Robert Craig was part of the two most wrenching yet incredible mountaineering stories ever told, both tragedies limned with acts of courage. They led to his authorship and his co-authorship of the classic mountaineering tomes, Storm and Sorrow in the Pamirs, and K2: The Savage Mountain.
A lifelong climber and skier, Craig, 90, of Keystone, Colorado, fell ill with pneumonia in December and died on January 16.
In 1953, Craig, Dr. Charles Houston, Art Gilkey, George Bell, Dee Molenaar, Tony Streather, Bob Bates and Pete Schoening made a strong attempt to climb the remote K2 (28,253), in Pakistan. Comprising only the fifth expedition on the mountain, the climbers reached Camp VIII at 25,500 feet. All hoped to summit, but when pinned by storm they cast secret ballots and chose Bell and Craig as the first summit team. The storm endured, however, and nine days into it, Gilkey, 27, collapsed.
Houston, who would become a world expert in the study of physiology at altitude, diagnosed Gilkey with altitude-related blood clotting in his leg. If a clot traveled to the young man’s lungs, it could kill him.
Despite the blizzard, the team set about affecting a rescue. On the 10th day of the storm they wrapped Gilkey in a sleeping bag tied atop a folded tent, and began lowering the uncomplaining patient down the dangerously snow-laden slopes.
The next day Craig proceeded ahead of the group to set up tents at Camp VII for the tiring crew. Schoening was easing the makeshift sled down a gulley when famous disaster struck. Bell slipped. His fall knocked Streather onto the rope between Houston and Bates, scraping them and then Molenaar off. All, including the sled, skidded entangled toward a dropoff.
Schoening, with only a boot-axe belay, his foot on an axe sunk down behind a boulder, caught all five. (His axe is encased in glass in the American Mountaineering Museum.)
Four climbers were injured, Houston unconscious. Craig, Bates and Streather anchored Gilkey on the slope, then descended to help the others into the tents. Craig and Streather returned for Gilkey, only to find he had disappeared, apparently swept off by avalanche.
His death was always regarded as a strange stroke of luck, since the others were likely to have died trying to save him.
In an American Alpine Club slide show in the 1990s, which I was privileged to hear, Houston said, “We never considered leaving him.”
Over the years the incident attained mythic status, and, upon a notion suggested by Houston, the power of mystery.
He speculated in an interview in 2004: “I think it’s more than likely that Art Gilkey, knowing that we were hurt, knowing that we would never leave him, and knowing that we probably couldn’t get him down … wiggled himself loose, and gave up his life to save ours.”
I was fortunate enough to know Bob Craig as a friend, and in 2008 asked his opinion on that revered question. He answered it to my final satisfaction.
It was Craig who anchored Gilkey to the slope, using his own and Streather’s axes. Craig said his own was located about 30 feet above the stretcher, and Streather’s axe at about 25.
“I don’t think that Art could have pulled himself up and released himself,” Craig told me (as I quoted in a column in the Post Independent newspaper). “I certainly think he had those instincts, but the axes were quite a bit up the slope, and he was in a very weakened condition.”
Both axes were also gone, later recovered at the top of a dropoff. The body of Gilkey was found at the base in 1993.
I will never forget Houston’s concluding words at his K2 slide show: “We all returned the very best of friends, and we remain the best of friends to this day.”
Craig was an integral part of that greatest generation, and he and Houston co-authored K2, The Savage Mountain, published in 1954.
Bob Craig was originally from Seattle, where his life of climbing and skiing began in the Cascades. He was a park ranger and guide on Rainier, and “made a number of impressive climbs in Alaska and on Mount Rainier,” the American Alpine Club website notes. He also established routes on Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. A onetime president of the American Alpine Club, he was the first to miss his own inaugural board meeting: He was off leading the 1983 American-Tibetan Everest West Ridge Expedition.
He was witness to another of global mountaineering’s most painful tragedies, in 1974, when he traveled to the Soviet Union as co-leader of American representatives to an international meet in the Pamirs, where eight Soviet women mountaineers died in storm after summiting Peak Lenin. High winds destroyed their cotton tents, and they lacked shovels to dig snow caves. Some could have saved themselves but would not leave their weakened companions. Craig reproduced their last radio messages in his haunting yet beautiful book Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs. It later served as the basis for a television movie.
Craig had studied biology and philosophy, graduating from the University of Washington and receiving a PhD from Columbia University. In 1953 he became executive director of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, and secured funding to establish the Aspen Center for Physics in 1961.
In 1975 and 1976, he founded both the Keystone Center for study of policy and the Keystone Science School, the center’s educational arm, to teach science and policy to youth.
Craig served in the Navy in World War II. He also over the years worked in industrial design and owned and ran a cattle ranch near Aspen before moving to the Keystone area.
“Generous. Kind. Caring,” were the words used by a longtime friend, Jim McCarthy, to describe Craig. McCarthy added of the gregarious and enterprising individual, “He always thought outside the box.”
Craig leaves his wife, Terry, his daughters Kathleen and Jennifer, and a son, Michael.
Additional reporting by Hayden Carpenter