Chuck Pratt: Past 50 and No Falls

Chuck Pratt: Past 50 and No Falls

Chuck Pratt and John Martin Meek in the Dornan's parking lot in Jackson Hole probably in the summer of 2000.


                               CHUCK PRATT: Past 50 and No Falls

                An Odyssey With One of America's Greatest Rock Climbers

                                            By John Martin Meek


(This article originally was written in 1991 after submitting the idea to Michael Kennedy at Climbing Magazine. But, because I could not locate Chuck to get his approval, it was never sent to Climbing. Anyone who does not understand why I wanted his approval did not really know Chuck Pratt.)


          Back in the 70s when John Denver ruled over the pop music charts, Taffy Danoff, who co-wrote Take Me Home, Country Roads with John and her former husband, Bill, wore a tee‑shirt emblazoned with I KNOW JOHN DENVER.

          I know Chuck Pratt, but not for the winning ticket in the Florida lottery would I wear a tee‑shirt stating I KNOW CHUCK PRATT.

          I know Chuck Pratt, as do countless others who have been fortunate enough to have him as a climbing guide/instructor at Exum Mountain Guides in the Teton Mountains near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

          And I well remember our first meeting.

          It was sometime in the 70s when my former wife and our son, Jamie, and I used to spend the last two weeks of August at the Flying V dude ranch on the Gros Ventre River northeast of Jackson. 

          The Flying V was known more for its library than its bar (which didn't even exist), and there I found a brochure on Exum.

          I knew instantly it was something I wanted to do.  Only years later after I was hooked on climbing would I trace it back to when I was seven years old and living in Granite, Oklahoma.

          The back yard of our house in Granite was the Granite Mountains, peaking out at a few hundred feet.  Those mountains then were as awesome as K‑2 would be for me today, but they also were challenging.

          With Janeen Christy, the "tomboy" girl who lived next door and my sister, Louise, we would play "Cowboys and Indians" at the base of the mountain.  My incentive to climb higher and higher was to throw my broomstick horse up on a rock above me, believing I had to rescue him by climbing to that point.  

          So, after reading the Exum brochure, I called to enroll in the one-day basic school.

          Our guide that day was Bill Briggs, whose main claim to fame was being the first person to ski from the summit to the base of the Grand Teton (13,770 feet).


          Brigger, as he is known in Jackson, is a genius as a teacher.  One day with him and I was ready to move on to the next level.

          A few days later as the intermediate class assembled in front of the Exum office near Jenny Lake, an older gentleman came out and introduced our guide for the day.

          Judging from the laudatory speech I was hearing about our guide for the intermediate lesson, I was expecting no less than a towering Sir Edmund Hillary or Clint Eastwood from The Eiger Sanction.

          Instead, standing off to one side clearly embarrassed by the introduction was a small man, 5‑6 or so, bearded, with a well worn pair of wool knickers, a cheap poly‑cotton turtleneck, and a wool ski hat.

          Remembering some of the hyperbole of the introduction, I do not recall that Chuck Pratt did the first ascent of the Salathe Wall route on El Cap with Tom Frost and Royal Robbins or anything else about the "demigod" climbers of Yosemite.  I knew only of the Tetons, Denali, Everest and K‑2.  El Cap and Half Dome might just as well have been names of some version of a playground jungle gym.

          What I do remember is this: the man said that in climbing Chuck Pratt never wasted a single motion.  Every move he made was toward his objective.  And with all due respect to all the other fine climbers I've had the honor to be roped up with, no single statement has guided my own climbing efforts more since hearing those words that day.

          I know Chuck Pratt, and I think I understood him as well from the beginning as I understand him today.

          He was an intellectual as are many climbers, especially those of the old school. He was a lover of classical music, a bottle of beer after a day's climb, and more than anything else just being left alone.

          From Pat Ament in the anthology, Mirrors in the Cliffs:

          Descriptions of Pratt: a "tragic figure..." or "...born in the wrong time...," yet no climber is more respected or liked in Yosemite.  He is hard to figure out and doesn't want to be figured out.

          The son of a dramatics teacher, Chuck grew up in the Bellingham, Washington, area and began, at a little older age, playing around on the rocks just as I had in faraway Granite, Oklahoma.





Did Service in the Army


          Ironically, Chuck in the early 60s served in the Army at one point and was stationed at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, in the middle of that same range of Granite mountains a few miles from where I once practiced a kid's game now called bouldering.

          This I did not learn from one day of Exum's intermediate school with Chuck, but from our friendship in the years since.

          On that trip I did invite Chuck to be our guest for dinner at the Flying V. He instantly felt at ease with Reed, my wife, a beautiful Smithie who can talk at least three hours to anyone about anything.

          When I returned to Washington, DC, from my first climbing experience in the Tetons, I set about buying several books on the subject.

          It was only then that I discovered what a celebrity Chuck Pratt was in the rock-climbing world. Interestingly, and I'll put money on it, with the exception of The Vertical World of Yosemite, almost every photo in every book is taken from behind and below Chuck showing only his backside.

          It's no wonder that while Yosemite greats such as Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins have become rich and famous outfitting yuppies with overpriced urban outdoor fashions, the world knows only what Chuck Pratt's backside looks like.

          And, nobody likes that more than Chuck Pratt.  He personally would like to take every camera ever pointed at him and throw it into some glacial crevasse, but for the fact he hates cold so much he would not trudge over the snow to do it himself.

