The View From Deadhorse Point - Article from 1970


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Phoenix, AZ
Topic Author's Original Post - Oct 18, 2005 - 09:29pm PT
Another classic article from back in "the day"...always thought (and I wasn't alone) Chuck Pratt should have done more writing. I didn't know him, but I always just figured that Chuck wrote when he guessed that he could do a good job of it. Guess it's better to have only a few items of the highest quality than a ton of mediocre stuff with just a few gems. Anyways... this was definitely an article that influenced me early on.


Chuck Pratt

Editor comment:

[Some climbers loathe snow and ice. Chuck Pratt is one such person, and we can imagine him shivering with disgust as he reads about adventures in the Far North. His preferred ideal, never attained, of course, is to take a few strides from the car, preferably across a flower-strewn meadow, and lay his hands on a spire that shoots upward a thousand feet. The rock must be perfect, the ledges must be spacious, and the temperature must be in the low eighties. No clouds allowed, of course.

Pratt's "View from Deadhorse Point" concerns several climbing trips he made to the American Southwest, where he found that many of his conditions were met. (True, the rock wasn't too great, but one can't have everything.) With humor and remarkable insights about the mental aspects of climbing, Pratt leads us on a tour of his special world.]

Embedded in the red earth of an austere and isolated section of America's Southwest is a metal plaque commemorating the single point in this country common to four states. The Four Corners Monument, where it is possible to stand in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado simultaneously, is the geometric center of an area that has been frequented for more than twenty years by a subculture of desert loving rock climbers whose attraction to the alien beauty and legend-filled history of the area borders on the obsessive. Why the desert should exert such a fascination on a handful of climbers is a mystery to those who are not attracted to it, for the climbs in Four Corners, with a few remarkable exceptions, have little to recommend them. They are generally short - often requiring less time than the approaches, the rock at its best is brittle and rotten and at its worst is the consistency of wet sugar, Perhaps it is significant that desert climbing presents objective dangers not usually encountered by climbers used to more solid rock.

Although the dangers inherent in sandstone climbing are infinitesimal compared to those faced by the mountaineer, it is just these small-scale threats that are more suited to a rockclimber's temperament. Among the traits shared by virtually every climber who is active in the desert is the conscientiousness with which they avoid the Expedition Game. The quality of the climbing, however, be it safe or dangerous, cannot by itself fully explain the desert's appeal. There have been too many California Desert Expeditions that have returned home without achieving a single climb yet judged the trip a complete success - A desert environment is maintained by an irresistible force whose nature cannot be penetrated by superficial efforts, To gain any lasting worth from what the desert has to offer, we had to learn to put our pitons and rope away and to go exploring in silence, keeping our eyes very open. It wasn't easy. We wasted a lot of time climbing until we got the knack.


We are walking down a blood-red canyon called de Chelly toward the place where it intersects its twin. Everything around us is a shade of red - the walls, looming above us for a thousand feet; the sand beneath our shoes; the river, sluggish with its cargo of silt; even the dog that explodes from a nearby hogan to warn the canyon of our presence. His bark, echoing between the canyon walls and amplified by a dozen tributary canyons, becomes deafening and we hurry trough his territory to escape the sensation of having climbed over a neighbor's fence into his backyard.

We pass and occasional oasis of color wherever a natural amphitheater in the canyon wall protects a grove of luxuriant cottonwoods, the bright green of their leaves made almost luminous by the red walls surrounding them like a fortress. Turning a final corner into Monument Canyon, we see Spider Rock for the first time. We already know that it is eight-hundred feet high but it is the proportion that excites us; slender and majestic, it rises from its talus cone like a crimson arrow aimed at the sky. On its summit dwells the Spider Lady, nourishing herself on the flesh of disobedient Navajo children, leaving their bones to bleach in the noonday sun. The Indian legend is a convenient explanation for the pile of white rubble seen on the summit of Spider Rock and the Spider Lady, the Navajo equivalent of the bogeyman, is equally convenient device for maintaining discipline among rebellion children.

