Watching Luc Mehl's Wilderness Classic video of sliding along icy creeks and slogging through shin deep sugar reminds me of a ski trip Chuck Comstock and I made from Kaktovik into the Brooks Range and across to near where the Classic started this year. Like Brad Marden, I had equipment issues: I broke both skiis under the foot about 100 miles from the road and an equal distance from Kaktovik. We managed to splint them. Chuck brought a bottle of Old Bushmills that remained frozen for a week until we came to a cabin where we thawed the spirits and drank them. It was three weeks of sunburned faces during the day and frost-nipped noses protruding from our bags at night -- it never got above zero. That was twenty-four years ago.
Ten years ago this week Chuck Comstock died.
Carl Tobin introduced Chuck and me in the early 80s on a rock climbing trip to the Granite Tors. We eyed each other warily, aware of one another's reputations. I considered him Embick's ice climbing protege. He considered me Tobin's. We didn't get along at first. He threatened me during our "Frostbite Expedition" to the Alaska Range ("You better sleep with one eye open or you might wake up to an ice axe in your head"). Later, I punched him in the gut then threw him on a table in the Sandvik House. Like two male characters in a movie, we started out fighting but ended up bonding as close friends and partners on climbing and ski trips all over Alaska, from Sans Ami in Valdez to the Arctic Ocean, from 100 foot Granite Tors to 1000 foot waterfalls.
Anyway he was really an inspirational adventure partner, probably the wildest cat I ever knew. He had brushes with the law and his best friend had killed a man and shot some others. He was feisty and short and we grew apart when I left AK for grad school with a wife and kids in tow.
He died single and alone in his run down place in Valdez, the roof partially collapsed. He didn't care.
In 1988 he competed in the Nabesna to McCarthy Wilderness Classic, flying his paraglider off the 6,000 foot icefall, and coming in last, during the post-race banquet. The fact is that nobody remembers who won that race, but nobody could forget who finished with the most panache. Crazy Chuck Comstock.
(Click to see the images larger)