          From Royal Robbins in the anthology, The Vertical World of Yosemite:

          When Chuck said he wouldn't go (on the Tis-sa-ack climb of Half Dome) I was almost relieved.  At least now he couldn't make me feel like I was dirtying the pants of American Mountaineering.  I feel guilty with a camera when Pratt is on the rope.

          There is, however, a little mystery here.  In spite of his almost obsessive avoidance of photos and publicity, Chuck Pratt is recognized by other climbers.  Especially over the years around Devil's Tower, college students and other climbers have come up to me at the Tower and in local bars near there and said, "Isn't that guy with you Chuck Pratt?"  Don't ask me how they know, but they know.

          Time passed and each year we returned to Jackson to appreciate the amenities of the Flying V, the beauty of the valley, riding in the Red Hills above the Gros Ventre and seeing moose, elk, eagles and an occasional coyote.

          In 1979, during our annual vacation in Jackson Hole, I observed my 50th birthday.  Unlike many who greet these occasions with depression, I look forward to every one.

          My goal for a birthday celebration that year was to climb the Grand ‑‑ the usual climax to a beginner's week at the Exum School.


          I scheduled the climb at the end of the vacation to be better acclimated, took the Exum intermediate class again (a requirement), and ran six miles a day on the hills of the Gros Ventre Road across the valley from the Tetons.

          Our group for the climb was large and divided into two parties including a physician even older than I was but who had climbed the Grand before.  Our guides were Bill Briggs and Don Mosman. Don led treks in Nepal in the winter while Brigger headed the Snow King Ski School in Jackson.

          The first-day, 11‑mile hike from the Lupine Meadows to the Exum hut on the lower saddle below the Grand has been written about many times.  But any way you cut it ‑‑ young, in great shape, or otherwise ‑‑ it is a pain in the ass.  Carrying a pack ever upward through miles of scree and boulders the size of boxcars is not my idea of fun.

          That evening as we settled into our sleeping bags wall to wall in the Exum hut, Bill and Don decided that I, as the weakest of the eight‑member group, would leave early with Brigger at around 3 a.m. so I would not be a bothersome straggler.

          Of particular concern was the weather, always a major worry to even the most experienced climbers.  Chuck Pratt once put it succinctly: "Clouds in the mountains mean death."

          Amateurish and a little arrogant, I personally was not worried about the weather.  Having done a little sailing, I remembered the old saying, "Red sky at night, sailor's delight."

          The night before I had mounted my camera in the yard of the Flying V, which had the perfect view of the Tetons and the Grand.  I took a photo of the mountains bathed in red light, with a cloud plume rising from the Grand as it were on fire.  To be outrageously immodest, I still think it is one of the best photos I have ever seen of the most photographed mountain in America.

          But, standing outside the Exum hut on the lower saddle and looking up at the Grand's massive red prominence, my apprehensions that evening were not about the weather.



          It was reminiscent of the night my unit of the 1st Marine Division moved to the front during the Korean War.  Some of the self-doubts about my own character and will again emerged.  Do I have the skills?  Will I have the stamina?  (During the Korean War, I had lost almost 50 percent of both lungs.)  Tomorrow, with my party, will I get to some point up there and not be able to go on ‑‑ thus ruining the trip for the others?

          But, unlike the many thousands who have climbed the Grand, most probably do not spend their first hours on the lower saddle the way we did.


          Even allowing for my slow progress, we had arrived at the Exum hut around 5 p.m. with lots of daylight left for head calls, taking pictures and worrying about how we would do on the second day of the climb.


Marylander Dies on the Grand


          Early that morning while waiting to start off from Lupine Meadows, I had heard the sounds of a helicopter somewhere in our area.

          Having served as a medical corpsman with the Marines during the Korean War, the sound of a chopper will forever be a signal of trouble to me.   And so it was on that day.

          Two young guys who had spent the summer working at nearby Yellowstone had decided to climb the Grand two days previously.  They had reached the summit, but on the climb down a rope had become hopelessly entangled in a crack.

          Interestingly, there is only one rappel necessary for a quick descent from the Grand's summit.  But somehow they felt trapped and moved no farther toward the protection of the lower saddle.

          They also had made no preparations for bad weather, likelihood on red sky nights or otherwise.  Caught in rain and snow, Don DeMuro, 22, of Aberdeen, Maryland, died in a short time of hypothermia.  His companion, Mike Katchmar of Churchville, Maryland, somehow survived until the next morning when he was rescued by National Park Service rangers.  The helicopter we had heard in the Lupine Meadows that morning was bringing him down to the hospital.

          As we arrived at the lower saddle, we could see the rangers carrying the body bag high above us on the route we would be taking early the next morning.  At the same time, from down in Garnet Canyon, through which we had trekked, we could hear the chopper approaching.



          Instinctively, as had happened many times in Korea, a great rush of adrenalin came through my exhausted body and I started up the saddle to help the rangers carry the body bag.  By the time we arrived back at the Exum hut, the chopper had landed and was ready to transport the body back to Jackson.

          And, there was another problem. Who should be lying in a sleeping bag in front of the Exum hut but Chuck Pratt.

          "Yo, Chuck, what's the problem?"

          "I had a group on the Grand today and I got sick," Chuck said.  "I'm really sick. You got anything for pain?"

          "One of the guys with us is a doctor. I'll get him."

