Rumors of the Fall

Posted on: March 1, 2007

Charlie Fowler in the North Chimney in 1984, moments before being swept hundreds of feet to the base of the east face. Fowler stuck the landing, but in December 2006, as we went to press, it was discovered that he had died in China, presumably with his partner, Christine Boskoff, in an avalanche. [Photo] Alex Lowe

Over the years I've heard so much gossip about my adventures that as my memory fades and I have to rely on other people's accounts, it becomes hard to separate out fact from fiction. One of the most commonly told tales is about a climb that didn't quite happen on the Diamond, involving a fall that did—although not quite in the way the rumors claim. But I remember the events pretty well and those that led up to it.

I think.

To start off with some facts: from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, I attempted the Diamond some seventy-five or eighty times. I succeeded occasionally on various new routes and winter ascents, but I failed more often than not. No matter, I always came back with more experience and increased respect for my partners.

One spring I got more of that experience and respect than I might have wanted. During the winter of 1983-84, I worked at Neptune Mountaineering along with a fair share of the local Boulder talent. One of my coworkers was a Montana climber who had just moved to Colorado with his family. Tall and lean, Alex Lowe radiated boundless energy and ambition. After heavy snowfall thwarted his rather optimistic goal of making a winter solo ascent of Mt. Alice's East Face (a grade V rock climb in the Park), Alex dug out his stashed gear and decided to do a winter solo of the Diamond instead. I knew he was trading up for a bigger challenge. But with his unlimited supply of enthusiasm, the keen lad ferried his equipment up to Broadway, only to be stymied by bad weather again.

Soon it was no longer winter, but spring. Not that that's much of a distinction on Longs Peak, where cold, wicked weather and snow-plastered rock persist nearly year round. Frustrated, Alex asked me to finish the climb with him and help retrieve the gear. How could I resist? He'd already done all the hard schlepping. So one April afternoon we shouldered light packs and skied up in a gathering snowstorm. When we arrived at the base of the North Chimney, an avalanche roared down the route. "Safe now," we both thought out loud as we dug ourselves out of the debris. We continued unroped up the tenuous, snow-filled gash. Alex paused to take my picture, while constant spindrift swept over us. We plodded onward, exchanging worried glances.

Then a large windslab cut loose under his footsteps and hit me square on. And that's when the rumors began.

Rumor: In a daze I made a feeble, slow-motion attempt to self-arrest, but soon I was careening down the chimney walls, bouncing over rocky steps, eventually coming to a stop at the bottom of the route.

Fact: Suddenly I was launched into space over the cliffs below, tumbling head over heels down the smooth slabs. As I began to free-fall toward the Mills Glacier, I thought, "This is really going to hurt." Much to my surprise, I landed softly in a sitting position, in a huge pile of new-fallen snow. It didn't hurt that much at all.

Rumor: Thinking I was dead, Alex abandoned my body and headed back to the local climbers' bar in Estes Park to drown his sorrow. Pretty soon other climbers heard the news and joined him in mourning. An impromptu wake began as friends swapped stories of my adventures and misadventures. Several hours and many pints later, the wake was raging. Then, without warning, I stumbled into the bar, still befuddled but very much alive and in need of a beer. After everyone recovered from the shock, we all partied late into the night.

Fact: Alex scurried down the chimney to look for me. As twilight settled in, he found me lying in my crater, more or less fine, just banged up a bit. "You are a lucky guy," Alex said, with a knowing chuckle. Still dazed, I wasn't sure whether I agreed, but I was happy to be alive and grateful that it had snowed a lot that day.

As darkness and snow continued to fall, we scratched out shallow trenches and crawled into our sleeping bags for the night. Since the stove and food remained in Alex's Broadway cache, we went hungry and thirsty. The next morning I was so stiff and sore, Alex had to dig me out of the snowdrifts. He appeared in an uncharacteristically somber, quiet mood. I could sense he was discouraged at having failed once again, but like the gentleman he was, he didn't complain.

We skipped the bar and were back at work at Neptune's the next day. No one seemed too surprised by our story—by then I already had a reputation for an uncanny ability to cheat death—but the bent-up crampons I displayed got a good reaction.

Epilogue: Alex gave up his ill-fated attempt. Instead the two of us headed to the balmy South Platte to grab warm, sunny granite. Although Alex and I never climbed the Diamond together again, later in June, Renato Casarotto and I started back up the route I fell down. Rumor has it we did the climb in winter. Another rumor has it I quietly made the first free solo of the Casual Route that summer—true enough.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it, but if anyone has a better one, I'm open to suggestion. As Oscar Wilde once said, "The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it."

Until the day we all have all the facts and perfect memories, we have rumors, the Internet and climbing magazines.

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