Charlie Fowler Interviewed by Eric Bjornstad, 1986

This is a transcription of an interview with Charlie Fowler, from 1986, conducted by Eric Bjornstad. Eric hoped to get this published in a magazine; when no magazines expressed interest, he gave me a typed-out copy with the hope that I could see it published, somewhere, some day. Fowler, at the time, was at the height of his powers physically and, as evidenced here, had found his voice. Locally, he had just completed a number of routes in the desert, including the first ascent of Zenyatta Entrada, with Eric helping on some of the pitches. Took me three decades, but here it is, Eric!

Note: Eric Bjornstad's voice is represented by italic font, Charlie Fowler's by regular font.

            Many climbers specialize in one or another of the numerous facets of our sport. Some are drawn toward expedition climbing whether it be in Alaska or the Himalayan. Others are partial to the crags of Joshua Tree or Smith Rocks or Devils Tower or any of hundreds of easily reached test grounds while still others prefer alpine climbing, ice climbing or even desert climbing. Many supplement their mountain holiday with big wall climbing in Yosemite. It is uncommon however, for a climber to favor the variety pursued by Charlie Fowler. Indeed, it seems an enigma that he should feel as comfortable on the north face of the Matterhorn as he is on Mount McKinley, New Hampshire ice, the crags of Joshua Tree or the sandstone towers of the southwest desert.

            Charlie recently visited me in Moab where I had a chance to do a few climbs with him, renew our friendship, and delve into the motivation and personality behind the well-known name. During his 10-day stay he put up numerous new routes in Arches National Park where I had the good fortune to join him on the first ascent of the 550-foot Tower of Babel. It was a pleasure to observe this remarkable world-class climber at close range.

Fowler by Kyle Copelend

Photo: Charlie Fowler, Arches National Park I Photographer: Unknown. Image from Kyle Copeland Collection

Charlie, let’s begin with the rather prosaic question of when and where you started climbing, and perhaps early influences.

            I started climbing in 1968 at Great Falls in Virginia and Carderock in Maryland. In those years John Stannard was like God. He was a great inspiration for me. In the Gunks in the early 1970s he climbed routes that were way ahead of their time such as ‘To Have and Have Not.’ He did numerous 5.11s and was ahead of everybody else. Carderock, only about 15 minutes from the White House, was Stannard’s area also when I began climbing.

We first met at Eldorado Springs, Colorado. How long did you live there?

            I only lived in Eldorado a little over a year. I graduated from college in Virginia with a degree in Environmental Science and that same day I moved to Boulder. Actually I dropped my things off at a friend’s house in Boulder and continued on to Yosemite. It was my first trip to the valley. I was very naive. I did a lot of foolish things like getting skinned up pretty badly climbing off-width in shorts. It was hot weather and I was not used to it.

Where else did you climb in the early years?

            I climbed in Vedauwoo near Laramie, Wyoming once or twice a year for many years and Devils Tower several times. There was a period of my life when I lived in Virginia and climbed every weekend throughout the summer at the Gunks. I also did a fair amount of ice climbing in New Hampshire while living in Virginia.

Other areas?

            Over the years I have visited the Needles of South Dakota several times, the Red Rocks of Nevada, the Alabama Hills near Bishop, California, Joshua Tree, and in more recent years countless trips to Estes Park and the Lumpy Ridge area, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, South Platte, Garden of the Gods of course, etc.

I am always curious about how a full-time climber supports oneself. Unless one is independently wealthy it is very difficult to subsist while traveling back and forth across the country on a seemingly endless mountain holiday. What is your secret?

            I have guided for ten years or so and supplemented that income with photography and writing.

Have any interesting stories come out of your guiding?

            One of my favorite memories is from the Tetons in 1977 where I guided a farmer from Minnesota whose name was Rodger. He had just completed a beginning climbing class and had done his first climb which was The Snaz in Death Canyon. He bought a pair of rock shoes and wanted to do something harder. I suggested the buttress just right of Mt. Moran. Most people hike in and spend the night then do the climb the following day and hike back out. Rodger and I hiked in and did the climb in about three hours and were back at the climber’s ranch in the early afternoon.

