CHARLES “CHUCK” WADE COMSTOCK
Let’s just split right here, Roman. I got a stove and a cook pot, you got a stove and a cook pot. We both got shovels...just take your rope and we’ll go our separate ways!”
We stood on the edge, double nines flaked at our feet. Rime ice and cornices bulged over glaciers, the exposure dwarfing even egos bolstered by the first ascent of McGuiness Peak’s Cutthroat Couloir.
“Chuck, look. I’m sorry. I was wrong. You were right. It’s my fault. The stress of this route’s gettin’ to me. I should’a said something back there on that hanger. Maybe we can dig in on this col.”
The cold of the vernal equinox stiffened my chin, but I stammered, “Chuck, please. Tie back into the rope.”
Bright blue eyes squinted through iced blonde lashes. Chuck harrumphed, spit Copenhagen drool aside, picked up the sharp end in the snow and retied. Our tensions slackened.
The sun’s golden angle urged us, “Make camp!” But the ridge offered only a single weakness, six hours earlier. Beyond the col, cornices curled like a gyrfalcon’s talons clutching the broken spine of its prey. Chuck led off.
Twin lines paid out to a tight rope. I followed Chuck’s trough as it curved along the ridge crest, the broadest it’d been since the summit. Half a pitch out, a four-foot picket staked the rope to the ridge.
He stopped to probe the snow with his axe: bent down, poked. Anticipating a photo, I stepped forward, raising the camera. I let it down and waited. Better shots were coming. Then, in one fluid motion, Chuck dropped from sight. The rope yanked at my comprehension, and I responded.
I had no choice. I leaped free of the ridge.
Two hundred feet later, I dangled in soft rime and a southern sun. Unable to climb the crud, I jugged to the crest, unsure what hung from the other end of the rope. On top I feared the worst. A 15-foot chunk five feet deep had dropped Chuck into a witch’s gash of a couloir. Granite blocks jabbed through black ice. Wind whipped spindrift through an arctic shadow. There, 75 feet below, Chuck’s dark figure moved slowly upward, coils of red rope dangling.
Eleven raps blazed by a trail of screws, pickets, flukes, and pitons was the price of descent. But as Chuck would drawl in his midwest, nasal way, “You know, gear is for burning.”
Those were the days. Climbing Keystone Greensteps on a short 8.8, looking for ice caves to smoke dope and eat chocolate in. Or backing off Wowie Zowie’s ropelength, hollow pillar on the third pitch. Chuck offering his bottle of Jack Daniels and icemelt—enough to get me back on and finish. Or three-day trips to the Granite Tors (a subarctic Joshua Tree), Chuck’s day pack loaded with rope, rack, boiled potatoes, pile clothes, and a sheet, his hands loaded with a five-pound tub of Adam’s Old Fashioned Peanut Butter.
While innovative, Chuck succeeded through tenacity. Chuck was tough, brutally tough, the toughest guy I’ll ever know. And he had style, a brutal kind of style that too many misunderstood as incompetence. On rock and ice, he thrashed like he was only marginally in control. He made hard things look desperate, scary, unnerving. He’d fall on rock, on ice, in the mountains, only to survive—and inspire.
He’d never train. He was sort of dumpy and short and incredibly strong. He had Havana cigars for fingers, blonde dredlocks for hair. But he grew those dreds when he bought his kite and none of that was there during our era together.
Chuck loved to party and he paid for that later with his health, his relationships, and ultimately his life. But in Fairbanks in the mid 1980s we were the biggest fish in the smallest pond and Chuck stood out boldly. A midwestern emigrant, Chuck escaped its repressive culture and blossomed in the emotional freedom of Alaska, likely the only place big enough to accept him.
Unlike so many who seek to “have done,” climbing for numbers, skiing for lines, doing for boast, Chuck lived just to “do.” His routes and ranges seemed deliberately unglamorous, his techniques unconventional. He pioneered the thin smears of wetness and “moss clouds.” Chuck climbed the biggest walls in Alaska’s Interior, on granite plutons even Dave Roberts missed. Chuck’s Valdez boulder problems on rotten tidal schist resisted repeats. In the mountains he went for off-season first ascents of doubly-corniced, gendarmed ridges, routes untamed by technology.
In Alaska he was infamous. “Crazy Chuck” knocked the “Broken Dreams” pitch down, a collapsing pillar atop a 1,500 foot ice route in the Wrangell Mountains. And when ice went public, Chuck third-classed on the cover of Smithsonian magazine. He even showed up in the 1988 Chouinard Catalog climbing the frozen drip from the roof of a Fairbanks hair salon. His bold lines up, over, and off (using his kite) the Wrangell-St. Elias during two Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic adventure races elevated him as living legend. On nearly every trip, he revealed a flair for the outrageous unseen in Alaska since John Waterman disappeared on Denali.
After jumping off McGinnis Peak’s cornice, I left the big mountains behind, and Chuck left me. While I sometimes long for alpine intensity, mostly I miss Chuck’s oblique angle, his willingness for adventure, his twangy drawl, even his feisty confrontations. During the 1990s I tried to get Chuck out on HellBike trips, even invited him to the tropics. He had no bike, no boat, no time, no money, or so he said. Yet that wouldn’t have stopped him. I think he just didn’t see a way to work his kite into what he likely considered an otherwise banal trip.
Chuck solicited me for climbs right up to the last time I saw him. But I’m just not that tough. Or charmed. I’ve quit those hanging arêtes on control. Look over the edge, though, and you’ll see that Chuck Comstock’s base camp is there.