          I found the doctor and he kneeled over Chuck, listening to his symptoms.  But, as I've found in several situations since then, doctors are not too interested in getting involved while on vacation.

          Afterwards I went over to Chuck and asked if the doctor had helped. The answer was, "No."

          "Look," I said, "I've got a bottle of Valium prescribed for my back problem.  They may not kill pain but they'll make you happy while you suffer."  And I gave him several.

          In the meantime, Chuck's buddies from Exum had convinced the chopper pilot he would be better off if he put Chuck on with DeMuro's body to balance the aircraft.  So Chuck got aboard and I didn't see him again until the next summer.

          Between our August trips to Jackson Hole, my few excursions for climbing were local ‑‑ mostly to interest my son, Jamie, in the sport.

          When we returned to Jackson in the summers of '80 and '81, I would do the Exum intermediate school to brush up.  Then, I climbed with Chuck on the Teton one‑day classics such as Cube Point or Baxter's Pinnacle in Cascade Canyon.

          It was on Guide's Wall (5.8 to 5.9) that I learned that the mostly silent, laid‑back Chuck Pratt never forgave the loss of hardware on a climb.

          With Chuck leading, naturally, we were on the third pitch when he instructed me on removing the chock he was putting in for protection.

          Climbing to that point, I was breathing hard and hanging by my nails while reaching out with my left hand to retrieve the chock. Not being Ron Kauk or John Long, this was not exactly the most fun situation of my life. But, as instructed I gently pulled up and out.  The chock did not budge.  Sweating a quart, I pushed it in, jiggled, prayed.  It moved not a millimeter.

          "Yo, Chuck, the chock is stuck."

          He told me to bring the sling and biner and keep climbing.


          At the top of the pitch, I tied in while Chuck down-climbed to the chock.  The chock showed no respect to Pratt and did not budge for him, either.  He came back.

          Two guys following us on the route had a pick and tried to extract the chock.  No luck.

          Someday I will climb Guide's Wall again, to see if the chock is still there.  In the meantime, I got a lecture from Chuck about the stupidity of losing hardware.

          That night I drove into Jackson to a climbing store and bought Chuck another chock.  He took it, but there was no gesture of forgiveness for losing the first one.

          During those summers we always invited Chuck across the valley to the Flying V for one of the ranch's home-cooked meals.

          After dinner, we would build a campfire among the tall pines in the ranch yard and be joined by Becky and her husband, Roy, owners of the Flying V, and other guests for talk and "OP," (other people's) beer.

          At some point I would bring out my guitar and we would sing whatever I could play, including a song I wrote about Jackson Hole.


          Oh, I'm gettin' high on Jackson

          But I've got to let my dreamin' do it all

          Until I get back there, to be with my old friends

          While the days of city summers turn to fall.

          Once, when I invited Chuck for dinner, he said he would come prepared to do his juggling act.  But after several beers and a little nudging at the campfire, he apparently could never bring himself to such exhibitionism even before a few Roy and Becky Chambers and a few half-smashed Eastern dudes.

          From Pat Ament in Mirrors in the Cliff:

          "I'm tired of being social director of Camp 4," I hear Pratt say to someone pestering him for information.  I see Pratt juggling wine bottles at Church Bowl, the clearing east of the lodge.








          In the summer of 1982, my wife told me she wanted a divorce and I also left the company where I had headed the Washington office and the international subsidiary for 12 years.  There was no family vacation in Jackson that August. Late in September, facing a divorce and unemployed, I needed a little space or perhaps some reassurance of who and what I was.  So I flew to Denver and with my nephew, Phil Meek, a petroleum engineer based there with Chevron, drove in his pickup to meet Chuck at Devil's Tower in Northeastern Wyoming. I chose this trip because it would be my second shot at climbing the Tower, having failed the first try.

          On a business trip to Bismarck the same time the year before, I had driven down to the Tower on a Saturday after my meetings were concluded.

          Chuck's trip from Jackson to the Tower was an annual pilgrimage for him after the Exum season ended in early September.

          His routine usually included driving across Wyoming to the Tower park near the town of Hulett, Wyoming.  He cooked out and slept in the back of his vintage Volks station wagon, which I had always called the "Chuckmobile."  It was a desert sand color with a rust‑colored right fender then, and it looks the same today.

          Chuck would spend a couple of weeks enjoying the enormous splendor and wildlife of the park during its short and beautiful fall.

          Later he would swing through the nearby Black Hills, and wind his way through the Utah canyonlands or some other interesting route back to the Bay area.  He lived in Berkeley and in those years earned his winter living as a Volkswagen mechanic.  More recently he has been spending off-season in Thailand.

          For the 1981 climb, we met for dinner at a nice roadhouse south of the Tower. There, over steaks and OP beer (mine), we planned the next day's climb on the Durrance route (5.6).  The Durrance, along with the Exum route on the Grand, are two of the climbs described in Steve Roper and Allen Steck's Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.

          The next morning, Sunday, I drove from my motel in Hulett to the Tower park.  It was early and it was cold, two of Chuck Pratt's most unfavorite conditions.

          He stood shivering at the tailgate of the Chuckmobile wearing a parka with the greatest loft I have ever seen, at least five inches, while I was quite comfortable in an old pile jacket.

          "Look," said Chuck, "I've been here two weeks and there's been nobody climbing.  Let's go into Hulett and have a good breakfast."


