Chuck Pratt


Discussion Topic

Return to Forum List
Post a Reply
Messages 25 - 44 of total 226 in this topic << First  |  < Previous  |  Show All  |  Next >  |  Last >>
Eric Beck

Sport climber
Bishop, California
May 18, 2009 - 11:03pm PT
A non climbing tribute: Chuck taught me to juggle. He was extremely good, could do five. After some tribulation I got the ability to do two in one hand, three and then four which is two in each hand. Adding a ball is like an order of magnitude in difficulty.
His lesson revolved around the idea of a cycle, tossing each ball once. Once you could do one cycle, try for two cycles.
A corrollary lesson was that a good place to practice was the beach.
Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
May 19, 2009 - 12:08am PT
Thanks, Doug - a poignant, sad eulogy. Chuck contributed a great deal to the world of climbing, and to climbers. A gem.

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
May 19, 2009 - 12:12am PT
Hennek's classic photo of Pratt


Trad climber
May 19, 2009 - 12:24am PT
Thanks Doug. That piece deserved another life here.

A remarkable figure. Those Denny photos of Pratt, juggling high above the Falls, strike me as far more memorable than any I've seen of him climbing.

But I'm still curious.

How does a man notoriously averse to snow and ice end up guiding the Tetons? How does a figure so legendarily congenial spin out his life without wife or partner or children?

Where did he pick up the enthusiasm for classical music? More specifically, modern classical music? Berkeley?

How does a climber so gifted with prose (by period standards, certainly), write one remarkable article and then never write another memorable published piece?
Todd Gordon

Trad climber
Joshua Tree, Cal
May 19, 2009 - 12:54am PT
I had a piton that was stamped CP that I pulled off of Spyder Rock in Canyon de Chelly; was one of my most prized climbing trinkets....I donated awhile back to an access auction, and it was mounted , displayed, and , I believe, sold for maybe 125 dollars.......I miss my CP was a powerful object, and it made me think of an awesome climb, and an awesome man (whom I , unfortunately, never met....or at least that I can remember meeting....).....but I like to support access and all the good things they have done for climbing and no whining....Thanks, Doug,for the cool writing.......
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
May 19, 2009 - 01:10am PT
Klk, really cogent questions, those. And there are tons of anecdotes that go with your queries too. (Note Jan's post just below here) Imagine a biography but could you get enough information to make a book? Certainly not Chuck’s idea.

While being deeply quietly charismatic he also did not have all the answers, though many of us then and now would assume he did.

Here the above image tweaked:

and then in the year 2000 before his end.


Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
May 19, 2009 - 01:10am PT

More than anything written so far, your tribute captures the spirit of Chuck as I remember him. I too counted on him always being there and from a distance I too continued to cherish his presence. He was one of those people I most looked forward to spending time with when I retired and returned to the U.S. Alas, it was through a climbing magazine and the tribute written by Pat Ament, that I learned it was not to be. If only I had kept in touch, I could have visited him in Thailand since I live in Asia already. Because Chuck seemed to project such a sense of quiet invincibility, we mistakenly assumed he would always be with us. He seemed as solid and resilient as the landscape in his beloved Valley.

As noted in the Chris Fredericks thread,, I first met Chuck in the winter of 1964-65 in Boulder. I’m not sure why he and Fredericks decided to spend the winter there, especially given Chuck’s well known hatred of the cold. His legs shoved up to the knees in my oven until the rubber on his boots smoked, is one of my enduring images of him. And of course there were the numerous rants about “this cold frozen hell”.

Also mentioned previously was the famous peyote trip that Pratt, Fredericks and I took together that winter, long before it was a household word, let alone illegal. It was Chuck’s idea since he had already experimented during his winter visits to Baja, California. It was also his record of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, that we three listened to hour after hour that night and which I still listen to nostalgically from time to time. It was thanks to his recommendation that I also went to see the Rio Carnival movie Black Orpheus, which sparked a number of prophetic dreams about the various Valley climbers with whose antics Chuck and Chris had been entertaining me. We didn’t have much money in those days so we spent a lot of time talking and soon the two of them had persuaded me to move to California and spend the summer of 1965 climbing in the Valley. As karma would have it, I broke my wrist the first week in the Valley and had even more time to visit with Chuck that summer.

