Chuck Pratt

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Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Topic Author's Original Post - May 18, 2009 - 04:58pm PT
[I wrote this in the months after Chuck died, in Thailand early in the Millenium. It was published in Mountain Gazette. I always wanted more climbers to see it.]


Chuck Pratt was the finest human being I ever met.

What does that mean? I’m not sure, and so begins the stammering and the silence. It’s hard to say much about the “little round man,” as he called himself, at least to me because we looked enough alike that sometimes we were mistaken for brothers. And it was impossible to say very much while he lived without offending Chuck’s privacy. Now the words come haltingly in these first days after his death. Here and there a sparkle of understanding in the middle of the night, extinguished by dawn.

During the magical Sixties in Yosemite, Chuck was the pivotal character. The climbing scene revolved around his presence like a kingpin. If Robbins and Harding propelled the vision of those fruitful times, Pratt was its moral force, or maybe its strength of character. He was like the calm at the center of that whirlwind of creativity, a little quieter than the rest, withdrawn even. The rest of us were drawn to him, to his picnic table in Camp 4, and not just because he tended the notebook of beta.

I carried his friendship like a badge, because he was such a leader in the thing we were all trying to do, climb rocks, and deeper than that I carried it like a beacon because I admired him so. His life informed mine in the kind of way that a guru seems to, by example, by osmosis. He was no saint in the usual ways; he lived an earthy life, drank too much and knew his way to the red light district. So then, what? He inspired by a great questing integrity. He was deeply curious about the way of the universe and the meanderings of men. He was pretty unflinching about what he saw, cynical even, as a habit or a general viewpoint. Surely from that you could sense the scars on his psyche, though he wore them so lightly and with the same ironic humor that he treated everything, evenly, that I could not know what they were.

Or did I learn the outline of some of those scars after all, glimpsed in the depths of those whirling nights of drink? And might I have absolved him the hurt, as he seemed to do for others, just by some moments of clear-eyed acceptance that burned themselves clean then vanished from memory? My time with Pratt had more of that sense to it than the drunken revel it probably appeared from the outside.

The end of one of those nights clings oddly to memory. We came out of a bar in Wilson, Wyoming, at the foot of the Tetons, headed back to Chuck’s hut in the Exum guides camp. Except that he drove off the wrong way without knowing it. Lost in the valley where he lived. And I the outsider had to take the wheel and find our way out the back roads. Chuck half-reclined; there was a bed in his VW where the passenger seat might have been. Up the gravel road, the long way home, the flow of his words lubricated to a magic pitch, laughing out at ironies made clear. “Where are we?” he raved, “And why is it so dark?” Safe at any unspeed, and crossed by no Moose, we made it clear to throttle down and stepped out into a night of Teton stars.

I recall another evening at Roper’s house in Berkeley. Cozy at a table in the big kitchen. Chuck’s latest enthusiasm is to become a Volkswagen mechanic. This is no great trick for a guy who had been a promising physics student at the University of California. But as usual he is mostly milking the situation for ironies. “I know it’s bad when I go to bed with the Snap-On tools catalog instead of Playboy.” He’s warmed up now, and going for the big one: “I used to think it was this,” he said, tilting his head to one side and tapping lightly with a finger on his skull. “But now,” and that half smile is spreading with wicked delight under his twinkly gaze, the one that says we’re all the butt of the same joke here, “I know it’s this.” The tool man is slowly flexing his opposable thumb.

The first time I climbed with him was in 1966. The Kor-Beck route on Middle Cathedral Rock had just been freed, and Chuck invited me along to have a look. I struggled with the 5.9 free climbing—cutting edge then, it sounds pretty moderate now. But so-called “old 5.9” has become one of the most feared and respected of grades, especially in Yosemite. This comment is typical, from a modern master of 5.14, Tommy Caldwell: after making a free ascent of Chuck’s magnificent Salathe Wall on El Cap, he sounded surprised to notice that Valley 5.9 and 5.10 are so often harder than rated. Anyway, on our second free ascent of the Kor-Beck, after a while Chuck did most of the leading.

His climbing had a quality of quiet assurance…Let’s try that again: Chuck was so understated and devoid of flash or flair, making it impossible to tell whether he was on something easy or pushing the edge of what anyone had ever climbed. He wasn’t even so flamboyant as to be offhanded, but was always humbly attentive to the rock. Hard or easy, every stretch of stone got Chuck’s full attention and care. He seemed to squeeze delight out of 5.5. It was all climbing. And climbing, somehow, was the one thing that made sense.

