Climbers Remember ‘Bigger Than Life’ Mountaineer Charlotte Fox

Charlotte Fox
 (AP Photo/Binod Joshi)

“Then began the longest night. It is estimated that the temperature dropped to around -40°F and the winds funneling over the South Col between Lhotse and Everest increased to a fierce 70 miles per hour. We had had little sleep and not much to eat or drink for two days, we were out of oxygen, and we had just summited the highest mountain in the world. We were fried. How would we survive?” wrote Charlotte Fox in “A Time to Live, a Time to Die,” in the American Alpine Club Journal in 1997. Fox died from a head injury sustained from a fall down her stairs at home on May 24, 2018. She was 61 years old.

The article was her account of the being guided on Everest’s Southeast Ridge when the infamous 1996 blizzard hit the world’s tallest peak. Eight people died, including beloved guides Scott Fischer and Rob Hall, as chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into Thin Air. “In the end, the storm, the deaths, and the resulting bad press undermined what was a great day to most of us. A bunch of people went climbing, each with his or her own reasons. There were no heroes or villains,” wrote Fox.

Though surviving the tragic climb put her in the public eye and left her toes frostbitten, her closest friends say she never spoke of it and deflected media attention. Fox had summited five of the world’s 14 8,000-meter peaks—and was one of very few American women to accomplish this count. She completed the first three—Gasherbrum II, Cho Oyu, and Everest—by 1996, and she was the first American woman to climb three 8,000-meter peaks at the time. The last two came two decades later—Manaslu in 2016 and Dhaulagiri in 2017. And she was still charging. In spring 2018, she attempted 7,000-meter Baruntse in Nepal.

Growing up in Greensboro, NC, Fox’s life in the mountains was a deliberate choice—and she lived it up at every opportunity. Between far-flung peaks, she was dedicated to exploring her own backyard. She had climbed all of Colorado’s 54 14ers, or 14,000-foot peaks, a badge of honor in her adoptive home state and beyond. She had devoted 30 years of her life to ski patrol in Aspen and Telluride. She would go to sleep by 8:30 p.m. at the latest for a 4 a.m. wake-up to work out before deploying avalanche bombs and helping keep skiers safe as an EMT. In the summer months, she was an avid rock climber and loved to socialize and host parties.

“She had a laugh you could hear a mile away,” says longtime friend and photographer Ace Kvale. “She had this cackle and this drawl. She was hilarious. It was always like ‘Charlotte’s here!’ even if you hadn’t seen her yet.” Her confidential generosity was only fully realized after her death, as friends shared their stories of Fox’s private support in their times of need. Says Kvale: “She was super generous, in so many ways. We started comparing stories and realized, ‘Oh she helped you, too?’ And she always remembered to send me a birthday card—for 10 years.”

Beyond the Everest ordeal, she endured much loss throughout her life. Her late husband, Reese Martin, was killed in a paragliding accident in 2004. And a former boyfriend, Mark Bebie, was killed ice climbing in 1993. “I think [her husband’s death] hit her hard,” says longtime friend Jordan Campbell, who had been rock climbing with Fox and Martin at Independence Pass in Colorado. “I’m not sure if she was ever really totally back to her old self, after that. But still she was your quintessential Colorado mountain mama, respectful of everybody.”

A memorial for Fox is planned in Aspen on a yet-to-be-released date.

Here, she is remembered by the climbing community.

Conrad Anker, preeminent alpinist: “Charlotte Fox loved the mountains. How she ever discovered them from where she grew up in North Carolina remains a mystery, yet the passion she had for the valleys, ridges, and summits of the natural landscape pointed to the love she had for wild places. She knew what she wanted in life and was focused on making those dreams a reality. Her climbs in the Himalaya spanned several decades and reflected her drive to climb for the experience. It was these moments that she lived for. To be in a wild place with friends. She never made herself out to be an elite climber, yet her background in ski patrol and the Himalaya were proof that she was amongst the few. I’ll always remember Charlotte sipping a Coke for breakfast (it’s a southern thing) and catching up with a laugh and a few well-placed remarks about our tribe that always reminded us of how frivolous a life spent chasing summits is.”

Phil Powers, CEO, American Alpine Club“Charlotte Fox climbed five 8,000-meter peaks and was always ready for a great climbing day or a steep ski descent. She was devoted to her wide circle of friends and climbing partners. Charlotte served on the boards of both the Access Fund and the American Alpine Club. Few gave back to climbing like Charlotte did.”

