Charlotte Fox, 61, Trailblazing Alpinist and Everest Survivor, Dies

Charlotte Fox in 1996 after she was rescued from a fatal blizzard that swept across Mount Everest as she was descending.

Charlotte Fox, who climbed to dizzying heights as the first American woman to conquer three 26,000-foot or higher mountains and once defied a freak blizzard as she descended Mount Everest, died on May 24 in Telluride, Colo. She was 61.

Ms. Fox was found dead inside her home in the Rocky Mountains from injuries apparently suffered after slipping down a steep flight of stairs, Emil Sante, the San Miguel County Coroner, said.

Ms. Fox, a self-described Southern debutante who transplanted herself to the Rockies right after college and never left, figured in Jon Krakauer’s breathless first-person 1997 chronicle of the Everest climb, “Into Thin Air.”

She was descending from the summit when a rogue storm swept across the mountain with wind chills of 100 degrees below zero. The blizzard, which lasted for hours, had killed eight climbers from four expeditions. Ms. Fox nearly froze to death, but she and others were rescued and evacuated by helicopter. (Another version of those fatal climbs was captured in the 2015 3D film “Everest.”)

Mountaineering assumes its own momentum, Ms. Fox explained in an interview for the 2008 PBS program “Frontline.”

“You’ve gone so far up the mountain, you’ve come so far from home, and you spent six months preparing for this goal,” she said. “There’s no way you’re going to turn around unless things are really going south.”

But the fatal blizzard struck overnight on May 10, 1996 — her 39th birthday — when she had reached her goal and was already descending. Turning around was no longer an option.

“My eyes were frozen,” she was quoted as saying in “Into Thin Air.” “I didn’t see how we were going to get out of it alive.”

“I didn’t think I could endure it anymore,” she added. “I just curled up in a ball and hoped death would come quickly.”

Ms. Fox immortalized her ordeal by choosing a custom Colorado license plate that pre-emptively responded should anyone wonder whether she would climb the world’s highest mountain again. It read, “Neverest.”

Everest was the third jewel in Ms. Fox’s triple crown. She also reached the top of two other mountains with heights of at least 8,000 meters, or 26,246 feet: Gasherbrum II, in Pakistan, in 1994 and Cho Oyu, in the Himalayas, in 1995. She was the first American woman credited with surmounting all three.

Ms. Fox was dauntless, but she never discounted the elemental dangers in the challenging avocation she had chosen, or in her daily slogs as a ski patroller in Telluride and Snowmass, Colo.

In 1993, her boyfriend at the time, Mark Bebie, died in an avalanche while ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies. Her husband, Reese Martin III, was killed in 2004 in a paragliding crash in Washington State. He was 49.

“I have never been mad at Mark and Reese for dying in their pursuit of living,” Ms. Fox told Rock and Ice magazine in 2007, “since I very much believe in having the same intensity of life.”

That belief was why her friends and acquaintances were less stunned by her death than by how she died.

Returning from dinner, weekend guests discovered her body at the bottom of a 77-step hardwood staircase connecting the four stories of her house on Tomboy Road, which undulates along a mountainside. Her front door is on the top floor.

“When someone dies of a long illness, it gives you time to process that; it’s even a blessing,” Connie Self, a movie producer and friend of Ms. Fox, told The Telluride Daily Planet. “It’s hard to find the blessing in this. It’s a huge reminder of how vulnerable we are, how risk is everywhere.”

Kim Reynolds, a personal coach, also grappled philosophically with the nature of her friend’s death.

“I recommend not remembering how she died (which everyone is fixated on),” Ms. Reynolds said in an email, “and, rather, remember how she lived.”

Charlotte Conant Fox was born on May 10, 1957, in Greensboro, N.C., the only child of Ann Robinson Black and Jared Fox, whose father founded Blue Bell, the manufacturer of Wrangler jeans. Her parents divorced when she was young.

An expert water skier and equestrian as a child, Ms. Fox graduated from Hollins College, now Hollins University, Roanoke, Va., with a degree in American studies. She planned on then spending a year in the Rockies mulling what to do next.

“She never came back,” her mother told The News & Record of Greensboro, N.C., in 1996. “That’s where the mountain climbing began.”

In addition to her mother, survivors include her brother, Ralph R. Black, and her stepmother, Rachel Camp.

In her mountain climbing career, Ms. Fox was the first American woman to reach the summit of Gasherbrum II, between Pakistan and China. She also climbed, in South America, Aconcagua, Huascarán, and Chopicalqui; Mount Vinson, in Antarctica; Mont Blanc, in the Alps; and Kilimanjaro, in Africa. In addition, she scaled all 54 Colorado peaks above 14,000 feet.

“Charlotte was driven by the summit,” Ms. Reynolds said. In Colorado, she added, “life made sense and gave her meaning.”

She also found philanthropy gratifying. She served on several boards, including the Access Fund, which preserves climbing sites; the American Alpine Club; and the dZi Foundation, which supports social services and other projects in the Himalayas.

Ms. Fox’s generosity extended to individuals, including a friend whom she presented with a bracelet. The inscription was particularly apt from an alpinist who had surveyed the world from its highest vantage point, on Everest, and survived.

“Leap,” said the inscription, “and the net will open.”

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