          I was apprehensive.  Here I was, not having climbed much in more than a year, looking at this monstrous rock pointing 1,267 feet straight up from our spot in the park.  More self-doubt.

          I'm thinking, Can I climb this son-if-a-bitch today even if we start right now?  But, Chuck knew me and I knew Chuck, so against my better judgment I said, "Okay, let's go to Hulett."

          Stuffed with ham, hotcakes and coffee, Chuck and I arrived at the Tower visitor center about 10 a.m.  By then it was hot and getting hotter, a little Indian summer as September eased into October.

          Chuck took his time getting gear together while I sweated the heat and the awesome monolith, even more imposing from that viewpoint.

          Eventually we walked up the path and then began the bouldering that leads to the Tower's base.

          Neither Chuck nor I had paid any attention to the number of cars in the visitor center lot.  Many people come up just for the view and a walk around the Tower's base.

          But, as we arrived that day at the bottom of the first pitch of the Durrance, we were greeted by the immediate climbing world.

          Apparently signaled by reports of unusually warm weather for Northeastern Wyoming, the Tower looked like an L.A. freeway and everybody wanted to be in our lane – the Durrance route.


          Noon came and went and still we waited.  Finally, it came our turn in line and I tied into the anchor to belay Chuck's lead on the first pitch, Leaning Column, 80 feet of 60-million-year-old nearly vertical molten magma.

          At the top of the pitch Chuck had to wait again for the group ahead of us to move on while I continued to stand sweat‑soaked waiting to be belayed.

          In spite of my amateurish skills and lack of recent climbing experience, along with Chuck's occasional encouragement, I did okay.

          The second pitch of the Durrance to me is easily the most awesome from below, 72 feet of hugging one of the monolithic columns called the Durrance Crack.

          But, it is the third pitch that is the bitch.  Not for nothing is it known as Cussing Crack.

          Leading the climb requires a start in a chimney.  Above the chimney the route changes, but seemingly is as difficult.  It is not a pitch anyone I have seen does in a zip.


          By mid‑afternoon, Chuck and I had progressed only about half way up the Tower.

          Below us were four guys who had driven straight through overnight from Chicago.  When they finished climbing the Tower, they told us while waiting at the base, they would be driving straight back to be at work in Chicago Monday morning.

          Chuck and I looked up and we looked down.  In about three hours the sun would be setting behind the hills to the west and it would be dark.  While it was still scorching then, it also would be cold after sundown.

          “What do you think?”  Chuck asked.

          “I like you, Chuck,” I said, “but I like me better, and I don’t see myself rappelling more than 1,200 feet off the Tower in the dark.”

          So, we let the Chicago party pass through and began our rap to the base.

          Back at the car, it was payback time for the lost chock on Guide’s Wall.

          “Now what was it you said when I came out early this morning, Chuck?  Been here two weeks and no climbers?  

          “Do you know how fucking boring it is to drive all the way here from Bismarck, North Dakota?  The only scenery is the big cow on the hill west of Bismarck and six oil derricks.”

          We laughed and headed for the roadhouse.  It was Miller Time.


          Back to 1982.  When Phil and I drove up from Denver we hadn’t heard any weather reports, and arrived at the Tower to find the whole area covered with snow.  But we joined Chuck in camping at the park, sleeping in the back of Phil’s truck.


Pigeons Bedevil Devil’s Tower


          Sitting that night at the bar of our favorite saloon, along with some locals, an older cowboy observed Phil drinking a Miller Lite.

          "You know, son," the old cowboy said, "That light beer you're drinking reminds me of making love on the shore of a lake."

          Phil bit.  "How's that, Sir?"

          "Well, as I see it," the cowboy said, "It's fucking near water."

          The next day was clear, pleasantly warm, and the snow was melting.

          This time we did not have much company on the Durrance route, though there were other climbers on the Tower.


          The problem was that the dust at the bottom of every pitch had been turned to a sandy red mud by the melting snow, and pigeon shit was everywhere.  More than once while on the most difficult moves, pigeons would suddenly explode from some hidden place right into our faces.  We were even buzzed by a flight of Air Force jets.  But we polished it off in good time.

          While Chuck roamed around through the tall dead grass and small boulders on the top of the Tower, I unscrewed the top of the register.

          Somewhere, thousands of miles to the East, a young man long gone from home would be drinking wine with his girlfriend in Paris where it was near midnight.

          In the register I wrote a note to him, "To my son, David, best wishes on his birthday today, October 2, 1982."  Then we rapped down and joined Phil, waiting for us at the base.

          "Hey," said Phil, "you guys have fans."

          Chuck didn't want fans.  I said, "Like who?"

          "Like all those road construction people we saw in the bar last night," Phil said.

          When Phil and I had met Chuck at the Tower after our drive from Denver, on the way to dinner we had stopped at a saloon just outside the park gate.  It was crowded with workers from various construction trades building a new entrance road into the Devil’s Tower Park.

          Most were 40 to 50, some with wives, and in conversation we learned they had come to work on the Tower entrance enhancement project from all over the Northwestern states.

          Over beers they told us what they were doing and, since we looked different, wanted to know why we were there.  When we said, "To climb the Tower," a good bit of disbelief made its way around the bar.

          "Yeah," said Phil, "About 3:30 when they knocked off work they all came over here.  The road down there was solid with people parked watching you guys with binoculars."

