American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Charles Duncan Fowler, 1954-2006

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2007

Charles Duncan Fowler 1954-2006

I first met Charlie Fowler in about 1977 in Eldorado Springs Canyon, Colorado. Already Charlie had made his vision-altering free solos of the Diamond on Long’s Peak and the DNB on Middle Cathedral Rock in Yosemite. The shy, fresh-faced young fellow with a bowl-shaped mop of blondish hair making plans to climb with me seemed an unlikely perpetrator of such bold deeds. Next day on the rock, however, Charlie demonstrated his ability to rise to any challenge, a characteristic that became a life-long trademark. That day we headed up to Hawk Eagle Ridge. Just before reaching our intended climb we eyed an attractive roof and corner not listed in the guidebook and decided that this would be our first climb together. I recall being surprised when Charlie seemed a little shaky on what proved to be only 5.9 or easy 5.10 terrain. Could he be one of those mediocre climbers who manage to get up impressive climbs above their skill-level by accepting huge risks? By the end of the day that question was definitively answered.

After pioneering our little first ascent we stuck to climbs in the guidebook. We had done half a dozen routes before we finished up with the big roof/corner of Dead On Arrival, which at the time was a respected, not super-well-protected 5.1lc. I remember Charlie leading that climb with no struggle at all. Following his lead, I knew he was the real deal. The more difficult and serious the climbing became, the more focus and skill Charlie displayed.

With Charlie, what you saw was what you got, at least in the climbing arena. Whatever he desired to climb, he almost always climbed. What those of us who knew, admired, and followed his ascendant life-path and got to marvel at—again and again and again as he strode over the peaks of the globe, a compact unassuming figure donning seven-league ice boots or magic rock slippers—was to witness an inspired artist pushing the limits of his brush and canvas, expanding the limits of his own expression and ours at the same time (through witnessing his).

Soon after our first day in Eldorado, Charlie left for Patagonia with Mike Munger. They were headed for the 5,000-foot Super Couloir on Fitz Roy. With the successful third or fourth ascent of that amazing vein of ice, Charlie laid a deep foundation on which he would build a huge pyramid of such experience. A couple of months later, in reply to a query of what he thought of the Super Couloir, his answer was vintage Charlie: “Pretty wild! Really good.” Four words from Charlie for one of the era's most fabled and respected climbs.

I began to imagine a new rating system. The Charlie Word Count System went from one to sixteen. The system begins where most climbers will never go. An example in the first category would be Charlie's report of his un-roped second ascent of David Breashears’s unprotected 5.11 Eldorado face climb, Perilous Journey. “Scary,” said Charlie, and not one word more.

In the early days this reticence was could be a challenge. When you finally could get Charlie to open up, it was remarkably rewarding. Charlie was educated, well-read, widely curious, and keenly observant of human nature, animal nature, and nature nature. To my regret, I drifted away from travels with Charlie. I did stay tuned into Charlie's channel, though, listening to a constant stream of hits. In the summer of 1979, after we had spent a month or two doing new rock climbs in Colorado and the Wind Rivers, and a new ice route on the Grand Teton’s north face, Charlie, still a relative alpine initiate, headed off for his first season in the Alps. In late August I received an aer-o-gram from Charlie reporting the climbs he'd done. In two short paragraphs he related about a dozen routes, some of them the most notorious of the era, half of them solo. He had accomplished more in weeks than most alpine hardmen manage in a decade. The Fowler Word Count Rating System again at work.

Charlie never denigrated others’ approach to climbing. When sport climbing made its debut in America in the mid-1980s, Charlie quickly caught on to the new game, and incorporated the extra free-climbing skills and strengths developed by clipping bolts on extremely hard routes into his repertoire. He obviously preferred climbing to debating the merits of various styles. In the Andes and China he developed his own unique style. Often he would guide a client or two up a few good climbs, then take off on more extreme adventures of his own, putting up amazing routes wherever he went.

Charlie did it all in a low-cost, low-hype, low-impact, simple, straightforward, and exemplary manner. He never went in for big sponsorship, big media, or posturing of any sort. His social confidence increased and his shyness decreased over the years until he became an articulate speaker, writer, and climbing film personality, but he was never full of himself. In fact, his amazing solos of beautiful but little-known peaks in China, often first ascents, are little known not because he tried to hide them, but because they were buried in plain view in a sentence or two in the AAJ or in person in his usual laconic drawl, and which gave no indication of the scale or difficulty of the accomplishments. “Yeah,” he told me, “I soloed the south face of Siguniang. That was a pretty damn hard route—really good.” Yes, indeed, a world-class first ascent on one of the most alluring of the world's mountain beauties summed up in 16 words. Rarely in the history of mankind have 16 words led so many off the track.

But there was much more to Charlie. To his family he was their proud and adventurous son and brother. His sister spoke at his memorial in Telluride with heart-breaking love, affection, and respect. To his friends and neighbors in Norwood, Colorado, where he made his home, he was that friendly guy who helped design and build the climbing gym and teach the kids how to climb at the local school. Several women hold him deep in their hearts, their personal Orion helping guide their passage through life, a reference point on sometimes dark nights. To people around the world he had met during his travels he was a goodwill ambassador of both his country and his sport, showing respect and kindness to everyone. Charlie was the type of man who made me feel good about being a climber and gave me hope that I live in an America filled with mostly good and generous people. At the Telluride celebration, which was packed with old friends of mine and many new faces, all of whom were friends of Charlie, of course, a short video was played that had been quickly but skillfully edited from recovered footage shot by Charlie and Christine Boskoff on their last fateful journey in China together, where they disappeared, most likely under an avalanche.

I was struck by the clean way the pair went about the business of inserting themselves almost seamlessly into the culture. They rode on buses engaging in verbal and pantomimed conversations with the locals, who took them in as friends. When they finally reached their drop off point, which was as far as the bus went, they simply walked off toward their mountain, each carrying one pack in front and another monster on their back. Then there is a scene that must have been shot by Christine. Charlie's head and trunk are sticking out of the entrance of a tiny red tent in the midst of raging winds and storm. Over the noise of the flapping tent fabric, in Charlie’s distinct nasal monotone, he says something like, “Oh, yeah, as soon as this wind stops we're in a great position to go for the summit.” There’s not a bit of concern in his voice over the wind. Charlie himself was unflappable. In Christine he seemed to have found a match. For those of us left behind to mourn their passing, there is some solace that they had each other at the end.

Jeff Lowe

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