“I didn’t see how we were going to get out of it alive,” Charlotte Fox said in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air.” “The cold was so painful, I didn’t think I could endure it anymore. I just curled up in a ball and hoped death would come quickly.”
That distressing memory was of the May 1996 blizzard and subsequent tragedy on Everest that killed 8 climbers as part of two expedition teams. Fox was on lead climber Scott Fischer’s Mountain Madness team. After summiting on May 10, Fox and a handful of fellow climbers began descending in the late afternoon as snow began to fall. Within several hours, the weather had deteriorated into full-scale blizzard conditions. Fox was part of a crew that had become disoriented in the whiteout conditions and winds screaming at over 70 mph.
I thought, ‘Well, old girl, it’s been a good ride. No regrets.’
In the evening, exhausted and freezing, Fox and company formed the now infamous “huddle,” sitting together for some small measure of warmth and to keep from wandering off the mountain. While eight climbers either succumbed to exposure or fell into oblivion, Fox survived the night. It was her 39th birthday.
She went on to climb two more 8,000-meter peaks in the years to come. But her terrifying experience on Everest had scarred Fox. For years after the ordeal she drove around her Colorado home with a personalized license plate on her vehicle that clearly communicated her feelings about climbing the highest peak in the world. It read, simply: NEVEREST.
While a few of the climbers during that ill-fated expedition had little or no experience tackling climbs above 8,000 meters, (including Krakauer), Fox was not among them. When Fox summited Everest in 1996, she became the first American woman to successfully climb three 8,000-meter peaks. In 1994, she’d cleared the top of Pakistan’s Gasherbrum II; the next year she summited Cho Oyu, along the China-Nepal border.
Unlike many who climb Everest, or who check the world’s highest peaks off a life list, Fox wasn’t setting out to be a record holder. She’d never even seriously considered climbing the world’s tallest mountain until invited on the 1996 expedition. “Mount Everest had never been a goal of mine,” she wrote in the American Alpine Journal in 1997. “I regarded it as too much of a circus and overly popular with wannabes.”
Fox was born in 1957 about as far from the mountaineering community as one could be—Greensboro, North Carolina. Her father was Jared Fox, founder of apparel company Blue Bell, which eventually created the Wrangler Jeans empire. Fox went to college in Raleigh, North Carolina, but soon lit out for the West. Dreaming of the mountains, Fox moved to Colorado just after finishing school. She’d planned, as so many do, to spend only a year or so there. Do some skiing, enjoy the alpine environment and then move on. But then she never left. “That’s where the mountain climbing began,” said her mother.
Fox was comfortable in alpine environments, pushing her body in poor weather at extreme altitudes. For 30 years Fox worked in ski patrol in Aspen and Telluride, where she was known to skin up to the top of the mountain before clocking in for a full day of work on the slopes, just because she could. Fox climbed every 14er in Colorado, all 54 of them. She climbed the tallest mountains South America has to offer, then went down to Antarctica to scale Mt. Vinson on her way to nabbing all Seven Summits.
As one might expect from a lifetime spent pushing her limits in the mountains and surrounding herself with friends equally accustomed to life or death expeditions, Fox endured her share of tragedies, even had her Everest climb gone without incident. In 1993, her boyfriend Mark Bebie died during an ice climb. In 2004, Fox’s husband, Reese Martin, was killed while paragliding. “I have never been mad at Mark and Reese for dying in their pursuit of living,” Fox told Rock and Ice magazine, “since I very much believe in having the same intensity of life.”
It would have been simple for Fox to have decided after that 1996 horror show on Everest that she was finished with high altitude climbing. Understandable, maybe even commendable. But that wasn’t in Fox’s nature. A tough, gritty climber, Fox understood and accepted the risks of mountaineering. Even after staring down, and ultimately coming to terms with death high on the frozen slopes of Everest, Fox continued to climb big mountains. She summited the 8th highest peak in the world, Manaslu, in the Nepalese Himalaya, in 2016. Dhaulagiri, the 7th highest peak, came next in 2017. In all, Fox found the roof of 5 8,000-meter mountains in her climbing career. If death were to come, it would come.
“I thought, ‘Well, old girl, it’s been a good ride,’ ” Fox said about the night on Everest when she was huddled in the black of night, too cold and disoriented to push on. “No regrets.”
Fox, a woman for whom a dicey pitch at 25,000 feet was, if not routine, at least well-practiced, died in 2018 when she fell from the top of ice-slicked stairs at her Telluride home. She was 61 years old, and just a year removed from her most recent 8,000-meter climb.
Though she ended up climbing the world’s biggest peaks, Fox, a girl from North Carolina who came out to the Rockies and had her mind blown and her whole life changed, just loved mountains. After her ordeal on Everest, she reflected in her essay for the American Alpine Club:
“I’m three for three on 8,000ers. Pretty damn good odds. Time to go to some lower peaks to climb more technical routes with just a few friends. You can just as easily get killed there, but with so many mountains in this world, why not mix it up? Altitude isn’t everything. Except on Everest.”
Top photo: Binod Joshi/AP