And the harder stuff: I watched him work the east face of Higher Cathedral Spire for a first ascent. An inside corner, steep and smooth, he was getting some purchase from not much of a crack, but mostly chimneying the dihedral. Trying to find moves that would keep him from being forcibly ejected into space. I had clambered over talus all the way up from the Valley to witness this, but now it seemed like there was nothing much to see. Here was maybe ninety feet of rock, vertical and smooth, and starkly unmarked by features. It was as if the climbing were not before my eyes but somehow internal, like Chuck’s private musings, revealed to us only if he chose to point them out. He would make a move, positive but modest, then there would be a long pause. Examining the rock. At intervals he pounded a pin, which looked awkward even though he was truly ambidexterous and made the most of it. Once in a long while there was a laconic comment, some bit of trivia about rope handling that belied no effort, let alone strain. This went on steadily for a good hour. Then he was up.

A couple of years later I found an 800-foot buttress in an obscure canyon near Tuolumne Meadows, and invited Chuck to do the first ascent. There was one interesting section right off the deck to gain a huge chimney, which we followed to the top. We named it Crowley Buttress, for the satanist, magician—and climber—Aleister Crowley. Chuck was fascinated with Crowley, who set an altitude record on K2 in 1902, but seems to have pulled a revolver during a dispute with team mates, then came home to defy most of the Victorian conventions in a quest for knowledge that swept through sex, drugs and the occult. Pratt quoted out of Crowley’s text on Magick: “Every intentional act is a magical act,” and “Every man and every woman is a star.” Although scrupulously honest, Chuck had liberated from the Denver Public Library a rare copy of Crowley’s most serious and difficult work, a slim volume entitled 777 that contained charts showing interrelationships among all branches of arcane knowledge. In it you could follow threads between, say, Tarot and the Cabala, or the I Ching and numerology. Chuck just figured that this key to knowledge was more useful in his hands than in the collection of a frontier oil town.

In the spring of 1969 we took a classic trip to climb in the desert. California climbers had been making that pilgrimage since David Brower’s first ascent of Shiprock back in the thirties, and for Chuck it had become an annual spring ritual between renting skis at the Ski Hut in Berkeley and taking up residence in the Valley. We camped, alone in the campground, at the end of the road in the Arches. A battery powered record player—the boom box of the sixties—sat on the end of our camp table. I played John Mayall and the Rolling Stones; Chuck played Mahler. We climbed a scary and unprotected line on the end of one of the Courthouse Towers. Hiked further out to make the second ascent of Dark Angel tower. One day we drove up the Colorado River to a tower Chuck remembered, only to find Layton Kor’s car parked under it. We hiked up to say hi, celebrated with Kor that night, then went back the next day for the second ascent of Dolomite Tower.

Then we went to Indian Creek. Its walls were not a destination then; this was still the era of reaching summits, so we hiked out to North Six Shooter Peak. That had already been climbed, and Chuck was beginning to nudge us beyond summits by going back for an enticing offwidth crack. After an hour’s walk across the desert and scrambling up the talus fan we found ourselves staring up at a flawless six-inch slot, rising thirty or forty dead-vertical feet off the deck with no compromising features. “Oh well,” Chuck said with a shrug, and we turned our back to the wall to eat lunch. The master had rejected it, but I was curious and began bouldering the crack. At first I could get only enough purchase to lift a foot off the ground. Then, scrape a few moves upward. Chuck put his shoes on too. Soon he was twelve feet up. “Throw me the rope,” he said, and pumped out the rest of the crux. Abruptly the crack widened into a chimney, where Chuck could finally pause to haul his swami and hammer and the rack.

Driving out later, afternoon sun highlighted an endlessly parade of vertical cracks in the warm sandstone walls along the road. Glancing up, Chuck gathered in the miles of cliff face with the sweeping gesture of a callused hand and pronounced, “The future home of crack climbing in America.”

“There is a time on every desert expedition when the end of the trip is signified by subtle changes either in our own temperament or in the environment.” So wrote Chuck Pratt in “The View from Deadhorse Point.” It is a brilliant piece about climbing in the desert; and, it is far from being just about climbing. “To gain any lasting worth from what the desert has to offer, we had to learn to put our pitons and ropes away and to go exploring in silence, keeping our eyes wide open. It wasn’t easy. We wasted a lot of time climbing before we got the knack.”

