Saturday, April 17, 2010

Chuck Comstock: Remembrance

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)




19 comments:

  1. What I remember best about Chuck was his highly tuned BS meter. Chuck just KNEW, there was no macho BS that would get by Chuck, he would just call someone out as he saw fit, even if that someone was John Krakauer.
    I was never in the same league as Chuck and the others climbing wise, but we always seemed to have a good time together. Chuck never was a stylist on ice, he SWARMED up the ice. I recall climbing at Dragonfly one time, and Chuck just had to climb it with one tool, solo of course. I think he grabbed my old Simond Chacal and swarmed his way up, feet popping, scraping, thrutching, grunting, YEAH BABY!! There was never any real doubt that he wouldn't get up.
    Mid winter in Fairbanks whilst at the UAF, climbing typ diversions were always hard to come up with. No climbing wall back in the '80s. Chuck grabbed me from my dorm up at Moore Hall one Friday night, and after a few beers, he figured climbing the big icicle dripping off of the top of the womans dorm (Lathrop?) would be a fine thing to do. So off we went. To get onto it, you had to plant your tools and swing off of the second floor outside stair, then tackle it. Well, he got onto it, much of it broke away, but he managed to jump back onto the landing leaving a tool imbedded in the lip. Had to get that tool, so he stands on the railing, I gave him a boost, he still had his crampons on. He got his tool, and I had a punctured shoulder. More beer was required.
    He came to visit me in Whitehorse back in the '90s. Out of the blue on Friday night I get a call, and its HIM!! Crazy! So we meet for a beer and some Mexy food, and he has the crazy lady with him. Long story short, we made plans to go rock climbing the next day, but as we parted for the evening, he and Cynth-ai-a (as he pronounced it)were in the formative stages of a battle royal. Much later in the eveing, well early morning, there was a knock on my wifes and my balcony window, and there was Chuck, needing a place to crash for the night. The battle royal had escalated. He had his parapente with him, and his rock shoes, but we gave him a blanket and the couch. A few hours went by, and Cynth-ai-a showed up, reclaimed Chuck, and split back to Valdez. At 3 AM. We didn't get to go climbing. Sadly, that was the last time I ever saw him.
    I first met Chuck buildering up at the Geophysical Institue at the UAF in the fall of '85. I was a freshman, and pumped to climb, and he showed me all the good problems. He was a friend. I miss him.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Tall Paul. Chuck would appreciate those stories....they are so full of Chuck-ness!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anybody else have some Chuck stories to tell? We want to hear them.

    ReplyDelete
  4. All this blogging... you need to go boating Roman. You need to go boating.

    Timmy J.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Back in the mid-eighties, fresh out of college with a degree in religion and sociology, I returned to my hometown Fairbanks and worked the summer for Frontier Flying Service and later would ticket the likes of Tobin, Dial and Krakauer to Bettles and Kaktovik. I remember Roman conversed as much as Jon did not...and Tobin grinned eeking joy from ear to ear. By summer's end, my life's path still not clear, my Catholic high school coach and teacher had become principal and needed a religion teacher and coach. I accepted the job without any formal training. Come September, I thrived through the fall and first snow, my first in 4 years given away to college in San Diego. I dated a skier and climber who introduced me to the characters above. Roman Dial, who came to Alaska when he was 14, accepted my invitation to guest speak at a retreat planned for the sophomore class up at Birch Hill. He made the leap from religion to breathing nature effortless. He shared stories with the young adults and freed their enthusiasm to be, to play. Not long after this, I ran into a man Dan in the veggie section of Super Market. He had just come off a climb with Chuck. Dan the man was still pretty knotted up about one of the two, I can't remember whom, taking a dump in a tiny plastic baggy and making a mess in the small tent for two. My eyes were popping, my gut busting, listening to the story. Climbers are fantastically funny storytellers because the tales they tell are about anything but funny when they happen. I ran into Chuck later and he agreed to be a school guest. Chuck arrived 10 minutes late. I could see him shuffling across the parking lot in front of the Catholic school. We watched him in wonder. He looked like a psychopomp coming back from a shamanic trip marked by the burns of his boundary crossing. He had frost bit his feet on the climb. We learned of the journey when he made is slow way to us and there held spellbound in timeless space. He had a soft voice with nothing to prove unlike a dis-peace-ing slam poet who cusses and begs for attention and recognition. Chuck softly told his stories while the kids edged off their seats melting in his direction. They begged for him to go on with his tale making--creating, sustaining the tenemos. It was as if an elusive wolverine had stumbled into view and tamed for the time we witnessed him wandering. When the bell broke our quiet, kids mindfully step by step departed, but one, Ben Rawert, stopped and said in a whisper, (this kid knew of Chuck because his dad Clem owned a mountaineering store that held the lore of the likes of Dial and Comstock) "Ms. Hajdukovich, I don't know if you meant to, but that was the best session on don't do drugs." In a Jimmy Hendricks way, Chuck was experienced in most any kind of drug play. The kids got this right away and loved him anyway. I could hear students Chuck-er-ing on in the hallway when Chuck quietly asked me to sign a sheet of paper. I said, "sure Chuck." I was young and knew little of law, but sure thought it was nice that Chuck was offering "community service" while passing through Fairbanks. Later, my boyfriend informed me that Chuck had been busted for selling narcotics to juveniles. He was doing his time. I did not intend a message of don't do drugs; I make it a point to "don't do don't." I aim to enthuse living and being and in Chuck there was a special light he shined through his darkness. I remember his glowing nappy head of blond and red, a lovely soul to behold. My principal later mentioned I might want to run guest speakers by her. Chuck Comstock showed up with healing frostbit feet and opened our hearts with his irony, humor and stories. Blessings and peace to Chuck and those who story him well.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Lynn, That is the most amazing tribute of Chuck one could ever read. Your description of the kids listening to Chuck tell stories is beautiful.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Lynn,