          The reason I hadn't noticed the "fans" was that the next to the last pitch, Chockstone Crack, is another chimney.  At 6-3 and 200 pounds, I don't do chimneys well.

          Call it a cave, not a chimney.  It was dark, wet, muddy and spotted with pigeon slick gray and white pigeon shit. I was trying to stem, but it wasn't working because of the crud on my old Vasque boots.

          Chuck never drinks water on a one‑day climb.  He likes to wait for Miller Time, and it was getting near.

          "Okay, John, you've been screwing around down there long enough," Chuck yelled.  "Get your ass moving."

          Mud, pigeon shit and all, I shot up the chimney like a rocket.  I know Chuck Pratt, and I had never heard him yell at anybody.

          What a day!  While Chuck stowed the gear in the Chuckmobile back in the visitor center lot, I got my guitar out of Phil’s truck and picked through a song I wrote about Wyoming.


          There is no other place like Wyoming

          That is so grand from the mountains to the plains

          Where the snow‑covered peaks of the Tetons

          Reach as high as the rainbow when it rains

          Where the wild flowers bloom in the sagebrush

          While cattle on the green grass graze

          With rivers clear and sparkling as diamonds

          There is beauty in a thousand different ways.

          Off we went to the saloon outside the park. When we walked in, the place broke up with the road gang yelling and cheering us.

Pratt Gets Embarrassed, We Get Free Beers

          "Hey," said one old dude, "we never thought you guys could do it!"

          Chuck, who probably has climbed the hardest Tower routes a hundred times, was embarrassed.  I was flattered and we all enjoyed the OP beers the road gang bought us.

          Royal Robbins on climbing the North America Wall in The Vertical World of Yosemite:

          Chuck led the overhang. He pitoned up one side of it and followed a horizontal dike of aplite around the top.  Fascinated, we watched the lower part of Chuck's body move sideways thirty feet across our line of vision.  Pitonage was very difficult, and Chuck's hauling line hung far out from the wall.  When all cracks stopped, he ended the pitch and belayed in slings, thus finishing the most spectacular lead in American climbing.

          The next morning, Phil and I left for Denver and the Chuckmobile headed for any place it was not cold and snowing.



          In the summer of 1983, I joined with Jim Hartz, former host with Barbara Walters of NBC‑TV's The Today Show, to form a new communications company.

          One of our first clients was ATC, Time, Inc.'s cable TV system, and we flew to Denver where Jim did a series of commentaries shot on location around the area.

          When Jim had been hosting the Today Show in 1976, the 

Bicentennial Celebration year, the program had originated from all 50 states, but he had never been to Jackson Hole.

          Since we had a rented station wagon and carrying our own video camera equipment, we decided to make the 10‑hour drive from Denver to do what in the TV business is called a “survey trip.”  The idea was a possible TV series on interesting individuals such as Chuck Pratt and Rancher Roy Chambers.

          After a few OPs around the campfire at the Flying V one night, Hartz asked Chuck if we could take our video camera and go with him and his Exum class the next day.  Jim also wanted to interview Chuck at his cabin across the valley.

          Chuck reluctantly agreed so we shot him the next day guiding a basic class in Cascade Canyon.

          Chuck Pratt does not do anything half‑assed, and he gave Hartz and his hated video camera a good show. He was instructive, of course, but also interesting and often funny.  He was a man who loved his work, building confidence and hooking new climbers for the sport just as he and Bill Briggs had hooked me.

          That was the summer Chuck had something going with Jane Gillie, an Exum staffer. Late the same afternoon with a case of OP beer, the first entertainment expense for our new company, Hartz and I set up the camera in front of Chuck sitting on a stump outside the log cabin he was then building.  Jane and I sat on the cabin doorstep to see how two great professionals would handle this situation.

          At that point in Jim Hartz' career as one of the top on‑camera journalists during 15 years at NBC‑TV, he had interviewed hundreds of newsmakers the world over.  But in 1983 Jim was more interested in producing good television than being on it.

          If he were watching the Pratt interview today, I believe Jim would agree it was one of the toughest of his career.

          From Pat Ament in Mirrors in the Cliffs:

          His (Chuck's) silence, for some, throws a sullen cloud over his disposition.  But he is truly modest.


          With Jim gently probing, Chuck traced his career from the beginning of bouldering alone ("all the other kids were playing basketball or football") at the age of 12 or 13 while growing up in Bellingham.  Later, when his family moved to the Bay Area he said he started climbing on trips with the Sierra Club.

          Chuck did not discuss his college days except to say he dropped out, nor did he mention the military service.

          Even more reluctantly would he answer Jim's questions about the Yosemite years ("They were the greatest years.  I wouldn't exchange them for anything.")

          Chuck warmly acknowledged that Warren Harding had been the most immediate influence in that particular group of people when he started climbing.

          "We were considered outlaws in Yosemite in those days (the late 50s) ‑‑ in the company of the Hell's Angels and groups like that," Chuck said, "because we were different.

          "He (Harding) was an extreme individual even in a collection of individuals.

          "It was hard for any of the other climbers to even relate to what he was trying to do. It was such an extreme step, to climb the Nose of El Cap back then in 1957‑58 when I was just getting started.

          "He had incredible drive.  He was an extreme individual.   I admired that at the time, and I still do.”

          Hartz asked Chuck who he admired among the prominent climbers at that time.

