December 1, 1946 – December 25, 2007
Photo by Ben Knight
Who is Chuck Kroger? It’s like a climbing trivia question with a thousand right answers. ‘Didn’t he go to Antarctica six times?’ ‘I heard he did the 3rd ascent of the NA Wall back in the 60’s when it was considered the hardest big wall route in the world?’ ‘He must have climbed Shiprock at least a dozen times!’ ‘Isn’t that forbidden, forbidden, forbidden?’ ‘Did he really finish the Hardrock 100 six times?’
And yet most people won’t know who Charles Fredrick Kroger was. In Doug Scott’s tome Big Wall Climbing, Scott recognizes the significance of Chuck and Scott Davis’ ascent of The Heart. Only the 7th route on El Cap, The Heart was one of last completely independent bottom to top lines. Scott writes that after they had cut off possibility of retreat “they just kept going, taking thirty foot falls, following dead-end cracks then abseiling back down to try others, huge rocks fell off at a touch and there was no fuss and no one on top to meet them.”
However, the ‘hard as nails’ Big Wall legend Chuck became, was the last thing he ever wanted to be. Sure Chuck was proud of the Heart, the NA Wall, and scores of other big mountains from Alaska to Russia but his generation was all about adventure and invention.
He would laugh when he told me about Tehipite Dome. The Grade VI wall is 16 miles in so he went to carry a load before the climb. After struggling for hours with a huge haul bag he walked into a parking lot. He had started from the wrong trailhead!
Epics seemed to be part of his goal. On his first time up Shiprock he was so paranoid he rented a car, then let the air out of one of the tires before sneaking across the desert to the climb. After the route they had to use a bike pump to inflate the tire!
A welder extraordinaire, he invented his own rail bikes to access the remote Weminuche Wilderness south of Silverton. Suddenly any peak in the range became a day climb. The Wham Ridge was an easy outing so we decided climbing Jagged Peak in a day would be fun. Sure enough we made it all the way to the top, only to look over and see we had climbed the wrong summit! Chuck loved stuff like that.
And so who was Chuck Kroger? As a climber and athlete he performed with ease at the top of his craft. But as a friend and mentor he was unmatched. During his five-month battle with Pancreatic cancer his lifelong friends from every direction and every walk of life came to visit. It wasn’t that he had lots of ‘best friends’. It was that everyone was his best friend. To share time with Chuck was to leave the mundane and go seeking for something new and exciting and wondrous.
I remember clearing an old mule trial with his grandfather’s crosscut saw one evening. He loved old tools and big logs and as if admitting a long kept secret he looked up, a smiling but mischievous glint in his crystal clear eyes. “You know there’s this wide crack up on the West Buttress of El Cap. Pratt had climbed it and everyone was too scared to go up there. Well… there’s this finger crack back inside that fat crack so it was a cruise. Scott just about pissed himself when he saw me fly up that thing!”
It makes me laugh now, to think Chuck never meant to become a legend. He just wanted to play a little trick on his buddies. All of us.