    That is such a great Chuck story! If only Dan McCoy was around to fill us in on the back story of Chuck's frost nipped feet. He's a geologist in Nevada now...with a wife and grown son....

    The story, or an approximation to it, was that Dan and Chuck were attempting the Ulu Ridge on 16,000 foot Mt Sanford in the western Wrangells in February. They'd flown in from Glennallen and moved their camp nearer to the base of the ridge. They were camped at 12,000 feet in a Chouinard meagamid when a storm hit and eventually a big gust plucked the floorless shelter right off them and quickly buried much of the gear that didn't blow away in spindrift. They took what they could, a single bag, a foam pad, a shovel and skis and retreated to a crevasse where they waited for the storm to end.

    The rest of the story has the two of them making a desperate run for the road, thirty miles away and 10,000 feet below, with NO FIRE, no stove, no lighter, no way to even melt snow for water (all buried and blown away by the wind that plucked their mid). Again this is above 10,000 feet in Alaska in February, back when winters were cold. Sure Andrew Skurka could do 30 miles in a day on the Iditarod Trail, but there on the slopes of Mt Sanford there was no trail. Just steep mountains with glaciers and avalanches, icefalls, and long nights.

    They struggled down and at one point each fell into separate crevasses, thankfully roped. They made rappels to get down onto the Sanford Glacier and traveled along that, pinned between its cracked surface and avalanche-prone slopes above.

    In my memory they have no skis at this point and are slogging down the glacier, again with no food, not even water. I remember Chuck telling me that they weren't camping that they were traveling at night headlamp-less, with the northern lights ripping and screaming green and red above them, unable to see exactly where they were going and their feet freezing in the sub-zero temperatures of February, coldest month of the year.

    Somehow miraculously they came on a cabin in timber along the Sanford River. Chuck, called it a sauna, because they crawled in and found matches and started a fire and heated it up until they were stripped naked and sweating and it was there that McCoy's feet thawed, his badly frozen feet, and this is the worst thing you can do is thaw feet and risk refreezing, so Chiuck left the cabin and headed off for help at the highway, forced to cross the overflow on the Copper River as his last obstacle for help.

    The slush and the snow on the big Copper sucked off his shoes and he clambered the river banks wearing only his socks -- a true death march finishes in rags on the feet -- and he came to a cabin with a NPS Ranger who called a search for Dan.

    They went to the cabin and he was not there. Dan had left and they followed his trail to find him lying down in the snow....dead? He didn't move when they buzzed him, but they landed and found him alive but with feet refrozen.

    It's been more than 20 years since I heard this story, but I have retold it many times so I am sure my facts are wrong but the feeling's right.

    ReplyDelete
  8. in a good way, i'm barely breathing...had no memory they were both so close to freezing. Like a child I remember the poop story. No wonder Dan looked so upset while gathering veggies in the land of the living. Death, i assume Chuck took in strides. Thank you for the incredible tale, of northern lights and overflow. I may have to pull a McPhee and go track down McCoy (that name would not come to mind) for a story or two in the coming years. Nevada is a good place to dry out even though it has one of the highest rates of auto theft. Ellen still in Fairbanks?

    ReplyDelete
  9. ^^ 謝謝你的分享,祝你生活永遠多彩多姿!........................................