          "I admire all climbers."

          Chuck repeatedly told us we had brought our camera to the wrong place.

          "The superstars of climbing today are in Yosemite doing things we never even dreamed of," Chuck said.  "I'm just a relic, a museum piece.  Go to Yosemite or the Gunks and you don't even have to do interviews.  Just point your camera and you'll see amazing things (in climbing)."

          I kept hoping Chuck would loosen up and tell some of the stories about the "old days," such as the time he and Yvon Chouinard were in jail in New Mexico.  Instead of having to pound boulders into pebbles, Chuck and Yvon were put in a corral with the job of roping wild horses.  According to Chuck, they were lucky to live through it.

          Chuck, describing the climax to climbing the South Face of Mount Watkins, in The Vertical World of Yosemite:





          In the vanishing twilight, the valley of Yosemite seemed to me more beautiful than I had ever seen it, more serene than I had ever known it before.  For five days the south face of Mount Watkins had dominated each of our lives as only nature can dominate the lives of men.  With the struggle over and our goal achieved I was conscious of an inner calm which I had experienced only on El Capitan.  I thought of my incomparable friend Chouinard, and of our unique friendship, a friendship now shared with Warren (Harding), for we were united by a bond far stronger and more lasting than any we could find in the world below.

          After more than an hour, Hartz turned off the camera. Chuck had revealed very little about himself except his outrageous modesty, and that he had not bought any new climbing equipment since 1965 -- almost 20 years. That also revealed something about the lost chock on Guide's Wall.


Impossible Dream Almost Possible


          In 1986, on a business trip to Salt Lake, I dropped into Jackson for another quick weekend climb of the Grand with Exum Guides Peter Lev and Dean Moore kicking my butt up the mountain.  Before I left, Chuck called a couple of local ladies he knew and we all went to dinner.

          Our next meeting was to have been the climax of my "impossible dream."

          During my second Grand climb in 1986, I got the idea of coming back with my three children to do it again for my 60th birthday in 1989.  It did seem truly impossible then because David, my oldest son, had been living in Europe for years and Camilla, my daughter, was married and in Florida.

          But David came back to the U.S. in 1988 and Camilla got a divorce.  They both ended up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  David was a sous‑chef at a French restaurant and his sister worked for a wholesale health food company.  Jamie was a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, with a summer job painting dorms.

          I proposed the idea to the kids, with the provision it was all or none.  Jamie was enthusiastic and Camilla said she would give it a try.  David said he really didn't know if he could afford to take the time off from his job.   But, he thought it over several weeks and called one night to say it was a go.

          It was not an expedition to Everest, but it had the logistics of one.  It literally had to be planned almost to the minute during the week before Labor Day.


          Jamie had a few days between his painting job and start of the fall semester, so he came home. Camilla drove up to Washington on a business trip.  David, God bless him, rode all night on the bus from Chapel Hill after finishing his Saturday night dinner business.

          With no sleep for David, early Sunday the four of us made the 20‑minute drive from my apartment near the National Zoo in downtown Washington, DC, to the Carderock climbing area on the Potomac River.  The idea was to get there before the cliffs were swarming with the usual weekend crowd.

          It would be laughable for me to call myself a climbing instructor, but there was no choice but to try to finesse what Exum does in its basic school with my kids that day.

          Our schedule for the trip allowed only a day for the required intermediate school at Exum, then the two‑day Grand climb.  There was no time for basic class, bad weather or any other delay.

          Sunday was a beautiful day and with Jamie already having some experience, Camilla and David were quick learners on knots, belaying, and all the climbing techniques I could share with them in a day at Carderock.

          Then it was back to the apartment to pack eight duffle bags since we would be staying at the American Alpine Club Climbers Ranch at the foot of the Tetons, which provides only buildings with plywood bunks.

          Up before daylight, David and I boarded an American flight in DC while Camilla and Jamie went on Midwest Airlines – the four of us heading for Denver with close connections in Chicago.

          We rented a station wagon at Denver's Stapleton and headed for Jackson, arriving there the next day in time for a few hours of sightseeing and to grab rental rock climbing shoes for the kids.


          I had never met Jack Turner, the Exum guide who took us up Cascade Canyon for the day of intermediate school.  But I will never forget him for the gracious way he led Camilla, David and Jamie through the necessary moves as if they had gone through basic school the day before at Exum.    In my calls to Jane Gillie at Exum to arrange the trip, I had asked her see if Chuck would do the Grand with the four of us. Purely out of friendship he agreed.

          Once we actually were in Jackson Hole, I began having second thoughts about having asked Chuck.




          The reason was that from the time we had arrived in the Tetons we began hearing horror stories about the weather on the Grand, which often has little relationship to what is happening almost 7,000 feet below in the valley where every day had been gorgeous.

          Apparently Grand climbers had been encountering all kinds of storms, and there were stories from Jane Gillie at the Exum office about climbers postholing and wading snow up to their waists.

          Not only did I know Chuck would be miserable on such a climb, my kids were listening to these stories and had begun to express their own doubts about wanting to do it.

          Fortunately, there was no time to worry.  After the Exum intermediate school, we had to drive down to Jackson from the Climbers Ranch to find Jamie suitable footwear.  By the time we got back to our cabin to pack for the climb, everybody was in the mood to go for it the next day.