Only four of us spent the entire summer of 1965 in the Valley – Chuck, Chris, Tom Gerughty and myself. If only we had known how precious that historic time would turn out to be! Hardly a day went by that Chuck and I didn’t spend at least an hour visiting. He always included me on his grocery shopping trips and gave me invaluable tips on sneaking into the showers and the best monetary deals in the Valley. It was also through him that I learned of many hidden and interesting places I could visit in the Valley with my arm in a cast, and he also sometimes gave me a ride to the trail head. I agree with one commentator (rgold) on Frederick’s thread that “you sensed immediately that Pratt was interested in you (or not) as a person, not by virtue of your climbing c.v.”

Chuck and I often made dinner together and during these times I learned even more Valley lore, as we laughed together over stories of both tourist and climber foibles. His keen insights never failed to amuse. From him I also learned valuable bear lore – including how to distinguish between the harmless and the dangerous. Of course he had given names to all the Camp 4 regulars, and soon under his tutelage I too could recognize Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad, and the formidable El Cid. I also learned from him how to train the young ones to leave my table alone when they first raided camp, and to pick on the tourists instead.

As noted in the Fredericks thread, Chuck intuited my interest in Frank Sacherer early on, and without commenting on it, managed to arrange for a joint camping trip at Half Dome which he and Frank planned to free climb. The climb was a bust, but the previous night’s campfire conversation between Chuck and a lady friend of his who worked for Curry, Frank and I, was the beginning my relationship with my soon to be husband. A party attended by Chuck, Chris, Tom, and others, but not by Frank who could only visit the Valley on weekends, was the famous celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn. This took place in Frederick’s camp where we gathered together to sign Sheridan Anderson's beautiful hand drawn poster which was later mailed to the mayor of Zermatt.

After much drinking we began a series of hip hip hoorays for Whimper and the boys, which eventually brought the rangers. As luck would have it, the rangers stopped to inquire about noise from a tourist who was friends with Chuck. Loyally he denied hearing anything until interrupted by more shouts of hip hip hooray. Probably we would have been in greater trouble except for this encounter which helped the rangers understand that not everyone in the “normal world” disliked climbers and their antics. The rangers were also visibly impressed by Sheridan’s art work which he demanded they too sign before breaking up the party. Afterwards they directed us down to a beach on the river.

Chuck was still spending summers in the Valley at the time that Frank and I departed for Europe in early 1969. However, my last encounter with him was a strange one which may have indicated lurking demons previously suppressed, or the beginning of a new drug and alcohol induced trend. We were at a climber’s party up in the boulders behind Camp 4, staged there to avoid visits by rangers. It was October and a beautiful full moon night. I was sitting on the edge of a large flat rock when suddenly Chuck began screaming about full moons, vampires, and werewolves. The next thing I knew he was sitting on my chest with his hands around my throat. It took both Frank and Tom Gerughty to pry them off and four other guys to haul him away while I was left with bruises on my neck. Needless to say, I would rather have had different memories of our final encounter!

Rick L

Trad climber
El Dorado Hills, CA
May 19, 2009 - 02:44am PT
Doug- what nice thing to find tonight. I think you expressed, very well, the feelings of many who knew Chuck- if only from a distance. Clearly, the world is a lesser place without him.

The following excerpt is from an "Old Geezers" post I made several years ago. He truly was a man who was interested (or not) in people without particular regard for their climbing abilities. To me, he always seemed to love the movement and corresponding intimate relationship he had with the rock- be the climb easy or difficult.