            What was remarkable about the whole thing was not only the time we made, considering it was Rodger’s only second climb, but after hiking into the mountain Rodger discovered he had forgotten his new rock shoes and so did the entire climb in Hush Puppies. He was the most talented client I have ever had.

Tell me about your first big wall in Yosemite.

            My first route on El Cap was the Salathe Wall which I climbed with Mark Wilford in March of 1978. We had both arrived in the Valley with virtually no big wall gear and had to borrow everything we needed, down to the shoes we wore.

            The weather was unsettled and everyone said it was too early but we started up anyway. We were very gung ho and reached Mammoth Terraces the first day. Everything was running with water and we got totally soaked. The chimney behind El Cap Tower was crashing with water. I had just gotten back from climbing Fitz Roy and was not going to let a little wall in Yosemite stop me. The climb took five days and four nights. At the top it started raining and then it turned to snow. The last bivouac was miserable. The sleeping bags were too wet to sleep in. The top was knee- to waist-deep with snow. It was the first climb of El Cap that year with none to follow for over a month.

I have been reading a lot about Yosemite lagging behind the rest of the world in climbing. Do you agree?

            It is silly to talk about the Valley as lagging behind. The significance of Yosemite is the Big Walls; it is sort of missing the point. Big Walls are the attraction of Yosemite and that is what I want to do when I go there—big nail-ups. I do a little free climbing while I am recuperating from big-wall climbs.

Who did you climb Fitz Roy with, and was it the usual epic of wind and storm one always hears about in Patagonia?

            I went to Fitz Roy in December 1977 with Mike Munger, Jane Wilson and Kathy Ryan and after the traditional waiting around for weeks we got good weather and Mike and I made the third ascent of the Super Couloir on the first try.” “Fitz Roy has meant the most to me of all the climbing I have done because it is one of the most beautiful mountains in the world.

            In reference to the first ascent in 1957 we were talking about a little while back, I heard a different story about the team member who was supposedly killed in a river crossing on the march in. It wasn’t a river crossing that got him, he was messing around with a local’s wife and got shot.

Well, I always thought climbing was a relatively safe sport! You must have been in top shape that year. I remember reading of your solo (second ascent) of Perilous Journey in Eldorado Springs. Also your solo ascent that year of the Direct North Buttress on Middle Cathedral Rock in Yosemite. The write up in Mountain Magazine called the ascent ‘a particularly notable achievement, as the climb is not only hard (with pitches of 5.10) but the route-finding is complex and the face-climbing is sometimes thin, fragile and precarious.’ In 1978 I remember reading that you free-soloed The Grand Traverse on the Diamond on Longs Peak (grade V, 5.10) in one hour from the foot of the face to the summit without a rope. Have you climbed other routes on the Diamond?

            In 1984 I did a new route on the Diamond with Renato Casarotto. I had passed him while I was on my Fitz Roy trip a few years before and then later was re-introduced to him by Dick DuMais at Neptune Mountain Shop in Boulder. Renato and I climbed the Yellow Spur and several other classics in Eldorado. During our three-day climb on the Diamond, which we named La Dolce Vida (the good life) his wife came to the base of the climb and took photos. His recent death on K2 was a real tragedy because he was making K2 his last climb before retiring. He had a really nice wife. It is pretty sad that he died.

Have you climbed out of the country other than in Patagonia?

            In 1979 I went to Europe. I planned on two months and stayed four. Three of the months I stayed in Chamonix where there was good weather and I did about 20 alpine climbs in the area.

            I then went to the Eiger but conditions were not good. I wanted to do the three great north faces: The Matterhorn, the Eiger and the Walker Spur. I did climb the Walker Spur and the Matterhorn less than a week apart.

Who were your climbing partners for these climbs?

            I did the Walker Spur with Peter Metcalf (he is the general manager of Chouinard equipment). There was a photo of me on the Walker Spur in the catalogue a few years ago. I climbed the north face of the Matterhorn with a fellow named Nick whom I met in the Bar National in Chamonix. The bar is a veritable institution.