Slowly we circle the spire to see it from every possible angle. We go mad looking at Spider Rock and so we climb it. I have memories of flared chimneys, bolt ladders whose bolts fall out under the rope weight, Kamps stuck in a mantel position on a piton trying to pull his pantleg from under his foot, and the summit pitch, a lieback over a flake that looks amorous enough to come off in somebody's arms. For a while we stand on the summit, experiencing sensations that are nobody's business but our own and then start down, the first two rappels producing more adrenalin than the ascent. Retracing our steps out of the canyon we feel the temporary depression which accompanies an exhilarating experience that belongs to the past.

Returning to the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Chinle, we disguise ourselves as tourists and edge discreetly toward the ranger headquarters to find out how much of a stir we have caused, for we know intuitively that since we feel so happy, we must have done something illegal - "Are you the boys who climbed Spider Rock?" We can't tell if the ranger merely curious or if he is trying to catch two criminals. After a long pause, Bob finally admits to the crime and the ranger invites us into his office for a friendly chat. He informs us that the Indians are infuriated. lt seems a conclave of the most powerful medicine men in Navajodom have just completed a three-year ritual of removing the curse from Canyon de Chelly that was placed there by the first ascent of Spider Rock; that now they will have to start all over again and the best thing for us to do would be to leave on the next stagecoach or something.

On our way out of town we stop at the local trading post and I go in to look for an ice-cream bar. The place is filled with Navajos and within half a second the conversational hum drops to the point where I could have heard a feather falling. A shadow stirs in a corner and an Indian built like a buffalo looms above me as I lean for the door. "Did you climb Spider Rock?" he wants to know. "Why yes," I answer, reaching for the doorknob, "now that you mention it, I did. But there's another guy outside who climbed it too." Spread the guilt and the punishment might be less severe - the logic of Nuremberg. "What did you find top?" Every eye in the trading post is upon us, every ear straining for my reply It's bad enough to place a curse on the land by climbing Spider but to contradict their cherished myths of the Spider Lady would be going too far, "We found a pile of bleached bones on the top."

Now it's so quiet I can hear molecules colliding in midair. Slowly I start turning the doorknob but the buffalo takes one step toward me and, demonstrating a remarkable intimacy with the nuances and connotations of a language not even his native tongue, asks, "What do you take me for - a fool?" and the room erupts into hysterical laughter. I gather the pieces of my patronizing ego up off the floor and carry them out the door in my hands.

Not bad for a first desert trip. I get up one climb - the finest in the Southwest - and I learn a couple of things about Indians. Best of all. want to come back.


Dave Pullin and I are wandering through a graduate course in quicksand trying to find Cleopatra's Needle. We offer our kingdoms for a canoe at the stream crossings but we're stuck with an automobile and have to nurse it cross-country. About noon we find the bloody spire and start up with lucky me getting the second lead. It is very 6.0, the pins going in easily by hand and coming out just as easily under a load about five pounds less than I weigh. How to lighten myself by five pounds? Strip? There is a cruel east wind rising and the sky is growing dark with clouds. I send the hardware down and haul up one pin at a time. I stand on one and count until it pops out. Fifteen seconds. The higher I get the less time I have to place the piton and get off the thing before it grinds out. Halfway up I reach a bolt and retreat, leaving fifteen pitons shivering in a crack. We'll finish it tomorrow. Christmas City. The snow is everywhere - just crept in during the night and decided to stay. Beneath the howling wind I can hear an occasional dull thud with metallic overtones, as though someone were gently beating Cleo with a hardware loop. I look out of the car window toward the spire, barely able to see it through the snow flurries. I see my rope slowly swaying from the bolt, and at the bottom of the rope a ten-pound mobile of assorted angle pitons and carabiners. I mention it to Dave. "Sh#t, Pullin, every goddamned piton I put in got blow out by the wind during the night. This is no place for an Englishman. We retrieve the gear and, tranquilizing it in a corner of the trunk, drive to the nearest bar.

We are learning that the rocks of the desert are organic. The climbs in Four Corners have a quality of aliveness not usually associated with he inanimate world and for me that quality is becoming a source of increasing attraction. It is fascinating to view erosion as a process rather than an end result, for the wind can visibly alter a spire even as we climb it, and a good rainstorm will dissolve the softer sand into mud so that no two parties ever see the same summit. Dave and I are disappointed about Cleo and we would like to stay the bar and get blotted, but we leave when an Indian tells Dave, whos beard is rather gnarled and intermittent, that he looks like a paleface werewolf.