It was the summer of 1966 or 1967. I was a teen spending as much time as I could steal in Camp IV. Looking back on it, I am amazed that lowly neophytes could meet and even climb with the luminaries of the sport. I hope that is a tradition that has continued- but I doubt it. Anyway, the summer I am speaking of was the first time Bugs McKeith showed up in the Valley. For those of you who do not know of Bugs, he was a Scotish madman who brought with him a repertoire of climbs in the British Isles and in Europe. I think he might have even climbed the notorious Eiger and someting the Nepal. The guy was a trip. He was a fairly serious drinker and it was his custom to don a down-filled high-altitude suit early in the evening before the serious drinking began so that he could "bivouac" where the mood or blood alcohol level inspired slumber. One of his other pastimes was to gulp a mouthful of kerosene or gasoline and the spray the fuel into a candle- producing spectacular results. That evening, Bugs was up to his tricks and came to the attention of Chuck Pratt. Previously, Bugs had suggested that we go to the base of El Cap the next morning. Chuck, apparently curious about Bugs, asked if he could join us. Unbelievable then and now.

The next morning we marched up to the base of Little John, Chuck having suggested the R side would be a good introduction to the Valley for Bugs. Unfortunately, Bugs was wearing mountaineering boots- a pair of LePhoque (sp?)Harlins I think. They had a fiberglass midsole and would be akin to climbing in ski boots. Bugs took off on the first pitch and had a desperate time on the slick granite and thin cracks. He literally ran in place, burning rubber before returning to the ground. He asked if there was any other approach. Chuck mentioned there was a vague face climing approach to the left. So, Bugs took off to my wide-eyed amazement. He skated and slipped, desperately gaining altitude with little or no protection. Chuck looked at me with a WTF? expression as we held out collective breath. Bugs eventually made it to the belay and cheated death. The rest of the climb was relatively uneventful for everyone but me. At the time, I had no idea how to hand jam so the cracks proved a bit elusive. Climbing with Chuck was pretty special. I had absolutely know idea where the "hard parts" were because he climbed with a fluidity that I have not really seen since.

Bugs quickly got the hang of Yosemite granite and was on the Nose with Charlie Porter in short order. I saw Chuck off and on during my years at Berkeley. The last time I saw him, he, Tom Kaufman and I were the only white guys at a party in East Palo Alto. We were guests of "Grapes", a black Adonis who dabbled a bit in climbing. It was a trip to watch Chuck line dancing with a group of women to some Diana Ross and the Supremes songs. Chuck would talk of "figuring it out" (happiness, life or peace of mind, I guess). The last words he said to me at that party were "If you ever figure it out, let me know". I never did, of course. Tom and I took off because we heard the "Gypsy Jokers" were coming and that scared the Hell out of us. Chuck, ever curious, stayed. Both Bugs and Chuck are gone now and, in my view, the world is a lesser place. I wish I had spent more time with both but cherish the time I had with them.

Thanks, Doug, for the post.

Best to all

Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
May 19, 2009 - 03:40am PT
I thought about this a long while. Should I throw it in? Would it be disrespectful of Doug’s tribute?

More of Pratt’s life has been revealed – but there’s not that much more that any of us could have known.

Yes, he visited Jeanne Walter‘s place in Bishop just about every year and we sat around and reminisced. We sat at the bar in Wilson and drank into the wee hours. But there was so much more to know.

At his memorial in the Tetons, a bunch of us were lined up – Foote, McKeown, Millis, Chouinard, Swedlund, Robinson, et al –a bunch of us listening to the tributes and memories of those that knew him best.

There were many adoring women in his life and more than a few of them showed up. At least three of them rose to the podium one after the other to reflect on their remembrances of Chuck. All of them fought back the tears – as did we all.

Now this is where it gets edgy. The last gal to speak had obviously been seriously in love with Chuck and was sobbing incessantly as she related her times with him. She went on and on at length, the tears flowing. It was touching and sincere, but as we stood there the length of her outpouring began to reach the limits of our propriety – not an unattainable goal. As we stood there anxiously shifting our weight from one foot to the other, Swedlund leaned in and in his inimitable voce sotto uttered, “Now there’s one he should have never f%$ked”.

With all due respect to the woman, we did our best not to totally destroy her moment and muffled our impending outburst, but man did we roar later. I think maybe Chuck laughed too.

