When Kim Reynolds and Peter O’Neil arrived in Telluride, Colorado, on Thursday, May 24, for Mountainfilm weekend, Kim spoke to Charlotte Fox for five minutes while unloading food and gear; only five minutes, but long enough for Charlotte to say, “I love being 61.”
“We’ll talk later,” they said, as they went off to different dinners, the start of a gala long weekend.
Charlotte had just had a birthday May 10, had recently climbed two 8000-meter peaks—Dhaulagiri, known as a hard mountain, on May 22, 2017, and Manaslu in 2016—and had returned only May 3 from attempting Baruntse this past spring.
Charlotte was strong, good in the mountains, not known for speed so much as being able to go and go and go. She climbed Everest in 1996, surviving the famous nighttime “huddle,” with her eyes and contact lenses freezing in her head and patches of frostbite dotting her face and feet, though she fortunately kept all her toes. Her high climbs were mostly guided, but she was prepared: Before Everest, she had also climbed Gasherbrum II (on a private expedition, not guided) and Cho Oyu (she was the first American woman to do three 8000-meter peaks), and had climbed all 54 of Colorado’s 14ers, involving all kinds of terrain and weather. Other climbs, according to www.everesthistory.com, include Aconcagua, also Huascaran and Chopicalqui, “along with several 18,000ft peaks throughout Peru.” She climbed Mount Vinson in Antarctica; Mont Blanc, Rainier and Denali; and many routes in the Canadian Rockies. She did all the seven Summits. She’d ski patrolled for 30 years, in Aspen and then Telluride (and saved every patrol uniform she was ever given). She had so much energy she would run or skin up a mountain before a full day of patrolling.
Charlotte had survived so much up high, it was stunning and profoundly sad that she died that evening of May 24 in a household accident. Kim and Peter came home at perhaps 10:45 p.m. to the house, and in descending found their friend. Charlotte had apparently fallen on one of the steep flights of hardwood stairs in her 4.5-story, 77-stair house (she never took the elevator, even when rehabbing a knee injury), which is entered via the top floor; sustained injuries; and apparently died immediately. Somehow the scene, sorrowful as it was, was indicative of her life. Her house was full, with three friends already staying and two more soon to arrive, because she was a giver: generous and open-hearted. She loved Mountainfilm and the mountain community. Beyond those, she encouraged others to have confidence as climbers or people.
“No one lived larger than Charlotte,” said Deb Curtis, an Aspen friend who made the four-hour drive for an impromptu but packed gathering of many dozens in the green back yard of a good friend, Julie Hodson, in impossibly beautiful weather. “No one got after it like she did. And she had a heart of gold.”
Having met and often rock climbed with Charlotte starting when she lived in Aspen, I had been planning to stay at the house, too, and as I drove a somber several hours to Telluride, kind friends having offered me last-minute couch space, I thought of her spirit and warm heart. All weekend I heard examples like those I’d enjoyed several times over the years, when I’d even brought my then 10- or 11-year old son, Roy, to Telluride for bike or ski races. He dearly loved her avalanche dog, Max, and would lie on the floor patting him while Charlotte and I caught up and had laughs over coffee (well, she had Coke), ideally on her deck with its view across the rooftops to the face of the ski area. Max the dog (more recently it was Gus the dog) was a welcome attendee at American Alpine Club board meetings in the six years that she was a board member. I remember the elder statesman Bill Putnam petting him and murmuring, “He’s a sweet beast,” a comment Charlotte and I repeated often over the years. Charlotte gave and gave to the climbing community and many other causes, both from her pocketbook and of her time, energy and organizational efforts. She was a board member of the Access Fund for many years, and long involved in Mountainfilm as well. Her final Seven Summits ascent, of Mount Elbrus in 2014, was part of a team benefit for the dZi Foundation for underserved communities in the remote Himalaya. Her alma mater, Hollins University, has a Charlotte Fox Climbing Wall.
Kristen Hughes, a Telluride friend, stayed in Charlotte’s house during convalescence from knee surgery; and when Kristen’s mother died during the recession of 2008, as the daughter was scraping to make her mortgage payments and keep her house, Charlotte lent her the money for an expensive last-minute flight home. Another day, when Kristen’s car wouldn’t start and she needed to be in Durango, Charlotte said, “Oh, take my car”—a Beemer wagon.
“She had such a big heart,” Kristen says. “If you were in trouble, she didn’t hesitate. She did what it took to help. She was always there for you.”
Charlotte was long an advocate for women in climbing and in leadership positions in the community. Another old friend, Andrea Cutter, remembers her saying, “Sisters stick together!”
“My heart hurts so bad,” Andrea says.
Originally from Greensboro, North Carolina, Charlotte was famous for her courtesy, sending thank-you cards, cards for birthdays (people say she never missed them), and get-well cards. Dr. John McCall, arriving from Toronto last week for Mountainfilm, took her and another friend to dinner and received a thank-you email the next day, beginning, “I just wanted to thank you once again for including me with you and J.M.”—meaning Jean-Marie Bayon, another good friend of hers. “It was so nice to get an early evening with you two before the [fest] starts. … Here’s to our favorite T’ride festival!” She once treated 14 people to a heli ski trip in the Selkirks.
Colleen Carvelli of Aspen recalls being concerned once when her son was driving to Western State College in a snowstorm, and that she called Charlotte and asked if the boy, Eric, could stop over instead of continuing.
“Of course he’s welcome!” Charlotte said.
We loved her sense of humor, her deep sudden laugh, and her cheery gruffness—“Are you coming or not?!” she might say. Many noticed her loyalty and discretion. She avoided badmouthing.
Charlotte gained an unexpected fame with the attention given to the Everest disaster, but she steered clear of the hubbub, mostly avoiding interviews, movie negotiations, and even the topic.
I remember asking her about her feelings that night in the huddle on Everest, which looked likely to be the end. She laughed, saying, “I thought, ‘Well, old girl, it’s been a good ride. No regrets.’”
She experienced much tragedy in her life, on Everest and also with the loss of her husband, Reese Martin, then 49, who died in a paragliding event in 2004. Earlier, she had been seriously involved with Mark Bebie of Washington State, who died in 1993 on the famous ice climb Slipstream in the Canadian Rockies.
Charlotte had her quirks and faults, was stubborn and did things her way, but she was loving and beloved.
“She loved the mountains, she loved her dogs, she loved her friends, and she loved her Chardonnay,” says Molly Garland, a friend of many decades.
We think of her as a climber, but she was a skier and community person, too. She belonged to book clubs in both Aspen and, when she moved there, Telluride.
In one of my last texts to her, I asked if she could go climbing this weekend, and she wrote back, “Yes—ink me in, my dear!” She mentioned that Ace Kvale was going to be staying at the house as well as Kim and Peter, and I wrote back, “Oh my gosh, we are going to have the most fun house in town.” She agreed, and we would have.
I like thinking that she was in a good place in her life. At a dinner with a handful of her friends after the memorial, I repeated the line that Charlotte loved her 60s. At least three people said, “Oh, she told me the same thing.”
A week ago, Charlotte had told Deb Curtis, of her 8000-meter peaks, “I’m doin’ one more, Curtis.”
Charlotte is survived by her mother; stepmother; and stepbrother, Robert Black. Robert has a daughter Charlotte, who is her aunt’s namesake. Charlotte Fox is also survived by her longtime companion, Chris Dobbins.
UPDATE: A memorial is now confirmed for August 12, 4-7 p.m., Bumps restaurant, base of Buttermilk Ski Area, Aspen, Colorado.