurking on Ttips for some ski info when I saw this and almost threw up.

    John Holleman was one of the best skiers nobody ever knew, and one of the coolest guys I ever met. Back when I worked at Sierra Mountaineer and you were running Couloir ski tests out of the garage, John was one of the first people to take me out and show me the way on freeheel gear. He told me not to listen to your bs, or at least take it with a grain of salt. He advocated using “fat” (80mm waist) alpine and AT skis for tele, and turned me on to Volant Chubbs – my first big ski.

    John’s attitude about EVERYTHING was great. When I embarassedly told him about wrecking some shit in my tractor doing snow removal, he laughed and told me how he’d recently unknowingly pushed a car down the street in his new loader. He said he wasn’t used to the feel of the new machine yet and didn’t know the car was there.

    As people do, John and I drifted apart when I left Truckee for Chico, AK and beyond. I didn’t even know he was sick. Now I find out he’s dead.

    Thanks for introducing him to me. Take care.

    ~mike bartholow

  • https://www.earnyourturns.com Dostie

    John’s memorial was yesterday. Great to celebrate John’s life and share with family and friends. Learned a few things I didn’t know too. Looking forward to the reunion tour, but am feeling rather empty today. :-(


    Have pictures of our friend up in a couple of rooms here. Still healing but an honorable man has passed to a better place and I’m thankful for that here on Thanksgiving week end.

  • Sierra Holleman

    I miss you terribly Dad. I wish I had more time with you, half as much as the kind people who have commented and who knew you so well. I love you.

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