I hear a familiar voice: "Hey, Rob." Turn around, and there's the familiar little figure, human locomotive, a crinkly-eyed grin on his sun-browned mug.
"Charlie! Hey, where've you been?"
"Ah, I was just in Tibet, climbing." That familiar, raspy voice, terse and minimalist, like soloing seven new six-thousand-meter peaks was barely worth talking about.
"Back for awhile?"
"Nah, I'm going back to China, Szechuan again. How about you?"
"Going back to Afghanistan, then maybe Iraq, north this time. I'll be back in September if you're gonna be here."
"I should be back in October."
"Let's try and get together then. Coffee or something."
"Definitely. Hey, gotta run."
"Me too. Happy trails."
Some people liked to say, behind his back, that Charlie had an ego as big as the peaks he climbed, but I found the opposite to be true. I remember a hilarious slide show of Bhutan, years ago, where Charlie showed a new range he'd been exploring. A shot of four airy, icy spires. "Those are a bunch of peaks that don't have names. All of them about five-nine, six-thousand meters. I climbed them in three days."
Click: a shot of a bulging, ice-festooned pyramid. "Ah, that one's called Shoshema, something like that. I climbed that one afternoon." Click.
It was as if he couldn't wait to get through the show; what was important to him was what he had experienced up there, and that was between him, the rock, the ice and the sky.
The most excited I ever saw Charlie was one fall morning when he was up from Norwood for some early morning bouldering before taking some friends climbing out by the Dolores River. Driving up Norwood Canyon around 5 a.m., rounding a curve, a huge mountain lion had loped across the road in his headlight beams and vanished into the brush along the San Miguel. That was by far the longest talk I ever heard from Charlie. We talked about other people's sightings of big cats, how many there still were out in the backcountry, where one might go to look for tracks and hope to see more…he was totally excited, turned on by that chance encounter with one of the prime wild animals of our native mountains.
Charlie was the Real Deal, a genuine Mountain Man of the highest high altitude subgenus; he lived for the heights, up where few if anyone else ever goes, and his rare visits among us were as special as that glimpse of a lion in the pre-dawn darkness was to him. He was a messenger from the sky, from the Edge of the Unknown, Ambassador from the Nation of Free Air.
Charlie, you're going to be sorely missed.