          We left in the morning with Chuck from the parking lot in the Lupine Meadows.  It was a beautiful day, exactly as it has been for every climb I have ever done over the years in the Tetons.

          The hike to the lower saddle was uneventful, but it was a little late and very cold when we arrived at the Exum hut.  I noticed Chuck immediately got into a sleeping bag in the hut while the rest of us ate, took pictures and enjoyed the views.

          Before sundown and still shivering we settled into our sleeping bags, which crowded every inch of the hut's floor.  I slept well, but remember being awakened more than once by Chuck calling to Jamie to stop snoring.


Chuck Ends Grand Dream With Upchuck


          When the other guides were up lighting the camp stove and getting water on for breakfast around 3:30 a.m., Chuck was not among them.  When I got up, he told me he was sick and suggested we let the others go ahead of us.

          Long after the others had gone, Chuck was still not moving.  Finally, just before daylight, Chuck got dressed and the five of us headed up the path to the upper saddle.

          At our second rest stop, Chuck went over behind a boulder and started vomiting.  A stomach bug had been making its way around Jackson and clearly had nailed another victim.



          It was exactly at this point on my previous Grand climbs that I said to myself, What the hell am I doing here?  It's dark, I can't breath, this pack weighs a ton.  I think I'll cop out and go back.

          But one doesn't.  The eyes are on the prize and one goes on to the thrill of stepping on the summit ‑‑ the Grand's or some other.

          Camilla grabbed my arm and took me to one side.  "Dad, Chuck is really sick.  What are we going to do?"

          I had brought a small video camera to record our trip and a family reunion we would be attending in Dillon, Colorado en route home.  While Chuck barfed and we all got our breath, I was videotaping in the still spare light.

          From the videotape I have this sound bite from David:

          "Man, this is a piece of cake.  I was afraid it would be a lot worse.  But when I think about working for hours at 120 degrees in that restaurant kitchen, this is nothing."

     David had already learned one of the first lessons of climbing -- that it usually is neither heroic nor death defying, and is very doable for those who get off their butts and give it a try.

          I put the camera back in my backpack and looked around.  There was no doubt that the kids would all easily make it.  They had already proved they loved me enough to come that far, and the upcoming technical part of the climb would be easy for them.  But Chuck certainly was too sick to go on, although he had said nothing.

          Shit, shit, shit.  I thought about all the time, money and effort I had put into organizing the trip.  I thought about my dream of the photo we would all have of the four of us standing on the summit of the Grand with one of the world's greatest climbers.  Chuck was behind the boulder again, puking his guts out.  I said, "Okay, let's head down."

          In 1981 on the 50th anniversary of his putting up the Exum route on the Grand, Glenn Exum, retired and a cancer victim, went back up his mountain to do it one more time.

          In a moving PBS documentary of the climb, One Last Song on His Mountain, Exum said "... no one will ever criticize you in the mountains if for any reason you cannot go on."  A wise man, Glenn Exum.

          In the summer of 1990, Jamie convinced a former high school classmate to drive to Jackson Hole from Washington, DC, to climb the Grand.  Without telling him and his friend, Mike Rosenberg, I flew out and surprised them by showing up at the Climbers Ranch where they were staying.


          At lunch the next day Jamie and Mike told me that if I did not join their party for the Grand climb, they probably would not get to go.  Mike, another "graduate" of my basic climbing class at Carderock, had no other climbing experience. This had been a problem with the Exum guide the day before in their intermediate class.  Therefore, Mike was not getting an enthusiastic endorsement at Exum to do the Grand.    

          I did not want to tell them I was sick and running a fairly high temperature from a case of prostatitis. The last thing I wanted to do was hike 11 miles up to the lower saddle already feeling like a truck had run over me.  But the next morning I drove over to Exum with Jamie and Mike and convinced Rod Newcomb, their guide and one of the Exum owners, that Mike could make it.

          The four of us headed up the mountain. That night Jamie, Mike and I slept in a tent outside the Exum hut. A major storm moved across the Teton Range sometime during the night with nearby cracks and booms of lightning and thunder.  But for our combined weight the wind probably would have blown the little tent down to Lupine Meadows. I slept through it all.

          When we stepped on the Grand summit at midmorning the next day, unlike my chilly previous visits, it was tee-shirt weather. While Mike handled the video camera work, Jamie did an interview with Rod for their local access cable show back in the Washington area and I talked to some other climbers who had just arrived on the summit via another route. We finally rapped off and began the long trek back to the Lupine Meadows parking lot.

          Except the return trip was nothing like my other Grand climbs when, after summiting, I always was back at Dornan’s celebrating by midafternoon. My fever was higher and I stopped often with dry heaves since I had eaten almost nothing the last two days. Finally, I had to be helped by Jamie as we made our way down the switchback trail.

          Just before sunset, I began to feel better and Jamie was now stopping to vomit. Rod had gone on down hours before so we sent Mike ahead to take the car and get ice and cokes before Dornan’s, the store just outside the park, closed.  Eventually we made it back to the parking lot after stumbling along the trail for hours in the dark.

          The night before we went up the Grand, Jamie, Mike and I had an OP with Chuck at Dornan’s, where he was a guest at someone's birthday party. He and I tentatively agreed to meet at the end of September at Devil's Tower.