Shiprock, fabled monument, rises before us in splendor and silent a tableau from the genesis of the Southwest, historical remnant of unique volcanic violence which has created a collage of mountainous fluted columns, jagged aretes and sheer orange walls that intimidate into silence. Once on the summit, Roper and I can see for a hundred miles in every direction, but there is nothing to see but a vast plain sand and sagebrush and a dozen miniature Shiprocks dotting the horizon. Then we hear the tom-toms. Or rather we feel them, a dull sympathetic response in the pit of the stomach which we eventually interpret as a drumbeat. Is this the prelude to a thousand shrieking savages circling Shiprock, launching flaming arrows at us? Are they waiting for us on the ground with their fires and sharpened stakes? I can see nothing stirring on the plain below, yet the drumbeat continues insistent and sinister. We descend cautiously to be greeted only by silence and an empty desert. The drums are silent now and we joke about it, attributing the whole thing to imagination. Even so, we nearly break an axle driving back to the main road.

Moab is a small community in southeastern Utah, founded by Mormon pioneers and nurtured in modern times by uranium and potash. North of the town is the Colorado River on whose shore Roper and decide to camp while climbing Castleton Tower and The Priest. I am just out of the army and Roper is just going in, so this trip will be our only meeting in four years. Each of us has two years of information gossip to exchange, so we babble until the moon goes down. We are lulled to sleep by the night sounds: wind murmuring through the willows, the fluttering of a thousand leaves in the cottonwood above our heads, a ring of crickets competing with the frogs down by the river, where the deep currents of the Colorado flow westward to become cataracts.

We are going to try Cleopatra's Needle. Roper has already climbed it so there is little question as to who gets to lead the aid pitch - lucky me again. I am reminded of the last time I was here, with the Englishman, as my pitons fall out from under me, dislodged by the simple action of pulling up five feet of slack. The sandstone, disintegrating with each hammer-blow, rains down into my face so that I have to climb most of the pitch with my eyes closed. When the rain stops. I open my eyes standing on the summit, red from head to toe. Roper prusiks up, cleaning with his hands, and not bothering to step onto the summit, he jumps into rappel and vanishes. I hardly give him time to get off the rope before I take off too and within seconds we are both on the ground shouting and jumping up and down as though we have just gotten away with the crime of the century.

A new day arrives and we drive around a corner to try Venus' Needle. We fail and instead of recognizing our failure as a sign that our trip is over, we become stubborn and drive vehemently to Canyon de Chelly. The snow catches us on the second pitch of Spider and we can no longer ignore the message. 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. One morning the sky is somehow different or the sunset will be of such surpassing splendor that no climb can match it. Now that our two failures have brought us to a halt, we pay attention to the wind and migrate west with the clouds.


TM doesn't want any part of Cleopatra's Needle. He's heard stories about pitons being blown out by the wind so we try Venus' Needle instead. It's the same height as Cleo and the rock is just as soft, but TM hasn't heard any stories about it so that makes it okay. The last time we were here the weather was so cold we couldn't even touch the rock; the closest we could come to a desert experience was sitting in a theater in Gallup, New Mexico, watching Lawrence of Arabia. TM attacks the first pitch vengefully and I can hear his ribs cracking as he tries to force himself through a narrow slot fifty feet up. There is a tumultuous mechanical clatter behind me and a pickup arrives with two Indians aboard. I am paranoid about Indians ever since the incident in the trading post and now here I am, lashed to an immovable desert spire while some gadget-festooned freak grunts and thrashes above me. One of Indians gets out of the pickup and strolls nonchalantly over. I untie from my anchor and brace myself for running. "We're looking for arrowheads," I volunteer. His laughter is profuse. "Well, you won't find any up there. I thought you were just climbing it." Then he gets back in his truck, says something to his companion in Athabascan and drives off, both of them laughing hysterically as they bounce away across the dunes. When I climb up to TM he wants to know what the Indians thought was so funny. "Oh, they thought we were looking for arrowheads." And then TM laughs too.