    ReplyDelete
  10. How did Chuck come to be in Valdez anyway?
    I seem to recall he and Geoff Keener were both in the Coast Guard?? And ran aground, so to speak,in Valdez.
    It always struck me that Chuck would have made a great lawyer, if he had been so inclined; he had a pretty sharp wit.
    Neat reading all the CC anecdotes; I always wondered what became of Dan McKoy. He, Keener and I were on 9448 when Roman and CC were hanging it out on the Cuthroat.
    I recall Chuck kindly dissuading me when I expressed an interest to come along. I was eager, but in no way up to a route of that caliber. Chuck knew it but was nice enough to not belittle me over it.
    Ah, the good ol' days of our youth.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Haha! Growing up at Clem's backpacking, I got to know Chuck and hear all the Chuck stories.....as well as stories of most of you above. Everyone has a Chuck story. Even the kids in my class who had no idea who the hell this smelly guy was, now have a story. Completely baked, fresh off a several week climb, Chuck sat down with dreads so thick you could hide shit, and shared an epic story of his latest adventure. Classic! Lynn had no idea what she was getting into. The guy is a legend! An Alaskan hero. Ben Rawert

    ReplyDelete
  12. First time I met Chuck we had a short conversation and came to the mutual conclusion that the other was from Australia.....

    Chuck was from Iowa and I was A Wisconsin transplant to East Tennessee.

    Loved you like a brother Chuck...

    I Never regretted meeting any of the Sandvik house clan....

    Steve Meier

    ReplyDelete
  13. Do you remember when he fell in Yosemite and broke both his legs and instead of using a wheelchair or crutches he dragged himself around on his hands and knees for weeks to maintain his upper body strength?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, he called me collect and the mechanical voice said it was Chuck Comstock and I joked to friends in the room, knowing that he'd been in Yosemite, that he'd broken a leg.

      But he'd broke two.

      Delete
  14. Today, I found out that Chuck died. I was not in touch with him for over 15 years, but I will never forget him. I just had just graduated from Ohio University and my parents had given me a 1-way ticket to Alaska. They didn’t have enough dollars for the roundtrip ticket and I remember promising them that I would make 20,000 during the summer cleaning fish at a cannery. I had read all about it in the back of our student newspaper and naively believed that it was possible.

    I landed in Valdez and plopped my tent on the cannery spit. I knew nobody, but I had a dream of making big dollars and climbing big mountains. I soon met Chuck. I don’t remember how, but he immediately fascinated me. He was gnarly looking with his curly blond dread locks, unwashed clothes and horrible BO and a face of a troll, but his blue eyes got me. I saw everything in them. We soon were inseparable and not in the romantic sense. He found me an old mountain bike and as soon as my shift ended, we would be riding fast thru the mountains and creeks. After 3 months, I had made lots of friends on the spit, but I only wanted to be with Chuck. My friends and I would go dancing at the Glacier Bar and as soon as Chuck would walk thru the door, he would stomp on the dance floor in his beat up hiking boots, swing me around the dance floor and then whisk me out to my bike where we would ride high on tequila from 2am-till dawn. We would careen down gravel roads screaming with glee and leap off every now and then to make a new path in the woods. We were like two kids in love with everything that Mother Nature had to offer us and Chuck had a reverence for HER like no other. We could go for hours not talking- just being in awe- and if you know Chuck, that’s hard for him to do- not talk.

    After 3 months, I was still living on the spit and not making enough money to get home or to NYC, which was my ultimate, plan. I got a full time job working with developmentally disabled adults and another part time job at Price William Sound Community College teaching playwriting, humanities, and classical music. When winter came, I squatted in an old gold miner’s cabin and then finally moved into town to be the Youth Minister on Sunday Mornings and slept in the church basement. This worked out well for a while, but I was still partying hard at the Glacier Bar. Chuck wanted me to live with him in Millie Sandvick’s basement, so I did. Just opening the door to Millie’s basement and one was knocked out by the smell of body odor and pot. Chuck and Millie cornered off a side of the basement for me and made a neat little bed and chest of drawers, but the rest of the basement was full of Chuck’s dirty clothes, ropes, crampons, tents hanging on the line, poetry books, bongs, boots, ski’s, sleds, and junk.
    As soon as I would come home from work, Chuck and I would be off on some adventure.
    to be continues. in reply below

    ReplyDelete
  15. Today, I found out that Chuck died. I was not in touch with him for over 15 years, but I will never forget him. I just had just graduated from Ohio University and my parents had given me a 1-way ticket to Alaska. They didn’t have enough dollars for the roundtrip ticket and I remember promising them that I would make 20,000 during the summer cleaning fish at a cannery. I had read all about it in the back of our student newspaper and naively believed that it was possible.

    I landed in Valdez and plopped my tent on the cannery spit. I knew nobody, but I had a dream of making big dollars and climbing big mountains. I soon met Chuck. I don’t remember how, but he immediately fascinated me. He was gnarly looking with his curly blond dread locks, unwashed clothes and horrible BO and a face of a troll, but his blue eyes got me. I saw everything in them. We soon were inseparable and not in the romantic sense. He found me an old mountain bike and as soon as my shift ended, we would be riding fast thru the mountains and creeks. After 3 months, I had made lots of friends on the spit, but I only wanted to be with Chuck. My friends and I would go dancing at the Glacier Bar and as soon as Chuck would walk thru the door, he would stomp on the dance floor in his beat up hiking boots, swing me around the dance floor and then whisk me out to my bike where we would ride high on tequila from 2am-till dawn. We would careen down gravel roads screaming with glee and leap off every now and then to make a new path in the woods. We were like two kids in love with everything that Mother Nature had to offer us and Chuck had a reverence for HER like no other. We could go for hours not talking- just being in awe- and if you know Chuck, that’s hard for him to do- not talk.