I hope this didn’t offend anyone.
Patrick Sawyer

Originally California now Ireland
May 19, 2009 - 04:59am PT

Great stories.

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
May 19, 2009 - 06:03am PT
Part of the line up Lauria was describing at the Memorial: DR, Lauria,Guido,Swedlund, Fitschen and Foott. Herb is well know for his wit and we are all holding back with the greatest of pain and respect. Pratt would have loved it.

Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
May 19, 2009 - 09:10am PT
Here is a little-seen image of Chuck. I don't know where it came from but it was online. Unfortunately it is tiny and very low resolution. I always thought Chuck was really interesting to look at. And this holds true to the end.


Trad climber
Golden, CO
May 19, 2009 - 09:11am PT
Friggin' beautiful.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
May 19, 2009 - 09:59am PT
Superb writing, Doug!

The humble Titan!

Still one of my favorite shots of these two guys!
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
May 19, 2009 - 10:28am PT
And for those of you wanting to archive, plus a relentless bump:

with Roger Breedlove in the background, right.
Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
May 19, 2009 - 11:36am PT

Amy Brennan took that picture of Pratt in the summer of 2000. She sent it to me to be published in the Winter 2000-2001 issue of the Bardini Foundation newsletter.

I inadvertently posted this on the Don Jensen thread. Ooops.
Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
May 19, 2009 - 11:41am PT
By the way, Dick Dorworth wrote a lengthy article on Pratt: Glimpses of Pratt - A Remembrance. We published it at the same time as Amy's photo.

It's long, but maybe I'll dig it out and post it here.
Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
May 19, 2009 - 12:28pm PT
GLIMPSES OF PRATT: a remembrance
by Dick Dorworth.
Chuck Pratt laid down and went to sleep and never woke up. It is impossible for any of us to know what it is to die until we do, and none of us will ever experience another man’s death, but from this side of things Pratt’s doesn’t sound so bad. He made even that final, most difficult move of life with great personal satisfaction and what seemed an effortless grace and a quiet mystery that touched everyone who knew him. Three days before he died he wrote
these words to a friend: "I haven’t felt this happy since I got out of the army 40 years ago…..Did you know a man can die of pleasure overload?" As I wrote via e mail to one of Chuck’s friends a couple of days after he died: The thing we need to ponder is this: What was Chuck dreaming when he checked out?
YOSEMITE 1968-1974
By the time I arrived in Yosemite in 1968 as a novice climber, Chuck was an established master of big wall and hard technical rock climbing, regarded by cognoscenti with a respect verging on reverence. I watched him climb but did not know enough to realize what I was seeing. He free climbed like a magician, a man born to vertical stone, comfortable where others struggled. There was another reason Chuck’s pains were so difficult to perceive, a reason many in the climbing world completely overlooked when thinking about, relating to and (alas) judging Chuck Pratt. It was most aptly summed up by Joe McKeown who observed after Chuck’s death that he was "Certainly the most humble and creative of the old gang." He was also deeply intelligent, wildly talented and inherently shy.

It was Pratt who first strung a rope between trees in Camp 4 and walked it to practice balance. And Pratt rode a unicycle and juggled to hone coordination and concentration, balance and gracefulness. He made a discipline and game of finesse as John Bachar and other later Yosemite climbers would do with power and endurance. And he was one of the few climbers, then or now, with the patience and concentration to detail to climb 5.2 with the same craft and precise attention with which he climbed 5.10 or 5.11. Such care and respect, verging on reverence, for what he was doing, set Chuck apart from his contemporaries in more ways than in the complex convergence of qualities, skills
and deeds that constitute a climbing reputation.