Spider Rock again. It's been three years since the last ascent so the Indians will have to bring the medicine men back for another ceremony. Rockclimbers have their religion too, but I doubt that we could explain it to them. We manage it in one day this time but have to rappel in the dark. Two rappels from the ground my mind cracks when an aid sling jams behind a block and I'm left suspended under an overhang trying to cope with a pack, two extra ropes, and a camera strap that is strangling me. TM shouts up fatherly advice during the lulls in my gorillaish ravings and I finally struggle back onto a ledge and start over.

This time no one seems aware of the ascent. No council of war from the Indians, no friendly chats in the ranger's office. We remain in the campground for two days and the only visitors we receive are a blind arthritic donkey and the Chief Ranger's daughter, who is selling Girl Scout cookies. We stock up with enough to last us for the journey home and drive off. If it's this easy to get away with it, I think I'll climb it again.


We have come directly from Berkeley to Zion, a mistake, for the monstrous walls of Zion Canyon, more intimidating than those of Yosemite, have subjugated us into tourists. We abandon all thoughts of climbing and turn instead to the trails until we once again dare study the walls for routes. But it is useless; we are too small amend the lines we have drawn to define the limits of the possible have not been drawn far enough out to include Zion. The place oppresses us and we leave thinking that someday when we are younger and suction cups are in vogue we will come back and climb the Sentinel.

Remaining tourists, we enter the role with a passion. Southern Utah contains landscapes so alien to anything in our experience that we fear that we are traveling on the moon. Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, Kodachrome Flat - areas where ancient varieties of sandstone have congealed like damp soot into formations so grotesque and fragile that climbing is out of the question; much of this country is for the eye only - great reefs of crimson rock, scalloped and capped with foam, stretch across vast areas of the desert plain like waves frozen in time the instant before breaking. And there is the San Rafael Swell, an oceanic expanse of crumbling sandstone columns, sinuous and baroque, standing in clusters around Gothic arches, the whole merging into a larger pattern of plateaus and mesas which merge again into the timeless design of the desert's evolution. The horizons beyond Four Corners strain the limits of vision and of imagination. The desert can be comprehended only in its detail, for we are dealing with the sea.


This trip is going to be a strange one. For the first time we are taking a woman along on a desert expedition and I feel that ancient superstition of sea captains. "But this is a bird of a different hue," Roper assures me and I take his word for it as we arrive in Zion from Death Valley. The walls seem less intimidating this time, perhaps because we have no climbing plans until we get to Arizona. Still, we don't feel big enough for Zion - maybe next year, since we seem to be growing.

One last try at Spider. It will be Roper's first time and my third. We are wary of the Indians and the rangers both so we use a bit of stealth finding the Bat Trail into the canyon. At the start of the trail we find a sign that states, quite unequivocally, "No Climbing." "Balderdash," I say and "Bullsh#t," says Roper and we turn the sign around so its blank side shows and proceed into the canyon. We will sleep in the canyon tonight, try to get up the climb tomorrow and back up to the rim and the highway without getting caught.

The early morning chill is destroying our resolve and we just about rationalize our way out of the climb when Janet contributes her opinion. "You guys are not only cowardly, you're soft. It really isn't all that cold and now that you're here you should do the climb." "Roper, will you please discipline your woman." He makes a fist but cannot look her in the eye. We glance at each other, then at the rock and silently begin to climb. We reach the summit when the sun is close to the horizon, casting Spider's shadow down the canyon into infinity.


On the rim of an immense plateau high above the town of Moab is a newly constructed visitor center at Deadhorse Point State Park. Like most visitor centers, it was built on the assumption that a modern building, with picture windows and flush toilets, will somehow attract people to an area of scenic beauty which did not attract them before. Certainly the center was not built in response to the pressure of an ever-growing population, for very few visitors to the area ever see Deadhorse Point. Not the hunters who each season swarm into Moab to display their trophies and trade deer hearts for elk livers; nor the tourists whose schedules allow only for a trip through the uranium plant; nor do climbers reach Deadhorse Point, for there is nothing there to climb.

The visitor center houses drawings, graphs, charts, and working models all neatly and logically arrayed to explain the view from Deadhorse Point. Some of the tourists who do find their way to the Point wander through the building and then leave, without bothering to look at the reality itself; just as the tourists in Yosemite, content to remain in the security of the lodge, will watch movies of Yosemite Falls rather than walk the one-quarter mile to experience directly the spray from the second highest waterfall on Earth. Such is the level of their curiosity.

