American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Charles Marshall Pratt, 1939-2000

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2001



Ah, Chuck, Chuck, so lately here, so soon gone. How can I be writing this? You, gone? Yes, irrevocably. Your death sudden and shockingly unexpected. It seems not real. Somehow... wrong.

Only a few weeks ago you had phoned me, out of the blue, from Lafayette, a small community nestled in the hills east of Berkeley. You called about the speech I had given last November at the Banff Mountain Summit.

Before putting the phone back in its cradle I told you of a slide show I would be giving the following week in Danville, a town just over the hill from Lafayette. I hoped you would come. I would be proud to have you in the audience. It would be a pleasure to introduce my old climbing companion and to have you actually there when I paid my usual tribute to you as “the best climber of our generation, and the best climbing writer as well.” Back when I saw you at the Yosemite Camp 4 Reunion in September, 1999, after an interval of many years, I told you I had been saying that in my talks for a long time, and I noted that you, even you, Chuck, though ever alert to the stealthily cat steps of Pride, seemed pleased, even touched, by the accolade.

I didn’t really expect you to come. If you had, you would have been, for a few minutes at least, the center of attention, and you had always treated the limelight as if it were poison gas. You were very consistent that way, Chuck, always wary of allowing a chink in your personal honor. And so it was, when I called a couple of days in advance to invite you to dinner with friends and then to the slide show, you couldn’t come. I didn’t argue, Chuck. I just knew I couldn’t drag you to that show with a team of wild horses, especially if you thought all eyes might be at one point turned on you.

So I let it pass. I never thought this would be the last time I would speak to you, the last time I would hear your voice. And I had vague plans of following up, of getting together.

Some of the greatest moments of my life were spent with you. We were together with our buddy Tom Frost on the first ascent of my favorite climb of all, the Salathé Wall. I will never forget it. Such beauty. Such a grand and pure adventure. And you never hesitated. You were at the top of your game, as smooth as glass on all of your leads. You could have led the Ear with a lot more aplomb than I did. But you got the last pitch, and the last word, so to speak, with a brilliant lead up the final overhanging crack. Such a perfect expression of your genius. Those climbs became the glue that cemented a lifelong friendship among all of us.

But I thought of a third reason for the sense of vacancy, of something irretrievably missing because you are gone, Chuck. And that is this: that the people we love the most and miss the most when they are gone are those who are irreplaceable. We all sensed that about you; you were one of a kind. You were uniquely, irreplaceably, absolutely yourself. You never tried to be anything or anyone else but yourself. You never tried, you only did. You were always the master. We love that which is truly itself. We never miss posers. We miss that which is real.

And then back on El Capitan again, the North America Wall, 1964, ten days, the “hardest technical rock climb in the world.” Our companions were Frost and Yvon Chouinard. Another truly memorable climb—once again, total commitment, “hard rock, thin air, a rope,” the most splendid aid climbing we had ever done, storms, mystery, fear, discovery, joy, and triumph. And one other thing: fellowship, as good as it gets. We did so much laughing. The combination of the piled-up stress and your sense of humor had us rolling in helpless laughter on whatever ledges we could find. That’s one thing that comes back strong, Chuck, is how much laughing we did together. It was a good life.

And there were all your other climbs, Chuck, among them the East Face of the Washington Column with Harding, the South Face of Mt. Watkins with Harding and Chouinard, the second ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome with Fitschen and Frost, the north faces of Middle, Higher, and Lower Cathedral Rocks, and the second ascent, with Kor, of the Arches Direct.

But your shorter free climbs inspired just as much fear and respect, especially your string of brilliant crack climbs, surely the hardest in the world at the time—routes supplied with names that aptly attest to their character: Crack of Doom, Crack of Despair, Twilight Zone. There were many others, but those were three of the fiercest. I later thrashed up them with great effort, and my admiration for your gifts and mastery rose with every vertical foot I scraped my way past. One fear we all had, Chuck, was you going off with someone and making a first ascent and then we hearing the horror stories from your still-trembling partners of a terrifying lead you had done up some slippery unprotected ogre of a jam crack. We would look forward with deep anxiety to the prospect of leading these pitches to say we had done your route. One great advantage about being with you on first ascents, Chuck, was that you could lead the most daunting offwidth cracks, and we could follow with a top rope and still get full credit. We wouldn’t have to lead any Pratt test pieces.

But you weren’t just a crack specialist. You were at home on any sort of rock, using any sort of technique, free or aid. Nothing ever stopped you, and I never saw you become stumped or even slow up. Yes, Chuck, you were the best. We were often following you, and not only on those appalling crack climbs. There were also boulder problems. Especially confounding were the mantleshelfs, of which you were the preeminent artist. When we heard the phrase, “Pratt mantle,” we knew to expect the worst in a corkscrew boulder problem.