And he wasn’t fooled for a second by those old charlatans, fortune, fame, worldly ambition or tempted by the psychic violence that is the path of upwardly mobile social respectability. Above all, Chuck Pratt was his own man. He is quoted as having said in 1965: " I feel that my enemy is anyone who would, given the power to do so, restrict individual liberty, and this includes all officials, law officers, army sergeants, communists, Catholics and the house of
Un-American Activities Committee. Of course, I am prejudiced, but I cannot imagine a sport other than climbing which
offers such a complete and fulfilling expression of individuality. And I will not give it up nor even slow down, not for
man, nor woman, nor wife, nor God." As mentioned, Chuck was his own man.
In general, it is fair to say that the Yosemite/Berkeley climbing scene of the 1960s and ‘70s explored and indulged in
mind/mood/emotion altering chemicals with at least as much fervor as it explored and expanded the climbing possibilities of the fine rock walls of the valley. Climbers’ parties in Yosemite were as wild and frenzied and fun (i.e. interesting) as any I’ve ever known, and I knew a lot of them. To see climbing legends on their knees in the dirt of Camp 4 howling at the moon or at the park rangers sent over to quiet things down usually elicited one of two
responses among the uninitiated: change camps or do a little howling yourself. With the same quiet intensity he brought to rock climbing, Pratt immersed himself into whatever party was at hand. In the way such things tend to evolve for some people, in later years Chuck was at times a one man party all his own. His demons were always there, kept in marginal control most of the time with skepticism merging into cynicism, a careful thoroughness to order and restraint in those matters (like climbing and the precise disposition of each stick of firewood outside his cabin on Guides Hill) that he could control, and, of course, keeping busy with chores and work, projects, and the maintenance of tools. Drugs were a necessary release, but they also released the demons. Alcohol in the form of beer was his drug of choice to the end.
Except for guiding together in the Tetons, I climbed only once with Chuck. He showed up at Lovers Leap after driving across the desert from somewhere….the southwest or the Tetons most likely. He had rolled a car along the way but survived with only a sprained or dislocated left thumb which hung uselessly and could not close with the first finger. Still, he wanted to climb so we did The Line, a classic three pitch route neither of us had done before. He led the first and hardest pitch with a hand and a half, and whether his impairment hindered or pained him could not be discerned, and he did not dwell on the pain or inconvenience or whatever adaptations he needed to make. The Line was a hard
route of that time, and it was the first time I was able to see the creativity McKeown later noted. Because of his injury I
expected him to struggle. When he did not, I was made aware of Pratt’s amazing power of focus by which he guided his life and which allowed him to tap deeper and climb higher than others. Climbing The Line with Pratt was, for me, an education in climbing as something beyond and quite different from brutal struggle, though, when necessary, Pratt struggled with the best. I remember that route as a turning point in my own climbing, and from that day on I knew Chuck to be graceful and gracious, funny and serious, and a man who both knew what he was doing and what he was about.

Pratt was the most creative and humble of his peers. About the time we climbed The Line he also came up with a typically wry definition of the greatest climber in the world as "Someone who solos a difficult new route from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the rim at night, and never tells anyone about it." Only now that Pratt is gone does it occur to me that he may have done just that on one of his many trips to the Southwest. It is exactly the way in which Pratt would have obliquely referred to his own talent and to having done something that no one else would or could
do. More, it amuses me to think that he might have done it as much as it pleases me to contemplate his personal
satisfaction and pleasure in guarding such a secret treasure. It would be very much like him to measure up to his own
definition of the greatest climber in the world, and never tell anyone about it.
Well, yes, of course. Always. Pratt loved (he also lusted after) women in general and a special few in particular. Pratt was humble and shy, but he was a hedonist with a heart at heart and women loved him for it. He was also interesting as hell and interested as well.
THE TETONS 1993-2000
As an Exum guide fortunate enough to spend summers living on Guides Hill at Lupine Meadow beneath the east face of Teewinot, I was Pratt’s neighbor for part of each year. From that time I offer a few word portraits of Pratt, perhaps something in prose like the hundreds of photographs he took in the last years of every and any woman willing to pose for his camera, his eye, his imagination and fantasies.