The part of Chuck’s article dealing with our trip didn’t even mention any of our climbs. We had reached that end point in our desert expedition, with one thing left to do: visit Deadhorse Point. “Approaching the edge of the world,” he wrote, “we separate to experience the view in solitude.” That solitude was crucial to him. He was very private. “He was basically a loner,” is the way Steve Roper put it. And Roper was, for awhile at least, probably Chuck’s best friend. But that very privateness highlights by contrast the things he chose to share with us. When he spoke, we were primed to listen. He published just four articles. They are all gems. “We all wish he had written more,” Roper said wistfully. It is nearly a response, and perhaps close to reproach, when Chuck writes, “For a while we stand on the summit, experiencing sensations that are nobody’s business but our own…”

For a stretch in the early Seventies Chuck joined a few of us to guide in the Palisades. It was a good time—he could make the most of almost any situation—and it offered an irresistible opportunity for many of his trademark raves against cold and snow. In Camp 4 he always had the biggest down jacket, and in the Palisades he usually found something else to do while the rest of us taught the Tuesday snow school. Over the weekends he often hiked down to Bishop, and a certain amount of partying ensued. A couple of incidents stand out.

One Sunday morning recovery took the form of a drive up Pine Creek, where Chuck suddenly spotted 200 feet of offwidth crack splitting a huge corner. With commanding directness he simply said, “Stop the car.” Headaches forgotten, Pratt’s Crack was born. Maybe at 5.8 it isn’t difficult enough to bear his name, but then again there was only one point of pro, a loose chockstone that later rolled to pin the arm of a less wary suitor.

Another time we had spent Saturday helping to frame Jay Jensen’s new house. In the evening with fiddle music we found ourselves with forearms locked, whirling like dervishes. The next thing I knew, Chuck was flying out of a newly-framed doorway into the darkness. I must have been the one to let go; Chuck’s balance and coordination were so good that he could juggle 4 balls—or flash 5—while walking a slack rope.

But after a couple of years, and without truly complaining, Chuck simply moved on for the summers to the Tetons. And for the winters he shifted too, from hovering around Berkeley to stretching out in Thailand. At least that choice was warm.

It was a living irony for him to go to the Tetons. With icier weather, he had more opportunity to voice a favorite mantra: “Clouds mean death.” I would go there to see him at the end of one of my guiding trips into the Wind Rivers. Once I hiked up nearly to the top of the Grand just to walk down with Chuck and his clients. He paced out his attention to the three of us, switchback after switchback that afternoon. Later he gravitated toward teaching daily rock climbing classes closer to the valley bottom in Cascade Canyon, where he wouldn’t have to go up into the snow zone. So on another visit I dropped in on that class. Beginners, or barely more than that, his students soaked up his focus and offhanded wisdom, with maybe just a glimmer of what a special man was their humble instructor.

It sometimes seemed strange that he did not return to guide in Yosemite, the crucible he had helped to mold and to give direction as a climbing center. He would certainly have liked the weather better. Maybe he had to leave to escape the adulation that would have bugged him there. Or the inevitable degradation of the art form he had molded, seeing the big walls opened into effete highways just by better tools and familiarity, or those stark and bold crack climbs of his trivialized by the mechanics of wide protection. Merely repeating the moves with an oversized cam sliding alongside for assurance, completely masks the startling boldness and steady mind that Chuck brought to those wide slots with the rope arcing free below him and the next move all of two inches gained with great quiet effort.

It is nearly impossible today for anyone to appreciate how little help Chuck had from gear, how much of the advance came straight out of him. About the only similarity with a modern climber racking at the base of the Twilight Zone, which was arguably his finest climb, is a nylon rope. Wider than a hand jam, steep and unrelenting it shoots upward. Hard to imagine now that offwidth was his choice for a frontier. Oddly he and those around him did not see the cracks thinner than a hand jam as a climbing challenge. That was a perceptual shift for the next generation. His rope was knotted with a classic bowline to a swami belt around his waist, a nearly trivial few loops of nylon webbing. Shod in Pivetta Cortinas, the exact same boot my mom chose for hiking, he started up into the fearsome unknown. Technique solid but totally without flash. He would climb with just as much care and respect on something as easy as the Royal Arches. And Smoke Blanchard loved to tell the story of the great Chuck Pratt humbly accepting a top rope on The Big Slab, a barely roped climb in the Buttermilk, simply because Smoke as the local expert had suggested it.

I did not see Chuck much in the last twenty years. Just five times, including a few moments and a bearhug at the 1999 Camp 4 gathering: two little round men, fit and balding, share a sweeping grin before being absorbed by the surge of the crowd. Someone said that he only reluctantly returned, which seems about right. He didn’t look that great, and missed the evening event with food poisoning. And he was missed at what there was of a campfire, way outside the Valley. I had been holding the dream that Chuck would be in the circle around a great fire, perhaps shoulder to shoulder with Peter Haan, Peter Croft and maybe Cedar Wright. I anticipated hearing what the lights of many Valley generations would share. But in the end the celebration had been organized for politics, and that part, at least, worked. But as our numbers and enthusiasm swelled in anticipation to six hundred, the organizers and the Park Service panicked. Neither of them was experienced with large gatherings, and both feared our collective power—or anarchy. In the end they splintered the venue, people were shuttling all over the Valley, and a millenial convergence of climbing never reached its climax.