Have you thought about returning to the Eiger?

            Yes. My plans are incomplete but I am considering going to the Eiger this winter. I think the fall or winter are the best conditions even though the days are short.

How did you spend that fourth month of your 1979 European trip?

            I soloed a lot of famous climbs on the trip. Something like ten climbs. I soloed the Central Pillar of Freney. I also soloed the Shroud on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses and the Super Couloir of Mont Blanc du Tacul. The Super Couloir is between the Pillar of Three Points and the Gervasutti Pillar and is a magnificent, steep ice runnel on the east face. I then soloed the north face of Les Courtes and several others. On the same trip I climbed the Frendo Spur with Mike Lowe and the south face of Aig. Du Midi with Peter Metcalf. I then went from the Alps to Athens and the Riviera and visited the south of France.

Have you climbed in the Himalayas?

            No, you have to be independently wealthy or go on a big expedition and I don’t really like the idea of that type of climbing.

            I enjoy alpine climbing but it is very expensive to climb in the Himalayas. Also there is a difference with what people call alpine style and what I consider it to be. I think it is going really light, more than three people is an expedition on a climbing trip and I am not really interested in that.

            In Himalayan climbing there is a lot of politics that hinder the development of climbing. In countries like Nepal and Pakistan they want large expeditions for the royalties and money they bring in.

            In the U.S. the American Alpine Club supports large expeditions. On both sides large expeditions are supported and encouraged. In Peru you don’t have to go through all that and Peru is as poor a country as Nepal. It is just politics but if they (Nepal etc.) would encourage small trips by making it cheap they would benefit in the long run with the sheer increase in volume.

Have you made any other trips abroad?

            In 1984 I made another trip to Europe. I did a lot of climbing in England, Southern France and traveled to Britain and did many climbs there.

            I attended a Mountaineering Conference in England where Walter Bonatti was the speaker. We talked a lot about Patagonia where we had both climbed. We got along quite well, he was very impressed by my solo of the Central Pillar of Freney.

            The same year I went to Canada but the weather was bad. George Lowe is a pilot and he flew up and landed at an airstrip in Banff where we met Alex Lowe. They rented a car and then the two of them went off to climb the North Twin. I teamed up with Rex Dougherty and climbed Mount Athabasca and Andromeda (the peak next to Athabasca).

Have you climbed in Alaska?

            In 1980 I did the West Buttress of Mount McKinley with a girlfriend. We ran into Chouinard and Rick Ridgeway who had attempted the Cassin Route on the south face but conditions were poor. We all climbed together up the West Buttress route, sharing it for a while.

I recall you went to South America last year.

            Yes, I went to Peru with four clients. We climbed Alpamayo (19,510 feet), Huascaran (22,208 feet), and Pisco (20,981 feet). On the same trip I soloed Huandoy (20,981 feet), Chacraraju (20,056 feet) and Charup.

Living in Eldorado you must meet many well-known climbers. I’ve been hearing a lot about people like John Bachar and Ron Kauk. Have they been to Eldorado?

            Yes, I climbed with them there a long time ago.

            I see too many climbers however [who are] following what others are doing. I like to figure it out for myself and go my own way.

You seem to do a lot of aid climbing compared to others who are doing hard free climbing. Do you prefer one over the other?

            My idea about climbing is getting up things. I have more respect for climbers who can get up things and not just go to Eldorado and climb 5.12c. I want to be a good all-around climber and be able to get up all types of things.

That must be your secret to your sustained interest in climbing.

            Yes it is. I don’t get bogged down doing only one thing. It keeps me from getting burned out. I like … a lot of variety in climbing to keep my interest.

            Although it seems top climbers burn out, many of them really simply get surpassed.

            When I started climbing it was mostly pitons that were used for protection. People now are really leaning on equipment that we didn’t even have 10 years ago. Standards advance then equipment comes along in advancement. It happens that way a lot more than people think it does. Climbing keeps moving ahead.