          There was a reason for always meeting at the Tower on that particular weekend, in addition to the normally mild weather and fall color in the park. In Hulett, one of the bars had a free barbecue of roast pig and a live band on Saturday night. On Sunday, if you got off your Tower climb early enough there was a free beef barbecue with beans and hot biscuits sponsored by the Hulett Chamber of Commerce. There was even a little rodeo performance by the locals.

          On Thursday, September 27, I flew from Washington, DC, to Rapid City and drove on to Hulett. Checking out the Tower Park in the late afternoon that day, the Chuckmobile was nowhere to be seen.

          On Friday, I took my video camera looking for buffalo, deer, prairie dogs and whatever around the Tower. Still no Chuck.  Moreover, there was not a single climber camping in the park. I began to wonder if I could find a local to go up with me if Chuck was a no-show.

          That night there was a knock on my motel door in Hulett. It was Chuck and we went roaring off in my rental car to the roadhouse for OP and steaks.

          Over dinner, Chuck said he had been to a "reunion" of the old Yosemite crowd and some of the Exum guides at the City of Rocks in Idaho. That explained why he was delayed getting over to the Tower.  The question is why he left his old buddies to come at all, and I often have wondered if  maybe it was just Chuck’s way of making up for the “upchuck” incident on the Grand.

          The next day was perfect ‑‑ super weather and only a few climbers at the Tower. We decided to do the Durrance route again.

          From Royal Robbins on climbing the North America Wall in The Vertical World of Yosemite:

          Pratt...had already climbed three great routes on El Capitan, though never one like this.  Chuck's fantastic native talents and unassuming demeanor make him the finest of climbing companions; while his infinite patience and sense of humor make him an excellent teacher and guide.  He enjoys severe climbs and easy ones, and will repeat a route many times if he likes it.

          It was the presence of the other climbers ahead of us that proved "the times they are a changing" even with the unchangeable Chuck Pratt. As Chuck started to lead the first pitch, he reached into his pack and brought out WHAT -- a chalk bag.  I was so surprised I didn't even realize it was a chalk bag.  I thought he was offering me some trail mix. "This sometimes helps when people are climbing ahead of you," Chuck explained, looking down. "Hands get oily."

          This was really weird. I had a chalk bag, too, that I had bought at REI years ago and used only once or twice.  Certainly I would never have used it climbing with Chuck Pratt.

          "Chuck, you know something. If we keep climbing together long enough I guess I'll see you up here some day wearing fluorescent lycra tights."

          We laughed, a good way to loosen up for the Durrance route. That day we did in two and a half hours.

          Chuck and I have never done the exact Durrance route.  Instead of going to the right through the "meadows" at the top of the climb, we go left on another fairly difficult pitch known as Bailey Direct.

          On the next to the last pitch, Jump Traverse, I did the first half to a place where there is room to sit and rest. And I did.

          Looking out over the beauty of the Tower park, out over the trees turned a brilliant orange and yellow, at the Belle Fourche River crawling like a blue snake slowly through the golden grass, to the far horizon and the beginning of the Black Hills, I was suddenly overcome with deep, choking emotion.


Emotion or Premonition?


          Would I ever pass this way again to experience the beauty of the land, the joy of the climb and the companionship of a longtime friend? I just sat there for a few minutes and cried, the tears dribbling through the sweat and dirt on my face.

          I also thought what an unlikely pair we were hanging off the side of Devil's Tower that Saturday afternoon, while countless millions of other American males were sitting around their TV sets drinking beer and watching college football or golf tournaments.

          Here I was, a Washington communications executive who lived in pin stripe suits, Gucci loafers and lunch every day in fancy French restaurants.

          And Chuck Pratt. One of this country's greatest rock climbers but probably with everything he owned in the back of the Chuckmobile, while other Yosemite greats such as Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins were rich and famous -- if not for their climbing, their products.  My guess on that day was that the happiest person of us all was the guy up above who had me on belay.

          "Climbing, Chuck."


          At the top of the pitch I told Chuck what had happened -- about my emotions, about my sadness and my joy, about just sitting there crying.

          "How old are you?" he asked.

          "I was 61 two weeks ago."

          "Well, I'm almost 50," said Chuck, "and you're a real inspiration."

          I know Chuck Pratt, and he couldn't have been serious. Nevertheless, I consider it one of the highest compliments of my very full and fortunate life.




          It was late on Christmas Eve, 2000, with my houseguests all abed when I mixed a drink and started opening mail that had accumulated for several days.

        There appeared to be a Christmas card from Roy and Becky Chambers, who years ago had sold the Flying V and their nearby working ranch to retire in Jackson. I thought it was strange they would be sending me a second card because I had received one from them several days earlier.

          When I slit the envelope, a small newspaper clipping dropped out. It was from a Jackson Hole newspaper and reported that Chuck Pratt, 62, had died of a heart attack while on his annual off-season sojourn to Thailand. 

          So, perhaps the day I sat and cried on the pitch near the top of Devils Tower had been a premonition. While Chuck and I in recent years often have met for OP beers at Dornan’s bar just outside the Grand Teton National Park in Jackson Hole, that Devil’s Tower climb regrettably turned out to be the last time we ever were on a mountain together.

          Yo, Chuck, I’m going to miss you.

Copyright John Martin Meek 1991 and 2001. John Martin Meek writes and is the author of “The Christmas Hour,” a novel set in Washington, DC, and “I Might Just Be Right,” a collection of his newspaper columns and features.





 Chuck and I on Devil's Tower, a climb we did the last weekend in September for years.