…Guiding a group of adolescents up Cube Point early in the season we had to cross a section of snow. I fixed a rope and we got our charges across the snow with no incidents. Pratt, dressed in his trademark balaclava, hated snow, cold, ice and winter with a neurotic fury that was amusing to others but which was painfully serious to him. He came across last with characteristic precision and a scowl on his face. I grinned at him, and he knew why. "I can’t believe we’re bringing these poor, innocent children here and actually teaching them to walk on this……stuff", he said, indicating the steps cut in the snow. "I always avoid it and consider stepping in it the same way I would consider stepping in radioactive dog sh#t. We’ve sunk so low in life that we’re making our living teaching innocent children to walk upon radioactive
dog sh#t."

…The Pratt cabin at Lupine Meadow was a marvel of order in the small community of Exum guides whose places of residence, for the most part, appear more disorderly than Chuck’s, though in general they are not. His firewood, stacked around the cabin with the precision of considered thought to each piece, looked more the work of a master stone mason than a readily available source of fuel. The wooden clothes pins on his clothes line were impregnated with linseed oil and looked like small pieces of fine woodwork made by a patient craftsman. It always seemed to me that, for Pratt, every stick of wood in its exact place, every clothes pin made to last, every move made precisely right, helped keep the demons at bay. When he couldn’t hold them off, he all too often closed the door to his cabin behind him and drank in privacy, just alcohol and Chuck and their private demons.

…I sometimes talked with Chuck about the things of our lives….Yosemite days and people, writing (Chuck’s few efforts as a writer are among the best climbing literature I know. He once explained why there isn’t more: "Writing about climbing is boring. I would rather go climbing."), women (of course), guiding (we seldom spoke of climbing), the humor (because laughter is preferable to tears) to be found in the cornucopia of man’s follies, the weather (on cold mornings the balaclava clad Pratt loved to point out that global warming had to be a myth, a conspiracy by
environmentalists and other wackos, among whom he included me), and Thailand (his favorite topic). The Exum
community and Guides Hill was his home and his extendedfamily, but his heart was in Thailand.

…Chuck behind the wheel of his vintage and unmistakable white/gray and then green Volkswagen squareback on the road between Dornans and Lupine Meadow. He was a study in concentration on the return drive from Dornans, as safe and thoughtful and attentive as any man has ever been in the long, sad, unsafe history of drinking and driving. He was certainly less a threat to himself and his fellow man than half the tourists driving that stretch of road looking
for elk and antelope and the occasional moose. I would not hesitate to take my chances on the road with Pratt in the bag any day rather than with the average tourist on the loose and intoxicated by his one week a year of vacation, demented by a momentary view of the unrestricted glimpse of a world not delineated by officials, officers, ideologies, priests and politicians and the economic interests they serve.

…In 1998, for various and sound reasons, Chuck made the decision not to drink at all during the guiding season from June to September. This was a sudden, not a long thought out decision. It was a cold turkey that, in Chuck’s case, made a solo climb up a new route out of the Grand Canyon at night seem, in comparison, as easy as driving to Dornans. Everybody on Guides Hill watched Chuck to see whether his resolve would crack, but those of us who had been intimate with obstinate chemical excess and dependency and with the equally difficult, uncompromising, coldhearted cold turkey watched with the particular interest of the experienced. He never flinched. With the same unqualified intensity he brought to his climbing, Chuck looked the cold turkey in the eye and he did not blink. For the last three years of his guiding life he did not drink during the season, though the rest of the year was another story. But our hearts dropped the first time he came back to his cabin from Dornans with a brown paper bag under his arm that looked the size and shape to hold two six packs. Sometime later he came out of his cabin holding a bottle of nonalcoholic beer. I think he did it to relish the effect as much as to enjoy the taste of bogus beer. The recently retired serious drinker suddenly finds an abundance of time and energy in his life that he has forgotten existed. One of the things Chuck did with that time and energy the first summer was to split wood each evening. Cords of rounds became
stacks of the most meticulously split and arranged firewood in the history of Guides Hill. I found myself some evenings just watching Pratt split firewood because it was beautiful to see. He split wood with an ax on a tree round chopping block. He swung his ax with grace and a respect for minimalist efficiency that I saw as a reverence for finesse. It was masterful work and I will never forget the sight of Chuck Pratt splitting wood with complete focus and all his being. Several of us on Guides Hill are students of Zen Buddhism, and watching Chuck in the evenings always brought to mind the Zen maxim "Chop wood, carry water," pointing the Zen practitioner toward each moment and task with completefocus.