Yet without seeing Chuck, from a distance I continued to cherish his presence. There was a palpable kind of reassurance in just knowing he was there. I relied on it and often said so to friends. His presence on the planet was a support to me even in a ten-year stretch of not crossing paths. Surprisingly so, maybe. I considered him a best friend even though I never moved to go see him. Family and kids and distance, and I just never went to the Winds, which was always my springboard to drop by Jackson for an evening with Chuck. On his side, he never seemed to go out of his way to see anyone. That passivity was part of his game, to wait, to see what life brought to him. It was, at least, a sure test. Too late, I now wonder if I failed Chuck by my absence. Knowing he was there was enough for me, a great comfort, and still ever a beacon. But did it serve him? Or was I just another old friend who effectively disappeared?

In the end he chose not to return to Yosemite, and not to the Tetons. Some say asking emphatically that his ashes not be brought back here. On the morning he died, after a breakfast with laughter and stories of those very spots, and before excusing himself from a hike and going quietly to his room, he instructed again that his remains be thrown into the Mekong River.

Goodbye Chuck, Prince of the Valley. Besides our serious play on the granite itself, life was sweetest there when you held court at a campfire. Goodbye king of conundrums, master of stone, respectful cynic, delighted of riddles, fond enigma laughing at the darkness. We are ever grateful of your presence.
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
May 18, 2009 - 05:05pm PT
Doug- Thanks a ton for the post! A wonderful insight into a real original. Pratt will be long remembered.
Russ Walling

Gym climber
Poofter's Froth, Wyoming
May 18, 2009 - 05:10pm PT
Good stuff Doug!
Mike Bolte

Trad climber
Planet Earth
May 18, 2009 - 05:14pm PT
Doug - this is great. Thanks for posting.
Ghost

climber
A long way from where I started
May 18, 2009 - 05:37pm PT
Thanks Doug.
guido

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
May 18, 2009 - 05:40pm PT
Thanks Doug for this masterpiece on Pratt, I was hoping you would someday place it on ST.
Wade Icey

Trad climber
www.alohashirtrescue.com
May 18, 2009 - 06:16pm PT
thank you.
the Fet

Supercaliyosemistic climber
Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La
May 18, 2009 - 06:23pm PT
Amazing.
Jaybro

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
May 18, 2009 - 06:24pm PT
Magnificent, Doug!
I never got to meet Pratt, but, as Russ put it at the time, "he truly climbed the wide with pride!"

Hope to meet you one of these days, Doug, maybe at a wide Wednesday @Scuffy's but any time would be fine, life is short.
Patrick Sawyer

climber
Originally California now Ireland
May 18, 2009 - 06:40pm PT
Outstanding Doug. I didn't know Chuck Pratt, I've only met you a couple of times (perhaps more at Indian Rock) and Smoke I only knew from the week course I took at Palisades School Of Mountaineering. But all of you are an inspiration.
dogtown

climber
Cheyenne,Wyoming
May 18, 2009 - 06:41pm PT
Doug:
I met him once in Jackson you guy’s did look a like a bit! Both have nail keg calves.

Bruce.
spyork

Social climber
A prison of my own creation
May 18, 2009 - 06:44pm PT
Wow Doug, incredible writing.
guido

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
May 18, 2009 - 06:48pm PT
A little souvenir from that momentous day at the Climbers Ranch, you can tell it has been authenticated by the red wine stains. Pratt would have been proud.




Redwreck

Social climber
Echo Parque, Los Angeles, CA
May 18, 2009 - 07:00pm PT
Yes.
Mark Rodell

Trad climber
Bangkok
May 18, 2009 - 08:26pm PT
Well written, well said, Doug
crunch

Social climber
CO
May 18, 2009 - 08:26pm PT
Beautiful writing.

Thanks.
Larry

Trad climber
Bisbee
May 18, 2009 - 09:32pm PT
I've sometimes thought that someone ought to write a book on Pratt.

You, Doug, seemed like a candidate, or Roper or Ament.

I even thought of trying to write one myself. Maybe the fact that no book has appeared shows that you all understood Pratt better than me.
hossjulia

Trad climber
Eastside
May 18, 2009 - 09:32pm PT
Thank you.

Nohea

Trad climber
Aiea,Hi
May 18, 2009 - 09:50pm PT
What a great read. Thanks for sharing some wonderful times with us.

Aloha,
wil
goatboy smellz

climber
dirty south
May 18, 2009 - 09:53pm PT
Thanks Doug, great insight!
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