Charles Fredrick Kroger 1946–2007 “I’ve been thinking, Clay. Maybe I don’t have much time left, so what should I do? Try to find a cure for pancreatic cancer? I don’t think I could do as well as lots of other people trying to solve that problem. But I could go down to the shop and work on finishing the bed.”
It was my one of my last “good” days with Chuck. He had salvaged some incredible clear fir beams off a house here in Telluride. He had them all stacked in storage, so we drove out in his yellow truck and sorted through them. The beams were long and heavy and I was sure he would “bust a nut,” or worse, burst the feeding tube the doctors had just put in, but we picked out two “real nice ones.” Straight grain, golden-colored. Not a knot the whole way. We got them on the truck and got them in the shop and Chuck started tinkering.
A few days later I went over and we planed them. Aaron had said, “Yeah, that thing will never be used...” referring to one of a dozen immense steel machines in Chuck’s shop. Well, I used it with Chuck, on that one day, our last real good day. We planed and planed and fed and pushed these immaculate pieces of wood through again and again until they were perfect.
They had to be. Chuck was building Kathy their “wedding bed” (as the design bible A
Pattern Language would call it). It was the last item in the house, the culmination not of just their 30 years building in Telluride, but the final touch to Chuck’s house. I didn’t tell Chuck the Chinese Proverb: “When a man finishes his house, he will die.” But I knew it was time. And he did too. And this was the only way to finish the house. Finish the wedding bed. The core. The soul.
It was close, I’d say, down to the wire. But he “got’er done” just in time. Just like the six times he finished the Hard Rock 100-mile footrace that traverses through the San Juans and goes right by his front door. Ten minutes to spare his first time—47:50—and still couldn’t win the Caboose Award!
We all ponder, does climbing make the man or does a man define his climbing? Chuck’s mastery of building and welding, his ability to find “relentless forward motion” in his running, were these the products of, or the reason for, his mastery of climbing? I would have to guess both, however I never had any idea to what extent Chuck had climbed.
This is because Chuck was a man of doing. “Well, let’s just go get’er fixed up,” or “Hey, I have a great idea, anybody want to go climb so and so?” Chuck didn’t care about what was behind him and he never looked anywhere except to a “can do” future.
That certainly must have been his attitude toward El Cap in 1969 and 1970. He did not only the third ascent of the West Buttress and North America Wall, but put up the Heart Route. In one season he had climbed five of the seven routes on the wall. “Been there, done that,” he moved on to put up one of America’s first wilderness Grade VI big wall on Tehipete Dome. A wall so remote 30 years passed before its second ascent. When I wanted to hear about the wall route he climbed on Boboquavari, all he wanted to do was talk about meeting Ed Abbey on that remote peak’s descent route.
But wall climbing was just a quick diversion for Chuck. Altitude was what he wanted, and despite a lack of funding he pursued it around the globe. In 1972 he led a successful trip up the Pioneer Ridge on Denali, making the third ascent and walking all the way in and out. Later, in 1978, he would lead an American exchange to Russia, where he climbed three peaks including the first ascent of a 6,242m peak, and was on the summit party for the first ascent by westerners of Peak Communism, 7,495m.
And yet, despite Chuck being my friend and mentor for 12 years, I never really knew about any of this until after his passing on Christmas Day. I guess I should have asked him for more stories when I could. Stories about his tenure as president of the Stanford Mountaineering Club, and Freedom of the Quad, and Hoover Tower. Stories about sailing to Hawaii, and the Maldives, and getting cast about in big storms. Stories about his six trips to Antarctica, or about Chile, or Peru.
Because in those stories would have been pearls of wisdom now lost to the world. Windows into the mind of a great thinker and adventurer who always thought outside the box, and who taught us the priorities that count most in climbing and in life.
“You know, Clay, I was thinking. I bet it would be a pretty good idea to go down to the Vilcanota [in Peru] and buy a burro. Then you could carry all your stuff and you could trade cigs and lighters for potatoes and really meet some neat people.”
I guess in the end it was about the people after all. Rest in peace my good friend, we will all miss you more than you ever imagined.