High-altitude Mountaineer Charlotte Fox Dies at 61

Charlotte Fox
 (AP Photo/Binod Joshi)

Charlotte Fox, the seasoned high-altitude mountaineer who gained fame for surviving the 1996 Everest disaster chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s best-seller Into Thin Air, died in her home after an apparent fall down the stairs on May 24, 2018. Her 4.5-story home was perched on a steep mountainside overlooking Telluride, CO. She was 61.

“You’ve gone so far up the mountain, you’ve come so far from home, and you spent six months preparing for this goal … . There’s no way you’re going to turn around unless things are really going south,” Fox told a reporter from PBS’s Frontline, as reported by the Telluride Daily Planet, about that infamous blizzard on Everest in May 1996 that killed guides Scott Fischer, Rob Hall, and six other people. This grit followed Fox throughout her pursuits. Though the tragic events on Everest made her famous, she did not seek media attention—nor did she stop climbing.

Born in Greensboro, NC, and described by friends as having “Southern charm” and strong work ethic, Fox came to Colorado after college and made her home there. She was the first American woman to climb three 8,000-meter peaks (Gasherbrum II, Cho Oyu, and Everest). She went on to climb two more 8,000-meter peaks—Dhaulagiri and Manaslu—and ticked off each of the tallest peaks on the continents. For her final of the Seven Summits, Mount Elbrus in 2014, an all-women team raised nearly $10,000 for the dZi Foundation, a Ridgeway, Colorado-based nonprofit that serves remote, underserved communities in Nepal. Fox skied off the summit. She also explored her own backyard. She had climbed all 54 of Colorado’s peaks above 14,000 feet, or 14ers, and was a ski patroller for three decades, first in Aspen, then Telluride.

Though she turned 61 on May 10, she had not slowed down. On May 3, Fox returned to Telluride from an attempt at another Himalayan peak, 23,389-foot Baruntse, a climb her team aborted because their guide didn’t seem up to the task, as she told me and my husband, Ben Clark, while walking her beloved dog, Gus, down main street on the day of her fateful fall. As it was the weekend of the 40th annual Mountainfilm, she had houseguests at the time. Having survived so much adversity in the mountains, Fox’s death in her own home shocked and saddened the climbing community near and far.

“Charlotte Fox told us to quit talking about our dreams and just get after them—now,” says longtime friend and mountaineer Jordan Campbell. “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. Charlotte was a standout leader of North American mountaineering early on and never wavered or changed course. We were always in awe of her and the life she led…the hole in our hearts is gaping.”

A memorial is tentatively planned for August.