The Valley, Chuck, was particularly your home, even more so than for the rest of us. And you amassed the best record of first ascents in Yosemite. But one thing drew you from Yosemite, from the vertical crucible of smooth granite, and that was the red crucible of the spare and lonely southwest desert spires. This was adventure to your liking—the solitary sandstone pinnacles of Utah. There was something that suited you about the desert, something beyond the welcome heat. Did it speak to your soul. Chuck? Did something strike the severed cord of Faith? Did you see the divine in the arid and cruel beauty of the desert? And then you went at last to the Tetons, as a guide—an honorable profession, and one that allowed you to again and again rediscover, in the delight of those you taught, the joy of those early moments when you first came into contact with the wonder of climbing. How artistic, in a way. I sometimes talked to people who had been your clients. They uniformly spoke of your friendliness, your skill, and especially of your patience. It was always a special memory to them to have climbed with and been taught by Chuck Pratt.

I learned later that it was exclusively Thailand where you spent the winter months in welcome heat. You did that for years and years. What a shame you stopped writing. As I said before, you were the best writer of our generation. We all wished you had written more, much more. A couple of your masterpieces come to mind: “The South Face of Mt. Watkins,” and your magical essay on desert climbing, “The View From Dead Horse Point.” I know you could have penned marvelous stories of your adventures in Thailand. You always did have a gift for spinning a tale. I know you could have done it professionally. Why you didn’t we will never know. You kept to yourself.

Then, someone got the bright idea of having a Camp 4 party to celebrate the success of the effort to save Camp 4, traditionally the Yosemite climber’s camp, and the target of plans for obliteration and replacement with employee housing. Of course, our buddy Tom Frost led that effort. This party would become a remarkable reunion of many of the players in Yosemite climbing in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.

When I saw Pratt at the Camp 4 reunion, after all of these years, it was like a barrier had been broken through. I walked up and gave him a big hug. He hugged back. It was something we had never done before. We had been friends, companions, but not bosom buddies. But this was a special occasion, and I wanted Chuck to know how much I loved him. I was struck, as I embraced him, by how slight he was. I had always known that Chuck was small. He was one of the little big men of Yosemite. But I never thought of him that way. I was aware that he was frustrated at being small. He made jokes about it. But I never saw him that way. He always looked “regular” to me. So it was a bit of a shock to realize he was not only small, but also slight. He had lost what bulk he had in his prime. But, as Tom Patey wrote of Joe Brown and as Chuck showed so often on his fearless leads, “His heart was as big as the mountain, and his nerves were made of steel.”

The Camp 4 reunion was, indeed, a special occasion. So many of the old gang were there. Together again for the first time since the North America Wall, Pratt and Frost and Chouinard and I hung out, talking, getting our pictures taken, hiking, and joking and laughing. And it all came back; it all came back in the laughter. My friends, now as before, took life and its tears, and turned them into laughter. And it was so wonderful, so refreshing, so freeing! And I remembered why my best friends were climbers, why I loved them. Because in them burned the joy of life.

And Pratt, with his cynical and mocking air, hadn’t lost a step in his sense of humor. We had a good time together, and when it came to an end we four found ourselves talking together in the parking lot. We talked and then we kept talking, past the logical point to split up and go our ways. We didn’t want this to end. We had grasped something, something precious, something that hadn’t been in our lives for a while, though we were not aware of it having been missing. And we didn’t know when we would be together again. It had been 35 years. And here we were, back there again, just like that. Sentimental old fools. Yes, but for me at least the sentiment was a new thing. I realized how precious my friends were to me, and had been. I think we all had a sense that we four might never be together again. But I don’t think any of us guessed that a death of one of us in the near term would be the defining reason.

I was never that close to Chuck. I don’t know if anyone was. He had a lot of friends, and a lot of admirers, and no enemies. But I did not have a special relationship with Chuck, other than having been on the greatest climbs of my life with him. He was probably closer in spirit to that other artist, Chouinard, and that other maverick, Harding. But he was my friend. At least I can thank God that I had had the opportunity to see Chuck near the end, and to let him know of my abiding friendship and admiration. I paid honor to him in my talk for the Banff Mountain Summit, included in the book, Voices From The Summit. It seems fitting to close this tribute with an excerpt from that article:

“But beyond and above these deeds and talents, Pratt is my hero because of the kind of person he is, because he was, among other things, the very best of climbing companions: jovial, keenly witty, with a sense of humor that has a laser beam focus on the absurdities of the universe and the hands we are dealt to play in the cosmic poker game. I once heard the phrase, ‘Only the pure climb gracefully.’ I know Pratt would wince at being called 'pure,' being as much a sinner as the next man. But when it comes to climbing itself, well, that is almost sacred to Chuck. Pratt, more than perhaps anyone I have known, has always climbed, first and foremost, and last and finally, for the climbing experience itself, for the rewards that come directly from the dance of man and rock. Climbing, for Chuck, is a life-giving elixir, and he has always wanted to keep it as pure as possible, uncorrupted and unalloyed by gain, fame, or ambition, or any sort of debasement. Chuck has kept his integrity.”

He was a man; he was a climber; he was a guide and teacher; he was an artist; he was a friend. Thanks, Chuck, for being with us, for joy and laughter, for your achievements, for setting an example of how to live with integrity. Thanks, Chuck—but damn, I wish you were still here.

Royal Robbins

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