Approaching the edge of the world, we separate to experience the view in solitude. On the far horizon are the ramparts of a snow-shrouded range of peaks rising above the dark red expanse of Canyonlands National Park. Across the entire plateau all sounds are hushed and the desert colors, so bright and varied during the day, are subdued by twilight. Directly before us nothing is visible for the earth drops abruptly into an emptiness as vast as the sky. Slowly the view expands as we reach the edge, where a sandstone cliff plunges below us to a sloping plain. We are standing on the summit of an incomprehensible series of steps, separated by sheer cliffs of sandstone. Far below, so distant that we cannot see its motion, is the silver curve of the Colorado River, performing its endless task without regard to night or day, the river and the land living in a unity that will last as long as time will flow.

There was a time when the view from Deadhorse Point was free. Now there is a small fee for the privilege, collected by a ranger dressed not quite in Lincoln green. Someone has to pay for the visitor center.



Trad climber
Lee, NH
Oct 18, 2005 - 09:41pm PT
What a blast from the past. That piece inspired my first desert trip. I've still got the beat-up '70 Ascent that made the trip too. Later bought a second copy just to keep one pristine.
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
Oct 19, 2005 - 10:24am PT
Chuck's article was an inspiration for me along with The Place No One Knew and the photographs of Elliot Porter.

But I discovered there was even more to the desert than towers. Indeed when Pratt stood on Dead Horse Point and said there was nothing to climb he was standing at the finish of what would be a Grade IV of a spectacular nature.

Twenty years after I put up Dream of Dead Horses John Woo used the location to open Mission Impossible II.

But the words that resonated with me were about climbing nothing but still finding the trips to be successful....

Social climber
The West
Oct 19, 2005 - 10:48am PT
That is, one of the Best!
Chuck Pratt was it.
Like Fish said "He truly climbed the Wide with pride" ( dammit) among other things.

Sport climber
Venice, Ca
Oct 19, 2005 - 01:56pm PT
"The View," along with Chuck's story about the first ascent of Watkins in hellish heat, are two of the most natural climbing stories ever written in English.

There's a newish movement in lit. called "creative non-fiction" (started years ago by Ernest H., Joe Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, and later pushed along by Wolfe and the "new journalism" dudes), and with these two gems, Chuck was right there with the best of them, IMO.

A man of great talents.

John Vawter

Social climber
San Diego
Oct 19, 2005 - 03:31pm PT
That is one of the best. Thanks for that Greg. I don't have a copy and haven't read it in years.

Trad climber
On that V2 problem at the Happies
Oct 19, 2005 - 03:47pm PT
Russ Walling

Social climber
Upper Fupa, North Dakota
Feb 25, 2009 - 09:24pm PT
Pratt bump
scuffy b

just below the San Andreas
Feb 26, 2009 - 12:03pm PT
Oh, they thought we were looking for arrowheads.

dangling off a wind turbine in a town near you
Feb 26, 2009 - 12:05pm PT
Beautiful bit of scribbling
Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Feb 26, 2009 - 01:38pm PT
Chuck was my friend, and everyone knows I wouldn't say
a bad word about him, and I'm not going to. But let's
keep it real, as they say, as well. While I agree that
those were two of the best pieces in climbing -- in part
clearly because they were written by one of the best
spirits in climbing -- they were not simply jotted onto
a page. Chuck told me the whole process, how he struggled,
how he would send the piece to Roper, and Steve would send
it back and say it wasn't ready yet, and Chuck would go
back to the drawing board, and so on. Chuck found writing
very difficult, but the few times he focused his attention on
writing he took the time and care and did the work ultimately
to get it right. Chuck was part of a generation of men
who had integrity in a way less known in our modern world.
I speak of individuals such as Dave Rearick, who also has
written some very clean, simple, fine pieces. His account of
the first ascent of the Diamond, for example, has that
clear sense of the rock and of the weather and his partner,
that sense of camaraderie, as in the
Mt. Watkins piece. Kamps, Higgins, Royal... all these guys...
were simply gifted individuals, and naturally that would
come through in their work. But it was never easy. Nothing
rolled off of anyone's pen. It took work, and lots of revision,
and some bad writing that was edited out and thrown away. That
doesn't take anything away from the final result. Any kind of
great art, as with sculpture, takes a lot of chipping
and changing, and reforming to get beyond the block or
mortar and to the Michelangelo inside... People have
wished Pratt would have written more, but the fact is
it wasn't in him. He didn't
find writing about it as easy as he did actually doing those
climbs. My heart is always with Chuck, that great man and
friend, and I am grateful for the writing he did. Consider
it precious, because indeed there was so few of it. I have
a postcard he sent me one year telling me to get out to the
Valley and climb with him, and I cherish that just about as
much as his published pieces...