Pratt could have been a fine writer, but it bored him. He would have made a great student of Zen, but he didn’t need it. As it was, Chuck Pratt just might have been the greatest climber in the world by his own definition, and he was definitely one of them by anyone’s definition. I’m glad he was here. I’m sorry he is gone. ... I wonder what he was dreaming when he checked out.
Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
May 19, 2009 - 12:30pm PT
Just remembered that Millis aka Dennis Miller wrote a short anecdote for the Bardini newsletter: Pratt - A Day in the Life.

I'll dig it out.
Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
May 19, 2009 - 12:41pm PT
Trying to place Chuck as a friend and an icon is difficult. We all have different approaches shaped both by our memories and what, I suppose, are our sense of what was left undone. Some of us tilt towards the hero end of the scale and want to leave out the unheroic bits of Chuck's life and personality; others of us want to remember Chuck unheroically and struggle with how to convey that sense of a fine friend.

Doug’s piece has a nice nuanced weave with the bits that stick in our minds—a preference for Mahler or a knack for pithy, humorous aphorisms, a private life, a calm, smooth climbing style. Jan’s piece adds the dissonance of Chuck’s private demons, perhaps alcohol or drug induced, but, more truthfully, the demons were only released by alcohol or drugs.

TM tried to explain how Chuck climbed to me once in the Meadows where we both guided. He was making a serious attempt, miming mantles and sideways pushes, stepping under his cupped hand, twisting and contorting as only TM could. It was hilarious to watch; all the more so given that TM was serious. It also captured it pretty well. As does Doug’s descriptions.

I only knew Chuck after his best climbing days were behind him, in the early 70s. For a time he lived in Roper’s house in Berkeley, working as an editor on Ascent, and tried to find a life after climbing. This is the peroid, away from climbing, when we became friends. (We did sort of get to climb together as guides at Royal's RockCraft.) It was a heady time for the Berkeley based 60s climbers. Roper’s new guide and Ascent magazine were successful and conferred a status beyond climbing on Steve and Allen Steck, and Chuck. Allen, I think, had just left The Ski Hut and was working full tilt on Mountain Travel (he bought a new convertible.) Galen finally decided to sell his auto repair business and try his luck as a photographer, for 'at least' one year, uncertain of his prospects.

Steve’s house was a wonderful place to hang out. Lots of climbers would come by, Chuck lived in the little bedroom porch, and I really enjoyed learning the art of writing (when I asked, Steve graciously allowed me to write a couple of book reviews for Ascent) and learned to edit in someone else's voice. Telling, funny story: Steve had purchased 250, maybe it was 1000, bottles of wine with his own label, “The Incubus Hills,” ever true to his humor and sex crazed sub-plots. When he traveled to Europe (spawning the story of climbing in East Germany in Ascent), he left Mort Hempel as the house sitter. Mort and Steve’s friends drake something like 50, maybe it was 250, bottles of Steve’s wine in his absence.

Steve had a Cessna 210 which was a 6 seat, high-performance, retractable-gear single-engine general aviation plane. Steve would organize flying trips ranging from practicing hair raising cross-wind landings on farmer’s strips in the Central Valley on really windy days; to flights over the Sierra, down 395 and back across the southern Sierra to the Bay Area, also hair raising; and longer trips, such as to South America, landing on beaches and camping. Steve was a very serious pilot and it was fun to go flying with him. Chuck was on a lot of those flights with Steve.

Although I wasn't there, when Steve was learning to fly, he landed on a farmland airport in the Central Valley. Steve remembers it as a pretty smooth landing, and was surprised when he opened the door and the plane was too close to the ground. He had forgotten to put down the landing gear. An airport employee who watched confirmed that it was a pretty smooth landing although he was pretty nervous since he could see the land gear was up. Steve's propeller was bent all to hell and the bottom of the plane had to be fixed up.