Jordan Campbell, alpinist, filmmaker, founder of Ramro Global: “Charlotte Fox was bigger than life–while the rest of us waded into the water, she drank the wave. She told us to quit talking about our dreams and that we just needed to get after it—now. Her inspired mountaineering life was a crazy mix of love, friendship, fire, humor, and grand heroics, which brought out the best in all of us. She had triumph and tragedy woven through her years on 8,000-meter peaks, backcountry skiing, rock climbing, and with her relationships. Fox was totally driven and she was mighty enough to back it up … as an Aspen ski patroller in the mid 2000s, she was up every morning at 4 a.m. lifting weights and dawn patrolling by 6 a.m. on Snowmass Mountain. Consequently, she told me more than once that if she wasn’t asleep in her bed by 8:30 p.m. (for her patrol shift the next day), she was ‘pissed.’ Charlotte was a standout leader of North American mountaineering early on and never wavered or changed course. We were always in awe of Fox and the life she led … the hole in our hearts is gaping.”

Ace Kvale, photographer and companion to Desert Dawg: “We’d been through a lot together; life and loves, and the loss of many friends. She always had these kooky dogs she was trying to train. She was incredibly generous. She very quietly helped people in need, if they had a family emergency, or whatever was going on. She always had that Southern hospitality, too. Even though our friendship changed over the years, she always sent me a birthday card. She was really driven and had an incredible work ethic. She also had an incredible ski ethic to get up every day and drive to backcountry ski. The ski patrol gave her a career, which was out in the mountains and giving back, and helping people in need.”

Kristen Hughes, longtime climbing friend: “One fall weekend in Indian Creek we finally met. We both had VW vans. We both had labs. And we both climbed, skied, and hiked. We became fast friends. I really didn’t think much about her long list of mountaineering accomplishments. All I knew was I had a new playmate. And our dogs got along famously. She was willing to give ‘er 110 percent no matter what we were climbing, hiking, or skiing. She was safe, solid, and we laughed a lot! Those are my main criteria for a good partner in crime. She was a passionate, present, and accepting friend, who always took the time to call, email, get together with you to catch up, check in, and enjoy some laughs. She had many friends, including her ‘sisters,’ the YaYas in Aspen, to the rest of us that were lucky to be included in her sisterhood.”

Lydia Bradey, mountain guide, first woman to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen (1988): “When Charlotte Fox arrived on the Dhaulagiri expedition that we shared last year (2017) she seemed forgetful—she even forgot to come to the first (important) expedition briefing in Kathmandu! After a few days I thought she was going to get on everyone’s nerves. It is testimony to this amazing woman that she won everyone over on the trip! Everyone either liked her or even adored her. My partner was guiding her when she had a serious asthma attack—at 8,000 meters. She couldn’t breathe, but handed over the container that she had organized with our doctor with adrenaline. That calmness in the face of a serious, life-threatening event was evident again at base camp where she had a relapse. This woman was strong and could prioritize living! I wish she could have been alive forever, she showed us how to live and live with your strengths!”

Melissa Arnot Reid, first American woman to summit and survive the descent of Everest (2016): “Charlotte was someone who unassumingly pursued her love of climbing. The fact that she continued to follow her dreams throughout her entire life is extremely inspiring and always made me feel good to know she was out there. The community lost an important human—someone who was doing it purely for the love of it.”

Ben Ayers, Executive Director of the dZi Foundation, which serves remote communities in Nepal: “Charlotte also gave back to the mountains and communities that inspired and, in many ways, defined her. On a recent climb of Mount Elbrus, she raised $10,000 for our work in Nepal. She was always thinking of others, even when pursuing her own goals.”

Kit DesLauriers, ski mountaineer, first person to ski the Seven Summits: “The one thing that I remember most about Charlotte was her reticence to discuss the drama of ‘96. She was on stage at a MountainFilm event in Mountain Village a bit and was tasked with discussing yet she held her ground on not getting into the he-said-she-said who-did-what wrong. I recall being impressed by her unwavering stance.”

Kim Havel, ski mountaineer: “I really appreciated Charlotte’s support of women in the mountains. She and I had a special bond as women who have a great passion for the big hills and she was unique in that she was universally a cheerleader of everyone who has ventured or was trying to venture out into big expeditions. Charlotte and I first connected through our experiences on Gasherbrum II. She successfully summited the peak and my team did not. Close but no cigar. We had a wonderful time reflecting on those experiences and developed a bond through a mutual passion for mountain travel and exploration—and skiing. She was an incredible lover of the outdoors and had the real fire for getting outside and getting after adventures. And, she really thrived up high and on long expeditions. She always had positive words of encouragement and a knowing look whenever I was headed out on the next journey. She conveyed this invisible sense of sisterhood and support from someone who knew what those journeys were all about and the depths to which they take us, in particular as women. She seemed to have this outlook and encouragement with many women who were out there looking for both the peace and the growth that the big peaks provide as well as those of us on other pursuits at the crag or ski touring in Ophir or adventuring elsewhere. She accomplished so much and was still going so strong. Charlotte charged out there quietly, out of the real, true passion that drives mountain lovers, and I really respected that.”