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A Climber We Lost: Charlie Bates

Each January we post a farewell tribute to those members of our community lost in the year just past. Some of the people you may have heard of, some not. All are part of our community and contributed to climbing.

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You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.

Charlie Bates, age 65, December 19

Charlie Bates did every kind of climbing—solidly, safely. He was a ski patroller at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl and later, outside of his day job, at the hard-core Mad River ski area, both in Vermont. Once in recent years he was telling me about a ropework training the patrol did, for evacuating people from a stuck lift. He minimized his role in it.

“Someone doesn’t want me coming up to get them,” he said with a shrug, indicating that customers might want young patrollers to the rescue. 

I could only stare. “Are you kidding? You are exactly the person I would want.”

Charlie was smart and competent in seemingly any conditions or situation, such as Vermont temps that froze others of us up like the Tin Woodman. He was big and strong, 6-foot-5, with broad shoulders and a thick beard. A big, generous laugh. But he was mostly quiet: quiet, courteous, and stoic. He kept his cancer diagnosis private, but did old climbing friends the honor of letting us know when time drew short. We sent messages and memories, photos for him and his sons to see. And called and wrote each other seeking solace and sharing our shock.

“He seemed invincible,” Jack Sanderson, his old college roommate, told me.

Charlie’s twin sons, Eric and Jack, and former wife, Jennifer Ball Robillard, were with him at his home in the final days, as two feet of snow fell outside, seeming surreal yet somehow appropriate. 

Camp 4, Yosemite, 1981 – left to right Charlie Carr, Dave Gustafson, Neil Cannon, Alison Osius, Charlie Bates, John Barraco, Chris Blatter, Charlie Petrock. (Photo: Courtesy Alison Osius)

Charlie lived in Fayston, Vermont, in a contemporary house he built, and worked as a carpenter and software developer, the last eight years with his close friend and climbing partner Dave Gustafson at Wyant Data Systems. Charlie had been an English major at Middlebury College and was an excellent writer, his varied abilities summed up by a client on LinkedIn: “Charlie is one of the most articulate and insightful developers I have worked with. His review of the documentation I gave him was always thorough and helpful. These are very uncommon traits in a software engineer, and Charlie is one of the best!” 

Long ago, Charlie more than anyone taught me to climb, toproping on cliffs high above the blue Lake Dunmore, Vermont, and doing multipitch routes in the Adirondacks, New York; even climbing some ice. He led Middlebury Mountain Club groups on trips to Dunmore or the Shawangunks, New York. For weeks over each of two summers, 1979 and 1980, he worked as a volunteer instructor (for the experience and climbing) at the Plas y Brenin national mountaineering center in North Wales.

A group of us college friends were loosely part of the largely joke yet real (or was it the other way around?) Fourth Avenue Alpine Club, a “non club for non members” invented by Geoff Radford and Bill Kitson—both also since lost to us—and their friends in Anchorage, and spreading to Middlebury, where Geoff and Bill were geology students. The crew included Dave Gustafson, John Barraco, Jack Sanderson, Rebecca Upham, and Will Viner from Midd, with a few others elsewhere in New England.

Charlie also coached friends and me in the first women’s rugby team at Middlebury, and he later played with clubs in Burlington and Mad River, was an assistant coach for men’s rugby at the University of Vermont, and founded a youth league. 

Charlie Bates, Rebecca Upham, Will Viner hiking around Lake Dunmore, Vermont, in recent years. (Photo: Alison Osius)

He climbed the Shield, El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, in 1981; summited Phabrang in India and did the first ascent of Peak X with Chris Blatter. As recorded in the 1991 American Alpine Journal, Charlie and Chris, on a small team—with Rachael Cox, Joshua Lieberman, Martin Mazurek (SUI), and Peter Keleman, who was unfortunately injured early in the trip—climbed Phabrang (6172 meters), reaching the summit in fog on August 8, 1990. Lieberman and Mazurek climbed an unnamed peak, and Charlie, Chris, Peter and Rachael made a 5920-meter peak first ascent.

Chris says, “In the hills, Charlie was calm and steady, with a whole-body laugh. Most bombproof belay around. And boy could he tote a load! Charlie was always there with a helping hand and that quirky smirky smile.”

In early summer 1980, Charlie, Jack Sanderson, John Barraco, Brad Armstrong, Ian Baker and I stayed for two days and nights in a cave in Chamonix, our climbing efforts thwarted by late snow. Jack, Charlie and I gave up and hitchhiked to the Dolomites, where we climbed one of the Sella Towers, in spiraling snow and then lightning where they, above me, felt a buzzing all around them. (John, Brad, and Ian instead hitched to a beach.) 

Charlie and Jack climbed rock and ice together throughout New England for years, doing hard ice classics at Lake Willoughby, Frankenstein, and Cannon. Recalls Jack in a message: “We were both big tall guys who loved winter ice in the White Mountains before the era of extreme ice tools, and powered up many frozen waterfalls with traditional ice axes held by boiled wool mittens. I will always remember his booming laugh on these climbs and the ‘joy’ of freezing water running down our arms in sub zero windchill, followed by a warm car ride home in a borrowed VW Rabbit.”   

The two spent the summer of 1979 hitchhiking through Europe doing mixed and rock routes, and summer 1980 climbing in British Columbia. They once finished a 10-pitch route on Bugaboo Spire in a snowstorm and had to rappel eight pitches in the dark, with some iffy anchors. “Charlie excelled in these moments,” Jack says, “staying calm surrounded by avalanches or lightning storms. … I will always remember the nights we were holed up in tents waiting out storms, not talking lots but sharing a lifetime of memories.”

Still, the “most epic trip,” he says, was Middlebury spring break 1979, when he, John Barraco, Ian Baker, Brad Armstrong, and Brad Marden drove 51 hours across the country to Yosemite, climbed for five days and drove 50 hours back to start spring classes. 

Charlie and I always stayed in touch, and I delighted in getting to meet Jack, now an emergency physician assistant, and watching Eric, a circus artist and professional juggler, on videos Charlie sent, received with such enthusiasm he’d fork over another with the amused subject line, “Since you seem to enjoy these…” The boys took up climbing, with trips together, and Charlie sent me a well-observed blog post or two.

Charlie was just there, a treasured presence, quiet but feeling. Seven years ago I wrote him that I was being treated for thyroid cancer. Three days later I received the biggest jug of maple syrup I’ve ever seen, a silent benediction.

Decades ago, Charlie and I finished an ice climb at the top of Smuggler, Vermont, and as we started walking off above the cliff, he said, half joking but meaning it, “Don’t slip.”

At that second I snagged a crampon, tripped and fell. Charlie instantly, instinctively tackled me to keep me from sliding.

Yes, Charlie, you were exactly the one we wanted around. For a lot longer.

Charlie is survived by his sister, Aloise; his brothers, Alan, Toby and David; his sons John “Jack” and Eric of Colchester, Vermont, and Montreal; and their mother, Jennifer Ball Robillard. A memorial will be held March 12 at Mad River Glen.

—Alison Osius

You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.