            I remember in the late ’60s climbing chocks were not popular and people would almost give them away. I started using them because they were economical. Many of the routes I climbed had fixed pins. I used a lot of chocks between the fixed pins. I would clip into the fixed pins and when something else was needed I’d use chocks.

What kind of training do you do?

            Training does have a lot to do with today’s standards. I do a lot of fingertip pull-ups and I go to the Engineering Center in Boulder and traverse back and forth and boulder on the flagstone walls. It is a pretty popular place, sheltered and lit at night.

            If I am doing high altitude climbing or big mountain climbs I am pretty careful about my diet.

Do you have a food preference?

            Ramen oriental noodles are good. They are lightweight, complex carbohydrates. Make it soupy and you also get lots of liquid.

Have you any particular goal in climbing?

            Only to get better and go places I have not been. I’d like to spend more time on big alpine climbs but they are expensive.

What interest do you have other than climbing?

            My main interest other than climbing is photography and writing. I like skiing (although it is a part of mountaineering) and I like mountain-bike riding a lot.

How would you compare European and American climbing?

            Climbing in America is way behind Europe. This is not only true of technical standards but guidebooks, the number of people involved and public attitudes. Climbing is a lot more widespread and accepted in Europe. They have massive numbers of guidebooks and in many countries like Britain and France climbing is a lifetime sport. In America it is a youthful sport and by the time you are 30 years old you are supposed to settle down, stop climbing and be respectable. The attitude here is very different. I think it will change in this country with time. You’ll find a lot more older climbers and people that are really good at it because of the change of attitude people will come to realize you don’t have to quit after you are 30 or so.

What are your thoughts about competition climbing? Do you feel competition is detrimental to the sport?

            No, there has always been competition. I am in favor of climbing meets, it helps climbers communicate and that is good. In Europe climbing meets and competition are getting very popular. Thousands of people turned up at a recent Italian competition. What I do not like to see are all of the ethical debates. I feel they hold the sport back. There are reasonable considerations for ecology and respect for other climbers but in places like California there is a lot of bolt chopping and people seem to get very self-righteous. I don’t think people should go around and make others climb their way. I think climbing is a real individual expression. Ethics seem to be boiling down to telling others how to climb, what you should or not do and I don’t agree with that attitude. For the sport to advance I have to advance myself and don’t like the idea of telling people how to climb.

Let’s talk about the desert for a while. How long have you been climbing there?

            My first desert trip was in 1976, about ten years ago. I was with Ken Trout, Kent Lugbill and Glenn Randall. We did about the 20th ascent of Castleton Tower.

Castleton has now been climbed more than 800 times. The last 200 ascents were done within the past 12 months. How do you feel about the canyonlands climbing guide I am writing?

            I think it is a good idea. There has already been much written about the area and a tremendous increase in popularity. A guide will spread people around a bit and perhaps educate them to good ecological practices while climbing and camping there.

Tell me about other trips to the desert and some of your climbs.

            Well, it is a place I will certainly continue to come to frequently. I returned the following year from the 1976 trip and climbed the Dunn Route on Moses with Chip Chace.

            In 1981 I returned with Chip Chace. He had climbed the Primrose Dihedrals on Moses and rappelled down the North Face. He suggested to Jeff Achey that it might go free. Jeff didn’t think it would so Chip recruited me and we did it in three pitches of 5.11, (one 5.11s) a pitch of 5.8 and one of 5.12. It is the best route I have done in canyonlands and I have done about every established climb in the Supercrack area. I prefer pinnacles though, to walls. I have climbed North Six-shooter about six times by five different routes and Castleton seven times by four different routes. North Six-Shooter is one of my favorite climbs in the desert because of the view from the top.

            The standards in the desert are pretty difficult now, but as standards progress more people will come to the desert. Just as what were the ultimate routes yesterday are trade routes today. Canyonlands will always be one of my very favorite places to climb.

Let's conclude with a statement of advice to the new and future generation of climbers.

            I would say my best advice is to follow your own vision.