To give a flavor of flying with Steve, once, when I was recovering from a bone biopsy on my hand—-a bone in my hand just decided to grow to three times its normal size, interfering with my hand jamming and, of concern to my doctors, possibly interfering with my life expectancy. I had little use of my hand as it healed, but gladly took the co-pilots seat for a look-see of jets taking off and landing at a military base near Sacramento as well as some practice landing on farmer's strips in strong cross winds. (Talk about terrifying: landing side ways to touch down on one wheel then whipping the plane around straight on the second wheel; taxi to the end, turn around, take off and find another strip.)

Above the airbase, Steve assured me that as long as we didn’t fly right over the base we would not be shot down. I was curious about the operation of the plane and Steve took me through the first lessons: flying complete circles with decreasing radii while maintaining altitude. This requires looking at the instruments to maintain pitch and altitude while operating the controls. With the first few wide circles I was fine, essentially flying with my one good hand.

Then Steve ordered me to increase the pitch and the plane started to dive.

As we were barreling for a certain death of either hitting the ground or being shot from the sky for attacking the air base, Steve started yelling at the tops of his lungs: “Pull up Breedlove. You’re going to f*#king kill us. Pull up, for Christ’s sake.”

He was slapping his thighs and yelling at the top of his lungs and laughing manically.

I was drilling us down.

Finally I croaked, “I cannot pull up. My hand won’t work!”

Steve calmly said, “Let go.” I did and the plane righted itself instantly.

During this time Chuck was working to reinvent himself. He didn’t have the interest, for reasons that I do not fully understand, to pursue writing, except he was hell bent on moving away from any hero status. Unfortunately from the perspective of making a living, his other interests were mostly cultural--music and literature--and a pursuit of wine, women and Mahler, so to speak. Raffi would always offer him labor work if it was available, but Chuck was not interested in that. He was in his mid-30s and adrift. The stories about him becoming an auto mechanic were borne of this period. He had purchased my VW station wagon, for reasons that I have forgotten. I had rebuilt the engine in that car at least once, and Chuck, after he had taught himself mechanics, rebuilt it again. After he had it apart, he was very disdainful of the quality of my previous handiwork. I don’t think Chuck had any intention of working as a mechanic, but I suppose if Galen still owned an auto shop, he could have worked for Galen.

Here is a note that Chuck sent me just before Christmas in 1974. For folks not familiar with late 20th century communication, a note was written and mailed to the recipient using a service the US government provided. They actually delivered the physical letter to a street address or a post office box. It was also written on a mechanical contraception called a typewriter. If you made a mistake you had to use whiteout from a little bottle. Strange isn’t it?

Remembering Chuck presents a quandary. You can see it in Don’s telling about the memorial: The women brought to tears remembering Chuck represents the idealized Chuck that some folks have created, including some of his friends from the 60s and 70s. Herb’s comment represents the Chuck that comes closer to the real person, the one that folks who knew Chuck remember, not as a hero but a complete, if somewhat hidden person. This is not to say that Chuck didn’t love the women who was missing him and (for sure he would not have wanted her to hear Herb's comment even if he agreed), he just would not have liked the drama and what it signified, at any level. Thanks Don. Great story.

By the way, Steve, the picture that you posted of Chuck and Sheridan also includes me in the background, on the right.

In re-reading this I realize that I can bring a little of Chuck to life. In the second paragraph, I say, "...a knack for pithy, humorous aphorisms." If Chuck had seen that, he would have winced. And then pointed out that all aphorism are pithy.
Messages 25 - 44 of total 226 in this topic << First  |  < Previous  |  Show All  |  Next >  |  Last >>
Return to Forum List
Post a Reply
Our Guidebooks
Check 'em out!
SuperTopo Guidebooks

Try a free sample topo!

SuperTopo on the Web

Recent Trip Report and Articles
Recent Route Beta
Recent Gear Reviews