    After 3 months, I was still living on the spit and not making enough money to get home or to NYC, which was my ultimate, plan. I got a full time job working with developmentally disabled adults and another part time job at Price William Sound Community College teaching playwriting, humanities, and classical music. When winter came, I squatted in an old gold miner’s cabin and then finally moved into town to be the Youth Minister on Sunday Mornings and slept in the church basement. This worked out well for a while, but I was still partying hard at the Glacier Bar. Chuck wanted me to live with him in Millie Sandvick’s basement, so I did. Just opening the door to Millie’s basement and one was knocked out by the smell of body odor and pot. Chuck and Millie cornered off a side of the basement for me and made a neat little bed and chest of drawers, but the rest of the basement was full of Chuck’s dirty clothes, ropes, crampons, tents hanging on the line, poetry books, bongs, boots, ski’s, sleds, and junk.
    As soon as I would come home from work, Chuck and I would be off on some adventure.

    To be continued in next comment

    ReplyDelete
  16. One adventure was up to Leprechaun Lakes. It was spring and it was one of our first overnight trips together. I stood 5’9 and as you know Chuck was short, so he would call me his “Big Mountain Girl.” He had in his mind that I was much more advanced in my mountaineering skills and pushed me hard and there was no way I could convince him that I was a beginner. He kept assuring me that my love and reverence for the mountains was all I needed. In the tent that night, he introduced me to the other women in his life- Polly his water bottle, Helen his stove and Grace his lantern. He had named all his camping equipment after women and I don’t think they were women he knew. He just like personalizing his gear. He pulled out his bong and to my surprise it was me. He had carved me onto a piece of wood and was now smoking it and saying “ Ahh, you’re tasting mighty fine.” He never tried to kiss me nor did I want him too, but I felt a deep kinship. He would read me poetry and quote from Emerson and Thoreau and close the night off with his own stories from all his hairy adventures and near death experiences and then say, “Goodnight, I love you my Big Mountain Girl” and I’d say I love you too Chuck. Morning came and we started our ascent to the peak. It was spring avalanche conditions and we were stair stepping up slowly what seemed like 70-degree mountain slope. We had roped in to get over a ledge about 300 feet back and now we were not roped in, but moving very slowly step my step. I remember asking, “Chuck are you sure this is safe.” And he’d say, “You’re fine. You are my big mountain girl.” I would kick my boot into the snow until I felt it hold and then move the other boot. After about 100 feet, my boot didn’t catch and I lost my footing and immediately started tumbling towards the ledge at a break neck speed. I knew I was going to go over the edge and die and the next thing I knew Chuck had leaped on top of me and was rolling with me down the mountain trying to get his ice axe to stop us and finally it caught and we came to a halt, but not before the axe cut his lip and nose up. We were about 3 feet from going over the edge. He bandaged himself up and roped me in and kept me roped in until we made it down.

    to be cont.

    ReplyDelete
  17. My girlfriends back in Valdez thought I was nuts to be spending time with Chuck. They couldn’t even see how I could stand the smell let alone the insane chances he took in the wild.

    I remember my parents coming to visit me after my year in Alaska. I had finally made money and I couldn’t wait for them to meet Chuck and I must confess a little nervous. . I remember my Dad walking into the basement and being knocked out by the odor and saying to me, “you live like a homeless person.” I told him that was Chuck’s side of the basement. Once he met Chuck, he had great respect for his knowledge of the mountains and so did my Mom. Everyday, he would bring a bouquet of Lupine from the mountains for her. My parents were taking the Elderhostel program at the college and Chuck was asked to speak as the guest lecturer on the mountains. He kept everyone spellbound with his stories and living life so close to the edge. We spent lots of time together and he was so kind to my famile. My mother pulled me aside and said, “you don’t kiss him do you?.” and I said “No, but I love him” and she said she understood. Later that month, an article came out in the Smithsonian Magazine with Chuck on the cover climbing an ice fall with no ropes. The sub header was , “The Man Who Should Be Dead.”

    It is so sad to find out that he did not live long. I have so many more wonderful stories to share about him and I will post. He was a beautiful soul- wild, half man, half of the earth, no BS and I loved him.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Thank you Ann. These are really insightful stories and comments.

    ReplyDelete

 
/* Use this with templates/template-twocol.html */