Pat Ament

Big Wall climber
Feb 26, 2009 - 02:12pm PT
I was gonna say... How the hell do you have an article about the view from Dead Horse point, without a pic. Just plain wrong...

Trad climber
Fresno CA
Feb 26, 2009 - 02:27pm PT
Pratt was my hero (and still is, really), so I grabbed that issue of Ascent as soon as it came out. His writing was, like his climbing, very well-crafted. I didn't realize the struggles it took until Pat posted his comment, above. Thanks, Pat.


Vision man...ya gotta have vision...
Topic Author's Reply - Feb 26, 2009 - 02:51pm PT
Sorry I didn't include a pic with the story... here's one I shot in '93


Gym climber
Otto, NC
Feb 26, 2009 - 04:15pm PT
"To gain any lasting worth from what the desert has to offer, we had to learn to put our pitons and rope away and to go exploring in silence, keeping our eyes very open. It wasn't easy. We wasted a lot of time climbing until we got the knack. "

Amen to that.

Social climber
wuz real!
Feb 26, 2009 - 04:20pm PT
Show of hands, how many here have partaken of the view from Deadhorse point?

It Makes you think like that, even if we can't all be as articulate as Mr Pratt....
Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Feb 26, 2009 - 04:20pm PT
Thanks Pat for your post on Chuck's writing.

I don't remember if Chuck is listed as such, but he worked along with Roper and Steck as an editor of Ascent. He always had a stack of manuscript pages to work on. He was very deliberate in word choices and structure--all the pieces had to fit just so. Half jokingly, I asked Chuck what he would have changed in the King James Version of the Bible.

He was lightning quick: "Nothing. Not a word."

Everyone else had to measure up.

The conversations about word choice and figuring out exactly what a word or phrase meant or evoked would turn into hilarious discussions at lunch or dinner, especially as the always necessary wine started to loosen everyone's sensibilities. Lots of the Ascent articles were in fact written by Chuck and Steve. Many articles started out as only rough notes or sometimes a completed but awful manuscript--"words in a sack with a proposed title" is the way I have put it--and Steve and Chuck would do massive rewrites. They were very good at it--Ascent won many awards in its short life. What is astounding, to me, is that they always found a way to change everything while preserving the voice of the presumptive author.

I learned most of what I know about writing from watching and listening to that process.

I don't know all the reasons Chuck chose not to write more. As Pat says, good writing is a process of constant editing, and with Chuck's insistence on precision, it might have been too grueling. But that would have just been a choice Chuck made--he knew how to edit others and himself. And he wasn't afraid of leaning new skills--he learned to rebuild VW engines by reading books. I suspect that what ever made Chuck decide against writing was tied up in the same forces that made him extremely uncomfortable with being famous, of having a public personality.

I think years later there is quote along the lines: "I don't want to talk about climbing. I don't want to write about climbing. I just want to climb."

All the same, the few pieces that he did write are great pieces.


Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Feb 27, 2009 - 03:15am PT

Mountain climber
Jackson Hole Wyo.
Feb 27, 2009 - 01:30pm PT
I think I once counted four published pieces by Chuck. His "letter to the editor" in the first edition of Alpinist constituted the fifth.
No doubt he would choose a pendulum over a pentameter any day, but when he did write he chose to practice the art the same way he approached climbing - in control, with precision and, ultimately, beauty
scuffy b

just below the San Andreas
Feb 27, 2009 - 01:56pm PT
Angus, I don't think the SuperTopo world has seen your
wonderful obituary of Chuck.
Could you post it here?
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