Charlotte Fox’s eyes were frozen behind her contact lenses. The snow had begun falling as Fox and her fellow climbers descended from the top of the world, the peak of Mount Everest, where she could see for 100 miles in every direction. But now, trapped in the middle of a blizzard with the force of a hurricane, in temperatures somewhere south of 40 below, she couldn’t see anything. She was out of oxygen. Her feet were numb with frostbite. No longer able to stay moving, she scrunched herself into the fetal position, huddled with her climbing mates in the ice and snow, and waited for it all to end.
“I didn’t see how we were going to get out of it alive,” Fox told Jon Krakauer in his book “Into Thin Air,” which recounted the infamous 1996 blizzard that stranded climbers for one freezing night, leaving eight dead. “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.”
Instead, she would survive through the night and live 22 more years to scale countless mountains around the world. The experience on Mount Everest the night of May 10, 1996, may have made Fox and her fellow climbers celebrities for a time, but for Fox it was but a rung on the ladder in a life of great heights.
That’s why, when she died last week at home in Telluride, Colorado, from an apparent fall from the top of her stairs, her friends were in disbelief. She had just turned 61. Her birthday was May 10.
“Charlotte had survived so much up high,” her friend Alison Osius wrote in a tribute for Rock And Ice magazine this week, “it was stunning and profoundly sad that she died that evening of May 24 in a household accident.”
Fox, who grew up in North Carolina, spent most of her life at high altitudes, working as a ski patroller in Colorado for 30 years, Osius wrote. When she reached the summit of Mount Everest in 1996, she became the first American woman to climb three mountains at altitudes of 8,000 meters (about 26,246 feet) or higher. She was the first American woman to summit the 8,000-meter Gasherbrum II, in Pakistan, in 1994 — which Fox once said in an interview with Rock and Ice was her greatest accomplishment — and then Cho Oyu in 1995.
In the two years before her death, she climbed two more 8,000-meter mountains, returning home May 3 from her last climb, of Baruntse, a 7,129-meter mountain.
Osius was supposed to be staying at her house the weekend of May 25. Fox had invited friends over for the popular “Mountainfilm” festival that weekend, and Osius had texted her before leaving if she wanted to go climbing. “Yes — ink me in my dear!” Fox wrote back to her.
The first friends, Kim Reynolds and Peter O’Neill arrived the evening Fox died. They had said goodbye to Fox before heading to different dinners, but when they returned, around 10:30 p.m., they found Fox at the foot of her steep, hardwood stairs, Reynolds told the Telluride Daily Planet.
“Finding her body was a very shocking and difficult thing,” Reynolds told the newspaper, but still, she said, “there was something profound about [the experience of] Fox’s death.”
“She gave me a gift when I arrived,” Reynolds said. “She recently had a birthday, and she told me, ‘I’m happy to be 61.’ . . . Those words, ‘I’m happy,’ might have gone right in and out of my ears if this hadn’t happened. . . . To be the last person with her, with my hands on her heart, and to remember those last words she said to me, I have to look at it as a privilege rather than a horror. . . . I got to send her off, with love.”
According to the Aspen Times, the coroner has not yet determined Fox’s cause of death, but said foul play is not suspected. According to Rock And Ice, she is survived by her mother, stepmother and stepbrother, among others. Her husband died in a paragliding accident in 2004, Rock And Ice reported.
Osius said it was one of several serious tragedies Fox endured over the years, including when a longtime boyfriend died in an avalanche in 1993, and, of course, the night on Everest. She never liked to talk about that night, Osius wrote, and always avoided doing interviews or films.
But Osius asked her once what was going through her head that night she was huddling in the snow, and Fox told her.
“I thought, Well, old girl, it’s been a good ride,” she said. “No regrets.”